The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion


Shows through some great examples how animals think, feel, and behave in some very complex ways

The Rabbit Hole is written by Blas Moros. To support, sign up for the newsletter, become a patron, and/or join The Latticework. Original Design by Thilo Konzok.

Key Takeaways

  1. Science uses the term “instinctive behavior” to describe actions that are carried out unconsciously without being subjected to any thought processes. These actions can be genetically hard-wired or they can be learned. What is common to all of them is that they happen very quickly because they bypass cognitive processes in the brain.
  2. It should be clear by now that whether they are driven by their circumstances or our desires, whether they want to or not, animals love people (and, of course, the reverse is true).
  3. Can animals lie? If you define the term loosely, then quite a few can. The hoverfly, whose yellow and black stripes make it look like a wasp, “lies” to its enemies by making them believe it is dangerous. It must be said that the fly is unaware of its deception, because it doesn’t actively undertake it; it was just born looking that way. It’s the same with the  European peacock butterfly. With big “eyes” on its wings, it signals to its enemies that it’s bigger than it really is and is too large for them to tackle.
  4. But what exactly is courage? Once again, this term has a variety of vague definitions (I  invite you to try to come up with a definition off the top of your head), although one general concept seems clear: courage involves realizing that it is important to act despite recognized danger and then doing so.
  5. So Nature is nothing like a neat set of compartments. No species are inherently good or bad, as we have already seen in the case of squirrels. But it is much easier for us to empathize with or at least take an interest in squirrels than it is for us to relate to the ticks mentioned at the beginning of this chapter.
  6. The prickly little guys roll up into a comfortable ball in a cozily padded nest that is often buried deep beneath a pile of leaves or brush. Here, they fall into a deep sleep that can last for months. In contrast to many other mammals, instead of keeping their body temperature at a hedgehog-appropriate 95 degrees Fahrenheit, they simply shut off their energy intake, which means their body temperature falls to match the ambient temperature and sometimes drops as low as 41 degrees. Their heartbeat slows from up to two hundred beats to only nine beats per minute, and they breathe only four times a  minute instead of fifty. Dialed down like this, a hedgehog uses hardly any energy at all and can make it through to the next spring on its reserves.
  7. It has now been proven that animals can turn off the sensation of hunger. Hunger is, after all, a signal from the unconscious that it’s time to eat. And this feeling should only trigger the desire to eat when adding calories would be beneficial.
  8. Social insects believe in division of labor. Early on, scientists coined the term  “superorganism” to describe a collective in which each individual is part of a greater whole.
  9. For example, bees can definitely remember people. They will attack people who have annoyed them in the past, and allow people who have left them in peace to venture much closer. Professor Randolf Menzel at the Free University of Berlin has discovered other amazing things. Young bees leaving the hive for the first time use the sun as a kind of compass. With the sun as their guide, they develop an internal map of the landscape around their home and use it to record their flight paths. In other words, they have an idea about what things look like around them. In this, they orient themselves much the same way we do, for people also create mental maps.
  10. It had to be the two of them because herd animals should not be kept alone, and the fact  that only one of them could be ridden was just fine with me, because I was out of the  picture
  11. Let’s come back once again to the feeling of fairness, for that definitely exists in the animal kingdom, and not just among horses. If you live in a social group, things need to be fair. According to the dictionary definition of the term “justice,” every member of a  community should be treated equally. If they aren’t, resentment quickly bubbles to the surface and, if this resentment is constantly fed, it can lead to violence. In human communities, laws are supposed to protect everyone’s interests. However, emotions such as shame when we behave badly and happiness when we behave well are considerably more important than the law when it comes to our daily dealings with each other.
  12. Stressed individuals are less affected by the suffering of others.
  13. They assume that all animals that live in herds or large groups possess similar brain mechanisms because social units function only if individuals can see things from the perspective of others in the group and feel what they are feeling.
  14. You see, the bats recognize one another and know exactly which of their acquaintances are generous and which are not. Those that exhibit especially altruistic traits are the first to be looked after if they themselves ever run into a string of bad luck.59 Does that mean that altruism is selfish? In evolutionary terms, certainly, because the individuals that show these traits have a higher chance of survival in the long term. But there is something else we can learn from the scientists’ observations. Clearly, the bats have a choice—free will—and they can decide to share or not to share. If that wasn’t the case, there surely would be no need for the complicated social network of mutual recognition, attributing particular traits to particular individuals, and the behavior this gives rise to. Altruism could simply be genetically fixed as another reflex so there would no longer be any recognizable character differences between the bats. However, selflessness is meaningful only if it happens of the individual’s own free will, and vampire bats clearly exercise their ability to make this choice.
  15. Often the fawn has not yet experienced how serious life can be, and it dawdles behind mom—an ideal target for wolves or lynx. These predators can spot the pair from a long way off and easily grab a meal. That’s why mother deer prefer to separate themselves from their little darlings for the first three to four weeks and leave them in a safe place. It is almost impossible to sniff out a fawn. Because they smell of hardly anything at all, their scent doesn’t alert predators to their presence.
  16. Thousands of years of breeding have delayed the socialization phase in dogs, and today it starts when they are four weeks old. With both wolves and dogs, the formative period lasts only four weeks. While not all the wolf pups’ senses are fully developed at this important time, puppies explore their environment equipped with their full sensory repertoire—and in the final days of this phase of their life, people are part of their environment. This means that whereas dogs basically feel most at home in our company,  wolves retain a certain distrust of us all their life.
  17. Rabbits live according to a strict hierarchy, which is different for each sex. Each rabbit vigorously defends its rank, and for good reason: dominant animals reproduce more successfully. Although the top males and females are more aggressive, overall they suffer less from stress. That sounds logical. After all, rabbits that are constantly being pushed around live in constant fear of the next attack. High-status rabbits experience elevated levels of stress hormones only in short bursts when they are attacking. No wonder  Professor von Holst reported that the high-ranking rabbits experienced lower levels of stress overall. In addition, high-ranking rabbits had especially close social contact with rabbits of the opposite sex, which helped them relax.
  18. You can only talk about war, as we use the word, to describe conflicts in species that live in large social groups. In the Central European latitudes, that means bee, wasp, and ant colonies, which mount raids as we do. If, however, an animal attacks another individual on its own, then we talk of a fight, something you can see between many male birds or mammals.
  19. If they want to sleep, they do so while airborne. That is highly risky, of course, because sleeping birds aren’t in total control of their actions. And so they spiral upward a mile or more to increase the distance between themselves and the ground. Then they begin to glide downward, tracing a wide circle that slows their descent. Finally, they are free to doze for a few moments. They don’t have time for anything more, because they need to be wide awake again before the first rooftops loom dangerously close and their situation becomes precarious. Is this brief shut-eye sufficient for the birds to get any rest?  Definitely, because although sleep allows all species to exclude or reduce outside influences so the brain can run its internal processes undisturbed, sleep is a little different for every species. The different phases of our sleep with their varied depths show that even human sleep is not a uniform affair. Our horses, for example, don’t need much in the way of really deep sleep. Often just a few minutes are enough, which they take while lying down on their sides looking as though they’ve been shot. They’re so deep in dreamland that they are indeed dead to the world, and their legs twitch as though they were galloping over an imaginary prairie. Other than that, they stay on their feet and doze away a few hours of each day just like the airborne swifts.
  20. They rely less on sight when they hunt and more on ultrasound. They make high-pitched calls and then listen to the echo sent back by objects and potential prey. Visual camouflage doesn’t help one little bit, because the flying mammals are “seeing” with their ears. Therefore, the moths must make themselves invisible to hearing. But how do you do that? One possibility is to absorb sound instead of reflecting it. And that’s why many moths are covered with a thick furry layer that traps the bats’ calls or, to put it more precisely, muddles it up and reflects it back all over the place. Instead of receiving a sharp image of a moth, the bat’s brain gets a fuzzy something that might just as easily be a bit of bark.
  21. I find it endlessly fascinating when I think that every species of animal may see and feel the world in a completely different way, so you could say there are hundreds of thousands of different worlds out there. And many of these worlds are waiting to be discovered,  even in the latitudes where I live.
  22. In the forest I manage, the lush green moss at the bottom of thick beeches is often brown and crispy dry come summer, and the little bears have absolutely no access to water.  Then they fall into an extreme form of sleep. Only well-nourished tardigrades survive,  and fat plays an important role. If moisture is lost too quickly, death follows; however, if moisture evaporates gradually, the tardigrades adjust, dry out, draw their tiny legs up into their bodies, and reduce their metabolic rate to zero. In this state of suspended animation,  they can withstand almost anything: neither searing heat nor bone-chilling cold can touch them. Absolutely no biological activity takes place. They do not dream, because that inner projector requires energy to roll. You could say it’s a kind of death, which means there’s no aging either. In the general scheme of things, tardigrades are not long-lived, but under extreme conditions, they can survive for decades, waiting for rain to reanimate them. When rain comes and saturates both the desiccated moss and the tardigrades, it takes no more than twenty minutes for the tiny creatures to extend their legs and get their internal structures back online. Life as they know it resumes.
  23. Depending on which studies you want to believe, the verbal content of a conversation might convey as little as 7 percent of its meaning.
  24. We can experience joy and peace without giving anything much thought, and that is the crux of the matter: emotions have no need for intelligence. As I have stressed, emotions steer instinctive programming and therefore are vital for all species, and therefore all species experience them to a greater or lesser degree.

What I got out of it

  1. Not much new or surprising but some great anecdotal examples of the depth and complexity animals have

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