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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pleasurable Kingdom

Air Date: Week of

Dr. Jonathan Balcombe with his pet rat, Lucy (Photo: Emily Balcombe)

Most pet owners would tell you it’s quite obvious that their pets feel pleasure. But scientific proof of pleasure sensation in animals has been lacking. Host Steve Curwood talks with animal behavioral scientist Jonathan Balcombe. He’s the author of “Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good.”



CURWOOD: Now, this isn’t your neighbor’s lawnmower. For many of us, this familiar sound is a little closer to home, maybe coming from that sunny spot on the windowsill, or even right next to you on the couch.


To many pet lovers, the purr of a cat is the sound of pure contentment. And for Jonathan Balcombe it’s an important subject for research. He’s an animal behavioral scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Dr. Balcombe has written a book called “Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good” and he joins me now.

Welcome to Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: Now, I suppose most of us listening to us talk would say, of course animals feel pleasure, but how do you prove that, on a scientific level?

BALCOMBE: It’s a good question. And that’s really probably why there has been so little about pleasure in the past. Scientists have historically been very reluctant to make assumptions about what’s going on inside an animal’s mind. But fortunately in recent years there’s been a bit of a revolution there. And now the notion of animal emotions, animal feelings, and animal experiences are becoming widely accepted in the scientific community. So no longer is it just one petting one’s cat and seeing pleasure. We are now beginning to talk about that more broadly.

CURWOOD: How about a little empirical evidence.

BALCOMBE: Well as a behaviorist I would try to appeal to what animals, how animals behave. You know ants have a relationship with aphids. And aphids live on plants and they suck the juices from the plant. And they exude what’s called honey dew from the rear end of the aphid. And the ants go for this and they’ve co-evolved with the aphids and they actually tend to them. So the aphids benefit by being protected and the ants benefit by getting this reward. Well, honeydew isn’t just water, it’s sweet. So, if the ants go for sweet things is it just chemical or are they actually experiencing something sweet? I just think it’s an example of that we need to consider the possibility that there is some level of perception and therefore appreciation of the taste.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about sex among animals. Insects have a lot of sex. Do they have a good time?

Dr. Jonathan Balcombe with his pet rat, Lucy (Photo: Emily Balcombe)

BALCOMBE: No idea. I would rather talk about sex in say dolphins and bonobos or pigmy chimpanzees. Those are good examples of animals who are very sexual. In the case of dolphins, both males and females have a genital slit. And they take advantage of that in various social settings. Not just mating to try and produce offspring. They will do what’s called tandem ridding where one dolphin will insert his or her dorsal fin into the dorsal fin of the other dolphin be it male or female. And they will swim along that way. Some dolphins also form these sort of small groups that interact in a sort of sexual orgy. It’s actually got a name for it. It’s called a wuzzle.

And in the case of bonobos, pigmy chimpanzees, they are highly sexual animals. Sex is a sort of daily, if not hourly, aspect of their society. It acts a social lubricant. It acts to defray tensions and it helps to perhaps barter for something. I’ve seen some film footage of bonobos in action and they are pretty remarkable, and I write about them at some length in pleasurable kingdom.

CURWOOD: On what basis do you argue that animals enjoy sex?

BALCOMBE: The reason why I think it’s clear that animals enjoy sex is because not all of animal sex is in the context of making babies. It’s clear that there is a lot of shenanigans out there in the animal kingdom that doesn’t have anything to do with making babies. It is motivated primarily by pleasure.

CURWOOD: Well you know, we all have our preferences for food. Some of us don’t like broccoli, I think there was a president of the United States that didn’t like broccoli, and some of us love broccoli. In your book you argue that animals are the same way, huh?

BALCOMBE: Consider the huge importance of food to an animal. An animal has to get food to survive. So, nature should equip animals with a high motivation to get food. And also with the rewards associated with foods to maintain that motivation. So the animal is motivated to look and search for food.

But let me give you an example. Iguanas were placed in terraria and the iguana would sit on a perch with a bright sun lamp over head. These are tropical lizards and they need to be kept warm. Right below the perch was some processed lizard chow. It’s dry. It’s rather boring, at least to our perception. On the other end of the terrarium was a gourmet treat for an iguana. It happens to be a fresh leaf of lettuce. Now, not something we get too excited about perhaps, but that’s a great treat for an iguana. Well these iguanas were willing to leave their perch and go get the lettuce, even though the lettuce was in a deathly cold corner of the terrarium. The animal is willing to trade off that cold to go and get the gourmet treat. It’s a little like us shunning the fruit bowl and driving out on a wintry night to get some donuts.

CURWOOD: Let’s talk about love for a moment.


CURWOOD: Now it’s tricky enough business among human beings, but how much of what we observe as love among animals is in fact just linked to mating for survival. And how much isn’t?

BALCOMBE: Well, survival and experience go hand in hand. And that’s a key point I make in my book. Evolution and experience are compatible. So even though there may be a survival basis for the bonding between a male and female parrot, say, or penguin or monkey. That doesn’t deny the feelings there. Evolution should favor strong emotional feelings where it’s important that animals work together, for instance to raise their young. So, if an animal has a strong emotional attachment to another then that’s going to keep them together. And if they need to work together to, say, raise their chicks in the nest or to raise their young and wean the young then that should be favored by evolution. So it’s a good example of evolution and experience working hand in hand. And pleasure is very much a part of the dynamic that drives this adaptive behavior.

I would say one other thing about love. And that is of course the negative side of love. Of course, love is very complicated and involves a lot of grief and duress in some situations. An example would be when an animal, or one of us, loses a partner. And just as we grieve for prolonged periods, geese and penguins and certainly parrots will grieve. Certainly parrots and geese are well known for grieving behavior. And monkeys and apes as well, if and when they loose their partner. So, even though that clearly is not pleasurable, it is an indication of the richness of the emotions involved, which in turn suggests that they also derive a lot of pleasure from the interaction when they’re together.

CURWOOD: As you look at this, how do you keep your own perspective as a human being out of this particular area of science? I’m thinking in particular of the movie The March of the Penguins, and it sure looks like Mr. and Mrs. and Baby and everything there. In fact, that movie has such power because really, they look like of bunch of folks in tuxedos.

BALCOMBE: Yeah, that’s probably true, and we should always be guarded against what’s called the sin of anthropomorphism. Never the less, anthropomorphism if it is applied correctly is a very useful thing. In fact it’s unavoidable. We can’t help relating what we see to our own experience. That’s sort of our groundwork that we work from. I think what’s really useful to think about with anthropomorphism, when we are trying to interpret animal behavior, is to think critically. Critical anthropomorphism is a term I’ve heard.

Another interesting way of looking at it is to try and place ourselves in the animal’s position. A colleague of mine named Mark Bekoff says if you are looking at dog behavior, try to practice dogomorphism. Try to think of yourself as a dog and as you observe the dog’s behavior place yourself in the dog’s world, as best we can. Obviously we can not do that completely. But then if we make interpretations about the behavior, we’re more likely to be closer to reality – the dog’s reality – than if we merely place it within our own experience.

CURWOOD: Jonathan Balcombe’s book is called “Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good”. Thank you so much, Sir.

BALCOMBE: You’re very welcome. Thank you.

[MUSIC: Adrian Belew “Ballet For A Blue Whale” from Desire Of The Rhino King (Island 1991)]



Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine


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