Betty the bald hedgehog developed a mysterious skin condition that has caused her to lose her spines. Without her spines, six-week-old Betty is defenseless against predators and can’t keep herself warm during the winter months.

Worst of all, her smooth body has made her too self-conscious to associate with other hedgehogs.

“She’s healthy, but it’s sad,” Tonia Garner of the Foxy Lodge Wildlife Rescue is quoted as saying. “She lives alone in an enclosure indoors. We hope the spines will come back so she has a normal life.”

 

The evidence that all species of animals with a brain have emotions is overwhelming. I’ve observed that all intelligent animals have emotions, including reptiles, whose brains are less complex than those of mammals. People who work with reptiles are well aware of the risk of depression in captive snakes and lizards of all kinds. Turtles and tortoises are especially prone to it. If a snake gets depressed, his life is immediately in danger, as he will stop eating. I once rescued a snake that had to be tube fed for a year before he began to eat on his own again, after having an owner that did not provide proper stimulation for him. Snakes will also stop eating if they have a traumatic event with a mouse. Reptiles are cold blooded, meaning that they cannot control their own body temperature and are dependent upon their environment to provide a heat source. If they can’t raise their temperature, their metabolism becomes so sluggish that they cannot defend themselves against even a mouse. Careless snake owners have been known to toss a mouse in with the snake and not supervise. If the snake is cold, the mouse can eat the snake alive and the snake can’t respond. If the snake survives such an episode, it will have such a fear of mice that it will no longer eat. It can take up to a year of tube feeding before the snake gains the courage to face another mouse. If an animal of such low intelligence is this emotional, how much more does a highly intelligent animal feel? Even a reptile needs an “enriched” environment — and it’s vital for more intelligent creatures. Animal keepers try to enrich the captive animal’s life — make it more interesting — to prevent disorders like obsession/compulsion (incessant pacing in a page is a good example) and depression. For instance, caretakers hide food all over the enclosure rather than simply putting it in bowls, so the animal has the fun and stimulation of hunting for it.

Lack of stimulation affects brain growth. The less enrichment in a rat’s cage, for instance, the less the brain will develop. The difference between a rat with a wide variety of toys and one with no toys can be seen with the naked eye during an animal autopsy (a necropsy). The rat with the toys will have a brain just packed with ridges and wrinkles, which indicate more neural connections, while the rat with no toys will have a relatively smooth cortex because he lacked the stimulation needed to develop neuronal (nerve cell) connections in the brain. Of course, boredom affects the emotions of a captive animal too, and depression is a serious problem.

The more intelligent an animal is, the more likely he is to have complex emotions. According to scientists who have worked with them extensively, parrots, as well as many primates, depending on the species, are about as intelligent and emotionally mature as two- to five-year-old humans. Pet owners and bird enthusiasts will tell you that a parrot can be so devastated by the loss of his owner that he can die of depression, much like the owl who wills himself to die after the loss of his mate.

He says people are like chimps because they gossip—did you know that gossip, scientists now think, is just a human version of grooming, picking lice out of each other’s heads, a social activity that bonds us?—and because chimps are so volatile, emotional, quick to anger, and in love with bright, shiny objects—and mean. As for dogs, it’s because some human beings require hierarchy in order to live. They need a top dog, they live in packs, they turn aggressive in a group.

Being a veterinarian, I had been called to examine a ten-year-old Irish wolfhound named Belker. The dog’s owners, Ron, his wife, Lisa, and their little boy, Shane, were all very attached to Belker, and they were hoping for a miracle.

I examined Belker and found he was dying of cancer. I told the family we couldn’t do anything for Belker, and offered to perform the euthanasia procedure for the old dog in their home.

As we made arrangements, Ron and Lisa told me they thought it would be good for six-year-old Shane to observe the procedure. They felt as though Shane might learn something from the experience.

The next day, I felt the familiar catch in my throat as Belker’s family surrounded him. Shane seemed so calm, petting the old dog for the last time, that I wondered if he understood what was going on. Within a few minutes, Belker slipped peacefully away.

The little boy seemed to accept Belker’s transition without any difficulty or confusion. We sat together for a while after Belker’s death, wondering aloud about the sad fact that animal lives are shorter than human lives.

Shane, who had been listening quietly, piped up, “I know why.”

Startled, we all turned to him. What came out of his mouth next stunned me. I’d never heard a more comforting explanation. He said, “People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life – like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?”

The six-year-old continued, “Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don’t have to stay as long.”

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