By Diane Ballard
When cats purr and dogs invite more, more, more tummy scratching, their human friends assume the animals are enjoying themselves. But we have no ultimate proof that animals feel pleasure.
Research scientist Jonathan Balcombe (Knoxville ’91), who has spent years studying animal behavior, posits in his book Pleasurable Kingdom that humans aren’t the only animals capable of feeling pleasure.
He says an instance of apparent animal pleasure piqued his interest in exploring the topic.
“The idea came to me as I watched a crow repeatedly sidle up to another on a perch, lean over, and expose the nape of his/her neck,” he says. “The other bird preened the soliciting one. It looked pleasurable, and I realized that I’d read practically nothing about animal pleasure despite all my years of studying animal behavior. Pleasurable Kingdom is my effort to start filling that void.”
Balcombe says the book has been well received.
“New perspectives are inevitably met with skepticism from more conservative thinkers, but my book comes at a time when biologists are emerging from a period in which it was considered taboo to address animal minds and feelings,” Balcombe says. “It’s not as if animal pleasure is especially mysterious or controversial; it’s just been neglected.”
He provides anecdotes showing animal pleasure in play, in sex, in feeding, and other instances. The strong survive and pass on their genes to the next generation, and Balcombe says pleasurable reactions can support that process.
“Play is positive for evolution. It builds strength and social skills and helps teach rules,” he says. But he doesn’t think a dog who insists on continuing a game of fetch is doing so to imprint his genes on his progeny; the dog, Balcombe says, is just having fun.
Though most of us are familiar with cats and dogs and what we perceive as their pleasurable reactions, Balcombe has compiled both scientific and anecdotal evidence of pleasure in penguins, dolphins, lemurs, parrots, iguanas, and chimpanzees. Balcombe is a senior research scientist with Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C. He was born in England and lived in Canada and New Zealand before coming to the U.S. in 1987.
He enrolled at UT Knoxville to study with Dr. Gary McCracken, an international expert on bats. Balcombe says his time at the university was a “rich experience . . . the then-new library, teaching undergrads, the football games, and the Great Smoky Mountains were all highlights.” He earned his Ph.D. in ethology, or animal behavior.
Though Balcombe has gone more or less mainstream with Pleasurable Kingdom and various blogs, his background is unquestionably academic as evidenced by his rich trove of scientific papers and presentations. He says humans have a responsibility to not deprive animals of pleasure.
“Our treatment of other animals is profoundly out of step with what we know of their awareness and sensitivity and their capacities for suffering and pleasure,” he says.
Balcombe is developing a documentary film that showcases animals’ abilities and another book that will present more research on animal cognition, awareness, emotions, and virtues.
“The book will ask the question, If animals experience the world essentially as we do, isn’t it time we started treating them better?” Balcombe says.
For all this knowledge of and experience with animals, Balcombe finds himself in much the same position as millions of other humans: “I’m owned by two cats.
“The beauty of pleasurable interactions is they’re bidirectional. When I give an appreciative cat a belly-rub, I’m enjoying it [almost] as much as he is.”