The Birds and the Bees: Do Animals Feel Love?
by Chelsea Huddleston; Ocean Institute Environmental Writer

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The question of whether animals feel emotion has been argued for years, and while anyone with pets or who has spent a significant amount of time observing animals in the wild can testify to clear displays of fear, love, compassion, empathy and jealousy …. scientists have often been hesitant to take a stance on animal sentience. Yet there is a vast amount of research to back the ‘smile’ your dog greets you with when you walk in the door. One study from the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University showed significant increase in oxytocin, also known as the “neurochemical of love” in animals after they’d spent time together. In the field there are numerous documented accounts of animals putting themselves at risk to help others. In one case, a partially blind older woman had become lost and was guided to safety by a group of elephants. Another account reports a humpback whale carrying a seal on her back to aid its escape from killer whales. Chimpanzees have been seen holding hands to watch the sunset together, rats will sacrifice their food to save a drowning friend, and spotted dolphins mourn the loss of their young by buoying the limp bodies on their backs—as if refusing to give them up to the ocean.  

Emotions stem from a part of the brain called the “limbic system” and some marine mammals have limbic systems four times larger than ours. While we are quick to assume those species with smaller limbic systems feel less emotion than we do, there is resistance to the idea that species with larger limbic systems might possess cognitive abilities that we do not. Conservationist and author of ‘Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel’ Carl Safina argues that animals might experience life more ‘vividly’ and in ways we can’t fathom. While civilization has brought many improvements to our quality of life, it’s also dulled our senses and resulted in less awareness of our surroundings—which can create a barrier to feeling a strong connection to the natural world and to each other.

Carl Safina is also author of ‘The Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival’ a story of one of the most emotive species existing—possibly even more romantic than humans. Albatrosses mate for life and are incredibly devoted to their partners, even though they spend 95% of their time in flight over the open oceans. It can take 10-15 years for an albatross to choose the right partner, but once committed they are faithful until death—which could mean another 50 years. As the ultimate example of a working long-distance relationship, birds will often go months or years without seeing their partner. But when together, they focus almost completely on each other and often sleep with the head of one bird resting on the breast of the other.

The romantic Albatross was first immortalized in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and since been a maritime icon. Coincidentally, Coleridge is credited for the origin of the phrase ‘the birds and the bees’ which makes one wonder if the Albatross was in fact the ‘bird’ to inspire this famous metaphor. While most Albatrosses are mostly found in the Southern Hemisphere, Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses can also be spotted off the coasts of Southern California. They breed on remote islands, such as Midway Atoll which in recent years has gained notoriety as a symbol of the plastic pollution crisis and its devastating impacts. Artist and filmmaker Chris Jordan illustrates these statistics through chilling photographs of the contents of Albatross stomachs found on Midway, and his film “Albatross: A Love Story for Our Time from the Heart of the Pacific” is a stunning chronicle of the harsh reality facing these special and some might even say ‘emotional’ birds. Scientists estimate that by mid-century, 99% of seabirds will have plastic in their stomachs unless we make drastic changes to stop the flow of pollution.

Whether you believe animals can feel or not, perhaps the more pertinent question is how we can show compassion for other species and our environment. As you shop for Valentine’s Day gifts, consider looking for plastic-free and sustainably-sourced products to spread the love beyond your dinner date to the planet.