One of my favorite passages in Goat Song comes at the end of the chapter where Lizzie the doe nearly dies from an infection of meningeal worms. Lizzie’s illness evokes a passionate and compassionate response from Kessler, who is torn between his desire to save her at any cost and the anguish of seeing her suffer. He offers us a lovely meditation on the contradictions of empathy as he faces the agonizing decision to put the goat down (p. 144). A friend reminds him that just because Lizzie was miserable did not mean that she wanted to die: “You can’t give up on an animal until it’s given up on itself. You owe them that much” (p.145). Returning to the main component of empathy (recognizing the emotions of another being from their perspective), the friend states the obvious and the ineffable: “All she wants to do is be a goat.”
How do we, as humans, understand and empathize with other animals? Lizzie’s struggle brings issues of common experience and the nature of animal minds to the forefront. What was she thinking? How does a goat experience the world? What does it mean to be a goat? And how do people and goats — whose experience of the world is both very similar and profoundly different — make their way through the relationships of domestication?
The conference I attended last week on The Science of Animal Thinking and Emotion offered many insights into these questions. Some of the perspectives I found most compelling include: 1) Con Slabodchikov’s conception of a “discourse system” that sees instinct, communication, consciousness and language as interactive parts of a continuum shared by humans and animals. Check out his very cool work, including his prairie dog studies here. 2) Ian Duncan‘s research on farm animals using preference tests. Duncan concedes that affective states are subjective — they are only known to the individual experiencing them, and therefore not open to direct scientific investigation. But we can learn about animals’ subjective states by asking them (just like people) what they want. 3) Brian Hare’s fascinating citizen science project, Dognition, which offers ordinary people (that’s us!) a chance to evaluate the cognitive profile of their dog. Do you think your dog is a good problem solver? Pretty sure he has a great long-term memory? think he’s moody? or sneaky? For $30 you can put your dog through a series of tests and find out whether he is a “renaissance dog,” a “socialite,” an “ace” or a charmer. You’ll see what parts of his personality are uniquely his and where his universal doggy nature asserts itself. And you’ll be helping scientists flesh out the cognitive map of the oldest domesticate. I can’t wait to try this on my own dogs! Dr. Hare said that the results of his dog’s test really surprised him, and that many people find they’ve been “misreading” their dog all along. For the record, I’m going with “Ace in disguise” for Betty and “neurotic Einstein” for Andi.