What Makes Animals Happy?

What makes some people happy can make others sad and angry. Take, for instance, a Minnesota hunter who filed a hunter harassment suit on grounds that the Defendant spoiled his pleasure in hunting and shooting a bear. The defendant, a renowned bear field biologist, had verbally abused him when the hunter, still in his tree hide, started to ridicule the bear biologist’s graduate student as she wept over the dead body of the black bear she had studied for over a year, and had come to know and love.

What makes me happy is assuring that the happiness of others, human and non-human, are not mutually exclusive but mutually inclusive and enhancing. The happiness of one should not impinge upon the happiness of another. That, surely, is the essence of a truly democratic society based on the bioethics of compassion and equalitarianism, rather than on a utilitarian one that would sacrifice the happiness of a few for the happiness of the many. A happy companion animal makes for a fulfilling relationship with the human care-giver and family, just as happy farm animals mean healthier and more productive animals and more healthful produce.

For the sake of argument one might say, Ok, then for the happiness of deer we should prohibit all hunting, even of deer by wolves and other wild predators. For the happiness of house cats we should buy mice for them to enjoy killing. But not buying mice for kitty to kill would not detract from a well-cared for cat’s overall happiness and psychological wellbeing. The same can be said for a man who feels that his right to kill bears for pleasure takes precedence over the happiness of others, including those who would like to see an end to all non-subsistence ‘sport’ or ‘recreational’ hunting and killing of bears and other wild animals; and those who love bears for bears’ sake and not as hunting trophies, not to forget the bear’s interest in living, as witness the will and the inherent wisdom of healthy wild bears to survive.

As for the relationship between deer and wolves, theirs is a mutually enhancing symbiosis because the deer herds are kept healthy and in balance with the ecology, thanks in part to wolf ‘management’. Also the deer do not go around in terror expecting to be killed, but enjoy a quality of life, happiness indeed, in the wild where they have close social bonds, play together, and care for their offspring with devotion equal to any human.

Significantly, the British government has formulated new animal welfare regulations that stipulate a ‘duty of care’ for all people who keep animals as companions /pets. The well being of animals is equated with provision of basic ‘freedoms’, a point underscored by the British Veterinary Association’s Animal Welfare Foundation’s (www.bva-awf.org.uk) educational brochure entitled What Makes my Pet Happy? After asking if a dog left alone all day or a budgie sitting alone in a cage are actually happy, the brochure states: “Happiness, welfare and quality of life are all talking about how animals feel”.

The basic ‘Five Freedoms’ that provide for animals’ physical and mental health are as follows: Freedom from hunger and thirst. Freedom from pain, injury and disease. Freedom from discomfort (e.g. temperature, floor surface). Freedom to express normal behavior. Freedom from fear and distress.

Happiness can be defined as a subjective state of well being that includes emotional security, and physical contentment/satisfaction. It is variously manifested in animals’ playfulness, friendliness, and displays of affection and trust toward their care-givers.

But no matter how good the quality of care may be, an animal’s happiness and well being can be undermined by a lack of adequate socialization or impaired bonding with their own kind and/or with humans during their formative early weeks of life. Genetic factors can also play a beneficial or detrimental role, as when hereditary factors associated with fear of strangers, (especially in captive wild animals, and domestic animals who are innately more fearful than normal), or associated with an outgoing, curious and stable temperament, mean that some animals live in fear, while others enjoy a happier existence. With both fearful domesticated animals and captive wildlife, much can be done to improve their quality of life through sensitive handling and provision of a secure and comfortable environment, ideally with the supportive companionship of other animals who are easy going and emotionally stable.

But as prevention is the first medicine, chronic unhappiness in fearful animals wild and domesticated can be respectively ameliorated by establishing a close bond with the caretaker/keeper, (which is not without some human risk when it comes to species like elephants and tigers), and by environmental enrichment, which means providing as much natural habitat conditions as possible. Also more rigorous selective breeding of domesticated animals for adaptability and stability of temperament, as by not breeding excessively shy, timid, and fearful or aggressive individuals, can do much to improve their overall well being.

The fourth Freedom noted above, namely the freedom to express normal behaviors, is an integral aspect of animals’ living conditions It continues to be denied, primarily for reasons of cost, to animals raised for human consumption in factory farm cages and pens and feedlot enclosures, including those animals raised for their fur pelts. It is also denied to animals— especially lions, tigers, elephants, and bears— exploited by the circus industry, and to other wildlife held captive in road-side menageries, marine-life aquaria, and third-world zoos; and to most species kept in small laboratory cages for experimentation and product tests.

The solitary, impoverished existence endured by millions of small ‘pets’, especially highly social rabbits, mice and other rodents, and various other species including ‘exotic’ mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, needs to be addressed from the standpoint of animals being denied the freedom to engage in normal social behaviors with their own kind, and with the duty of care that includes provision of an environment and quality of life conducive to animals’ happiness.

The loneliness of uncounted numbers of dogs and cats left alone all day, many suffering from severe separation anxiety, is a major concern. Dogs are only too often confined in cages or crates to ‘protect’ the house from being wrecked and soiled out of a combination of boredom, frustration and anxiety.

If you have a dog or any animal for that matter, and you do not know what makes your animal happy—other than being given food—then you need to become more informed and involved, if not evolved. If your dog is properly socialized and has a strong bond with you, you are one of your dog’s greatest joys, which you must know how live up to! Dogs need attention, often crave affection, but neither over-indulge nor ignore. All dogs, like children, need to learn to respect social boundaries, develop self-restraint, and enjoy the security of emotional consistency and stability in the home with their human and other animal companions.

In his book Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good, (Macmillan, New York, 2006), my friend Jonathan Balcombe does a great service to advancing our understanding and appreciation of animals by documenting countless examples of how and why animals seek pleasure, show happiness, and express joy. The more we all ponder the question ‘what makes animals happy’, the better we will meet our responsibilities to care for all creatures under our dominion, whose well being is a duty that every society that is civilized embraces to the full without distinction or exception.