The Happy Animal: Bambi or Bessie?

“Happy, happy, what’s all this happiness talk,” my mother said. I had not expected such a negative reaction. My mother grew up in a country where happiness, historically, was not an option. It was seldom discussed. Being happy was not a good goal in life. “It’s all about safety,” my mother concluded.

Turns out, my mother’s philosophy echoes not only her upbringing, but historical attitudes. Darrin McMahon, a professor of history at Florida State University and the author of “Happiness, A History,” writes:

    Americans today consider happiness not only something that would be nice to have, but something that we really ought to have […] it is also a relatively recent idea in the West which dates from the 17th and 18th centuries, a time that ushered in a dramatic shift in what human beings could legitimately hope to expect in and from their lives. People prior to the late 17th century thought happiness was a matter of luck or virtue or divine favor. Today we think of happiness as a right and a skill that can be developed.

It’s only recently that I’ve seen happiness addressed in science. The name that comes to mind is Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D., who “works on positive psychology, learned helplessness, depression, and on optimism and pessimism.”

Concerns about whether our animals are happy followed. In 2004, new dressage rules added the requirement that dressage judges were to judge if a horse in a dressage show was “happy” as well as judge the other aspects of performance. I believe this rule has been dropped since, due to the inability for a judge to know if a horse is happily performing or not, at least not based on observing the performance itself.

Can we know?
So how do we evaluate animal happiness? Are wild animals happier than wild animals held in captivity? What about domestic animals?

“We have no evidence whatsoever that wild animals are, in any way, happier than domesticated ones which are treated well,” writes Christie Wilcox in her guest blog post for Scientific American, Bambi or Bessie: Are wild animals happier?

As an animal owner (or do they own me?) I am happy to read that science supports the fact that our domestic animals can be content. No surprise, really, we knew that — given the dangers of living in the wild, animals might choose to live in the proximity of humans or life as a domestic.

Wilcox explains her conclusion, based on what can be measured and evaluated by the objective scientific method: since we cannot measure happiness, the closest guide we have is measuring levels of stress hormones:

    Instead, we tend to qualify happiness in animals as a lack of chronic stress. Stress, unlike happiness, is very easy to measure. You can look for decreases in overall health in just about any kind of creature. You can keep an eye out for neurotic behaviors, and measurements of hormone levels of cortisol, norepinephrine, adrenaline and other “stress” hormones provide a quantified means of measuring stress. Though lack of stress doesn’t guarantee “happiness”, it’s the closest we can get.

It’s worth clicking on the link to see the details of the stress measurements.

    In fact, a decreased stress response compared to wild counterparts has been found in every single domesticated species that has been studied.

Wilcox adds:

    Domesticated animals don’t feel stress about the future, because they don’t have an understanding of their future in the same way we do. A cow doesn’t live a more stressed or unhappy life than a dog or a deer because it is destined to be killed for its meat. Cows aren’t upset that they will end up as steaks because, as Michael Pollan phrased it, “in a bovine brain the concept of nonexistence is blissfully absent.”

Wilcox’s excellent post, perhaps for the sake of brevity, omits issues I think are important when discussing the parameters of what might contribute to happiness: does not address the intellgence – happiness correlation, the freedom of choice, the “Watership Down” choices, the golden cage syndrome, or the larger issues of whether we have any right to manipulate genes and environments with little understanding of consequences.

I also disagree with Pollan’s assertion as quoted by Wilcox. We do not have the proper tools to even ask a bovine if they have a concept of non-existence, and by tools I mean training, communication and other non-invasive methods, with the note that high-tech electronics can help decipher animal communications. Or we simply don’t have the funds and the will to spend a lot of effort on such research.

I had to check up Wilcox’s reference to Pollan’s article and here’s another quote worth pondering:

    From the animals’ point of view, the bargain with humanity has been a great success, at least until our own time. Cows, pigs, dogs, cats and chickens have thrived, while their wild ancestors have languished. (There are 10,000 wolves in North America, 50,000,000 dogs.) Nor does their loss of autonomy seem to trouble these creatures.

    It is wrong, the rightists say, to treat animals as “means” rather than “ends,” yet the happiness of a working animal like the dog consists precisely in serving as a “means.” Liberation is the last thing such a creature wants. To say of one of Joel Salatin’s caged chickens that “the life of freedom is to be preferred” betrays an ignorance about chicken preferences–which on this farm are heavily focused on not getting their heads bitten off by weasels.

It’s pretty safe to agree with the fear of weasels part. It’s also a fact that “liberation” is not a solution. We have no wilderness left! There’s no place to liberate anyone, not too mention that liberated animals lack any survival skills. However I have reservations about assuming that the “creatures” are not troubled by loss of autonomy — as with the concept of non-existence, we have limited communication ability, no way to test if animals understand these concepts. Note that humans sometimes trade freedom and autonomy for safety and sustenance and that makes social life possible.

From an environmental point of view, my mother was likely correct. We witness how the pursuit of short-term rewards without much thought to what will happen 500 years from now has endangered Earth’s ecology as we know it. In this light, it is important to discuss and research what makes us happy. And what makes animals content as far as we can tell. Can pursue happiness within the restraints and the limits of Earth’s carrying capacity?

Stay tuned for further discussions about happiness, stress and how can we know.


Bambi or Bessie: Are wild animals happier?, By Christie Wilcox | Apr 12, 2011

Observations of a Nerd, Christie Willcox’ blog:

Martin E.P. Seligman, Ph.D – bio at UPenn:
“His most recent book is the best-selling, Authentic Happiness (Free Press, 2002)”

Dressage riders to aim for happy horses, Seamour Rathore, 28 October, 2004
selected quotes:

    Dr Eric van Breda, a specialist in comparative human and equine training and exercise physiology moved the debate on by saying that happiness cannot be measured in equine athletes as it is in human athletes.
    “From a scientific point of view we need to find a way of measuring the dressage horse’s ‘happiness’. But this needs a lot more field research [rather than theoretical] and out of competition measurements of ‘happiness’ [to provide a control].”
    David Hunt, president of the International Dressage Trainers Club spoke for a lot of the delegates and echoed Kyra’s concerns about the interpretation of the new rule: “The “happy athlete” is a good perception but it has its disadvantages — it can be misinterpreted very easily.

What Makes You Happy? How Our Notions of “Happiness” Can Doom Us to Sadness
When we want to be happy all of the time, we can forget that the pursuit of happiness can entail struggle, sacrifice, even pain.

by Darrin McMahon, April 28, 2011

Watership Down, by Richard Adams (1972) was censored and forbidden reading under communism. I listened to Voice of America and Radio Free Europe readings of the book. This does not seem to be mentioned by the Wikipedia entry on 05/22/2011
Why we’re all animal lovers
From Watership Down to Tarka the Otter, what is the appeal of anthropomorphic literature?

An Animal’s Place
by Michael Pollan, The New York Times Magazine, Nov 10, 2002
PDF here:


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