Mama’s last Hug

MAMA’S LAST HUG: Animal Emotions and What They tell us about ourselves by Frans de Waal, 2019.

Reviewed by Linda DeStefano

Translated into Spanish by Rob English

Many anecdotes, a sense of humor, an uncluttered writing style, and a passion for his subject make de Waal’s book very readable and enjoyable. And I smiled that he dedicated the book to his wife: “Catherine, who lights my fire.”

His respect and love for animals is obvious. Trained as a biologist, he has done non-invasive research on chimpanzees and bonobos for many years. Much of that has been at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center near Atlanta, Georgia. The chimps at Yerkes have a large outdoor area where they can climb, run and socialize. Much of the research is observation of their behavior but sometimes it involves engaging a champ in a task. The researchers must make these tasks interesting and rewarding because the chimps can choose whether or not to participate.

This is in stark contrast to the type of research which has been done by other researchers on chimps, such as infecting them with diseases. Extreme isolation was also used. I still recall in horror at an experiment in which each chimp was isolated alone in a tiny barren container with no stimulation. They literally went insane. The famous primatologist, Jane Goodall, once visited this chamber of horrors and tried to explain to the researchers that chimps in the wild are very active and very social. I find it incomprehensible that they wouldn’t have been able to figure that out for themselves but perhaps money from their grant allowed them to harden their hearts.

Sometimes researchers and chimps become friends. This was the case of Mama, who was a matriarch in her group, and Jan van Hooff. She had known Jan for 40 years; Jan visited her when she was very old and near death. She embraced him and gave him a huge chimp smile.

According to de Waal, animals share all our emotions – both the ones we regard as positive and the ones we regard as negative. He is indignant that researchers for many years refused to accept this reality but the field has now opened up to this recognition. An example of similar behavior is that chimps are sometimes violent and cruel – even killing each other. For more positive emotions, look at the bonobos.  Their mantra could be “Make love, not war” as they seldom fight, never kill each other, and use frequent sex as a means of pleasure and social cohesion.

Chimps also have a peaceful side. The top male in a troop might be a tyrant but – more often – is a peacemaker. “In fact, the smallest male may become alpha if he has the right supporters. Most alpha males protect the underdog, keep the peace, and reassure those who are distressed.” (p. 175)

Besides primates, de Waal reports on studies which demonstrate emotions in other animals. For example, rats enjoy being tickled and will come back for more if the researcher stops. It makes me sad to think that so many rats and mice suffer during invasive research and that not enough researchers have turned to modern, better methods of research that don’t use animals.

And animals can have empathy for each other. One study used bonobos. A bonobo would be given a pile of fruit. A bonobo in an adjoining cage had none, but the “wealthy” bonobo opened the door between the cages in order to share the fruit. Another study put one rat in a small glass container while another rat observed that the trapped rat was distressed. “Not only did the free rat learn how to open a little door to liberate the other, but she was remarkably eager to do so. Never trained on it, she did so spontaneously. Then Bartal challenged her motivation by giving her a choice between two containers, one with chocolate chips – a favorite food that they could easily smell – and another with a trapped companion. The free rat often rescued her companion first, suggesting that reducing her stress counted for more than delicious food.” (pp. 117-118)

The author learns from observing his own companion animals too – cats and fish. Regarding fish, he bemoans the low esteem in which they are generally held. He notes that they feel pain, exhibit depression, curiosity, sociability and playfulness.

de Waal is pleased that the U.S., Japan and the Netherlands no longer do research on chimps. He is active with Chimp Haven, which provides a beautiful home for chimps who were formerly used in research. He worries about the other animals still suffering in labs and the animals suffering on factory farms. Factory farms contain hundreds or thousands of animals (such as cows, pigs, chickens) in very crowded, unnatural conditions. He thinks transparency can make a change for the better. If labs and factory farms were open to the public there might be an outcry for better treatment. One of his suggestions is a label on meat that the consumer could scan and see on her smartphone the condition of this animal before being killed.

This book review barely scratches the surface of the intriguing knowledge de Waal reports on various species both in the wild and in captivity.

Linda is President of People for Animal Rights. For a sample of the organization’s newsletter, contact PAR, P.O. Box 15358, Syracuse, NY 13215-0358 or or (315)488-PURR (7877) between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m.

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