Scientist's new book highlights animals' feelings

Thursday, April 11, 2013 | 7:22 p.m. CDT; updated 9:17 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 11, 2013

COLUMBIA — Jonathan Balcombe has been an animal activist for so long, he can't remember when it started.

As a kid, he'd see young peers playing pranks on animals — perhaps out of curiosity — but was always uncomfortable seeing them treated like toys. 

As an animal behavior biologist, he's written a new book detailing how animals might understand behavior and experience feelings more than was previously thought. 

"The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure," Balcombe's third book, is a coffee table book published to help people visualize animals feeling joy and satisfaction, a break with the common perception of nature as purely "survival of the fittest," he said. The book contains photos from more than 75 photographers.

In one photo, a hippopotamus spreads its legs, splays its toes and opens its mouth so that fish can nibble on troublesome algae.

"Part of what I'm trying to do with this is to undermine and show the nuance of the system to show that it's not just a constant struggle for survival," he said. "There's a lot of other things going on."

Balcombe said that when the public sees how complex animals are, it's more likely to treat them humanely.

He was the final speaker at this week's "CAFO - Far from the Farm" symposium in Columbia — an examination of the consequences of "factory farms."

Balcombe was born in England and received a bachelor's degree from York University in Toronto. He attended Carleton University in Ottawa for his master's degree and University of Tennessee for his doctorate. He is a vegan. 

Balcombe has written three books prior to "The Exultant Ark": "Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals," "Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good," and "The Use of Animals in Higher Education: Problems, Alternatives, and Recommendations."

Balcombe said his new book demonstrates that animals can feel satisfaction. He cites a Spanish study that found that large fish derive pleasure from being cleaned by smaller fish.

Balcombe said he connects animals' ability to feel pain to the philosophy that everything humans do is to avoid pain. Perhaps, he said, animals function in a similar way.

"If you watch the nature documentaries, it's always the struggle for survival, the struggle for survival, the struggle for survival," Balcombe said. "People are hammered with that. And it's easy to look at it as a desperate, earnest, constant trial."

Next, Balcombe would like to see animal rights advocates and meat production company owners in the same room. Then, he hopes, some improvements in treatment can be made. 

Daria Kerridge, coordinator for the "CAFO — Far From the Farm" symposium, said Balcombe's presentation was impactful.

"Sometimes we forget how rich of a life an animal can have," Kerridge said.

For Balcombe, people can show their support with their food purchases. 

"Now, people never meet animals except at the end of a fork," Balcombe said. "I know that sounds bleak. But honestly, they are becoming more sympathetic towards these animals that they don't know."

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