Do Animals Love?

Copyright © 2009, Glenn Story

Before I address the question of whether animals love, let me say what I don’t mean, lest there be any confusion on the subject.

Certainly all animals experience sexual desire. If a species lacked that quality, they would swiftly die out. So I’m not talking about sexual desire.

Nor am I talking about “being in love” or “falling in love”. I consider these two terms roughly equivalent. Moreover, I consider them to be distinct from–although related to sexual desire and attraction. Whether animals can fall in love is a question about which I have no insight–nor does anyone else so far as i know.

No, I’m speaking of genuine love. Genuine love can arise from being in love and from romance. But there are other forms of love besides romantic love and other relationships that engender other kinds of love. And unlike being in love, which is transient, genuine love can last a lifetime.

Once upon a time I heard an unusual rustling noise in my backyard. I went out to discover that near a low-hanging persimmon tree there was a rambling piece of chicken wire whose purpose had never been clear to me. Trapped in that chicken wire was a small raccoon, literally hanging by its neck from a hole. It was when I tentatively reached in to free it that I saw the second raccoon, which had been hidden in the leaves of an adjacent tree. As I reached, both animals growled and bared their teeth. I hastily withdrew my hand. I then found a long stick and probed the wire with it. Again both animals hissed and threatened. I found the right place to press; the hole widened, and the trapped animal dropped to the ground. In an instant both animals were gone.

Raccoons are wild animals that are not uncommon in suburban areas at night. They seem to be quite intelligent. They generally are shy and stay out of sight when people are around. I can understand why the first raccoon was there when I came out–it was trapped and had no choice. But what about the second one? I am much larger and could have killed that animal if I had desired. Of course, I had no such desire, but it couldn’t have known that. Actually all mammals share a common vocabulary of threat gestures; I was not baring my teeth or growling. But predators make no such gestures toward their intended prey so the second raccoon couldn’t be sure. It’s nature was to run. Why didn’t it? It was risking its own safety to protect its companion (mate? sibling?).

To me an essential element of genuine love is the willingness–the desire–to give to another. It is the desire to have the loved one safe, and secure, and happy, even if it means giving up one’s own selfish interests.

This sounds like sacrifice, but to me sacrifice is something one does reluctantly as a result of feelings of guilt or pressure from one’s friends or family. No, giving based on love is done gladly and with pleasure.

I’m not suggesting that if you love someone you always put their interests first. That seems unrealistic. But when we do give to another, our time, our money, our selves in any way, and if we derive pleasure from that gift (as opposed to regret or resentment) then that is a gift of love.

Did that second raccoon receive pleasure from protecting the first? I have no idea but I’d like to think that at least got some degree of satisfaction form staying with it companion in what I’m sure they both considered a life-threatening situation.

Do animals love? I think so.

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