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Are wild animals happier?

20 April 2011

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Category: Communications & media

globe–wednesday–winner.jpgAre wild animals happier? That was the question posed by Christie Wilcox for a guest blog in Scientific American. Her article is awarded our April Wednesday Winner award for science communication. This extract gives you a flavour.

Happiness is hard enough to define in people, let alone in an animal. You can't just ask them how they are feeling. 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.

In the article Christie goes further than the insight offered by Yann Martel in his fictional Life of Pi about animals in zoos. He says,

Well-meaning but misinformed people think animals in the wild are ‘happy' because they are ‘free'. These people usually have a large, handsome predator in mind, a lion or a cheetah. They imagine this wild animal roaming the savannah on digestive walks after eating a prey that accepted its lot piously...

This is not the way it is. Animals in the wild lead lives of compulsion and necessity within an unforgiving hierarchy in an environment where the supply of fear is high and the supply of food low...

And so with regular food, a secure territory, and the option to rehearse ‘normal behaviours' (established by scientific study), zoo and laboratory animals can be stress free. Asking whether they are ‘happy' is the wrong question.

Read the article - Bambie or Bessie: Are wild animals happier?

Read more from Christie here.