How do captive animals really feel, and can we make them happier?

Free range pigs digging food in the dirt

Pigs emit particular grunts and barks when they are happy

Jasmina81/Getty Images

AS HAPPY as a pig in – well, you know the phrase. But when we see a hog rolling in muck, a dog racing after a stick or an elephant reunited with a long-lost relative, how do we know what these animals are feeling?

One thing we can say is that many non-human animals do experience emotions. Today, biologists are increasingly accepting of the idea, once dismissed as mere anthropomorphism, that certain other species have a range of emotional states. Which doesn’t change the fact that a pig’s true feelings at any given moment are nigh-on incomprehensible to us, not least because it doesn’t share our capacity for language.

In the past few years, however, researchers have been figuring out creative ways to discern when animals are pessimistic, bored or gleeful. “We’re not just looking for signs of pain, fear or anxiety,” says Fay Clark at the University of Bristol in the UK. “We’re looking for signs of joy, the potential for happiness and fulfilment.”

What they are discovering isn’t just that animals reveal their emotions in subtle ways, but also that they seem to be surprisingly delighted by mental challenges – and might even enter a “flow state” when deeply immersed in an activity they enjoy.

All of this adds fresh impetus to the ongoing campaign to move from merely reducing suffering in animals we keep in farms and zoos to doing everything we can to ensure they lead happy lives. “People will soon start to realise that emotions are …

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