Research showing goats can communicate emotion by bleating should help us build empathy with our fellow animals
Wicksteed Park in Kettering is not known for its miracles, but on that day, it was if a holy statue was weeping blood. Within minutes of the incredible event beginning, a great crowd coalesced. The elderly and infirm got out of their chairs. Children were put on shoulders. There were gasps. There was awe. I can tell you what happened but you may prefer to sit down first. Because two weeks ago, almost to the day, a goat in this small-town theme park climbed a tree in its enclosure. “But … goats can’t climb trees,” came the murmurs from the crowd. “What is it doing?” they asked, with confused astonishment. I watched with great delight. These people clearly had an idea of what a goat is and what a goat does and were being met with a new reality where goats could also happily climb trees, a behaviour goats regularly employ in the wild to find the juiciest leaves. To the people of Kettering, who were not aware of tree-climbing goats, it was as if they were looking at a flying monkey.
I was reminded of this incredible scene when hearing of this week’s news that goats have been shown capable of distinguishing emotions in one another’s bleating calls. If you haven’t yet heard, it’s a neatly designed experiment. Researchers recorded goat calls when goats were at their happiest (feeding and being reunited with other goats) and recorded calls when goats were at their most fraught (watching others eat but having to go without food temporarily). They then played back these calls to other goats, to see if happy or sad goat sounds caused physiological responses in the listening goat, specifically by measuring the listener’s heart-rates. And, hey presto, the results proved the link. When listening to happy calls, for instance, a goat’s heart-rate increases with apparent excitement. Not only can it climb trees, a goat can listen and learn about its surroundings by tuning into the bleating of other goats.
The particularly delightful thing about this study is that it underlines to us that goats, like all mammals, can show a degree of empathy with one another. That they can alter one another’s states through their calls, sharing feelings and emotions and potentially understanding one another in a manner in which (most but not all) humans excel. Really, though? I’m left a little confused. Though the science is spot-on and should be applauded should we, the consumers of this news, be surprised? Talk about stating the bleating obvious.
Mammals are masters of communicating complex information. Every species alive today is tuned into the unseen language of others that surround it. At this moment in time, literally billions of individual mammals are listening in on something, watching something else wide-eyed or furiously processing voluminous scents of passers-by, potential rivals or potential mates. That the specifics of a goat’s bleat influences other goats should surprise us no more than the fact that rats utter an ultrasonic giggle when tickled; that a dog’s tail is a happy-flag that serves to grease social tensions; that the direction of a horse’s ears tells others about the horse’s mental state at any given moment. Influential goat bleating should surprise us no more than that chimpanzee gestures follow the same language laws of the human species. That whales have accents and regional dialects. That gorillas have parties. That groups of social bats can have call-signs. That vervet monkeys have four distinct predator alarm calls, one for each of the main predators. That African wild dogs run a primitive democracy based upon sneezes. And … well, you get the idea.
Mammals are amazing. All of them. Communicative. Sensitive. Watchful. Problem-solvers. Tinkerers. Testers. Try-hards. Empathic, if only by degree. Mammals are all of these things and more. You and I are just one highly virulent form, a slightly self-obsessed version that routinely considers its best features unique. They are not. Just exaggerated.
If cinema is a machine for building empathy between humans, as some have argued, scientific studies such as this one are an empathy machine that builds empathy between ourselves and other representatives of the animal kingdom, helping us to explore the highest branches of the evolutionary tree of life and, looking across its boughs and branches, to see animals such as goats in high-up branches where once we least expected them.
• Jules Howard is a zoologist and the author of Sex on Earth and Death on Earth