The dying chimp lies curled and motionless, refusing her keepers’ offers of food and water. Not until the old man enters the old ape’s pen does she look up, breaking into a wide smile and reaching up to embrace him. Without context, this video, seen more than 11 million times on YouTube, may seem like any other animal clip one might find on the Internet, but the true story is much more special. This is the final meeting between Mama, the 59-year-old matriarch of the chimp colony at the Burgers Zoo in the Netherlands, and her long-time friend Dr. Jan van Hooff, who founded the colony and managed it for over 40 years. The meeting is an emotional one for van Hooff, who comforts Mama as if visiting a loved one on their death bed (Mama would pass away shortly after the meeting). The more moving part of the video, however, is the immense joy on Mama’s face, her soft yelps, and the quiet sadness of her demeanor.
This video is the basis for Mama’s Last Hug, a deep dive into animal emotions and their striking similarities to human emotions. Author Frans de Waal recounts his decades of observations as a primatologist, from his time as a graduate student watching chimpanzees vying for attention in zoos, to his time as a professor watching fellow scientists vying for attention at conferences.
Many readers won’t need this book to be convinced of the emotions that animals can feel; any dog owner can recognize that their dog feels immense joy and relief when returning home from work, and any cat owner will know the fear their pet feels during a trip to the vet’s. But just how complex are animal emotions? Can a gorilla feel melancholic? Can a rat feel guilty? Can a sparrow feel proud? This is what Mama’s Last Hug explores in vivid detail.
The book is divided into chapters describing happiness, empathy, discomforts, power, and fairness. The author discusses his observations taken at various chimp colonies as well as those from other experts in the fields of psychology, neurology, and biology. The central theme of Mama’s Last Hug is that animals experience a wide range of emotions much like people do. Humans are social creatures that have depended upon emotional expression and cooperation for survival since our ancestors developed the first communication skills. We can easily tell what someone else is feeling by their facial expression or body language, and even small gestures like pupil dilation can be meaningful in a social interaction. Animals also have many tells that give away their feelings, but we’re far better at interpreting the emotions of other humans. de Waal and others have endeavoured to identify these tells, giving us a new perspective into animal emotions as well as our own. What we call pride or shyness in humans may not be so different from what we call dominance or submission in animals. Through de Waal’s stories, Mama’s Last Hug aims to win the hearts of readers by showcasing the extent of animals’ humanity that perhaps transcends our current scientific language.
de Waal argues that emotions should not be described as either animalistic or humanistic, since there is no clear distinction between the two. For instance, human shame is much like animal submission as seen in dogs and chimps. When your dog steals food from the kitchen, it may avoid your eye contact and adopt a weak posture. This is a similar reaction to human embarrassment, as in both species the submissive individual looks for reassurance from others. Many emotions and behaviours depend upon our inherent social hierarchy. The same is true for power climbs by CEOs and politicians. We need look no further than the American presidential debates to see displays of combat between alpha males.
The author also raises important questions on animal welfare in laboratory and farm settings. How can we treat these emotional beings fairly? On the other hand, one may question this field’s imprecise methods of studying animal emotions. Are we merely anthropomorphizing animals? How much of their perceived emotions are real and not assumed by humans imposing their ego?
Mama’s Last Hug is obviously written by a scientist, as it provides plenty of evidence to the book’s thesis in lieu of an overall focused narrative. Some readers may enjoy de Waal’s anecdotal and conversational approach, while others may be turned off by the way the book strays from tangent to tangent. In a few pages, de Waal’s attention jumps from Botox to puppies to the Vietnam War. To the right audience, however, Mama’s Last Hug is collection of colourful stories that are high on interesting facts and low on scientific jargon. Sometimes funny, sometimes sentimental, it’s a great read for animal lovers and psychology fans alike.