Do animals have emotions?

I’ve always loved animals and nature. It runs through my veins, just like my spiritual path, and my love of essential oils.
As a child, every single creature was precious to me. Whether it was an injured lizard I brought home, or a wailing cat, they all had my undivided focus and care. I can’t say that my love for animals and nature has grown – it was already at 1000% as a child. But it’s matured, as any love tends to do.
As I reflect back, there was one pivotal experience I had. I was 13, and my parents took us on a holiday from our home town of Brisbane down the coast of New South Wales, to Sydney and the Blue Mountains. I’m sure I must have been wowed to see the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. But I have little memory of that.

What stands out above anything else was our trip to Taronga Park Zoo. When I was there, one of the exhibits we visited was the Ring-Tailed Lemurs. I sat there, gazing at one of them as it was looking off into the distance. Then I had an idea. I had a packet of Tic-Tacs in my pocket. I pulled it out, and started shaking them. They made a rattling sound, like a child’s rattle.

The Lemur was absolutely captivated. It reached its hand and arm through the fence. It wanted that toy that made those fascinating noises.

It was in that moment that I realised I wanted to study animal behaviour.

And I did…I went on as a young adult to become a Zoologist, and one of my areas of study was indeed animal behaviour.

It’s interesting. Animal behaviour was not offered through my Zoology course. To study it, I needed to enrol in a psychology course focused on animal behaviour. And this is very telling. You see, in Zoology we were taught this word called “Anthropomorphism”. It’s a long word meaning the projection of human emotions onto animals.

One of my greatest points of conflict as I went through my degree was that animals were treated as fascinating pieces of skeleton and flesh, with no capacity for emotions.

Yet anyone who owns a dog, a cat, a bird, a cow, a horse, will know that these creatures absolutely feel emotions, just like we do. Sure, they may not have the emotional intelligence to “process” through emotions the way that we do. But they feel emotions, they express emotions, they can carry responses to traumatic situations for their entire life, and eventually (if we’re lucky) they can also let them go.

Helping animals (especially dogs and horses) with essential oils is one of my passions.

I love seeing an animal that has been carrying hurt around for many years, suddenly be able to release it and return to a normal, inherently joyful state.
It was this polar-opposite viewpoint between how I saw animals and nature, and how my colleagues viewed them, that eventually became a line in the sand for me. I stepped away from my career as a Zoologist, and moved into the healing field instead.

But I never lost my love of animals.

And in 2016, I began volunteering for a local wildlife organisation, helping sick and injured wildlife.

This started out as me rescuing any and all animal species…but then things changed for me. I attended a two day course on how to catch venomous snakes, thinking I was only doing it for the education. “I’d never want to be a snake catcher,” I told myself before the course. Yet I had so much adrenaline and so much fun on the course that I ended up rescuing snakes….and as the years have rolled by, snakes have become my passion.

So where do snakes fit into the animal behaviour scene? Do snakes even feel emotions?

I confess this has been the most fascinating journey for me, watching how snakes interact with humans. They are completely different to other animals. They don’t seem to experience the complex emotions of other animals – emotions of bonding, of joy or of loss.

If I were to describe what goes on inside a snake’s reptilian brain, it’s very different to the mammalian brain. They assess a situation for threat or treat, and respond accordingly. So I’ve been exploring how my “energy” impacts the interaction between myself and a snake.

This is a really fascinating thing! In my very first snake training, there was an older woman present. It was her first course, too. Although she wasn’t as mobile as the younger students, she had this knack of having every venomous snake just voluntarily wiggle its way into the safety of her snake bag. She made it look so easy!

This was in stark contrast to the rest of us. Our trainer at the time said to us, “Push your bag towards the snake, always making sure it’s between you and the snake. When the snake strikes at you, scoop it up into your bag and quickly close your bag off so it doesn’t leap back out and bite you!”

This might sound a bit extreme, however at this point in the training we were learning to catch the infamous Eastern Brown Snakes. They are the Arabian Stallions of the snake world, with a lot of bluff and more likely to strike and ask questions later. Sure, many of their strikes are what we call “dry bites”, meaning they aren’t wasting their venom, they are just bluffing….but even so, when they are riled up, they are a force to be reckoned with.

But not for this woman.

They never tried to strike at her. They just meekly wiggled into her snake bag.

I went to her and enquired about how she was achieving such a calm and peaceful snake catch. “Oh, I just imagine I’m vacuuming them up with my snake bag,”, she said.

And that was her secret.

She was calm, because she was simply visualising that she was doing a chore like vacuuming.

Is it possible the snakes were feeling her calmness and responding accordingly? I set about testing this theory on the many non-venomous snakes I am usually catching and caring for, and sure enough, it works. The more grounded and calm my energy is, the more they settle.

So when a snake assesses any new situation, its first question is, “Is this a threat to me?” If it is, it will react accordingly. But if we’re calm and grounded and non-threatening in our energy, they relax and settle.

But the next question they ask is, “Is this a treat for me?” I am always fascinated to watch how new (wild) snakes that come into care with me respond to the first time I feed them. I’m caring for them under license, just while they are being rehabilitated. And our policy is to only feed them dead (not live) food. That means a trip to the local pet store to buy some frozen rats, which get thawed out in warm water, and dangled on the end of a long pair of barbecue tongs as I offer the tasty morsel to the snake.

This is the first time a wild snake will have been offered food that it doesn’t need to catch itself…and dead food at that! So it’s a completely foreign experience for the snake. In a very few situations, a snake will be so hungry that it flicks its tongue a few times at the dangling rat and then strikes and coils and eats it just like it would any other prey.

But that’s rare. More commonly, that very first feed is an education experience for the snake. It’s in new territory, and it needs to learn that this is food, it’s tasty, and it’s safe. When snakes are coiled around their prey and then trying to fit a large object down their throat, they are in a state of vulnerability.

Their reptilian brain tells them this is food, and they don’t want to let go – for any reason! I’ve dragged snakes wrapped around dead rats from one end of their enclosure to the other, and they don’t blink an eyelid (well, they wouldn’t blink an eyelid if they had any eyelids!). They are 100% focussed on their food, and nothing else matters.

So before they go for their food, they need to be in safe territory….and having a large two legged creature with a clanging set of tongs right there with them could be deemed as a threat.

Some snakes back away.

When that rat gets dangled, they see the rat itself as a frightening thing, and they move their body with great skill to escape the “thing” that’s just entered their enclosure. But more often than not, their initial “flight” response turns into curiosity when they smell the rat.

Their tongue comes out, and they start to “taste” this morsel of food. And for the next 5 minutes, most snakes that are in care with me (these being the non-venomous snakes like pythons) will “lick” the rat from its nose to the tip of its toes. It’s like watching a snake “make love” to its food. Their tongue comes in and out as they nuzzle into the fur of the rat, exploring its smells with utter fascination.

And eventually, after they’ve finished their exploration, they’ll open their mouth and allow me to drop the rat in. I love watching this happen. It feels like I’m transported back to ancient Greece, where I’m providing grapes to a prince or princess who is casually basking in the sunshine.

And the snakes learn. That first feed is the one that takes enormous patience. But after that, for the next feed, it all happens faster. And it gets to the point that as soon as the snake hears the clang of my tongs, its head is out of its hidey hole (usually a carboard box that I’ve turned into a cave for it), and it’s ready to strike at its food.

So yes, snakes have the capacity to learn. They learn the terrain of their enclosure, they learn that I’m not a threat to them, and they learn a new way of feeding.

But as far as I can tell, they don’t have complex emotions in the way other non-reptile animals do. They simply assess their environment for threat or treat, and respond accordingly. They are incredibly matter of fact in this regard.

So as my love of snakes has grown, I’ve realised how much I’ve learned from them. They’ve taught me how to be less gripped by emotion. They model for me how to be fully in the present moment, rather than caught in the past or future (which is where emotions often take our mind).

Every animal has something powerful to teach us. The Native Americans understand this, and so they talk about animal medicine. They recognise that every animal is a teacher for us, and we’ll be called to the animal that is the best fit for what we need to learn. For me, right now, that’s snakes. And this ability to be present and grounded and not swayed by inner emotional turmoil is indeed the gift and the “Medicine” of Snakes.