Caitlin Tan Published

To Love Or Not To Love? That Is The Question In The Animal Kingdom

Two otters play in the water.

With Valentine’s Day coming up, love is on a lot of people’s minds…but what about animals?

If you have ever watched animals interact, it seems like they feel love. Penguins mate for life. Elephants form a bond through wrapping their trunks together before they mate. Some types of wolves mate for life and help raise the wolf pups. So, do animals actually feel love?

Our Inside Appalachia team stumbled into this idea after producer Roxy Todd remembered a single, lonely otter she had once seen at the West Virginia State Wildlife Center.

“She looked really sad, all by herself on the rocks, not playing and not swimming,” Todd said.

She had expected to see not one otter, but lots of otters, doing what otters typically do.

“You know, when you picture otters, what do you picture? They’re having fun,” Todd said. “I had this expectation they would be frolicking doing tricks in the water.”

But she said this otter seemed despondent.

“I just kept wondering, what happened, and what was going through her head,” Todd said. “Could she feel loneliness?”

And if she could feel loneliness, Todd wondered, could the otter also feel other emotions? Like, could she feel love?

Well, this question is up for debate.

Most biologists will say that animals cannot feel love.

“Love? No, there’s no such thing in the animal kingdom,” said Rich Rogers, the furbearer biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. Rogers is helping study the regional otter population. “[Love is] an emotional term. There’s a fidelity to that family unit until those young disperse, and then no, there’s nothing there.”

So Rogers said love is an emotional term, but animals have emotions, right?

“Since Darwin, scientists have thought that there are some basic emotions that animals can feel,” said Cynthia Willett, a professor of philosophy at Emory University.

Willett published a book called ‘Interspecies Ethics’ in 2014, which explores animals’ wide variety of emotions. She said some of the obvious ones are happiness and sadness.

“But Darwin did not include love among those basic emotions. And so there’s been this prejudice or this bias, at least since that time, that animals could not experience love,” Willett said. “And yet we see it all the time with animals. So why is it that we tend to not believe what we see?”

There are a few different types of animal love Willett has studied — the mother to offspring love, which she said is clearly established. But also friendship love. Willett said in 2006 at a zoo in Japan, a snake became friends with a hamster — its prey! They even cuddled together.

And the third type of animal relationship?

“The most surprising kind of love at all is romantic love,” Willett said.

Like, love love — not just friendship love.

A good example of this behavior is with birds, Willett said. Similar to humans, birds have courtship rituals — basically, they date. They bring food to one another, do dances, clean one another, etc.

Animals generally are social creatures, Willett said, adding that they need companionship, which in a way is a form of love.

“And without it, they start to lose that ‘joie de vivre’, that sense of being alive.”

‘Joy de vivre’ is a French phrase that describes the sense of life that gives us purpose, that makes life fuller and richer — something we often find through relationships and love. And Willett said animals feel it too.

“And when they don’t have that, they shrink. They diminish. They have less energy. Life goes dull,” she said.

Although Willett has not studied otters specifically, anecdotally she said she has seen them play and bond with each other and humans. They kind of remind her of how dogs love, Willett said.

So yes, Willett said she believes otters do feel love. She added that it is not that the science or biologists are wrong, there just might be more nuance.

And for the solitary otter at West Virginia Wildlife Center? Well, Trevor Moore — the biologist at the center — said he cannot definitively rule one way or another on love, loneliness or any human-like emotion.

“Animals definitely have personalities. There are definitely individual personalities,” Moore said. “You can see that, that’s very well documented throughout science and in captivity and in the wild. But how much we project our own emotions and our own view of them? I don’t know.”