Trigger/Content Warnings: Some discussion of animal abuse and animal testing/experimentation.
Primatologist Frans de Waal explores the fascinating world of animal and human emotions.
Frans de Waal has spent four decades at the forefront of animal research. Following up on the best-selling Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, which investigated animal intelligence, Mama’s Last Hug delivers a fascinating exploration of the rich emotional lives of animals.
Mama’s Last Hug begins with the death of Mama, a chimpanzee matriarch who formed a deep bond with biologist Jan van Hooff. When Mama was dying, van Hooff took the unusual step of visiting her in her night cage for a last hug. Their goodbyes were filmed and went viral. Millions of people were deeply moved by the way Mama embraced the professor, welcoming him with a big smile while reassuring him by patting his neck, in a gesture often considered typically human but that is in fact common to all primates. This story and others like it form the core of de Waal’s argument, showing that humans are not the only species with the capacity for love, hate, fear, shame, guilt, joy, disgust, and empathy.
De Waal discusses facial expressions, the emotions behind human politics, the illusion of free will, animal sentience, and, of course, Mama’s life and death. The message is one of continuity between us and other species, such as the radical proposal that emotions are like organs: we don’t have a single organ that other animals don’t have, and the same is true for our emotions. Mama’s Last Hug opens our hearts and minds to the many ways in which humans and other animals are connected, transforming how we view the living world around us.
My Take: 5/5 Stars
The heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing
~ Frans de Waal
MAMA’S LAST HUG was recommended to me by my father, an environmental engineer who reads … well, not that much. Because of this, I was over the moon excited to get a book recommendation from him, and his recommendation did not disappoint.
This book is for animal lovers everywhere. While it focuses on primates and primate relationships and emotions (including the pivotal primate: us), it delves deep into the emotions (separate and distinct from feelings) of all mammals as well as birds and fish. As a dog lover, I especially enjoyed the bits about our canine companions, and it was interesting to see de Waal’s take on some research conducted by canine behaviorists whose work I’d read (such as Patricia McConnell and Alexandra Horowitz).
Mama’s Last Hug wasn’t all facts and research and science, though. Otherwise, it would probably have been a bit unreadable. Instead, the book hugged the science lightly around anecdotes, including some hilarious stories from de Waal’s years spent observing chimpanzees as well as an entire chapter comparing Donald Trump to alpha chimps (spoiler: the comparison isn’t particularly flattering for The Donald).
What lingered with me the most about this book, however, besides learning all kinds of new information, was the questions about animal welfare it brought to light. We still test products on animals in the United States. We keep chimps in cages, away from their family. We have beagles who spend their entire lives in laboratories, never feeling grass, or smelling the scents of the world. We slaughter animals inhumanely and without much thought. And how do we assuage our guilt and shame over these atrocities? We convince ourselves that animals can’t feel, that they don’t experience pain or terror or curiosity. They live in the moment, we often say about our dogs. They don’t know the difference between yesterday and today and tomorrow. But if Frans de Waal’s research is to be believed, that’s not entirely true. And if it isn’t, it raises some questions we might not like the answers to.
All in all, I would highly recommend Mama’s Last Hug to those who love animals, and to anyone who is interested in the most recent science into the animal (and therefore, human) mind.
Give me your favorite animal anecdote in the comments!