Interview: Jeffrey Moussieff Masson

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (who celebrated his eighty-second birthday in March) has had a long, fascinating and influential career, first as a professor of Sanskrit, then as a psychoanalyst (his book The Assault on Truth was an international best-seller) and more recently as an expert on the emotional life of animals. When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Life of Animals, published in 1994, has been translated into twenty languages. Other books on the topic include Dogs Never Lie About Love: Reflections on the Emotional World of Dogs and The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals. His most recent book is: Lost Companions: Reflections on the Death of Pets. He has explained this radical change in the subject of his writings as follows:

‘I’d written a whole series of books about psychiatry and nobody bought them. Nobody liked them. Nobody. Psychiatrists hated them, and they were much too abstruse for the general public. It was very hard to make a living, and I thought, As long as I’m not making a living, I may as well write about something I really love: animals.’

In 2004, Jeffrey became vegan and in 2008, a director of Voiceless, a not-for-profit that campaigns for better animal protection. We were delighted when he agreed to an interview with The Alternative Dog.

Q. What inspired you to write Lost Companions?

A. The loss of Benjy, the dog who was the ‘hero’ of The Dog Who Couldn’t Stop Loving. PS: I now believe that MOST dogs cannot stop loving! They are, really, our superior! Certainly, when it comes to pure feeling!

Q. Where do you stand on animal euthanasia?

A. I am not a great fan. Mostly because I don’t trust human euthanasia. Witness what is happening in both Holland and Belgium: they are allowing minors to choose euthanasia because of depression that they call ‘treatment resistant’. Awful! But, of course, it is different for dogs and cats: they cannot choose it. We have to decide. And certainly there comes a time in an animal’s life when, could they talk, they would say: enough suffering. But, when is that? I think all of us who love dogs and cats feel it is always too early! But my rule of thumb is this: If your dog can no longer walk, or go to the bathroom, and refuses food, and if even your presence does not make him wag his tale, the time has come. The important thing though is: do not leave him at the vet alone. No matter how hard it is for you, please stay with him right to the final moment. He will be looking at you and for you, even then!

Q. How do you think dogs perceive their own death and also the death of others?

A. That is an interesting question, and a difficult one to answer, because the truth is, we don’t really know. I believe that dogs can sense death and they don’t like it any more than we do! I know that dogs can get incredibly depressed when a dog they love dies, and equally so when ‘their’ human dies.

Q. What is anthropodenial, and how do you think it displays itself?

A. Well, critics used to say, about people like me (and probably you, too, and many of your readers) that in attributing emotions to animals we were engaged in anthropomorphism. I was accused of this sin often when I wrote When Elephants Weep many years ago. Today, that accusation is rarely heard. And the tables have now turned, thanks to the excellent recent books by many authors (Frans de Waal, Jonathan Balacomb, Carl Safina, and many more, older authors, including your wonderful Mary Midgley) who believe, and I share this belief, that to deny profound emotions in animals is a form of anthropodenial: the belief that only humans have deep emotions. I think the term is by de Waal, and is wonderful, and convincing!

Q. Of all the many wonderful stories about dogs in your Lost Companions, which is your favourite?

A. I think that it is when my wife Leila traveled back to Germany to see Benjy, who was nearing the end (a golden lab, he was 14) who was living with our son Ilan. He had been listless, refusing to walk or do much except lie at Ilan’s feet. But when Leila arrived, it was is if he was reborn: they were in the country and he jumped up and wagged his tail and made it clear he wanted to go for a long walk in the forest. They did, and he was deliriously happy, and like a puppy!
The next day he died. So, it was clear that he was revisiting, literally, his past. If only humans could do the same!

Q. One of your best well known books is Dogs Never Lie About Love,
which was published a quarter of a century ago. At the time the scientific community was unconvinced by your claims about the emotional lives of dogs and other animals. How do you think things have changed in the intervening years?

A. They have changed enormously and permanently. There are now literally
thousands of books (and very good ones too!) about dogs, all of them acknowledging the extraordinary emotional quality of dogs in particular. But that is true of other animals as well: elephants are now seen to be as complex in their emotional lives and in their social lives as humans. That is a sea change! I just wish I could be around another 50 years to see what else we will discover. Alas, I am 81, and can only hope for another ten to fifteen years. But even those years will bring change, I am sure.

Q. What advice would you offer the human companion of a dog or cat that
is old and approaching death?

A. Spend as much time with them as possible. Give them what they want most: to be with you. Deny them nothing they like. Even if they want to sleep in your bed (for me, one of the great pleasures of life is sleeping with a cat under the covers and a dog at my feet). And when the time comes, do not leave them for a second.

Q. What consolation (or advice) would you offer someone who is grieving
for a dog or cat?

A. You have every right to grieve as long as you like. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. But at some point, you might consider adopting another animals, and saving their life.

Q. If you had an audience with the Pope, who recently criticised some dog lovers for treating their four-legged family members like children instead of begetting children, what would you say to him?

A. I have three children, so I am not opposed to having children. But my dogs and my cats have been precious to me and have been family. There are people who would rather live with animals than have children. Who is anyone to criticise that? Not even the Pope can know what is in the heart of another person. The main thing is love: so if you can love a dog, or a cat, how can that be wrong?

Q. Do you think dogs love differently to humans?

A. I do, I think they are capable of love that has no admixture of anything negative in it. No ‘I love you BUT…’ for a dog!

Q. Although Lost Companions focuses on dogs and cats, your preface and
chapter six are concerned with the death of wild animals. Do you think there is an essential difference in the way domesticated and wild animals experience death and grief? And in the way humans view the death of a wild animal?

A. It is almost impossible to know but I suspect it is not so dissimilar to what our companion animals experience. The big difference is that we humans, to our shame, barely acknowledge the death of animals in the wild, even when we are the cause. I still find sport hunting the equivalent of a crime against humanity!

Q. What advice would you offer to anyone having to explain the death of
a beloved pet to a child?

A. Acknowledge to them that their love for the animal was a wonderful gift to that animal, and to you, as their parent, to see that they are capable, and let them know that the animal, too, loved them very much, but every animal must one day die, even the human animal, but that if they have experienced love, they have not died in vain!

Q. When you are grieving the loss of a pet is it morally wrong to find
a replacement?

A. Not at all. If you rescue another animal, you are saving their life. Some people I know went out the next day to get another animal; others wait for months; some simply cannot bear the thought of ‘replacing’ their dog or cat. But I believe we should not think of it as ‘replacement’ but simply saving another life.

Q. You have written books on a wide range of subjects from Kaspar Hauser to Freud and from living with several different species in the family home to living with a guru. If you had to pick a favourite, which would it be?

A. I think it would be The Pig Who Sang to the Moon, because it forced me
to change my life, to go vegan, and that was a key moment for me. Also others have written to me to say the same.

Q. What are you working on at the moment?

A. Well, I would very much like to write a book called What is Wrong with
Our Species. But I have not been able to persuade ANY publisher, anywhere in the world, to take it! I do believe there is some fundamental flaw in our species which is not shared by any other animal, and I would like to discover what it is, how it came about, and how we could rid ourselves of it. But I have written 31 books, and if I never get to publish another book, I am nonetheless content,
and feel I have had my say! Time for others to go deeper. And they will!


From the preface to Lost Companions: Reflections on the Death of Pets

I have just finished reading the fine book by Frans de Waal, Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Teach Us about Ourselves. The title of the book comes from an extraordinary moment in the relation between two different species: ‘Mama’ as she was called by the humans who observed her at Burgers Zoo at Arnhem in the Netherlands, was the matriarch chimpanzee in a large colony. She had become close, over many years, with the distinguished Dutch zoologist Jan van Hoof (emeritus professor of behavioral biology at Utrecht University and cofounder of the Burgers colony). A month before she turned fifty-nine, she lay dying. Her friend, the zoologist, was about to turn eighty. They had known each other for more than forty years but he had not seen her for a long time. When Jan heard she was dying, he came to say good-bye. This was in 2016, and somebody who was there took a cell phone video of what transpired. It is astonishing. The chimps actually live on a forested island in the zoo, the largest such structure in the world (to me this is still a form of captivity, but that is a discussion for another day). Mama was confined to a cage since her attendants had to attempt to feed her. She was lying on a straw mat and would not move or eat or drink. What happened next, caught on video and seen more than ten million times, is heartrending. Her carers are attempting to feed her with a spoon, but she refuses both food and drink. She is listless, and hardly responsive. She looks very close to death. But Jan comes in and begins to stroke her. She slowly rouses herself, and then looks up. She looks somewhat bewildered as if not understanding who is there. But then it appears she recognizes him, and she suddenly gives a shriek of delight. He pats her saying over and over, ‘yes, yes, it is me,’ and she reaches out to him with a giant and unmistakable smile on her face, and reaches up to touch his face with her finger, very gently. He reassures her with gentle words of comfort. She combs his hair with her fingers. He strokes her face, and she touches his head over and over, as he says, ‘yes, Mama, yes.’ She pulls him closer until their faces are touching. They are both clearly moved far beyond words, and Jan goes silent as he continues to stroke Mama’s face. She then falls back into her fetal position. She died a few weeks later.

I defy anyone to watch this encounter without being moved to tears. But why? Why do we cry when we see this love across the species barrier? I believe it is a deep and ancient longing, to bond with a member of a different species. It is something of a miracle that we have created the possibility of doing this with great ease between two domesticated species: cats and dogs. There are many people who also achieve this with horses and with birds, and a few who experience it with completely wild species. I will write about all of these in this book. But what I am writing about here is not just the fact that we have achieved this miracle, and that we are both astonished and delighted by our success, but that we are as reluctant to give it up, at the end, as we are when the same circumstances force us to depart from our loved humans. There is no greater challenge than facing the death of a beloved intimate, whether it be your mother or father, your child, your friend, your spouse, or the animal you have come to love like any other member of the family. What we see in the video of ‘Mama’s Last Hug’, is that it can happen even with a wild animal, and even one in captivity. Death seems to be the great leveller here, and it does not matter who mourns whom, the grief on both sides is tangible, tangible, and profound.

We cannot look into the eyes of every other animal species on the planet (think of insects and reptiles) and see ourselves echoed. We cannot read what is happening inside every animal whose eyes we meet. I am of course not saying that the animals whose eyes tell us nothing are feeling nothing, simply that we are not attuned to each other. But we are attuned to certain animals. Primarily to dogs and cats, but there are also wild animals whose eyes betray deep feeling that we have little problem in reading. The fear of anthropomorphizing, that is, attributing to animals thoughts and sentiments that belong strictly to humans, has been replaced by what some scientists are calling anthropodenial, that is, the all too common refusal to recognize our similarity to other animals, especially when it comes to feelings and emotions. It could well be, as I will describe later in the book, that some animals actually feel some emotions more deeply than we do (love in dogs, contentment in cats, mourning in elephants) but this is a field of inquiry that has not yet been sufficiently explored.

This is a book about witnessing the end. Are we perhaps the angels of death? Alas, we have no power to bargain on behalf of our loved ones. But we are not helpless. We can do more than simply witness the death of our beloved animals. We can help them in their last moments and that help makes an enormous difference to them (and probably to us as well). In this book I will look at just how this happens, and what I and others have found most helpful that we can do for our animals as they approach the end. Knowing that we are literally ‘there’ makes an enormous difference to them. This is the least we owe them. It is heartbreaking, but everyone I have spoken to who has been there at the very end is glad, for their own sake, and for the sake of their loved companion, that they were there and fully present.