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Recent study finds goats perceive good and bad emotions from the bleats of others

“How could anyone listen to her screams and not care that she's hurting and terrified? This is what cashmere production looks like, and if Madewell has a heart they’ll ban it!” So reads a Facebook post by Peta, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, from 6 August 2019.

The post includes a meme showing a wide-eyed goat lying with its mouth open and tongue out, a person’s hand on its flank. It links to the Facebook page of Madewell, a US-based clothing retailer.

“New research shows goats can perceive each other's emotions from their voices,” the meme’s text reads. “Which means when this goat screamed, all the goats nearby probably knew this one was in pain and afraid.” 

Can goats recognise each other’s emotions from their bleats?

Cashmere production and concerns

Cashmere is a hair fibre from the Cashmere or Kashmir goat, and considered a luxury product. 

The wool can be plucked or combed from the goat with a metal comb, or the animal’s fleece is shorn off. The wool of four to six goats is used to make one cashmere jersey.

Concern for Cashmere goats’ well-being has been raised because of the painful combing process. This has prompted large international retail stores to vow to either stop selling cashmere or only buy the wool from farms certified by the Responsible Wool Standard

Distinguishing between happy and sad calls

A July 2019 study in Frontiers in Zoology does say that goats can tell the difference between each other’s positive and negative bleats – or “vocalisations”. The researchers found that the sounds were a powerful way for goats to “communicate emotions”.

Elodie Mandel-Briefer, an associate professor in the biology department at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, is a co-author of the study. She told Africa Check that its findings were “actually not so surprising and probably widespread in the animal kingdom, since it is crucial for animals to communicate their emotions and be able to respond to the emotions of others, for example when there is danger or a predator around”. 

Perceive emotions – but understand them?

In the scientific community, there is not yet a clear definition of what emotions actually are. And non-human animals’ communication of emotions is not yet well understood. 

Robert Seyfarth is a primatologist who studied primates in their natural habitat for a long period, and a retired professor of psychology who worked at the University of Pennsylvania in the US. He told Africa Check that all animals learned to associate particular sounds with specific events. 

“But this doesn’t necessarily mean that goats ‘understand and experience another’s displeasure’,” he said. “One would need more detailed experimental work to get a better understanding of what a goat thinks when it hears another goat vocalise.”

A recent study found that goats can tell the difference between good and bad emotions expressed in the bleats of others. But more research is needed to tell whether goats are able to understand each other’s emotions. – Africa Check


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