UC Davis graduate, Spring 2022
Major: Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology
“Do they love you or do they just want food?” I have been asked this about various animals I’ve worked with, including the piglets and my pet rats and goldfish. It might sound like a straightforward question, but it brings up a philosophical question of what it means to love someone. Personally, I believe that loving someone and mostly caring about food are not mutually exclusive. The line between loving someone’s intrinsic qualities and loving the more material happiness they bring you can be blurred almost out of existence.
When Nora and I approach the piglets’ stall, they squeal ecstatically, announcing our arrival to the entire ranch. Although they’re mostly excited about feeding time, I believe that in some ways, their feelings towards us are similar to the feelings we humans have for people we love. If your friend regularly brings you your favorite cookies, doesn’t that increase your appreciation for your friend? Eating tasty food releases hormones, such as dopamine, that make you feel good, and you may learn to associate the positive feelings with your friend’s arrival. Similarly, your friend might give you warm hugs, take you on fun adventures, and make you laugh, releasing hormones such as dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. The piglets likely experience similar physiological changes when Nora and I walk them around the ranch, give them new toys, and comb them. They love being combed so much that they fall over in a trance-like state, and sometimes they will even flop down next to us in anticipation of the comb. (Check out our TikTok of the piglets blissfully collapsing!) They have learned to associate our arrival with feeling happy, similar to the way your human loved ones make you happy.
Of course, not all feelings of love are so directly linked to tangible benefits. Although you may feel inexplicably attracted to someone, most healthy relationships are built on some sort of mutual benefit. However, it may not be as obvious why a given interaction is beneficial when we deeply understand and trust each other. For example, your dog might respond positively to praise or even something as subtle as eye contact. That’s because dogs have coevolved with humans for many thousands of years and therefore respond to our emotions more readily than most species. Human language allows us to communicate our love for fellow humans in even less direct ways, using words to symbolize feelings. Why does hearing the words “I love you” feel good? Because a long time ago, you learned to associate them with pleasurable feelings such as gentle touch, tasty food, and knowing you were safe with someone. And those are all experiences that the piglets have with Nora and me. Their love for us might be relatively simple, but we bring each other joy, and the simplicity is refreshing.
Hopefully our research will further our understanding of human-animal connections, revealing how and why certain interactions give us positive emotions, including love. But whether you’re bonding with an animal over food, play, trust, or some inexplicable connection, you’re building a relationship with another species. And that’s pretty remarkable.
Green Care Blog
Here you can find blog posts from each Green Care Lab intern. We'll be talking about our research process, the benefits of Green Care therapy, and sharing pictures of our work. Follow along with us!