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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

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Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves, by author and primatologist Frans de Waal, details the intense connection between a chimpanzee named Mama and the biologist Jan van Hooff. As the title foreshadows, the ability of animals to show us more about ourselves than one could ever imagine is powerful, yet it is difficult to articulate or scientifically prove. The story of Mama is just one small yet great example of the supreme ability of animals to portray their deep emotions to us humans, with whom they have relatively few means of communication.

The story begins with the death of Mama and, in turn, the heart-wrenching viral video of Jan van Hoof entering Mama’s cage and visiting her for one last hug. The warm embrace by Mama of her long-time companion remains one of the most emotional and compelling moments in the long-standing battle surrounding the feelings of animals. The author finds this embrace to be a deep and complex, almost nurturing, display by Mama, meant to ease the mind of her long-time friend as her life was coming to an end.

One of the central themes explored throughout the work relates to the human interpretation and understanding of non-human feelings versus emotions. The author forms a very powerful argument related to this theme, following the story of Mama and van Hoof: that humans are not the only species with the capacity for complex emotions. De Waal says himself that “we may know they have emotions, but we have little understanding or certainty about their feelings.” The author hits on point after point, from evolutionary perspectives to brain chemistry, drawing from scientific texts where necessary to pursue his message about the importance of our human impact on the animal world. The language barrier between human and animal makes “feelings” largely intangible and difficult to study scientifically. De Waal says that emotions are bodily and mental states that drive behavior, such as a rat showing empathy or a fish exhibiting biological signs of depression. He writes,

One day, we may be able to measure the private experiences of other species, but for the moment we have to content ourselves with what is visible on the outside. In this regard, we are beginning to make progress.

De Waal believes that the study of animal emotions will be a large field of scientific exploration, and along with the heart-wrenching video evidence of the bond between chimpanzee and biologist, Mama’s Last Hug propels the evidence in the direction of proven animal emotion.

Linked below is the video of Jan van Hoof saying goodbye to Mama.


De Waal, F. (2019). Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.