It's a question thinkers for thousands of years have been dogged by — so to speak.

But the answer is in:


Science and philosophy and even religion are increasingly coming to this conclusion, through long essays and graduate seminars and religious tracts: whatever a soul is — if you or I or Aretha Franklin have a soul — then cats, elephants, dolphins, birds and all kinds of animals do, too. You know: just look at your dog. Look at that cute bastard.

That's the answer Caitrin Nicol Keiper came to in a article five years ago that is probably the best ever answer to the question. She asks in the title, "Do Elephants Have Souls?" And the short answer, Keiper says when you ask her, is, "Yes. Yes they do."

This is a different answer from where people had been for hundreds of years. Descartes thought that animals weren't even conscious. Descartes tortured animals and thought their screams of pain were automatic, like the whistling of a teakettle.

But look at elephants, Keiper writes. Elephant families gather around for births, and stamp their feet and wave their trunks when the baby arrives. They hold grudges against other elephant families for generations. They crowd around the dead bodies of friends and wail, and visit the graves decades later.

Maybe we're projecting. "Human hearts naturally reach out to other sentient creatures; perhaps our affection for them makes us want to see what isn’t there," Keiper writes.

But every medical investigation into mammals shows they're so much the same as us; brain scans show that animals feel the same things in the same parts of the brain you do.

"To look into their eyes is to know that someone is in there," Keiper adds.

The Catholic Church was one of many religions that long said animals don't have souls. "There's no doggie heaven," says But that's changing. Pope Francis seems to be open to changing that doggie dogma and say "all creatures go to heaven"; Catholics who love their pets are stoked on this. (Francis recently changed the rules and said that atheists and Jews can go to heaven — and also have souls — so maybe dogs and cats aren't far behind.)

This can seem like a quaint but pointless debate; what's a soul, anyway? Isn't "soul" just a lot of old superstitious religious mumbo jumbo? But it matters for a few reasons.

First, it's just about validating what we all see. We know our dogs and cats feel happiness, sadness, shame and pride. These are not furniture with fur. We should use all the same language we use for ourselves.

Second, it might help us to remember that humans aren't as special as we like to think, that while we have laptops and cell phones, our experience moment to moment isn't that different from a million other species. What they need — open space, air, nature, friends, exercise — we need, too.

Third, it might help us to treat the animals we eat better, so that at least we're not adding injury to insult by making them live in cages in their own dung before we turn them into burgers

All this to say: hug your dog. Say hi to the squirrels in the yard and the cows in the pasture. Whatever you are, they are too. Not much separates you from them, except that you eat better, and sometimes you eat them.

[African elephants in Africa. From Shutterstock.]