Updated: Jul 28, 2020
Compassion was once thought to be an elevated emotional state that only humans could feel. To feel compassion, one must accurately recognize what another is feeling, and take some action to alleviate their suffering. Animals were once thought to only function out of biological drives for survival. But there are so many examples, from a variety of social animals, where great compassion is shown to both members of their own -- as well as to other species, where there is no biological gain from assisting another.
Today's recent scientific insights show us that animals may be role models of compassion, and we can learn a lot from them. While the consciousness of animals may be different in scale from that of humans, it is becoming increasingly impossible to deny that they have intelligence, emotional states, and, I believe, consciousness. They seem to be capable of compassion, which means that they have a sense of self and a sense of another, and have proactive responses to those in need or pain.
Author Marc Bekoff, (The Emotional Lives of Animals) cites dozens of examples of “Compassion among wild and domestic animals such as numerous stories of a sighted dog functioning as a seeing guide dog for a blind animal companion.” Bekoff also describes brother and sister grizzly bear cubs in Alaska who stuck together when their mother was shot. The brother was injured, and the female would share food with him and cared for him, saving his life, even at the risk of her own survival.
Bekoff sites the BBC report called “The Depths of Feeling,” on rhesus monkeys, “in which hungry monkeys refused to accept food if it meant doing so would subject another monkey to an electric shock.”
The fact that hungry monkeys in laboratory experiments will refuse food if accepting it would mean shocking another monkey is particularly significant if you look at how humans might respond. The famous Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures showed that humans would willingly and knowingly subject another human to a painful shock if an authority person told them it was a good thing to do.
The first experiments began in July 1961, by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, who showed that humans, under certain circumstances, would act in ways that violated their own stated personal conscious beliefs and ethics. In some cases, participants continued to give what they thought was the maximum voltage of shocks, even when the “victim” banged on the wall, and begged to have the experiment stopped. This study, (which didn’t involve actual shocks, but rather the sound effects of voltage and screams of pain) was designed to give insight into why people behaved as they did in Nazi Germany. This type of study is today considered unethical and dangerous to the well-being of the participants’ (those that gave the shocks). This experiment and others that are physically or psychologically abusive are the reason that studies like this are no longer approved for humans. Yet they are still allowed for animals. It is hoped that in the near future, the over 60,000 laboratory animals will have greater protection than they do today.
Loyalty -- Hachi-Ko - The Dog Who Waited Until his Own Death
In spite of the poor record humans have with regard to allowing animal cruelty -- dogs, even many abused ones, remain loving and loyal to humans. Loyalty is something humans can aspire to, but dogs seem to be living embodiments of this powerful emotion.
Japanese children are taught about loyalty when they are told about an Akita dog named Hachi-Ko, who has become a national folk hero. This dog was owned by a professor at Tokyo University. As Jeffrey Masson recounts the story:
"Hachi-Ko used to meet his master’s train every evening and fetch the absentminded professor home from the station. One bitterly cold day in 1925, the dog waited in vain. He could not know that his master had died at work and would never catch the train again. Given a new home by the professor’s friends, the faithful dog ran away every evening for ten years, returning to the Shibuya Station to wait for his master who never came."
When Hachi-Ko died, a national day of mourning was held, and a statue was erected at the station in his honor.
Animals have been known to show great compassion when another animal is in need. This is not limited to females, so maternal extinct is not sufficient explanation for why one species will adopt and care for the orphaned infants of another species as if they were their own. One notable example of this compassion is a chimpanzee named Anjana, who lives at the Institute of Greatly Endangered Species, in South Carolina. She adopted two baby white tigers after they were separated from their mother during a hurricane.
While Anjana certainly learned how to bottle feed them by imitating her human zookeeper, China York, imitation alone doesn’t explain the constant tender, loving care and devotion of this chimp, who lets the cubs crawl all over her, and puts up with baby tiger claws. The cubs completely accepted her as a mother. Clearly, Anjana understood that these squirmy little creatures needed not only food, and protection, but massive amounts of love, and they would not have survived without her constant attention.
Mark Bekoff recounts a story of a troop of about 100 monkeys in Tezpur, India, who came rushing to the aid of a baby monkey after she was hit by a car. The monkeys encircled the injured infant, whose hind legs were crushed and who lay in the road unable to move, and blocked all traffic. A government official reported that the monkeys were angry, and a local shopkeeper said: “It was very emotional…some of them massaged its legs. Finally, they left the scene carrying the injured baby with them.
No one watching this scene would deny that these monkeys had a variety of complex emotions. They had the reasoning to stop traffic and were fearless in doing so. They worked as a coordinated team, and tried several strategies, before carrying off the baby.
As discussed earlier, many dogs seem to be ‘tuned in” to their owner’s physical and mental states and appear to show compassion. I have interviewed many pet owners, such as one woman whose dog accurately diagnosed her blood cancer and her recurrences. Samantha, a small fluffy dog, was also 100% accurate when being able to alert to confirm human pregnancies at a crisis center for youth. Even though the dog had never met the teens, Samantha was shown to be entirely accurate when she would alert by resting a paw on the foot of an early pregnant woman and ignore those who were not expecting.
Another woman I interviewed, who was recovering from breast cancer, and months later was still in pain from the surgery, went to the Honolulu Zoo. There the elephant, named Vaigai, who was allowed to interact with visitors, used her trunk to massage the exact spot where the woman had pain. Zookeepers said the elephant had never done this before. The woman said that after this intense interaction, she never again had breast pain where the elephant had massaged her. She since went back to bring carrots, and the elephant always recognized her and knew where her gift was no matter where she hid it.
According to a personal interview with a Zoology graduate student working at the zoo, the zookeepers were flummoxed by the appearance of elephant droppings at far ends of the zoo, a long distance from the elephant house. Finally, they installed a video camera and discovered that at night Vaigai was using her trunk to open her cage, would take nocturnal walks, then return, and relock her cage before the morning keepers arrived. When they discovered this, unfortunately, they replaced the locks with ones she couldn’t open.
Elephants are very social and compassionate animals and don’t do well living in solitary confinement in small zoo areas. Marc Bekoff reported on this compassion when he spent time observing a group of wild elephants in a Samburu Reserve in North Kenya. One elephant, Babyl, walked very slowly because she was crippled and couldn’t travel as fast as the herd. The guide explained that the other elephants did not leave her behind, but rather would wait for her to catch up, and would even feed her at times. Bekoff noted that Babyl could do little for the others in the herd, and the other elephants gained nothing practical in helping her. Bekoff concluded, “The other elephants cared for Babyl, and so they adjusted their behavior to allow her to remain in the group.”
Dame Daphne Sheldrick has helped orphan elephants in Kenya for fifty years. Baby elephants are dependent on mother's milk for at least three years, so when the mothers are poached, the babies will die unless rescued. The orphans project is only a part of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, set up by Daphne in memory of her late husband, a pioneer game warden who had done much to combat poaching. They attempt to release elephants back into the wild when they are ready.
Genie Joseph, PhD
Director: The Human-Animal Connection