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Evidence of Animal Empathy & Sense of Fairness

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

There was a time when empathy, the ability to correctly interpret another’s emotions, and adjust one’s own behavior in a positive or soothing manner toward another, was considered a trait only humans had. This prosocial behavior that has no apparent survival imperative has been observed in many species such as primates, mice, dogs, elephants, and others. For example, chimpanzees will release a captive chimp in a lab before taking a treat or will refuse a treat if another chimp is denied. Frans De Waal has shown a very strong principle of fairness in our closest relatives, (see his Ted Talk).

In this example, both monkeys will work for cucumber pieces, but if one gets a grape -- a higher value treat -- the other will stop working for the cucumber. The one who got the grape will eventually stop taking it until her neighbor gets the same treatment.

The Sense of Fairness in Animals

I have over a thousand hours of volunteering at The Hawaiian Humane Society. One of my great joys is to watch the level of anticipation when a dog knows you are coming to take them out of their kennel for a walk, or for a session of healing enrichment. They watch your every move, with a level of single-point focus that we humans can only hope to achieve. Every sense tracks and follows you as you walk to the gate, open it, walk through, unlock their kennel – and they respond with extreme excitement!

Visit a shelter if you have any doubt about the sense of fairness in dogs

And the same process happens when you are distributing treats. As it has been said: If you think dogs can't count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then giving Fido only two of them.

At the Hawaiian Humane Society shelter, the dogs can see you coming, and see if you give another dog a treat. They seem to show an awareness of fairness, and if you are giving one dog a treat, you’d better be prepared to go down the line and give each one a treat. And you better give the same quality of treat or amount! They watch, wait breathlessly and expect you to give them exactly what the next dog got!

Once you recognize that dogs have rich emotional lives, it becomes impossible to ignore the complexity of their inner life. While scientists are not yet able to talk about consciousness, and since they can't prove that humans have consciousness, it is not likely they will be able to prove that animals do also. Yet most humans feel that we are conscious. One can only guess if dogs are also sentient beings, which simply means that they feel things. The consequence of the point of view that animals have intelligence, emotions and consciousness means we need to take better care of them and treat them with a level of respect they deserve.

Rats Have Feelings, too!

Rats have been shown to reject a chocolate bar, once they learn that doing so will cause another rat to be drowned. Researchers at Gwansei Gakuin University in Japan put the rodents to the ultimate test, pitting chocolate against altruism. In their experiment, rats on the dry platform had to choose between two doors, one that allowed their soaked companion to escape from the pool and another that provided access to a tasty chocolate treat. The rodents chose to help their companions before seeking the snack 50% to 80% of the time, showing that the urge to help a fellow rat was at least as strong as the desire for food, the authors say.

So many studies prove mice have feelings, maybe it is time to be kinder to them

In these tests, the researchers could have used a dose of empathy themselves, because as Alka Chandra, PhD points out, the rats were terrified by nearly being drowned. So, we have learned that rats have empathy, and in most cases will help another rat, and the level of help goes up if the rescuing rat had also experienced being the victim in this study.

This study supports a growing body of evidence that there’s an evolutionary basis for helpful behavior in both humans and animals, independent of culture or upbringing. Neurobiologist Peggy Mason at the University of Chicago says. “Humans are not helping purely because mom taught us to help,” she says. “In part—and to what degree remains to be seen—we help because it’s in our biology.”

Anjana, a chimpanzee in an animal sanctuary, nursed two orphaned Siberian tiger cubs. Without training, she bottle-fed, and filled the role of a surrogate mother.

This same caring activity has been seen in other species. For example, a pride of lions rescued a young girl in trouble; this story is excerpted here:

"In 2005, a 12-year-old girl near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was dragged out into the wild and beaten bloody by seven men. Apparently, this was supposed to convince her to marry one of them—which seems like a weird method but is shockingly common there. According to the United Nations, 70 percent of marriages in that area starts with a young girl being abducted, dragged out into the middle of nowhere, raped, and then forced to marry someone.

All that would have happened to this girl, too, if it wasn’t for a group of lions. When the girl started crying, a nearby pride of lions heard her and rushed to her rescue. The lions pounced on the men and chased them away, saving her before she could be raped and forced into a life of servitude.

That’s not all, though. If they’d just attacked the men, it could easily have just been a random lion attack. But the lions stayed with the girl. They waited with the bruised child for about 12 hours—protecting her in case the men came back—until her family found her. And when they did, the lions walked back into the jungle, leaving her safe.”

Here is a longer interview with Dr. Frans de Waal on the Feelings of Animals and how they resolve conflict and console each other.

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director: The Human-Animal Connection


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