In my last post, I mentioned the subject of animal empathy.  This is dealt with in-depth in a fine book, The Age of Empathy, by renowned primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University.   He highlights not just the capacity but the inclination for non-human primates to be empathetic. 

A chimpanzee called Yoni, investigated by Soviet-era primatologist Nadia Kohts, for example, demonstrated extreme concern and compassion for her.  Kohts relates:

“If I pretend to be crying, close my eyes and weep, Yoni immediately stops his play or any other activities, quickly runs over to me…from the most remote places in the house…from where I could not drive him down despite my persistent calls and entreaties.  He hastily runs around me, as if looking for the offender; looking at my face, he tenderly takes my chin in his palm, lightly touches my face with his finger, as though trying to understand what is happening…”

This calls to mind the example of Gene Weingarten’s dog Harry, who, as noted in a previous post, became distraught when he beheld Weingarten’s wife rehearsing a monologue whose lines were excruciatingly emotional.  Harry was “whimpering, pawing at her knee, licking her hand, trying as best he could to make things better.”  

Actually, these animals are showing more than empathy – they’re demonstrating sympathy, which not only encompasses an awareness of what someone else is feeling but the urge to act to alleviate the other’s plight.  

This trait is commonplace in dogs.  Darwin, in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, noted how a particular dog would never walk by a basket where a sick friend (a cat) lay without giving her a few licks with his tongue.  Many non-human animals evidence this trait – and it’s particularly striking when a member of one species acts to help a member of another.  Apes have been known to save birds and, in one case, a seal rescued an old dog that could barely keep its head above water in a river.  According to an eyewitness, the seal “popped out of nowhere.  He came behind [the dog] and actually pushed him.  This dog would not have survived if it hadn’t been for that seal.”  Photos of a similar incident, relating to a pod of dolphins that saved a dog from drowning in a canal, can be seen here.  (Several more accounts of inter-species compassion are surveyed here by animal behaviorist and activist Marc Bekoff.  And here’s a remarkable video taken at the Budapest Zoo, showing a bear that plucks a drowning crow out of a pool and then nonchalantly walks away, leaving the stunned crow to recover.) 

Stories abound of human swimmers being saved by dolphins or whales, or protected by them against sharks (as can be seen in this video).  Many other kinds of animals have gone to extraordinary lengths to rescue people or bring their plight to other people’s attention.  This honor roll includes creatures as diverse as a beluga whale, a Vietnamese potbellied pig, and a South American parrot.  Perhaps the best-remembered case is that of Binti Jua, a female western lowland gorilla.  In 1996, at the Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago, she likely saved the life of a 3-year-old boy when he fell over a railing, 24 feet down, into the gorilla enclosure.  Binti Jua cradled his unconscious body and protected him from male gorillas that tried to get close.  Then, carrying him along with her own infant, she gently handed him over to zookeepers at the habitat door.  (Watch this video taken at the time.)

I have my own experience of animal loyalty and sympathy to relate.  In the spring of 2002, my wife and I were planning a party to celebrate our daughter’s second birthday.  While carrying supplies into the house, I lost my footing on a flight of steps and landed in a painful heap.  Our little Siamese cat Persephone, all 9 pounds of her, appeared immediately and whirled around me in evident alarm.  Having sprained my ankle (fortunately, that was all), I was limping for several days afterward.  Persephone’s touching display of concern stayed with me for much longer.

Now, anyone who has lived with or observed animals for any length of time knows that they have distinct personalities.  As with people, some of those personalities are truly memorable. Our Persephone was one such creature.  In the next post, I’ll explain why – and share an incident that points, in my estimation, to the universal and binding nature of emotion.

References:

de Waal, Frans. The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2009.

King, Barbara J. “What Binti Jua Knew.” Washington Post, August 15, 2008.

Rowlands, Mark. “The Kindness of Beasts.” Aeon, October 24, 2012.  http://aeon.co/magazine/philosophy/mark-rowlands-animal-morality/.

About the Author

Michael Jawer

Michael Jawer has been investigating the mind-body basis of personality and health for 15 years. He is the author of The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion.

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