This MLA style research paper identifies and discusses interesting cases of animals showing distinct signs of empathy. This essay was written at the undergraduate level to serve as a sample for the Ultius blog.
Cases of Animal Empathy
Humans have long been interacting with animals on a variety of levels. Something we have wondered for just as long is whether or not animals are capable of feeling emotions. Are they able to genuinely care for each other the way that humans do? Scientists believe that many species of animals are, in fact, capable of feeling and displaying empathy, caring for a wounded friend or expressing grief over the loss of a loved one. Their emotional capabilities are far beyond what humans once thought and many of them seem fully capable of real emotions. Below are some incredible cases of animals expressing clear signs of empathy for another.
Washoe the chimpanzee
Washoe was a chimpanzee at Central Washington University who was taught to communicate in sign language with her caretakers. Researchers wanted to see how well they could teach a chimpanzee to communicate with humans and by the end of the experiment she could form complete sentences that were even grammatically correct (Oliver). One of Washoe’s caretakers, Kat, had been pregnant but suffered a miscarriage and took a few weeks off of work to mourn her loss. During her leave, Washoe had taken personal offence to her absence and harbored a grudge. When Kat returned, Washoe ignored her. In an attempt to apologize, Kat explained that she was sorry and signed, “My baby died”. Washoe herself had lost several babies and stared at her caretaker for a long while without moving. Then, she signed the word for “cry” and ran her finger down Kat’s face, mimicking a tear (Oliver). Later, when Kat’s shift ended and she prepared to leave for home, Washoe signed for her until she came over to the chimpanzee’s cage. Washoe signed, “Please, person hug?” and embraced her caretaker.
The elephant whisperer
Lawrence Anthony was a conservationist who earned himself the nickname ‘the elephant whisperer’. Anthony worked in the Thula Thula Reserve in South Africa and was known for his ability to keep the African elephants calm when they were skittish and angry about being relocated to the reserve (Kirby). After working there with the elephants, animals known for their ability to remember and recognize familiar humans or other animals, for many years, Anthony suffered a heart attack and died. He had not been to the reserve for more than a year before that time. Somehow, though, the elephants sensed that he had passed and left the reserve to begin the twelve hour trek to his home where he died. Elephants mourn the death of their own species and exhibited similar behavior at the death of the elephant whisperer. Two full herds of elephants had made their way to pay their respects to the man who dedicated his life to their comfort. They arrived at Lawrence’s home and stayed on his property for two full days to mourn his death.
Macaques sacrifice food for their friends
An experiment was conducted in order to determine whether macaques would place food over the safety of their companions. In the experiment, the macaques were given a chain and conditioned that if they pull the chain, they would be given food. However, it came with a catch; every time they pulled the chain, one of their fellows would be electrically shocked. But if none of them pulled the chain, then they received no food at all. Even when faced with the risk of starvation, the macaques still chose to not pull the chain if it would hurt another macaque almost ninety percent of the time (Oliver). In one case, one of the macaques went a full two weeks without eating rather than pulling the chain and hurting one of its companions.
This is particularly impressive because in a similar study on another animal, the results were quite different. In this experiment, humans were told that if they pulled a lever, they would receive money but another person would be electrocuted. The person who would get shocked was an actor and was not really getting hurt, but the participants were unaware of this fact. The same percentage of humans repeatedly pulled the level, even when hearing their victim scream, as macaques who refused to shock their fellow macaques (Oliver). What is unsettling is that the amount of money that the participants were given only amounted to a few dollars.
Prairie voles comfort one another
Prairie voles are one of a handful of species that mate for life. They live together forever and share child-rearing responsibilities equally. Scientists conducted a study in which a control group of voles was made to watch another group get shocked with electricity. Then the groups were reunited and the scientists observed the control group attempting to comfort the group who had been shocked. They nuzzled close to them and consoled them by licking their faces (Boult). The voles appeared to only try to comfort each other more when they were familiar with and when they knew for sure that their fellows have been hurt, proving that they were not participating in group-mating but rather feeling empathy for each other. The researchers tried to take it another step further and blocked the voles’ oxytocin receptors because they suspected that they were responsible for humans feeling empathy. When the experiment was repeated, the voles stopped trying to comfort each other in the same way. This proves that there is a chemical reaction inside their bodies that makes them take care of each other; the same chemical that makes humans feel empathy, too.
Koko is a famous gorilla who a sign language vocabulary of more than two thousand words. Her home at the Gorilla Foundation in Woodside, close to Stanford University, houses the longest running ape language study in the world (McGraw). Koko asked the project’s researchers for a kitten for Christmas and was given a stuffed animal. In her despair over not receiving a real kitten, she refused to play with the toy and repeated signed the word “sad”. For her next birthday, researchers allowed her to pick a kitten from a litter. She chose one that was the same color as a ball she had, so she named the kitten “All Ball”, which she thought was hilarious; Koko loves to rhyme.
The kitten never showed any fear of Koko and the two would chase each other around the gorilla’s enclosure. Other times, the kitten would rest in Koko’s arms and the gorilla would delicately pet her. One day, All Ball snuck out of the compound and slipped onto the highway, where she was hit by a car and killed. When her body was found and researchers broke the news to Koko, she was devastated. She was stoic and unresponsive for almost ten full minutes. Then, she began to openly weep. When gorillas ‘cry’, they whimper; Koko whimpered for hours and was inconsolable. When she finally stopped, she signed the words for “Sleep, cat”, eulogizing her friend (Oliver).
Rescued by lions
In Ethiopia in 2005, seven men dragged a twelve year old girl out into the wild and beat her bloody. This is actually not an uncommon custom for this area, as the girl is then supposed to choose one of them to marry. In fact, the United Nations states that seventy percent of marriages in that area begin in such a shocking way (Olive). When the beating began, with promise of the also-common sexual assault that was sure to follow, the girl began to cry. A nearby pride of lions heard her cries and ran to rescue her, attacking the men and chasing them away. It is believed that the lions came to her aid because her whimpering resembled the sound of a lion cub whining (“Ethiopian girl reportedly guarded by lions”). The lions then decided that the girl might still be in need of their protection and stayed with the injured child for more than twelve hours. The refused to leave her and protected her through the night. Eventually, her family found her and the lions left her with them and walked back into the wilderness. Locals called it a “miracle”, as lions in the area are very rarely found to have peaceful interactions with humans.
Rats protect each other
Rats do not have the best reputation. We use the word “rat” to refer to someone who cannot be trusted and to be called one is not seen as a compliment. But, as it turns out, rats possess some characteristics that humans should be proud to share; they appear to be sympathetic to those who suffer. An experiment aimed to discover if rats are able to feel sympathy for each other at the expense of themselves. A group of researchers set up a scenario in which a rat could pull a lever and receive a piece of chocolate. However, the lever would also cause another rat to be drowned. The rat who pulled the lever would get a delicious treat, but would also have to watch another rat’s cage fill up with water until it ran out of oxygen.
Once the rats were able to understand that pulling the lever would result in the death and suffering of another, the vast majority of them refused to pull it, even if it meant that they would not receive any chocolate (Hogenboom). This shows that rats are capable of prosocial behavior, meaning that they saw value is saving a distressed fellow even if there is not apparent reward for them. It was found, too that the rats’ past experiences played a role in their actions, as well. If the rat who had to choose whether or not to pull the lever had had their own near death experience, they were much more likely to not pull the lever and cause their fellow to drown (Hogenboom). This suggests that rats are able to feel emotional empathy, which means they are able to sympathize with the emotional state of another.
Chimpanzee duo cares for a baby with Down’s Syndrome
As seen in the cases of Washoe and Koko, primates have displayed the ability to feel empathy before. Researchers in Tanzania observed something that they never saw before or ever expected to see; a chimpanzee was seen caring for a baby chimp that was exhibiting Down’s syndrome-like symptoms. Whether it was Down’s syndrome or not, the baby clearly had some kind of mental disability. Typically in nature, animals that prove to have some sort of mental handicap are often left for dead. Still, researchers saw that the mother continues to take care of the baby anyway. The mother would carry the baby around, support her so she did not fall, and continued to nurse the baby like she would feed a fully-functional offspring. Researchers noted, “The mother scooped the infant up and carried her when moving since she would drop without help. When breast-feeding, the mother raised the infant to her nipple to feed her” (Kameda). Even more incredible was the fact that the disabled chimp’s sister also helped care for her while the mother found food for herself.
Though animals are often thought of as unfeeling and barbaric, research has shown that many species are capable of showing empathy for one another. They express grief over the loss of a loved one (even if that loved one belongs to a separate species), attempt to care for a fellow who has been hurt or injured, and some will even sacrifice their own comfort and well-being in an effort to spare another from feeling pain or discomfort. Though humans once thought such feelings to be beyond a ‘lesser’ creature’s capabilities, the idea that empathy is a biological occurrence is a beautiful suggestion that basic decency is built into the hardware of every animal species, including human beings.
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“Ethiopian girl reportedly guarded by lions”. NBC News. NBC News, 21 Jun. 2005. Web. 15 Aug. 2016. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/8305836/ns/world_news-africa/t/ethiopian-girl-reportedly-guarded-lions/#.V7KtK5grLIU
Hogenboom, Melissa. “Rats will save their friends from drowning”. BBC News. BBC News, 14 May 2015. Web. 15 Aug, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150514-rats-save-mates-from-drowning
Kameda, Masaaki. “In first, Japanese researchers observe chimp mother, sister caring for disabled infant”. Japan Times. Japan Times, 10 Nov. 2015. Web. 15 Aug. 2016. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/11/10/national/first-japanese-researchers-observe-chimp-mother-sister-caring-disabled-infant/#.V7KyO5grLIV
Kirby, Rob. “Wild Elephants gather inexplicably, mourn death of “Elephant Whisperer””. The Delight Makers. The Delight Makers, 2016. Web. 15 Aug. 2016. http://delightmakers.com/news/wild-elephants-gather-inexplicably-mourn-death-of-elephant-whisperer/
McGraw, Carol. “Gorilla’s Pet: Koko Mourns Kitten’s Death”. LA Times. Los Angeles Times, 10 Jan. 1985. Web. 15 Aug. 2016. http://articles.latimes.com/1985-01-10/news/mn-9038_1_pet-kitten
Oliver, Mark. “10 Amazing Displays of Animal Empathy”. Listverse. Listverse Inc., 12 Jul. 2016. Web. 15 Aug. 2016. http://listverse.com/2016/07/12/10-amazing-displays-of-animal-empathy/