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When it comes empathy, animals are better than humans

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Maneka Gandhi Column

Maneka Gandhi Column

Next time you call someone a rat, think of what it means.

Two rats unknown to each other were kept together in a large cage. One rat was trapped in a small restrainer — a closed tube with a door that could be nudged open from the outside. The second rat roamed free in the cage around the restrainer, able to see and hear the trapped cage-mate. The free rat hearing distress calls from its compatriot became agitated and learned to open the restrainer, and did so with greater efficiency over time with no expectation of a reward. Though slow to act at first, once the rat discovered the ability to free its companion, it would take action almost immediately upon placement in the test arena. If given access to a small hoard of chocolate chips, the free rat would save some for the captive.

To discover whether the rat was actually reacting to his fellow prisoner’s stress, the experimenters used a stuffed toy mouse. The rat did not open the door.

In another variation, as soon as the rat in the restrainer was opened, he was allowed to go free whereas his rescuer was not. Even so, the free rat continued to save his companion.

In yet another experiment, chocolate chips were put in a corner of the cage. The free rat had the option of eating chocolate or freeing his unknown cellmate. In every case, the rat first freed his companion and then started to feed.

The researchers came to the unavoidable conclusion that what they were seeing was empathy and selfless behaviour.

Anyone who has ever dealt with animals, knows they are capable of doing for each other without any selfishness, and that they not only have deep emotions but feel them in others. So many times scientists have found “emotional contagion” in animals – a situation in which one animal’s stress worsens another’s. Scientists tried to limit this to animals that they felt were “intelligent” or large brained- apes, whales. But, this study on rats done by University of Chicago neuroscientists, on December 8th in Science magazine, showed that all animals have pro-social helping attitudes. “There are a lot of ideas in literature showing that empathy is not unique to humans, and it has been well demonstrated in apes, but in rodents it was not very clear. We put together, in one series of experiments, evidence of helping behaviour based on empathy in rodents, and that’s really the first time it’s been seen” says Jean Decety, co author of the study.

Mark Rowlands, professor of philosophy at the University of Miami, whose latest book is Can Animals Be Moral?, gives some examples. One of them was how his two dogs, a ferocious German shepherd/Malamute cross and a wolf-dog mix, looked after his baby son “ during the year or so that their old lives overlapped with that of my son, I was alternately touched, shocked, amazed, and dumbfounded by the kindness and patience they exhibited towards him. They would follow him from room to room, everywhere he went in the house and lie down next to him while he slept. Crawled on, dribbled on, kicked, elbowed and kneed: these occurrences were all treated with a resigned fatalism. The fingers in the eye they received on a daily basis would be shrugged off with an almost Zen-like calm. In many respects, they were better parents than me. If my son so much as squeaked during the night, I would instantly feel two cold noses pressed in my face: get up, your son needs you.”

This is available on You Tube: A dog had been hit by a car and lay unconscious on a busy motorway in Chile. The dog’s canine companion, at enormous risk to its own life, weaved in and out of traffic, and eventually managed to drag the unconscious dog to the side of the road.

“The old elephant Eleanor, the matriarch of her family, is dying. She is unable to stand, so Grace, a younger unrelated elephant, attempts to help her, lifting and pushing her back to her feet. She tries to get Eleanor to walk, nudging her along gently. But Eleanor stumbles, and falls again. Grace appears very distressed, and shrieks loudly. She persists in trying to get Eleanor back to her feet, to no avail. Grace stays by the fallen figure of Eleanor for another hour, while night falls.” Grace is not unusual among elephants. Crippled elephants are protected by the rest of the herd which often slows down to accommodate them.

De Waal relates the story of Kuni, a female bonobo chimpanzee at Twycross Zoo in England. One day, Kuni encountered a starling on the ground. She picked up the starling with one hand, and climbed to the top of the highest tree in her enclosure, wrapping her legs around the trunk so that she had both hands free to hold the bird. She then carefully unfolded the bird’s wings and, spreading them wide open, threw the bird as hard as she could towards the barrier of the enclosure.

In 1959, the experimental psychologist Russell Church demonstrated that rats wouldn’t push a lever that delivered food if doing so caused other rats to receive an electric shock. Likewise, in 1964, Stanley Wechkin and colleagues at the North-western University in Chicago demonstrated that hungry rhesus monkeys refused to pull a chain that delivered them food if doing so gave a painful shock to another monkey. One monkey persisted in this refusal for 12 days.

Kindness and patience are widely spread throughout the animal kingdom. And why should they not be? According to philosophers and scientists from David Hume to Charles Darwin, morality is not an intellectual addition but a basic part of our nature. The empathy and sympathy we have for those around us are basic components of our genetics and biology, traits that help forge social bonds that aid in the survival of individuals and groups, and is sub-cortical behaviour – closer to a reflex than a thought, and driven by ancient parts of the brain. In which case how simple it is to understand why animals also have kindness and compassion. After all they are the same as us in terms of their evolution, their genetic structure, the structure of their brains, and their behaviour. There is this illusion that humans have some exclusive qualities that no other living creature possesses. That is why scientists feel compelled to constantly put animals into laboratories to see if they have any emotions or intelligence.

Empathy is not unique to humans – in fact, I see it far less in humans and more in animals all the time. If humans had this quality we would not have armies and wars, guns and violence. If one human had the ability to put himself in another’s place and feel for him, the world would be an ideal place. There is a law of nature. The scum always gets to the top. Is that why humans rule the planet?

About the author: Maneka Sanjay Gandhi is a parliamentarian and leader of animal rights movement in India. Feel free to contact her at gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

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