Continuing with last week’s topic, let’s talk about animals’ ability to demonstrate empathy. Better yet, since we only see and understand a small part of this big world, the topic is more accurately our ability to recognize when nonhuman animals demonstrate empathy. Let’s start with what we all know. Empathy is the ability to perceive and share the feelings of another: my sadness becomes your sadness; your joy is my own. I’m willing to bet that there’s not a single reader here who has not personally experienced this with their own dog or cat, or perhaps even another type of animal in their own lives. Right…?
Asian elephants have been observed using their trunks, a remarkably nimble and sensitive appendage, to gently caress others of their own kind who are suffering while simultaneously uttering a sweet-sounding almost birdlike chirp – likened to the sound a mother might make to reassure a baby – not heard under any other circumstance. African elephants have been observed helping babies and weakened adults of their own kind climb up muddy banks, break through electrified fences, pluck tranquilizer darts from their fellows, spray dust on others’ wounds: all actions which demonstrate thinking about and making efforts to help another. Ravens are known to comfort each other by gentle preening of individuals hurt or exhibiting signs of illness, touching the down-and-out fellow gently, beak-to-beak or beak-to-body in a manner that can only be described as sympathetic and supportive. Studies on mice show that they are definitely aware of each other’s pain and suffering, but reserve that consoling gestures for those with whom they live.
Empathy, like language and tool use, were long used as examples of what “separates man from the beasts.” As soon as you stop thinking about that separateness as a good thing, as a goal, then the examples of how alike we all are begin to come into clear focus. Whales communicate. Chimpanzees create and use tools. Elephants show that they are sensitive to the needs of others and are willing to put themselves at personal risk in order to help. These and I suspect still undiscovered examples of nonhuman animal behavior do not make people less; they simply and wonderfully show how much we are a part of the larger whole.