“Nonhuman animals are amazing beings. Daily we’re learning more and more about their fascinating cognitive abilities, emotional capacities and moral lives.” – Dr. Mark Bekoff
Many humans feel love and empathy towards animals, but do the animals we care about so deeply feel the same about us? How about each other? Scientific research backs the idea of emotions in animals. In fact, researchers have observed empathy in them, as well as grief, fear and other complex emotions often associated primarily with humans.
Human Emotions in Animals
Viewing animals as our emotional equals is not a new phenomenon. Pythagoras, an ancient philosopher and mathematician who lived until 490 BC, believed that animals possessed the full range of human emotions. Somewhat more recently, Charles Darwin wrote, “There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in the mental facilities.” Today, current research supports the idea that at least some animals experience a variety of emotions, including fear, joy, happiness, shame, rage, compassion, respect and more.
Dr. Marc Bekoff, professor and author of numerous essays about animal rights and conservation, stated, “Non-human animals are amazing beings. Daily we’re learning more and more about their fascinating cognitive abilities, emotional capacities and moral lives. We know that fish are conscious and sentient, rats, mice and chickens display empathy and feel not only their own pain but also that of other individuals.”
This understanding of animals as emotional beings is not something that meshes with some humans’ views. Throughout history, many people believed — and still believe — we differ from animals because of our consciousness and connection to fellow man. Those who take the behaviorist approach to studying animals argue that instead of assigning human emotions to animals, we can explain their behavior through a stimulus-response theory.
Still, evidence is mounting that animals do experience at least some degree of emotion. Through advanced technologies, we’re able to observe animals in their natural habitat. Thus, more recently, we’ve seen more animals having what appear to be emotional reactions to triggering events. Many agree these responses are not just instinctual in nature.
Now, animal researchers find themselves asking what, if any, line separates how humans perceive the world emotionally from how non-humans do. Scientists agree that emotions play a pivotal role in the well-being of humans and have likely helped us evolve overtime. It’s entirely possible that emotions have played a role in the survival of other species and affect their everyday lives greatly.
Empathy in Animals
One of the most complex and integral emotions is empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of those around us. Humans display empathy toward other humans and animals alike. Do animals do the same? Research points to yes.
Empathy is likely more prevalent in social species, or animals that associate in social groups. Dr. James C. Harris at Johns Hopkins University described it as “an evolutionary mechanism to maintain social cohesion.” In other words, animals that rely on a group for survival must be more sensitive to what those around them are feeling, whether they’re human or non-humans.
The idea of empathy in animals introduces a whole new way of looking at our non-human neighbors, suggesting that our feelings toward them might be reciprocated. It is also possible that they truly care about members of their own species in a way that we can relate to. This complex emotional trait has been observed in other primates, as well as dogs, mice and elephants.
Explore The Benefits Of Emotional PsychologyAccess the Guide
Examples of Animals Exhibiting Empathy
Observing empathy in animals is becoming more frequent due to our ability to safely observe animals in their own habitats. Here are a few examples of animals displaying empathy in what we might describe as human-like ways.
Elephants Mourn a Lost Conservationist
Lawrence Anthony was a conservationist who founded the 5,000-acre Thula Thula Reserve with African elephants. He gained a reputation for being able to comfort elephants upon their arrival at the reserve. In fact, he managed to keep elephants who wanted to leave from wandering back into harm’s way. In his book, “The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild,” he said he learned to communicate with the elephants by observing how they communicated with each other.
When Anthony died of a heart attack, elephants traveled to his home seemingly to pay their respects. His son said that since his father’s death, the herd has come to his house on the edge of their reserve every night.
While elephants grieving the loss of their own herd members is not a new phenomenon, the act of paying respects to a human who worked hard to help them is remarkable.
Dogs Comfort Humans in the Aftermath of Trauma
According to an article in the New York Times, Iraq veteran Benjamin Stepp returned home from two deployments with a traumatic brain injury and multiple other injuries causing pain. During a lecture at graduate school, Stepp tried hard to focus, but he was agitated. No one in the class noticed except for his service dog Arleigh, who jumped into his lap to comfort him. He believed Arleigh always empathized when he was struggling emotionally.
Comfort dogs also display empathy. When the horrific events of 2012 happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School, comfort dogs were able to help children open up and heal. Some children spoke directly to the dogs about what they’d experienced. In fact, one child spoke for the first time since the shootings after petting one of the dogs.
Arleigh and the comfort dogs provided to Sandy Hook survivors are not unique. Service dogs, as well as family pets, help veterans, kids with autism, adults suffering with mental health distress, those recovering from traumatic experiences and more. A recent study concluded that dogs feel empathy toward humans and act on that empathy, responding swiftly to humans crying.
Rats Look Out for Their Friends
Many don’t picture rats when they think of empathy, but a recent study proves that rats empathize with their friends. In the study, rats saved their friends from drowning. The experiment showed that when one rat was soaked in water, another rat quickly learned how to operate a lever that would allow the rat to escape to a dry area.
What’s more impressive about this experiment is that the rats gave up a treat that would have dropped if they didn’t pull the lever to help their fellow rat. This suggests the well-being of their friend was more valuable to them than food for themselves. If the suffering rat wasn’t present, the other rat accepted the treat.
Empathy in animals spans species and continents. Animals display empathy toward humans and other animals in a multitude of ways, including comforting, grieving and even rescuing each other from harm at their own expense.
Do Animals Have Feelings?
Award-winning environmental writer Carl Safina addressed this very question in an interview with National Geographic. He said, “Watching animals my whole life, I’ve always been struck by how similar to us they are. I’ve always been touched by their bonds and been impressed — occasionally frightened — by their emotions.” In fact, those who work closest with animals are most convinced that they do contain a wide range of emotions and feelings.
Skeptics argue that animals’ behaviors are not inherent proof that they’re experiencing complex emotions. Still, most scientists agree that animals are conscious beings that experience varying degrees of emotional responses.
While there’s still a lot of research to be done concerning animal emotions, more evidence exists than ever in history that our non-human friends are experiencing feelings much like we do. Likely, these feelings play a major role in their lives and survival.
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