Animal behavior scientists observing a group of elephants living in a reserve in Northern Kenya have noted that the group pauses to wait for Babyl, a crippled elephant trailing behind them. They care enough for her to stop and wait even though there is little that Babyl can do for them.
Moreover, this incident is not a single, isolated event; the group has shown their friendship and empathy for their injured friend for years.
The notion that animals, red in tooth and claw, are incapable of feelings is being revised by a wave of new observations of animal behavior, specifically those indicating empathy and deep emotional ties.
Animals Behave According to a Moral Code
Biologist and animal behavior specialist, Marc Bekoff, has spent years living with, caring for and studying animals. He claims that animals are not only capable of friendship, cooperation and empathy, their behavior provides evidence of a highly evolved animal consciousness, one that is similar to what humans would call a “moral code.”
For example, in one laboratory, monkeys were taught to retrieve food by placing tokens in a slot. When an elderly female monkey experienced difficulty with her slots, a male monkey slipped the tokens in place for her.
Other experiments also showed that rats became conscientious objectors to situations that defied their moral sense; they refused to press a lever that gave them food if pressing it meant delivering an electric shock to another animal.
In 2003, a group of elephants rescued antelopes caught in an enclosure in KwaZula-Watal, South Africa by unfastening the metal latch of the gates and swinging the entrance structure open. Such animal behavior suggests that animals behave according to some form of moral code.
Like Humans, Animals Can Feel Pain and Emotions
One of Bekoff’s pet peeves is the prevailing belief that animals have little or no feelings. Yet animal behavior studies consistently reveal that animals are able to feel the gamut of human emotions like joy, grief, anger and jealousy.
According to Bekoff in Animal Passions, “cows can be moody, hold grudges and nurture friendships.” Pigs and other animals mistreated in factory farms suffer from stress, anxiety and depression. Even fish can experience pain; recent research shows that pain behavior in fish is not due to simple reflex and that fish can respond to pain killers like morphine.
Another field experiment indicates that African elephants display greater interest in skulls and ivory of members in their own species than they show in skulls belonging to other mammals. Elephants experience joy when they play socially within their group and grieve when they lose a friend.
As animal behavior specialist Joyce Poole indicates in Animal Passions, elephants engage in greeting ceremonies during the birth of new family members, the mating of relatives and the rescue of family members.
Animals Have a Highly Developed Awareness of Death
Two recent studies of chimpanzees reveal that they respond to death in a deeply emotional way. In one situation, a group of chimps behaved in a quiet and attentive way with a mother chimp before her death. According to the report, they paid close attention to her, grooming her hair, caressing her, even testing her for signs of life as she lay dying.
Moreover, the daughter of the dead chimp stayed beside her mother all night as though in silent vigil and homage. After the body was removed, the chimps remained quiet and subdued for several days, as though in mourning.
In the second study, a mother chimp kept her dead infant close to her for days until she was ready to let go of her child. Other animal behavior observations reveal that mother elephants that have lost their newborn go through a grieving process as well.
Even magpies engage in funeral rituals. According to Bekoff in his article “Do Animals Have Emotions?,” in New Scientist Magazine, four magpies stood around a dead magpie on the side of a road. One of the birds flew off and returned with grass which it laid by the carcass. The same gesture was repeated by another bird, after which, the four magpies stood in vigil for a few seconds before flying away one by one.
What can man learn from this display of emotions and empathy in animal behavior?
To animal behavior specialist, Marc Bekoff, this question is central to man’s spiritual growth: “If we focus on the awe and mystery of other animals and Earth, perhaps we will be less likely to destroy them. Allowing ourselves to sense the presence of other animals, to feel them residing in our hearts brings much joy and peace and can foster spiritual development and a sense of unity and oneness.”