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Do animals feel empathy? Inside the decades-long quest for an answer.

Rats feel empathy for other rats unless they're on anti-anxiety meds

Rats feel empathy for other rats, unless they're on anti-anxiety medication

The Intriguing New Science That Could Change Your Mind About Rats

Bad Memories Drive Lab Rats to Rescue Drenched Companions

Empathetic Rats Free Trapped Buddies from Restraints (Op-Ed)

Social Experience Drives Empathetic, Pro-social Behavior in Rats

Radio Feature

People's Stories

The Story of Bob

  My horse was foundering on early spring rye grass so I had to pen him up to keep him off of it, feed only hay, and give him bute to reduce the inflammation in his feet. I didn't have any pens without grass, so I made a corral in the barn with portable panels. Every single night, my bull, Bob, would break my horse out of jail. It didn't bother Bob so much in the daytime that the horse was confined, but every single night, Bob would take it upon himself to turn the horse loose. Bob would sometimes come up and visit his buddy during the day, and sometimes would show some mild concern, but there was not one morning when the horse was still in that pen. Bob was a full 2400 lbs. and could pretty much make things go his way, and since my portable panels were aluminium ( so I could handle them by myself ) they were no match for Bob. I tried everything--hot wiring the pen, putting the ranch truck in the way--nothing worked. Bob was going to have his way.

  Bob was given to me as a 13 day old orphan, and I bottle raised him. I got that horse when Bob was about 6 weeks old, so Bob was raised with the horse, and it was just the two of them until Bob was 15 months old (breeding age) and I bought a cow / calf pair so I could start a herd. Since I didn't have another horse, as Bob grew up and got big, he became the horse's companion and they would stand side by side, nose to tail like two horses would do. When a new calf was born, sometimes I would keep the mother and the new baby in the pasture next to the house for a couple of days (the same place I would later try to confine the horse) and Bob never turned them loose. I also had kept bottle calves in the same panel corral in the same barn and Bob never turned them loose either.
Bob passed away in July at the age of 18 years and 3 months. He was an extraordinary being. He never stopped obeying me, although he knew full well he didn't have to. I was always respectful of him (you ask a bull, you don't demand ), and was certainly never complacent around him, but he was by any measure, an extraordinary bull. Whether his demeanour was nature or nurture, I don't know. I do know that temperament is highly heritable in cattle, and all of his sons and grandson were the same extraordinarily kind bulls that Bob was. Of course, they were raised with my hands on them every single day like Bob was, albeit by their mothers, instead of on a bottle by me, but that was my bull market....people who wanted a bull like Bob, and every one of them was true to his genetics.

  When Bob was around yearling age, and started going next door to visit the neighbour's cattle, my horse would come up to the house and tell on him. I could tell by the irritation in his voice exactly what he was telling me. I could go outside and ask where Bob was, and he would look in that direction. Sure enough, I could go to where ever he was looking, and there was Bob.

  When Bob passed away this summer, the other cattle didn't gather around his body--they kept their distance. But when I buried him, they gathered at his grave every evening for a several days. They would stand at his grave just before sundown and I would go out and join them and we would talk about Bob. (Just before sundown is the witching hour for cattle. It is when the calves run and play, and everyone is on alert. Even if a calf is born that day, at sundown, they will try to jump and play--it's fascinating. They just hit the ground fully formed, complete cattle, in body, mind and soul. I have seen it for 18 years, and it never fails to astound me.) The cows' behaviour at Bob's graveside was something I had not seen before. No one had been buried here before. There was no mistaking their demeanour when they were at his grave-they were somber and subdued, and knew something--what, I'm not sure. Granted, the curtain never goes down on anthropomorphic theatre around here, but there was no mistaking the look on their faces or their demeanour. I see them every single day every day of their lives and this was new.

  When I saw your segment on the [NOVA] show, I wanted to tell you about Bob. Thank you for a great peek into the lives of rats, I hope you enjoyed the peek into the lives of cattle.


Koi Compassion

  My partner and I had a koi pond. The koi were various ages and sizes and colors. Naturally, we thought that they cohabited with a general feeling of tolerance rather than closeness. At one point, we went on vacation and left our young niece to watch the house, yard, and maintain the koi pond.

  When we returned a week later, it was apparent that she had not watched the pond carefully. She was trying to refill the water level and there was a hose in the pond. Of course, sudden cold water is dangerous for koi. We also noticed that there was some green tint to the pond. Things didn't look good. All of the fish quickly died off but two. We captured them into a smaller bucket where we could treat them with a fluid that the vet told us to use to fight the fungus or rot that they had developed. At one point we saw the larger of these two fish begin to go belly up. Out of frustration, my partner actually grabbed it and rubbed its side and found that it had a pulse. When we returned it to the water, it managed to swim around a bit. At this point we were watching them very closely every hour or so, I don't really remember. What we found extraordinary was that the smaller koi had now taken it upon itself to support the other koi with his head. For hours he stayed beside it, his fins flapping as he propelled himself forward just enough to counter-balance the larger fish's lean towards a belly-up position. This was so strange and moving that we actually cried. Eventually, exhausted, they both died. Nonetheless, it will always stay in my mind how incredible it was to see such compassionate behavior from a creature that seemed not to communicate in any fashion that we could observe and whose brain had to be about the size of a pinhead.


Ant Assistance

  Even ants may at times show something that could look a bit like compassion. My mother was watching ants on her kitchen sink counter one day and happened to notice one ant that was on it's belly with all six legs splayed out sideways. Most of the other ants passed it by, but one methodically went around it pushing up each leg in turn until the "disabled" ant was standing again, and then went on its way. The disabled ant stood for a while and then went down again to its original position. An ant later arrived and went about propping it up again one leg after another, just like before. Of course my mother was fascinated by this and wondered if it had been the same ant that was doing the helping. So she kept her eye on it as it roamed about the counter-top, and sure enough it eventually arrived at the stricken ant, which was now again down on its belly. This time the helper ant stood for several seconds watching the downed ant and then walked away. You can only do so much.

   I've thought for a long time that the more we study animal behavior with an open mind, the more we'll see things some might like to think of as human showing up much, much earlier on the evolutionary timeline.


  Comment: Ants and many other animals do show remarkable helping behavior. Yet the motivation for this cannot be empathy as the neural circuits for affective sharing, arousal and intentional actions that are present in the mammal are simply not there in the ant.


  I am a research associate in a department of Radiology at an academic Medical Center. A significant amount of my time is consumed in operating a MRI scanner as part of a small animal imaging core facility. Recently I scanned adult rats as part of a study of traumatic brain injury. Three liter mates housed in a single cage were scanned for several hours each. During these experiments I was surprised to note a constant barking sound made by the control rat when one of its siblings was absent from the cage and in the scanner. This happened several times with several groups of rats. Only the un-injured control rat vocalized and was quieted when the injured rat was returned to the cage. I though that you might find this interesting.


Trapped Troubles

  As a lover of science news, I found your recent study on rat empathy fascinating, but not surprising - because of a coincidentally recent incident.

  I was perusing the hardware store racks for mouse traps, and espied a newfangled version, one I had never seen, that was a brie-cheese-shaped plastic container with a door on the side that shut once the mouse was inside seeking the odoriferous bait. I decided to try it, thinking that it might be more humane that the traditional model (never considering how starving a mouse to death was "nicer" that breaking its neck). I deployed it and checked it frequently - no luck. So I more or less forgot it. Several weeks later, I remembered to check it, and was stunned by my discovery. It had a mouse inside, but appeared to have mounds of a strange powder beside it. I looked closer, and the "powder" was plastic shavings from the trap. There were deep grooves in the plastic. Suddenly I realized that one or more mice had spent considerable time and energy trying to chew through the casing to free their trapped... colleague. I was stunned. The realization that the other mice would apprehend the trapped mouse's situation, and try "desperately" to free him or her, was epiphanistic. When news of your study came out a few weeks later, I only smiled and nodded.


Paralysis Peril

  Your rat story was in the NY Post this morning. The first year I taught biology at Mendham HS in NJ I had a pair of rats in a ten gallon aquarium.

  They slept in a coffee can at night and would emerge as soon as I arrived in the morning. At some point in the spring, Neville, the male rat, became paralysed in his hind legs. Anabella, his female tank mate, would drag him from the coffee can by his neck to the water bowl. She then dragged him to the food bowl to eat. At the end of the day he was deposited back in the coffee can by Anabella.

  My students and I found this fascinating considering the fact that the female initiated this behavior on her own. Anabella's faithful activity was rendered for several months until Neville finally died. I retired from teaching last year and my wife threw a surprise party for me. One of my former students from the class of '75 recounted the Neville saga in great detail to the delight of those in earshot. It would be interesting to compare the neuronal circuitry between human and rat brains to find if the areas for compassion are in similar locals.


Life Learning

  I read of your rat research results in our local paper this weekend. My son Michael had a play date with his best friend and co cub scout Owen. On the way to see "Arthur Christmas", I told them of your study. They were so impressed by your findings as well as happy that animals truly were "nice". We had such a rewarding conversation in regards to human behavior that I felt I had to thank you. I became closer to my goal of raising a boy who has integrity through your study. My son wants to tell his first grade class about this, I think all first graders can learn a life lesson from this. If you have any photos of your animals or their environment or habitat that will help him tell the story to the class, we would both be thrilled.


  Comment: Michael got pictures

Cross-Species Caring

  Dear Professor Mason:

  I recently read about the research you and others have done related to rat empathy. I thought you might be interested in my experience watching an interaction between chickadees and squirrels.

  I have a large birdhouse for flicker woodpeckers mounted on a tree about 20 feet from my kitchen window. The birdhouse is about 15 feet above ground level. On a number of occasions, squirrels have tried to enlarge the opening to the house so they can get inside.

  In December 2010 two squirrels were on the roof of the birdhouse grooming themselves and enjoying the sun. One went down to the ground, disappeared into the underbrush, then reappeared, and started up the tree towards the birdhouse carrying a piece of madrona tree bark in its mouth. Not wanting them to make an early start on building a nest, I decided to place a piece of hardware cloth over the opening. By the time I carried my extension ladder from the garage to the tree, both squirrels had disappeared. After stapling the hardware cloth over the opening, I returned the ladder to the garage and went back to my kitchen.

  Some time later I noticed several chickadees were taking turns flying up to the opening, fluttering their wings while moving around in an erratic manner, then flying back to the shrubbery below the house. In the past, chickadees have seldom gone near the house. It was obvious something had changed their behavior. I watched them for several minutes, then decided to look at the opening through binoculars. Surprise! A squirrel was trapped inside. Maybe there were two? Back to the garage, this time to get a long pole. The roof of the birdhouse is hinged on one edge, so using the pole, I raised the roof several times. The tree is growing in a steep slope area and I had trouble with my footing so I had to look down a few times. Didn't see the squirrel leave but must have escaped because using the ladder a second time, found no squirrel inside.

  I decided the squirrel must have been making noises indicating it was in distress and the chickadees recognized there was a problem. Has there been research on empathy between species?

  J.C. Johnson

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