ALTRUISM AND ABILITY TO
Michael W. Fox
incapable of empathy, of understanding another’s emotional state and having
feeling for another’s distress, then we would find no evidence of altruistic
behavior in the animal kingdom. But indeed we do.
terms care-giving, or epimeletic behavior, and care-soliciting, or
et-epimeletic behavior, to identify those behaviors that underlie the
altruism we see in various species that means that they do have the capacity
to empathize. Skeptics dismiss all of this as anthropomorphic and
scientifically unproven, and it disturbs me to read some professional
comments on this topic. For example, veterinarian John S. Parker stated that
"Pets can and often do react to their owners’ distress or
discomfort, but that is not to be confused with experiencing the emotion of
empathy" (Letter in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical
Association, June 1, 2006, pp 1677-1678). Aside from contending that animals
"do not have the cognitive capacity to put themselves in our
place", he incorrectly sees empathy not as a process or affective state
but as an actual emotion, which it is not. Animal ethics philosopher Dr.
Bernard E. Rollin’s response (in this same Journal, on p.1678), stating that
"there is some very suggestive evidence that at least some animals, such
as higher primates and elephants, do [empathize]" begs the question. The
evidence from countless instances of empathetic behavior in companion animals
is a red flag and not some anthropomorphic red herring, putting us all on
notice that animals are far more aware than many people would like or accept
for reasons best known to themselves. Here are some of the many accounts that
people have shared with me about their empathetic animal companions.
Fresno CA writes that "When I returned from the Cancer Center following
treatment, I was extremely weak and ill. My two Airedale dogs would each take
up their positions, like two book-ends, one on either side of me in bed and
would lie there unmoving for hours, except for their taking turns laying
their heads gently where I hurt the most."One night two years earlier
one of her dogs named Robbie "suddenly jumped up in bed next to my
husband, almost plastered to his side. He normally never did this, preferring
to sleep on his cushion next to my side of the bed. He kept trembling for one
hour, and then went down stairs by himself, which is another action he did
not normally do (leaving the bedroom at night). My husband suffered a massive
heart attack and died a few minutes later. I believe that Robbie knew that
something awful was to be."
who rested their heads on where their human companion hurt most, M.S.D., from
Romeo MI has a Siamese cat who picked up on her cardiac palpitations that
were causing much distress and preventing her from sleeping. "My Chloe
came up, got as close as she could, and placed her paw on my left chest over
my heart. Within a very short time the palpitations slowed and stopped, allowing
me to get a good night’s rest."
Chesapeake, VA was comforted by her Main Coon cat Bonkers, who slept at her
side during the woman’s ordeal with throat cancer, giving her comfort and
constant attention. During radiation treatment some 100 miles away from home,
Ms. Snyder was only able to come home on weekends, and one weekend she
found Bonkers lethargic and looking older. She took him to her veterinarian,
and Bonkers was euthanized because he had developed an inoperable cancer
"completely cutting off his windpipe.---I believe, due to the extreme
oddness of similarity to our illness that my cat literally tried to take on
my disease. He did get me through all of this."
supports my theory of sympathetic resonance, where highly empathetic animals
may develop the same or similar disease that afflicts their loved one.
Whether it is a deliberate or coincidental, the fact remains that empathizing
is not without risk for humans and non-humans alike.
attest to how cats and dogs have helped their human companions cope with
depression and other emotional and physical difficulties, especially the loss
of a spouse or other close relative.
Clifton Park, NY writes that "Without my two dogs’ companionship,
dealing with the loss of my wife would have been much harder. I can see why
many people die soon after losing a spouse. We need love to carry on."
sentiment, Barbara K. Joyner of Courtland VA wrote that, following the
untimely death of her husband to be, her adopted cats "make me feel
wanted, needed, loved. They bring joy and happiness into my dark, sad
of her only child from suicide, Patricia Maunu of Sioux Falls, SD tells me
that her Bichon Frise dog J’aime "has given me the desire to get out of
bed, and on many days given me the will to live!"
other personal stories about how companion animals have helped their human
guardians through difficult times, and are a constant source of affection and
the joy of life, help us all appreciate why so many people who were victims
of the Katrina hurricane disaster in New Orleans and other communities
refused to leave without their animal companions. They are integral parts of
the family and emotional lives of millions of people, and those who have not
experienced the gifts of animal companionship, and the depths of animals’
empathy, have missed a golden opportunity to enrich their lives and awaken
their appreciation for all creatures great and small.