Rosemary Westwood: The voice of Metro.
Science confirms what all pet people know: Animals have empathy
“It seems illogical for us to think that animals might not be having a conscious mental experience of play, sleep, fear or love,” scientist Carl Safina.
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Growing up, our first dog, Murphy (a.k.a. Murphy Brown) had her own seat on the couch.
Most friends didn’t mind if, while they were sitting in the far left corner watching Saved by the Bell and shovelling down Kraft Dinner, Murphy happened to plod along to the edge of the cushion and look up expectantly, like “Time to hit the road.”
“Oh, that’s Murphy’s seat!” I’d say, and motion for them to relocate to the wooden rocking chair (don’t scoff — it had cushions).
A few friends did mind, but I chalked it up to their ignorance. They didn’t understand that Murphy was like us humans.
For decades, maybe forever, we pet owners have — irrespective of science — believed in the human qualities of our pets.
Their ability to feel joy and pain, to relate to our emotions, to comfort us by licking our tears, to love us and feel guilty for eating the garbage.
These days, we should be feeling pretty vindicated.
In two recent compendiums of the latest research, New York magazine suggested “Maybe it’s time to take animal feeling seriously,” while The Atlantic extolled the empathy displayed by “consoling voles.”
“It seems illogical for us to think that animals might not be having a conscious mental experience of play, sleep, fear or love,” scientist Carl Safina said in an interview last summer after the publication of his book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel sparked debate. “It is incredible to me there is still a debate over whether animals are conscious and even a debate over whether human beings can know animals are conscious.”
No, the scientific community isn’t wandering around with purse pooches, telling their friends that fluffy-but-frightening Gigi has the best taste in shoes. But neither is there a blanket scientific aversion to acknowledging the human-like traits of non-humans.
Take the case of voles, mouse-like creatures who, during a recent study, sought to comfort their loved ones when they got electric shocks. It’s worth looking up just for the photo of one vole putting its little paw on the back of this other, curled-up vole, who’s looking rather downcast. “All will be well,” the first vole is saying.
This, coming from a lowly vole, who can’t even claim the human-likeness of a gorilla, the social complexity of an elephant, the intelligence of a dolphin or even of a crow.
Yet here they are, according to science: just little brown puffs of love. Or empathy, or something at least that looks like human empathy.