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A Memorial to Sooty

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To add interest I have interspersed this commentary with thought provoking quotations from philosophers, ethicists, scientists and other notable thinkers both past and present.

Related Links: Animal Rights and Why they Matter   Animal Rights

This page highlights stories and information that shows that animals are capable of empathy

This page is part of a section concerning animal sentience which relates true stories information and accounts of animal sentience.
For an introduction: Animal Sentience Stories

Emotion Love Altruism Empathy Pleasure Intelligence and ingenuity
Friendship Jealousy Grief Language


 Sixth Sense

Animals Have a Sense of beauty

Animal Morality Mental Health  

Click the links above to read stories and information that highlights these characteristics and abilities in animals


Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings, such as sadness or happiness, of another person or other sentient being. Empathy for suffering leads to compassion which in turn leads to altruist behaviours, although of course one does not have to feel empathy alone and often acts of compassion may be the result of moral and ethical considerations.  Empathy is thought to be the main motivating force behind the animal rights movement, but are animals empathic? Studies show that empathy is not restricted to human beings, one of the most familiar examples is the behaviour of dolphins who are often reported to have saved humans as well as other creatures from perilous situations, drowning and shark attack for instance. In 2008, Moko, the name given to a bottle nose dolphin by locals at Mahia beach on the east coast of the North Island New Zealand, who is well known for playing with swimmers saved the day by helping two Pigmy sperm whales who had repeatedly beached. A conservationist and a group of other people had unsuccessfully tried for over an hour and a half to get the whales back into the sea, than just as both the whales and their human helpers were exhausted and about to give up along came Moko who communicated with the Wales and led them back to sea*)

Dolphin saves whales in New Zealand


Other animals noted for their empathic behaviours are primates, both in the wild and in captivity, and rodents; it has been observed that rats will restrain themselves when they know their actions would cause pain to another individual. For example during the many cruel treatments of rats during experimentation it has been observed that rats are reluctant to press a lever to obtain food if doing so causes another rat to receive an electric shock, they even go without food rather than hurt their companions.  

There are numorous accounts of the empathic behaviour of primates such as the one told by renowned ethologist Frans de Waal about how a troop of rhesus monkeys treated a blind infant. The monkeys were a group who had been released onto a Caribbean island. Although in every other respect the infant was normal and played much the same as the other monkeys in the troop his mother had to keep a keen and watchful eye on him more so than the others mothers did, as he would often wonder away placing himself in dangerous situations. Other observations concerning blind monkeys show that these infants were never left alone and specific members of the group stayed with the infant whenever the troop moved  *)

Another story of primate empathy is told by Ladygina-Kohts writing in 1935 about her young chimpanzee Joni. She describes the best way to get him off the roof of her house was by arousing his sympathy;

If I pretend to be crying, close my eyes and weep, Joni immediately stops his plays or any other activities, quickly runs over to me, all excited and shagged, from the most remote places in the house, such as the roof or the ceiling of his cage, from where I could not drive him down despite my persistent calls and entreaties. He hastily runs around me, as if looking for the offender; looking at my face, he tenderly takes my chin in his palm, lightly touches my face with his finger, as though trying to understand what is happening, and turns around, clenching his toes into firm fists. *)

In similar experiments to those conducted on rats mentioned above rhesus monkeys after witnessing the electric shock given to another monkey stopped pulling the lever for five days and another for twelve days. Not only an indication of empathy for the pain felt by their fellow creature but also an example of compassion and altruism.

Concerning less obvious acts of kindness we can of course never know the motivation behind any such act or other empathic action in the case of human beings, we can only assume,  although in the main acts of compassion are the result of feelings of empathy and the same most likely is the case for animals. 

Empathy and altruism often go hand in hand; you can read stories about altruistic behaviour in animals and is it really not possible to separate the two therefore you will find more instances of animal empathy in the section Altruism

Empathy is present in animals to varying degrees as it is in human beings. In fact it evolved as did other behaviours because empathy has a long history in other animals. The building blocks of empathy and of ethical behaviours as a result of empathy predate human beings and continue to thrive in the animal kingdom

More information about how empathy evolved along with anecdotes and scientific findings read: The Evolution of Empathy By Frans de Waal

What follows are stories and accounts and other information which point to the existence of empathy in the animal kingdom.

The Empathy of Two cats

The first is from Dr. Fox, who is a renowned advocate of animal rights, and tells the stories of the empathy of two cats

I have two animal-empathy stories for you. The first is about Blue Eyes, a one-eyed, cauliflower-eared Siamese cat who was one of several strays we fed regularly. He would not let us touch him, but he was a daily boarder at our outdoor food dishes. One day, Blue Eyes showed up with a half-starved, bedraggled, orange tiger kitten in tow. If you know anything about strays -- who never know where their next meal is coming from -- you will understand my amazement as Blue Eyes let the kitten eat his fill before going for the food himself. Blue Eyes has since gone to heaven, but our adopted kitten is thriving and now an important member of our four-cat (all adopted strays) family. The second story is about Panther, an all-black, male shorthair whom we adopted six years ago. Except in very cold weather, he is largely an outdoor cat that comes in to eat but then leaves quickly until he gets hungry again. About five years ago, I had foot surgery and spent a week in bed. The day I got back from the hospital, Panther crawled onto my bed and stayed there all week, except to eat and perform other vital functions. The interesting thing is that he carefully stayed on the side away from the recuperating foot at all times. When I began to move about again, he resumed his normal outdoor habits.

Empathy in Chimpanzees

Robert Yerkes  was an American psychologist, ethologist, and primatologist. He considered that chimpanzees had humanlike emotions. In the following  antidote from his book Almost Human he describes an example of empathy

Chimpita...took safe refuge in a mango-tree and refused to come to his keeper. "So," says Madam Abreu, "I went to the tree and, speaking to him, pretended that I was injured in the arm and suffering. Immediately, on seeing that I was in trouble, he jumped from the tree, and coming to me held my arm and kissed it strongly. And so we were able to catch him."

Nim is a book written by Herbert S. Terrace, Professor Ph.D., Harvard University researching animal cognition, primate cognition and the evolution of intelligence.  The book is an account of a chimpanzee who was the subject of an extended study of animal language acquisition at Columbia University, led by Terrace. Terrace was impressed by the chimp's capacity for emotion. He reported this anecdote:

Tears brought out especially tender behavior on Nim's part. I once saw him rush over to Jennie while she was crying, leap into her arms, and stare intently at her eyes. He then touched her cheeks very gingerly and gently tried to wipe away her tears.

Dolphins rescue dog

Dolphins as we have already seen are animals obviously endowed with empathy. In the next story dolphins save a Doberman from drowning by making so much noise that the dog's plight came to the attention of people passing nearby.  The dog had fallen into the water of a canal and had been struggling to get out for fifteen long hours and was exhausted. Had it not been for the dolphins he would mostly likely have died. A couple of passersby who jumped in to rescue the dog said:

“They were really putting up a ruckus, almost beaching themselves on the sandbar over there. If it wasn’t for the dolphin, I would have never seen the dog.”

Read the original story

Chicken empathy

New research shows that chickens are capable of empathy and show clear signs of anxiety when their young are in distress.

Empathy was once thought to be a uniquely human trait.
However, recent studies suggest animals may also be able to feel another creature's suffering, or even see the world through another animal's eyes.

The British researchers chose hens and chicks for the study because empathy is assumed to have evolved to help parents look after their young.

Jo Edgar, a Phd student at Bristol University, who led the study, said: 'The extent to which animals are affected by the distress of others is of high relevance

Read more in the Daily Mail

Charles Darwin considered that animals were capable of all kinds of emotion and that human emotion likely evolved from animals as did physical attributes.

Accounts of altruist behaviours from the Descent of man by Charles Darwin

Many animals, however, certainly sympathise with each other's distress or danger. This is the case even with birds. Captain Stansbury (13. As quoted by Mr. L.H. Morgan, 'The American Beaver,' 1868, p. 272. Capt. Stansbury also gives an interesting account of the manner in which a very young pelican, carried away by a strong stream, was guided and encouraged in its attempts to reach the shore by half a dozen old birds.) found on a salt lake in Utah an old and completely blind pelican, which was very fat, and must have been well fed for a long time by his companions. Mr. Blyth, as he informs me, saw Indian crows feeding two or three of their companions which were blind; and I have heard of an analogous case with the domestic cock. We may, if we choose, call these actions instinctive; but such cases are much too rare for the development of any special instinct. (14. As Mr. Bain states, "effective aid to a sufferer springs from sympathy proper:" 'Mental and Moral Science,' 1868, p. 245.) I have myself seen a dog, who never passed a cat who lay sick in a basket, and was a great friend of his, without giving her a few licks with his tongue, the surest sign of kind feeling in a dog.

It must be called sympathy that leads a courageous dog to fly at any one who strikes his master, as he certainly will. I saw a person pretending to beat a lady, who had a very timid little dog on her lap, and the trial had never been made before; the little creature instantly jumped away, but after the pretended beating was over, it was really pathetic to see how perseveringly he tried to lick his mistress's face, and comfort her. Brehm (15. 'Thierleben,' B. i. s. 85.) states that when a baboon in confinement was pursued to be punished, the others tried to protect him. It must have been sympathy in the cases above given which led the baboons and Cercopitheci to defend their young comrades from the dogs and the eagle. I will give only one other instance of sympathetic and heroic conduct, in the case of a little American monkey. Several years ago a keeper at the Zoological Gardens shewed me some deep and scarcely healed wounds on the nape of his own neck, inflicted on him, whilst kneeling on the floor, by a fierce baboon. The little American monkey, who was a warm friend of this keeper, lived in the same large compartment, and was dreadfully afraid of the great baboon. Nevertheless, as soon as he saw his friend in peril, he rushed to the rescue, and by screams and bites so distracted the baboon that the man was able to escape, after, as the surgeon thought, running great risk of his life.

Here are some stories from internet forums concerning animal empathy:

The first is about a dog who is a caring  guardian to other animals including new born lambs

I often see the empathy that animals show for each other. They seem to sense when another animal (often of a different species) is not well or in need. Does anyone else have an animal empathy stories?

Our Welsh terrier considers himself the 'boss' of all the animals and chooks at our homestead. No nights in cold paddocks or draughty chook houses for him! NO! He sleeps inside on his own chair at his eyes this surely confirms his superiority! If we growl at an animal or chook he is the first to rush in with a sharp nip on the butt to make them repent! But..... if any animal is not well he switches into the most caring, devoted little guardian they could ever have.
Newborn lambs are his favourite. He absolutely loves when we have a sick or weak lamb, and sees his role as to lick them on the face (over & over again!)...and to cuddle up close to keep them warm. The licking is great because it emulates the mother ewe's tongue and stimulates the lambs. And his extra body warmth is a welcome comforting addition to our own mechanical warming measures.
He'll sit beside them for hours & hours in silent support...and he will not permit anyone but DH & I to touch 'his' lambs. Anyone else approaching them is given a warning growl to back off.

I had a cat that was severly ill at the vet for several days once. They put him in a large dog cage and I went and sat in it with him for several hours one day. The animals that lived at the vet's office kept coming by to check on us - never in a threatening way - and some sat around crooning to us. It was oddly supportive. My cat did not make it, but somehow spending that time with him and feeling like they were helping made me feel better about it all.

Read more responses about animals with empathy

This page  will be updated and added to when further information and stories are found. If you have a story to tell about animal empathy please consider including it here by e-mailing Christine Contact



NZ dolphin rescues beached whales

An Interactive Essay: Does Our Morality Come From God, or Evolution?


* I have endeavoured to provide accurate references for stories found on the internet however some of the stories are so frequently repeated that the original source is not easily identifiable. If you see any story here that is yours for which you have not been credited for have not given   permission for its inclusion please Contact me.


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Important please note:

I am not an animal expert of any kind just your average person who loves animals, all animals, and feels deeply about the plight of many of our fellow creatures. Neither am I a writer, or any other expert. Therefore please keep in mind that the information included in this website has been researched to the best of my ability and any misinformation is quite by accident but of course possible.

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