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Creature Comfort, by Joanna Burger. Photo by Rod Meade SperryCreature Comfort

Dogs comfort their human companions and parrots care for their injured mates. When we increase our understanding of how animals show compassion, says behavioral ecologist JOANNA BURGER, we understand more about ourselves.

My mother walked gingerly toward our detached garage to get something from the chest freezer. Although the driveway was plowed, snow drifted across it like dollops of meringue on warm pie and it was covered with a wet sheen of ice. Mom slipped and fell and could not get up again. There was nothing to pull herself up with, and the car and garage were too far away for her to crawl there for safety.

Feister, my brother’s dog, had trailed behind her. He barked furiously, but it didn’t rouse anyone. So he sat down on the cold ground and inched closer and closer until he was lying alongside my mother. And there he stayed, warming her with his own body until someone found them quite some time later. Feister gave my mother not only warmth, but comfort.

Perhaps it is not surprising that dogs demonstrate care and compassion for their human companions—we have a long history together. Dogs are herding animals and, after evolving with us for more than 25,000 years, we’re part of their “pack” and they want to keep the pack together and safe. But dogs are not unique in showing us compassion. Horses, for instance, have only been domesticated for about 5,500 years, yet they are also compassionate with us.

When my brother Johnny was five years old, he rode our grey horse up into the fields, almost a mile from the house. My dad and I stood watching him, binoculars trained on the horse’s slow walk. Suddenly, the horse tripped on a woodchuck hole hidden in the grass, and Johnny went tumbling over the horse’s head, down to the ground. Deliberately, and with care, the horse lowered his head until Johnny could grasp the bridle, and together they walked all the way back to the house. The horse’s head was bowed low in what must have been an awkward, uncomfortable position, but he persisted. This was not a calm horse, and I might have expected him to kick Johnny or at the least run away. Instead, he carefully led Johnny to safety.

Examples of animals demonstrating compassion for members of other species and their own species are all around us; we just need to recognize them. Failure to prove the existence of compassion in other animals is more about our inability to design appropriate experiments, than a failure of other animals to feel or act on cognition or emotions.


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