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For decades it has not been fashionable for scientists to acknowledge that other animals have feelings, or to study them. When Donald Griffin wrote The Question of Animal Awareness (1976), he was roundly criticized for attributing the “human trait” of cognition to animals. Here I use cognition to mean the mental process of knowing, involving reasoning and judgment. To some extent, cognition is essential for empathy and compassion; an animal uses judgment to recognize distress in others before it can show compassion.

When Kidogo (a bonobo) in the Milwaukee Zoo developed a heart condition, became feeble, and was unable to find his way, other apes in the group acted as guides, leading him by the hand, and they protected him from teasing by other younger males. Macaque monkeys also help handicapped group members, and monkeys sometimes die trying to save another that has fallen into water, gotten caught on wire or other objects, or fallen over a fence. In the wild, chimpanzees have been observed comforting females in the group who have recently lost offspring.

Jane Goodall, who spent decades studying chimpanzees in Gombe Reserve in Tanzania, observed chimpanzee offspring stay for days beneath the tree of their mother when she was too sick to move on. Until she died, the young, who were themselves quite old, remained at the base of her tree, maintaining a silent vigil. This kind of behavior demonstrates cognition, family ties, and empathy.

Since primates are our closest relatives, many people do not find it odd that they would feel compassion and take care of each other. But compassion is not limited to primates. Cynthia Moss and others have studied elephants in Kenya and Tanzania, and they’ve found that elephants will assist others that are sick or injured, and that they help unrelated elephants, not just their close relatives. They also show an inordinate interest in their deceased relatives and return months or years later to pick up, investigate, and even “fondle” the bones belonging to their relatives. Herds or families of elephants alter their migration path year after year to reach these burial grounds, while ignoring the bones of unrelated elephants. Are they grieving or merely curious? As a scientist, I don’t want to be accused of anthropomorphism, but I think we should be equally cautious about ignoring the obvious continuum and link we share with the rest of the animal world.

Some people might say that birds do not show empathy or compassion—that only mammals do—but I beg to differ. As a behavioral ecologist, I have watched Amazon parrots in Peru pick fruits and hand them to others, and macaws in Brazil pull clay from a cliff and carry it to another macaw before returning to pull some off to eat themselves. While some of these interactions are between mates or offspring, that’s not always the case. Perhaps certain individual macaws are afraid to get the clay, and others, recognizing this, do it for them.

For more than twenty-five years I have lived with a bright and compassionate parrot named Tiko. He is now fifty-seven years old and doing well. Tiko is free flying, and considers our house his and all of the inhabitants a part of his flock. He defends me vigorously from all newcomers, regardless of their size. When I had Lyme disease, Tiko remained in my room, preening my hair endlessly until it was spread out on my pillow like a golden-brown halo. He caressed my fingers, and cooed so softly he was barely audible. He refused to leave my side, eating only if my husband Mike brought him food, which he could eat on the dresser while watching me.

Tiko used to be equally defensive of my late chicken, Hester, and he watched over her as she went about the yard scratching for grubs or worms. But though Tiko watched, he almost never commented. I was usually busy working on my computer and each day he interrupted me every hour or so for attention. He climbed down from his perch, and butted his head against my arm. If I failed to heed his gentle caress, he climbed on my computer and stomped across the keys until he could place his head beneath my hand. He knew I would always stop to preen him then, because otherwise he wrote gibberish with his feet, turned off the computer, or deleted a sensitive passage.


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