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One day when I was working hard on the computer, trying to get a particular paragraph just right, Tiko suddenly started giving a loud, raucous call I had never heard before. I looked up but didn’t see anything unusual, and returned my attention to the computer. He continued screaming, and then began frantically pulling my hair and pecking my head until I looked up again to see Hester in the jaws of a large dog. I ran to the yard. The dog dropped Hester and I carried her into the house, where my physician husband doused her gaping wound with antibiotics.

When my mother-in-law Anne came to live with us because my father-in-law died, Tiko was immediately taken with her quiet and gentle ways. He checked on her daily, ate from her plate, preened her fingers, and “talked” quietly to her while she crocheted afghans for her grandchildren. Eventually, her heart condition grew worse, and she used a walker to get around. This upset Tiko, but he soon learned to fly to her intended destination in the house and wait for her. As her condition worsened, he became even more protective and defended her against the aides and nurses that visited. He sat on the arm of her chair, watching all visitors intently, making sure no one came too close. He once attacked a chaplain who came to call.

As the family gathered around Anne in her final days, I had to banish Tiko to his room because he tried to defend her against our hugs—he clearly knew something was very wrong. It was dark when she passed away, and Tiko was no doubt asleep, as darkness always lulls him. But when they came to remove her body, Tiko screeched loudly from his darkened room and refused to stop for several minutes, as if somehow he knew what had happened. For months after that, Tiko came down each morning and sat on Anne’s pillow, looking forlorn and miserable. He was clearly grieving for one of his flock and only gradually did he recover his old self.

He took it particularly hard when I had an operation and was limited to a downstairs recliner. He remained with me, refusing to go upstairs to his nighttime cage, unless I cajoled him into it, and then only if he could ride on my husband’s hand. By daybreak, he was back at my side, cooing softly. Often he keeps his distance, treasuring his personal space, but whenever I am ill, he remains in close contact. His demeanor becomes quiet and subdued, as befits a sick room, and he switches to comforting me. We seldom have a chance to observe this behavior in the wild, because there we are not part of the flock, and when birds are injured they hide in dense vegetation to recover.

Understanding compassion and empathy in the animal world is an emerging field in science, and it is no longer a matter of a few anecdotes, but of our recognition that there are too many examples of animals caring for one another to ignore. All science starts with observations. Eventually, we compile these observations and develop hypotheses. Then we devise experiments to test them. Now is the time to gather observations about a wide range of animals, and to track the rise of empathy and compassion through the animal world to ourselves.

The evidence of animal compassion will come from species that are social and occur in fairly stable groups, and in species that enjoy long lives. Over evolutionary time, cohesion, compassion, and care for other members of the group have no doubt led to higher individual survival rates and an increased production of young, just as it has in humans. When we can increase our understanding of how other animals show compassion, we will understand more about ourselves.

Joanna Burger (“Creature Comfort,” page 21) is distinguished professor of biology at Rutgers University, where she teaches animal behavior. An ecologist, behavioral biologist, and ecotoxicologist, she has studied migrating and foraging birds, the effects of contaminants on avian development, and birds as indicators of environmental health. She is the author of
The Parrot Who Owns Me and A Visual Guide to Birds.

Photo by Rod Meade Sperry.

Originally published in the July 2011 issue of the Shambhala Sun. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

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