Page 3 of 3
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.