Empathy is one of the more complex and integral emotions that humans experience. The question is, are animals capable of experiencing it too?
The idea that animals are capable of experiencing a full range of human emotion is not new. Early scientists believed that it was possible. Charles Darwin even once wrote that there is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in the mental facilities.
More recently, Dr. Mark Berkeff, professor and author of numerous essays about animal rights and conservation, said that scientists are constantly learning more and more about the cognitive abilities of animals .
Still, the science behind animal emotion is not fully understood. There is still a fair amount of debate regarding if, and to what extent, animals are capable of experiencing certain human-like emotions.
There are many remarkable stories out there that appear to demonstrate animals’ emotive abilities. One such story is that of Lawrence Anthony, the “elephant whisperer”. Although this story is a few years old, it is worth looking back on.
Lawrence Anthony was a conservationist and author. He lived in the South African KwaZulu, where he rescued and rehabilitated a group of wild South African elephants. He was known for his ability to communicate with and calm elephants who had been through trauma, hence the nickname, “The Elephant Whisperer”.
A local animal welfare organization was keeping this group of elephants on the reserve in order to protect them from poachers. The herd had experienced some trauma due to poaching already, and as such were very wary of humans. This caused them to act aggressively toward people, and they had become dangerous.
The organization asked Anthony for help. He decided that the only way he could save these animals was to live with them.
“To save their lives, I would stay with them, feed them, talk to them. But, most importantly, be with them day and night,” he said .
Sadly, Anthony passed away of a heart attack in 2012. The elephants hadn’t visited the compound where Anthony lived in over a year and a half, and were grazing miles away in different parts of the park.
Shortly after his death, however, the elephants arrived at his house. They had travelled over twelve hours to get there. The two herds stood vigil outside of Anthony’s home, in a similar way they mourn the passing of one of their own.
The animals remained there for two days, then left. Anthony’s family still do not know how the elephants knew that he had passed.
“In coming up there on that day of all days, we certainly believe that they had sensed it,” said his son, Dylan .
Empathy in Animals
There is a growing body of research that says animals can, in fact, feel empathy. Dr. James C. Harris at Johns Hopkins University says empathy is likely more prevalent in species that associate in social groups. He describes empathy as “an evolutionary mechanism to maintain social cohesion” .
What does that mean exactly? That animals who rely on groups for survival need to be more in-tune with how those around them are feeling.
In his book, Beyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel, award-winning environmental writer Carl Safina suggests that animals have emotions. He says they have thought processes and social connections that are important to them.
He argues that animals are much more similar to us than we think. Humans and animals both try to stay alive, get food and shelter, and raise some young for the next generation.
“Life is very vivid to animals. In many cases, they know who they are. They know who their friends are and who their rivals are… [and] have ambitions for higher status. They compete. Their lives follow the arc of a career like ours do,” he explained .
He also argues that the idea of consciousness, and whether animals experience it, is often debated because people don’t agree on a standard definition of what consciousness is.
Mental Experience is Consciousness
Safina says that if you have a mental experience, you are conscious. The question then, is do other species actually have mental experiences? Or do they sense things without having any sensation of what they’re experiencing? He believes they do.
“If you watch mammals or even birds, you will see how they respond to the world. They play. They act frightened when there’s danger... relax when things are good. It seems illogical for us to think that animals might not be having a conscious mental experience of play, sleep, fear, or love.” 
Safina says that to those who observe them, it is obvious that animals are conscious and experience emotion. He believes we don’t need to necessarily understand their minds in order to do this.
As for empathy specifically, Safina says that for a long time we have regarded it as a strictly human trait. He cites examples of animals showing empathy to prove that this is wrong. One of these examples is of a pack of elephants who protected a blind woman who had gotten lost. Another is of a humpback whale who protected a seal from an orca.
“These things seem extraordinary and new to us because we have only recently documented these incidents. But they have probably been doing these kinds of things for millions of years,” he said .
Treat Animals With Care
So what’s the answer then? Do animals experience emotions, are they conscious? If you ask most pet-owners, they’ll say yes. People who work closely with animals will likely argue they do as well.
Some scientists, on the other hand, want more evidence. Safina says that there are those who’d rather think they don’t. If animals are conscious, it makes it harder for humans to do certain things to do them because they have the capacity to be unhappy and to suffer.
So while there may be a lack of hard scientific evidence that demonstrates animals’ ability to feel, there do seem to be many examples out there. Regardless, as living beings and inhabitants of this planet, they deserve to be treated with care and respect.