Expert Voices

Empathic Rats Free Trapped Buddies From Restraints (Op-Ed)

Rats process visual information from their eyes similar to other mammals. Nevertheless, their eyes move in a very different way. Unlike humans, their eyes can move in opposite directions. (Image credit: MPI for Biological Cybernetics/Kerr)

Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the world's pioneering cognitive ethologists, a Guggenheim Fellow, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Bekoff's latest book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed (New World Library, 2013). This essay is adapted from one that appeared in Bekoff's column Animal Emotions in Psychology Today. He contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

There are always "surprises" emerging from studies of the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of nonhuman animals (animals) and among the discoveries that received a good deal of attention was detailed research published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals that showed that chickens, mice and rats displayed empathy." Empathic Rats and Ravishing Ravens" has some strong examples, and in that essay I noted how over the past few years scientists have learned much about the moral lives of animals. Now we know rats display this same empathy.

The first indication was a study published in 2011 by Inbal Ben-Ami, Jean Decety and Peggy Mason, all at the University of Chicago. The work provided the first evidence of empathy-driven behavior in rodents. Appearing in the journal Science, the results of this landmark study showed that untrained laboratory rats will free restrained companions, and that this helping is triggered by empathy. The rats will even free other rats rather than selfishly feast on chocolate.

Researcher Peggy Mason noted, "That was very compelling … It said to us that essentially helping their cagemate is on a par with chocolate. He can hog the entire chocolate stash if he wanted to, and he does not. We were shocked."

Pro-social behavior in rats

Earlier this month, some of those same researchers published another fascinating study called "Pro-social behavior in rats is modulated by social experience" in the open access journal eLife. A press release about this study noted, "social experiences, not genetics or kin selection, determine whether an individual will help strangers out of empathy. The importance of social experience extends even to rats of the same strain — a rat fostered and raised with a strain different than itself will not help strangers of its own kind." And, according to the University of Chicago's Inbal Bartal, the lead author of the study, "Pro-social behavior appears to be determined only by social experience … It takes diverse social interactions during development or adulthood to expand helping behavior to more groups of unfamiliar individuals. Even in humans, studies have shown that exposure to diverse environments reduces social bias and increases pro-social behavior."

Last year, renowned researcher and the author of "Affective Neuroscience" Jaak Panksepp, along with Jules B. Panksepp, published the paper "Toward a cross-species understanding of empathy" in Trends in Neurosciences. In the paper, they discuss animals other than non-human primates who also display empathy, all with a focus on neurobiology.

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So, what will society do with what we know? Not much, so far, especially among those who make policy about animals used in research.

I can only hope these findings will be used to protect rats and other rodents from being used in horrific invasive research. Although it's been known for more than five years that mice display empathy, this has not been factored into a revision of the Federal Animal Welfare Act in the United States. Rodents and many millions of other animals who comprise more than 95 percent of the animals used in invasive research can still be greatly harmed or killed "in the name of science." Indeed, the Animal Welfare Act does not consider such test subjects to be "animals." Only about 1 percent of animals used in research in the United States are protected by legislation, and the legislation is sometimes amended in nonsensical ways to accommodate the "needs" of researchers.

Birds, rats, and mice are not animals: Say what?

The desperation of science to rob animals of their sentience produces distortions that open the door for egregious and reprehensible abuse. For instance, here is a quote from the federal register: "We are amending the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations to reflect an amendment to the Act's definition of the term animal. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 amended the definition of animal to specifically exclude birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research" (Vol. 69, no. 108, 4 June 2004). It may surprise you to learn that birds, rats and mice are no longer considered animals, but that is the sort of logic that epitomizes federal legislation. Researchers are not allowed to abuse animals, so the definition of animal is simply revised until it refers only to creatures researchers don't need.

Garet Lahvis, a behavioural neuroscientist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, correctly notes, "We study animals to see what makes us uniquely human, but the findings of empathy in animals often force uncomfortable questions about how humans treat animals."

Stay tuned for more on the fascinating lives of other animals. It's essential that we use what we know about them on their behalf and not granting birds and rodents much more protection is inexcusable.

Bekoff's most recent Op-Ed was "Is a Rhino Hunt Really Conservation?" This article was adapted from "Empathic Rats Free Known Trapped Rats From Being Restrained" in Psychology Today. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.