"As Darwin said, between humans and non-human animals, the differences in our minds are those of degree, and not of kind."Biliana Tchavdarova Todorova

All of us grew up with non-human animals, even if we were not conscious of it. Charlotte’s Web, Marley and Me, and Fantastic Mr Fox are classics on any child’s bookshelf with one thing in common: their portrayal of non-human animals as having powerful emotions that make them seem almost human.

As children, many of us start off believing that non-human animals are capable of such emotional depth. And yet as we grow up we begin to ignore that they are creatures with their own lives, personalities, and dignity, simply because we believe that we – as humans – are superior, distinguished by select characteristics. With the belief in our so-called exceptionalism in hand, we justify all sorts of unnecessary cruelties towards non-human animals, such as the inhumane (but cheap) practice of factory farming. One pivotal characteristic is empathy, the ability to feel what someone else feels and be affected by that emotion.

Empathy is not uniquely human

Through much of scientific history, scientists have dismissed the notion that non-human animals can have emotions, let alone empathy. The behaviourist approach dominated – the idea that non-human animals displayed behaviours which were simply hard-wired, beneficial responses to stimuli in the environment.

However, this approach has been recently overwhelmed by the enormous amount of new evidence that non-human animals are not mere mindless machines. Dr Jane Goodall spent years observing chimpanzees in their natural habitat, watching them use tools to tease ants out of ant nests, or embrace and kiss to make up after a fight. Her work, and that of researchers like her, has shown us one thing: that to a chimp, an elephant, or a dog, life is as vibrant an experience as it is for a human.

See food, eat food. Are there none of the vivid deliberations that often go through humans’ minds when we make our gastronomic choices?Luther/Liv Robinson

It is also as full of feeling for fellow animals, so it seems. Experiments on rats showed that they would willingly forgo food in order to save a fellow rat in distress. This indicates that non-human animals can feel each others’ emotions, and that they can be compelled to show what, in humans, we would call compassion.

As Darwin said, between humans and non-human animals, the differences in our minds are those of degree, not of kind. Empathy is an evolutionarily beneficial trait that we inherited, not one that evolved separately. Its advantages are obvious if you consider one of its oldest forms: fear contagion. It’s the reason why people swarmed supermarkets for tinned tomatoes the moment news of COVID-19’s infectivity started spreading. Evolutionarily, this makes perfect sense; if you, as an antelope in a herd, heard the alarm call for a lion and felt perfect calm descend over you as opposed to overwhelming panic, you wouldn’t stay alive for very long.

When Asian elephants are stressed, their companions emit a particular chirping sound which they do not emit elsewhere. They may perform other unique behaviours like placing their trunk in the sufferer’s mouth – behaviours of consolation and comfort.The New York Times

As for more advanced forms of empathy, such as compassion, there’s an adaptive basis there too. A parent has to be aware of the needs of its offspring, to ensure the survival of the child and its genes. Secondly, animals who live in highly social and complex groups (like elephants and primates) must cooperate to maintain the survival and harmony of the pack.

However, there are still critics who argue that empathy in non-human animals is not consistently demonstrated, and therefore does not exist. They often cite examples of infanticide among male lions, or the mother-daughter chimp pair Passion and Pom, who cold-bloodedly cannibalised eight babies in succession. Where was animal empathy then?

“But there are dangers an attitude of human exceptionalism poses to animal lives too”

It can indeed be a brutal world out there, in the savannah or tundra, or even the bins round the back of your house. But those incidents don’t mean that non-human animals don’t have the ability to empathise; rather, they may choose when and when not to utilise it.

Does that sound familiar? It should. Just as humans have the compassion to comfort a grieving stranger on the train, so too can we elbow our way mercilessly through the morning commuting crowd – or commit the ruthless genocide of people who look different from us.

Empathy and cruelty are two sides of the same coin. Just as we can choose how and when to act, so too may animals consciously make their choices.

What animal empathy means for us


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A lack of empathy for non-human animals can be dangerous for humans. Studies found that cultivating attitudes of superiority towards non-human animals made human subjects more likely to dehumanise minorities, proving that it’s generally bad to adopt an attitude of superiority and entitlement towards living beings we’re not familiar with.

But there are dangers an attitude of human exceptionalism poses to animal lives too. As in the case of Wilbur the pig in Charlotte’s Web, it was only when the farmer realised that Wilbur was “some pig” – that he was not just one in a million of faceless pigs that are killed routinely for meat, and that he had a personality, the capacity for affection, and an emotional mind – that Wilbur was finally saved from slaughter.

This tells us something about ourselves. When we come to realise the uncomfortable truth that non-human animals are not empty-headed automatons which we can freely exploit, we may finally be able to treat them with the respect they deserve. This might come in the form of shopping more sustainably to reduce our carbon footprint, for example, or reducing meat in our diet. Every small change makes a difference.

As the doctor in Charlotte’s Web tells us, “It is quite possible that an animal has spoken civilly to me and that I didn’t catch the remark because I wasn’t paying attention”. Perhaps it’s time to be quiet and start paying attention to what non-human animals have to tell us.