Empathy for animals is all about us

Extending our feelings and judgments to animal behavior is part of what makes us human

webcam shot of an osprey nest

A live web feed of an osprey nest like this one spawned outrage last year when the bird families began to fail. People often judge these animals based on human standards of behavior.  

betta design/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

There’s an osprey nest just outside Jeffrey Brodeur’s office at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. “I literally turn to my left and they’re right there,” says Brodeur, the organization’s communications and outreach specialist. WHOI started live-streaming the osprey nest in 2005.

For the first few years, few people really noticed. All that changed in 2014. An osprey pair had taken up residence and produced two chicks. But the mother began to attack her own offspring. Brodeur began getting e-mails complaining about “momzilla.” And that was just the beginning.

“We became this trainwreck of an osprey nest,” he says. In the summer of 2015, the osprey family tried again. This time, they suffered food shortages. The camera received an avalanche of attention, complaints and e-mails protesting the institute’s lack of intervention. One scolded, “it is absolutely disgusting that you will not take those chicks away from that demented witch of a parent!!!!! Instead you let them be constantly abused and go without [sic] food.  Yes this is nature but you have a choice to help or not.  This is totally unacceptable. She should be done away with so not to abuse again.” By mid-2015, Brodeur began to receive threats. “People were saying ‘we’re gonna come help them if you don’t,’” he recalls.

The osprey cam was turned off, and remains off to this day. Brodeur says he’s always wondered why people had such strong feelings about a bird’s parenting skills.

Why do people spend so much time and emotion attempting to apply their own moral sense to an animal’s actions? The answer lies in the human capacity for empathy — one of the qualities that helps us along as a social species.

When we are confronted with another person — say, someone in pain — our brains respond not just by observing, but by copying the experience. “Empathy results in emotion sharing,” explains Claus Lamm, a social cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Vienna in Austria. “I don’t just know what you are feeling, I create an emotion in myself. This emotion makes connections to situations when I was in that emotional state myself.”

Lamm and his colleagues showed that viewing someone in pain activates certain brain areas such as the insula, anterior cingulate cortex and medial cingulate cortex, regions that are active when we ourselves are in pain. “They allow us to have this first person experience of the pain of the other person,” Lamm explains.

When participants viewed someone reacting as though they were in pain to a stimulus that wasn’t painful for the viewer, the participants showed activity in the frontal cortex in areas important for distinction between “self” and “other.” We can still sympathize with someone else’s pain, even if we don’t know what it feels like, Lamm and his colleagues reported in 2010 in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

This works for animals, too: We ascribe certain emotions or feelings to animals based on their actions. “You know you have a mind, thoughts and feelings,” says Kurt Gray, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “You take it for granted that other people do too, but you can never really know. With animals, you can’t know for sure, so your best guess is what you would do in that situation.”

WHOI osprey nest
Ospreys stand guard at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s nest platform. The live camera feed captured forces of nature that enraged viewers. J. Brodeur/WHOI
When people see an animal suffering — such as, say, a suffering osprey chick — they feel empathy. They then categorize that sufferer into a “feeler,” or a victim. But that suffering chick can’t exist in a vacuum. “When there’s a starving chick, we think, ‘oh, it’s terrible!’” Gray says. “It’s not enough for us to say nature is red in tooth and claw. There must be someone to blame for this.”

In a theory he calls dyadic completion, he explains that we think of moral situations — situations in which there is suffering — as dyads or pairs. Every victim needs a perpetrator. A sufferer with no one responsible is psychologically incomplete, and viewers will fill in a perpetrator in response. In the case of suffering osprey chicks, he notes, that perpetrator might be an uncaring osprey mom, or the camera operator who refuses to intervene in a natural process. Gray and his colleagues published their ideas on dyadic completion in 2014 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Anthropomorphizing animals — whether or not it is logical or realistic — is usually pretty harmless. “It’s probably OK to say a cat is content,” says John Hadley, an ethicist at Western Sydney University in Australia.  Similarly, it’s OK to say that a mother osprey is being violent when she attacks her own young. People are describing what they see in emotional terms they recognize. But this doesn’t mean that these animals should be held responsible for their actions, he says. When we judge an animal for its parenting skills, “in one sense it implies we want to hold these animals up as objects of praise or blame.” The natural tendency to ascribe emotions to animals, he says, is “only really problematic if [the emotions] are inaccurate or if they lead to some kind of ethical problem.”

People can’t put an osprey on trial for being a bad parent. But as in the case of an abandoned bison calf in Yellowstone, people do sometimes intervene — even though their actions might not be helpful. “That’s a question of ethical systems coming in to conflict,” Hadley says. “National parks apply a holistic ethic, try to let nature run its course…. But a more common-sense approach would be that you can intervene, there’s suffering you can stop and you should try and stop it.”

The feelings of pity and the desire to intervene is really all about us. “When we look at nonhuman animals and we read them as if they are humans … that might just be our being narrow and unable to imagine any creature that is not somehow a reflection of us,” says Janet Stemwedel, a philosopher at San Jose State University in California. “There’s a way in which looking at animals and reading them as human and imagining them as having emotions and inner lives is maybe a gateway to caring,” Stemwedel says. This caring might be erring on the side of caution, she explains, “acknowledging the limits of what we can know about how [animals] experience the world.” If we fail to imagine what animals might be feeling, “we could do a great deal of harm, [and] put suffering in the world that doesn’t need to be there,” she notes.

Our caring for the suffering and the lonely is part of what makes us a social species. “Evolution endowed us with a moral sense because it was useful for living in groups,” Gray notes. “It’s not crazy. It’s the same impulse that leads us to protect children from child abuse, and it so happens that we extend that to osprey children.” Those anthropomorphizing impulses aren’t stupid or useless. Instead, they tell us something, not about animals, but about ourselves. 

Bethany was previously the staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

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