The Animals Are Trying to Save Us

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In her book, Spirit Unleashed: Reimagining Human/Animal Relations, psychologist, philosopher and Episcopal priest Anne Benvenuti describes why humans need saving. We think too much and have lost touch with our bodies, with other animals, with Mother Earth and with each other. We don’t consider that other life forms think, feel, or have value. As a result, we live a profoundly alienated existence. We’re all about thinking more, doing more, having more, dominating, changing things. We are killing much life on planet Earth, and their disappearance may kill us too in the not distant future.

spirit unleashed 3It might seem crazy to imagine that animals could “save” us from all that, but animals do help people all the time. In one celebrated case from southwest Ethiopia, a pride of lions came across a group of men who had kidnapped a teenage girl, possibly for sale in the sex trade.. The lions ran the men off and sat around the girl until people came to find her. Then they quickly left before the rescuers could shoot them.

Not the same lions

Not the same lions

When news of the rescue came out, some experts doubted that animals would act like so selflessly. After the story was verified with eyewitness accounts, a Kenyan newspaper marveled that, “The lions didn’t eat her.”  Well, unlike humans, animals don’t eat when they’re not hungry, and maybe this pride had just eaten.  Still, how did they know she needed rescuing and protecting? Why did they risk their own safety to do it and stay with her until help came? What was going through their minds? These stories are worth thinking about.

There are a lot of stories to choose from. In the wild, dolphins have been known to risk their lives to protect humans from shark attacks. Less dramatic animal helping happens regularly.  Pet dogs in particular will do almost anything to help their humans.  Dogs are so tuned in to people that there are now therapy dogs, whose job is to help people in emotional distress.

Trying to understand why animals are so helpful, I met Benga!, a star among therapy dogs. (Benga! is how they actually spell her name. The exclamation point is silent.) The six-year old poodle / Pekinese mix is supernaturally cute, which gives her a head start. But her looks just get her in the door to the psych patients and nursing home residents she treats. Her desire to help and her ability to comfort and energize them come from within.

Benga!'s cousin Maggie

“At a convalescent home, she will sit in people’s laps or snuggle in their bed if that’s what they want,” says Ashley Rose, Benga!’s 35 year old owner.“In assisted living, we go around from room to room. If someone is energized, Benga! will dance for her or give her a high five. If someone seems sad or grieving, she may just sit with them. Sometimes she licks away their tears. The psych units are her favorite. She soaks up their anxiety and comes away energized.”

It was obvious watching Benga! that she thinks about how to put people at ease. . A family of four came by during our interview, and Benga! ignored the baby, who wasn’t interested in her, danced in front of the mother, who was fawning about “What a cute puppy,” gave the father a high five with her paw, then approached the three-year old. This child was both attracted and scared, and Benga! stood a few feet from her, waiting quietly, tail wagging, as the girl gained confidence, came forward and petted her, then started laughing joyously.

True, dogs are bred and raised to like people. Our partnership goes way back, but other animals help people, too. Why? This is not a zoological question; it’s not just about understanding animals. Since we’re animals too, maybe if we can understand why “the animals are trying to save us,” it will help us to save ourselves, or at least be better to each other and to them.

What’s their Motivation?

Is there something special about humans that animals recognize, that makes them want to help us? It would be comforting to think so, but maybe animals just like to help, and the cases where they help humans are the ones we find out about. In any case, animals frequently help each other, both within their species and without.

In Tanzania, a hippo saved a young wildebeest and a baby zebra from drowning in a rushing river their herds were crossing. First the wildebeest got pulled away by the current.  The hippo, who was lounging in the river, took off after the wildebeest, got in front of it, then gently nudged and pushed it back upstream and across to the other side to rejoin its herd.

The hippo returned to the river and waited. 20 minutes later, a zebra foal got washed downstream. The hippo blocked it as it had the wildebeest. It pushed the foal back across, until the foal, exhausted of swimming, climbed up on a rock near the shore and wouldn’t go on.

The hippo didn’t give up. It came up behind the foal and started nudging it and gently biting it on its backside as if to say, ‘Come on man, don’t give up now, you can do it.’ Finally, the little zebra crossed the rest of the water and got back with his family.  You can see video of the rescues on YouTube.

How can one explain such cases? Animal behavioralist Francesco Brusolo reports on on a bear saving a crow, a group of whales that adopted a crippled dolphin, and a rhino that tried to rescue a baby zebra stuck in the mud. In New Zealand, a dolphin rescued two beached whales and got them back out to sea. On Youtube, I’ve watched an Australian dog named Rex, who rescued a joey from its dead mother’s pouch and brought it to his owner, and other acts of animal compassion.

Rex with kangaroo baby

Rex with kangaroo baby

What’s going on here?

What do animals like Benga! get out of helping people? What do animals get out of helping each other?

Benga! clearly likes the attention and the praise she gets. “People love is her favorite thing in the world,” Ashley Rose says. “But I think she also has empathy. She wants to help.”

It’s certainly true that all animals are individuals. Not every dog is a Benga! and not every hippo rescues drowning zebras. Some dolphins will ram the shark, and some will let the shark eat you. They probably each have their own reasons for helping or not helping.

Since we are also animals, we may have many of the same reasons. After all, people help each other and help other animals all the time.

Maternal energy could be one motivator for helping behavior.  Many of the most striking cases of animal helping involve female adults. You can see about a dozen of these stories here. Maternal feelings can expand beyond your own baby. Koko the signing gorilla takes care of kittens. A chimp named Anjana has had a series of baby animals she cared for in her zoo home. A Chinese zoo got a female dog to successfully nurse two baby red pandas whose own mother had rejected them.

Koko with Kitten

Koko with Kitten

Males care for and help others, too, though.  Rex, the dog who saved the baby kangaroo, is male.

Helping others without benefit to oneself is called altruism. Mainstream science scoffs at the idea that animals can be altruistic. They say animals only do altruistic things because of some advantage to themselves or their offspring, because that’s what evolution promotes and conserves. What appears to us to be altruism is really just disguised self-interest.

Really? Certainly, this doesn’t explain the Tanzanian hippo or the dolphins saving humans from sharks. But more important, why should there being benefit disqualify an act as altruism? People get benefits from altruistic things we do. They make us feel good. Sometimes people try to help when they aren’t being helpful at all, just because they like the way helping feels. Maybe altruism is built into our genes, and everybody’s genes.

Altruism could have evolved among animals to help groups survive, because if the group goes down, the individual’s genes don’t stand much of a chance. In that way, helping others gives an indirect evolutionary advantage. There may also be direct advantages. If you help others, your tribe mates will notice and be more likely to help you or your children.

Whole cultures in Native America and Polynesia are based on this – the most generous are the most esteemed. Cultures like ours that glorify the wealthy and the selfish have been rare in history and tend not to last as long.


Sharing is Normal

Many people report that their greatest joy has come from helping others. Maybe that is not a uniquely human trait, but is inherent in life itself.

What can we learn from animals?

Like Adelia Sandoval, Anne Benvenuti says the animals are trying to help us. Unfortunately, we cut ourselves off from animals. We think they are inferior to us; we think they don’t have anything to give us, except their bodies to eat.

There are several reasons for humans’ disrespect for animals. People exploit animals and abuse them in all kinds of ways, which would be hard to do if we acknowledged them as thinking, feeling creatures. This cruelty goes far beyond eating them, which all predators have to do. We torture them in factory farms; we kill them for sport; we cage them for entertainment. We don’t want to feel guilty, so we regard them as nonbeings.

Another motivation for discounting animals comes from the self-esteem we derive from feeling smarter and more evolved than other creatures.  The unfortunate result is that we can’t learn what they’re trying to teach us. We go from being members of an enormous family to being isolated in our thinking minds.

Are we so much smarter than animals that we could not learn anything useful from them? Benvenuti says not really; we just have a different kind of smarts.  Our intelligence enables us to dominate and change our environment. Their intelligence enables their species to last for millions of years, while Homo sapiens faces risk of extinction after two hundred thousand.

The Bible tells a story about animal wisdom in the Book of Numbers.  A powerful speaker named Balaam was on his way to help rouse the Moabites to defeat the Hebrews, who were God’s favorite. So God sent an angel to block Balaam’s path and to kill him if he kept going.

Balaam couldn’t see the angel, but his donkey could. The donkey veered off the path, then ran into a wall, then just lay down in the road to try to save Balaam, but each time Balaam responded by beating him and berating him for not going forward.

Finally, God enabled the donkey to speak, and he asked “Why are you beating me? Have I ever done you wrong before?” You would think you might ask why I’m doing it now.  Then Balaam became able to see the angel with its sword, and turned back.

Balaam's Donkey (Gustav Jaeger 1836)

Balaam’s Donkey (Gustav Jaeger 1836)

He didn’t even apologize to the donkey or thank him for saving his life. That’s pretty much how most of us deal with animals most of the time.

Balaam’s story strikes me as a powerful metaphor. The angel with the sword is indeed standing in our path. The animals can see it., even if most of us can’t.  Our lives and the world would be quite different if we listened to the animals instead of to our constant thought chatter.

Benvenuti says we should spend time with animals, calm down to their pace, try to pick up some of their awareness of the world. They live much more in their senses, not their thoughts. They don’t worry about the past or future, just now. They could be said to live in a near-constant state of Nirvana.

Meditation is another way we can approach the wisdom of animals. We can gradually learn to unthink some of our madness.

It’s not that humans are bad or that thinking is bad. In fact, most injured animals prefer to be with caring people than to be left alone. Animals seem to know most people are OK, which may be why they are comfortable helping us.  But as Anne Benvenuti says, we have to want their help.

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2 Responses to The Animals Are Trying to Save Us

  1. Linda Dilworth says:

    I agree. Animals are very intuitive and know when we are sick or in pain or even afraid. My dog has shown me in many ways that this is true. Once when I fell and couldn’t get back up, he laid his neck across mine and cried as I cried. He knows I am afraid of bugs and will alert me when he sees one inside the house, even going after it. If someone gets too close and behaves in a threatening manner, he will growl and even go after them. He is a Dachshund.

  2. Morris says:

    Very nicely written, David!

    Here is the full bbc link to the lion story –this one does not return a 404l Page not found message. A Google search reveals much coverage of the story, although I missed it at the time

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