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Rats display empathy, altruism

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Experimenters at the University of Chicago recently determined that rats express empathy for strangers if they are familiar with the type of rat who is in distress. In the experiment, albino rats were raised either with other albinos or with rats with a black-and-white fur pattern. The experimenters then "trapped one rat inside an uncomfortable, coffinlike restrainer" (as one newspaper article described it).

Albino rats who had been raised with other albinos would work to free trapped albino rats, even if the rats were strangers. Likewise, rats who had been raised with black-and-white rats would free other black-and-white rats. Earlier versions of the experiment showed that rather than just accepting a chocolate treat for themselves, rats would first rescue their trapped peers and then share the treat with them.

Although these types of experiments tend to make headlines around the world, I’m never surprised to learn that other animals display empathy and altruism. Rats are highly social animals that communicate with each other using high-frequency sounds inaudible to the human ear. They become emotionally attached to each other, love their families and easily bond with human guardians. Rats even giggle when they are tickled. Why should it be a surprise that they help other rats?

Perhaps a more telling headline would be: Experimenters betray their own inability to empathize with others.

The recent experiment on rats is far from the first time that empathy has been seen in animals in laboratories. In one notoriously cruel experiment, macaque monkeys were given food only if they pulled a chain that electrically shocked another monkey. Nearly all the monkeys preferred to go hungry, and one macaque went without food for 12 days rather than cause pain to another. Monkeys that had previously been shocked were even more reluctant to pull the chain and subject another individual to such punishment. Mice and rats will also starve rather than hurt friends.

At one laboratory where PETA conducted an undercover investigation, video footage shows a small caged monkey tugging on the coat of a worker who was mercilessly beating another monkey. The caged monkey weighed no more than 15 pounds to the worker’s 170, but he wanted to help his friend.

Disturbingly, none of the overwhelming evidence about how intelligent, sensitive, caring and selfless animals are protects them from being burned, cut open, shocked, poisoned, socially isolated, starved, dehydrated, forcibly restrained, addicted to drugs and brain-damaged in cruel and pointless experiments. What is done to animals in laboratories would be illegal if it occurred elsewhere. And even though mice and rats feel pain and suffer as much as the dogs and cats we share our homes with, they aren’t even considered to be "animals" under the Animal Welfare Act, the only federal law that provides at least some meager protections to other species. More than 100 million mice and rats are tormented in U.S. laboratories each year. At the end of the experiments, most are killed by having their necks broken, being asphyxiated or being decapitated with a guillotine or scissors.

Garet Lahvis, a behavioural neuroscientist at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, says, "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." Or at least they should.

Most of us learned the Golden Rule — Do unto others as you would have them do unto you — as children, and animals’ actions demonstrate that they, too, understand this universal ethic. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the people who experiment on them.


Alka Chandna is a senior laboratory oversight specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.


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