In 2003, in Samburu national park in Kenya, Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a zoologist, came upon Grace, one of a family of elephants called the Virtues, helping Eleanor, the matriarch of the First Ladies family, as she was dying.
“Grace tried to get Eleanor to walk by pushing her,” his field notes run, “but Eleanor fell again…Grace appeared very stressed, vocalising, and continuing to nudge and push Eleanor with her tusks…Grace stayed with her for at least another hour as night fell.”
Eleanor died that night.
Over the next few days various elephants visited her.
A female called Maui “hovered her right foot over the body, nudged the body and then stepped over… rocking to and fro.”
All the while, Virginia Morell says in her book “Animal Wise”, Eleanor’s six-month-old calf was standing “like a tiny sentinel next to its mother’s body, while the rest of Eleanor’s family, bunched close together, looks on.”
Some animals seem to display pity, or at least concern, for diseased and injured members of their group. Stronger chimps help weaker ones to cross roads in the wild. Elephants mourn their dead.
In a famous experiment, Hal Markowitz, later director of the San Francisco zoo, trained Diana monkeys to get food by putting a token in a slot. When the oldest female could not get the hang of it, a younger unrelated male put her tokens in the slot for her and stood back to let her eat.
There have also been observations of animals going out of their way to help creatures of a different species. In March 2008, Moko, a bottlenose dolphin, guided two pygmy sperm whales out of a maze of sandbars off the coast of New Zealand. The whales had seemed hopelessly disoriented and had stranded themselves four times.
There are also well-attested cases of humpback whales rescuing seals from attack by killer whales and dolphins rescuing people from similar attacks. On the face of it, this sort of concern for others looks moral—or at least sentimental.
In a few examples the protecting animals have been seen to pay a price for their compassion. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who studies elephants, describes a young female which had been so severely injured that she could only walk at a snail’s pace. The rest of her group kept pace with her to protect her from predators for 15 years, though this meant they could not forage so widely.
As long ago as 1959, Russell Church of Brown University set up a test which allowed laboratory rats in half of a cage to get food by pressing a lever. The lever also delivered an electric shock to rats in the other half of the cage. When the first group realised that, they stopped pressing the lever, depriving themselves of food.
In a similar test on rhesus monkeys reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1964, one monkey stopped giving the signal for food for 12 days after witnessing another receive a shock.
There are other examples of animals preferring some sort of feeling over food. In famous studies by an American psychologist, Harry Harlow, rhesus monkeys deprived of their mothers were given a choice between substitutes. One was made of wire and had a feeding bottle, the other was cloth, but without food.
The infants spent almost all their time hugging the cloth mother.
If animals are self-aware, aware of others and have some measure of self-control, then they share some of the attributes used to define personhood in law. If they display emotions and feelings in ways that are not purely instinctive, there may also be a case for saying their feelings should be respected in the way that human feelings are.
But the attribute most commonly thought of as distinctively human is language. Can animals be said to use language in a meaningful way?
Animals communicate all the time and don’t need big brains to do so. In the 1940s Karl von Frisch, an Austrian ethologist, showed that the “waggle dances” of honeybees pass on information about how far away food is and in what direction.
Birds sing long, complex songs either to mark territory or as mating rituals. So do pods of whales.
It is hard, though, to say what information, or intention, goes into all this. The bees are more likely to be automatically downloading a report of their recent travels than saying, “There’s pollen thataway, slackers.”