Most people think of altruism as a strictly human trait. It’s a pretty high cognitive, and some people would add moral, skill to recognize when someone needs help, figure out how to help, and then do it even if it involves some danger or risk on your part. How could other animal species do all that? And why would they? If you believe in the theory of survival of the fittest, there is no place for helping others. It’s each man, or person, or animal, for him/herself. Right?
So how do you explain the story that appeared in the Press Democrat last week about a dog that saved a lamb from a creek. Chloe, a 10-year-old German Shepherd was playing in the creek with her two dog mates when her human dad got distracted by a phone call. When he went to look for Chloe, she was dragging something big, white and limp out of the water. After laying her on the dry rocks she proceeded to lick the lamb to stimulate her breathing again. Quite the rescuer! What instinct told her what to do? What a lucky lamb!
We know that herds will often go to great lengths to protect their members, especially the young; and mother animals have been seen doing amazing things to protect or rescue their offspring, often risking their own lives to save their babies. This is different than one animal helping out an animal of a different species. Sometimes it’s even a predator and prey situation helping each other out. What is the incentive behind that, one has to ask?
We also know that dogs can be trained to do rescue and service work. They have been taught to guide the blind; hear for the deaf; assist the disabled in a multitude of ways; sniff out drugs, bombs, cancer and diabetes; search for people who are missing; find survivors in disaster situations (or bodies); help police catch bad guys; guard property; herd or protect flocks/herds of other animals; assist with hunts (retrievers and pointers); pull sleds; and comfort the distraught as therapy/emotional support dogs. I’m probably forgetting something in this list but it’s pretty impressive! Dogs can do all this with training, usually working alongside their human. The rescue Chloe performed was not a trained task. Her dad didn’t ask her to “go get it.” It’s something she did on her own which makes it more amazing.
But since we don’t know what she was actually thinking, it’s hard to consider the act as totally altruistic. Perhaps she thought it would be something good to eat? Or she was intrigued by something big bobbing in the water and just wanted a closer look? If you google “animals saving animals” hundreds (actually thousands) of videos and stories come up. I do wonder how convenient it was that someone was standing there with a camera/phone exactly when a dramatic rescue took place. There’s been a couple that have been shown to be a hoax set up by the videographer. Sad if true. But there’s another good short video clip of two Labradors that’s worth a watch.
A black lab goes into the water to fetch a big stick that was thrown for him. He gets it but gets caught in the pull of a narrow rapids and it appears that he is being swept away (stick still in his mouth) when his buddy, a yellow lab, that is standing on the rocks grabs the end of the stick as it is going by and pulls the black lab out of the water. Is he being altruistic and saving his buddy? Or did he just want to save the stick?! He’ll never tell!
Do you have a personal story of when an animal helped another? Please share! We all love hero stories and it’s so uplifting to hear about these happy endings. We could use some of that right now!
Mickey Zeldes is the supervisor at the Rohnert Park Animal Shelter. She can be contacted at email@example.com.