Since I was little, I have often felt closer to animals than to others of my own species. This month, in honor of the ninth anniversary of my blog here on Psych Central, I have decided to spend the month featuring some of my first-ever mentors and teachers with a mini-series called “Animals Are Just Like Us! I hope you enjoy it. 🙂
Rats with empathy. Elephants who mourn their dead. Lions who remember the person who saved them. A humpback whale who saves a diver from a tiger shark.
With so many stories like this to ponder and wonder at, rarely do we get a glimpse at what might be going on inside the minds of the animals we observe.
Yet in the case of the last example – the humpback whale who saved a diver from a tiger shark – that diver just happened to be a woman named Nan Hauser, a research scientist who has dedicated her career and her whole life to saving whales.
To hear her recount it, humpback whales have a long and well-documented history of such altruistic behaviors, including hiding seals under their enormous fins when sharks are nearby. Was this whale hiding Nan in a similar fashion?
I fell in love with octopuses after reading Sy Montgomery’s book “The Soul of an Octopus.” She goes into great detail about just how smart, sensitive and communicative these amazing beings are.
Shortly after I read her book, I saw it for myself when a YouTube video of a young octopus thanking its rescuer went viral. As many times as I’ve watched it now, I still find myself literally holding my breath as the octopus, who could have just quickly moved away, instead took time out to return to its rescuer, placing one thin tentacle right on top of his boot. Was the octopus saying “thank you?”
But truly, as jaw-dropping as these examples are, I don’t need to look nearly so far to find examples of animal kindness, compassion and empathy.
I first met my now-20-year-old cockatiel, Pearl, when he was a five-week-old fledgling at a local Petsmart. He and his nest mates were housed in a large open-air aviary in the center of the store. His siblings were all older, larger and stronger than he was, and they kept literally walking right over him to fight for seed and prime perching locations.
By the time we met one another, Pearl was missing his left wing tip and three claws – all bitten off by his bullying nest mates. I had just lost my first cockatiel of three years, Jacob, and was dead-set against ever loving another bird. But the moment I saw Pearl, all that changed. It took only enough time for my heart to thump and I was reaching out my hand and watching him climb up onto it, run up my arm and hide himself under my hair.
He came home with us the next day.
Bruce, my rescued 3-toed box turtle, came to us by way of my search for Malti, my young redfooted tortoise who had suddenly gone missing.
Even though all the flyers and posters I had made included a detailed close-up of Malti, who is a completely different species and looks nothing like Bruce, I kept getting calls from folks who insisted they had found my missing turtle.
The first time I answered a call about Bruce, he was being attacked by a local dog who had sniffed him out of the bushes where he was hiding. The woman who owned the yard told me her grandson had “rehomed” him into her yard, where he had likely been hiding from her dogs ever since.
The second call I got about Bruce was from a young couple who had stopped on a busy street when they saw a turtle about to step off the curb into traffic. They scooped him up near to where I had hung one of my missing turtle flyers. They called me immediately and were already en route to my house when I answered the phone.
I hadn’t yet found Malti when they arrived with Bruce. But it was the sixth day since she had disappeared and after five long days and nights of searching I was starting to lose hope. I agreed to foster him until a suitable arrangement could be found. Less than one hour later, I found Malti.
What I’ve learned from these experiences is that sometimes, no matter what species you are or how risky it might seem, you just do the right thing.
Maybe you do it in your heart before your head gets with the program, like I did in the case of both Bruce and Pearl. Maybe you spend months afterwards still arguing with your head, who disagrees with your heart’s decision and can’t seem to let it go. Maybe your head and your heart never do quite manage to see eye to eye on the matter.
And yet, even though perhaps the questions never get answered and the conflict never gets resolved, still, the deal is done. Someone got rescued, helped, saved.
Maybe, just maybe (as it was with Pearl, Bruce and me) that someone was you.
With great love & respect,