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Eye-opening acts of empathy in the animal kingdom

Hippos are aggressive and fiercely territorial, but they’ve also been recorded helping gnus, zebras and other animals struggling in river currents, guiding them safely to shore. Alongside such heartwarming tales, Belinda Recio presents scientific research on animal behavior. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Some years ago, at a symposium on the animal mind hosted by New York University, one of the presenters attempted to pour cold water on certain widespread assumptions. There is no credible scientific evidence, he asserted, that fish feel pain, that dolphins “enjoy” their play or that dogs are “conscious” the way humans are.

The audience, which included more dog owners than professional academics, audibly gasped, and there was a smattering of boos. Yet the researcher who voiced these unpopular views was merely reflecting an attitude that prevailed in science until recently. For much of the 20th century, nonhuman creatures were seen as essentially biological automatons that responded in certain instinctual ways to external stimulus, but lacked the rich inner lives and selfhood that humans possess.

This view is increasingly being challenged by researchers who are uncovering new evidence of sophisticated cognitive abilities in the animal kingdom, including the frequent use of tools, problem-solving prowess, and the capacity to anticipate outcomes and plan ahead.

These discoveries are the subject of a slew of popular books published in recent years, including ecologist Carl Safina’s “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel,” “The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness” by nature writer Sy Montgomery, and the provocatively titled “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” by Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal. We read of bears that count, prairie dogs that employ vast vocabularies of distinct calls that resemble human language in expressive power, whales that compose long rhyming songs and broadcast them across oceans, and dung beetles that navigate by the position of the Milky Way. The latest book in this genre, “When Animals Rescue: Amazing True Stories about Heroic and Helpful Creatures,” by journalist Belinda Recio, goes even further than its predecessors in arguing that our evolutionary brethren are not just clever, they are also kind.

The author makes her case with an assortment of unabashedly heartwarming tales culled from the scientific literature, as well as more popular mediums like news reports, YouTube videos and TED talks. The slim volume is illustrated with evocative photographs, and the stories are interspersed with informational boxes of text reporting on scientific research that provides backing for the anecdotes.

We read of astonishing deeds of altruism and not infrequently self-sacrifice that are rare enough in the human world, yet turn out to be commonplace in the wild. Recio introduces us to monkeys that revive fallen comrades by beating vigorously on their chests (which the author likens to performing CPR), rattlesnakes that babysit for their absent gal pals, bonobo midwives that assist with difficult births, and elephants that remove spears and darts from injured herd members.

While it is perhaps not surprising that highly social species like elephants and primates routinely help their kith and kin, what is truly eye-opening is how often these altruistic impulses cross species lines. Recio tells us about a bull elephant that used its tusks as a forklift to rescue a baby rhino that was stuck in the mud, despite being charged repeatedly by the mama rhino, which apparently mistook this compassionate act for aggression.

Hippos are highly territorial and will go to any lengths to protect their young, killing more people than any other mammal in Africa. But the humongous creatures have a soft spot for gnus when they’re drowning and for zebras and other migrating species that get swept up in river currents. Not infrequently, hippos will shepherd the imperiled animals to the safety of the shore. They have even been known to come to the rescue of wildebeest under attack by crocodiles.

The author, an art curator and educator who has developed curriculums on animals, speculates that hippo empathy may derive from their brains being well-stocked with spindle neurons, which are associated in many species with social emotions. But one wonders if there isn’t more than just neurology involved, since empathetic behavior is exhibited by so many different creatures with such varied brain structures.

Consider the laboratory rats that were given a choice to open one of two compartments: behind the first were chocolate chips, behind the second was a trapped rat. Consistently, the rodents chose to free their imprisoned companion rather than treat themselves to a favorite snack.

There are also accounts of wild animals helping humans. In one case, a sea lion in the waters below the Golden Gate Bridge saved a drowning teen after his suicide attempt by nudging him back to the surface until a rescue boat arrived. And there are everyone’s favorites — dolphins — which, Recio tells us, guide ships, chase great white sharks away from vulnerable swimmers and routinely assist Australian fishermen by herding their catch in exchange for a portion of the take.

The writing — both here and in her previous book, “Inside Animal Hearts and Minds: Bears That Count, Goats That Surf, and Other True Stories of Animal Intelligence and Emotion” — is simple enough to enlighten a curious child but rigorous enough to have won praise from animal behavior experts like De Waal and Mark Rowlands, a philosopher who has written extensively on the moral standing of nonhuman creatures and who contributed a preface to the book.

Still, some will argue that the author is too quick to attribute motives to behaviors that can reasonably be interpreted in various ways. For example, the monkey pummeling the chest of its fallen compatriot may indeed have been practicing a crude simian form of CPR. Or, more prosaically, it could have simply been venting its frustration at an unresponsive buddy. Likewise, the baboon mother I saw cradling its dead baby in Kenya might have been grieving the loss. Or perhaps it had not fully grasped yet what had happened. Who can say for sure?

Moreover, is the moral compass that Recio perceives in our animal relatives really as fully developed as she suggests? After all, animals can also be cruel, selfish and unfeeling on occasions, as we humans are abundantly capable of being.

Some will see the book as a collection of entertaining anecdotes without the full weight of science. There are certainly animal behavior experts who contend that we simply cannot know what an animal’s subjective inner world is like. It is anthropomorphic, they argue, to say that other creatures experience feelings like compassion, even when their behavior appears — to our human eyes — to be impelled by it.

If it is anthropomorphic to say that animals genuinely care for one another, then why isn’t it also anthropomorphic to say that they are hungry or thirsty or sexually aroused? Yet those who hesitate to attribute “higher” ethical motives to other species rarely have a problem discerning in them the more “primitive” drives that humans are also subject to.

Wisely, Recio stays out of this contentious debate. She lets the stories speak for themselves. We cannot help but be delighted by them, if not transformed.

When Animals Rescue

Amazing True Stories about Heroic and Helpful Creatures

By Belinda Recio

144 pp. $19.99