Author Archives: Marilyn

What Marius represents


(Photo attribution: to be determined!)

(Cross-posted at Biocentered.)

An international internet uproar erupted late last week over news that the Copenhagen Zoo planned to euthanize a healthy, two-year old male giraffe (“Marius”) and use his body to feed other animals, because his genes were overrepresented in the captive giraffe population.

A petition was launched and other organizations offered to take him in, but the Copenhagen Zoo went through with its plans on Sunday morning.  In fact, by the time I first read of the plan in Marc Bekoff’s Psychology Today column, the deed had already been done.

The zoo’s explanation is, to many people, incomprehensible and unacceptable.  So much so that some staff members of the Copenhagen Zoo have received death threats.  That, of course, is equally unacceptable.  But the whole episode is illuminating a couple of important realities about zoological parks and aquariums. Continue reading


Marilyn’s Links: A Carnival of Animal Youtubes on the Feast of Saint Francis

In honor of the Feast of Saint Francis, I offer this Carnival of Empathic Animal Youtubes – a “greatest hits” based on a stringent selection criterion: my memory.  Feel free to offer others in the comments!



Do not adjust your screen

A bit of administrivia: we’re going to be testing some new templates for a couple/few days, so don’t be surprised if the site looks a little different every time you check in.  We’ll settle on something soon!  Thanks for your patience.  (And feel free to comment on the templates you see!  We’ll figure out which one was up when you commented.)

“Empathy-driven helping behavior in rats”

Researchers at the University of Chicago report what they call the first evidence of “empathy-driven helping behavior” in rats.

The experiments, designed by psychology graduate student and first author Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal with co-authors Decety and Peggy Mason, placed two rats that normally share a cage into a special test arena. One rat was held in a restrainer device — a closed tube with a door that can be nudged open from the outside. The second rat roamed free in the cage around the restrainer, able to see and hear the trapped cagemate but not required to take action.

The researchers observed that the free rat acted more agitated when its cagemate was restrained, compared to its activity when the rat was placed in a cage with an empty restrainer. This response offered evidence of an “emotional contagion,” a frequently observed phenomenon in humans and animals in which a subject shares in the fear, distress or even pain suffered by another subject.

While emotional contagion is the simplest form of empathy, the rats’ subsequent actions clearly comprised active helping behavior, a far more complex expression of empathy. After several daily restraint sessions, the free rat learned how to open the restrainer door and free its cagemate. Though slow to act at first, once the rat discovered the ability to free its companion, it would take action almost immediately upon placement in the test arena.

A follow-up study presented the free rat with two restrainers: one containing another rat and one containing a pile of chocolate chips.  To the researcher’s surprise, the free rat was as likely to free the restrained rat first and share the chocolate as he/she was to eat the chocolate first.  (I can’t say I’d do the same.)

Interestingly, neither the UC press release, nor the other coverage I’ve seen mentions a much earlier study on possible empathy-driven helping behavior in rats, summarized by Mark Bekoff and Jessica Pierce in their book Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (see page 96):

Another early study in 1962 by George Rice and Priscilla Gainer titled “‘Altruism’ in the Albino Rat” showed that rats would help other rats in distress.  One rat was suspended in air by a harness and a neighboring rat could press a lever to lower the suspended rat.  The suspended animal would typically squeak and wriggle in distress.  The rats were apparently made uncomfortable by signs of distress in a fellow rat, and would act to alleviate the distress by pressing the lever.  Empathy likely motivated the ‘altruistic’ response.

That we continue to be surprised by pro-social behavior in social mammals… continues to be surprising.  I hope to revisit this topic in a post sometime soon.

(Be sure to watch the video of the experimental procedure on the University of Chicago press release link.)


They are the 97%

Created by Kira Treibergs and Laurel Heibert of the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, and undoubtedly already appearing on a Facebook page near you.

Marilyn’s Links


Happier meals?

Last week my pastor’s wife stopped me after church to give me a brochure she picked up at Whole Foods, “5-Step Animal Welfare Rating: Your way of knowing how our meat animals are raised” (that’s a pdf link). The brochure describes the system Whole Foods has adopted for rating the conditions under which meat animals – chicken, cattle and pigs (aka “chicken” or “poultry,” “beef” and “pork”) – are raised before slaughter. The basics of the rating system are here. Specifics tailored to each animal are spelled out in more detail in the brochure. In brief, the 5 steps range from a minimum (1) of “no cages, no crates, no crowding,” to a maximum of (5), which signifies an “animal-centered” system where the animals spend their “entire life on the same farm.”

Continue reading