We've all heard stories of how a dog or cat comforted its sad or frightened owner. Maybe you've had an experience like that, too.
But what about a Labrador retriever that barked for an hour in the snow to summon help for a stranger who had fallen into a river?
Or the cat in Hawaii who led a woman to some puppies that had fallen into a 12-foot-deep crack in the earth?
Or Beauty, a horse that - while swimming in a rushing river to try to save her colt - nudged a stranger toward the safety of the shore before rescuing her foal? (The man had jumped in to try, unsuccessfully, to help the horses.)
Stories like these seem to show that animals are capable of being virtuous, says Kristin von Kreisler. She has compiled hundreds of similar stories and put them in a book ("Beauty in the Beasts: True Stories of Animals Who Choose to Do Good," published by Tarcher/Putnam). Ms. Von Kreisler says the stories prove that animals aren't always motivated by instinct or self-preservation. This is a controversial view among scientists.
"Animals, like humans, are capable of experiencing really strong feelings," Von Kreisler says in an interview. "They can choose to express their emotions through behavior that is virtuous and moral," the animal advocate and writer insists.
Take the story of Kane, Von Kreisler says. Kane is a 125-pound Great Dane. She leaped, howling, on top of her sleeping guardian to alert her as flames engulfed their home. Doesn't that prove that dogs can be compassionate?
Well, maybe. "Dogs will instinctively wake up their owners when there's a fire," suggests Gerald Wilkinson, "because they just want to be let out of the house." Dr. Wilkinson is a biology professor at the University of Maryland and has studied animal behavior for more than 20 years.
Dogs, which are descended from wolves, instinctively try to save the "alpha male," or leader, of the pack. Because dogs think of their owners as pack leaders, "they really have no choice but to save them," Wilkinson says. He adds that, even if Kane could have run to safety, "dogs feel safer when they are with their pack, even if that means putting themselves in danger."
Why did Misty do what she did?
OK, then how does one explain the story of Misty, a spaniel puppy who was standing outside a burning house with most of the members of her family. Yet she left her "pack" to run inside to rescue a two-year-old boy. [See story at left.]
Wilkinson isn't sure what to make of that story. But it's just one instance, he offers, and anecdotes don't offer reliable scientific data.
"We just don't have well-documented proof of a lot of similar instances of animals going against their instincts to do good," the animal behaviorist says.
Another of Von Kreisler's stories involves two mongrels, Heart and his daughter Soul. They were abandoned in the woods. When a pack of coyotes started to circle around Soul, Heart risked his life to save his offspring.
To Von Kreisler, this shows that courage and compassion - even morality - exist in animals. Not only that, animals "jump in from the heart," she says. "It's more of a gut-level, emotional thing." Humans tend to analyze a situation and weigh consequences before doing good. "That's what I'd say is the difference between humans and animals who choose to do good."
Lee Alan Dugatkin is an assistant professor of biology at the University of Louisville. He agrees with Von Kreisler that animals can often act unselfishly. "You see examples of it in everything from fish to primates," he says.
But when it comes to calling unselfish behavior "moral," that's different. He warns against attributing human motivations to animals. A moral code, to him, must be taught. Individuals act morally in order to benefit members of their group. And sometimes, acting morally may seem to hurt the person deciding to act that way.
It's impossible to know what animals are thinking, he concludes. So humans can never know if animals are capable of being moral, he says.
Wilkinson sees the Heart and Soul story differently from Von Kreisler. Animals could never be moral, he says, because any seemingly unselfish behavior can always be traced to one of three reasons. First, an animal's actions may be instinctual; therefore, they have no control over them. Second, animals may expect a favor in return. Third, they may act out of "kin selection," as in the case of Heart and Soul.
"By helping family members," Wilkinson says, "animals can make sure their species and their genes will survive, so they are getting something in return."
But what about the cat in Hawaii that led a woman to some puppies that had fallen into a crack in the earth 12 feet deep? Or Beauty, the horse that went against her maternal instinct for a moment to help a human stranger? Ah, but who knows what an animal is thinking?
Petunia the pig saves the day
No one can say for certain that animals can act out of a sense of love or virtue. But one can certainly say that animals are capable of sophisticated behavior - more sophisticated than many humans give them credit for, Professor Dugatkin says. Animals do extraordinary things that humans struggle to explain.
Petunia, a 400-pound pampered pig, for instance, wasn't used to playing the role of protector. She was indoors when she detected a stranger lurking in the backyard. She alerted her owner that something was wrong. The owner was frightened to see the intruder, and Petunia seemed to respond to her master's fear.
Petunia pressed her snout against the door leading outside. She pressed so hard that her owner worried that the pig would break the glass. She opened the door so her pig wouldn't hurt herself. Petunia raced outside and chased away the intruder - who was probably pretty startled to be pursued by a huge pig!
Animals have a long history of helping humans - no matter how you try to explain it. Von Kreisler sees it this way: "I've had animals all my life, and taken care of them, and finally realized how they really take care of me, too."
During World War II, British Sgt. Cyril Jones was helplessly caught by his parachute in a tree in the jungles of Sumatra, Indonesia. A wild monkey, perhaps recognizing Sergeant Jones's hunger and vulnerability, gathered bananas and bamboo shoots and fed them to the soldier for 12 days straight. Even after Jones finally managed to cut himself loose, the monkey stayed with him. The animal continued to provide fruit as Jones searched for his regiment.
A puppy to the rescue
Misty, a six-month-old field spaniel puppy, was asleep in her family's house one night when a fire broke out. Seven family members awoke and rushed outside. In the darkness, smoke, and confusion, though, the family couldn't locate 2-year-old Alex. Meanwhile, Misty kept trying to run back into the house through the kitchen door. Family members kept pushing her back, out of harm's way.
Finally, the puppy managed to race into the burning living room. Alex's grandfather - a firefighter - ran after her. He found Misty only because her neon-pink collar glowed in the smoke. With flames all around her, she was sitting under the dining-room table beside Alex. The frightened toddler was trying to hide from the flames. Thanks to Misty, the grandfather was able to rescue Alex. (Misty was fine, too.)
Lulu stops traffic
She looked like a hairy mushroom, her owner says. Lulu was a 209-pound pot-bellied pig with thick gray hide and spindly legs. One day her owner, Jo Ann, became ill, fell down, and began to cry. Lulu waddled over to Jo Ann and started crying, too. Then Lulu wriggled her huge bulk through a tiny door made for a 25-pound dog. Lulu then unlatched the front gate with her snout and threw herself into the street, hooves in the air, apparently trying to stop passing cars. Periodically, Lulu would squeeze back through the dog door to reassure Jo Ann, then go back outside to resume her task. Finally, a driver stopped, found Jo Ann, and called for help.
(This, and the stories on the facing page, are from Kristen von Kreisler's "Beauty in the Beasts.")
Note to parents and teachers
Kristen Von Kreisler's book, "Beauty in the Beasts," is not written for children. While the stories turn out positively, on the whole, a significant number contain vivid details and situations (i.e., violence, distress) that young children would find disturbing. If the book were a movie, it would be PG-13.
We chose to present this interview because children love animals and stories about them. We also thought they would enjoy a discussion of animals' capabilities.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor