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  • Cited by 10
  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: June 2012

22 - On the Possibility of Animal Empathy



Animal empathy has received little attention. In monkeys and apes, however, it is not unusual for one individual to respond emotionally to the distress of others. These responses have been measured in observational research and tested experimentally, allowing the conclusion that emotional resonance and targeted helping are within the capacity of other animals.


When Carolyn Zahn-Waxler visited homes to find out how children responded to family members who were instructed to feign sadness (sobbing), pain (crying), or distress (choking), she discovered that children a little over one year of age already comfort others. Since expressions of sympathy emerge at an early age in virtually every member of our species, they are as natural as the first step. An unplanned sidebar to this study, however, was that some household pets appeared to be as worried as the children by the “distress” of a family member, hovering over them or putting their heads in their laps (Zahn-Waxler et al., 1984).

The possibility that animals possess empathy and sympathy has received scant systematic attention due to two factors. One is fear of anthropomorphism, which has created unnecessary taboos surrounding animal emotions (de Waal, 1999). The other hampering influence has been Huxley's (1894) dualism between nature and ethics, which still dominates the thinking of some contemporary biologists. This “nature red in tooth and claw” view has little room for kindness, human or animal.

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