Recently I watched a program on strange animal partnerships. The first story featured an old blind horse and the goat that adopted him. Each morning the goat would lead the horse out to graze, skirting any obstacles, and all day they would stay close together. In the evening the horse would follow the goat back to the barn. This was the pattern for several years, until the horse died, and the goat, seemingly bereft, died soon after. There were other odd companions: a deer and a cat, a cheetah and an impala, and most famously, Tara the elephant and Bella the dog. And there were all sorts of unlikely mothers, animals willing to nurse just about anything. My favorite was a calico cat diligently raising a litter of skunks.
One scientist, Temple Grandin, posited that caretaking is an attribute specific to mammals, that our warm-bloodedness keeps us connected on profound levels. However, another story in this program focused on a goose smitten with a tortoise. Not only did this goose bring food to the tortoise, it attacked any other animal that came too close. There was also a story about a barn owl that cavorted with a black cat, and a crow that assumed the care of a kitten.
Maybe it’s not so odd that creatures raised together, even mortal enemies, will overcome their natural instincts and bond instead of fight. But what about animals that link in the wild? In the last segment of the program, a dog chanced upon an abandoned fawn, and they became immediate, playful friends. This alliance lasted for years, the dog waiting patiently for the deer’s inevitable return.
The central questions raised in this documentary were: Do animals feel compassion? Are they empathetic? The answer is fairly obvious, based on the evidence presented, but it invites a deeper question: what, from an animal’s point of view, does compassion feel like? Of course we can never know this, cannot enter the mind of a crow or cheetah, can never leave the frustrating confines of our own consciousness, which is why we must leave room for staggering possibilities.
From what I’ve seen, there is no limit to a dog’s ability to forgive; dogs are actually inclined to forgive: our oversights, our neglect, even our abuse. Dogs always want and expect the best from us. There is no love more unconditional than a dog’s love. Even cats, in their own haughty way, forgive us our humanness when they bunt our heads or settle on our laps. And the unions we enjoy with non-domestic animals are no less rewarding, and often more powerful, on account of their strangeness, as evidenced in that tender video many of us saw of an elephant seal cuddling with a young woman.
There is another video, a more recent one, of a spider monkey showing a person how to crush leaves. Certain plants have insecticidal properties, and monkeys in their canny, unfathomable way, will crush the leaves of these plants and rub them on their fur. In this video, the monkey seems to be trying to teach this method, placing leaves in a human’s hand and then pushing the fingers closed. The monkey seems quite adamant that the human needs to learn this. It’s one of the most touching videos I’ve ever seen because it shows how little we know of the animals we have come to depend on, for companionship, for service, even for help with psychological disorders.
There are three categories in fact, three ways we classify the animals we employ for our own needs: service animals, like seeing eye dogs and miniature horses; comfort animals, like those brought into hospitals and assisted-living facilities; and therapy animals, a group comprised of animals that help calm our demons. Any sort of creature can be considered a therapy animal. There is a parrot, for instance, that accompanies a schizophrenic man named Jim on his daily excursions. Jim adopted this bird after it had been dropped off, in bad shape, at a pet store. Jim nursed the bird back to health, and the bird apparently reciprocated. You see, whenever Jim experienced a psychotic episode coming on, he would pace his apartment, smacking his head with his hands. “Calm down,” he would tell himself. “Be good, Jim. You’re okay, Jim. You’re fine.” The parrot, hearing these words, began to utter them, and Jim found that the words, coming from another source, had a far more calming effect. The parrot also began to nurture Jim in other ways, sensing a psychotic break at the onset and tucking itself under Jim’s neck. We are warned against anthropomorphism, and I do think we are presumptuous in attributing human emotions to animals, in limiting them to the paltry depths of own feelings.
Compassion must be a far different thing in the animal kingdom, some primal, boundless urge we will never fathom.
I do know this: If I had the forgiveness of a dog, the intuition of a parrot and the kindness of a monkey, I would be one very special human.
Jean Ryan is the author of the short story collection Survival Skills and the essay collection Strange Company. Learn more about Survival Skills here, and visit Jean’s website to find other publications and posts.