As neurobiologist Jaak Panskepp (whose theories are central to Temple Grandin’s ‘Making Animals Happy’ reviewed here) points out, empathy is considered by many to be a human trait – why should a rat value the life of another unrelated rat? Its survival of the fittest, right? Wrong.
Scientists have shown that many animals such as chickens and primates and most recently, rats, are capable of feeling empathy towards one another. The scientists found that rats would actively work to release a captive rat and that they even did this when the captive rat was released into another container and there was no reward of social interaction. “There is nothing in it for them except for whatever feeling they get from helping another individual,” said Peggy Mason, the neurobiologist who conducted the experiment.
A rat having the ability to display empathy shows that they not only have emotions of their own, but also the ability to understand that others have emotions too. This ability is known as theory of mind – a level of intelligence even human children lack for the first couple of years of their lives.