Interspecies compassion? Orangutan inspects burn victim’s injuries (VIDEO)

A YouTube video came through my newsfeed a few days ago. The June 2017 video, which has been seen more than 3.1 million times, shows a 12-year-old orangutan named Rocky interacting with Darci Miller, a 2015 burn victim, at the Indianapolis Zoo.

The first thought or question that crossed my mind was, what was it about Miller that piqued Rocky’s curiosity? What was different about her from any other hundreds of humans who pass his enclosure every day? That, alone, was amazing to me.

It doesn’t stop there. I was completely entranced as I watched the great ape communicating with Miller by using his fingers to point at different areas of her body. Next question: Who taught him how to point? How does he know what pointing means? How does he know pointing would be understood by the party to whom he was pointing? What I was watching here was communication between two different species.

Next question: Exactly what was he trying to communicate to Miller? What did he want? Miller initially thought he was interested in her tattoos. Understandably, her tats are likely what interests her friends and family. But, no. Rocky was entirely uninterested in her body art. What Rocky wanted to see were her injuries, as Jason Costello, Miller’s fiancé, figured out as he filmed the interaction.

It’s your neck. He wants you to show him.

Miller then steps closer to the glass that separates them and obliges him. As she bares her skin by partially peeling away the bandages that cover her injuries, I watched Rocky’s eyes as he closely and carefully examined each area – even moving around to get a better view of them. When he finished inspecting one area, he pointed to another area – and another, and another.

According to CBS News, the amazing interaction between the two lasted for about 20 minutes, although only a little over a minute was captured on video.

 

 

Communication between people is the sharing and understanding of information. Interspecies communication is the same thing, except it’s between different species. Interspecies communication may be amazing to some, but not to those of us with animals comprising our family unit. We communicate with our dogs, cats, ferrets, horses, pigs, goats, etc., every single day.

The overarching question for purposes of this op-ed is, was Rocky merely curious at what lay underneath Miller’s bandages, or was he genuinely concerned? Either is a matter of debate both scientists and philosophers have had for decades. However, if the latter, then what I saw in that viral video is evidence that interspecies compassion is real.

Many scientists argue that people who claim animals have emotions are engaging in anthropomorphism – “the attribution of human traits, emotions, and intentions to nonhuman entities….”

A paper published by Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in 1995 (substantively revised on Oct. 24, 2016) talks about the issue in terms of “Animal Consciousness.” There are different or varying notions of consciousness, the topic of which is beyond the scope of this op-ed. Suffice it to say that whether animals have emotions – or feel compassion (either intraspecies of interspecies) – depends on the animals’ level of consciousness.

Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at New York University, makes a “survival circuit” argument. Dr. LeDoux posits that animals have feelings, but “they are different between different species of animals. He explains that:

whether with the wag of a tail or a smile, they come from the same basic ‘survival circuits’ in the brain, which are the same in all mammals. [1]

On the other hand, there are numerous articles arguing that animals not only feel basic emotions – such as fear and anger – but complex emotions – such as love, compassion, sympathy, jealousy, and hatred.

Marc Bekoff, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, says in Do Animals Have Emotions?, that:

Research has shown that mice are empathic rodents, but it turns out they’re fun-loving as well. We also read accounts of pleasure-seeking iguanas; amorous whales; angry baboons; elephants who suffer from psychological flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD—elephants have a huge hippocampus, a brain structure in the limbic system that’s important in processing emotions); grieving otters, magpies and donkeys; sentient fish; and a sighted dog who serves as a “seeing-eye dog” for his blind canine buddy. Today, the paradigm has shifted to such an extent that the burden of ‘proof’ now falls on those who still argue that animals don’t experience emotions.

Moreover, in response to an essay written in Psychology Today, entitled The Seven Things That Only Humans Beings Can Do, by Neel Burton, M.D., Bekoff concedes that “[humans] are exceptional in various ways…;” but, he goes on to argue the article is “misleading.” He then provides several examples of animal behavior that contradict Burton’s claims. [2]

More and more scientists now recognize that animals do, indeed, possess rich emotional lives. In a Feb. 2016 article published in NYMag.com, entitled “Maybe It’s Time to Take Animal Feelings Seriously,” Melissa Dahl says:

[N]ew studies … along with a slew of recent books by respected biologists and science writers, are seriously considering the inner lives of animals. Now some prominent scientists are arguing that, though the impulse was well-intentioned, decades of knee-jerk avoidance of all things anthropomorphic may have mostly served to hold this field back. ‘It ruined the field,’ biologist and author Carl Safina told Science of Us. ‘Not just held it back — it’s ruined the field. It prevented people from even asking those questions for about 40 years.’

I am not a scientist by any stretch of the imagination. However, based on my personal experiences with various species of animals in my lifetime, I believe I witnessed more than mere curiosity – which doesn’t make the interaction any less astonishing. I believe I witnessed compassion from one species to another species; from Rocky, an orangutan, to Miller, a human being.

Two different species – homo sapiens and pongo pygmaeus or pongo abelii (I don’t know which one, but from the pongo genus) – standing face-to-face in what I perceived as an intimate moment of compassion and empathy is a sight I will never forget.

Truly mesmerizing.

(Source: Screenshot from YouTube video, “Rocky the orangutan interacting with burn survivor!”

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[1] Welsh, Jennifer. “How Animal and Human Emotions Are Different.” 29 Feb. 2012, Live Science.

[2] Bekoff, Burton. “Animals Don’t Laugh, Think, Get Depressed, or Love Declares a Psychiatrist.” 3 Sept. 2012, Psychology Today.

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