Human beings are capable of feeling empathy: this – according to many philosophers – is what separates us from beasts, although those of us who live in close contact with dogs take exception to this division. Dogs have been known to display remarkable insight and compassion. It can be argued that these attributes were obtained from close association with people, that animals in their natural state obey only the basic instincts of survival and reproduction.
Several years ago, an aunt returned from a trip down the Nile with an amazing gift: a series of slides taken by a professional photographer who was in the right place at the right time. The slide show began with a crocodile capturing an antelope, perhaps young or one of the smaller species like a dik-dik. Almost immediately, the croc is itself attacked by an enraged hippopotamus. The hippo's assault is so vigorous that the crocodile abandons its prey and flees. The hippo then gently nudges the wounded antelope onto shore and performs what appears to be mouth to mouth resuscitation. Tenderly, the hippo remains for several hours beside the injured animal. When the antelope finally dies, the hippo leaves.
After viewing these slides, I found it impossible not to conclude that the hippopotamus felt empathy for the wounded antelope. Hippos -- unlike dogs -- have no association with humans and as herbivores are usually considered low on the intelligence ladder. So apparently even "dumb" animals are capable of understanding the pain of others, even individuals of other species.
My puppy Rainy is now fourteen months old -- almost full grown -- but he persists in grabbing his companion by the throat or the leg, often biting down so hard that the older dog squeals. The puppy doesn't bite because he's angry or to deliberately hurt the other dog -- there's not a mean bone in his body. He just doesn't seem to understand that his companion is capable of feeling pain.
My theory is that all young animals -- including human children -- are sociopaths: they recognize things that cause physical pain for them but don't generalize to assume that these same things will cause pain to others. Only with experience (and teaching) can some youngsters learn to regard and respect the physical (and later, much later, the emotional) well-being of others. Empathy will usually begin with those most similar to the child -- family, friends, one's own species -- but with true higher animals -- like the hippo in the slide show -- compassion will expand to include non-related forms of life.
All of this is a long introduction to explain why I am nervous this fawn season. The problem with fawns is that, besides being impossibly cute, they are impossibly vulnerable: it's as if they were created to be killed. Their only defense is luck: a newborn fawn can't run, can't escape, can't defend itself in any way. I have no idea of how many fawns survive the first month of life but would guess that nearly half are killed by coyotes, foxes, eagles, bears, wolves, hawks, raccoons, -- and domestic dogs. Dogs that have lived with me for a few years know that I do not approve of killing fawns and they abstain from that activity either from empathy with me or to avoid rousing my ire. But this year I have two new dogs -- and right now we're surrounded by scores of baby fawns.
Early in the fawn season, Ole the shelter dog, with his long legs and hyper-chase mode, disappeared for several minutes and returned with a swoosh of fresh blood on his cheek. Of course, I assumed the worst and delivered a thorough scolding (which, with Ole, consisted of putting my hands on my hips and scowling). He's been a choir boy since then.
But yesterday I noticed the puppy Rainy sniffing around a fir tree. I called to him -- usually he responds instantly and enthusiastically -- but this time he just plunked down under the tree. From thirty yards away I watched Rainy lower his head, and then I heard the tell-tale bleat of a fawn. My heart sank.
Rainy came to me then, trotting obediently with the fawn -- legs nearly dragging on the ground -- clutched by the midsection between his jaws. My first reaction was to locate my other dog -- the known killer -- but Ole had remained at my side during the entire incident and displayed absolutely no interest what the puppy held in his mouth. The fawn bleated again.
"Rainy!" I begged. "Rainy, drop it! Please drop it! Come here!"
I knew if I tried to grab the fawn, Rainy would get defensive, run away, maybe even bite down harder or shake the poor thing. The fawn bleated again. It was still alive. I didn't see any blood, no sign of injury. Rainy is a Labrador retriever, bred for a soft mouth and no killer instinct.
"Rainy, Rainy, please," I sobbed. I felt totally helpless. Every bleat from that poor captured fawn tore my heart loose. "Rainy, please, please drop it.
In Rainy's fourteen months of life, had he learned to love me, to empathize with my tears, my pleading, my passion? Rainy's empathy meant life or death for this pathetic soul of a fawn. It bleated again. I sobbed, weakly, wordlessly, helplessly.
Rainy dropped the fawn.
I called. Rainy came, leaving the fawn sprawled as it had dropped, frozen, the inborn instinct of non-movement overriding its fear. The brown eyes were open and clear.
I tried to shepherd the dogs away but Rainy bolted -- not toward the fawn he'd just dropped but back to the fir tree where he'd made his discovery. I followed him at a run, fearful of what I'd find but determined -- like that hippo -- to defend what remained alive in whatever way possible. In a shadowed hollow under the down-swept fir limbs, I saw another fawn, smaller than the one Rainy had stolen, as delicate as spring, eyes open and body pressed into the earth as if it had grown from the red-brown mat of duff. It had not been touched. Neither dog made any move toward the nest. As we -- my two empathetic dogs and I – headed down the trail toward home, a white tail doe watched from a nearby knoll.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources