Rats Free Trapped Labmates: Is Empathy Universal to Animals?

Do rats have empathy? A new study hinted that empathy isn't unique to humans and a few smart mammals, but may actually be a universal trait in the animal kingdom:

“Rats help other rats in distress. That means it’s a biological inheritance,” said neurobiologist Peggy Mason of the University of Chicago. “That’s the biological program we have.”

In a study published Dec. 7 in Science, Mason and University of Chicago psychologists Jean Decety and Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal describe their rat empathy-testing apparatus: An enclosure into which pairs of rats were placed, with one roaming free and the other restrained inside a plastic tube. It could only be opened from the outside, which is exactly what the free rats did — again and again and again, seemingly in response to their trapped companions’ distress.

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Anyone interested in this story and rats in general will appreciate my experiences with one of my resident pack rats. The resulting documentary absolutely proves to me that rats are intelligent, social and even initiate friendships with people.

I have been live-trapping and releasing my resident pack rats since I moved to northeast Oregon twelve years ago. I know sometimes they almost beat me back home. Last year I released a rat who immediately sprinted to my car, looked up the right rear tire, climbed inside somewhere, and then hitched a ride back home! I have him doing this on film FOUR times - one time I even parked the car in the opposite direction. He ran directly to my car and climbed up the left front tire. I opened the hood and found him sitting on the spare tire!

Using footage from my camcorder, I made the short film, "BUDDY - The Amazing Pack Rat" which received three Honorary Mentions and was screened at 2011 film festivals. In addition to all of his returns to the car, this true story shows Buddy doing the “pack rat” thing (collecting “gifts”) in broad daylight, and connected to an oxygen machine so that a tick could be removed at the veterinary clinic. The 13-minute short documentary reveals rare or never-before-seen footage of wild pack rat activities as Buddy and Bonnie develop an unbelievably unique and heartwarming friendship.

Please check out www.buddytheamazingpackrat.com. I am very excited about sharing my experiences with “Buddy” and increasing awareness about animals in general.

Bonnie Norton
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@Jerome, how do you know that? What experience do you have with rats?

I've owned rats for several years, and I have seen empathy many, many times. For example, one of my rats has cerebral damage and was blind for a while. During that time, one of my other rats literally led him around the cage, He would either nose him in the right direction or gently put his paws against one side to help keep him from falling. How is that "curiosity"?

Another time, one of my girls fell and tweaked a muscle in her neck. One of the others spent the rest of the night massaging her neck, clearly trying to make it better.

I don't know that ALL animals have empathy (although I do believe they do), but it is pretty obvious to me that rats care about one another.
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