Can Animals be Altruistic ?


Recently I watched three times Tom Mustill’s extraordinary documentary on BBC4 about humpback whales living close to the Californian coastline, in Monterey Bay. To watch this giant mammal, over 30 tonnes in weight, propelled by its massive tail to soar upright into the air and then do a turn before splashing back into the ocean, is the most breathtaking spectacle you could ever hope to see. It seems that anyone who watched this detective story about understanding more about the lives and actions of those unique creatures was deeply affected. The featured scientists, divers and photographers have all dedicated their lives to understanding and protecting these special giants of the ocean. India Bourke, an environment writer at the New Statesman, wrote: “One can only hope that if it comes to saving other species, humanity becomes a lot more whale – and fast.” After watching the footage of humpback whales saving other animals and us from predators, I wholeheartedly agree.


What fascinated the scientists in particular was the indisputable fact that humpback whales intervene on behalf of hunted creatures, seals, dolphins, sunfish or even humans. There are over one hundred documented cases of these acts by humpback whales, that clearly aim to improve the welfare of others; an established notion of altruism.  One scientist, a woman biologist, admitted that if it hadn’t happened to her, she would have not believed the story of being saved by a humpback whale. She was filming the humpback whales of the Cook Islands when one came close to her and started pushing her away and towards her boat. Unable to resist the powerful creature (they are 500 times human size), and dismayed by its action, she held on for safety to the whale’s huge fin, and as her camera was working, we could see the close up of the whale’s face and its eye, intelligent and focused, looking at the biologist. It was only when the whale got her close to the boat that the scientist noticed a shark that was being kept away from her. She reached the boat while the humpback whale swam close behind her, making sure that she was safe. Filmed by the crew of the boat from their side, we can see the whale looking while the biologist scrambled on board. She then waved and called out to the waiting humpback whale: ‘I love you too! I love you!’ I am not sure, but I have a feeling that I called the same at the TV screen.

Another witness described seeing and recording on his mobile phone, a group of killer whales washing off an ice floe a seal that was resting on it. As the seal fell into the water, a few humpback whales broke the surface of water and surrounded the seal. One scooped the seal in his fins and held it to his chest. The observers noticed that when the seal started at some point sliding down, the whale put the seal back high on his chest. The humpback whales waited until the killer whales got bored and departed, and only then let go of the seal, who swam back to the safety of the ice floe. There are now 115 recorded similar cases of humpback whales and they provide indisputable proof that humpback whales are altruistic. As we know very little about these mysterious creatures, researchers are working on many questions; from how long do they live to why do they rise in the air in ‘breach’, and why do they save humans, after more than 2 million whales were killed in the last century before the law of protection was introduced?  Why?

A few years ago in India, in the city of Kanpur, a crowd of commuters witnessed something extraordinary happening. A monkey walking on the overhead high-tension cables got electrocuted and fell down onto the railway track, and was lying unconscious. Another monkey jumped onto the track and started resuscitating his friend by shaking and slapping the unresponsive animal. As nothing seemed to work, he even dunked the victim in cold water that was in a container by the rail track. More slapping and shaking followed, and after more water treatment, finally after 20 minutes of hard work, the by then bedraggled monkey opened his eyes. He was hauled to a safe place off the rails, just as a train pulled into the station. The cheering crowd then watched the survivor even being groomed by his heroic friend. We could all do with a friend like that, couldn’t we?


The starving feral cat that I saved one severe winter, and persuaded to become part of our family was a highly intelligent and observant creature. Although it took me nine months to be able to stroke him, within only three weeks, Freddie, as I named him, realised that the birds in my wildlife garden were under protection. If he wanted a warm bed, gourmet dining and my love, he could not touch them. As he survived on his wits in the wild, it was not a difficult decision to make. He not only wouldn’t kill my birds, but he also protected them from the neighbouring cats.  A few years later I noticed something odd happening every time I opened the front door to let Freddie in, something, a shadow hiding behind an ivy-clad wall bordering our drive. Within a day or two, I could see the shadow’s one eye, a few more days, the whole head of an unknown cat came into view, which would disappear as soon as I stood in the doorway. Finally, some time later, he would emerge in full view but would not come closer. By then I could see that Freddie had befriended this shy creature and was trying to encourage him to come and meet me, to no avail. Freddie decided that drastic action was needed. While I stood watching, he would throw himself tummy up in the middle of our drive, insisting that I stroke him. It was obviously intended to show his friend that I was a good sort and could be trusted. It worked because a few days later, the cat progressed from the edge of the drive to the side of the front door. As I am hospitable, I would put out a plate of tit-bits to welcome Freddie’s guest. Within a week the cat would come to the kitchen and dine with Freddie. It was then obvious that this was an elderly cat, frail and timid. Over several weeks, he become more frail but loved to sleep during the day on the armchair, in the folds of a soft blanket. I found out that his name was Thomas, and he lived with a retired woman, a neighbour, who could usually be heard giving commands to her gardener in a sharp, cut-glass voice. She wasn’t friendly. Her cat had a medical condition and she would take him to the vet often. As Freddie loved him, he was anxious to make him comfortable, and would even groom him. When the cat was not feeling well enough to eat the choice morsels that I prepared especially for him; well-cooked and then shredded pieces of turkey breast, Freddie would push the plate towards his friend. He wanted him to gain strength and get better. Knowing that my neighbour was out every day,  I suggested that if it was convenient to her, I would nurse Thomas during the day. She didn’t comment.  One day Thomas didn’t come in, and as Freddie was very anxious, I reluctantly called my neighbour. Curtly she informed me that she had the cat put down. Tearfully, I asked her why she hadn’t let us at least say goodbye? “Really, Joanna, it was only a cat!”, she exclaimed.

Gaby face

In one of the posts of my blog, I wrote about a rescue dog, an Alsatian called Bruce, who lived as part of our family for twelve years.  When he became ill, we took him to Cambridge Veterinary Hospital. The diagnosis was devastating – he had cancer, and after being wrongly treated by our local vet, he urgently needed an operation. Nothing prepared us for the shocking news the next day – he had died on the operating table. I was numb with grief, and could not eat anything for a week. At that time, real comfort came from a little hedgehog that I had saved from certain death a couple of winters back. To nurse him back to life, I had to carry him upright (he couldn’t breathe otherwise) in a shawl secured around my chest. His nose rested by the side of my neck, and during the day I worked with him in this position. At night I sat on the floor, my back resting against the chest in the spare room. It took three months of this treatment and masses of antibiotics to stabilise him, before he was able to sleep by himself in his full-size bed. And then, Bruce died. That night, Gaby the hedgehog insisted on sleeping with me in my bed, holding onto my neck. As I cried, he would make little sounds of reassurance. This nightly ritual lasted over three months until I was back to functioning normally.  It helped me enormously to know that I had such a friend, and I was grateful to learn that there is animal empathy. It has been documented time and time again that it transcends the barriers that divide the species. Altruism among animals is a fact.

Bruce 02

During World War II, a small, malnourished bear cub was sold by a young boy to a Polish regiment of soldiers travelling through Iraq (Persia). The soldiers knew that his fate would be dreadful, if not rescued, as the cub would be trained in a barbaric way to become a dancing bear. If he was lucky he would die young. The soldiers bought him for a few bits and pieces and a large tin of bully beef. Wojtek, as they called him, was to become their link with normality, and was loved, without exception, by everyone in the regiment. After months of travelling he grew to be a handsome creature, thriving on diluted condensed milk and apples. He loved his saviours as much as they loved him. When the regiment arrived at Monte Cassino, in Italy, the soldiers were preparing to storm the fortress that the Germans had three times  repelled. In the difficult mountain terrain the soldiers started to frantically unload and move into the right position heavy boxes of artillery shells. To their amazement, Wojtek stood upright and extended his paws, indicating that he wanted to move the boxes and help his comrades. He was never trained to handle 100-pound boxes, but observant and intelligent, he instantly realised what the men were doing. Effortlessly he carried the boxes to the artillery position, returning several times to the army lorries to collect more. Monte Cassino was taken by this Polish regiment and this battle became a legend. The bear become even ‘a fully enlisted soldier’. After the end of the war, the regiment and Wojtek settled in Scotland. His story was told in several books and he has a statue. Aileen Orr wrote in her beautiful, touching book ‘Wojtek the Bear’: “His first glimpse of Scotland was Glasgow; thousands of Glaswegians lined the streets to cheer him and his Polish regiment as they marched through the city. In the grey age of post-war austerity, he must have been a considerable spectacle. His story was known to the populace and he was regarded as a war hero, so the welcome was genuine and heartfelt. The bear revelled in it.”

It was reported on the Internet that in Dijon, France, lives an amazing stallion, called Peyo. Twice a month he visits a hospital and a care home to see the most sick and vulnerable patients. It is Peyo who choses whom he will see that day, and with a remarkable sixth sense he always enters the rooms of those who need him most. It is spellbinding to watch the transformation in the sick or elderly, who snuggle up to Peyo’s face and gaze into his eyes; the spiritual connection is there, even though we don’t quite understand how or why he has such a gift. Even a dying young man who had given up on the world and withdrew into himself, unresponsive to medical staff, came back to life and was changed when Peyo touched his face and gazed into his eyes.  As the commentator remarked – some things are best left unanswered, and we have to accept that not everything has an explanation.  At least, not yet.





























































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