Can Animals be Altruistic ?

“No act of kindness,
no matter how small,
is ever wasted.”

“If we all do one random act of kindness daily,
we just might set the world in the right direction.”
Martin Kornfeld


“Comptine d’un autre été  – l’après-midi” (Rhyme of another summer – the afternoon) by Yann Tiersen:



Some time ago 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.

A clip from Our Planet showing these beautiful creatures in action:


A clip from Planet Earth Live showing humpback whales’ attempt to save grey whales from attack by killer whales



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 the 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 to 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 the 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?

A clip of this amazing rescue:


It has been documented time and time again that animal empathy transcends the barriers that divide the species. Altruism among animals is a fact.

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 became even ‘a fully enlisted soldier’. After the end of the war, the regiment and Wojtek settled in Scotland.

His story has been told in several books and he has a statue. Aileen Orr wrote 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.”

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 chooses 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.


The wonderful Peyo at work:

For some moments of reflection, the cathartic Eclogue for Piano and Strings Op. 10 by Gerald Finzi:


Being passionate about nature isn’t a one-way only commitment to help wildlife and the environment using our knowledge and skills. By observing nature closely it is obvious that animals and plants respond to our care by showing their appreciation in many ways. I would even dare to suggest that by following the mantra of our pets, wild animals in need and plants, we could aspire to be better humans. What mantra? It is: “I aim to please.” The enthusiastic greetings of our dogs when we are back home, cats rolling tummy up to make us laugh, the gratitude of those wild animals that have been saved from cruel treatment or illness, and the flourishing of well-cared-for plants and trees, prove that the environment reciprocates our efforts. This fact was noticed in ancient times – Egyptians referred to birds as highly valued friends, and Aesop recounts a story of a lion with a thorn in his paw being helped by a mouse who removed the thorn because the lion hadn’t squashed her on a previous occasional encounter.

It takes so little effort to please others, so little trouble to make someone happy. In one of his famous classic films, Cary Grant remarked: “If only we could be more like humans, we would create Heaven right here on Earth.”  My and all the animals in my wildlife garden’s sentiments exactly.

And the heavenly sounds of Bach’s Air on the G string are a fitting conclusion to this post.

PS Here is an interesting book for those who want to know more about these wonderful animals:




























































54 thoughts on “Can Animals be Altruistic ?

  1. Thank you, Dear Cheryl. for such heartfelt comments. There are humans who are caring, while other’s only concern is money. I read more about other cases of animals helping saving humans, and it warms my heart.



  2. Thank you again. Greatly appreciated.



  3. Wonderful post! Humpback whales are so amazing, I can’t help but wonder how the mind of such an intelligent animal works.


  4. Thank you, Kaiti, for your wonderful comments and your beautiful writing! As we don’t know fully how the human brain works, we are a long way before we understand nature and animals’ intelligence, but we can have empathy.



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