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Emotions with a nose

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013 4:57 a.m. CDT

To anybody who spends a lot of time with animals, the march of science sometimes seems to lag common sense.

Some years ago, I read an article in the New York Times about behavioral psychologists — university researchers with PhDs — who announced that after long study and many experiments, they’d concluded that dogs have emotions recognizably like our own.

I phoned my friend Randy, a veterinarian. Did this finding strike him as newsworthy? It did not.

“A (bleeping) dog,” he said “is emotions with a nose.”

Indeed, most dog lovers would say that dogs are rather more emotional than humans, mainly because the only feeling they sometimes hide is fear. Want to see joyous excitement? Pick up your dog’s leash and walk to the door. Dejection? Put it down and exit without him.

Whenever he’s left “alone” with the other twenty-odd animals on our place, Jesse the Great Pyrenees acts as stricken, as if he fears we’re never coming back.

As for empathy, he’s often better at reading my wife’s moods than I am. Mine too. Any time I’m angry or frustrated about something, I’m getting a big white nose in my hand. Otherwise, he’s as stubborn and independent-minded as most of his livestock-guarding breed.

Fearless too. Best not to mess with a calf on Jesse’s watch. I once saw him throw a coyote about three feet, and then pick up and carry my neighbor’s baby goat back to its mama. Between him and his consort Maggie, we feel awfully safe around here. Although accepting of strangers, I believe they’d defend us with everything that’s in them.

The altruism of dogs, however, is something we’ve bred into them over thousands of years. Among the oldest products of human genetic engineering, dogs are pretty much what we’ve made them. Observing breeds of dog (not to mention pigeons) was one of the things that started Darwin thinking.

Other domestic animals exhibit cross-species empathy too. When I first learned to ride, my quarter horse Rusty got frightened by something and bolted. I lost a stirrup and decided to do an emergency dismount before I got thrown.

I was lying on my face in a winter wheat field making sure I could still wiggle my toes when I felt a tickling sensation on the back of my neck -- Rusty’s whiskers. Instead of galloping back to the barn without me, he’d come back to make sure I was OK.

No philanthropist, on other occasions Rusty had untied himself and trotted home without me. The difference seemed to be his concern for my well-being.

For that matter, nobody can observe a herd of cows form a protective phalanx around a newborn calf without understanding that the animals’ feelings for each other are deeply embedded in their DNA.

But rats? An animal that’s been synonymous with cunning and treachery pretty much since the Black Death of the fourteenth century? After all, to “rat somebody out” is to betray them in order to gain an advantage for oneself.

Anyway, that’s the latest revelation from Science Magazine, also reported in the Washington Post. As a means of testing the “biological roots of empathically motivated helping behavior,” researchers at the University of Chicago devised an elegant experiment to determine if the rodents gave the proverbial rat’s a__ about each other.

After housing lab rats in pairs for a couple of weeks, they imprisoned one animal in an unpleasantly restrictive cage capable of being opened from the outside. Then they turned its roommate into the enclosure to see what would happen and videotaped the proceedings.

Visibly agitated by their friend’s plight, and made fearful by its distress calls — “emotional contagion,” scientists call it — “[f]ree rats circled the restrainer, digging at it and biting it, and contacted the trapped rat through holes in the restrainer.”

When by chance their actions made the cage pop open, the rescuers first froze in fear. Then the pair began sniffing, grooming each other and exploring the larger enclosure together like old friends. Over roughly a week, all of the female and most male rats learned to open the cage by deliberate action.

They did so even after the experiment was altered to cause the imprisoned animal to exit into a second enclosure — i.e. strictly to relieve their companion’s stress.

Even more remarkably, the animal’s altruism survived the addition of tasty chocolate chips into the experiment. Most often, “free rats” not only liberated their pals, but usually saved a treat or two for their buddy in the slammer.

Neurobiologist Peggy Mason told the Post that surprised her: “To actually share food -- this is a big deal to a rat ... I didn’t think they would do that.”

True to her discipline, Mason thinks that the experiment tends to show that the origins of even the most seemingly “selfless” actions lie deeply embedded in the biology of all social animals.

———

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.

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