A friend sent me a very interesting link to a report about empathy in rats. I was interested for 2 reasons--1) the question of whether animals as well as humans can feel empathy is very intriguing, and 2) I really like rats. They're one of my favorite animals.
Please check out the video on YouTube. Then consider the emotional life of rats and other animals with me.
We had a pet rat in my class of 4- and 5-year-olds for several years. His name was Squeaks, and he was the most gentle, good-natured guy you'd ever want to know. He would sit on the kids' laps and let them pet him like a cat; he would let them carry him around in their sweatshirt pockets; he would give them little rat kisses. I learned a lot about rats, studying them with the kids. Rats are highly social creatures, organized into coherent and efficient social structures in their rat societies. They're very smart, and I have to think that intelligence is a necessary component of empathy. I don't think turtles are smart enough to be able to understand something from another turtle's viewpoint; I think rats are that smart. I also think that caring for infants is another requirement for empathy. Animals--mainly mammals and birds--that care for their own young have to be able to feel compassion and to understand what their infants need--i.e. they must have empathy for their infants.
So I believe that many animals can and do feel empathy, not only for others of their own species, but also for other species sometimes (dogs and their owners will back me up on that, I'm sure!)
Of course, this raises the question of whether we humans should feel empathy for other animals, and what we should do about that. One obvious thing is that we should feel the pain of animals raised on factory farms in horrible conditions (see the movie, "Food, Inc.") Are we participating in the torture of animals when we order a hamburger at a fast food place or pick up one of those convenient, already-roasted chickens at the grocery store? I'd say yes. Taking it one step further, many vegetarians would say that our empathy for animals should prevent us from eating them at all. Where do you fall on the food continuum? My older son won't eat intelligent animals--no more calamari, no more pork--but will sometimes eat fish, or humanely-raised chickens or beef. My middle son is a vegetarian. I can no longer in good conscience order chicken or other meat in a restaurant unless they specifically say it comes from a local, sustainable, humanely-conducted family farm. I'm still thinking about the issue of eating intelligent animals.
Well, I guess we've gone a bit afield from the question of whether animals can feel empathy. Do watch the video. You'll learn that rats are nicer to each other than we humans often are!