In a simple experiment, researchers at the University of Chicago sought to find out whether a rat would release a fellow rat from an unpleasantly restrictive cage if it could. The answer was yes.
The free rat, occasionally hearing distress calls from its compatriot, learned to open the cage and did so with greater efficiency over time. It would release the other animal even if there wasn’t the payoff of a reunion with it. Astonishingly, if given access to a small hoard of chocolate chips, the free rat would usually save at least one treat for the captive — which is a lot to expect of a rat.
The researchers came to the unavoidable conclusion that what they were seeing was empathy — and apparently selfless behavior driven by that mental state.
“A New Model of Empathy: The Rat” by David Brown, Washington Post
Rats are pretty amazing animals. Sure, they’re not quite up there with chimps or dolphins, but it’s really interesting to watch how dependent they really are on social interaction. When you keep a rat as a pet, you pretty much have to have another rat to keep them company, unless you plan on giving them attention for like two hours a day — of course there are outliers, as with anything — rats who prefer to be solitary, that sort of thing. But generally speaking, they’re very curious, social animals that tend to get bored easily. And I could be anthropomorphizing here, but they actually do seem to get lonely and seem to form pretty strong attachments with their cagemates, and even with other animals and people in the house if given the chance. When I had my three girls, and one died, the other two died within two weeks. Of course, this happens with many animals, like dogs and cats, who get very attached to one another — if one dies or gets sick, the other can get depressed (for lack of a better term).
…tl;dr empathy in animals is a fascinating subject and I can go on about it forever. On a related note, cruel behavior by animals is also an interesting subject — dolphins and chimps are actually particularly notorious for behavior that seems like violence for violence’s sake, or acting cruelly even when it doesn’t seem to serve a ‘practical’ purpose (‘practical’ meaning things like being territorial, vying for mates, protecting offspring, etc.) (of course for all we know it could be serving a purpose and we just aren’t thinking outside the box enough but that’s a different subject).