New Study Confirms Rats Have Empathy (But Do We?)

Posted by Matthew Liebman, ALDF Staff Attorney on December 12, 2011

Rats have it rough in our legal system. A judge in Utah recently dismissed cruelty charges against a man who videotaped himself eating a live baby rat and whose court papers argued that rats "should have no legal protections" because “for centuries [they] have been a scourge to humanity.” Most anti-cruelty laws exempt “pest control,” so even unnecessarily painful methods of exterminating rats are typically legal. And the federal Animal Welfare Act, which sets minimal standards for the treatment of animals used in research, exempts rats from its protections.

Yet despite the seeming inability of some judges, lawmakers, regulators, and researchers to find empathy for rats, a new study confirms that rats themselves empathize with each other and will forego personal rewards to liberate their suffering friends.

A study published in Science last week describes an experiment by researchers at the University of Chicago, in which two rats were placed in a cage, one trapped in a small restraint tube. In the vast majority of sessions, the unrestrained rat would become agitated at the alarm calls of his distressed cagemate, then figure out how to open the door of the restrainer to free the trapped rat. To ensure that the liberation was intentional and that the free rats were not just fiddling with the door of the restrainer, the researchers controlled with empty restrainers and restrainers containing stuffed toy rats; the free rats showed little interest in the restraint devices that did not contain fellow live rats, leading the researchers to conclude that the “rats were motivated to move and act specifically in the presence of a trapped cagemate.”

Not only were the rats motivated to act empathically, they also made personal sacrifices to do so. To test the relative value of empathic behavior, the researchers placed chocolate chips in a separate restrainer to see if the free rat would prefer to get these treats instead of helping his cagemate. In a majority of cases, the unrestrained rat would rescue his friend and share the treats. In a few tear-jerking cases, free rats actually carried chocolate chips over to their newly liberated friend and placed it before him, “as if delivering it,” according to one of the researchers.

Studies like this one confirm remarkable behaviors in animals, but unfortunately, we often draw the wrong lessons from them. Instead of accepting that animals–even rats–are empathic, vulnerable, and convivial creatures who deserve to flourish in their own contexts, we again reduce them to objects of study. Already, scientists are clamoring to confirm this study and expand on it with yet more animal research. At what point will we have learned enough about animals to realize that they deserve to be free? When will we finally discover sufficient empathy in the human species to remove the restraints that keep millions of animals confined in laboratories?

In the meantime, each of us can show empathy toward rats by purchasing only products that are not tested on animals, donating only to charities that don’t support experiments on animals, and practicing humane rat control.

9 thoughts on “New Study Confirms Rats Have Empathy (But Do We?)

  1. god bless all creatures they have more compassion than so called human beings in this crazy world

  2. Pamela Frasch says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful blog post, Matthew. As I listened to an NPR piece about this study late last week, I was particularly struck by the comment of Dr. Jeffrey Mogil, a psychology professor at McGill. He said, “It’s always been strange to me that people think that these social abilities that humans have are human-specific, as if they just arrived out of nowhere with no evolutionary antecedent.” Touché, Dr. Mogil!

  3. Marc Bekoff says:

    Good essay indeed – I also wrote something about this study noting that we MUST factor in what we know into the federal Animal Welfare Act –

  4. Micheal Moffat says:

    life has value beyond measure
    Peace and Love

  5. Reneda Cooper Baer says:

    As I’ve said before, it’s always nice to see validated proof of what we animal lovers have known all along! I wish that this would be taken in a positive spirit among researchers, but as noted in the article, it clearly won’t be. It’s just too bad we can’t test on researchers to see what makes them think they can use others for their own benefit.

  6. Carol Cotton says:

    We had a real-life experience with two squirrels in November 2010 with similar results. They were nesting in our attic. They had chewed through a piece of wood to make their way in. We thought there was only one, so when the one was out of the attic we had a contractor seal up the hole with a piece of wood – caulked it, painted it – the whole nine yards. We went inside our house and could still hear movement in the attic. We VERY quickly discovered there were two squirrels. One trapped inside the attic and the other frantically trying to get to her mate. She’d sit on the roof and on the guttering downspout all day every day. We ended up placing a live catch trap in the attic to get him out. Took almost a week, so we had quite a saga going on with a very upset, then depressed female squirrel constantly laying on our roof and barking at us when we went outside!

    We captured the entire event in photos. The photos and the story are posted in one of my photo albums on Facebook.

    A year later we still have the two squirrels living (inseparably) in our yard, plus now they have offspring. We feed them seeds, nuts, berries, and assorted fruits. They don’t think twice about sitting on the limb of a tree outside our office window and barking at us if the neighbors’ cat is stalking them or the birds we feed.

    I have NO doubt that most animals will defend each other and try to help each other in times of need.

  7. Pat says:

    Rats are such great creatures. I’ve been rescuing them from snake food since 1996 and at time had 50plus in my home. I had to move furniture into other rooms to make room for all the cages. I presently have 25 and since most are about 1.5 years of age they are starting to die off but, at least they lived a luxury life with igloos, soft baby blankets, human food and a scratch on the head or back at feeding time.

  8. Norma Campbell says:

    We are so quick to kill rats or anything considered vermin in any painful way possible. They deserve the pain, right!!!

    But we are upset if on death row a convict which painfully killed someone else must suffer a moment of pain during execution.

    Think about the comparison. The rat probably did nothing to us directly, maybe lived in our garden. We want to hurt him in killing him, dont care how much pain involved.

    A killer convict who actually did hurt a human or two we find ourselves concerned over his possible discomfort during execution.


  9. Nancy says:

    I got into a few hot discussions on the subject if animals have souls or not. I always felt they do and this just confirms my belief.

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