The Gift of Empathy

Let’s talk about empathy, and an animal that displays it at shockingly high levels – the elephant.

What is empathy? My understanding is that it’s the ability to put one’s self in the position of someone or something else. For example, when we see pain in an animal, human or otherwise, it bothers most of us. We may not do this consciously, but what we’re doing is sort of imagining what that being is experiencing by virtually placing ourselves in that situation. And when we’re in that virtual situation, we think, “I don’t like this…  they probably don’t like it either.” And then we feel bad.

Empathy is somewhat easier to have when the pain and suffering is in our face.  But as individuals we are exposed to such a small percentage of what’s happening in the world.  From an animal welfare/rights perspective, most of the pain and suffering non-human animals experience is purposely hidden from us.  For example, meat is packaged nicely at the grocery store and ag-gag laws prevent us from seeing what really goes into getting that meat packaged even if we wanted to know. Some dog breeders won’t show you where the animals are kept – they just show up with a cute lil puppy in a parking lot somewhere, or sell puppies to a clean pet store. Even more subtle, zoos put lonely, depressed animals on display and then tell us that they’re fine, that their behavior is natural. But, none of this is the whole story. And, it is much harder for us to imagine the ways in which these animals suffer when we are not seeing it firsthand. I submit that these days, none of us can claim ignorance regarding animal suffering anymore. Everyone is on blast, and even if they are not, in these trying times we should all have a healthy level of skepticism about…. well, everything.

It takes what I like to call “advanced empathy” to have the same feelings of compassion and shared suffering when we can’t see an animal suffering firsthand. The good news is that a lot of people have advanced empathy. The bad news is that a LOT of people do not. (looking at you, NRA).

 Let’s take a behind the scenes look at the current administration’s demented game of ping-pong with the ivory ban:

  • Admin:  we’ll lift the ivory ban for no apparent reason
  • Animal advocates: WHAT, elephants are on their way to extinction and they’re having their tusks ripped from their faces. How is sending Americans on hunting safaris going to solve this problem what is wrong with you everyone knows even the DC Circuit OMG 
  • Admin: okay maybe we won’t, that sounds kinda bad
  • NRA and SCI: here is money also can we join your board 
  • Admin: Ban lifted! Who cares about elephants



This is a great example of a situation in which knowledge and empathy (if they exist) aren’t enough. Empathy might have a stronger pull than the mechanical choice between good versus bad. Unfortunately, empathy and money aren’t comparable foes, so where the process breaks down is in our weaponry. Animal advocates are attempting to inject empathy into the decision-making process, and the gun lizards are just using money. It’s really a disappointing mess.

So what do animal advocates do? Animal advocacy isn’t a rich-people sport like hunting. We are tired of the “small victories” being overshadowed by the endless suffering that no one in charge seems to care about. It feels like constant loss and it’s depressing. (Spoiler alert: there is no resolution in this poorly organized blog post).

I for one have decided to embrace my own empathetic tendencies. Sure, it means I get sad easier. But if I can muster the energy to turn my feelings into actions, then I have an endless supply of ammunition. I will never run out of empathy, but my opponents may eventually run out of money or power.



Oh yeah – elephants.

Elephants are SUPER empathetic.

Just one of the many reasons we should strive to be more like them.  Elephants grieve for their dead, help each other, and show signs of emotional stress when another elephant is hurt.  

The elephants also ran to stand beside their friend, touched her with their trunks to soothe her, and made soft chirping sounds. Sometimes one would even put her trunk inside the other’s mouth, a behavior elephants find particularly comforting, the researchers say.

Brb going to find a stressed-out person so I can stick my nose in their mouth.

Also, elephants are proactive in displaying empathy, from World Animal Protection’s blog:

Scientists have observed many cases of maternal and non-maternal elephants defending calves from dangerous situations such as chasing predators away, stopping aggressive play fights or pushing other individuals away. Such situations do not always elicit distress or pain signals in the calf, and so the protector elephants are predicting their potential distress, rather than just responding to cues.

So the elephants are predicting distress, not just responding to cues.

I don’t know a lot of humans with this level of empathy.  Dedicated to looking out for the well-being of others, rather than just trouble shooting.  We need to save elephants not just because we think they are like us, but because they are literally better than us.

So the knowledge that animals are suffering should be sufficient to encourage us to make changes in our daily lives that benefit them. But the best way to help animals is to change the way we think about them.  And not just the way we think about animals, but how we think about anything going on in the world that doesn’t directly concern us at an individual level.  The greater good. Whatever you want to call it. Let’s challenge ourselves to broaden our perspective, and shift our decision making accordingly.

Sure, consuming fewer animals products, perhaps going completely vegan, speaking out, volunteering, donating, etc, are all good ways to help.  Taking any sort of action for animals propagates more action. Let’s start by recognizing we owe it to ourselves as a collective mankind to hold everyone’s interests, including animal interests, in high regard.