Tag Archives: Empathy

Empathy & Monk Seals

I’m packing my bags again, this time for an overnight flight Honolulu and then on to Kaua’i. Hawaiian monk seals and albatrosses occupy my mind, and I can’t wait to be back on headlands with albatross chicks, and on beaches near monk seal pups and mums (if lucky!).

RK13 and pup
RK13 and pup

There has been some good talk on the radio recently about how we humans really need to develop our capacity for empathy towards each other (listen here). I agree. And at the same time, I have to say that we need greater empathy toward all creatures, not just the human ones. Along these lines, some of the most interesting science findings in recent years are those showing that many nonhuman animals experience and act on empathy.

Frans de Waal is the leading figure here. In his great condensation of a lifetime of research, ‘Putting the altruism back into altruism’, he writes that ‘empathy allows one to quickly and automatically relate to the emotional states of others’. His research shows that empathy is widespread across mammals and birds (and there is other new research to show that something like empathy exists among plants as well). As a scientist, he is clear that there must be an evolutionary advantage to empathy, and he deduces that for social animals the capacity for empathy is integral to rearing new generations, and to sustaining social relations amongst adults (read here).

Across species, empathy works in beautifully complicated and captivating ways. We are empathetic creatures ‘by nature’, but we can also reject our own experience. The great author Coetzee brings out this point in his difficult and challenging book Disgrace. His central character is a rather desiccated, self-centred man named David Lurie. The book concerns his fall into disgrace, and it follows this descent in  numerous contexts one of which concerns animals. David ends up working at an animal refuge (for dogs especially) which functions primarily as a euthanasia centre.

He found that the more time he spent with the dogs, the greater became his capacity to experience anguish on their behalf. The more he brought them into the death room, the more committed he became to a world in which this kind of disposal would not be necessary. Dogs were humanising him, and to his disgrace he refused all fundamental changes. Empathy, this wonderful book tells us, has the capacity to be life transforming, but it is a two-way process:

We can be called into empathy, but we have to respond.

Thoughts of empathy were at the front of my thinking because on a previous trip to Hawaii I had the opportunity to be close to a mother monk seal and her pup. Hawaiian monk seals are critically endangered, probably the most vulnerable of all marine mammals. From a species point of view, mothers and pups are incredibly precious.

RK13 had given birth to numerous pups – she was an experienced mother. Usually she hauled out on beaches on the island of Kaua’i until almost time to give birth, and then she would go elsewhere. The year I was there was different. Not long before giving birth she had been bitten by a shark (she may be losing sight in one eye). She had gone into the canal for protection, and she did not eat much while she recovered from her wounds. The result was that she didn’t travel to a far away beach to give birth, and she wasn’t in top condition. Her pup was a healthy little fellow and he grew like mad while drinking her rich, nourishing milk.  Monk seal mums do not feed themselves while nursing their young, so it is a question of timing: will the mother’s reserves last long enough to enable the pup to achieve independence? In the case of RK13 this was a real worry because of her recent history. It all seems to have turned out fine, but when I saw the two of them it was clearly evident that this was a mum who had gone through a lot. Her backbone and vertebrae were startlingly visible, as was one shark scar.

Hawaiian Monk Seal RK13 and pup
Hawaiian Monk Seal RK13 and pup

What really struck me, though, was the sudden empathy I felt with her desire to wean the little pup. We tend to think of empathy in relation to suffering, or to the admirable qualities of fairness, helpfulness, generosity, and so on. But being with other mothers reminds one that there is also the empathy one feels with irritability and grumpiness. Seeing RK13 trying to gain some respite from the demanding little pup was a great lesson in the shared experiences of mammalian life. Mother love and the fierce commitment to nurturing   eventually bump up against the fact that young have to be weaned. Rarely do youngsters welcome this change of life!

I made a little home video of RK13 and her pup (view here). You can see her starved condition along with the plump vibrancy of her healthy little pup. And you can see her intensely mammalian-mother desire just to have some peace and quiet!

More to follow ….

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)


Recent work on the need for empathy is the driving passion of Dr Roman Krznaric and can be followed up on his website:  http://www.romankrznaric.com/empathy-a-handbook-for-revolution