Unbeastly Behavior ; How Do You Explain Cats Rescuing Puppies, Horses Saving Strangers, and Other 'Noble' Deeds?

Article excerpt

We've all heard stories of how a dog or cat comforted its sad or frightened owner. Maybe you've had an experience like that, too.

But what about a Labrador retriever that barked for an hour in the snow to summon help for a stranger who had fallen into a river?

Or the cat in Hawaii who led a woman to some puppies that had fallen into a 12-foot-deep crack in the earth?

Or Beauty, a horse that - while swimming in a rushing river to try to save her colt - nudged a stranger toward the safety of the shore before rescuing her foal? (The man had jumped in to try, unsuccessfully, to help the horses.)

Stories like these seem to show that animals are capable of being virtuous, says Kristin von Kreisler. She has compiled hundreds of similar stories and put them in a book ("Beauty in the Beasts: True Stories of Animals Who Choose to Do Good," published by Tarcher/ Putnam). Ms. Von Kreisler says the stories prove that animals aren't always motivated by instinct or self-preservation. This is a controversial view among scientists.

"Animals, like humans, are capable of experiencing really strong feelings," Von Kreisler says in an interview. "They can choose to express their emotions through behavior that is virtuous and moral," the animal advocate and writer insists.

Take the story of Kane, Von Kreisler says. Kane is a 125-pound Great Dane. She leaped, howling, on top of her sleeping guardian to alert her as flames engulfed their home. Doesn't that prove that dogs can be compassionate?

Well, maybe. "Dogs will instinctively wake up their owners when there's a fire," suggests Gerald Wilkinson, "because they just want to be let out of the house." Dr. Wilkinson is a biology professor at the University of Maryland and has studied animal behavior for more than 20 years.

Dogs, which are descended from wolves, instinctively try to save the "alpha male," or leader, of the pack. Because dogs think of their owners as pack leaders, "they really have no choice but to save them," Wilkinson says. He adds that, even if Kane could have run to safety, "dogs feel safer when they are with their pack, even if that means putting themselves in danger."

Why did Misty do what she did?

OK, then how does one explain the story of Misty, a spaniel puppy who was standing outside a burning house with most of the members of her family. Yet she left her "pack" to run inside to rescue a two-year-old boy. [See story at left.]

Wilkinson isn't sure what to make of that story. But it's just one instance, he offers, and anecdotes don't offer reliable scientific data.

"We just don't have well-documented proof of a lot of similar instances of animals going against their instincts to do good," the animal behaviorist says.

Another of Von Kreisler's stories involves two mongrels, Heart and his daughter Soul. They were abandoned in the woods. When a pack of coyotes started to circle around Soul, Heart risked his life to save his offspring.

To Von Kreisler, this shows that courage and compassion - even morality - exist in animals. Not only that, animals "jump in from the heart," she says. "It's more of a gut-level, emotional thing." Humans tend to analyze a situation and weigh consequences before doing good. "That's what I'd say is the difference between humans and animals who choose to do good."

Lee Alan Dugatkin is an assistant professor of biology at the University of Louisville. He agrees with Von Kreisler that animals can often act unselfishly. "You see examples of it in everything from fish to primates," he says.

But when it comes to calling unselfish behavior "moral," that's different. He warns against attributing human motivations to animals. A moral code, to him, must be taught. Individuals act morally in order to benefit members of their group. …