7 min read

The Fascinating Science Behind Rescue Dogs And Other Animal Heroes

<p>Property of Denise Corliss</p>

The topic of animal heroes is a hot one and there are numerous books and stories that are easily available. The heroic feats of dogs who selflessly and tirelessly worked after the attacks on September 11, 2001, are legendary (see top image). One notable contribution to this ever growing literature is a wonderful book by Jeff Campbell called Daisy to the Rescue: True Stories of Daring Dogs, Paramedic Parrots, and Other Animal Heroes.

A few words about this eclectic and inspiring book should whet your appetite for more. Jeff Campbell, a book editor and freelance writer whose own books include a number of volumes of Lonely Planet, has collected a series of stories that span a wide range of species and different types of heroism. They are well documented and stick very close to what we know about animal consciousness (please see, for example, "Scientists Finally Conclude Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious Beings") and animal minds from research in the field of science called cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds).

There are four parts to Mr. Campbell's book. In part one ("Domestic Companions"), there are stories about Lulu the pot-bellied pig, Dory the rabbit, Inky the cat, Stormy the quarter horse, and a number of dogs including Frisky, Honey, and Toby. Part two ("Trained to Serve, Inspired to Heal") contains tales about Fonzie the dolphin, Molly the pony, and dogs including Endal, Trakr, and Cheyenne. In part three ("Wild Saviors") we read about Jambo the gorilla, Lulu the kangaroo, Ningnong the elephant, and Mila the beluga whale. Lastly, in part four ("Legends and Folktales") there are stories about Mediterranean dolphins, wolves in India, and a variety of dogs. These animals, and others, do all sorts of things ranging from scenting diabetes, saving a woman having a heart attack, finding an abandoned baby, and saving a woman from drowning. They clearly show how widespread compassion and empathy is among diverse animals, and how it readily crosses species lines.

Mr. Campbell's introduction is a wonderful read about how he carefully analyzed each of the stories for its credibility, and he provides a valuable introduction to the sorts of analyses that are needed to fully understand what a particular animal did and why. And, by sticking to the science, one can feel confident that the stories are told in a most reliable manner. Mr. Campbell also writes about controversial issues in the study of animal behavior and animal minds, and fully recognizes that it is often hard to "prove' what an animal knows and feels and why she or he did something. However, this lack of certainty, in and of itself, can open the door for much needed further study.

In the foreword I wrote for Mr. Campbell I note that Daisy to the Rescue is a goldmine of detailed observations and ideas for further study. There really is a lot of work ahead in this fascinating field, and as stories about animal heroes accumulate, which they rapidly do, it's difficult to discount them as being merely sentimental tales stemming from rampant anthropomorphism. They're not.

In earlier essays I've written about research published in prestigious peer-reviewed professional journals that shows that many different species display empathy for members of the same species, including mice, rats, and chickens (see also this). And, there really is a firm foundation for attributing the capacity for empathy and compassion that can cross species lines.

What an exciting future there is for people who want to learn more about this topic. Citizen science and detailed empirical research clearly show that other animals really do care not only about members of their own species, but also about members of other species, including humans. I very much look forward to what we learn in the future concerning animal heroes - what they know, feel, and why they do what they do.