Should BintiJua ever get a medal for her apparent attempt to help a boy who tumbled into a gorilla exhibit at Brookfield Zoo, who would be selected to drape it around her neck?
Perhaps it should be Duke, a stray cocker spaniel that barked and barked at 10-year-old Billy Foy, then led him into a field where his father, William Foy, was pinned under his tractor.
Or maybe it should be one of the three bottlenose dolphins in the Red Sea that swam to the rescue in July. They chased off a shark that had already taken one bite out of Martin Richardson and appeared ready to take another.
A pantheon of heroes roams through the animal kingdom, and just as every one of their stories can warm even the coldest heart, so too do they pose a perplexing question: What would move an animal to rescue a human?
For decades, people have scratched out explanations in terms of instinct and reflex. But more recently, some animal researchers have come to believe that there are subtler motivations, betraying traits like compassion and concern.
Animals, many are now saying, have emotions and thoughts.
The notion is radical to some, yet hardly surprising to most any dog owner who daily witnesses what sure looks like joy and despair in the family mutt.
Seventeenth century French philosopher Rene Descartes, the founder of the dichotomy between the mind and body (and, surprisingly, a dog owner), asserted that animals have no soul and act out their lives mechanically. But Charles Darwin, fresh off his success with “The Origin of Species,” set out in 1872 to show the opposite.
In “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” Darwin again asserted that evolution was a continuum, and emotions like love and suffering, devotion and anxiety, were not exclusive to humans.
But the emergence of the behaviorist school of psychology drove Darwin’s ideas on that subject into the bush. Through most of the 20th century, animals have been viewed the same way Descartes viewed them - as bundles of instinct and training, virtual automatons with body temperature.
In recent years, however, the idea of animal consciousness has bounded into the house and jumped onto the couch; now, it needs to be domesticated. Epistemologists, philosophers who ruminate about how people know things, haven’t been able to solve the myriad riddles of human consciousness.
Epistemology is decidedly harder with dogs.
What, for example, does it mean when a dog wags its tail and jumps on its owner when he or she comes in the door?
“Does a dog have the same conscious experience I have when I am happy?” asked Dr. Fred Stollnitz, an animal behaviorist at the National Science Foundation. “I have no way of knowing if the dog is happy any more than I know if my family members are.”
Despite the difficulties, scientists are becoming increasingly aware that animals have complex cognitive functions that are similar to what we recognize in ourselves as thought and feeling. “The similarities are much more striking than many people would have considered even a short time ago,” Stollnitz said.
There are even signs of compassion. Dr. H. Lyn Miles, a primatologist at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, conducts much of her research with a sign language-educated orangutan named Chantek.
“I broke my foot last year, and Chantek would come up and dab it with a sponge,” Miles said. “I told him it hurt in sign language, and he replied in a way that showed me he understood.”
Knowing how the world looks from another individual’s perspective is a sign of substantial development, Miles said. She has observed the same ability in her animals’ mischief, as when Chantek pushes her head away so she can’t see him stealing M&Ms; from her pocket.
Then there’s the polar bear on Prozac.
Last year, Nicholas Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts Veterinary School in Massachusetts, was part of a team that prescribed the drug for a polar bear.
Like many captive animals, the bear had developed a compulsive disorder causing it to pace repetitively around its enclosure. By using a drug that treats the mind, the team implicitly accepted that polar bears have minds.
In fact, the range of psychopharmacological treatments for animals has become as wide as that for people, Dodman said.
“I hate to say animals are people, but they do have minds and they do have thought processes that mirror our own, and they have anxieties and concerns that parallel humans’,” he said.
But why does one animal help another? The study of animal altruism has become a rich field for researchers.
In one case, researchers in Africa watched a baby rhinoceros struggling in the mud as its mother grazed out of earshot. As the baby cried, a female elephant walked up, dropped to its knees and lifted the rhinoceros out of the mud with its head.
That’s one of the examples in “When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals.” The book’s co-author, Jeffrey Masson, has followed the case of Binti-Jua and believes the gorilla deserves plenty of credit.
“I find it hard to believe that this animal did not feel compassion when it did that, that it was trying to get a banana or a reward or was involved in instinctive behavior,” he said. “I think it just recognized that this was something that was hurt and needed help.”