The Airspace columnist Jon Catlin writes of a study conducted at the University of Chicago validating the presence of something akin to human empathy in rat test subjects.
In the experiment, one rat was trapped in a restrainer device—a plastic tube with a door that could only be opened from the outside. The second rat was left to roam in the cage around the restrainer, presented with the possibility of freeing the trapped rat by nudging open its door.
“Once they get the restrainer open, they instinctively freeze for a second, then have a period of celebration and playing with their freed cage-mate,” said Professor of Neurobiology Peggy Mason.
Even when presented with the option of two restrainers, one containing a trapped cage-mate and the other containing chocolate chips—a favorite rat snack—the rodents predictably liberated their cage-mates, then left their trapped friend some of the chocolate chips.
It is not surprising to find that interspecies empathy exists outside mankind, even in man’s favorite test subjects. The next phase of research is likely to explore what causes such empathy, and looking for cases of nonempathic rodents. At least, I hope it does.