30 August, 2010
While puzzling over the condition of human empathetic emotions “so patently painful
and harmful to us as a species that I can hardly believe that they evolved,” Dillard concisely
proclaims, “Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak”(Dillard 1974).
Maybe, just maybe, we are not alone in bearing the burden of empathy. What if we shared the
burden with our distant cousins in the mammalian class? A mother goldfish consuming her
offspring is shocks us. Are we the only “freaks” shocked by this? Ironically, our own empathy
limits modern research involving the testing of animals we inherently believe exhibit empathy.
Dogs, otters, elephants, whales, and dolphins can be observed anecdotally that they may mourn
their lost or pity the lame, but we protect them from laboratory testing that would generate
statistical data by virtue of keeping them from harm; that is because we empathize strongly with
them. Mice, on the other hand, we do not tend to empathize with very strongly, and we give them
much less protection from testing (USDA). Laboratory mice, the stereotypical workhorse of
cognitive research experiments, bear more of Dillard’s empathetic burden that one might expect.
Two mice, stranded unluckily in a garage sink, wore themselves out trying to escape the
impassible porcelain walls imprisoning them. The owner of the sink discovered the pitiful sight
and curiously placed three things into the sink: a bowl of water, a morsel of food, and a ramp to
escape the sink. One mouse less fatigued than the other drank some water and ate a bit of the
food to regain his strength. Pitying his comrade, the mouse took some food into his mouth,
scurried over, and dropped the food at his comrade’s feet. Ensuring that he ate it, the heroic