Before we look at some examples of animals seeking human help, it seems a good idea to address the often heard myth that we as humans must not anthropomorphise animal behaviour. Although this is still a widespread believe, even amongst otherwise renowned scientists, it is simply wrong, based on the ever increasing anecdotal and scientific evidence. I have chosen four short excerpts taken from Marc Bekoff’s book “The Emotional Lives of Animals – A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy – and Why They Matter”, who addresses this misconception in his usual precise, ethical and scientific manor.1
‘Careful and detailed behavioral studies have shown time and again that we can indeed differentiate and understand animal behavior, and how it differs in various social contexts.’
‘Many researchers now recognize that we must be anthropomorphic when we discuss animal emotions but that if we do it carefully, what I call biocentric anthropomorphism, we can still give due consideration to the animals‘ point of view. Being anthropomorphic is doing what comes naturally. No matter what we call it, most agree that animals and humans share traits including emotions. Thus, we’re not inserting something human into animals, but we’re identifying commonalities and then using human language to communicate what we observe.’
‘Evidence is also surfacing that anthropomorphism may be a hard-wired mode for conceptualizing the world in general, not just other animals.’
‘Anthropomorphism is a much more complex phenomenon than we would have expected. It may very well be that the seemingly natural human urge to impart emotions onto animals – far from obscuring the “true” nature of animals – may actually reflect a very accurate way of knowing. And, the knowledge that is gained, supported by much solid scientific research, is essential for making ethical decisions on behalf of animals.’
The reason that many people are so afraid of granting non-human animals the right of having emotions, to feel joy and sorrow, or to be able to suffer, is quite obvious. If one accepts this fact, then it becomes far harder to justify exploitation and abuse. And this applies to all sentient non-human and human beings, regardless of gender, race or species. With this misconception out of the way, let us now focus on our fellow non-human animals, and on examples of animals asking humans for help.
There are quite a number of well documented cases to find in literature and internet, where animals have seemingly approached humans to get some form of help or assistance. Before we give you some more insight into our own experiences and encounters, we would like to set the scene with a couple of well known examples of this kind of interspecies interaction, starting with two swans, who managed somehow to entangle themselves. The moment the pair realised that they would not be able to disentangle themselves, they changed course and approached a human bystander, who was kind enough to give them a helping hand.
Another example from the avian world is this young raven, who had a nasty encounter with a porcupine. The video shows the raven youngster being in visible discomfort and pain, allowing a human to remove the quills.
Not just birds are known to get in trouble in a way that they may have to ask for human assistance. The next example tells the story of one elephant and his two friends, who have been injured and poisoned by poachers. Though the injured wild elephant has never been helped or rehabilitated by humans before, he was acquainted with two former orphans, who were raised at DSWT’s Ithumba Reintegration Centre. And this is exactly where he decided to get help from for himself and his friends.
And this is not the only story elephants have to tell. After being injured by poachers, another elephant named Pretty Boy walked up to a truck and asked for help to get his wounds treated.
Besides birds and terrestrial animals, marine mammals and fish have also recognised humans as a potential source of help, as these two stories of a dolphin and a manta ray show. Both animals have been injured or entangled with discarded fishing gear and subsequently required human assistance.
Although it is often near to impossible to get a definite answer about why these animals have chosen humans as a potential source of help, it seems very plausible that they seem to know very well of what humans are capable of. This makes it actually even more astonishing that they do approach humans, as one would also have to conclude that these animals must also know about the potential threat humans more often pose. The only logical conclusion is that these animals are able to engage in a high level of abstract thinking. They seem to be capable of balancing risks and chances, of assessing individual human personalities and of putting the outcome of their considerations into perspective by applying their own experiences or those of members of their own kind. The latter also clearly implies the capability of communication and cultural learning.
Over decades of intimate involvement in animal rescue and rehabilitation, we have had the privilege of observing, interacting and caring for many birds species, but also for amphibians, reptiles, insects as well as terrestrial and marine mammals. Our involvement in scientific research such as behavioural studies of whales and dolphins as well as the participation in sea and land based surveys of marine mammals and birds in their natural habitat, has also given us the unique opportunity to become at least briefly part of the lives of many amazing animals and individuals we are sharing our unique planet with.
During our active rescue work we became involved in a number of rescue scenarios, where animals approached humans to ask for assistance. We discovered that not only corvids, but other avian species too, such as starlings and mallards, do approach humans for help. The true number of these encounters is likely to be far higher, because we and other finders of injured or poorly animals may not actually have noticed that the animal concerned has literally asked for help. In some cases it may not even be the affected animal itself, who is asking for help, as it happened in the case of jackdaw Romy, where the parents became the coordinators of the rescue and directed the youngster to us, urging Romy to remain in our reach, until we eventually became aware of Romy’s health problems. The parents stayed around and monitored the situation closely whilst we approached Romy. Interestingly, the parents did not raise the alarm as one would expect. In fact, they continued to communicate with their child the whole time by maintaining a reassuring vocal dialogue. This is in so far astonishing, as corvids usually respond very loudly and vocally when another animal is being threatened or handled by a human, and in particular when it is an individual of their own kind. Although Romy did understand what the parents told her, she seemed frightened when the moment arrived and we attempted to catch her. And this is very much understandable too, considering how an animal like Romy must feel when being approached and caught by a giant, by somebody who is not able to verbally communicate good intentions. She was calling her parents, and they answered reassuringly back, whilst both followed us to the doorstep of our house.
Romy was very poorly as she has suffered a severe internal infection with a parasite known as coccidium. Coccidia are a subclass of microscopic, spore-forming, single-celled obligate intracellular parasites, which infect the intestinal tracts of animals. Romy underwent a specifically designed anti-parasite treatment regime spread out over several weeks, which is designed to cure the patient and to avoid a fatal overload with toxins being released into the blood stream, which are created by the dying parasites. Romy’s parents checked back every day, more frequently to begin with, than later in time. It was a delight to watch the family when all three met again the first day after Romy moved out of the hospital tract into her release aviary. And not just Romy’s parents came to say ‘Hello’, her siblings came for a visit too.
Another example we have encountered several times over the years are female mallards, and in particular those who have decided to breed in enclosed hospital courtyards without access to food and water, and without an exit route for any flightless bird. Without human assistance, these courtyard are certain death traps for ducklings, but not for the mother duck. Over the years we have rescued more than hundred of these mallard families, and we have also met some of these devoted mums twice or even more often. A few of these mallard ducks came back despite or possibly because of what has happened to them as an adult, and perhaps even as a duckling. These sheltered courtyards are usually predator and mostly drake free, providing a safe nesting ground all year round. Often enough we have seen the mother duck leaving her well hidden nest only to directly approach us with the clear intention to alert us of her presence and of the fact that her babies have hatched. At some occasions we have seen mother ducks knocking on glass doors, in particular the ones facing busy hospital corridors, right in the moment when they saw humans passing by. And it worked, their gamble and perseverance payed off. They always seem to manage to find an openminded animal loving human, who then called for expert help. We usually kept these trapped families ‘watered’ and fed until we were able to re-home and release them in a suitable and safe area, usually away from their original nesting ground. Only a few of the courtyards were located in areas, which would allow us to walk the whole family through the hospital building and grounds to a nearby pond. However, this was rather an exception, and strategically not ideal, as releasing too many of these families at the local hospital pond would have increased resident numbers to an unsustainable level, potentially resulting in harassment and suffering as well as starvation, pollution and potential conflicts of interest.
So, how do these animals actually know that a particular human may potentially be of help to them? We do not know the answer for sure, but based on scientific research and our own experience we are convinced that there is more than a single cause, which could be made responsible for this kind of behaviour. Abstract thinking, cultural learning, experience, communication as well as excellent observational skills are likely to play a role. Most of the time we humans are not even aware that the wild animals around us are watching us. At some point, and only with experience and an open mind, we may notice that the behaviour of our wild animal neighbours has changed, but we often tend not to pay too much attention to the cause of the altered behaviour. A wild bird, which is regularly fed in a garden, will eventually become more trusting towards the provider of food. This does not necessarily mean that this bird will then trust every human he or she encounters, as many species are capable of facial recognition, and seem to be able to avoid the trap of dangerous generalisation. Corvids seem to be particular proficient with this kind of observational skill, as we know from literature and our own experience. Many years ago we rescued the offspring of a local residential crow family, under close supervision of its parents. Subsequently, we had to take the poorly youngster with us for treatment and rehabilitation. This happened two years in a row, and ever since we are seemingly known as the humans who kidnap crow babies. This all happened seven years ago, and ever since an intruder alarm is being raised when we approach the outskirts of the crow territory. The alarm will be raised not only by the parents themselves, but also by their offspring, including by youngsters who were born years later, and have not been witness of the original events. The ability to communicate positive and negative experiences like this one is clearly of advantage and seems rather to be a necessity for achieving the kind of outcome described, and may therefore also play a role for animals, who consider approaching humans for help. Running a wildlife rescue, where wild birds constantly interact with recovering wild patients and residents, may also just exactly be the right source of information for animals, similar to communal roosts. Over the years we have released many jackdaws, who may have settled in the wider vicinity. All of them came to us as orphans or with health problems, and may in fact remember us as a safe place, where humans have helped them to survive and to recover. One of Romy’s parents may have just been one of these birds, who we have previously rescued and released.
We would like to share two more encounters with you. There are probably far more cases we may not even have noticed as such, including those situations where animals came intentionally to us in the knowledge that we will provide them with a safe place. A safe place, not for them to recover, but for them to die in peace.
Magpie Anton has been rescued by us after he suffered a wing fracture and was unable to fly. Anton tried to survive by seeking shelter in a greenhouse, were he was luckily found by the owner, who called us for help. We took Anton in and splinted his wing. He recovered very well and was subsequently soft released locally. He did very well, at least to begin with, but then he turned out to be an unlucky fellow. Anton had a second accident and suffered a severe concussion and spinal injury, most likely to be caused by a severe impact trauma. Although we do not exactly know, how and where the accident happened, Anton luckily managed to come back to us despite his injury and despite being unable to stand or walk. We found him lying on his back near his release aviary, after we have been alerted by loudly vocalising fellow corvids. This particular scenario seems to give us a good enough reason to believe that Anton has tried to come back to us in the full knowledge of that we might be able to help him again, as we did following his first injury. It took Anton three months to fully recover from his injuries, but he eventually did. We successfully soft released Anton again and he is doing very well ever since, visiting us daily together with his wild partner over the duration of the last three years.
The second encounter involved carrion crow Emma. She suffered a similar injury, a severe concussion and spinal injury, which rendered her unable to stand, perch and walk. Emma came to us a juvenile bird, most likely without any previous positive experience or interaction with humans. We became alerted to her presence the moment she flew intentionally towards us and landed on her belly about two meters in front of our feet. We immediately noticed her being in trouble and moved slowly towards her trying to capture her, which resulted in Emma taking off again. At this point Emma was still able to fly very strongly. Before we were able to collect our gear to follow her, we saw her coming back. The second time Emma landed again in our garden just a few meters away from us. We observed her closely by keeping our distance, and we could clearly see Emma’s struggle. She clearly knew that she needed help, but she was still too frightened to hand herself over into our care. We just stood there, watching each other, and after a couple of minutes Emma took off again. This time we lost track of her, and it took her about 30 minutes until she decided to return for the final attempt of making contact with us. This time we found her on the ground again in front of one of our corvid aviaries next to our patio door, where she finally allowed us to scoop her up and to take her in. And it was clearly a last minute call, as her overall health condition had deteriorated dramatically within the last hour. Emma was about to loose completely the power in her wings, which would have rendered her grounded and helpless. Her situation was critical, but luckily we managed to help her. Emma made a full recovery, despite the severity of her trauma, which made it necessary to tube-feed her for several weeks. Emma did not stop to amaze us with her determination, which encouraged us to give her all the time she needed to recover. Almost a year later we successfully soft released Emma, and she is doing very well since, being a daily visitor in our garden.
Emma’s story seems to show clearly that she was intentionally coming to us for help. However, it also shows that despite all good intentions there always remains some degree of natural fear, which the animal has to overcome, something which might not always happen by itself and may need some careful and gentle encouragement. There is one common denominator of all these encounters discussed in this blog post. Animals are very well capable of communicating with us. It is up to us humans to be prepared, open minded and to be willing to engage. There are many ways we can help animals living in the wild and save them from the harms that they face in nature. In the long term, the only way they will eventually get the help they need is by us raising awareness of the plight of wild animals and the discrimination they suffer. But there are helpful things that can be done for them in the short term, too. One of those is to offer help to individual non-human animals in distress.
- “The Emotional Lives of Animals – A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy – and Why They Matter”, New World Library, February 2007, Marc Bekoff (Author) and Jane Goodall (Foreword)