I see that a zoo in the UK is embarking on a three-year study to find out if their group of Meerkats experience empathy.
There are two real problems with such a study and the first is that to understand what makes any animal function in a particular way, we must research them in their natural environment without the interference of humans. Also, we would have to observe their essential relationships with the other creatures that inhabit their natural world. Therefore, this study may well give the desired result, but it will be an unreliable result because the animals are in captivity, and an unnatural state.
The second problem is that people generally find what they are looking for anyway, even if this provides a false picture; people generally see what they want to see, and I am sure that the study will prove positive because that is what is expected.
A typical example of this “seeing what you expect to see” is when a person returns home to find that their dog has destroyed some furniture or an item of clothing. Usually, the person is furious and scolds the dog, and as the dog slinks away the human perceives this as the dog feeling guilty, because that is what we would feel, missing the point that we are dealing with a dog, not a human. What is actually happening is that the dog is reacting to the immediate encounter, in this case the angry person. The dog does exactly what we would do, if another member of our family walked through the door ranting and raving. We would believe that the angry one had an unpleasant encounter prior to arriving home and we would give them a wide berth and move away from them quietly, and gently, attempting to avoid being the victim of their frustration or making them angrier, basically we give them time to calm down.
When the temper has passed the dog, again, does exactly what we would do and cautiously returns to the location of the person in the hope that they were now receptive to the dog’s affection.
It was by focusing my research on the complete picture I was able to discover the language, instincts, drives and feeling of dogs, and I did that in a lot less than three years.
It is also a human trait to incorrectly attempt to cure undesirable canine behaviour by attempting to resolve the symptom only, the symptom is what we see, therefore that is what we address. However, this usually does more harm than good. Most dog owners know that the usual cause of home destruction is ‘separation anxiety’, so they turn to fragrances, distraction, food amusement, and different forms of punishment, all of which are a waste of time and can never work long term. This is because the real cause of separation anxiety is not being addressed; the dog believes it is responsible for the family members and is in a state of extreme distress at the loss of those in its care and chewing releases natural endorphins to help relive the distress. It is only when we learn how to release the dog from the terrible and impossible burden of leadership, that we can prevent the suffering of the dog and resolve the issue permanently. Happily, adopting ‘Amichien’ bonding usually resolves the misery of separation anxiety within a few days, kindly, calmly, and lovingly. We just have to look a little beyond what we “think” might be happening, from our own perspective, and instead, try to look at the world through the animal’s eyes instead. Then we actually stand a chance of understanding what is really going on.
Back to the meerkat study, I hope I am still around to see what ‘results’ study are, as it is designed to discover if meerkats are capable of picking up on human feelings, which is something that I could discover in less than an hour.
When humans set out to look for a certain result, that is exactly what they will find, and at the end of this study I am sure we will all have found out that meerkats can indeed pick up on human behaviour. I think I can save someone three years of work here.