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Why do animals help each other?

You only need to look at the swath of viral images of cuddly creatures holding hands or feeding each other for proof that humans get the warm and fuzzies at the thought of animals helping each other out.

Life in the animal kingdom is tough, but every now and then a story emerges about animals helping each other and it seems obvious that animals do in fact have altruistic tendencies.

Just take the story of the dog that protected an endangered colony of vulnerable penguins. A Deakin University study of the 1999-2000 little penguin breeding season on Middle Island, off the coast of Warrnambool, found foxes were a threat to the colony. Foxes had mauled almost 500 little penguins in five years, leaving less than 10 penguins on the island. But local chicken farmer, Allan ‘Swampy’ Marsh, proposed a solution.

He’d used Maremma dogs to protect his commercial poultry from foxes and suggested the same concept could work on Middle Island. So, Maremma dogs were trained to keep watch. The project was hailed a raging success. The peak penguin count during the 2014/2015 breeding season was 130, thanks to Maremma guardian dogs Eudy and Tula. In 2015, Swampy’s tale was turned into a movie; Oddball starring Shane Jacobson.

Where scientists once thought that the odd case of animals helping each other was likely a ‘mutualistic’ relationship or a case of behaviour training, it’s becoming increasingly clear that many animals throw their pals a bone because they care. Nick Branson, Animal Welfare and Services Manager at Deakin’s Geelong Waurn Ponds Campus, says most mammals are considered ‘sentient’, making it feasible that they would act with empathy.

‘A sentient animal is one considered to feel pain, suffering, hunger and pleasure and to have a relationship with the environment that is determined by what it enjoys doing and to avoid things that are unpleasant,’ he adds. Branson says that instances of animal altruism are rare and scientists haven’t been able to determine exactly why it occurs because it’s usually random and unpredictable.

'A sentient animal is one considered to feel pain, suffering, hunger and pleasure and to have a relationship with the environment that is determined by what it enjoys doing and to avoid things that are unpleasant.'

Nick Branson,
Animal Welfare and Services Manager, Deakin University

Can’t get enough of animal altruism? Here are some examples of animals being sweet to each other for no obvious biological benefit.

Dog raising a baby kangaroo
Hearts melted when pictures emerged of Rex, a 10-year-old German pointer, rescuing a four-month old joey after a car hit its mother near Bells Beach in Victoria.

Cat raising duckling
When cat Hiroko lost her three kittens, she became a surrogate mother for two ducklings, in what is likely a case of the birds ‘imprinting’ on the cat. ‘There is a window of opportunity after a bird hatches where it will tend to imprint onto an animal, which doesn’t have to be their mother or father, that it’s been exposed to in that sensitive period,’ Branson says.

Dolphins saving humans from shark attacks
If a great white is lurking, you want a pod of dolphins around. ‘Dolphins make conscious decisions about when they intervene – they weigh up the situation and are selective about who and in which circumstances they help,’ Dr Diana Reiss, one of the world’s foremost dolphin experts, told Australia For Dolphins.

Chimpanzees reconciling after a fight
Our primate friends might be known to fight but according to primatologist Frans de Waal, they’ll always kiss and make up. ‘The principle is that you have a valuable relationship that is damaged by conflict so you need to do something about it,’ he says in his TEDX talk.

Alpacas guard sheep from attack
Many sheep farmers are buying alpacas to guard their sheep and lambs from fox attacks, with reportedly great success.

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Dr Nick Branson
Dr Nick Branson

Animal Welfare and Services Manager, Deakin University
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