Raised By Wolves (Or Lions, Or Dolphins): Stories of Animal Altruism

on April 04 2013 12:20 PM
arion
One of the earliest tales of an animal rescuing a person comes from the ancient Greek story of Arion, a poet and singer rescued by dolphins at sea. Wikimedia Commons/Matthaus Kern

"What were you, raised by wolves?”

Parents usually ask this to cow an unruly child, but actually, when you think about it, the track record of wolf-raised children is pretty good. Mowgli anchored a best-selling book and a Disney movie; Romulus founded Rome. While wild animal encounters don’t always turn out as pleasant as “The Jungle Book,” there are plenty of children and adults that have been saved by wild creatures.

In 2005, a 12-year-old Ethiopian girl was reportedly saved from a group of kidnappers by three lions. Seven men had abducted the girl to try and force her into marrying one of them, and they had beaten her repeatedly. But the lions apparently chased off the men and stood guard over her until the police and her family came.

The case is particularly amazing because lions are well-known potential man-eaters. A 2005 study published in Nature found that lions had killed more than 563 people and injured 308 in Tanzania alone. But in this case, the lions may have been moved to sympathize with the girl because she was crying after being beaten.

“A young girl whimpering could be mistaken for the mewing sound from a lion cub, which in turn could explain why they didn’t eat her,” wildlife expert, Stuart Williams, in 2005, told the Associated Press.

Take heed: if you’re in need of leonine assistance, your best recourse may be to start sobbing uncontrollably.

If you’re looking for more long-term help from the animal kingdom, your better bet might lie with wolves, as Mowgli discovered. Don’t forget that Man’s Best Friend is almost genetically identical to a wolf; that’s why wolves and dogs can interbreed. Wolves do occasionally attack people – especially if they’re starving, habituated to humans, or rabid – but despite their fierce portrayal in fairy tales and Liam Neeson movies, wolves actually are more likely to turn tail if they see a person.

“Most people don’t realize this, but wolves are wimps,” Utah State University ecologist and researcher Daniel MacNulty last year told National Geographic.

There are stories of wolves assisting children in the wilds of Russia and India, but these are hard to verify. One of the more famous stories of such wolf children, two girls, Amala and Kamala, was based on a single claim by the reverend who claimed to have discovered the girls.

Wild dogs have also occasionally been reported to take in runaway children, like the feral “Mowgli Boy” of Romania, who allegedly fled an abusive father.

Dolphins might be the most reliably altruistic animals in nature, with accounts of them saving humans stretching back to Greek mythology. There are numerous accounts of dolphins assisting injured podmates, beached whales and humans. A group of dolphins was reported to have circled around four swimmers in New Zealand to keep a great white shark at bay. Another pod protected a California surfer who had just been mauled by a great white.

Other cetaceans have a knack for altruism as well. In 2009, a beluga whale at a Chinese-theme park pushed a foundering freediver to the surface after the human’s legs cramped up.

It’s still unclear what motivates an animal to save a drowning swimmer, or protect a girl from kidnappers, or raise a lost child; it seems to defy evolutionary sense. But altruism and cooperation may be just as natural as predation. Some experiments in humans suggest that generosity can induce the same kind of pleasurable reward in the brain that we get from food or sex. And if we're hard-wired to enjoy being nice, there might be similar setups in brains across the animal kingdom.