The Mice in the Sink– and Us

In “Mice in the Sink”, an essay exploring empathy in non-human animals, Jessica Pierce leads off with a provocative incident witnessed by CeAnn Lambert, head of the Indiana Coyote Rescue Center. Lambert found two baby mice, exhausted and terrified, trapped in the sink in her garage. She set a bowl of water in the sink. One mouse drank immediately, but the other was too weak to traverse the short distance to the bowl. The stronger mouse, however, devised an ingenious way to help the weaker one. It moved the piece of meat Lambert had also put in the sink close enough to the second mouse so that the latter could nibble it. When it had done so, the stronger mouse moved it closer to the water until it took another bite. Step by step, it led its weakened partner to the water to drink. By the time Lambert placed a board against the sink wall, both mice were strong enough to scurry up it. In her essay in the latest issue of Environmental Philosophy, Pierce calls this an example of heroism. What would you call it?

Here is an experience related by a woman who made a career of taking in injured bats and rehabilitating them in Eugene, Oregon. She was affectionately termed the “Bat Lady” by the school children whose classrooms she visited. She relates how she was cleaning the wounds of an injured bat-an obviously painful process. As she began to work on a severely injured bat that was struggling in fear and panic, there was another bat in the room who had undergone the same treatment and was now healed. As the new bat began to fight, the veteran bat made a sound. Instantly the newly injured bat become perfectly still and let the human handle it in any way she chose.

If we recognized that there is a place in the animal brain that is linked to empathetic reaction, as Pierce details in her article, perhaps it would change factory farming techniques that radically harm the health of ourselves and our environment together. Caging chickens so close together they practice cannibalism and restraining cows in such crowded conditions and filth they need daily antibiotics not to succumb to disease are two practices I am thinking of.

Indeed, ever since Francis Bacon, the purported father of modern science, stated that the wily scientist ought to “pin nature to the experimental board to torture her secrets from her” (language he got from the witch trials current at the time), experimentation on natural creatures has been licensed by the idea that nothing else in the world feels anything but us. At least other natural life does not feel anything deserving of our consideration, that is. That’s what doctors used to say when they circumcised male babies without anesthetic: their brains weren’t developed enough yet to feel the pain.

If we accepted the fact that animals of all brain sizes not only feel pain, but feel the pain of others, we’d have to revise Herbert Spencer’s misuse of the idea of Darwinism as the struggle in which only the “winners” survive. We’d have to go back to Darwin’s original sense of things, which emphasized cooperation rather than competition in the development of interdependent natural systems over time.

Evidence of this type is all around us– if we give up our sense of privilege in our work with other natural creatures– as do the scientists writing in Linda Hogan’s, Intimate Nature. Jane Goodall had an ongoing struggle with her scientific peers, who argued that her naming the animals she worked with made for “subjective” results they could thereby dismiss. She argued that good science takes all our senses: including empathy. This does not mean that the animals she studied lived an idyllic existence– though they have much to teach us. She found among her chimpanzees individuals who acted on their community mates with compassion and altruism, and others who acted with hostility and violence. The point is that the natural world is a complex affair when we allow it to speak for itself.

I would go so far as to say that anything we think we have learned about natural behavior using caged animals is not about natural behavior at all-but the human-created results of animal behavior under stress.

At the very least, we miss a great deal by telling our scientific story within such cages. For decades, geneticist Barbara McClintock worked without the support of an official research position, her work denigrated by her colleagues-until she won the Nobel Prize for the work that she derived from “listening to the corn”.

This is not a new way of looking at our world, but an old one. Among the Sahaptin-speaking people on the mid-Columbia River who lived at least 10,000 years in their home, the term, waq’ádyšwit, meaning “life”, was the “animating principle or ‘soul’ possessed by people as well as animals, plants, and forces of nature”. Waq’ádyšwit “implies intelligence, will, and consciousness” and since it existed in all natural things, it was the moral basis of the reciprocal partnerships between humans and their land. This is Eugene Hunn’s description of the belief system of these peoples: “People, animals, plants and other forces of nature-sun, earth, wind, and rock-are animated by spirit. As such they share with humankind intelligence and will, and thus have moral rights and obligations as PERSONS”.

“The earth is alive”, said Esther Stutzman, echoing this view from the perspective of her Western Oregon tradition: “It has a heart.” The indigenous peoples of Northern California likewise believed that the entire land was alive with spirit. In the early 1900’s, linguist Jaime de Angulo wrote of his frustration in trying to get a classificatory word for “animals” as opposed to humans in the Pit River language. His consultant, Pit River elder “Wild Bill”, told him there was no such term in the Pit River language, since there was no such distinction between humans and other natural beings in Pit River culture. When pressed, the only equivalent Wild Bill would give for “animal” was a term that meant “world-all-over-living”-a category which embraced all natural things, including what the white men called animals, what they called humans, and even what they saw as objects. In Wild Bill’s words: “Everything is living, even the rocks, even that bench you are sitting on. Somebody made that bench for a purpose, didn’t he? Well, then it’s alive, isn’t it? Everything is alive.”

Everything, that is, has a will and purpose of its own. Even those creatures we might dismiss in Western culture: like mice and bats. Like the water we mistreat, according to Takelma Siletz elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim. Or the salmon whose honoring she has recently re-instituted along with the ancient ceremonies of her people. “Grandma Aggie” Pilgrim’s insight is that if we restore our reverence to these aspects of the land that sustains us, we will treat them better: not using the water, for instance, as our “garbage dump”.

Wild Bill went on to contrast this worldview with that of the whites: “White people think everything is dead… They don’t believe anything is alive.” As a result of living in a “dead” world, he concluded, “They are dead themselves.” I once had a student of Pit River heritage in one of my classes at Linfield College. He related how an elder had told him that in traditional times, humans had been able to speak to the animals. Some might still be able to do that-if we were ready to listen.

His elders urged Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee to dive in the rivers to train for his spirit quest “when the water was alive”- when it was full of power and spirit. “The eyes of the world are looking at you”, they would tell him. Thus the multiple eyes of the natural world assessed his behavior-and ordained the length of his life and that of his people here with it. It was a survival technique increasing human awareness of the natural world that worked for Cultee’s ancestors for 10,000 years.

I led off this essay by asking how recognizing a world with a will, consciousness-and the ability to feel empathy toward others-might change our behavior toward it. There is a linked question. How would it change our quality of life to recognize that our daily lives take our place in such a living world?


You are always welcome to link to this post.  Note it is copyright 2008 by Madronna Holden. Feel free to contact me if you wish to cite it rather than link here. Thank you.

The Sahaptin material cited above is from Eugene S. Hunn and David H. French, “Western Columbia River Sahaptins”, Handbook of North American Indians 12, and Hunn, Eugene S., with James Selam and Family: Nchi’i-Wána “The Big River” Mid-Columbian Indians and Their Land (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press: 1990).

The Pit River quotes are from Bob Callahan, ed. A Jaime de Angulo Reader (Berkeley: Turtle Island Press, 1979).