Why We Care More About Koalas Than Kin

Credit: Ethan Brooke from Pixabay

In a reality-tv survivor show, koala bears would be off the island in five minutes flat. At the first sign of a raging bush fire, they panic and scramble even higher, thinking they will be safe if they can reach the top of the tree. Once there, they curl into a tight ball—and wind up burned alive. The few who try to make it back down the tree scorch their paws so badly, they are often disabled for life.

In the recent wave of bush fires, the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital set up a GoFundMe campaign, hoping to raise maybe $20,000 so they could set up automatic drinking stations for the parched little survivors. I saw a photo of a young koala clutching a bottle with both paws while a ranger helped him drink, and I was undone. If someone had handed me a plane ticket, I would have left without luggage, so eager was I to cradle those koalas.

My response to grown human beings who drown because they refuse to leave their flood-zone homes is far less sympathetic. The day I read about the koalas, tourists were trapped by a volcanic eruption—but I lingered longer on the koala story. Have I no fellow-feeling? Why would my compassion privilege species not my own? My secret fear is that my heart is softened by round bright eyes, a funny little nose, a cuddly body, and teddy-bear ears; in other words, that I possess the ethical capacity of a three-year-old.

I am not alone in this. Donations poured in from the United States, Germany, New Zealand, the U.K., and the Netherlands, and at this writing, the GoFundMe total is $1.9 million, roughly ninety times what the hospital had hoped to raise. There will be enough money to increase the drinking stations, purchase a water-carrying fire truck, and set up a wild koala breeding program. (The koala population was diminishing even before all the bush fire fatalities.) Meanwhile, quilting clubs and Facebook knitting groups have fashioned hundreds of small mittens to protect the damaged paws until they scar over.

Is the point that we are capable of caring for creatures very different from ourselves, or that we prefer them? Or is it that because the creatures are so different, we are able to see their plight without putting up defenses, hardening our hearts, arguing the situation away to lesson our own dread?

Neuroscience tells us that empathy is far more than calm consideration: Our brain activates the very emotions and sensations that we would experience in similar torment. We have to toughen ourselves against that kind of distress, or the daily news would paralyze us. So we might decide that someone deserved their suffering, or shrug it off because we can do nothing about it, or distance an entire group of humans as utterly unlike us—weaker, more pathetic, less evolved or, worse, rivals or antagonists.

So how does a little gray bear sneak past our defenses?

The koalas’ plight is not so foreign. Who has not done exactly the wrong thing in a crisis and gotten burned for their stupidity? Who has not worried that an unforeseen disaster will destroy life as they know it? Yet because we do not climb trees in a fire, we can respond to the particulars of the koalas’ predicament without distancing ourselves. Our empathy is not tainted by fear; we are not comparing variables and saying, “Well, that is terrible, but that will not happen to me because I do not live that way.” We are not about to scold or blame the helpless koalas, because there is zero chance that they brought on this fate themselves. Nor are they our rivals or enemies. We do not secretly relish their comeuppance, because they have never tried to be anything but koalas.

A study published in Anthrozoös reported on three experiments in which participants read scenarios about human or animal abuse victims and indicated their emotional response. The results showed that people felt at least as much empathy for animals; in one experiment, the female participants felt significantly more. The researchers concluded that at least part of the reason for the empathy was that the animal “is perceived as not being responsible for having caused the need situation.”

In another study, people reported feeling more sympathy for a puppy, an adult dog, or a one-year-old infant than they felt for a thirty-year-old adult. Furthermore, the levels of sympathy for the puppy, dog, and infant were roughly equivalent. “Age seems to trump species when it comes to eliciting empathy,” noted coauthor Jack Levin.

So is it vulnerability that triggers compassion? Not that simple. In a 2008 talk in Kolkata, India, philosopher Martha Nussbaum spelled out criteria: We must think the suffering is serious, not trivial. We must believe the suffering was not chosen or self-inflicted. And the well-being of whoever is suffering must already matter to us.

If cockroaches were singing their threadlike legs as they scuttled away from a conflagration, I just might not write that check.

As she moved into her talk, though, Nussbaum added an interesting twist: She blamed our frequent failure to be compassionate toward other humans on our refusal to admit our own animality. We do not want to see ourselves as vulnerable, weak, pathetic, or subjugated by bodily instincts, needs, and responses. So we condemn those who are suffering as more animalistic, weaker, less refined, less evolved, other.

Societally, we have done this with women, with African-Americans, with immigrants, with wartime enemies, with anyone who has served time in prison or experienced addiction or disability or mental illness … We are well practiced.

The method even works at the biochemical level. If we stop feeling our own pain, we become far less likely to feel someone else’s. “If you reduce people’s self-experienced pain, if you induce analgesia, that … also reduces empathy for the pain of another person,” notes brain researcher Claus Lamm. We have repeatedly seen this in studies of people with lives of wealth and ease: They feel less empathy because they are less attuned to others’ distress, therefore less compassionate about the suffering from which they are insulated.

It is far less threatening to tune in to a koala.