Yes Virginia – Animals do understand the sentiment of gratitude and thanks

This story brought a tear to my eye.  It was originally written about in the San Francisco Chronicle.  I’ll explain why it struck a chord with me later:

Saving a Whale

If you read the front page story of the SF Chronicle, you would have read about a female humpback whale who had become entangled in a spider web of crab traps and lines. She was weighted down by hundreds of pounds of traps that caused her to struggle to stay afloat. She also had hundreds of yards of line rope wrapped around her body, her tail, her torso, a line tugging in her mouth.

A fisherman spotted her just east of the Farralone Islands (outside the Golden Gate ) and radioed an environmental group for help.

Within a few hours, the rescue team arrived and determined that she was so bad off, the only way to save her was to dive in and untangle her.  A very dangerous proposition. One slap of the tail could kill a rescuer.

They worked for hours with curved knives and eventually freed her. When she was free, the divers say she swam in what seemed like joyous circles. She then came back to each and every diver, one at a time, and nudged them, pushed gently around-she thanked them. Some said it was the most incredibly beautiful experience of their lives.

The guy who cut the rope out of her mouth says her eye was following him the whole time, and he will never be the same.

The full story is available on Snopes and is acknowledged as not a urban legend but rather a true story:  Additionally, the actual San Francisco Chronicle article is archived online and available here:

Why this story is interesting to me has to do with my personal experience with homeless, abandoned, and orphaned animals.  Much like political correctness and the backlash that has generated around being too "PC", I believe that people similarly feel the same way about the anthropomorphism of animals:  People are too hesitant to associate feelings and emotions with animals for fear of sounding like loons.

The fact of the matter is, animals feel sadness, happiness, pain, glee, excitement, boredom, frustration, anger, fear, whimsy, playfulness, relief… and they feel gratitude.

It’s quite simple actually:  Anyone that’s worked with dogs knows that dogs that are in kennels or shelters have it rough.  They get frustrated and angry from boredom.  But they also know when they’re got it good.  They engage their human friends and they do everything they know how to express their happiness that they’re home.  Everyone’s seen the glee in a dog’s eyes when his human friend comes home from work and grabs the leash to take him for a walk. 

In the same vein, a dog also knows a bad, chaotic environment like a city animal shelter and he’ll know when he’s been provided with better. 

While in a shelter, my dog Sheepa was, for lack of a better explanation, lonely.  No one pet him, no one cared for him, no one spent time with him.  He basically led a solitary life in dog prison for more than 2 years with people walking him and feeding him but otherwise treating him like he had the plague because he’d bitten others before and was considered incorrigible.

When I first saw him, he’d been brought by a rescue coordinator but kept on the side in a enclosed kennel with little to no adoption exposure.  The rescue coordinator didn’t like him at all and considered him somewhat vicious.  She only brought him because some woman had called and asked to see him but never showed up.  It was pretty much pure luck that he was there that day, and I saw him. 

He was a furry mess but I took him out for a slow walk.  He was so weak and tired.  His fur was matted, he had ticks all over him, and he reeked of pee.  He ambled gradually outside and never uttered a word.  He didn’t pull his leash or bear his teeth.  He just kind of made his way.  We finally took him back and placed him back in his kennel, which was away from the other dogs all of whom had cages where people could see them… but not Sheepa.  He was in the back and no one else even looked at him. 

As I opened the door to his kennel, and he made his way in, he looked up at me then turned to my hand and quietly licked me once.  He collapsed down into his mess of newspaper and looked back through the kennel’s wire door.  It still makes me cry to think about it.

My wife and I adopted him that night.  Not really knowing any better, we had Sheepa just sleep in our living room… and boy did he sleep:  He slept for 12 hours straight he looked so tired.  We had him worked on for two days by a dog salon to clean and groom him.  And over a period of a week, he became a 100% more energetic and a lot more friendly.  One day, he even smiled much to our delight.

It’s been 3 years now and these days, Sheepa watches TV with me on the couch.  He sleeps a lot but we discovered that he’s 12-13 years old so that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.  We also discovered that he’s deaf so we give him commands through a sort of doggie sign language.  He’s quite social and doesn’t growl or attack anything like he purportedly used to.  He follows me around the house and always greets me with a lick.  He still feels the habitual/instinctual need to take snacks back to his bed to protect them while he eats them, but other than that, he’s very domesticated which is a far cry from the defensive, fearful, and belligerent attitude of most dogs upon exiting the shelter system.

So what is gratitude anyway?  And how does an animal express it?  Well, it’s not really that complicated.  Gratitude is a sense of happiness & relief associated with a specific event or condition.  If you think about things in the most basic "good vs bad" sense (like an animal might):

  • Things were bad and scary before, but now that this new person is around, things seem to be good.
  • I used to have to fight for food and my space before at the old territory, but now that I’m in this new place, I don’t have to fight anyone for my food and I have my own territory.
  • My fur made me irritable before, but I’m not itchy or scratchy any more since coming here.
  • Other dogs and people used to hurt me but now that I’m here, no one bites me or hits me.

The bottom line is, a dog can bark, growl, bite, run away, ignore you, poop & pee.  It can also run up to you, jump up and down, lick you, smile, nudge you, lean against you, and sit on your lap.

If you get the latter rather than the former relative to other individuals back before you demonstrated some kindness to the animal, congratulations:  You’ve made a friend and he’s grateful to you.

And it’s okay to think that because it’s true.

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