I saw a buffalo recently that had a broken leg. It was a bull that had clearly been in a fight with another bull. The opponent stood closer to us in a shallow waterhole. I could see blood dripping down its ear from a cut on its neck as it dipped its head to drink. It moved off very slowly, showing obvious signs of pain. I turned my attention back to the worse-off bull who was trying to get down to the water on three legs. As it hobbled down it tried to put pressure on the broken limb but the leg would simply buckle and flop to the side.

The rest of the herd – including the females that the fight would invariably have been over – must have numbered a few hundred. They were making their way over to the waterhole where broken-leg-bull was.

13a2030

Buffalo bull clashes can be very violent.

Buffalo Rj

The male that didn’t have much in the way of injuries stands some distance from the herd.

Buffalo Rj 2

The male with the badly injured leg hobbles towards the water.

What happened next was quite astonishing; as the other herd members approached the broken-leg bull that had nearly made it to the water’s edge, they began to surround it, all showing great interest in him. Without trying to personify these wild animals, the only way I feel I can describe it properly is to say that it looked as if genuine concern was being expressed by the other buffalo. Call it what you like, empathy or compassion, the herd pushed their snouts up against him, sniffing him and seemed to have a look of serious worry in their eyes. There was constant jostling among the buffalo closest to him trying to get in and have a better look as well as a smell. It was a scene of quiet anguish. No attention was paid to the other bull that was clearly a little beaten up, but with nothing as apparent as a broken leg, the herd was not interested in him.

Buffalo Rj 4

An incredible display of what can only be described as empathy. Or was it simply curiosity? I believe it has a lot to do with scent…

This begs the question; do animals feel empathy for one another?

I do believe there is more to animals than just raw animalistic survival instinct. In fact, many observations of animal behaviour have shown this. Elephants are a great example. Look back at Shaun D’Araujo’s blog, as he delves into the conscious lives of these giants.

An elephant investigates the site where another elephant had died some months before.

As with elephants, there are records of other animals showing empathy, especially in species that live highly social lives. In a famous 1958 experiment, hungry rats that were only fed if they pulled a lever to shock their litter mates, refused to do so. Another study published in the journal Science in 2006 found that mice would grimace when they saw other mice in pain, but only if they were related individuals.
There is another well-known story of a blind rat being led by a sighted rat by use of a twig. Naturalist, ornithologist and broadcaster, 
Eric Simms, documented his own account of this phenomenon. He observed two rats, one which was holding the tail of the other. On closer inspection he discovered that the second rat was completely blind and was being led by its compatriot. 

Dolphins are another highly social species that have shown love for species other than their own. There are many stories of dolphins rescuing swimmers, sometimes even from the threat of sharks. Other accounts tell of stranded whales being guided safely back to sea by dolphins. However most often, like with humans, they are most generous and kind to the members of their own pod.

Dolphin Aeon

Photograph by George Karbus

There is an interesting account of empathy shown by a springbok in the Kalahari Desert of Namibia. While driving in the area a family’s car broke down. Awaiting assistance, they herd a whimpering sound coming from behind a dune. Into view came the springbok, followed by a wildebeest. The wildebeest was swaying its head unusually as it walked. Whenever it let out its whimper the springbok would stop and wait for it to catch up, eventually leading it to a nearby waterhole. On closer inspection the family saw that the face of the wildebeest was incredibly swollen and that it most probably could not see, possibly from a snake bite.

On examining the behaviour of the buffalo, I wondered why the others were so intent on getting in so close and smelling the bull. I would imagine a great deal of smells were being emitted by this injured individual. There was the smell of blood that all animals recognise and associate with potential danger. However, I wonder what other smells or pheromones would have been released by the bull that was in so much pain. And then in turn by the rest of the herd surrounding him as they nuzzled him, clearly in a state of unease. In this case the herd would not have been able to help the injured bull, however buffalo are known to do so in certain circumstances. When an individual has been singled out by lions the herd will regularly charge back at the lions in an attempt to rescue the fellow member.

Buffalo Rj 5

The herd conitnued to show interest in the wounded bull for quite some time.

Even though the herd was unable to do much in this case, I felt there was empathy being displayed here by the other buffalo. I think animals will continue to surprise us with their intelligence and behaviour showing that they are conscious and have the ability to show emotion, even if it’s not always emotion in the way that we understand it.

About the Author

Rob Jeffery

Field Guide

Rob joined the Londolozi team at the start of 2017. Having grown up on a farm in the Cape and spending many holidays traveling Southern Africa he developed a love for the outdoors and an appreciation for the natural world. After completing a ...

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8 Comments

on Do Buffalo Feel Empathy?

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Ian Hall

Interesting thoughts, that veggies and vegans will I am sure have an answer to. How many of us have had a pet that when it sees we are in pain, tries to snuggle up to us and comfort us?

Wendy Hawkins

Oh Rob I hope the poor Buff manages to get some water, but fear the worst for him as the Cats will take advantage of his disabled state! Thank you for sharing this informative blog.

Denise Vouri

I truly believe that animals do feel empathy as I’ve seen it in cats and dogs – no reason that non-domesticated animals should not exhibit those empathetic feelings as well. Great article!

Christa Blessing

I am sure that buffalo feel empathy for each other. Once we witnessed a hunt in which six lions killed a buffalo baby. The mother and her young one were the very last ones of a big herd. Some of the lions attacked the hind legs of its mother the others killed the baby. The mother roared for help and the whole herd of buffalo returned and drove the lions away. However, the baby was already dead. The lions started to feed as soon as the buffalos had turned away. One old bull, though, returned and stood there watching the lions eat and the expression on his face cannot described in any other way but that of sadness and compassion.

A B

Certainly touching to watch these buffaloes surround the injured one. A direct lesson to humanity.

Malavika Gupta

Thought provoking article, Rob. I certainly am convinced animals are empathetic towards one another. Sometimes their notoriety, as in the case of Buffalos, may deceive us into thinking they are self centered. But that is not the case. You’ve given prime examples in your piece of animals being empathetic not just towards one another but to members of other species too. I once watched a NatGeo documentary about a leopard who tried to take care of abandoned new born lion cubs, but could not raise them for reasons of her own safety. A few years ago there was a short clip on you tube about a lioness that had adopted an orphaned calf! All animals, humans included, secrete unique chemicals reflective of fear, happiness, anxiety, or sadness. Unfortunately humans rely on visual cues rather than smells to tell an individual’s emotional state. Animals, with their heightened sense of smell are quick to detect these smells and react instinctively, either with empathy, compassion, or aggression.

Callum Evans

It would make sense that buffalo would experience empathy, especially among the kinship groups within the herd. Very interesting account.

Marinda Drake

I believe buffalo show empathy the same as elephant do. I can’t say it as a fact but from what I have observed in the bush, they mourn their dead aswell. We saw a buffalo killed by lions. A heard of a few hundred buffalo walked passed and after chasing the lions off, every single one walked up to the dead buffalo and smelled and touched it.

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