A video clip posted this month on YouTube and other sites shows a wild condor, having just flown down from the sky, walking toward and embracing a man in a very moving way. It is capturing attention worldwide and raising some intriguing questions about animal behavior.
According to the text accompanying the video, the man — a cattle rancher named Edgardo, who lives in Loncopué, Argentina — discovered the condor on his patio at home back in March. The bird, then an infant, suffered from a leg injury and had somehow become separated from his parents. Edgardo cared for and fed the condor, who recovered and flew off, but who returns to his rescuer regularly.
Edgardo can be heard in the clip greeting the bird enthusiastically then remarking "it has been a while" since the last visit. When the footage was posted on Facebook by the organization Breathing with Peace, this comment was included: "Without forgetting the man, the animal always visits his rescuer in gratitude."
I found the video clip quite wonderful to view, because in it I see the result of human kindness — and the genuine mutual affection between bird and human.
Going beyond affection, though, is the claim of gratitude by the bird a reasonable one?
Condors are vultures, a type of raptor. As it happens, just a week ago I spent a fantastic afternoon observing the rescued raptors and interacting with environmental educators at the Vermont Institute of Nature Science in Quechee.
I sent the condor video clip to VINS environmental educator Anna Autilio, who had shown me around last week (she is also a friend). I remarked to her by email that I didn't think the behavior shown by the condor was the result of imprinting, because the bird had left the man for the wild; I asked if she thinks that gratitude could be a possible explanation for the condor's behavior.
"The big thing is, I don't see why we would rule out imprinting. According to the description in the video, this man rescued the bird when it was 'a baby.' Does the condor now breed, that is, have a condor mate and raise condor chicks? Or does the 'frequent' visitation imply that this bird has taken Edgardo as its mate and will remain in the general vicinity hoping one day Edgardo will lay an egg? Is it unable to recognize other condors as mates because it was raised by a person? That would be the sad part.
The condor is definitely soliciting neck rubs. In the wild, this would be allo-preening between mates, a ritual done after mating, as a greeting, or during a changing-of-the-guard at incubation. You can even see the condor nibbling Edgardo's shirt and hands as he may be trying to reciprocate the neck rub, or demand more.
Gratitude is not a word I would use — it implies the condor knows Edgardo was responsible for its healing. But does the condor feel extreme affection for Edgardo? Yes!"
(I learned my lesson some time ago in always seeking a bird expert when trying to interpret bird behavior.)
What we're left with, then, is a clear indication of emotion felt by the condor, but too many unanswered questions to point toward gratitude.
The condor video is only the tip of the animal-gratitude iceberg. Media stories of the "rescued whale says thank you" variety are pretty common, including this famous one from back in 2005 in which rescuers disentangled a humpback whale from crab pot lines in the waters off California.
After being freed, the whale moved through the water with exuberance. This behavior alone might well be an expression of joy or relief, having nothing directly to do (from the whale's point of view) with the rescue divers in the water. Some of the behavior struck the rescuers as intentionally directed towards them, though, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle:
"When the whale realized it was free, it began swimming around in circles, according to the rescuers ... it swam to each diver, nuzzled him and then swam to the next one."
Because I work on animal emotion, experience tells me that suggestions like this are often met with charges of anthropomorphism — even regarding big-brained mammals. Yet, let's break it down a little.
Expressing gratitude requires the cognitive ability to link an event (an individual animal's being helped in some way) to the agent of that event (the person or other animal who carried out the help). Based on what I know of cetaceans, elephants, and non-human primates, I believe this capacity probably does exist in individuals of some species whose survival depends on being able to make complex learned associations or, in some cases, to take the perspective of others.
In an article published earlier this year in Greater Good magazine, Malini Suchak reviews experiments with apes and monkeys showing that they engage in reciprocity, or the returning of favors in such a way that might well indicate they are grateful to their social partners.
In one experiment, for instance, chimpanzees were given a food-related task that required a partner to perform:
"The chimpanzees were more likely to help another chimpanzee in need of a partner if that chimpanzee had also helped them in the past. Reciprocity seemed more important than friendship and skill in their choices."
(A new chimpanzee study reported just last week adds even more evidence that reciprocity is crucial in chimpanzee dynamics.)
"Although we are not yet at the point where we can 'speak chimp' well enough to understand their expressions of gratitude, the behavior of our closest relatives certainly suggests that we humans are not alone in the importance we place on gratitude. The research suggests that, in all likelihood, our propensity for gratitude really does have deep evolutionary roots, and it will be up to us to find out how deep they go."
In his book The Bonobo and the Atheist, primatologist Frans de Waal recounts expressions of gratitude in chimpanzees also, including a historical one involving Wolfgang Kohler, whom de Waal describes as "the German pioneer of tool use."
"Two chimps," writes de Waal, "had been shut out of their shelter during a rainstorm when Kohler happened to come by and found the apes soaking wet, shivering in the rain. He opened the door for them. But instead of hurrying past him to enter the dry area, both chimps first hugged the professor in a frenzy of satisfaction."
That phrase "a frenzy of satisfaction" strikes me as fitting for explaining what the condor in Argentina does with Edgardo, too. Perhaps that is enough as a takeaway message, along with, of course, the strong positive difference that human compassion toward other animals can make.
Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's new book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape