As you may have read or seen on the news this week, Southern California is on fire again. But to long-time residents, this really isn’t unusual. A few years ago, my younger brother threw me a birthday party in Pasadena, and the hills above that party were on fire. Not long after I came to America in the early 90s, a lot of Malibu was in flames. And in 1961, Bel-Air, one of the neighborhoods currently threatened, was destroyed by a firestorm.
What’s been making these fires worse is the combination of a long drought and the Santa Ana winds that usually kick up this time of year, and it’s a perfect recipe for disaster, but California is particularly adept at handling disasters. And, as always, it is in adversity that humans manage to come together as a pack.
There’s a joke among native Angelenos that goes like this: People who live in L.A. only meet their neighbors after an earthquake, and it’s really kind of true, as I learned in January, 1994, when we all got a very rude awakening way too early in the morning.
But it’s not just earthquakes that bring people together — something we certainly saw after a series of devastating hurricanes and tropical storms swept through the Caribbean, about a third of the U.S., and parts of Mexico, leading to massive civilian-led relief efforts. We saw the same reaction back in October, when 250 wildfires swept through Northern California.
Almost as soon as the first fires in Southern California began last Monday night, there were stories of neighbors helping neighbors to evacuate affected areas, as well as spreading the word to make sure everyone knew about the evacuation orders.
Elsewhere, people have been offering up their own homes to strangers who had to flee or, worse, had lost everything. In other cases, people traveled long distances to help groups that were evacuating and rescuing animals, big and small, in the affected areas. In L.A. County, the East and West Valley Animal Shelters have been taking in small animals, while the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank and Pierce College (an agricultural school) have been taking in big animals, like horses and livestock.
While these fires are terrible, having forced the evacuations of a lot of people and leading to the shutdown of a lot of schools and businesses (including my own) due to the smoke, the silver lining is seeing the outpouring of compassion and assistance. But this comes with its own reminder: We need to continue to have that compassion and give that aid even in times when there are no disasters.
This is where dogs and other animals can remind us because, as it turns out, it isn’t a “dog eat dog” world out there at all. In fact, there are numerous examples of animals exhibiting altruistic and moral behavior by helping out other animals, both of their own and different species.
In a piece in Psychology Today, Marc Bekoff Ph.D. gives numerous examples, including intra-species compassion among dogs, chimps, elephants, rats, monkeys, and even bats. And the interspecies examples are even more fascinating, like the group of elephants that rescued captive antelope by opening their cages, or the cat who led her blind and deaf dog companion around obstacles to food.
Bekoff even recounts the story of Binti-Jua, a western lowland gorilla at Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, who rescued a three-year-old boy who fell into her enclosure in 1996. She picked him up in her arms, warned other gorillas away, and brought him to an access hatch so zookeepers could retrieve him.
She received a quite different reception than Harambe, the gorilla who was shot and killed in May, 2016 at the Cincinnati Zoo under very similar circumstances — although, to be fair, her treatment of the child who fell in was a lot different than his, and she was eventually given a medal by the American Legion.
The real lesson of the animals is that they can demonstrate this kind of caring when there are no dangers and when it doesn’t benefit them directly. In humans, compassion and altruism should not be limited just to periods of diversity and disaster. These actions should be our default mode — toward animals, and toward each other. Like happy dogs in the park, we need to learn how to play nicely with each other at all times.
Stay calm, and stay safe!