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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 November 2006, 13:11 GMT
Can animals be brave?
The Magazine answers...

Desert Orchid
The Sun's tribute to the great racehorse
When much-loved jump-racing horse Desert Orchid died this week he was described as one of the bravest racehorses of all time, but can animals be brave?

Even the Queen was said to be in mourning when the death of racehorse Desert Orchid was announced this week.

The legendary grey, known affectionately as Dessie, was a firm favourite of the Royal Family and played a starring role in a pageant to mark the Queen Mother's 100th birthday.

Praised as one of the best racehorses of all time, he was also described as the bravest. But can an animal be brave?


The armed forces think so. They award the Dickin Medal - also known as the animals' Victoria Cross - for gallantry. It has been given to 60 animals who have done something outside the normal range of animal behaviour.

There is Rob the parachuting dog. He was dropped behind enemy lines with his SAS unit in World War II to watch over the exhausted men as they slept in-between carrying out their undercover operations.

Question mark
A regular feature in the BBC News Magazine - aiming to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

He made over 20 descents during his time with units in north Africa and Italy.

Other examples include horses riding into the line of fire and dogs being shot at as they go into a battle field to rescue their master.

But are such actions a conscious and selfless conquering of fears or simply an evolutionary instinct?

It is a tough question, says Juliet Gardener, author of The Animals' War. Talk about the bravery of animals in war is more a case of anthropomorphism, where human attributes are given to an animal, she says.

"We know the animals are involved in a man-made war. They don't want to be there, but have no choice. We talk of them being brave because we are the ones making them suffer. It makes us feel better.


"When humans go into a burning house to save a child trapped inside, they act on instinct. But in that split second they also weigh up the odds and decide the child's life is the most important thing. I don't think animals can make that sort of moral decision."

It is definitely a human trait to ascribe all sorts of complex human concepts to other animals, says James Kirkwood, scientific director at the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW).

Often this has nothing to do with scientific research, but is based on what humans believe to be true. This can be detrimental to the animal.

Lassie and Roddy McDowell
Lassie: Humans are happy to ascribe bravery to other creatures
"Bravery might be something important to humans but it wouldn't come top of an animal's list," says Mr Kirkwood.

Yet animals are conscious of danger and often perceive it quicker than humans, says Dr Maya Braem, from the department of biological sciences at Lincoln University.

"As to the bravery of animals, I think it is something that is more based on belief rather than being something that can actually be proved.

"They can be fearful and anxious of things. If a horse overcomes its fear of water some might consider that brave. There are probably lots of pet owners out there who believe their animals are brave."

Your comments

Animals can definately be brave, and feel all sorts of other emotions such as love, compassion and friendship. Why shouldn't they? They may be less intelligent than us, but they still feel pleasure and pain, so why not other things? Some act on training, like pigeons say, but horses, dogs and cats can definately become attached to humans and risk their life for them.
David, Ashford, Kent

As this article points out, most examples of bravery by animals occur during situations forced upon then by their human controllers. For a creature to be brave, it would need to understand the dangers associated with the actions it was about to undertake to take. While I think a lot of animals show examples of extreme loyalty, I do not believe they posses the required understanding (and in a lot of cases, the choice) in most situations to show bravery. I suspect, as the article suggests, bravery is something we apply to animals we use in dangerous situations in order to justify such use. By calling them brave, we pretend they have a choice. Their loyalty (and possibility their lack of understanding) drives them on. I wonder if their loyalty would extend as far as it does, if they knew the real danger of some of the tasks we ask them to do.
TS, Croydon, England

Whether it is bravery as we know it or a form of protecting their owners, I can't be sure. I had a Labrador that once faced down three aggressive rotweilers that had escaped from their owners by deliberately placing himself between myself (and 4 year old son) and those 3 dogs. He could have run off but didn't. He could see that they were behaving in a threatening manner and put himself in danger to protect us. I like to think that it was an act of bravery. (He was being a damn site braver than myself at the time!)
John Howe, Mirfield, England

Well I know that animals can be brave. I would not be here if it wasnt for one of my cats. Buddy saved my life in a house fire. He woke me up by biting me on the hand, knudging me with his head and crying very loud. He is my little hero and always will be
John Farnaby, Kent

Of couse animals can be brave: police dogs work in very dangerous environments. But animals should not be forced into coping with stressful situations as they have complex personailites like us. Take Desert Orchid for example, such a wonderful horse, well known for its sense of humour. It will be greatly missing by the whole racing community.
TDP, london

I think dogs and other animals can perceive danger - we've all seen mistreated dogs on the news and how their behaviour is modified as a result (e.g. cowering and wimpering), so they must be able to judge danger accordingly and weigh up risk. Although it's not scientifically proven I'd give them the benefit of the doubt and keep on handing out the medals. Whether they are able to make judgements or not they deserve the accolades.
Jon, Sheffield

Perhaps as the choice of going into a burning building to save a child is a value judgement, bravery is a notion and not a reality for humans as well? It is also arrogant for us to ascribe certain emotions to be only human when we ourselves are animals. If we can feel it, then the onus is to prove other animals do NOT feel it, not that they do!
Paul, Bracknell

I personally think dogs are brave. It is instinct for them to protect their owners. Anyone who has a dog, however big or small it is will tell you that. Many people would also be able to tell you a story of something brave that their dog has done to protect them. Cats think they're royalty, I doubt they'd do much for their owners (or atleast not as common as a dog would). I can't comment on other animals, as I don't know enough about them. Thats my theory from owning both, anyway.
Adam, Bournemouth

My Cats brave, he often fears I'm going to finish all of my dinner so he sticks his face into it to prevent me eating it all and getting fat.............a true hero
Tony Inkster, Camberley

Certainly some horses are braver at jumping fences than others. Although some horses are simply too stupid to see the danger, others, which show their intelligence at other times, clearly know what they are doing when they jump. Like humans, they seem to enjoy the thrill. But I doubt the same applies to warfare. Apart from the noise, horses can have no understanding that an unseen human is actively trying to kill them. The fear which any sane human being has of war is the product of a rational mind understanding abstract concepts, suh as the danger of unseen mines and mortar attacks. Sometimes alleged bravery in humans in war is no such thing either. Its a lack of understanding of the random and unstoppable nature of death and injury in modern war.
Des Hickey, London, UK

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