• Jennifer Barnick

Do Animals Apologize?


Photo Source: Flickr

One time my husband and I got into a pretty big fight. By morning I was still upset and convinced I was going to keep my husband on the hook for some time—I was not going to forgive him. He left work early and quietly that morning (easy enough to do as he spent the night downstairs on the couch), and when the coast was clear, I went downstairs to make some coffee. Sitting in front of the coffee maker was a little note that said all I had to do for coffee was to press the on button, and below the little note was a picture that he had printed of a little beagle puppy with his chin down, his ears cupped, and his eyes turned up. There were tiny white crescents beneath the puppy’s sad, brown eyes. Underneath the photo was a caption that said, “I’m sorry.” Brilliance won over pride that morning, and my husband was forgiven. I wondered though, was the puppy really saying, “I’m sorry?” Or, is it a case of humans anthropomorphizing dog behavior?

As it turns out, animals do apologize both to their human companions as well as to each other in the wild. The technical, or scientific, term for saying sorry is ‘reconciliation.’ While many species will ‘console’ one another as in comforting an upset or injured member of their group, to reconcile is a much more advanced social behavior, and it is usually only seen in very intelligent species. In my research, I also stumbled upon the other side of the coin—when an animal feels that he is in the right and is justified to step out of line. How many of us have done the same? Flipping someone off normally is a wrong thing to do; however, while driving there can be times that we will feel perfectly justified. Same with swearing, yelling, and sometimes even punching. We humans are not the only species that sees not all aggressive actions should come with an apology.

When looking up articles online, I found this gem: Your Horse Will Not Say Sorry by Craig Cameron (November 18, 2014, horsedigests.com) Besides being an incredible survey of horse body language, it builds a pretty profound argument that I think humans should perhaps pay close attention to with regards to each other. Horses, like humans, are pack animals, and they bicker, shun, console, and reconcile with each other. However, there are times when perhaps we humans have it wrong on who should be apologizing. “When a horse kicks, bites or bucks you off, he’ll never say he’s sorry.” (Craig Cameron) Horses have a very clear communication style via body language. They will pin their ears back or swish their tails when they are very uncomfortable and upset. Sometimes they will even raise a hoof, creating a fake kick—not unlike when we humans raise a fist to someone. The whole point of the article is that from a horse’s perspective even after biting or kicking or bucking we are in the wrong. They had been very clear about how they were feeling about the situation using ample body language, and you ignored them and did not work to improve the situation. “The horse probably said, ‘Didn’t you see me? I’ve been trying to tell you something, and you didn’t listen. Horses are honest; they don’t lie.” (Craig Cameron)

One of the surprises was that crows are actually pretty sweet—regardless of their tough guy image (a group of crows is called a murder and after all). In an article entitled: Crows Hug it Out to Apologize After Fighting over Food by Allya Kouner (January 17, 2018), much to the shock of researchers in Germany, crows most definitely reconcile. “Ornithologists have observed that crows, members of the incredibly intelligent corvid bird family, will kiss and make up after fighting with fellow flock mates.” And how about that irresistible beagle puppy that put my husband quickly back into my good graces? Well, it turns out that yes, that picture had captured a genuine apology. Dogs apologize to each other and their human companions. However, it is not because they learned to say sorry from us—they inherited it from their wild ancestors the wolves. “The guilty look that dogs give is also called the ‘apology bow’ and has been studied extensively in wolves by animal behaviorists. […] While it may seem like a trivial action, it is involved in multiple fairly sophisticated social behaviors.” (The ‘Guilty Dog’ Look and Other Borrowed Signals by Nathan H. Lents, Ph.D., April 12, 2017, psychologytoday.com)

Lastly, let's look at the primates. I was very lucky to find an old(ish) interview of famed Stanford neurologist Robert Sapolsky who studied stress in baboons in East Africa for over three decades. In this interview, he was specifically asked about reconciliation amongst primates. (9/1/08, incharacter.org) For baboons, there was a significant difference in saying sorry. Essentially only females do—however, a lot of that had to do with the fact that females remain in their female pack their whole lives whereas young male baboons will leave and look for another group. Additionally, nearly all primates’ apologies were mainly reserved for close relationships and were most definitely always reserved for inter-pack. Male baboons, Sapolsky joked, do not apologize. However, they do a kind of ‘drop it’ signal which is done directly after the battle. Usually then, several hours after a conflict they do an ‘our we good?’ gesture: one baboon will offer his rear to the other and if the other sniffs it then they are good. Now, sometimes male baboons will hold grudges and will sometimes refuse to sniff or, worse, slash at the others behind. One of the more fascinating moments of the interview was regarding chimpanzees and bonobos. “Chimpanzees are violent, stratified, and male-dominated. They kill each other and cannibalize each other’s babies. They have something that looks like warfare. Meanwhile, bonobos are female-dominated and have extremely low rates of aggression. They solve every tension on earth with sex.”

Jennifer Barnick

Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”

Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.

Really Really Terrible Girls