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Forty Years with Birds and Dogs 

The Hen House Takes On Mark Twain--3. Are Humans the Only Animal With A Passion For Revenge?

Mark Twain’s Third Horrendous Condemnation of the Human Race as inferior to all other animals is simply wrong. Quotes cited below are from Mark Twain’s Letters From the Earth: Uncensored Writings, the letter entitled “The Damned Human Race, Section V. The Lowest Animal.” In this ten-page article, Mark Twain (MT) lays out the evidence as he saw it at a terrible time of his life. Perhaps we should excuse him, but on this point I can’t agree. Personal experience has told me that revenge is not unique to the human animal.

Nowadays we know a lot more about animal behavior—both good and bad. Turns out, we’re all carved from the same DNA, and it shows. Read the work of Frans DeWaal and Colin Tudge.


MT states that only humans have a passion for revenge after personal “...insult and injury.” Besides rigorous scientific studies showing emotions like empathy and joy, there are anecdotes aplenty now. My favorite is about the octopus who kept escaping from his tank. He was caught in his favorite hiding place—I believe it was a floor drain—and the lab tech returned him to his tank, carefully securing the lid. Thereafter, every time that lab tech walked by, the octopus took aim and fired at her. I don’t know the bio-details, but it couldn’t have been pleasant.

The other anecdote is from my own personal experience, powerful proof that we are not the only animals capable of revenge. We were swimming with the dolphins in an L-shaped pool on a beach in Roatan, Honduras. A 45-minute swim was part of Anthony Key Resort’s package. We were not to go into the short arm of the L, so dolphins could retreat there if they did not want to swim with us touristy divers. In fact, all of the dolphins were eager for the communal swim, for they beached themselves up close while we sat down on the beach to put on our flippers.

As instructed, I swam straight out, keeping my arms to my sides, and within seconds I had company. Two friendly females accompanied me about the pool, and one gave me a lovely ride when I hooked my hand over her dorsal fin. The ride was interrupted when she was pushed aside by a large male, who then proceeded to make unwelcome overtures on my thigh.

It took me a while to realize that I was being used, so I waved him off and swam for the beach. When I stood up in the waist-deep water, he sped toward me and rammed me hard, apparently angry at being rejected. Luckily he hit my ribs, or he would have knocked the breath out of me. So much for the spirituality of dolphins. Truly, so much for shared emotions. We are not the only critters who take revenge after “...insult and injury.”

Many anecdotes probably contributed to the wise saying “An elephant never forgets.” If it weren’t a spoiler, I’d link here to a popular novel.

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