Over the years, we at Giz Asks have probed countless aspects of animal behavior and psychology. Which animal is the horniest? The filthiest? The most inclined towards monogamy? Which one kills the most people? Do any of them exercise? And so on.
Today, we extend this venerable tradition with a new question, one sure to delight anyone who’s ever daydreamed about a monkey cackling maniacally as he plots the dismemberment of the monkey who killed his father—namely, do animals take revenge?
Adjunct Lecturer, Zoology, Kean University, whose research focuses on animal behavior
Yes, animals do practice revenge. Chimps do it, for example. Macaques do it, too, although not directly: if they cannot attack the offender because he is much stronger, they would hurt someone weaker instead, sometimes the attacker’s relative.
Also, there are many documented cases of wounded animals chasing or ambushing their hunters in situations when it would be obviously more reasonable for those animals to run away or hide. Why they do it is unclear. In humans, revenge is usually an irrational manifestation of our innate desire for justice, which is also observed in many other primates and has evolved to enable social cooperation. We always want to reward altruistic behavior in others and punish them for excessive selfishness.
Some of animals known for revenge attacks on hunters are also highly social (elephants, for example), but others are not (bears, tigers etc.), so I don’t have a good explanation for their behavior
Associate Professor, Animal Behavior, Ecology and Conservation, Canisius College
I have no doubt that many animals engage in reciprocity, which we usually think of as “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” Reciprocity can also extend to negative acts, for example, if someone is a bad cooperator, you might refuse to cooperate with them in the future. That is something I saw in my own research with chimpanzees.
Reciprocity of negative actions isn’t precisely the same thing as revenge, which, to me has a component of moral justification. While it seems clear that other species have their own moral codes and systems (for example, capuchins react negatively to unfair situations), the idea of applying revenge to other species concerns me because it assumes their moral systems are the same as ours—they view the same things we do as right or wrong. I often hear people say things like, “I went on vacation and my cat revenge peed on my bed,” which implies that the cat knew it wrong to pee on the bed, but did it anyway to punish them for leaving. In all likelihood their cat was extremely stressed out by the change to their environment. If that act was viewed as revenge, the person might punish or resent their cat and probably wouldn’t change things for the next time they go on vacation. If it’s viewed as stress, they might act to reduce the stress the next time they go away—a win/win for the human and the cat. I think it could actually be harmful to the way we treat other animals to assume their acts constitute revenge, when they are likely viewing the situation very differently.
Professor of Animal Behavior and Psychology and Director of the Animal Behavior Program at Bucknell University
I study non-human primates, specifically a species called pigtail macaques. They live in large social groups, and they have matrilines—an older matriarch will have her kids, and her kids will have her kids. Often all their kids will form a family, and then there will be another, unrelated female that has their own family. When one of these families gets into a fight with another family, pretty much all the family members will join in and help. It can be pretty vicious at times. At a small level, if somebody from family A aggresses against somebody from family B, that member of family B is likely later on to go after someone from family A—chase them, bite them, hit them.
It’s not very common, but it happens more than you’d expect by chance. When I studied this, sometimes it would happen later on. Animal A would hit animal B, then animal B later on would go after animal A’s kid. This behavior has also been found in other types of macaque species as well—another author studied this in Japanese macaques.
Assistant Professor, Anthropology, SUNY Buffalo, whose research focuses on primate behavioral ecology, among other things
I study primates, and my answer would be: yes, more or less.
Obviously we can’t know their intent, because we can’t ask them what they were planning to do or why they did it. But in studies of primates in captivity, in social groups in zoos, we’ve seen that when an individual is attacked in some way, the likelihood of them attacking someone related to their aggressor is higher. Typically there’s a preference for attacking a third-party associated with the original aggressor, as opposed to the actual aggressor. (This phenomenon has also been seen in spotted hyenas.) For the most part, these acts of “revenge” take place shortly after the attack—I haven’t seen anything where a primate spends an extended period of time plotting revenge on his enemies.
The nature of living in these hierarchies or groups, where there is one dominant male, is fear. There are going to be repercussions if you don’t behave in the way that is expected. There are big monkey groups with one male and multiple females. In those groups, you can see aggressive behaviors towards female that stray during a conflict or large fight with another group, those females can be punished, because they didn’t maintain group-cohesion—didn’t move in the right pattern, or behaved in some other way that the dominant male didn’t like. The purpose, here, is to maintain the group and to maintain power.
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