What We Can Learn From Rabbits With Happy Childhoods

Recent behavioral and developmental studies of animals such as rabbits and rats show striking similarities to patterns we see in how childhood relationships and experiences shape humans.

The word you're looking for is "awwww."
The word you're looking for is "awwww."
Irene Habich

MUNSTER — Beyond genetics, no rabbit is truly like any other whether in the wild or as a house pet. Every animal has its own character that develops along the same lines as human character. Recent studies show that the closeness a rabbit shares with its parents, and whether or not it gets along with siblings or views them as rivals, help determine the animal’s character later in life. The same holds true for rats, whose personalities also develop along the same line as human personalities.

Researchers working with Aron Tulogdi at the Budapest Institute for Experimental Medicine and published in Developmental Psychobiology tried to make aggressive rats more placid. These very social animals turn aggressive when they spend their childhood in isolation. Could this be reversed if they later were raised with other rats?

To find out, the researchers put three-week-old rat babies alone in cages. That left behavioral traces on the animals: The rats that had grown up in isolation turned out to be aggressive, displayed anxiety when they were put in cages with other rats and slept apart from them. This behavior is strikingly similar to that of humans who have experienced troubled childhoods.

But within a few days in a group, something changed in the behavior of the rats brought up in isolation. Very soon they were bedding down for the night with the other animals — although they remained more aggressive than rats that had been socialized normally. Once again researchers found astonishing parallels: In human behavior, while social phobias can be treated with a high degree of therapeutic success, this is more difficult when it comes to aggressive behaviors.

Pecking order

Uncanny similarities such as these are emerging ever more strongly from animal behavioral research. "We develop hypotheses that in many regards could apply to human beings," Norbert Sachser, professor of behavioral biology at the University of Münster, says. "Although human characters are of course significantly more complex, our brains follow basic patterns that are similar to those of animals."

In this way, early ties mark the nature of both animals and humans. The relationship of a person to his or her parents and siblings is decisive when it comes to the character that person develops. The same goes for animals: Their relationships to family members determine their personality development, says Sachser.

Rats who did not receive loving maternal care were more susceptible to stress. But other factors come into play as well: "With animals, even siblings play a role in behavior profile," he says.

That is confirmed by research done at the University of Bayreuth and the University of California (Behavioral Ecology, online). Researchers showed that in behavioral tests, wild rabbits that weighed a lot at birth were braver and more curious than lighter siblings from the same litter. That held true months later when the weight of the animals had evened out.

One of the possible reasons for this, according to researchers, is the division of roles in the rabbit family. In games and pecking-order contests, the heavier newborns won more often than their lighter siblings did. They thus presumably developed more self-confident character traits that stayed with them as they got older, whereas the lighter, weaker baby rabbits had to deal with more setbacks and thus remained somewhat anxious.

Are there possibly other decisive phases in the personality development of rats and rabbits? "There are indications that personality can be marked throughout puberty," says Sachser.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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