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Refuting the ‘Dumb Animal’ Myth

February 19, 2012

Endangered SpeciesFor centuries (or perhaps millennia) humans have generally viewed ‘lesser species’ as little more than ‘dumb animals’, deciding that they were good for eating, riding, pulling, carrying, sport and/or entertainment, and companionship, but little else (in other words, the assumed they were put on this earth to serve us).  Even in our more enlightened times (or, perhaps, more so), it’s shocking how many people see animals (mammals, birds, fish) as theirs for the taking and/or using/abusing (witness the shocking number – over 10,000 – that are currently on the endangered species’ list).  Fortunately there are a growing number of people (activists, scientists, those of us who just plain love animals) who are not only working to protect these creatures, but who are studying their behaviour and learning that there’s much more to most than first meets the eye. Maybe their work will (eventually) change the minds of those who think animals are unintelligent.

For years scientists (and casual observers) have recorded instances of animals doing extraordinary things – things some of us would consider almost ‘human’.  Jane Goodall’s discovery that chimpanzees used tools (a stick pushed into a hole to collect termites) was considered earth-shattering when she first reported it, because it put the ‘greater apes’ on equal footing with us (which really shouldn’t have been all the surprising, when you consider we share 98% of their DNA).  Bubble NetElephants have been observed mourning their dead; whales and dolphins have been captured on film collaboratively corralling fish in ‘bubble nets’ and driving them to the surface so others in their pods can feast; emperor penguins use a carefully designed rotational pattern to allow each of the hundreds of thousands of males incubating their eggs to avoid being frozen by working their way from the outside to the inside of the circle; wolves and many ‘big cats’ hunt in groups that are clearly following a pre-determined strategy; and clear communication patterns have been identified in various kinds of birds and mammals. Maybe they aren’t so different from us, after all.

Alex The Grey ParrotThere are stories of whales that help one another (and humans); dolphins that outsmart their trainers; chimps that can count, sign (language), play tricks on their keepers, and even show empathy; birds (parrots, crows) that can differentiate between objects and mimic the human voice.  We’ve all heard of dogs (and cats) that have saved the lives of their owners by alerting them to a fire (when pure instinct should have told them to simply ‘get out), and people have observed ‘wild animals’ like racoons and bears learning how to open so-called ‘animal proof’ containers designed by humans (here’s a great video of a bear who figured out how to break into hatchbacks at Yosemite Park); there are even clear examples of animals that grieve when their partner (or offspring) dies. What makes us ‘better’ than them? 

Far from being ‘automatons’ – operating on ‘instinct’ and merely going through life thinking of little more than eating, sleeping, and procreating – most animals have a significant number of characteristics we would consider ‘human’ (humour, emotion, generosity, empathy, curiosity, loyalty, love), as well as the capacity to demonstrate higher intelligence (such as abstract thinking, problem solving, reasoning, and language – for some specific examples, check out this gallery of special animals and their demonstrated skills at National Geographic).

I’ve been fortunate to have had many different animals in my life (see My Life in Pets), as well as to have observed others in their natural habitat (I live in the woods, after all) and I can say – without a shadow of a doubt – that animals are a whole lot smarter than most people give them credit for.  Beyond cats and dogs that could sense when I was going out or away on vacation (my cat Bandit, for example, would begin to sulk the minute she caught sight of a suitcase), I’ve also known ‘wild’ animals that have shown an ability to adapt and learn (for their own benefit, of course).  Momma RaccoonFor example, for several years there was a racoon that frequented my backyard. She would position herself in a spot where she could clearly see me (and I her) sitting on the (second storey) deck – knowing that I would toss out some stale bread or grapes for her and her kits (one year she had 7 babies in one litter – I went through a lot of stale bread that summer).  She seemed to know exactly what time to arrive (somewhere just before 6:00 p.m. when my husband and I would be having our before-dinner drink), how long to stay, and that she wasn’t welcome on the deck itself.

Squirrel Waiting For PeanutsCurrently I have a very intelligent band of squirrels in my yard.  At the start of each winter, I buy a bag of peanuts (in the shell); when the temperature drops below zero and/or there is snow on the ground, I throw a few out onto the deck.  It took only a few days of me tossing out peanuts for the most of the squirrels in the neighbourhood to equate the sound of the door sliding open to ‘free food’ (yesterday I went out to sweep the shells off the deck and I was immediately surrounded by five squirrels looking for a handout). 

Commado Squirrel

Should I be worried?

I also think they’ve carefully calculated a way they can get ‘extra’ peanuts. One squirrel has recently started coming right up to the door and standing on his haunches, looking in. If I’m in the room, I usually stop whatever I’m doing and drop a few ‘extra’ peanuts out on the deck. Immediately several other squirrels scamper down the adjacent tree (I call it the ‘squirrel elevator’) to grab a peanut or two for themselves.  I don’t think this is a coincidence – I think they’ve carefully planned the whole thing (otherwise, why does only one squirrel approach the door, and why are the others hiding just out of sight??!?!?)  Squirrels might be a member of the rodent family, but I don’t think they’re as dumb as they look!

I am continually amazed by just how intelligent animals (of all kinds) really are (I’m a sucker for nature and animal-related shows on Discovery, National Geographic, Nature, Animal Planet, etc. and I own several BBC DVDs that showcase the natural world around us).  But I worry that so many (too many) other people don’t acknowledge the whole ‘circle of life’ concept, and that, as a result of our arrogance and neglect, some of those 10,000 plus species on the endangered list are going to become extinct.  How will we answer to our children, and our children’s children, and all the generations that follow when they want to know why we didn’t do something to stop it?  I don’t want to have to say that it was just too late to turn the tide by the time I was on … the other side of 55.

Smarter Than Humans

  1. Sharon permalink
    February 21, 2012 3:05 pm

    I was thinking the same thing. I’ve often seen how well pets have trained their humans to respond to their signals.

    • February 25, 2012 7:01 pm

      I honestly think the world would be a better place if we put the ‘animals’ in charge!


  2. Colleen permalink
    February 21, 2012 8:55 am

    Margo, our ‘adopted’ peacock trained us to feed her when she was hungry instead of when it was convenient for us. And let me tell you, we ran whenever she called, just like Pavlov’s dogs!

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