The Inner Life of Animals

For centuries learned philosophers, biologists, and medical scientists have studied an impressive array of primates, dogs, cats, rodents, horses, pigs, birds, and other creatures to determine if they have the capacity to reason, feel, solve problems, or have moral concepts and they keep coming up empty.

Their inability to see the obvious might be amusing if the consequences weren't so serious. Torturing rats or rabbits in scientific research wouldn't be so easy if you looked into their eyes and recognized a fellow being who experienced the same pain and fear you would feel. Because they're "just dumb animals," not capable of thought or feelings, we can harm animals to benefit human society, exterminate those who inconvenience us, and frequently treat intentional cruelty to defenseless animals as nothing more serious than property damage.

Following are reviews and comments on four wonderful books that discuss animal intelligence and consciousness.

The Parrot's Lament

The Parrot's Lament,
by Eugene Linden,
New York: Dutton, 1999

One of the most amazing stories in The Parrot's Lament shows Harriet the leopard being ferried across the river by conservationist Billy Arjan Singh. Singh took Harriet in when she was an orphaned cub and returned her to the forest preserve just across the river from his compound when she had matured.

Harriet adapted successfully to the wild and soon gave birth to two cubs of her own. Everything went well until floods came, threatening Harriet's den.

In need of a safe place for her cubs, she remembered Singh's compound on high ground and carried her two cubs, one by one in her mouth, across the river to the safety of Singh's kitchen. Once the floods receded, she began moving the cubs back home but found the flooded river current was dangerously strong. After returning for the second cub, Harriet stepped into Singh's boat, in which she had ridden many times as a cub, and waited patiently for Singh to step in and ferry her and her cubs across the treacherous waters.

The intelligence of parrots is particularly hard to ignore since they are capable of human speech. Researchers have found that parrots are able to identify a variety of objects, count items up to about nine, and communicate effectively . . . when they want to.

One African grey parrot named Jimbo loved to visit his owner's parents who she identified as Poppa and Peekaboo.

Whenever his owners started to get ready to go to their parents' house Jimbo would call out "Can we go to Poppa's and Peekaboo's for dinner, okay? Come on!"

One day while looking out the window, Jimbo spotted a roadrunner and called out "Momma, look! A bird!" Then turning to the bird, she said, "Hi, bird. Are you hungry? Do you want to go to Poppa and Peekaboo's for dinner?"

Bongo Marie
Sally Blanchard, a parrot behavioral specialist, tells of her African Grey parrot, Bongo Marie, who had a strong dislike for her Amazon parrot, Paco. One day when Sally was cooking a Cornish hen, Bongo Marie watched the cooked bird come out of the oven and cried out in mock alarm, "Oh no! Paco!" After Sally reassured her that Paco was still alive and well just around the corner, Bongo Marie responded with a very disappointed "Oh no" followed by a fit of maniacal laughter.

The Parrot's Lament is filled with stories of animal humor, treachery, heroism and compassion, and inventiveness. Several chapters are devoted to primate intelligence.

The stories range from amusing and sometime baffling tales of famous gorilla and orangutan escape artists at seemingly escape-proof zoo facilities to experiments in which orangutans and chimps thought through a complex engineering problem, determining the tools they needed to solve it, and finding the right materials in their environment to make those tools.

The Compassion of Animals

The Compassion of Animals,
by Kristin von Kreisler,
Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA, 1997

When Kristin von Kreisler took the stories of animal courage, kindness, and self-sacrifice she'd collected in researching her book to seven "animal experts," only one agreed that animals are capable of compassion. The others went to great lengths to prove that animal altruism is really self-interest, "hard-wiring" for protection of the pack, or attempts to solicit reciprocal care - all of which is just as easily applied to human acts of compassion and bravery.

But it's hard to see the self-interest in the behavior of Tia, a three-legged chocolate lab who dragged an overturned dingy with three fully clothed men hanging onto the sides through 100 yards of freezing, stormy water to reach the shore. Gripping the mooring rope in her teeth, she used her three legs and every ounce of her strength to rescue the men who couldn't possibly have made it to shore before their heavy boots and water-soaked coats would drag them under or they would die of hypothermia from the icy water. Tia, however, could easily have saved herself, and pulling the boat and men to safety put her life very much at risk.

Self-interest doesn't seem to explain why Ginger, a tiny, nearly blind and deaf, arthritic pomeranian, reacted as she did when she saw her owner threatened by a large, violently psychotic man in her living room. Ginger suddenly launched a surprise attack that earned her a vicious kick and sent her crashing into the wall. But it gave her mistress time to escape danger.

Protecting the pack doesn't seem to be the motive of Crockett, a well-cared for tabby cat, who pulled the body of a neighborhood kitten she'd hung around with away off the street where she'd been hit by a car. She then lay next to the small gray kitten, refusing to leave until the body was finally taken away.

And what pack interest was served when the Newfoundland Boo, playing with his owner near the shore, suddenly lost interest in the game as he sensed a stranger drowning in the river's white waters? Boo begged to be released from his leash and plunged into the dangerous rapids, dragging the injured man to safety.

Expectation of reciprocal care doesn't seem to explain the behavior of Ranger, who began barking incessantly then disappearing under a camper shell. Some neighbors observed him taking food and mouthfuls of snow under the shell. Finally, one curious neighbor followed the dog and discovered a stray female dog who'd been caught in a coyote trap. For days Ranger had kept her alive in the freezing winter weather with his care packages until someone came to release her.

Then there's the story of Griz the 650-pound grizzly who, instead of turning the hungry little stray kitten who wandered into his cage looking for food into an hors d'oeuvre, generously tore off a piece of his chicken wing and gave it to her. The two became pals and inseparable companions from that day on.

If that's not love or compassion it probably comes as close to the real thing as most of use are likely to experience in our own lives.

The Soul of Animals

The Soul of Animals,
by Gary Kowalski,
Stillpoint Publishing, Walpole, NH, 1991

Chimpanzees have been observed using stick tools, which they poke into termite hills to reach the tasty residents. They had to use reasoning to develop the technique, finding objects around them to manipulate into a useful tool.

Dolphins and elephants, among many other species, have been seen to protect their injured and sick colleagues, and even vampire bats are known to share their food with others in the community. Every species has its own language, but primates who learn to communicate using human sign language or computers show a great depth of feeling and understanding.

Koko, the subject of the longest ongoing ape language study, is a good example. Asked what she'd like for her birthday one year, Koko requested a kitten. She named her little gray, tailless companion All Ball, and carried her everywhere, gorilla style.

When All Ball was killed by a car, Koko at first acted like she didn't hear the news. Then she sobbed, and expressed sadness at her loss. For a week she cried whenever anyone talked about cats. Koko understood that gorillas, too, die when they are old, sick, or injured. When they die, she believed, they don't feel happy, sad, or afraid, but simply "sleep."

When Elephants Weep:
The Emotional Lives of Animals

When Elephants Weep:
the Emotional Lives of Animals,

by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson & Susan McCarthy,
Delacorte Press, 1995)

When Elephants Weep is a powerful, carefully reasoned assault on scientists' stubborn insistence that animals are nothing more than instinct-driven automatons, incapable of reasoning or emotions. But considering some of the horrific experiments conducted in the name of science, it's easy to understand why some researchers prefer to believe animals can't feel or experience pain, emotional or physical, as we do. How else could anyone conduct experiments like the one described by Martin Seligman:
. . . a wild rat, being held in the hand of a predator like man, having whiskers trimmed, and being put in a vat of hot water from which escape is impossible produces a sense of helplessness in the rat.
This experiment in learned helplessness is quite tame compared to others conducted on monkeys and other animals to study fear, aggression, and social isolation. But the appalling abuse of animals in the name of science is not the focus of Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's book.

Alex, an African gray parrot being, left at the vet's office, called out to his owner, "Come here! I love you. I'm sorry, I want to go back." He seemed to understand the words he was using.

Naturalists encountered a family of wolves howling and frantically trying to release one of its members from a leg trap. They appeared to be deeply upset and concerned about their comrade's pain.

Two male bottle-nosed dolphins at an oceanarium, reunited after being separated for 3 weeks, spent hours hurtling around the tank, side by side, and leaping out of the water. It's hard not to call their reunion joyful.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)
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