How We Think of Animals
Animals are smarter than we thought.
This matters not just because it’s cool and fascinating. It matters because people use lack of intelligence as the reason to treat humans and non-human animals differently. It’s okay to eat animals and experiment on them, the rationale goes, because they are just dumb animals.
Science is biting itself in the butt on this one by continually discovering that animals aren’t so different from us after all, which will make it harder to justify experimenting on them.
These are some of the smartest animals in no particular order:
These thinkers have been named the second smartest species, after us, of course. They “co-operate with military precision to round up shoals of fish to eat.” They recognize themselves in mirrors. One dolphin was held captive for three weeks and was taught to tail-walk; after her release, “scientists were astonished to see the trick spreading among wild dolphins who had learnt it from the former captive.” They can learn “a rudimentary symbol-based language.” Dolphins “can solve difficult problems” and have “a high level of emotional sophistication.” Plus, they have really big brains. Things have gone so far that scientists have suggested “they are so bright that they should be treated as ‘non-human persons,’” protected from imprisonment in tanks, exploitation in amusement parks and slaughter.
When people can no longer point to a huge gap in intelligence between humans and other animals, it gets harder to justify torturing and using them.
Ravens have incredible recall for their friends’ voices. After living together for three years, then being separated for three years (during which time their calls may have changed), the ravens responded with friendly calls to recordings of the voices of their old friends.
They also remembered which birds they liked and which they didn’t. Recordings of the voices of ravens they didn’t care for elicited different reactions in deeper voices. They had yet a third reaction for the calls of birds they did not know.
3. Grey Parrots
Grey parrots can reason as well as three-year-old humans, as Mindy Townsend has written on Care2. When presented with two canisters and shown that one was empty, then “given the chance to choose one or the other,” they reliably picked the other one. Scientists performed more complicated versions of this study with the same result. The birds were showing “abstract, inferential thinking” by figuring out that if one is empty, the other has food in it. Humans can’t do that before age three.
Yes, squirrels are smart. They “put on elaborate shows” in which they pretend they are hiding food “to thwart would-be thieves.” When squirrels saw human researchers stealing their peanuts, they faked hiding even more food. This deception involves planning and a concept of what is happening in others’ minds — the squirrels are thinking about what may happen in the future (theft of their food), and about what observers are seeing and deducing (that there will be food where the squirrel is digging).
So there to all the squirrel haters, and especially to the wing nuts who held the “Hazard County Squirrel Slam” last weekend in upstate New York, where they awarded prizes for shooting and killing squirrels.
Of course elephants have to be on any list of smart animals. They have proved their intelligence time and again. But here is one you may not have heard: they can sniff out the scents “of up to 30 absent members of their family” and build a mental map of where they are. Can you keep track of where 30 of your relatives are at any given time?
The latest revelation: chimpanzees have better short-term memory than humans. Not just good short-term memory. Not even just as good as ours. Better. They have a stronger mental ability than humans do.
The study, reported in Huff Post Science, flashed the numbers 1 through 9 randomly on a screen. Chimpanzee Ayumu “was able to recall the exact sequence and location of each number.”
When researcher Tetsuro Matsuzawa showed a video of the experiment “to a room of scientists and journalists, murmurs of amazement were heard. ‘Don’t worry, nobody can do it,’ Matsuzawa said… ‘It’s impossible for you.’”
Chimp Ayumu has also learned the numbers 1 through 19 and what order they go in.
Pigs can learn to use a joystick to move a cursor to a target and can distinguish among a child’s various scribblings. Their intelligence is akin to that of chimpanzees. Comparing them to humans doesn’t come out that well for us: “even piglets only a few hours old will leave the nest to relieve themselves.” How long were your kids in diapers?
According to National Geographic, research now suggests that crows “share with humans several hallmarks of higher intelligence, including tool use and sophisticated social behavior.” Crows play tricks on each other, and different families have their own dialects. A nature writer describing one experiment on the birds writes that they are “in a class with us as toolmakers,” better even than chimps.
There is more going on behind animals’ eyes than we have given them credit for. Having learned more about their mental and social intelligence, it is time to reevaluate how we treat them.