Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? Every time we read something that says animals can’t do something, another animal proves us wrong.
In the past scientists said that only humans could learn to use tools, but I have seen crows and ravens in Alaska working together to gain access to a cart full of shrimp which was covered with a tarp. When a banana and a stick were dropped outside a chimpanzees cage all he had to do was pick up the stick and drag the banana into the cage. Yet scientists said he couldn’t do it.
We keep hearing that animals don’t grieve, cannot look into the future, or being concerned for the well being of others, but a dog will grieve when his master dies, and cats sometimes lie down next to a person who is on the brink of passing away in hospitals.
Dogs absolutely can tell time and recognize body language. Charlie proves that every day. I have known humans who couldn’t do that! I think the best claims about human exceptionalism to be funny ones, such as Mark Twain’s ‘Man is the only animal that blushes-or needs to.’
It’s hard to prove a negative claim because the evidence keeps changing. and tests vary between species. Often poor performance in the animals had more to do with how they were tested than with their mental powers.
In one experiment researchers conducted a mirror test—to see if an animal recognizes its own reflection. They placed a mirror on the floor outside an elephant cage. They put a body mark on the elephant to see if it would touch it. It failed to touch it, so the verdict was that the animal lacked self awareness.
But Joshua Plotnik modified the test by placing an eight foot mirror inside the enclosure with the elephants. They could feel it, smell it, and walk behind it. The researchers were worried about the elephants curiosity, because the mirror was mounted on a wooden wall not built to hold off a four ton elephant smelling it.
One Asian elephant, named “Happy”, recognized her reflection. Marked with a white cross on her forehead above her left eye, she repeatedly rubbed the mark while standing in front of the mirror. She connected her reflection with her own body. Years later, Josh Plotkin has tested many more animals at Think Animals International, in Thailand, and his conclusion holds; some Asian elephants recognize themselves in the mirror. The challenge is to find tests that fit an animal’s temperament, interests, anatomy, and sensory capacities.
We know that some primates can paint pictures, a local gorilla living in Palo Alto once gave me a nice show at the gallery of his paintings, and and even supplied a movie showing how he accomplished them.
So don’t shortchange the animals, they were probably here first.