7:39 am
Thu September 12, 2013

Do Animals Think?... commentary from Joan Carris

Anyone with a beloved pet has at some point looked into their eyes and wondered “what are you thinking about?” Most of the time we just answer ourselves and say “food” and that ends our contemplation. Commentator Joan Carris, however, has thought long and hard… the emphasis on long… on the subject.

I’ve always been a little cuckoo about animals—even worms, who are lowly, but amazingly useful.  They aerate the soil in our gardens and are good fish bait.  As I see it, all living things exist in a perfectly integrated web, as long as we—the humans—don’t screw it up.

Unlike us, animals tend to keep life simple.  A squirrel can live in the same little patch of trees and bushes his whole life.  He doesn’t long for gourmet food.  He doesn’t spend every Monday exchanging old nesting material for new nesting material.  He doesn’t monitor his chattering for fear he might offend the blue jay or the squirrels over there in the old Carolina pine.

In response, my 7th grade science instructor would say, “Well, of course.  They’re animals, operating solely on instinct.  They do not think and reason.”

I heard those exact sentences long ago, okay very long ago.

“They do too think!” I said.  Loudly.

In class we’d been discussing the intelligence of various animals before focusing on dogs’ intelligence.  There I felt on firm ground as I had read every Albert Payson Terhune book on earth, and that man knew dogs.  I went on and said, “Maybe dogs don’t think like we do, but they do make decisions.  Seeing eye dogs take their blind people safely around obstacle courses they’ve never seen before!  That’s thinking!”

The teacher just laughed.  The man stood there, arms folded at his waist, and laughed.  Well, ha ha ha!  Guess who has the last laugh?

Since that long ago day, the number and variety of experiments focused on animal intelligence have multiplied amazingly.  Scientists have documented intelligent behavior that we’d call thinking or reasoning, but it is not exactly like our process—more a matter of degree, they say.

We are figuring out which animal can do what, and it’s fascinating.  An Asian elephant named Happy recognized herself in a mirror, something only great apes, humans, and dolphins do.  We’ve learned that pigs are the smartest of all domesticated animals.  How do we know?  Because the pig can solve a problem he’s never seen before.  He loves to be clean and uses mud for sunscreen only, as he cannot perspire.  He has a better snout than any dog and performs perfectly as a watch pig.  Unlike dogs, pigs on watch do not take naps, according to farmers in Europe.  And chimps?  On one famous memory test, the chimps outperformed the humans.

So, folks, okay!  We are smarter than animals, and that should help anyone with a self-esteem problem, but they aren’t just unthinking hunks of protoplasm either.  The little tree rats we call squirrels are actually quite clever, especially at pretending to hide food in one place and actually putting it in another.  True, squirrels can’t do algebra, but hey, I can’t either.

© Joan Carris