What's going on in there? (2002)
Among the many moving stories in Andrew Solomon’s
award-winning study of depression, The
Noonday Demon, one stands out for its
non-human nature. It’s the sad tale of an octopus, trained
for the circus, that had been accustomed to do tricks for
rewards of food.
Writes Solomon: "When the circus was disbanded, the octopus
was kept in a tank and no one paid any attention to his
tricks for rewards of food. He gradually lost colour
(octopuses’ states of mid are expressed in their shifting
hues) and finally went though his tricks a last time,
failed to be rewarded, and used his beak to stab himself so
badly that he died."
In insisting on human uniqueness, scientists have long
devalued "anecdotal" reports of animal intelligence and
emotion. The conventional wisdom has long held that only
human beings need a "purpose" to live. Animals, in
contrast, are merely Darwin’s wind-up toys: stimulus in,
response out — with not a whole lot happening in between .
Behaviourism, which regarded animals as input/output
devices, inherited the Cartesian concept of animals as
automatons, which in turn derived from the Judeo-Christian
conceit that we’re the crown of creation, with our
kingdom’s fauna as dumb as a pile of bricks.
Times change, however. As a school of psychology,
behaviourism is deader than a gun registration bill in
Texas, and cognitive scientists are starting to suspect we
share more in common with animals than we previously
Most of us have had some opinion-altering experience with
an animal. It could have been a pet, a creature in the
wild, but we’ve been left with the spooky suspicion that
our furred and feathered friends don’t just zone out when
they're not in flight-or-flight mode. They have active,
inquiring minds that can surprise us with their processing
Consider the peculiar case of Patty and Max, two elephants
at the Bronx zoo in New York, told by Eugene Linden in his
book on animal behaviour, The
The zookeepers devised games for the pair, hiding their
favourite objects, like tambourines and tires, for them to
find. The keepers then extended the games to get the
elephants back into their night cages, hiding candies in
the enclosure to entice them in.
Writes Linden: "Once they are inside, the keepers shut the
gate and secure the exhibit for the night. Max and Patty
seemed to have figured out that the keepers will only shut
the gates when both elephants are inside. So when the
keepers lay out the enticing bedtime treats, one will go in
while the other lurks just outside the gates. Then the
first elephant will come back and while the other goes in
to get his or her share."
This seems simple enough, in terms of elephant motivation.
The huge mammals are trying to prolong their time outside,
while thumbing their trunks at the keepers.
But a moment’s thought shows how problematic it becomes to
explain their behaviour, says Linden. "The game also
requires that one elephant trust the other not to eat all
the treats. What is going on here?Are the animals
communicating and planning, or did they arrive at this
apparent strategy by blind trial and error?"
The author later suggests some kind of sophisticated
communication is occurring. Just a decade ago, elephants
were discovered to be generating low frequency sounds to
signal one another on the savanna. Was this Max and Patty’s
means of hatching plots against the bipedal set?
These two elephants are quite extraordinary in their
scheming, but their efforts pale in comparison to a duck
that accosted a Vancouver police officer last year.
According to a story in The
Vancouver Sun, the bird in question grabbed
officer Ray Petersen by the pant cuff while he was on his
rounds under the Granville Bridge, and then circled around
quacking. Thinking the behaviour "a bit goofy," Petersen
shoved the duck away. It continued with its antics, and
looking back at the officer to make sure he was paying
attention, waddled up the road about 20 meters and lay on a
storm sewer grate.
Petersen watched and thought nothing of it. But when he
attempted to walk away, the duck returned and grabbed him
by the pant cuff again, repeating the quacking/waddling
The officer decided to inspect the grate, and discovered
"eight ducklings in the water below, that had fallen
between the grates." A tow truck was dispatched, and as the
mother calmly watched, the grate was pulled up and the
ducklings rescued. Mom marched then off with her brood down
to False Creek, where they jumped into the water and swam
Upon first hearing this tale, I relayed it to a friend.
"Yeah, he said, "and the duck didn’t just approach ANY
human — it approached a cop."
(Petersen was less than enthusiastic about how we was
approached by humans after his story went global.
Indundated with requests from broadcasters and reporters,
the exasperated officer recounted in a Sun follow-up story
how his colleagues at work had taken to quacking when
passing him in hallways.)
Perhaps Peterson’s duck was off the avian bell-curve for
intelligence — a Madame Curie of mallards, perhaps.
However, I suspect the reason we don’t often see such
astonishing acts of intelligence in the wild is because
animals don’t have much need for us. We have their agendas,
and they have theirs.
And their agendas can be as offbeat as that of any human.
At a hobby farm belonging to my friend’s father, there’s a
particular chicken that loves nothing more than to get into
a car through an open window, and hang out in the back
Presumably this Kerouacian clucker isn’t aiming for
adventure on the open road — she just loves cars. On one
occasion I almost made it out the driveway before a cluck
alerted me to her presence. There’s also a goose and a duck
that are inseparable. I once watched as the goose waddled
around the grounds, plaintively honking away for his best
friend, who had been taken to the vet for the day. The
goose was inconsolable.
Admittedly, this is all anecdotal stuff. Yet these stories
are backed up by laboratory studies of animals, especially
species of birds like parrots and ravens. After ruling out
experimenter bias and other possible cues, scientists
studying Alex, an African grey parrot, have determined he
has a semantic understanding of colour, size, shape, and
This kind of thing should give anyone pause, given the
treatment of food animals in factory farming. When the
evidence suggests many species of mammals and birds output
actual thinking personalities, it’s enough to make you go
vegan for good.
Our purpose in life, according to Buddha, is to liberate
all beings from suffering — although I concede he may not
have had poultry in mind.
A cynic may counter that a bird’s life can be summed up as
peck peck, crap, and die. But then again, there’s plenty of
people who lead an equally mechanical existence.
Read up on the latest thinking on avian minds, and you’ll
no longer think Chicken Mcnuggets are only marginally less
aware than their source. Check out the cognitive studies of
octopuses, squid, and other cephalods, and you’ll think
differently about seafood. Learn of the emotional lives of
elephants and you’ll be less fond of circuses.
Hey, call me an anthropomorphizing fool if you want. Just
don’t call me if you you’re having duck for dinner.
Calamari is out, too.