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 thought.

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 power.

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 Parrot’s Lament.

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 routine.

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 away.

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 seat.

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 even number.

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.

Geoff Olson