A Message from the Vet - May 2010
Animal Intelligence

Animal stories are great. When I read fiction, often animals are given human characteristics and behaviors. I think I can relate to that. It makes for a more interesting story than a dry description of, let's say a snake, wriggling along, hungry but without a soul, no plans other than to eat something or react to its surroundings.

So, when I came across a scientific report that elevated our "dumb beast" companions a notch, I took notice. The article's subject was about intelligence. Specifically, it reported about how a crow was put into an experimental setting with the problem of how to reach its food. The motivation was strong enough. Who has not felt hunger pangs and the need to eat? The clever crow had to reach the food morsel by use of a tool: it had access to a short stick which was not long enough to reach the food, but long enough to reach a longer stick, which when retrieved could then reach the food. Voila! The bird uses tools! Two of its feathered friends in another setting were tempted by food again out of their reach and given access to a straight piece of wire. With no previous experience with wire, the female New Caledonian crow fashioned the end of the wire into a hook and snagged the food, over and over. Her buddy was not so fortunate; he kept trying to stab the morsel with the straight wire and never got the food. When he transformed the straight length of wire into a hook, he too was rewarded.

Conventional thought is that primates alone use tools. This is one feature that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. But hold on a second, says Pua! What about an otter that uses a rock to smash open abalone? And how about a hermit crab that uses a discarded shell to make a house? They are both clever creatures using what is available to achieve a goal. But are these not just natural objects in original forms, unlike a tool that has been modified by the toolmaker to accomplish an objective?

Dogs are smart. Most of them are trainable. Think Border Collie vs. Basset Hound. Both are lovely dogs. But ask an owner next time you see them how training is going. Some canines are better problem solvers than others. But using a modified object to solve a problem may not be in the works. Cats are trainable too. Training your cat to enter a carrier, to move from one spot to another, or to jump through a hoop on command is a rewarding experience. But, again, they seem to lack the wiring to make and use tools.

I could swear my dog is the smartest dog in the world. Unfortunately, she puts her intelligence towards evil. She might use a chair to get up on the counter, but only if it is already available as a step. I haven't seen her nosing a chair over from the table to the counter to hop up and get my lunch. I suppose I could train her to do that, but I prefer a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, thank you.

Next time I read an animal intelligence story, I'll be looking for an elephant, a monkey, a bottle nosed dolphin, or a rook. Now there are a bunch of clever animals!

Think you have a pet of extraordinary intelligence? Drop me a line, I would like to hear from you.

John Haddock, DVM

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