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Mental Capacity Of Animals

( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )



OUT of the depths of his egotism, man occasionally evolves the conception that he is the only animal that can think and carry thought beyond one decimal place. With precisely the same bones in his skeleton as a chimpanzee, he sometimes flatters himself into the belief that somehow his gray-matter is different, and that the animals below him cannot " reason," as he sometimes does.

The question, " Do animals reason? " is nearly as idle and frivolous as it would be to ask " Do fishes swim? Of course animals reason; and it is only the man who does not know them intimately who will hold that they do not. Ask the animal-trainers, trappers, hunters and keepers, and to the last man they will say : " Of course animals reason." And these, mind you, are the men who win their bread because they can accurately gauge the mental processes of the animals with which they have to deal. Take an illustration :

My guide in British Columbia, Charles L. Smith, is by winter business a trapper; and for twenty years he has backed his reasoning powers against those of that creature of diabolical cunning and originality, the wolverene. Rarely is a wolverene caught in a trap. Once, however, in attempting to figure out wolverine reasoning, Charlie put a quarter of venison in his cabin, left the door ajar, and planted two traps in the opening. He said : " The wolverine will carefully avoid those traps and stay out. Behind my cabin I will carelessly hang up in this tree the deer's head, as if I had thrown it into the discard. Wolverene will say: ` Aha! This fellow has forgotten to look out for this head. I will pull it down and drag it off. ' "

So in the spot where Gulo luscus would need to stand in carrying out that shrewd intention, the trapper planted a trap, attached to a pole like a well-sweep. Result : Gulo reasoned precisely as the trapper thought he would. He carefully avoided the traps in the doorway, went boldly to the forgotten head, was caught, snatched high in air by the balanced pole, and when the trapper returned from his line he found his implacable enemy hanging high, and " dead as a wedge."

Animals reason, just as men do, much or little, according to what they are, and where they are. In these days a fox, a deer, bear or lynx could not live a week if it did not reason hard from dawn till dark. A fox that goes out hunting ruffed grouse reasons just as clearly and as cogently as his human rival who hunts both. Like men of different kinds, the mind of an animal may contain only a score of distinct and recognizable ideas, or it may be a hundred. As long as it remains under the same conditions that surrounded its parents, its thoughts will run in the same grooves that theirs did. But remove the parents, change those conditions, and, presto ! that animal develops new lines of thought and draws an entirely new set of conclusions.

The idea that animals know only what their parents have taught them in the forest kindergarten is the most arrant nonsense ever penned, as any child of reasoning age can easily prove. If this childish notion was true, all young animals deprived of their parents before they are regularly weaned would starve to death.

Catch any adult animal in a trap, unhurt, and you will soon see it develop new lines of reasoning from premise to conclusion. A bear, a puma, wolf or wolverene will say : " This cage is of wood and black bars. The bars are small; I will bite them in two. No, they are harder than my teeth. I will pull them out, one by one, with my teeth and claws. . . No, they will not come out. But wood is softer than iron. I will eat my way out through the wood. I can get out easier at a weak place than a strong one. This crack in the middle of the side is a weak spot, and with my claws I can tear off splinters from the edges." And to work he goes, with knowledge deduced from straight reasoning, to chew and tear his way out, chip by chip, by a process he never before had seen or dreamed of.

The mental faculties of the higher animals are precisely the same as those of men, and they result in the same series of emotions. The state of the bodyŚwarm or cold, hungry or fed, safe or in peril, in peace or at war, bond or freeŚleads to a corresponding series of emotions and mental activities. From elephants down to mice, and from chimpanzee to echidna, the four-footed and four-handed animals manifest love and hate, courage and fear, hope and despondency, joy and grief, pleasure and pain, current and nostalgia, memory and forgetfulness, faithfulness and treachery, mercy and cruelty, forgiveness and revenge. It would require a volume to contain the illustrations of these emotions that now come crowding to my mind.

It is wholly according to their reasoning powers that horses are safe or dangerous. A fine young mare which I know is a confirmed pessimist always predicting calamity, always expecting trouble, always ready to fly off at a tangent and smash things. But our " Major " is such a confirmed optimist that he believes nothing ever will harm him. He fears neither automobile, engine nor artillery in action. If a road was open he would willingly be driven into the engine-room of a man-of-war. A good horse, when properly driven, has perfect confidence in its driver, but the equine pessimist has none.

In ability to reason from cause to effect, under entirely new conditions, I think the Indian elephant is one of the wisest of all the lower animals. Of all the dangerous animals ever captured when fully adult, the elephant is the only one which promptly learns that the mind of man is superior to brute force, that its wisest course is to accept captivity philosophically, that it pays to be good, and that a cheerful spirit promotes peace of mind and longevity. This is the most striking, and also universal, instance of clear reasoning that I have ever observed among wild beasts.

A lion, tiger, bear, bison, elk, orang or chimpanzee, when captured alive and fully grown, is wise and shrewd in fighting its way to freedom, but when beaten it reasons no further. It does not know enough to cease to fight its bonds and its bondsmen, and as a rule it lives only when it cannot possibly die of broken bones or a broken heart.

How different is Elephas indicus. An elephant is caught wild and fully adult, mastered in about two weeks' time, or even less, and in from six to twelve weeks is actually broken, or trained to steady service in the timber forests.

Six weeks after its capture, an adult orang is still a raging demon, and usually in from three to five months it is dead, of sheer intractability. An adult bear lives longer, for several years, perhaps; because it is of coarser, tougher fiber and stronger appetite, and is unable to die. But do not think for one moment of training and handling large carnivores, caught when adult, for their rage and choler leave no opportunity for calm ratiocination.

Not only is the Indian elephant one of the best original reasoners in the kingdom of lower animals, but as far as I can judge, it also has the best memory. A particularly intelligent chimpanzee can remember as many different things as an elephant, but out of the whole number of captive chimpanzees not more than one-fourth or one-fifth can be taught and made to remember the number of things that can easily be learned and actually remembered by every Indian elephant. The wonderful things about an elephant's memory are its scope, accuracy and quickness. In these three qualities of mind, and also in susceptibility to training, I think that the Indian elephant stands at the head of all the animals below man.

The mental capacity, and especially the memory of elephants, is best shown in the circus ring, where the whole performance depends upon the ear, the memory, the eye and the words of the trainer. The most striking manifestations of intelligence are the accuracy of the elephantine memory and the absence of lapses, the promptness of response, and the great number of things remembered. Among trained lions, horses and dogs it is only the exceptionally apt animals that reach the exhibition platform, but with elephants everyone is a " star."

In the show performances of elephants, there are two leading features. The most spectacular is the military drill, in which from ten to twenty elephants go through a series of evolutions, from " fall in," " roll-call," and several kinds of marching and countermarching to the final " ground arms," when all lie prone upon the earth. Before me I have a list of fifteen commands that were obeyed instantly, accurately and without hesitation or mistake by sixteen elephants. Not one command was repeated, and not one elephant made an error. It was a long and complex performance, much too long, I think, for any animal to remember from beginning to end without spoken commands.

The. other elephant-act usually consists of " trick elephants," which do almost everything their trainer can think of. I have seen elephants taken from the drill and its fifteen acts, and as trick-animals put through a series of eighteen more, making thirty-three acts in all for each animal to remember. Is there any other animal which ever has been so trained, or which ever has exhibited so wonderful a combination of perceptive faculties, memory and philosophical obedience? I think not. In my judgment, lions, tigers, dogs, monkeys and horses are not even in the same class, mentally, as elephants.

In the timber camps of Southern India every elephant is trained as a matter of ordinary routine to do at least sixteen different things by command, and in their work they show more intelligence than some human beings.

A young friend in the forest department of Burma, A. E. Ross, relates a striking case of long memory in a working elephant. Among the grass-cutters who supplied a force of working elephants with green food, there was one who had incurred the pronounced dislike of one of the animals. Before matters reached a crisis, however, the grass-cutter was sent some distance away to work in another camp.

About a year later the man came back and quietly drifted into the ranks of his fellows, fully believing that during his absence the elephant had forgotten him. But not so. At the first assembly of elephants and men, the elephant espied his old enemy in the ranks of the grass-cutters and instantly charged him. The man fled for his life, and never dared to return.

To my mind, there is no more effective test of a wild animal's reasoning powers than its course when ill or wounded. I have seen wounded buffaloes leave the herd without an instant's delay, turn off sharply to one side and seek immediate concealment in a ravine. While a broken leg is healing, a buffalo will work its way into the head of the most rugged ravine it can find, where the cut banks are highest and men most seldom come. But when well and strong, the same animal feeds well afield, where it can see far and wide and gain a long start from every approaching horseman.

Of all wild animals in captivity, apes and monkeys most quickly learn that a sick monkey needs a doctor. But not all do this, however; in fact, none but the brightest.

One of the most amusing performances I ever saw in which primates were the actors was a ring-tailed monkey showing to three other monkeys a cavity in one of the molars of a bonneted monkey, and telling them all about it. The bonneted monkey sat quietly, opened its mouth wide and held still for at least a minute. The ring-tailed monkey peered in, discovered the defective molar, with its left hand pushed down the lower lip, dentist-fashion, and put its right forefinger on the tooth, while it solemnly explained the situation. The other monkeys crowded around, wrinkled their brows and solemnly- peered into the open mouth to see the cavity that needed filling.

Through their extra-close and human-like daily association with the men who care for them, apes quickly learn that in sickness or trouble they need human help. So quickly do they learn (some of them, at least) that it is safe and wise to swallow anything that a friend offers in a spoon, they even accept and swallow medicines that do not taste good. To me, this is evidence of sound reasoning; for from wild men to wild mice the first law of nature is that whatever does not taste good is not good to swallow. Of wild animals generally, about ninety-nine out of every hundred will fight the doctor, at least during first treatment. Through experience, however, they do sometimes learn that when ill it is good to be doctored.

Last June we helped our fine Altai wapiti doe out of serious trouble, holding her by main strength during the operation. At that time I had a strong impression that she realized we were doing our best to help her. After-ward she became tame. In September, when I was absent, she was badly gored by her mate, and for a time her life hung by a thread. Said Keeper John Quinn in October: " And I tell ye, sir, we couldn't a saved her nohow if she hadn't been so sensible and kept so quiet and let us treat them wounds twice every day. She really knew what we was a doin' for her. Now she's all right."

Nearly every intelligent chimpanzee and orangutan quickly learns what it means to have human help when in trouble, and the assistance they sometimes render the doctor is of great value. In the treatment of abscesses, they submit to the knife voluntarily and without restraint in a way that is astonishing. Our Soko was at first an active, nervous and almost uncontrollable chimpanzee, possessed of remarkable strength. When an abscess developed on her jaw, we dreaded the struggle that seemed impending in order to use the lance. On the day previous to that fixed for the operation, Dr. Blair stood in front of her cage, studying the situation. Soko came forward, close to the bars, and pressed her face against them. The doctor reached forward and began to feel the abscess; and Soko turned that side of her face to give him the best opportunity. Finding that she not only did not flinch but seemed anxious to have something done, he whipped out his knife and successfully opened and discharged the abscess, through the grating, while the animal resolutely held her afflicted jaw motionless against the bars. She accepted the cut as if she liked it. Since that time she has voluntarily submitted to two similar opera-ions and all the after treatment they involved.

In the first year of the Zoological Park, before we had a veterinary surgeon, I saved the life of a baby orang-utan by two operations of half an hour each, solely by reason of the fact that the absurd little creature assisted me throughout intelligently and earnestly.

Reason is an appreciation of the fact that particular conditions and results are produced by specific causes. Two animals do not fight unless one reasons that it can vanquish the other. Today there are savages in both the Old World and the New whose reasoning powers are not so good as those of the little chief hare, which knows enough to house itself comfortably where its enemies cannot get at it, and to pack away enough food to last throughout the long winter.

Some species 'of animals are mentally higher than others, just as some races of men are, and some are keener than others in the line of original thought. There are millions of men who know only to do as they have seen other men do. The mechanical men who are given to original reasoning we call inventors. The animal world also contains its share of inventors. Of course it is true that not every animal possesses all the mental attributes; and there are plenty of men and women of whom the same may be said.

I once asked Carl Hagenbeck, who has turned out of his great animal park at Hamburg many magnificent groups of trained animals, this question : " In general mental capacity and susceptibility to training how do the lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar and puma stand in relation to each other? "

In his reply he placed the lion and tiger in a separate and superior class, and the other three species in another, of less intelligence and tractability. He said, in sub-stance: " The lion and tiger are alike in good temper and reliability. The leopard, jaguar and puma are also equal in character, but are not so good as the other two. As to the intelligence of these five animals, the one [species] is as intelligent as the other, but with these animals it is just the same as with human beings : some learn quickly, others are stupid and give much trouble in training. For example, take the two lions and one tiger which my trainer has recently educated for his large group. In one month he trained one of the lions to do very difficult tricks, and in five weeks the tiger learned to do all the tricks of the other animals in the group. The other lion was no good at all. Although a fine beast to look at, it was nervous and stupid."

Regarding the comparative intelligence of animals, opinions differ, according to conditions. All the Western trappers whom I know regard the wolverene as the wisest and most resourceful of all animals, as well as the greatest robber, murderer and all-round degenerate. The trainers of chimpanzees and orangs will assure you that those apes are intellectually the foremost of all animals below man.

The educator of Hans, the phenomenal horse, has the best of reasons for giving the horse first place. Andrew Glass vows that his late cinnamon-bear was the animal whose intelligence was nearest to his own. As for myself, I accord first place to the elephant. In two days Keeper Gleason trained our Indian elephant Gunda to take pennies in his trunk, lift the lid of a small box high above his head, drop the pennies into it and ring a bell. We have had some intelligent apes, but never an orang or " chimp " which learned an act of that difficulty in less than a week.

Beyond doubt there are in store many novelties and; surprises for those who study and develop the mental faculties of the higher vertebrates. Twenty years ago who was there who suspected the wonderful mental capabilities of the barking sea-lion, All studies and experiments in the field of animal psychology should have for their foundation the full and complete admission that all the higher animals do reason, and that between them and man the mental differences are in degree only, not in kind.



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