Saturday, March 29, 2008

Animal Intelligence: My Cats Were Smarter Than Your Honor Students.

Last July, Parade Magazine published an article entitled "How Much Do Animals Really Know?" The piece was a brief summary of current scientific studies of animal intelligence. The findings of various studies indicate that animals know more than we give them credit for. They may also experience the emotion of empathy. While one can doubt these findings, my own experience with my own pets lines up with the article's assertion, while my own observations concerning my pets does not always fit in with the specific findings of the studies cited in the article.

A case in point: various animals were tested to see whether they could recognize themselves in the mirror. Dolphins, great apes and elephants were reported to understand that they could recognize themselves, while monkeys, cats and rats reacted as if they were encountering another one of their species. Yet my Siamese cat, Meiling, displayed the same behavior of recognition as did dolphins, great apes and elephants; she moved her head from side to side to see how her mirror image would react. My family and I noticed a smile on her face as she did so. (Yes, dogs and cats do smile.) She seemed quite pleased with her appearance. She was a neat freak, always bathing herself, getting annoyed when a tuft of hair was out of place. When she was unaware of being observed, she would stare at herself for a long time. Once she realized she was being watched, she stopped looking in the mirror and acted as if she were engaged in other activity, like sniffing around the area or looking the other way. (She behaved in a similar fashion with catnip. If she thought no one was looking, she reveled in the catnip high as other cats. But when she saw us watching, she stopped and just sat there acting as if she was just exploring the usual garden smells.) She never did understand that when I was in front of the mirror, I could see her behind me, observing me, incognito, she thought. When I saw her watching me, I would call her name. She would turn her head away for a minute, than return to observing her master. (She worshipped the ground I walked on.) Then I would call her name again, and she would momentarily turn her head. She never figured out how I knew she was watching me. That was fun. Intelligent as she was, she could not tell the difference between real birds and fake ones. Twice one Thanksgiving, she leaped onto the dining room table, ignored the human food, and snatched the plastic bird from the center-piece.The second time we chased her down, we placed the fake bird in a drawer. She saw which drawer we placed it in. She sat in front of the drawer and howled.

Our other cat, a grey tabby named Rebel, was as messy as our Siamese cat was neat. (He died in the litter box.) Yet he displayed great intelligence at times. The most remarkable display occurred one night as my family and I sat at the dining room table. The cat came in and stared intently for about five seconds each at each member of the family seated around the table. Then he disappeared. As we discussed what that was all about, from the kitchen, we heard a resounding CRASH! He was in the trash can retrieving what food he could. I am not stating that this cat actually counted us, yet he was smart enough to make sure all humans were out of sight. Unfortunately, he forgot about the human ability to hear. (After that, we put up a cheap, folding door to keep the cats out of the kitchen. The cats hated it; the Siamese hissed at it. One night, the Siamese, which happened to be a runt, succeeded in dislodging the door from its hinges and brought it down. There was nothing then that stood between her and human food. Yet she was not prepared for the loud crash the door made when it hit the floor.)

Can animals remember things beyond the things necessary for survival? My cats could. The Siamese resented the Tabby's presence. (The day we took the Tabby in, the Siamese claimed all the objects in the basement in the usual manner of cats, then sat in a corner for a couple of hours with her paw in her mouth.) After the Tabby's death, sometimes I would tease the Siamese by reaching around the corner where she could not see my hand. Then I would move my arm as if I was petting and say "Good boy, Rebel!" several times. Meiling, the Siamese, would rush around the corner and sniff the entire area. She appeared quite annoyed with me when she realized Rebel was not there. She was not one to bear a grudge. But one day, my Dad and I took her to the Vet. She did not like the Vet. The rest of the day she would follow me around yet ignored me at the same time. That evening, I was on my bed reading. She was sitting in the window. She decided she wanted on top of the dresser. She jumped onto the bed, walked across it and stopped when she realized that she would have to step over me to get where she wanted. She didn't want to touch me. I had taken her to the Vet. For about a minute, she stared at the dresser, she stared at me, she stared at my legs, then she stared into the air, then she repeated the cycle. Then, as if she were possessed by a spirit of "snootiness", she leaped over me and and made it to my dresser. Then she looked at me with an expression that seemed to convey "I sure showed you." She did show me. She remembered.

As for the Tabby, he remembered his former owners. Before he moved in with us, he was owned by a family with two very little girls who didn't know how to treat him. Often we would have to stop them carrying him by his neck, sometimes in the nick of time. Years later, when the older girl was a teenager, the Tabby saw them approaching from way off in the distance. Alarm bells went off somewhere in his brain, and off he ran. He remembered.

I know a someone who owns a Golden Retriever. Every night, this friend watches television in the exact same spot, laying on the floor. One night he would not allow the dog into the bedroom. The dog was displeased. When my friend woke up, he saw that his dog had left his droppings in the exact spot where my friends head would be if he had been watching television. I agree with my friend's opinion: "That took a lot of doggie thought and planning."

A reader commented on the article online. She chided the article's author for ignoring creatures, such as parrots, who can associate human words with certain situations. She claimed this ability exclusively for birds. Yet I must disagree. Before the cats joined our family, we owned a Cocker Spaniel. She knew the word "bath." Every time we mentioned the word in various tones of voice, she would hide under the kitchen table. Bath times always required us to drag her out from under the table. She knew the word, and knew what it meant. That she would be subjected to an experience she did not like.

Some people reject the idea that animals possess intelligence. To some, to assert animal intelligence is to state that there is no real difference between them and us, that we are equal, that their lives are just as important as humans, that animals have souls and are going to be with us in Heaven. I am making no such claim. Nor am I advocating vegetarianism or the end of all animal experiments in laboratories. But God did make animals to be our companions and instruments. To be the very best of companions to man, animals need both intelligence and emotions. "God is good all the time, and all the time, God is good!" How like our God to give us such companions. Evolution could not have produced such compatible beings. Why should we have a problem thinking animals have empathy. Animals were created for man and if they are to be our companions, why would anyone want to deny that animals possess this trait? After all, many a human being has been deprived of empathy from their fellow humans. Why wouldn't a good God provide another source of empathy for those who have received none from where they should have received it? Remember that animals are part of creation that is groaning for man's salvation to come (Rom. 8:22). The animal world will be apart of the created world that will be redeemed. No, I am not claiming that animals go to Heaven. But would you like to know how to send a five year old to Hell? Just tell him or her that their pets will not be in Heaven. One of the stupidest things a pastor could do is to state from the pulpit that animals are excluded from heaven. Little kids cannot handle that. John Wesley believed that animals went to heaven. You could agree or not agree. If you agree with Wesley, no one could say that you are not in good company.

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