Animal Inventory Blog

Keeping track of animals in popular culture.

Can Animals Think?

Posted by lisagbrown on May 3, 2008

A conversation I had the other day began with this question: Can animals think? When I answered yes, the conversation continued in the way these discussions often do, with the other person asking me: how do you know?

Animals think. Perhaps not in the way that you or I do, but they think. It’s important to remember that there are ways of thinking that are foreign to many people, but are no less valid or genuine; autistic and mentally disabled men and women have a unique way of processing the world, but that has no impact on whether or not they do think, only how they think. This is not to suggest that people with impairments are in any way like animals, but rather that “thinking” is not uniform. It’s an ability that is not black and white — it has nuances.

Apes have been taught sign language, and can communicate preferences for food, objects and people. They can describe feelings like anger and excitement. They have been witnessed signing to themselves when alone (like a person talking to him or herself). Some apes have even recounted personal stories of being captured in the wild, and have described watching a parent die at the hands of poachers. This suggests not only thinking, but long-term memory, as well.

When I go on a diatribe about apes and monkeys (which I’ll admit, is not infrequent) inevitably a person will counter my arguments by saying “but they are primates, like us. Other animals can’t do those things.” That may be true. But other animals do different things to make their thoughts transparent.

Elephants hold funerals for their dead, with each member of the group tracing their trunk along the body of their dead counterpart. They apparently return to the site of the burial (yes, they bury them, too) one year later to mourn. Milking cows howl in grief when their calves are taken from them, and cattle scream in terror on their way to slaughter. We need only look as far as our own homes for evidence of animals thinking. My parents’ dogs have a basket full of stuffed animals and rubber squeaky toys, which they routinely dig through to find a particular object — an example of an animal choosing something, or thinking about and acting upon a preference.

When I had a conversation about animal intelligence with a friend once, he tried to tell me that cats are the only intelligent, thoughtful animals. “Cats are special,” he said. I realized that he only believes this because cats are the only animals he has ever had personal relationships with. So I asked him — isn’t it a bit of a coincidence that the only animals you’ve ever known personally happen to be the only smart ones?

There are demonstrations of animal thinking all over the animal kingdom, so the problem is not in finding examples. The challenge lies in convincing people that these are not special cases. In these instances I try to remind people that a significant portion of human communication occurs through body language, so why is it such a stretch to acknowledge, validate and believe in the nonverbal communication we read in other animals? The cross-species divide is a chasm that many people find difficult to jump across. This is true for a lot of reasons, but there are two that stand out:

  1. Accepting that animals feel, think and emote challenges the status quo of how we treat them. If a cow mourns the loss of her calf, it might force us to reflect upon a dairy industry that routinely causes such distress. If cattle scream when they know they’re about to die, or apes vividly remember their own abduction from the wild, it may cause us to wonder if we are supporting industries of extreme torture ever time we eat hamburgers or take medication that was tested on apes.
  2. Accepting that animals feel, think and emote means we are not as special as we once thought we were. It reveals that our dominion over other animals is not justified simply because we are intelligent. Everything we thought was unique about ourselves reflects the differences between us and other animals, just as much as it reflect the similarities. While we are unique, we may not be more unique than any other species.

My point is not necessarily to condemn anyone for eating meat or taking pharmaceuticals. I myself do both things on occasion. But I do think that we are long overdue to take a serious look at the animals among us, and to wonder what makes it so hard to accept that animals can think. Not long ago, general consensus was that animals can not feel physical pain. While there are some people who do still believe this, most people see that perspective as terribly misinformed. My hope is that in a matter of decades, the capacity of animals to feel emotion and to think will be common and accepted knowledge.

(Rudi Dog Woof cartoon above is from the Sandoval Signpost Newsmagazine)

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2 Responses to “Can Animals Think?”

  1. Animal do indeed think — and I’d love to have some human animals help me do some thinking (about the major social issues of our time) over at Our Common Concern: http://ourcommonconcern.com. See you there!

  2. Julia said

    It is the utmost in arrogance and hubris of we humans to think and honestly believe that evolution stopped with us. I am continually fascinated and horrified that most people believe us to be the top of the food chain. Not by a long shot.

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