Animal thinking

I have long considered the only real difference between us and other animals is our ability to consider in the abstract; and that this ability, which probably began accidentally and has become something of a curse, is all that enabled us to get and stay “on top”. However, when I kept animals some years ago I had two very strange experiences which seemed to suggest an intelligence that was almost human.The first instance was when our geese, which were on a river, were shot at by our neighbour who thought they were wild. Only one pellet hit the target, and it apparently severed something vital in the neck of our gander because from that day on he couldn’t see. Or, at any rate, he gave that appearance. I had to wade into the river to get him back, and he was unaware of me until I touched him. Anyway, he managed to graze and even mate and he lived on uneventfully until one day when the river was in spate he fell in and got swept away. I saw all this happen as I was doing some fencing work at the time. The river was dangerous and I ran along beside him but certainly didn’t intend jumping in myself. One of our geese, however, ran along with me, did jump in, and during the course of the next hour, I followed along beside them as the gander swam around in helpless circles while she patiently tried to get him to go to the side.

In its way it was as involved a piece of rescue work as a dangling man at the end of a rope hanging from a helicopter trying to get a drowning man to do what he wanted. Patience prevailed and the gander was saved, without any intervention from me. How the goose did it, I don’t know. I don’t even know if it was silent, and just involved the endless little indications with her neck and beak that I could see. What baffles me still is how a goose, whose attention span seems so limited in some respects – though not, I suppose, when it comes to remaining sitting on her eggs – should have succeeded in maintaining an “idea” that was clearly not instinctive, and must have involved the relatively complicated abstract process of picturing a desired end result – the gander in safety on the bank – followed by the decision to get into the river herself to help bring this about. The decision must have been made on the basis of “seeing” the gander in the river, “recognising” he was helpless and in danger, “wanting” to help him, “knowing” what to do and “persisting” for nearly an hour with this before “succeeding” in carrying it out!

The second occasion involved our house cow and her calf. The calf had the habit of crossing the river, attracted by our neighbour’s herd of cows on the other side. Often I would go and get her, while the mother stood on our bank bellowing. One time, dusk was falling, I was busy, the mother was bellowing and I could see that her calf was almost a mile away, with the herd of cows, and showing no inclination of coming back on her own. I got my binoculars to check this out and was surpassed to see one cow from the herd repeatedly going up to our calf and nuzzling it in our direction. Several times the calf would begin to walk towards the river, with this cow following behind, just as if she was pushing it along, as I might have done; then the calf would change its mind, and run back to the herd, just as it had done with me on previous occasions; and the cow did what I had had to do, beginning again, in her case nuzzling the calf, edging it away from the other animals, heading it towards the river. This went on for a good half hour, during which time our house cow waited, occasionally bellowing, on our side of the river. Finally, the calf, followed by the cow from the herd, crossed the mile or so between us, until they stood together opposite our house cow. The calf remained hesitant, and it wasn’t until it had been repeatedly but gently “pushed” down the bank – again, exactly what I had had to do on other occasions – that it plucked up the courage to cross the river and be reunited with its mum. It wasn’t until she could see the calf suckling that the cow on the other side of the river – whose own calf had presumably been taken away from her at birth – turned and went back to her herd. Again, I was astonished that this cow should have “known” what was wrong, should have “decided” what to do, and should have persisted in doing it for half an hour or more.

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