How many times have you looked at your own pet and known exactly what s/he was thinking?
Have you ever had an experience where you felt like you and your animal were communicating perfectly even though you speak totally different languages?
Do you have some kind of super-secret “spidey sense” that alerts you when your pet is ill, upset or simply not themselves?
If you answered “yes” to all three questions (like I just did), you may find yourself wondering why everyone doesn’t see animals the way you do.
And yet I have literally lost count of the times people have said to me, or I have said to others, “pets are just little people with feathers, shells or fur.”
My pets certainly are, which will make more sense once I clarify what I mean by “little people.”
Thanks in large part to the pioneering work of avian researcher Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her most famous research partner, the late African Grey parrot Alex, we now have solid factual evidence that many parrots are as cognitively smart and emotionally sensitive as a typical two to five-year-old human child.
But that isn’t all. More recently, Dr. Pepperberg’s new research partner, the African Grey parrot Griffin, outperformed young apes on a sophisticated intelligence test.
Wow. And yet not wow.
Honestly, after nearly 21 years together, I feel I have gathered sufficient qualitative evidence (this is evidence gained from focused observation of a research subject rather than number crunching, which I suck at) to unofficially prove my cockatiel, Pearl, is as smart as the average two-year-old.
On any given day, if I simply forget he is a parrot and instead imagine him to be one of my nephews at age two, I realize there is approximately zero difference in their behavior.
For example, Pearl wants what he wants when he wants it and he has absolutely zero patience with that thing called “waiting.” If it isn’t fun, he refuses to do it. What’s his is his and what’s mine is his….no matter what it is. He gets really cranky if he stays up too late but doesn’t want to go to bed and miss out on any fun. his energy level could run a marathon around mine any day of the week and twice on Sundays. The word “no” is just a shorter version of the word “yes.”
Need I go on….?
However, I suspect more readers will be interested in hearing about canine smarts than avian smarts. So what about the family pup? Just how smart is your furry family member?
Very, very smart, at least according to one company that is spending zillions to create technology to bust through the interspecies language barrier once and for all. The product is a talking service dog vest. If the dog’s owner goes into medical crisis, the dog can run up to any stranger and the vest will instruct that person to go help the dog’s owner.
So brilliant. And yet not brilliant.
After all, if you have a dog you likely already know your dog knows before you do if you have cancer, a rash or even just a very bad day going on.
Sure, dogs don’t have opposable digits like apes (or birds for that matter). But who really cares about thumbs when today’s domestic dogs have vocabularies that easily surpass 165 words. In comparison, the average two-year-old child knows anywhere from 50 to 200 words. The dog can’t say the words.
Now, it is true dogs can’t say those words using human language. But yet again, does that really matter when dogs are so creative they have figured out over the millennia how to mirror our facial expressions to communicate with us? Canine paleontologists have proved how dogs’ facial structure has quite literally evolved to take the place of spoken language as a communication tool to “talk” with their people.
Incredible. And not incredible.
On that topic, I want to share with you a jaw-dropping story of canine smarts that is very dear and personal to me.
A little more than two years ago, hurricane Harvey blew through Houston. In its aftermath, my parents’ home of 42 years was flooded. They were evacuated by kayak at 7am the morning the dam was opened. By that evening, they were installed in a hotel room where they would live for the next five weeks.
At that time, our dachshund, Flash Gordon, was two years old. He had previously had no trouble sleeping through the night and was sufficiently easygoing to tolerate some alone-time when my retired parents were away from the house running errands.
All this changed the moment the storm hit. From the first night in that hotel, Flash became a different dog. He was incapable of being alone for even a single minute – he couldn’t even tolerate it when a bathroom door separated him from my folks. He developed a skin rash (one clear sign of canine distress). And he couldn’t sleep through the night.
Around midnight nearly every night, Flash would wake up, get out of his dog bed located on Mom’s side of the bed, navigate through pitch dark around to the other side of the bed where Dad was sleeping, and start head-banging the bed frame. He would back up to get a running start and throw himself headlong into the bed frame, slamming it with his forehead. Not surprisingly, my parents always woke up right away when he started doing this.
Mom’s solution was to pick him up and place him in the bed right between her and Dad – something he had never been permitted to do at home. The moment she would do this, Flash would settle down and go right back to sleep for the rest of the night.
Around the same time, Dad went in for a health check-up. He had been feeling somewhat faint and everyone assumed it was just the stress of sudden displacement after a major weather disaster. His doctor took his blood pressure and it was so low she asked him how he was even standing up!
That is when it hit us. Flash wasn’t just head-banging the bed out of anxiety. The more likely cause was that Dad’s blood pressure had dropped so low he had stopped breathing in the middle of the night and Flash was desperately trying to wake him up to revive him.
Why are we so sure this is the reason?
Once Dad was treated for his low blood pressure and his readings stabilized and normalized, Flash stopped head-banging the bed and he has never done it since.
Needless to say, we all think a talking service vest is a pretty great idea.
Now let’s tackle a really tough one. Turtles.
I get asked all the time, “Are tortoises smart?” As a matter of fact, I get asked questions I would never get asked if it was a dog or cat (or even a bird) at my side instead of a tortoise or a box turtle. No one would ever dream of asking a dog owner if their pet dog recognized them!
Yet I understand the confusion. It is only recently that small so-called “exotic” animals have become truly popular as companion animals…pets.
Turtles and tortoises really do belong in the wild and they fare best when allowed to do so. There is just one tiny problem: homo sapiens is taking over the planet. There are so many of us there isn’t enough room for them anymore. For some turtle and tortoise species in particular, captive breeding – what are called “assurance colonies” – is all that stands between the species itself and total extinction. For the present, many assurance colony-bred turtles and tortoises are already what is known as “functionally extinct,” which means they are no longer found in their wild native habitats at all.
But I digress. Because this is a topic I am so passionate about and I honestly can barely help myself.
Back to the point – does my redfooted tortoise, Malti, recognize me? How about my rescued three-toed box turtle, Bruce? Does he know who I am?
In a word, YES. And YES.
How do I know? I don’t, really, in the same way I don’t know for a F.A.C.T. that our dachshund Flash knows me. I have to infer it. In Flash’s case, I infer that the answer is “yes” when I show up at my folks’ house and he comes running at full speed and nearly bowls me over, tail wagging, whole body wriggling, barking and whining and jumping and licking my toes and generally behaving in a way my folks say he doesn’t do for anyone else but me.
So from this, I infer that yes, Flash knows exactly who I am. Interestingly, my folks tell me he often also seems to know when I am coming up to 10 minutes before I pull up in their driveway, even if they don’t mention me during that time. In fact, author and researcher Rupert Sheldrake wrote a whole book about how dogs seem to know when their owners are coming home and some of the stories are just uh-mazing.
So back to turtles. Are they smart? My personal inference-based answer is “yes.” And happily, we now have research to back me up.
In one study, four redfooted tortoises quickly mastered a touchscreen computer test that even apes had a hard time with. Tortoises are just as food-motivated as dogs and apes, which makes them naturals for research.
In another study, seven redfooted tortoises demonstrated mastery of gaze-following and social learning, two key attributes that were formerly only thought to exist in mammals and birds. They also matched lab rats at navigating through a maze even when visible landmarks were obscured.
What does all this mean? To me at least, it means that when human researchers get really curious about the intelligence of another species, to the point where they want to find smarts more than they want to prove their absence, the researchers will also get really creative about testing for intelligence in species-appropriate ways.
Here is an example. Redfooted tortoises have a great sense of smell (to sense food rewards) and excellent eyesight (to create a cognitive map of their territory). However, they don’t have great hearing – no turtles really do unless they are under water because their ears are covered by a thin membrane of skin.
Turtles and tortoises also need to be sufficiently warm physically to perform well on any test – they are cold-blooded after all. In a too-cold environment, such as the type of environment frequently found in computer rooms and research labs, the average tortoise will be thinking about only one thing – hibernation.
So to test for a cold-blooded species’ intelligence, the researcher first needs to make sure the room is warm and the cues are primarily visual and olfactory, not auditory. And so on and so forth. It didn’t surprise me at all that the lead researcher in both studies is also the owner of a pet redfooted tortoise and that they had observed their own pet demonstrate intelligence before deciding to formally study it in the species.
If I was a researcher and enjoyed statistical calculations (no and no) I would love to prove just how smart my cockatiel, box turtle and redfoot tortoise actually are. In some ways they are a lot smarter than me as well as about a thousand times more determined and creative about getting their needs and wants met.
But since I can’t, I will just go on inferring it and telling people who ask, as well as those who don’t, that my pets are “just little people with feathers, shells and fur.”
With great respect and love,