Feelings, moods and
Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures
By Virginia Morell Black Inc, 291pp, $29.99
AS a young man I owned a tabby cat named Usha. He was a wonderful companion and lived to be 17. But during his last week on earth, when he was very sick, I was forced to be interstate for work. He died before I got home.
I’ve always felt guilty I wasn’t there for him and I’ve little doubt he was wondering where I was. People laughed when I insisted his ear be put to the phone so I could speak to him.
Virginia Morell’s thesis in Animal Wise is that creatures such as Usha are in many ways like people. ‘‘ Animals have minds,’’ she insists. ‘‘ They have brains and use them as we do: for experiencing the world, for thinking and feeling, and for solving the problems of life . . . Like us, they have personalities, moods and emotions.’’
For centuries, pet-owners worldwide have known this truth instinctively. But only very recently has science begun to confirm it. The field of ‘‘ cognitive ethology’’ is burgeoning and is not without its critics. Morell, an experienced American science journalist resident in Oregon, has written a lively and accessible survey of the latest discoveries.
The least surprising ones, for me, relate to domestic pets. Although cats have proved especially reluctant subjects, a lot of work has now been done on dogs. The relevant studies prove empirically that, after 50,000 years of domestication and evolution, dogs are now more like humans than wolves. They harbour senses of devotion and fairness and will look you squarely in the eye. My dogs — TrickyWoo (border terrier) and Ernie (pug) — certainly exhibit those noble traits.
But the most advanced thinkers in the animal world live in the wild. Four species stand out, Morell suggests: chimpanzees (apart from humans, the most intelligent of the so-called great apes), dolphins, parrots and elephants. All are self-aware — they recognise their reflection in a mirror.
It is well-known that parrots can ‘‘ talk’’ — that is, imitate human language. They can also count and use tools. Chimps can perform some tests of memory better than humans, and elephants have a concept of mortality and experience grief. ‘‘ They smell the bones of their dead,’’ writes Morell, ‘‘ even old ones bleached by the sun, and caress them with their trunks.’’