Feel­ings, moods and

An­i­mal Wise: The Thoughts and Emo­tions of Our Fel­low Crea­tures

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Roy Wil­liams

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.’’

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