BRIANWAVE COLUMN No 18: September 1995

Animal Magic

Brian J Ford

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‘How could you kill that sweet little mouse?’ squealed a young visitor to a friend in the country. ‘His mother will wonder where he’s gone.’ The problem with affectionate caricatures, like Mickey Mouse and Tom’s Jerry, is that they inculcate an attitude which imbues creatures with human attributes. This is the well-known trap of anthropomorphism. It is, clearly, a danger for the unwary. But I believe we make an even greater mistake when we stop to consider the animal world.

We have neglected the extent to which animals do show ‘intelligence’ and reveal their own version of ‘emotions’. Plenty of creatures use tools in their daily lives, winkling out maggots from a crevice, or using a stone to break open the shells of some succulent morsel. Many go in for gaudy collections of sparkling substances like aluminium foil, or build themselves homes from straw or sand-grains.

Animals play, too. Lion cubs indulge in exhausting play-fights, serving to prepare them for the adult world. When young elephants play (ambushing buffalo, for example, or charging each other) one can see how important is the ritual. Larger adolescents kneel down, to reduce the size difference between them and the younger calves. Clearly, playing is more important than winning. Ravens play, too, and there have been reports of adults ravens lying down on their backs and sliding down a snowy slope. In Japan, macaques make snow-balls. Only the young monkeys do this, for the adults remain aloof from this activity. But the young monkeys make snowballs much as we do, gathering snow until the resulting ball is the size of their head.

There are many species which pine. Swans and jackals mate for life, and react strongly if deprived of their mate. Breeders say that Koi carp can pine for a lost partner, too. Some fish certainly pine for freedom. Dogfish in an aquarium tank will search the corners frantically, as though trying to find a way of escape, before lying inertly on the bottom. Periods of activity alternate with these listless phases until death supervenes. Only is a large enclosure - like a marine life centre - can dogfish adapt to captivity.

The dairy industry is well aware of pining in cattle. Cows give milk only when they have been given birth to young, and the process becomes commercially feasible when the calves are taken away. This is the origin of the glut of young calves for veal production. What is rarely discussed is the effect on the cows themselves. They cry out and moan repeatedly, as though desperate for the return of their lost offspring. Farm workers often say it is a piteous sound.

And of course there is no end to the owners of dogs, cats and horses who speak of their ‘character’ and ‘intelligence’. The research on chimpanzees taught to use sign language has made remarkable progress in recent years, and there are even reports of an adult animal itself teaching the sign language to a youngster.

Just at the moment we have a large project on to examine these phenomena. If you have ideas of your own - or experiences to relate - then let me know. There is always a danger of instilling a human dimension into the way we interpret animal behaviour. But the greater danger is this: by eliminating the anthropomorphic principle we are denying ourselves a chance to recognise the mental processes that do go on in the animal world.

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