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LUCKY GARVIN: The Extraordinary Reality of Animal Intelligence

Lucky Garvin

One of the more fascinating books I have read is: Animals in Transition, by Temple Grandin. Her engrossing narrative embraces animal communication, perception, thought, and intelligence. For decades, Grandin has been a professional “Whisperer” of both domestic and farm animals. Her insights are nothing short of incredible.

Perhaps that is because Ms. Grandin is autistic.

Of animal communication, she tells of the study of prairie dogs in Arizona. What was found verges on the unbelievable, but the science is hard to either deny or debunk. The vocabulary of Gunnison prairie dogs includes [are you ready?] nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Sabrina and I have experienced uncanny episodes of wild birds coming to us for help; to communicate their need of us.

For twenty years, Sabrina and I rehabbed animals in a room at the far end of the house. Our bird-feeders are some distance away. One day, as we worked in the rehab room, a hummingbird appeared and flew in short bursts outside our window. Sabrina looked up, and said, “Oh gosh, I forgot to fill their sugar water.” The little guy was there demanding food! (“The food is good, but the service sucks!”)

Another time: a little guy was buzzing us. Sabrina said, “What? I filled their feeder this morning! Something isn’t right. She went out to the feeder and found bees had taken it over, denying the hummer a chance to feed; so the little bird came to ‘Mommy’ and snitched on them.

But by far the most dramatic call for help came one day when Sabrina and I sat watching TV. Outside our patio door, a female wren began a frantic dive bombing and screeching. Sabrina jumped up, yelled, “C’mon!” and headed downstairs to the garage. There we found a snake attacking the bird’s nest filled with her babies. Unable to defend her family, she flew for help. She flew to humans . . .

Ms. Grandin addresses that most thorny issue of how to evaluate animal intelligence. Who’s going to develop that protocol? Humans. Who’s tasked with interpreting that data? Humans. What could go wrong?

She tells the story of Alex, an African gray parrot with the cognitive development of a six-year-old human child. 

Birds are very hard to teach; not that many human researchers hadn’t tried. Then, along comes Alex. Working with him for twenty-five years, his owner/avian researcher, Dr. Irene Pepperberg, taught him what no other bird had learned before, such as shape and color recognition. Being a parrot, he answers related questions: What color? “Blue.” What shape? “Four-corner.” And he could perform this feat even when shown blue or ‘four-corner’ objects he had never seen before. After each successful answer – for years – Alex received a nut.

But even Dr. Pepperberg was in for a shock when Alex suddenly displayed an advanced intelligence which was totally unexpected. A small group of investors visited her home to judge the advisability of funding Alex’s research. Their time was short, so, despite accurate answers, Alex did not receive his customary reward. He grew progressively more frustrated. Finally, he snapped. He stared at Pepperberg, and said, “Want a nut! Nnn, uh, tee!”

Alex had taught himself to spell the name of his favorite treat! AND his owner of twenty-five years did not know it!

So, how smart are animals? Humans have no clue.

Lucky Garvin

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