Rethinking Anthropomorphism

National Geographic has published a wonderful article in their March 2008 issue, which is also available online, about animal intelligence. The article, titled "Minds of their Own: Animals are smarter than you think," begins by introducing Alex, an African gray parrot who, up until his death at 31 last year, worked with scientist Irene Pepperberg since 1977. In that time, Alex learned to imitate around 100 English words; he also demonstrated the ability to count and to recognize and recall colors, shapes and sizes and grasp the basic idea of zero.
One of the most endearing parts of Alex's story was his behavior around his "flock," Pepperberg's assistants and two younger parrots, who were also learning English. Alex, the dominant one of the flock, often took issue with his younger members, commanding them to "Talk clearly!" when one mispronounced a word. "He knows all this, and he gets bored," said Pepperberg, "so he interrupts the others, or he gives the wrong answer just to be obstinate."
Alex is not the only one spotlighted in the article.
There's Rico, a border collie from Germany who knows the names of 200 toys, a manifestation of his ability to learn and remember words at the same rate as a human toddler.
Uek, a New Caledonian Crow adept at problem solving and tool use, much like a primate.
The Orangutan Azy who can understand another's perspective and shows other amazing cognitive flexibility (and creativity: some orangutans use leaves as hats when it rains or as napkins, pillows, or gloves; some use a bundle of leaves as dolls).
Shanthi, an Asian Elephant who can see him(?)self in the mirror (once thought the sole province of humans).
JB, a Giant Pacific Octopus, who engages with other octopuses in water shooting games and whose changing colors may indicate different emotions.
Kanzi, a Bonobo who grasps language spontaneously, plays the piano, and adapts tool making to circumstances. Interestingly, one research said of Kanzi's vocalizations: "We think he may be speaking English words, just too fast and high-pitched for us to decode."
And Maya, a Bottlenose Dolphin who excels at communication.
In the words of Betsy's owner, a sentiment that could apply to all, "We're learning her language, and she's learning ours."
Also check out the extraordinary book, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, by Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy.
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  1. I used to talk to my animals, and I'm pretty sure they were a bit more intelligent than some of my 20-something friends!!!

    Respect Animals!

  2. Anonymous10:43 PM

    our gray tree frog who is spending the winter in our house chirps when the phone rings. is this intelligent communication of the third kind?


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