Animals With A Clue

Animal intelligence, Sunday Morning, Jan. 7, 2001
Did you know elephants team up to play practical jokes on their keepers, or that whales actually talk to each other?

And orangutans? Some people swear they are conniving con artists.

Are we humans simply projecting our mental abilities onto wild beasts? Or are animals really capable of complex thought that includes language, problem solving and even deception? It's a question that has intrigued animal lovers for decades, as CBS News Correspondent Thalia Assuras reports.

"I think the evidence is overwhelming that they share some abilities with humans, higher mental abilities," says Eugene Linden.

After writing about animal intelligence for a quarter century, Linden is convinced that it's time to recognize that the divide between human and animal is smaller than previously believed - that animals do indeed share some human intellectual traits.

"They've deceived each other in the wild," says Linden. "They've deceived keepers."

"They've used tools. They create tools. Studie(s) of language have shown that not just apes, but dolphins can understand the meaning of words and of complex sentences and understand complex ideas," he adds.

Linden offers his evidence in his latest book The Parrot's Lament. He turned, not to hard-nosed academics, but to people who have devoted their professional lives to animals: researchers and zoo keepers.

One day, Chis Wilgenkamp was coaching a colleague on how to teach an elephant to obey voice commands. The eventual goal is to be able to easily move the animal into positions that will allow inspection of its feet.

"They know and they remember exactly when we're doing, which set of nails, what position they need to be set in," Wilgenkamp says. "And each time they take a break, you'll see them alter their position and reset and make it easier for you to get to that nail. And and that's...a direct form of intelligence. They understand exactly what's happening there."

As far as their trainers are concerned, these elephants are doing more than just adjusting their behavior to get a treat but even if they exhibit comprehension, the question is whether these animals are thinking the way humans do.

"Well, you know what they say, you know? Brain mass is everything," Wilgenkamp says. "With their brain being eight times the size of ours, it's hard to think they don't have at least our capabilities."

There's communication, says Wilgenkamp.

"I get them excited by saying, 'Good morning, good morning,' to them," Wilgenkamp says. "And they get all excited because of that, and their ears start to lap and they drop their heads down and they start to rumble."

"And you can see the - the dome in the front of their head, which is...a nasal cavity, vibrate, fill with air and vibrate. And you know...(at) that point they are communicating with you. Although you cant hear it, you can feel it, and you can see it," Wilgenkamp says.

"There's one call in particular," says Alexandra Morton, who is intrigued by equally massive mammals: killer whales. "It is associated, not so much with one activity, but with the act of synchrony. Any time two or more whales are doing something right together, this family of whales uses this call."

Morton has spent a lifetime studying whale communications. She believes that her subjects not only possess language, but dialects unique to each family group.

"You'll see them spread out like this, and they talk to each other," she says.

She gets an idea of what's being said: "I think he's saying, 'I'm over here and I'm doing well. Somebody gets a fish.' Suddenly the calls spike, and it's a different type of call and they all come roaring over."

Morton is writing an account called A Passage of Whales, about her research in the remote wilderness off northern Vancouver Island, in British Columbia. In her office onshore or sometimes out at sea, Morton uses what's called a hydrophone to record whale noises and correlates those sounds with the animals' activities.

"Over my hydrophone, I had headsets on, comes this big (chung) like a cruise line propeller. Now a cruise liner is like a skyscraper on its side," she says.

Morton claims that on one outing a family of whales saved her life when she became trapped in dense fog.

"I'm starting to panic because I think at any moment, this fog is going to be split by this boat that is 10 stories high," Morton says. "And suddenly, whoosh, up pops one of the whales that I'm working with."

"And I just got this wave of 'I'll stay with the whales. I'll be safe with the whales,'" Morton says. "They stayed right beside me. And then, I could just see a shape up ahead and, oh my gosh, it's an island. And so I went ahead and burst out of the fog."

That incident, says Morton, seemed to show that the whales had a clear understanding of her predicament and offered a calculated solution.

"Certainly their response to me was not a random move," she says. "There's no way that was a coincidence, and I can only believe that it was a form of empathy. All of this is very intangible to measure, but it's there."

Some animals are capable of pulling off complex mental stunts. For example, no animal is a better escape artist than an orangutan.

"They watch very carefully everything that's going on, and so if you make a mistake, they know it," says Helen Shewman, who has watched these orangutans grow up at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo.

"But they're smart enough to not necessarily induce something right when you're watching them. They'll wait till you leave to do it. So they're a little cunning, too, and that's what makes them good escape artists," she adds.

But no orangutan is more legendary than th now-deceased Fu Manchu, an honorary member of the American Association of Locksmiths. He once hid some wire in his mouth until it was just the right time to pick the lock on the door to his enclosure.

"He was drawing on his powers of observation," Linden says. "He used...his knowledge of his keepers' behavior, too, to deceive the keepers, another higher mental ability. It required some ability to reverse engineer the locking mechanism, understand that he could use the wire to trip the lock and that sort of thing, tool use, tool making, all these abilities," Linden says.

Animals have all sorts of mental abilities and all manner of thought. So claim those who have observed and worked with animals intimately.

"They're very much in the here and now, and that's one of the things that I think probably makes them very different from humans, is they're much more aware of their environment, what's going on around them," Shewman says.

"Every animal is as intelligent as it needs to be to operate perfectly within its environment," says Morton. "And to say that we are more intelligent than an ant is not right, because we cannot do what ants do. And to say that the whales are more intelligent than us is not right either because whales are never going to build a city."

"They're able to expand on things that are important to them. I mean, building a city is just not important to an elephant," Wildgenkamp. So what is? "Gathering lots of food and...breeding, and raising their young."

In the end, says Linden, respecting animals' intelligence helps us two-legged types understand ourselves and our place in the world.

"Nobody expects a chimp to write Hamlet," Linden says. "But, you know, instead of the notion that we're at the top of Mount Olympus and the rest of the animals are looking up, they're arrayed along the slopes to varying degrees. That notion's important for understanding how we fit in the natural order and how we treat the natural order as well."