Nine years later… animal intelligence debate still rages

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Earlier this week, my mother handed me an interesting edition of National Geographic — from March 2008.

The cover featured a picture of an adorable black and white border collie and the headline, “Inside Animal Minds: Birds, Apes, Dolphins, and a Dog With a World-Class Vocabulary.”

Eli, the In Brief Legal Writing Services mascot.
In Brief Legal Writing Services mascot Eli catching up on the latest news. Photo by Alexandra Bogdanovic

The inside headline was just as intriguing. It said: “Minds of their Own: Animals are smarter than you think.”

According to the article, Uek, a New Caledonian crow, “solves problems and creates and uses tools — once thought the domain solely of primates.” Then there’s Azy, an Orangutan who “shows cognitive complexity and flexibility rivaling that of chimps,” and Shanthi, an Asian elephant who is capable of retaining long memories and “has a sense of self.” Even an unnamed African Cichlid can determine “social rank according to observation,” which is a “step on the way to logical reasoning,” according to the article.

The list goes on.

Edward, a Black Leicester Longwool sheep belongs to a species that can “recognize individual faces and remember them longterm.” JB, a Giant Pacific octopus, and the rest of his kind, have distinct personalities, use tools and recognize individuals.

But according to the article, few wild or domesticated animals can top Betsy. Betsy the Border Collie, who was six at the time, had a staggering vocabulary that totaled 340 words “and counting…”

The debate goes on…

Nine years later, the debate about animal intelligence goes on. And if anything, it has intensified as more and more people view companion animals as family members.

Ask anyone who has a pet about its intelligence you will no doubt be regaled with dozens of anecdotes. After all, people love to brag about their dogs, cats, horses, gerbils, ferrets, birds, rats….

But then again, there are those people who don’t like animals, don’t have pets and scoff at the mere mention of “animal intelligence.” Of course, these people also think that they’re the “smartest people in the room.” To them, there is simply no comparison to human intelligence… or human superiority for that matter.

That’s their opinion — and of course, they’re entitled to it.

Personally, I disagree. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s no end to human stupidity…

Wolf-dogs, exotic cats and a firefighter who went beyond the call of duty

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A recent search for blog fodder resulted in so many cool articles, I thought I’d touch on all of them in one post rather than doing individual posts on each one. It’s more timely this way. Hopefully it will be just as informative.

Think carefully before you get a wolfdog, or a wolf-dog…

In an article on a Denver TV station’s website, Anica Padilla asked whether wolf-dogs (or wolfdogs) make good family pets.

Padilla’s article was a follow-up to a previous story about the confiscation of an alleged wolf hybrid by local authorities.

The general consensus reached by the experts cited in the latest story is that wolf hybrids (aka wolfdogs or wolf-dogs) are wonderful animals. But they doesn’t mean they’re good pets. Getting one as a family pet is definitely not a good idea.

Because they’re not (and never will be) completely tame, wolf hybrids have different needs than the average dog. They’re generally bigger, more energetic and have a different way of bonding with people.

There are other traits that make wolf hybrids harder to care for than a golden retriever, poodle or chihuahua. And depending on where you live, it may be illegal to have one.

I speak from experience. No, I never had a wolfdog. But as a reporter in Virginia, I spent more than my share of time writing about a woman who got in trouble with the state for breeding them. I don’t remember the specifics, but I do remember that it wasn’t much fun…

Now that’s no ordinary cat

Eli, the In Brief Legal Writing Services mascot.
In Brief Legal Writing Services mascot Eli catching up on the latest news. Photo by Alexandra Bogdanovic

On a similar note, some residents in a Paterson, New Jersey, neighborhood got quite a surprise when they spotted an unusual cat last week.

According to published reports, one witness described it as “something like a puma.” Another admitted that she didn’t know what kind of cat it was. She just knew it wasn’t an ordinary house cat.

As it turned out, she was right. It was definitely not an ordinary cat. It was an “exotic” cat called a Savannah. A Savannah is a cross between a domestic cat and an African wildcat called a serval.

Apparently this one escaped when its owner left the window open, but there was never any cause for alarm, one man told the media.

“The cops know him, everyone knows him,” the man said. “He’s always on the window. Real nice cat.”

Although they can get quite big, a local animal control officer told the media that ownership of Savannahs is legal in New Jersey “as long as they’re at least one percent domestic cat.”

Santa Monica’s bravest go above and beyond to save a dog

Since everyone can use something to make them smile — especially on a Monday — I just had to share this feel good story about some California firefighters.

According to media accounts, it took a truly heroic effort, but Santa Monica’s bravest were able to save a 10-year-old dog from certain death last week.

Nalu, a Bichon Frise/Shih Tzu mix belonging to a Santa Monica woman, lost consciousness and was in grave danger when firefighter Andrew Klein found him trapped inside her burning apartment.

The drama continued outside, where Klein and another firefighter administered emergency medical treatment. Working together, it reportedly took them 20 minutes to revive the little dog.

Within a couple of days after his ordeal, Nalu seemed to be well on the road to recovery.

“He was essentially dead, so to see him kissing people and walking around wagging his tail was definitely a good feeling,” Klein told the media.

“He’s very happy, and we’re very happy, too.”

For what it’s worth, so am I.

Lax laws enable the exotic pet trade’s success in the United States

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“Lions, and tigers and bears, oh my! Lions, and tigers and bears, oh my! Lions, and tigers and bears, oh my!” — Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz

In my last post, I urged you not to get an exotic pet. But even though it’s a really, really bad idea, there are still places where you can legally have one in the United States.

United States map showing where different laws pertaining to the ownership of "dangerous wild animals" are in effect. Courtesy HSUS
Map depicting where ownership of “dangerous wild animals” is allowed, partially banned and totally banned. Courtesy of the Humane Society of the United States.

As of January 2015, all but five states either partially or entirely banned “the keeping of wild dangerous animals as pets;” or required permits for some species. That means if you live in North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Wisconsin or Nevada, where there were no restrictions a year ago, there’s no telling what kinds of pets your neighbors might have.

That being stated, not all exotic pets are created equal. Some are more rare than others; and some pose greater risks to people. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) defines “dangerous species” as:

  • big cats (including but not limited to lions and tigers)
  • bears
  • primates (including but not limited to chimpanzees and marmosets)
  • snakes/reptiles (including but not limited to large pythons and boa constrictors)

For Those Who Walk On The Wild Side, It Is All About Ego

But for some inexplicable reason, these are the animals that some people simply must have.

On its website, the HSUS cites statistics indicating that there are thousands of captive tigers in the U.S.A., but less than 500 are kept in officially sanctioned and regulated zoos. Americans also have approximately 15,000 primates, according to the organization. The HSUS does not provide statistics pertaining to the number of captive bears, large snakes or reptiles however.

Perhaps the people who “own” these animals think they are so special that they can tame wild animals. Perhaps they think that if the animals were born in captivity, they are “tame.”

Or perhaps it’s just about the human ego.

In any case, it’s a recipe for disaster.

According to an article on Born Free USA,  people who “own” exotic animals “often attempt to change the nature of the animal rather than the nature of the care provided.” To do so they resort to behavior unique to human beings: cruelty. As a result, their “pets” are subjected to “confinement in small barren enclosures, chaining, beating ‘into submission,’ or even painful mutilations, such as declawing and tooth removal.”

Once they finally figure out that keeping a wild animal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, exotic pet owners often turn to zoos or sanctuaries for help. If that fails, the animals are usually ditched and left to fend for themselves, or euthanized by authorities.

And then there are the cases where instinct takes over or the animals fight back.

The HSUS alone says it has identified more than 1,700 dangerous incidents pitting exotic animals against people since 1990. These involved “big cats, bears, primates, elephants, large constrictor snakes, and other exotic animals that resulted in scores of deaths and hundreds of injuries.”

Nicole Paquette, HSUS vice president of wildlife protection, says the best way to reduce the risk of future tragedies is to ensure that stricter state and federal laws are in place. Specifically, the HSUS supports laws that prevent people from interacting with and acquiring “dangerous captive wildlife” or “dangerous wild animals.”

“Our position is that these are wild animals who can’t be domesticated and should not be in our homes or backyards,” Paquette said