Animal Intelligence


Animals amaze me.  On the Berea College Forest, we have a mild “beaver problem”, as beaver continuously dam up the streams which run into and out of our various lakes.  In most cases, their dams are actually welcomed, as they tend to provide an upstream filter which actually improves water quality in our lakes. Downstream, they tend to slow down the rate of flow and thereby decrease erosion.  However, there are a couple of places where dams back up water across our access roads.  Here, I frequently have to breach their dams to allow for the backed up water to drain away.

In one particular place, I have been breaching a small dam for nearly two years now.  It has been interesting to see how the beaver have responded.  First, they simply plugged the gap I created with small sticks similar to their usual construction method.  After about a year of creating a breach at this location, the beaver started adding rocks and mud.  Lately, they have started plugging the breach with larger stones, more mud, and actually planting live wetland plants on top of the mud.  In fact, they have planted these aquatic plants all along their dam, and placed large limbs on top of the section I breached.

I have no way of knowing whether the same beaver has been involved with repairing the dam. However, it is clear that some kind of reasoning was used to try different methods to make the dam stay put. When I pull out the plants from the breach, it is amazing how well they have been placed.  Upon searching the area, it is clear that particular plants from rather distant locations were selected, dug up with their roots intact and rather expertly placed.

Often, people reason away the idea of animals possessing real intelligence.  Humans are smart; animals merely have instinct, right?  I find this explanation overly simplistic, if not outright incorrect.  Dolphins have been trained to perform very complex operations in service of the military, and apes have been taught sign language.  Even dogs can be trained to do incredible feats which are difficult to describe as lacking in intelligence.

Or own dog, Dixie, is your typical dog who mostly seems interested in eating, sleeping, getting petted, and sniffing other dogs’ pee.  Yet, since one of our cats had kittens, she has taken on the roll of babysitter and referee for the kittens.  She chases away stray cats, but gets along with our own cats like they are buddies.  The cats, however, do not get along with each other.  They do not share their food, and they get into squabbles.  When this happens, Dixie quickly intervenes on the behalf of the kittens.  She won’t even eat their food…  and everyone knows dogs like cat food better than dog food… until after the kittens have finished eating and walked away.  None of this behavior was taught or trained into her.

I am not a vegetarian or a fan of “animal rights” groups who are against all hunting and the use of animals by humans.  However, I find it very disturbing when we humans treat animals of any kind in a cruel fashion.  When animals are raised inhumanely for food, subjected to cruel experimentation, or wiped out through destruction of their habitat, it is humans which seem to be the ones lacking in intelligence.  We could learn a lot from our furry, feathered, and finned friends if we try.

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