By Penelope Smith
What do animals think about food? Are they intelligent? Do they remember the past? Can they reason? These are questions media representatives often ask me in a disbelieving tone about my experience with animals. In human history, this type of question has also been posed about other cultures, races or any groups that are considered inferior, oddly different or incomprehensible.
How do people who ask these questions judge animal intelligence? They usually expect animals to prove their intelligence by using the same language and symbols or expressions as we do. Experiments with animals test animal IQ according to human standards and laboratory models. But many animals don't act or see or think in the human mode. Animal intelligence or ability must be perceived and understood in its own context or on its own terms.
There is a vacuum in human understanding without direct and unrestricted observation, communication and understanding of other species. Having experienced thousands of animals as fellow intelligent beings, it sometimes astounds me that many people do not see animals as intelligent and aware individuals, or do not want to see.
Yes, other animals think and perceive differently than humans. They have different niches to fill in the world. When humans transplant animals out of their natural environment, they can be inhibited in expressing their native intelligence. Animals may panic at manmade constructs which offend their finely-tuned senses. As an example, some people consider horses stupid or crazy if they bolt or get anxious when they see flapping plastic, hear rain on metal roofs, or jump at things they've seen before. They were not made for the confinement of man-made structures and spaces, and their vision is very different than human sight. Nature has adapted them to open spaces. Perception of strange movement is a sign to flee. If we get their viewpoint, their behavior seems logical. It is a credit to their willingness to help us how they adapt to and do well in the alien situations to which humans accustom them.
One visitor remarked, while I was showing her my chicken friends and extolling their beauty and sharp perception, "but chickens are stupid, they'll run in front of a car." So can children or people unfamiliar with cars. The noise, speed and lights of cars are very confusing for the keen senses of non-human animals. We are accustomed and have even dulled our senses to live with the sights and sounds and smells of our industrialized world. The chickens or deer, rabbits, mice, etc. that are not accustomed to the assault of cars or other machines may become confused by the din of their presence enough to run in front of them. Try lying down on the road at night, with your senses tuned in to everything around you, and experience the overwhelming rush and noise and lights of an approaching car on that level.
We can demonstrate our intelligence by stretching out of what we are conditioned to see, by not looking at the animals as dumb cows or bird brains but stopping and seeing what is actually there in front of our eyes, our ears, our minds and our hearts. It takes clear observation and open receptivity to appreciate another culture, group or species' intelligence and way of being as it manifests, without trying to measure it by other standards.
When we meet animals on their own ground and drop our acculturated human ways of judging and analyzing, we see an altogether different picture. We see individuals of beauty, uniqueness, perceptiveness, intelligence, warmth, humor and wisdom. They appear as if by magic, where before they were perceived only as labeled objects, separated into neat categories that removed any possibility of relating to them as fellow beings. When we are able to "become"' another of a different kind, we expand and become more whole. Another part of the universe is experienced; another part of ourselves is recovered. We are closer to our true divine nature.
So, our questions about animals signal how far we have to go to fully experience and enjoy all of our fellow travelers of other species on the earth. Let us keep connecting and communicating with all of life to grow in joy and appreciation of the variety of friends around us and their infinite intelligence.