Tuesday, May 15, 2012

When Animals Get Even: Theory of Mind

Nurture by Amanda Corlies Sandos
Santino, the male chimp from Furuvik Zoo in Sweden made news recently for plotting to attack the zoo visitors. Apparently, he likes to wait until the overlooks are free of visitors, then he gathers rocks and projectiles, and hides them near the overlooks under hay that he carries out from his indoor area. Next, he bides his time, pretending to be nonchalant, until someone gets on his last nerve. Then, he lets something fly in their direction with, I'm sure, very accurate aim and relishes their reactions. Of course, researchers and journalists want to talk about this behavior as if it's surprising news. Perhaps, because it demonstrates "Theory of Mind" or the ability to attribute mental states, beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge,  to oneself and others, and to understand that others beliefs may be different from your own. Something we humans like to consider our exclusive ability. But, if you think so, you'd be wrong. By displaying behaviors which take forethought, planning, and deception, animals often prove theory of mind pertains to them, as well.

This often surprises people, particularly those who have not made their living taking care of animals. It doesn't surprise me. I've seen chimps show not only planning and deception, but also empathy and caring, and not just for their troupe but also for me. I have a short story called "Bonding with Hondo," scheduled to publish soon in The Canary about this very experience, in fact. I posted it here several months ago when Hondo passed away. But, it's not only chimps who we can apply this theory to.

Charlie, the lowland gorilla, once gave me the best gift ever. When I worked at the zoo aviary, we often had to cut the bamboo that was growing all around the outside of the building. It was a veritable jungle that threatened to grow over everything in its path. Charlie and his brother Curtis happened to live right next door with their family, and they loved bamboo browse. So, on a day I had cuttings, I called my friend Cori, one of the gorilla keepers, and told her I was bringing over treats for the boys. Cori met me at the back gate and let me into the area behind the gorilla exhibit, where the animals and I were only separated by mesh grates. This was the area where the keepers often came throughout the day to perform training sessions with the gorillas.

 When I arrived, Cori and I fell into a conversation about something I don't remember. Curtis and Charlie sat beside us patiently waiting for their yummy snack. After a while, Charlie got up and moved away. Cori and I were so busy yacking we didn't pay attention, until the male gorilla, who was already starting to get a bit of silver on his back, returned with a whole bouquet of tiny wildflowers he had picked and gathered from around his exhibit. He offered me the flowers in trade for the bamboo. I cried and was so obviously thrilled by the gesture that Charlie learned this was the way to my heart. From that day forward, if there was anything blooming, even a weed, he would offer me those flowers in hopes I would trade it for food.

And, lest you think these behaviors apply only to Great Apes, you would be mistaken. Read about Wilma Lou Teal, the duck who once saved her mate from certain death, or the elephant I was visiting at the Brookfield Zoo when I was a kid who picked up the rock a boy threw at him and chucked it back hitting the boy right between the eyes. I had a hard time feeling bad for the boy who bled all over the place from the cut, but was otherwise fine. Or, the dolphin from Sea World who got fed up one day and started putting her trainers in time out when the fish wasn't cut to suit her. Perhaps soon, I'll write up that story here for your enjoyment. The point is, it happens all the time. Animals are way smarter than we like to give them credit for.  So perhaps offering them a bit more respect would be a good plan. Because if you don't treat them well, you never know what they might plot to get even.

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