3 Videos Underline New Questions About What ‘Wild’ and ‘Tame’ Really Mean
Nature’s Edge Notebook #12 –
Observation, Analysis, Reflection, New Questions
Stray dogs figure out how to use Moscow’s subway system to get downtown to neighborhoods where the food is better.
For years, a house cat in England takes the public bus to get around town, unbeknownst to its owner.
A jungle leopard in India, needing to cross a swollen river with its cub, gets a man to ferry her and her cub across in his canoe.
Dolphins at a dolphin show in Hawaii instantly figure out a mistake their trainers have made and cover for them pretty well, preventing embarrassment all around.
The wild ocean cousins of those “tame” show dolphins have a long-standing partnership with fishermen along the coasts of both Brazil and Bengal that means more fish for all.
In Western Australia’s Shark Bay, wild dolphins being studied by scientists from Harvard, appear themselves to be studying the humans — including this reporter.
These anecdotes may at first seem to be simply entertaining aberrations — fun animal stories of unusually “tame” — and surprisingly intelligent — animals.
But scientists are now collating and comparing so many of these stories — literally thousands from around the world, often from what we’ve traditionally called “the wild” — that it’s all raising new questions about what the words “tame” and “wild” may really mean, and how any difference between the two can be usefully described.
These anecdotes are also at the heart of an explosion in the study of animal intelligence and consciousness, a scientific revolution that promises to help answer ancient questions that still persist about the nature of our own human intelligence and consciousness.
They include stories from around the planet in which all sorts of wild species accommodate to the many disruptions of encroaching humanity with imaginative flexibility and self-aware decision making that leave scientists searching for explanations.
Of course, the wild animals have little choice but to accommodate us, since if they are to live, they must continue to seek food each in their own way, regardless of any human presence.
But these myriad encounters are also revealing unsuspected powers of perception and adaptation — and emotional intelligence — in all sorts of fur-covered brains and deep-diving bodies.
They are transforming notions not only of a presumed superiority of human intelligence, but of the uniqueness (now increasingly in doubt among some experts) of human consciousness.
If wild animals seem to intelligently allow themselves to become more “tame” in our presence so that they can go on surviving, does that make them any less “wild”?
“Not tamed, but habituated,” is how the guide in our recent hunting foray in Botswana with Africa’s endangered Wild Dog put it.
He not only took us on a truly wild chase, careening through the bush with the wild dogs (a.k.a. the painted wolf), that ended with the capture and devouring of a hapless baby impala (which meant wild dog pups could be fed), but along the way we also captured many glimpses of animals — including hippos, lions, jackals and hyenas — pursuing their “wild” behavior in their ancient homeland even while in close proximity with and accommodation to our human-filled open Land Rovers.
Three “Nature’s Edge” video segments below, starting with the Moscow stray dogs who’ve mastered the subway system, show some of these remarkable examples of animal thinking and accommodation that are now so engaging scientists.
We are guided through them by “Nature’s Edge” regular Eugene Linden who’s been writing about animal intelligence studies worldwide for more than 40 years.
They are part of our ongoing series “Thinking About Thinking With Eugene and Other Animals” (a title that honors the slim and timeless classic, “My Family and Other Animals” by Gerald Durrell — a childhood memoir of great seriousness and comic genius).
“The world is becoming a zoo,” says Linden — speaking from the human point of view.
We have penetrated so many wild places, that animals have less and less option but to roam and hunt in among us.
But from the animals’ point of view, we’re the wild ones, so to speak, among whom they must now try to keep their own, often genetically determined, “civilizations” intact, their ancient evolved patterns of life and survival.
And scientists are now discovering the remarkable (to us) intelligence and apparent consciousness with which wild animals are doing that.
Linden says these discoveries involve overcoming natural human prejudices: “Since we usually define intelligence in our own terms, humans will tend to assert our intelligence’s superiority over any other species, even if we can’t agree on what it actually is.”
The three videos below culminate with an influential insight about animal intelligence and consciousness from the late ethologist Donald Griffin.
Griffin led scientists to admit that far from being the dumb creatures many thought in the 19th century, incapable even of pain, animals, even very simple ones, may have developed “consciousness” in some form or other from the start because it is simply the easiest — most efficient — way for evolution, in the form of Darwinian natural selection, to advance.
But first, meet some stray dogs who have mastered the Moscow subway system — as well as Eugene Linden, and that English cat riding the bus.
Sometimes editors know they may have a real story when after hearing rumors of it and then assigning it, the correspondent reports back that it was not hard to find.
That’s what ABC News correspondent Alex Marquardt told us over the phone a few days after we told him of reports we’d seen here in New York that some of Moscow’s stray dogs had figured out how to use the subway to get from the roomier suburbs where they lived to the heart of the city, where they had a better chance of turning humans into a food source — just like the millions of human commuters who use subways every day to get from their homes to where they work.
Alex told us that after speaking to the two Russian biologists who’d been studying these dogs, he linked up with his cameraman and joined the midtown Moscow commuters heading down into subways to see if it was really true.
Sure enough, before long, not hard to find at all, there she was…
Take a look:
In this next video segment, we learn that during his 40 years traveling the world to talk to animal trainers of all kinds and to scientists who try to figure out how to describe animal thinking, Eugene Linden began to see the biases humans have often had about animal thought.
Until recently, he says, many scientists thought of animals as “failed humans.” Some even argued that animals couldn’t really feel pain.
After telling us of a famous New York City “tame” zoo otter who found ways to extort rewards from others — presumably a tactic otters can also use in “the wild” if they want — Linden spoke of the engaging behavior of a leopard in the Indian jungle who needed a favor from a man who lived not far from her den.
When the nearby river flooded, this leopard, seeking to get her cub across to shelter, led the man to his canoe, stepped into it, looked over her shoulder at him, and somehow conveyed what needed to happen next — as this video shows.
And on a foray into what this reporter now thinks of as, in a sense, the civilized world of the so-called “wild” dolphin (civilized by dolphin standards), when we took a crew to Western Australia’s Shark Bay, we became aware of our own biases about who was studying whom.
In this third video segment, we hear how, in an act of remarkable resourcefulness and possibly even empathy, two dolphins in Hawaii helped their trainer, the scientist Karen Pryor, save face.
This is just another of the thousands of anecdotes now being compared and studied that are giving scientists around the world second thoughts about the nature of animal intelligence and the uniqueness (or not) of human consciousness, whatever that may be.
The nature of consciousness is still hotly debated among scientists, philosophers and psychologists.
The late scientist Donald Griffin advanced this debate. He broke through scientific presumptions and confusion with a deceptively simple insight about why Darwinian evolution would select for consciousness in all sorts of animals.
Not that this insight is suggesting there are “termites doing crossword puzzles,” as Eugene Linden says here (and why would they want to?) but it does seem to make the mystery of awareness and consciousness all the more common — although no less mysterious.
Linden — and Griffin — point out that for evolution to try to “hardwire” a species for every dangerous or life-giving eventuality that might come down the pike in this often wild and chaotic world would be cumbersome, if not impossible. Who knows what new developments the future may hold?
These new insights may give new hope about the flexibility with which even humans might adjust to meet new dangers and opportunities.
If other species turn out to have minds that are not so “hardwired” and that display imaginative, compassionate, self-aware and flexible decision making, then, some scientists now suggest, (turning the tables of interspecies prejudice with a little wry irony) we humans may also share such splendid capacities — at least in our better moments.