What Are Animals Thinking?

Chimps, cats, parrots, dolphins, and dogs have surprisingly smart and emotionally rich minds.

A two-week-old Chimpanzee (pan troglodytes) is seen at the animal hospital inTaman Safari Park in Cisarua, Bogor, in West Java June 4, 2004.
A two-week-old chimpanzee in West Java.

Photo by Supri/Reuters

The first chimpanzee I ever met was a young male, Frodo, who was making his way up the chimp social ladder. It was 1987, and I had traveled to Tanzania to meet Jane Goodall at her study site while researching my first book, Ancestral Passions. Frodo’s tactic for gaining status, as is the case with all young, ambitious chimpanzee males, was to beat up those who were weaker than him—primarily females. He and a buddy came scuttling down the trail that I was hiking with David Gilagiza, one of Goodall’s research assistants. As they raced past us, Frodo slapped me, hard, on my legs. I tell the full story in my new book, Animal Wise, but suffice it to say I was surprised—even more so when Gilagiza explained that Frodo’s behavior was part of his strategy to become the top chimpanzee. Frodo had already beaten up most of the female chimpanzees, Gilagiza said, and had recently started clobbering the female researchers; he’d even slapped Goodall.

I hoped, of course, never to see Frodo again. But I couldn’t stop puzzling over his behavior. Goodall and Frans de Waal had written about chimpanzees’ political machinations, observations which ran counter to the idea that animals were simple stimulus-response machines, as most animal behaviorists then believed. But I’d never expected to actually encounter a thinking chimpanzee—let alone one who decided to use me as a prop in his political schemes. Later, I watched a young female chimpanzee, with Goodall’s assistance, deceive one of her elders. At the feeding station, where researchers occasionally dispense bananas to the chimps, Goodall had given an armful of the treats to Beethoven, a senior male who was caring for an orphan named Dilly. His generosity did not extend to sharing bananas, and despite Dilly’s soft food whimpers, Beethoven ate them all. Soon he fell asleep, snoring as Dilly groomed him. That’s when Goodall, who was still at the feeding station window, held up a single banana. It was as if a signal passed between her and Dilly. Dilly did not utter a food cry, as chimpanzees normally do, but simply watched as Goodall placed the banana outside on the ground. Then Dilly quietly made her way to the fruit, downed it in three bites, and just as quietly returned to the snoring Beethoven. I thought that Goodall would certainly write a paper about Dilly’s behavior and was incredulous when she told me that she could not. The ability to plan and deceive was something that humans did. Goodall could only write about the young chimp’s actions if she used indirect expressions: “The young chimpanzee behaved as if she were deceiving him,” or “If she were human, we would say that she was deceiving him.” This was how she circumvented the problem of discussing the chimpanzees’ emotions, motivations, personalities, etc.

 About a year later, my husband and I got our first dog, a mixed collie we named Quincie. She loved to carry in her mouth things that she found. On our daily hikes, she always chose a pinecone at the beginning of the trail and marched along with it. One day when she was about six months old, she dropped her pinecone over the edge of a steep trail, and watched intently as it rolled down the hill. As it picked up speed, the expression on her face changed from lovey-Quincie to wolfy-Quincie. She raced after that cone as if chasing a rabbit. I remember being surprised and saying to my husband, “She has an imagination!” And then puzzling over why I was surprised about that. After all, like every dog I’ve known, she also played games with us in which she pretended to be a mean dog, barking loudly while simultaneously wagging her tail.

In spite of being a science writer with access to many top-flight researchers, I never felt comfortable bringing up my story about Quincie’s imagination. I thought experts would scoff or laugh at me for being soft and sentimental or quickly change the subject. I perceived a bias at the time that animals did not have minds and weren’t capable of thinking or feeling emotions, especially positive ones such as love.

Animal Wise by Virginia Morell.
Animal Wise by Virginia Morell.

Courtesy of Crown Publishers/Amazon

But that bias was beginning to change. More researchers were adopting an evolutionary approach to understanding human and animal cognition. In Ancestral Passions, which is a biography about the Leakey family, I discussed the physical evolution of humans. But what about our mental and emotional evolution? You can get some clues to this from changes in the stone tool record and early art. The best evidence, though, comes from studying the cognitive abilities of other animals, as Charles Darwin first suggested. In The Descent of Man, Darwin argued that animals and humans differ in their mental abilities only in degree, not kind. He was certain that animals would share some of our talents for reason, memory, and language, and would even possess an aesthetic sense. Because all of these talents are tied to our biology, Darwin said that they had not appeared out of nowhere; that they are just as much the products of evolution by natural selection as are our bipedal stance and large brain. By studying other species, as comparative psychologists and ethologists do, we may in time be able to trace the biological roots and evolutionary history of our abilities to think, use language, and feel emotions.

In the years since my visit with Goodall, the field of animal cognition research has shifted and now embraces the Darwinian approach. Scientists no longer ask, “Do animals think?” Instead, they want to know, “How do animals think?” In Animal Wise, I introduce readers to some of the scientists who are asking this once-forbidden question of a wide range of creatures, from ants to birds and rats, and from elephants to dolphins, dogs, and wolves. Through experiments and close observations, researchers have discovered that at least one species of ant engages in a form of teaching; parrots likely give names to their chicks (a finding which opens the door to the possibility that they are having some form of conversations); moths remember that they were caterpillars; whales and cows have regional accents; rats dream and laugh; cheetahs may die from being heartbroken; and cats can get their owners to jump to their feet and feed them by crying like a human infant. And, yes, I have shared my story about Quincie’s imagination with several of these researchers. They didn’t scoff or laugh, or change the subject. The bigger puzzle, one told me, was figuring out how to devise an experiment that would show that a dog can invent a game.