Let’s Talk About Smart Animals

Do you have a pet that does really clever things?  I haven’t had pets since I was a child.  But I can appreciate people’s pride in their pets because I have seen some pretty smart animals myself.

But in my case, the animals were wild, or at least semi-wild.  From squirrels who raid bird feeders to theme-park performers, I’ve concluded that we’re aren’t the only creatures on this planet who can think.

For example, I remember when I took my neighbor’s daughter to Sea World. She was about 14 years old then and has always been fascinated with dolphins.  Sea World had the expected performing dolphins of course, but they also had some in training that the public could feed.  It worked like this: several times a day, a stand next to the dolphin pool sold fish.  For a reasonable charge (I can’t remember the exact amount – probably $5), patrons could buy a conical paper cup containing three small, rather sorry-looking fish.  They then stood at the pool and held a fish in one hand over the water to get a dolphin’s attention.  When a dolphin came by, the fish was dropped into the dolphin’s mouth.

Daughter tried it, as I stood off to the side with the video camera.  A dolphin swam over and stopped in front of her in a near-vertical position, mouth agape.  She dropped the first fish into its mouth.  The fish disappeared and the dolphin waited.  She took the second fish and dropped it into that grinning orifice.  The dolphin waited.  She took the third fish and dropped it.  The dolphin swallowed…and immediately swam away.  He had learned that fish were available in threes, waiting patiently until the third appeared, then did not waste a second of his time, moving smartly away to find three more fish.

Dolphins aren’t the only smart water creatures.  The Ohio State Fair has always had a fishing pond.  We had been there as kids, and several years ago, we had an old-fashioned family outing to Columbus, Ohio to revisit this childhood adventure.  My brother both wanted to relive fond memories from his youth and teach his city-dwelling daughters what it was like to fish, so one of our first activities was to visit the fishing pond.

There were some strict rules.  The fishing time and number of fish caught were strictly limited.  Caught fish were either kept or released; most people released them, not wanting to be bothered by either carrying a fresh fish around or retrieving it from storage at the end of a long day.

So my brother and his daughters went to a designated spot on the pier with a pole.  As usual, I’m off to the side with the video camera.  He carefully baited the hook and dropped it in the water, with them watching intently.  After a couple of minutes, he pulled the line out of the water and stared at a bare hook.  The water was clear enough that fish could be seen; one in particular showed a real interest in his hook, but didn’t bite.  He tried again, baiting the hook and dropping it into the water.  He could see a fish move in next to the hook, stay there a few seconds as if suspended, then move away.  Once again, the hook was bare.

After three tries, their time was up and no fish…but three bare hooks.  Apparently this fish was a real veteran – it had been caught and released at least once and had quickly learned that if you take the bait in one gulp, something catches in your throat and you quickly get yanked out of the water.  But if you’re careful and nibble, you can still get fed and not undergo the trauma of getting caught.  It’s the human equivalent of having your cake and eating it, too.

So give the animals credit.  At least when it comes to food, we aren’t the only smart ones around.

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