Of Things Big and Small

Manimals

Almost more than a decade and five years back, during one of the Far East voyages, we had anchored off the coast of Sorong, a port in Irian Jaya, the complementing portion next to Papua New Guinea. The natives in the island sold all kinds of littoral foodstuff, animals, birds, vegetables and fruits of the region, in the markets dotted along the shore. The ship’s crew had bought a deer and tethered it to a railing on the main deck. They fed leafy vegetables to this Cervidaen family member. The deer could not have been older than a year but its days were numbered... The crew had planned for a feast with venison during the voyage.

The ship sailed out. In the pelagic ambience, the deer awaited its day of judgment. Every day, as I passed by the deer on the deck, it would look at me unblinkingly. It had black, wet lines running from the inside edges of its eyes. With its lips quivering, it would stare up in my face with its two black eyes of coal. I never saw it lying down and sleeping. Even in the dark or in the moonlit nights, the deer always stood on its four legs. I often tried to mitigate its loneliness by wandering nearby and stroking its back and neck. It would sniff around my hand and would continue to stare. On a destined day, the deer vanished. The deer had become food.

Was the deer aware of its impending end? Apart from its fractured freedom, was it aware of the place, people and the environment? Are animals empathetic? Do they feel and think like humans? Do they have problem-solving intelligence?

Intelligence of animals has been an enigma for man who has assumed the position of superior intelligence. He has hunted, made some species extinct and made many of the animals as pets and slaves. And he decides which animals need to be protected also. Yet with all the dominance, man finds it difficult to fathom animal intelligence.

The creation of animals is supposed to be for man’s purpose and so they are at his disposal. Another supposition is that animals have no thinking faculties and no sense of worry or love. It is even believed that animals do not suffer and love the way humans do. The belief that animals cannot think precludes the idea that animals lack similarity to humans in experiencing vicarious feelings.

Are the animals conscious like us?

We humans attribute highest level of consciousness to ourselves. We do recognise dogs, cats, cows, monkeys, some birds and many more pets as being conscious. Some exotic pets also qualify here... dolphins, iguanas, pythons, etc. But this acceptance is based on our likes and dislikes. A mosquito, fly or a cockroach has definitely a very low level of consciousness, as declared by humans, because they are the most hated. Animals are conscious beings but the degree of consciousness could vary from almost static bivalve creatures like oysters and clams, to the humanly closer apes.

But all these are related to one single factor, intelligence. Intelligence is the variable factor on which many factors such as consciousness, skills, etc., depend on. And intelligence is related to the brain. So, we progress from a simple dictum that if brain exists, then intelligence exists. The next is a debateable assumption... Larger the brain, more is the intelligence!

In comparison, a whale’s brain is four times heavier than human brain. But a correction has to be made for the physical body size. Even then, there are creatures having heavier brains proportional to their body sizes. So, man cannot be the most intelligent... is he?

Wait. Heavier brains do harbour more intelligence but intelligence depends more on the levels of evolved brain states. So bigger, complex brains are supposed to possess more intelligence. Physical skills and problem-solving skills are the two main factors which determine the complexity. Man is supposed to be superior to other animals in these. But many animals exhibit skills that astound man. The woodpecker, beaver bird, crows, hyenas and lions, to mention a few, are skilful both in planning and in execution. Scientists had tested the half-filled pitcher story with rooks, a member of the crow family. One of the rooks had chosen larger pebbles, dropped them into the pitcher, raised the level of water and drank it! It goes to prove that animals do possess problem-solving intelligence.

In Jurrasic Park, the raptors are seen as beings with problem-solving intelligence as they attack the fence for weakness at various points but not at the same location which they had attacked earlier. Biologists are testing animals in similar situations. In experimenting with hyenas, food was placed on a plank inside the hyena cage, which would spill only if the hyenas pulled the attached rope in unison. And they did that in less than two minutes!

What about communication and understanding visual/audio simulations?

Dolphins do understand and even repeat many words. Teaching apes to read has been going on for years. Kanzi, a bonobo, has grown with English language since birth. He can recognise about 350+ cards with pictures. The pictures are more like icons and the bonobo chooses the icons to communicate. Using the cards, he can ask for a pizza or even ice cream!

An usual threshold test for intelligence is the mirror test, where the animal is tested if it can recognise its own reflection: Elephants, apes and dolphins have been passing these tests with flying colours!

That brings us to the old, oft-repeated question: Can animals feel compassion and suffering?

Experiments show rats can feel the pain of their fellow beings. When they see another rat in pain, they too wriggle in pain. Elephants brooding over their dead, dogs mourning masters’ absence are other well-known behaviours in support of animals’ compassion.

Studying the hunting patterns, attacking plans, survival adaptations in groups and surviving singly in varying ambiences with available resources are providing insights into animal minds: We are closer to understanding why elephants mourn their dead and how pigs feel good in better living conditions! Modern thinking has been making some rational adjustments to the conventional ideas about animals. Apart from BlueCross, the animal rights movement is another step in this direction.

The pain and suffering what man does not want to undergo cannot be inflicted on other beings - This was the principle of the animal rights movement but this idea has no consensual agreement. There are voices concerning the treatment meted out to pets and animals intended for food. We cannot expect a change to extreme kindness, but at least there is an attempt to look into the minds of animals.

One important fact we must not forget is that all this evaluation of intelligence, feelings and skills of animals is completely in accordance to what man understands and sets as standards. So, in the scheme of things in this world, it is believed that humans have the control, especially to love or hate animals and accord them with existence status also.

In my younger days, I believed ‘Ramayana’, ‘Mahabharatha’, ‘Bhagavatham’, ‘Iliad’, ‘Odessey’, and also Aesop’s fables. But the stories I literally lived and acted out were the tales of ‘Panchatantra’.

Just believe it for a moment... It might all be really true!

For all we might know, in the nature’s plan of things, human beings are just a species to pass by... a temporal state of evolution... The lion could still be the king of the global jungle and the planet really belongs to the apes!

Nov 17, 2010
More Of Things Big and Small

Rajoo Balaji

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