THE BLOG

Future Chimp

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

A report in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology chronicles the adventures of a Santino, a chimp at Sweden's Furuvik Zoo. Apparently the 30-year-old chimp began evidencing some aggressive behavior eleven years ago when he was 19--about the time chimps, in their maturity, seek to establish dominance. What behavior are we talking about? Stockpiling missiles, that's what. It is Santino's wont to search his enclosure for stones--he even chips away at his concrete wall to make shards when he can't find them anywhere else-- and pile them up in anticipation of later hurling them at human zoo visitors. It's not the use of weapons that has scientists' attention, nor even the use of tools to make them, but the fact that the behavior shows planning. Planning is linked to so-called "autonoetic consciousness" wherein information due to memory can be distinguished from that of other senses. In other words, Santino understands the concept of "future" and goes so far as to plan for it.

Sounds to me like orthodox biology is a bit behind the times in recognizing what naturalists and pet owners have known for centuries, if not millennia: animals (vertebrates at very least) think, feel, remember, and plan. Wherefrom the blind spot in our anthropocentric life sciences that keep scientists from seeing what the rest of us see, or at least admitting to it? During my own undergraduate and graduate education in zoology and veterinary medicine I noticed that attributing feelings to animals was the kiss of death for a budding professional; because there were no real-life Dr. Doolittles in our midst, these were qualities that simply could not be experimentally proven. This is changing as field researches in the tradition of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey make their mark on their professions and the public, but in my view it isn't changing fast enough.

The conflict/debate between religion and science is getting a great deal of press these days, and in the lofty concepts being bandied back and forth by the likes of Hedges and Harris and Hitchins and Dawkins, animals seem to have been forgotten. Perhaps that oh-so-tricky word "dominion" as it is biblically applied to our relationship with the earth is at fault. Rather than debate the religious issue of whether human beings were actually "given" stewardship of the earth, let me suggest that if they were, that stewardship, that dominion, is best interpreted after the fashion of the "mandate of Heaven" shouldered by the emperor's of ancient China. In this model a ruler accepts the job of commanding a country as mandated by the gods, but does so with moral and ethical constraints to nurture and better the populace, to improve the lot and circumstances of the population, and to foster agricultural plenty, military peace, cultural richness, and social accord.

Every time I see some news about scientists discovering the mechanisms whereby animals do the things we all know that they do I wonder how much longer it will be until they are given the respect they deserve. All up and down the line, I mean: bugs and panthers and whales and bears. Snakes and birds too, not just chimps, and fish, for that matter, whose largely invisible environment we are polluting with toxic waste, shattering with high-powered sub-seeking sonar and tearing through with long-line nets.

Am I a tree hugger? You betcha. I'm the kind of guy who panics when he realizes he forgot to mist his kid's tarantula and wakes up in the night worried that his pet tortoise is constipated. I'm not kidding. I took my boy to the Pacific Northwest last summer for the express purpose of seeing giant sequoias. We stood in awe of trees thousands of years old and looked up while I told him about a little salamander that lives three hundred feet up in the air in the shallow ponds and pools formed by rainwater trapped in the interlacing branches of the stately redwoods. He wanted to know how they got up there. Perhaps their ancestors climbed aboard when the trees were small, or perhaps birds dropped them on high. That was a discussion, I'll tell you what.

Appreciating even the least popular creatures is a micro-trend, I think. The New York Times has a recent article about Eric Carl Timaeus, a champion Texas snake wrangler who joins other hunters in the Rio Grande Valley every year by catching rattlesnakes. What makes Timaeus special is that unlike the other snake hunters, who merely pour gasoline down rattler den holes and wait for the poisoned snakes to make a topside dash, (no, there is no law against this barbaric practice) Timaeus eschews mass killing in favor of skilfully wielding a hook. He avoids trapping females and young. He is famous for catching the longest snake of any hunter year after year. He also appreciates the snakes. "Sometimes, when the sun hits them just right," he says, "they shine."

Now I've heard of hunters appreciating their prey and I know many do, but snakes? I thought I was in the minority, along with fellow herpetologists, in that one. I have appreciated the beauty of reptiles since I was a child. Maybe it's a trend and maybe it's all wound up somehow in a new Zeitgeist about the beauty and fragility of living creatures, and of course their feelings. That's the crux of it all, that last one. That's what glares at me when I read the story about Santino the chimp--not that he planned for the future, but that he planned to hit back, to engage his natural desire to rule his own roost, if not rail against the injustice of being a social, intelligent animal separated from his own wild kind.

So we're learning, slowly. Books about dog loyalty and cat cunning abound, and recently about elephants too. Bekoff and Goodall's 2008 book The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy-- and Why They Matter is just one recent, popular entry into a growing field that commands the attention of philosophers, ethicists, spiritual people and anyone who cares about cruelty, compassion, connection to the Earth, and of course our own future as a species. What I notice most in scanning reader's reviews of the book is that people feel the book both anecdotally and scientifically confirms what they have known since childhood.

So where are we with all this tree hugging and earth consciousness, with our growing awareness of the thinking and feeling of our fellow animals? I don't know. I'd like to think that on the day we really owned up to how much animals know and think and feel, we'd treat them better, slaughter them humanely if at all, release them from zoos, respect their natural environments, kill them for clothing only when there was absolutely no alternative, and stop the full frontal assault on the delicate blue sphere that hangs in space and graciously allows us all to cling to life. Trouble is, the way we treat each other--creatures we know have all these same sensitivities and capacities--doesn't give me a lot of hope.

All the same, it's better to comment on these studies and observations when they hit the mainstream rather than merely let them sail by unnoticed in the flood of political and economic news.

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You can discover more about Arthur Rosenfeld here or contact Arthur at aero@aya.yale.edu.

A South Florida-based tai chi master and author of eleven books of fiction and non-fiction, Rosenfeld's recent books can be found here. His newest novel, Quiet Teacher, is due out in May.