Polly Want a Cracker… Now!

Posted by Dana Campbell, ALDF's Chief Contract Attorney on March 10, 2008

Walk with me while we go peek over the edge of a new frontier. (For purposes of this walk, let’s save the objections to studying animals in captivity for another day.)

Using science and anecdotes, and accompanied by stunning photographs that capture each subject’s soul, National Geographic Magazine’s March cover story explores what we know today about animals’ intelligence. The article covers the usual suspects–dogs, primates, birds–and unusual ones as well: octopus, marmoset, cichlid. That most animal species have intelligence, are sociable, playful, and certainly much more than robots running on instinct is of no surprise to anyone who reads this blog. To be sure, there remain plenty of skeptical naysayers, both within and outside the scientific communities, folks who’ve obviously never spent time with my canines Jozie and Kula.

What’s so exciting is the subtext of this article and the possibilities it renders: that we are already able to really communicate with some species, and are on the brink of understanding others. For now the communication is one directional, with humans teaching primates, birds, dolphins, and dogs our verbal or sign language and gestures. Still on the far, far horizon lies the day when we humans are smart enough to understand animals’ languages, whether silent or audible.

When my eye caught the magazine on the newsstand at the airport, I sprinted across the concourse to buy it and eagerly took it out to read on the plane. Not surprising, given what I do all day. But strangers on the plane had done the same, and once we saw each other’s copies in hand, we all began animatedly talking, in awe about the amazing capabilities of the animals described.

I’m not sure what excited me more, the actual advances being made in interspecies communication, the excitement the article is generating among "civilians" (the non-animal lawyer public), or what it all means. Okay, it’s the latter: the optimistic, maybe naïve possibility that we may finally be on the cusp of definitively dismantling the dubious arguments supporting the use and exploitation of animals by having animals, in our language or theirs, tell us just what they think and feel.

As one guy on the plane said "we may be ashamed at what they have to say about us." I, for one, am ready to take the heat and listen up, and am already walking out toward that far horizon on the animal intelligence frontier.

Walk with me.

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