Smarty Paws


In 1982 National Public Television released a series that would go on to win four emmys, Nature: Animal Minds. The series is 186 minutes of attempt to answer two questions, “Are animals intelligent?” and “Do animals have emotions?”

Of course those of us who have pets, and love them, and are not animal hoarders, don’t see these as questions. They are givens. We know for a fact pets are intelligent. A dog can learn to lie down and stay, a cat can learn to come when the treat bag is shaken and use a litter box (my father even claims to have taught one specific cat to sit). And as far as emotions, most of us have witnessed a frightened or happy pet, and those who have not have at least seen one of the countless nature shows that involve animals playing in the wild or running crazy-eyed from a predator. But among the nerdy science people and Ph.D.s of the world, these questions are more, well, questionable. The reason? Intelligence isn’t just learning a behavior (which makes me wonder why I spent all those years memorizing facts in school and regurgitating them on tests).

According to the Webster Dictionary, intelligence is “the ability to learn or understand or deal with new or trying situations […] the skilled use of reason […] the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly.“ Now those who have any experience with science, scientists, or just analytically minded people, know that it is not that simple. Or is it?

First, for example, considering reason, or logic, I can conclude that Nala is intelligent because broke out of her crate. Logically, she figures she can do it again, and, indeed, she was right until I used my own logic to figure out how she was escaping. However, some of the experts on this PBS special, such as Dr. Evan McPhail, an animal intelligence expert (or at least someone available and willing to be interviewed for this show) claims that most of what dogs do is by trial and error in conjunction with natural instincts. They try out a few things and when they get rewarded, the connection clicks and they understand what is needed, or what works. This, by definition, is not thinking abstractly, and, therefore, not considered a high level intelligence. It is learning, but not much more than that. But pets were only a small part of this series.

For example, some Chimpanzees studied had the ability to use tools. Remember the definition? This means they manipulate their environment and are thinking abstractly, they come up with a plan and are able to carry out that plan. The trial and error is happening in their capable ape-brains. I realize that this is no real shocker. Most people are aware of the intelligence of primates, we have seen Jane Goodall (also part of the series) sitting in the jungle and speaking lowly into a camera. But this wasn’t always common knowledge. In fact, we are living in a rather new world regarding animal awareness (that is our awareness of animals).

Animal Minds was aired over 30 years ago, 1982, a time of big hair, wide shoulders, and small animal rights. It was this decade that gave birth to some of the most prominent animal rights organizations, such as PETA, FARM, and IDA. It was also a time of movement towards education rather than acts of defiance (breaking in to laboratories and freeing all the animals, for example – how very 60’s) (Pipe). Hence the birth of this series. So really, if one were transported back to the early ‘80’s this would have been very much a cutting edge theory. “You mean my dog might have opened the gate himself?” “That raven can actually learn to steal fish off a fisherman’s line?”

It’s true, a large part of the population has moved on. We understand that our pets, and most other animals that haven’t managed to escape our everyday, over-worked, over-caffeinated awareness, are pretty smart, however you want to define it. But the idea or question of emotion seems to exist on a different plane.

Learning to perform a trick or even perform a task that ensures survival is one thing, but happiness, guilt, shame and depression are something else and bring with them a new set of responsibilities.

The series provided proof of some of these emotions: a dog with separation anxiety (I know plenty about that one), an orangutan that showed the same signs of shame as a human child after it gave the wrong answer to a question, a bird who showed joy when it tricked the family dog into running outside…. repeatedly, a depressed Chimpanzee, an elephant running its trunk up and down the bones of a lost family member, and the list goes on. Most pet owners have seen evidence of some of these emotions. Gilt is a big one for Nala. But this goes beyond pets. If animals have this wide range of emotion, if they feel depressed or afraid, we may have to make some real changes to be considered morally sound.

Now I’m not getting radical here. I’m not saying that we all need to become vegans tomorrow. I’m as guilty of shoving red meat down my gullet as most Midwesterners, I love eggs in the morning, and, to be honest, people have been hunting and killing animals since the first hairy caveman sharpened a stick. But maybe there needs to be more thought into where our food comes from. At least the wild boar killed with the stick was free-range, living its life until it walked into the wrong pasture. Today things are quite different.

In 2005 the average Iowa Hog confinement housed up to 1,500 tightly packed hogs (Schrum, 2005).  According to Fox News, a video in a company in CA showed workers shocking, kicking and shoving debilitated cattle with forklifts. Chickens are shoved into cages to produce eggs, after their beaks have been cut off, of course, so they won’t peck each other or themselves to death due to the stress. Key word there is stress. Evidence of emotion anyone?

Not all animals in the food industry are in abusive situations, of course, (although some are) but those that are not in a FDA regulated organic or free-range situation are certainly not anywhere near their natural environment, able to engage in their natural habits and entertain their instincts. If these animals have emotion, and I think there is more than enough evidence that they do, we are cruel, inhumane.

Animal Minds aired 30 years ago, and we have come quite a ways regarding how we view animals and ourselves in relationship to them, but although this series has aged, it is just as relevant as ever.

There is a still a lot to learn and even more to change.

Pipe, S. Ph.D. (2011). Animal rights and Animal Welfare. Ways to give. Retrieved from

Schrum, Christine. (2005). Hog confinement health risks.  The Iowa Source. Retrived from


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