What Your Pet is Thinking | Mind Cafe

Thursday, April 12, 2007

What Your Pet is Thinking

From the day they brought her home, the D’Avellas’ black-and-white mutt loathed ringing phones. At the first trill, Jay Dee would bolt from the room and howl until someone picked up. But within a few weeks, the D’Avellas began missing calls. When the phone rang, their friends later told them, someone would pick up and then the line would go dead.

One evening, Aida D’Avella solved the mystery. Sitting in the family room of her Newark, N.J., home, she got up as the phone rang, but the dog beat her to it. Jay Dee lifted the receiver off the hook in her jaws, replaced it and returned contentedly to her spot on the rug.

Just about every pet lover has a story about the astonishing intelligence of his cat, dog, bird, ferret or chinchilla. Ethologists, the scientists who study animal behavior, have amassed thousands of studies showing animals can count, understand cause and effect, form abstractions, solve problems, use tools and even deceive.

But lately scientists have gone a step further: Researchers are providing tantalizing evidence that animals not only learn and remember but also might have consciousness — in other words, they might be capable of thinking about their thoughts and knowing that they know.

In the past few years, top journals have published reports on self-awareness in dolphins and wild chimps whose different nut-cracking “technologies” constitute unique cultures. Others argue that rats have a sense of fun, mice show empathy for cage-mates, and scrub jays are capable of “mental time travel” that enables them to remember where they stashed worms and seeds.

While researchers have yet to attain the field’s holy grail — proving animals are self-aware — the findings already have broad implications.

For the 69 million U.S. households that own a pet, such knowledge might lead owners to question their animal companions’ awareness of what they are fed, how they are housed and how often the kitty litter is changed.

All of that would be a boon for the pet industry, which generates $38 billion in annual revenue, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

Drug companies already are addressing animals’ feelings. Some 15 million dogs have taken Pfizer Inc.’s animal pain-reliever Remadyl. The company’s Anipryl targets “cognitive dysfunction syndrome” in dogs. (Symptoms include failing to recognize people or respond to its name and getting lost in the house.) Experts expect a steady stream of drugs aimed at pets’ minds instead of bodies.

The research also is coloring thinking about everything from science labs to farms and food-production facilities.

Having demolished concrete cages in favor of naturalistic enclosures, many zoos are offering animals “environmental enrichment” designed to exercise their minds and housing them in social groups where they can express their emotions.

Federal animal-welfare acts have long required researchers who use primates to take into account their “psychological well-being,” and researchers say more institutions that use lab dogs, rabbits and other small animals are voluntarily adopting the rules.

But some researchers say humans might be a bit too eager to attribute high-level functioning to animals and end up inferring mental states that don’t exist.

Bonnie Beaver, professor of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University and former president of the American Veterinary Medicine Association, says when dogs act distressed in a boarding kennel, they are showing unfamiliarity with the surroundings, not resentment their owner is vacationing in Bali.

And if a dog looks guilty about leaving a mess on the rug, it is being submissive, she says, not showing a more complex emotion.

“Most times,” she says, “owners are reading things that are not there.”

Not too long ago, scientists scoffed at the idea that animals could have consciousness. Philosophers haggle endlessly about the meaning of the word, of course. But they generally agree it is not enough to solve problems, learn or remember — a semiconductor can do that — but to be aware of the contents of one’s own mind.

A key ingredient of consciousness is having a sense of self, a feeling there’s a “you” inside your brain. One sign of that is being able to imagine yourself in a different time and place. Some scientists have said that’s why chimps in a forest pick up a stone so that they can crack a nut that they left far away and why New Caledonian crows make hook-shaped devices to fish for bugs.

But maybe, skeptics say, chimps and crows learned that a rock, or hook, equals lunch and just act reflexively.

To try to rule this out, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, taught orangutans and bonobos, considered the great apes closest to humans, how to use tools to snare grapes that were otherwise out of reach. Then they gave the animals a chance to take the right tools into a “waiting room,” where they were kept for times ranging from five minutes to overnight, before being led back to the room with the grapes. The clever move, of course, was to grab a tool before going to the waiting room.

All 10 animals managed this at least sometimes, the researchers reported in May in the journal Science. Because the animals had to plan so far ahead, the scientists argue, the experiment showed an ability to anticipate needs.

“It’s hard to argue that these animals do not have consciousness,” says primatologist Frans de Waal of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta.

Dissenters argue that any behavior that meets a basic need such as hunger should not be ascribed to anything as lofty as consciousness.

More and more, scientists are observing what they call altruistic behavior that has no evident purpose.

De Waal once watched as a bonobo picked up a starling. The bonobo carried it outside its enclosure and set the bird on its feet. When it didn’t fly away, the ape took it to higher ground, carefully unfolded its wings and tossed it into the air. Still having no luck, she stood guard over it and protected it from a young bonobo nearby.

Since such behavior does not help the bonobo to survive, it’s unlikely to be genetically programmed, says Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado. If a person acted this way, “we would say this reflects planning, thought and caring,” he adds.

“When you see behaviors that are too flexible and variable to be preprogrammed, you have to consider whether they are the result of true consciousness.”

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