Animal Intelligence, Or the Cat that Came Home


An article in the New York Times of Sunday, January 20, 2013, tells the amazing story of Holly, a calico cat who found her way home after being lost by her owners almost 200 miles from home. A microchip under her skin confirmed that this was not a case of mistaken identity, of some other very similar looking cat being accepted by bereft owners, not a case of Martin (or Martina) Guerre. There are many stories of animals accomplishing similar and even greater feats of navigation—and there continue to be skeptics of the veracity of such stories, especially, oddly enough, among scientists.

Pet owners are notable, or perhaps notorious, for ringing the praises of their pets’ cleverness. I am one of those. I have had multiple cats continuously for the last forty plus years, and I can attest to their intelligence. They seem as various in smarts as human beings (and occasionally can also be quite stupid, alas). I currently have two cats, Speckles and Blackie, who are bright though not brilliant. Their mother, whom I also owned, was a genius, one of the two or three most intelligent cats I have ever known—if she had had the mouth structure to enable speech, she most definitely would have talked.

Many years ago, I had a tom named Tennessee who was a mechanical genius. For weeks he had me stumped: I would put him outside, only to find him inside a few minutes later; I would shut him inside, only to find him sauntering up to me outside in the garden shortly thereafter. He finally revealed his secret one day when he and I were both out in the driveway. Bored with my activity (I was polishing the car), he decided to go back inside. He leapt up onto the wall of the house, grabbed the wooden sill of a window, braced his back legs on the rough stucco of the exterior wall, inserted the claws of one front paw through the mesh of the window screen and pulled it open, wedged his head through the resulting gap, and pulled himself in.

I figured that I had inadvertently left the screen unhooked, so I went inside, hooked the screen, went back outside to finish my chore, and a few minutes later watched Tennessee reverse the operation and exit the house through the same window. It wasn’t I who had unhooked the screen, it was the cat! I could share many another anecdote of Tenny’s brilliance. But I have my own tale of a cat who found his way home. I once agreed to take care of a friend’s cat at my house while she was on a trip. The cat did not like being away from home and my cats didn’t like him, so one evening he escaped and disappeared. Both my friend and I were certain we had seen the last of him, but several weeks later, he reappeared at her door, somewhat the worse for wear, but alive and home at last. My friend lived five miles away from me, and to get home the cat had to cross many busy streets, a railroad, and two freeways.

Although I have experience only with cats, people with dogs and horses tell me similar stories of the intelligence of their animals. People have written books about the wit and wisdom of quail, chickens, crows, budgerigars and parrots, cows, pigs, mules, and raccoons. The evidence for the intelligence of animals is plentiful. So why, then, are we so amazed at the stories of Holly and other individual animals? Shouldn’t something so widely observed be taken as a matter of fact?

Perhaps the reason we don’t is that, despite our love of animals and the widespread practice of keeping pets, we urbanized, digital moderns don’t live in the same intimacy with animals, both wild and domestic, that our pre-industrial ancestors did. Whereas people who make their living by hunting must know as a survival strategy the animals they hunt, we who shop for meat at a super market, where it is pre-killed, pre-sliced, and attractively packaged in plastic, do not need to know the animals who die so that we may live. It’s easy enough to think of an overbred domestic turkey or fattened steer as just a dumb animal, if we think of them at all. Quite a different thing if you’re being led on a merry and often unsuccessful chase by a wily wild turkey who would prefer not ending up on your dinner plate.

That’s one reason. Another is likely the hegemony of the scientific mindset, which oftentimes requires that the obvious and commonplace be verified by the scientific method or be pronounced heresy, folklore, and superstition. If you read the New York Times article, notice the many quotations from an assortment of scientists, none of whom, it is worth pointing out, really have a clue as to how Holly accomplished her feat, though they are not admitting it. They are dancing around the issue, obfuscating through academic jargon, supposing and doubting. But Holly cannot be refuted. She has the microchip to prove the veracity of her adventure.

Our ancestors did not have modern science. They did not have hypotheses and theories, and they did not have a post-Enlightenment view of living creatures as mechanical things or as (our favorite today) computers preprogrammed or “hard wired” with the “software” otherwise known as instinct. When you explain all animal behavior and abilities by “instinct,” you bias against the possibility of intelligence. That is also a good way to maintain the post-Cartesian distance between animals and humans, a distance which makes it easier to treat farm animals, for example, as so many units of production on factory farms and feedlots.
Pre-scientific people did not have our contemporary concept of instinct and thus had no problem in recognizing the intelligence of the animals with whom they shared the world.

But while no doubt “instinct,” whatever that exactly is, is important for understanding the behavior of animals, when we are dealing with intelligent animals, animals who can think, as we are when dealing with most vertebrates, especially mammals, then we must concede that they are capable of doing things that can be best explained by an appeal to intelligence rather than to instinct. After all, animals live in the same world we do. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west in their world just as it does in ours, and they can see that just as readily as we can. To assume that only humans can make intelligent use of their own sense perceptions strikes me as nonsensical, and frankly as contrary to basic evolutionary theory—for surely human intelligence did not spring from nothing by some sort of spontaneous generation, nor in a simple straight line from hominid to hominim to homo sapiens, but must have been reached by a gradual process of increasing intelligence among species of many lines, just as did mammary glands and eyeballs.

When my father retired, he bought a farm in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas, very near the homestead where he had grown up. He bought a small herd of Angus cows and a bull, with the notion of selling the calves to the feedlots and thereby making a little extra money in his retirement years. After a few years he gave up on that idea, explaining that he could not stand to see the calves hauled away in tightly packed trucks to their not so distant slaughterhouse fate. He had come to recognize the intelligence of his cows and of their bond with him (quite different from a person recognizing his bonds with a cow, or horse or dog). Just one story will illustrate what he meant: One spring, while my parents were in the house getting dinner ready, my dad heard a cow mooing loudly nearby; he looked out and saw a cow standing at the fence, her nose pointed at the house, frantically vocalizing. When he went out to see what was wrong, the cow turned and headed back into the pasture, still mooing. Dad followed while the cow led him to what he knew was the area of the pasture where the cows liked to bed down their young calves. She called and called, but her calf did not come, so Dad started searching through the tall grass, the cow following close behind. He did find the calf, comfortably curled in the grass—the little brat had simply been ignoring his mother’s summons. The cow showed clear signs of her relief at having located her baby, licking him all over as a human mother might shower kisses on a child who had stayed out after dark. There is no instinct that programs a cow to seek human help in locating her baby.

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