Animal minds made big news this month with Time magazine dedicating its cover story to the topic. "Inside the minds of animals," by Jeffrey Kluger, provides an engaging glimpse into some of the exciting recent discoveries in animal cognition. That title is an improvement over that of a February 2006 Scientific American article which asked meekly, "Do Animals Have Feelings?" as if there should remain any doubt about that.
Kluger appears to have had an epiphany when he contrasts how sentient animals really are to the indefensible way humans have treated and continue to treat them, especially farmed animals. He emphasizes that the boundaries separating human and non-human animals are disintegrating. Time magazine, through him, has taken a bold public step in saying that "we could surely eat less meat." I hope this generates considerable angst among its readers and advertisers alike.
Kluger repeats the common prejudice that herd animals exhibit little intelligence. Intelligence aligns poorly with sentience, so even if deer and horses and giraffes were less smart than other creatures, it wouldn't follow that they can suffer less or feel pain less acutely. Further into Kluger's article, the Harvard University ethologist Marc Hauser is quoted as saying that "animals have a myopic intelligence; they never experience the aha moment that a 2-year-old child gets." While one can sympathize with Hauser for the turmoil currently surrounding his research methods, I can't sympathize with a statement like that. Tellingly, a study on herd animals puts the lie to both Kluger's claim of their lack of intelligence and Hauser's claim of human uniqueness. A 2004 Cambridge University experiment showed that young heifers exhibit behavioral expressions of excitement when they solve a problem. At critical points in their learning curve in a task that required pressing their nose against a panel to open a gate for access to food, the heifers showed behavioral signs of excitement (jumping, bucking, or kicking), and the animals' heart rates rose. A second group of heifers whose access to food was provided independently of their panel presses showed no such behaviors. This study suggests that cows-and probably many other animals-can have "eureka" moments, taking pleasure in their own learning achievements.