Recently there have been some very interesting results stemming from solid scientific research in animal behavior. In my recent book, The Animal Manifesto I noted that animals are more than we give them credit for. Birds plan future meals and show self-recognition, fish have long-term memory, turtles display grief, and octopus in the wild show fascinating behavior patterns that are not seen in captivity. Here's a brief review of 3 recent discoveries.
We all know that dogs produce a wonderful array of vocalizations. And now we know that dogs mean it when they "This bone is mine." Researchers from the Department of Ethology at Eotvos University in Budapest, Hungary, showed that when a dog has a bone and growls other dogs avoid him - the growl means "hands off my bone." They also discovered that a growl in play, for example, had a different acoustic structure and did not deter a dog from approaching the growler. The results show that aggressive vocalizations in dogs are context-specific and have a specific meaning when used to keep a bone from others.
Another recent and important contribution to the literature on pain in animals concerns pain in fish. While it's been known that fish do in fact feel pain, a recent book by a renowned biologist, Victoria Braithwaite adds substantially to tihs literature. Fish aren't merely dim-witted "streams of protein" but rather, they are much smarter than previously thought, they have accurate and long-lasting memories, and their response to stress is strikingly similar to ours. Based on what we now know about fish, Dr. Braithwaite argues that we should give them the same protection that we give to birds and mammals. It's important to stress that she is not anti-fishing but rather she is concerned that we cause too much unnecessary pain to fish and they deserve to be treated better.
Gorillas have also been in the news. People always tout the intelligence of the great apes. They are smart, emotional, and moral creatures and now we know that they will deliberately lose a game to keep a playmate. This discovery shows that they are able to take into account what their playmate is thinking and likely feeling. The researchers observed that "The gorillas could encourage their playmates when they were losing interest, or self-handicap if there was s danger of winning the game." Keep this in mind when you watch dogs or cats play. While it's not been formally discovered, I've seen this sort of behavior on more than one occasion,even in wild coyotes.
As time goes on we are learning more and more about the intelligence of other animals - how smart and adaptable they are and what their emotional and moral intelligences look like. We need to keep an open mind on just how fascinating they are and how similar they are to us in many different ways. And, while there are many and significant differences, it's essential that we mind the similarities when we subject them to unnecessary pain, suffering, and death. We can all definitely do better in our interactions with other beings. It's interesting to note that recently the defeat of an animal rights law in Switzerland was blamed on a fish. Perhaps this should be revisited given Dr. Braithwaite's book.