Animal Intelligence: Are You Smarter Than Your Pet?

CatAnyone who has ever owned a pet knows that the bond they share with that animal isn’t simply a projection of human qualities onto their pet, but part of the animal itself. Just like we brag about our children, we brag about our animals as well. My current cat will snuggle in front of the fireplace by burrowing under the area rug in front of the hearth, with just her nose peeking out. Considering she has no opposable thumbs with which to pick up a throw blanket and wrap it around herself, this solution seems like pretty smart problem-solving to me.

You can imagine my happiness, therefore, at picking up the March 2008 issue of the National Geographic magazine and reading Virginia Morell’s wonderful article “Minds of Their Own.” In this article, she profiles some of the latest research looking at the behaviors of many different species of animals. The expected brainiacs of the animal world are in profiled – dolphins, dogs, chimpanzees – but evidence of more complex cognition can also be found in animals such as sheep, not normally associated with being terribly bright. Not only is this information on the intelligence of animals really fascinating, but I found it enormously moving as well.

In one section, Morell describes the work Irene Pepperberg did for more than thirty years with Alex, an African gray parrot. Pepperberg theorized that if she could teach him to “learn” English by imitating its sounds, humans could gain a better understanding of avian cognition. As a result, Alex was able to demonstrate an understanding of the concepts of same and different, higher cognitive skills generally only ascribed to higher mammals. He also was able to assert his personality:

For the next 20 minutes, Alex ran through his tests, distinguishing colors, shapes, sizes and materials (wool versus wood versus metal). . . And, then, as if to offer final proof of the mind inside his bird’s brain, Alex spoke up. “Talk clearly,” he commanded, when one of the younger birds Pepperberg was also teaching mispronounced the word green. “Talk clearly.”

“Don’t be a smart aleck,” Pepperberg said, shaking her head at him. “He knows all this, and he gets bored, so he interrupts the others, or he gives the wrong answer just to be obstinate. At this stage, he’s just like a teenage son; he’s moody, and I’m never sure what he’ll do.”

“Wanna go tree,” Alex said in a tiny voice.

Alex had lived his entire life in captivity, but he knew that beyond the lab’s door, there was a hallway and a tall window framing a leafy elm tree. He liked to see the tree, so Pepperberg put her hand out for him to climb aboard. She walked him down the hallway into the tree’s green light.

“Good boy! Good birdie,” Alex said, bobbing on her hand.

“Yes, you’re a good boy. You’re a good birdie.” And she kissed his feathered head.

That passage made my eyes leak a little, I must confess. I am absolutely thrilled that the National Geographic website has posted this article online. But as wonderful as the story is, the photo portraits by Vincent J. Musi are equally amazing. Be sure to check out the photo gallery and accompanying video.

What’s your best pet brag?

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6 Responses to “Animal Intelligence: Are You Smarter Than Your Pet?”

  1. The Quick Pet Stop » Animal Intelligence: Are You Smarter Than Your Pet? Says:

    […] Read the whole thing here. Apr 21, 2008 | | Uncategorized […]

  2. Betty Olson Says:

    My personal fascination with the obvious intelligence of my pets has led me to, at times, treat them as equals. (Sad, but true.) My 10 year-old black lab understands more verbal communication than I care to admit. Told to “go find” whatever I’ve lost (this time), she immediately sets off to search…and generally comes back with the sock, keys, remote control, etc. She responds with extraordinary consistency to verbal commands, with the exception of “come” when she flat doesn’t care to hear that one. Our two aging orange tabby cats are also far too intelligent for our good. They come running to “tell” us urgent news……”the dog is waiting at the door and it’s raining so come let her in”, “the UPS man just laid a package at the front door”, “I just dropped your earrings in the toilet ….they look so cute there…”etc. They can also manipulate all electronic equipment and gadgets in the house that do not require actual opposable thumbs. I thank God daily that the microwave is vertically oriented. In the company of my animal family, I never lack for intelligent companions.

  3. toddiedowns Says:

    Thanks for posting your smart pet tricks. I had your animals in mind as I wrote the post:). You forgot to talk about how your cats can work as a team to open a closed, latched door.

  4. Andrew Magliozzi Says:

    Check out this website ( It is a lecture-by-lecture student blog about Animal Cognition taught by Irene Pepperberg. It is fascinating and very well composed.

  5. toddiedowns Says:

    Thanks for the recommendation. I can’t wait to check it out.

  6. Fari Says:

    I play tag often with my cat. The game has a pattern and its parameters, and is invariably great fun. She was also locked in my clothes cupboard once for seven hours and didnt pee but shredded a plastic bag in distress and ran out to let go as soon as she was discovered.
    She is a sentient, conscious being.

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