Photo: Simon Eeman/Shutterstock

Amazing Animal Intelligence

by Nancy Harder Sep 9, 2010
What constitutes the value of life?

I don’t know how to answer that question.

I know human life is considered more precious than other animal, vegetable, or mineral life. But, how much of that assumption is just based in my culture and ego?  I can give vague explanations for why I think that’s so in tag words like “nuanced communication”, “love”, “spirit”, “art”, “happiness”.

But what is to say animals don’t embody those things in their own way? And where do we place animal intelligence and life on the cosmic value scale when one could argue animals are more in tune to the natural cycles and gifts of the earth?

Scientists are at odds for where the line between human worth vs. animal worth exists. Humans don’t have the biggest brains or biggest brain vs. body ratio in the animal kingdom. And if animals feel the same ratio of pain-how does that shape our choices?

As Jeffrey Kluger writes in his Time Magazine article “Inside the Minds of Animals”:

“…One by one, the berms we’ve built between ourselves and the beasts are being washed away. Humans are the only animals that use tools, we used to say. But what about the birds and apes that we now know do as well? Humans are the only ones who are empathic and generous, then. But what about the monkeys that practice charity and the elephants that mourn their dead? Humans are the only ones who experience joy and a knowledge of the future. But what about the U.K. study just last month showing that pigs raised in comfortable environments exhibit optimism, moving expectantly toward a new sound instead of retreating warily from it? And as for humans as the only beasts with language? Kanzi himself could tell you that’s not true.”

Kanzi, a 29 year old bonobo who knows 384 words, met and communicated with Kluger at the Great Ape Trust, a research center in Iowa.

When Kanzi asks for a ball, the author fetched it for him asking, “Are you ready to play?”

Kanzi responds, pointing to symbols on a sheet, “Past ready.”

Kanzi, a 29 year old bonobo…responds, pointing to symbols on a sheet, “Past ready.”

Recent animal intelligence findings are staggering; no longer do scientists only attribute skills like tool-building and communication–many species have been found to have consciousness, advanced social systems, a wide range of emotions as we know them, and an attention to future planning.

This study of animal cognition is highly important so improvements can be made to the inexcusable ways we treat animals in the world. I believe it’s justified and in balance with the natural world to use animals for survival, but in the 21st century, how often do we truly need animals for survival?

As we become more enlightened about the world through the advancement of science, it’s important to reconsider how we view animals and adjust our treatment of them, accordingly. Just as it’s stupid to contend nowadays that the world is flat, I’m certain generations will look back on the present-day treatment of animals with the same thought, “How could we have been so ignorant?”

What can you do:

The European Union’s animal-welfare policies declare animals as sentient beings. As such, they must be treated humanely, which includes considerate treatment and stunning before killing in slaughterhouses.

The U.S. enforce no such policies. Thankfully, public paradigms are beginning to shift, albeit gradually. A small percentage of the population is demanding humanely-raised, sustainably grown animals for meat, condemning animal-tested cosmetics and an even smaller percentage is practicing vegetarianism and veganism.

There’s still a long way to go, but there are so many ways to help.

1.) Vote with your money. Choose humane food, cosmetics and other products. Consider going meatless on Mondays to significantly lessen your meat footprint.

2.) Volunteer & donate. Volunteer for animal rights organizations in Greece, wolf sanctuaries in Oregon, elephant sanctuaries in Thailand. Consider fostering.

3.) Find out more. Read why we shouldn’t feed wild dolphins, reexamine marine mammal amusement, and be aware of the thriving black market ivory trading.

4.) Learn to reconnect with animals. Take 12 steps to healing our relationship with wild animals.

Below our just some of the examples of extraordinary animal intelligence.


Pigs have great memories, excel at certain video games better than young children and some primates, dream, recognize their names, and have complex social structures previously only attributed to primates. Their memory is so strong that in tests, they remembered meanings of simple words and phrasings years after being taught. 

Grey parrots 

Grey parrots have been found to master concepts like “same”, “different”, “absence”, “quantity” and “size” and name and use more than forty objects. Alex, a notable grey parrot studied for over 20 years has, according to owner/scientist Dr. Irene Pepperburg, “mastered tasks once thought to be beyond the capacity of all but humans or certain non-human primates.” 


I’m a sucker for the cloying youtube video of an elephant and dog becoming best friends. Elephants also mourn their dead. They linger over a dead body, showing sorrow, even delicately examining them, paying special attention to skull and tusks to identify a herd mate.

Sea lions 

Sea lions are the first nonhuman to display basic logical thinking. Rio, a seven-year-old sea lion in California displayed an understanding of the concept that if a=b and b=c, then a=c by matching silhouettes of 90 varying objects.


Chimps are well known to be advanced cognitively. It’s now being found that they plan for the future by premeditating their actions and display altruism towards other non-related chimps and humans.


I talk to my dog, Zoey, like she can understand everything I’m saying. Since 2001, there have been some developments that suggest dogs can actually learn up to 300 words. Two dogs, both border collies, have been found to have the ability to understand and pick up words as quickly as a 2 year old. There are certainly more of these linguistically-gifted canines out there too.

Crows and rooks 

Crows and rooks, a member of the crow family, have been found to make and use a variety of tools. They have shown in tests that they can identify what kind of tool is needed for the job, (e.g. a hook), look for the tool and when they can’t find it fashion a tool (e.g. making a hook out of a wire the crow had never seen before.)Rooks also have shown they can reason through how to drop stones into a pitcher filled with water in order to raise water levels to the point where they could drink from it. Not only that, but they select the larger stones first to raise the water level faster.


African Baboons have complex social systems–they compete for rank, deal with stress, and harass each other. Stanford University scientist Robert Sapolsky says in PBS’s show “Inside the Animal Mind”, “Baboons and us are surprisingly similar…they can devote a large part of each day to making each other absolutely miserable with social stress.”


Ants are crafty. This picture gives me “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” flashbacks. Ants stage coups and take over lesser colonies to use their captives as slaves.


Screw amusement parks. Dolphins are extremely intelligent and display something very hard to quantify: consciousness. They recognize themselves in mirrors and are very aware of social status and identify within their social groups. They know who their mother is, who the leaders are, and even act differently around different members of their group. 

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