Read an Excerpt
The Parrot's LamentAnd Other True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity
By Eugene Linden
Plume BooksCopyright © 2000 Eugene Linden
All right reserved.
Max and Patty are two of the elephants at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. To enliven their daily routine, Chris Wilgenkamp and the other keepers have introduced a number of games. One is a form of pachyderm "hide-and-seek" in which the humans will secretly cache a favorite object like a tambourine or a tire, and then will let the elephants try to find it using their sense of smell. When the huge mammals are getting "warmer," Chris will blow a whistle; when they are getting "colder," Chris does nothing. According to Chris, the elephants love the game, especially the cues. "They get all excited when they are getting close," he says, "and when they find what we've hidden, they flap their ears." Apart from keeping the elephants active, such games can provide a fun way to deliver medicines and vitamins that have been mixed in and hidden with the treats.
All in all, this little vignette of life in the zoo provides a nice example of how humans can enrich the lives of captive animals while dealing with health and nutritional issues at the same time. But to leave the story at this point would miss something else that is going on in the elephant enclosure. It turnsout that the keepers are not the only ones inventing ways to make zoo life more interesting. Even as the humans introduce fun activities, the elephants are developing their own games as well.
At the end of each outdoor session, the keepers will put rewards inside the gates of the night cages to entice the elephants to come back in. Once they are inside, the keepers shut the gates and secure the exhibit for the night. Max and Patty seem to have figured out that the keepers will only shut the gates when both elephants are inside. So when the keepers lay out the enticing bedtime treats, one will go in while the other lurks just outside the gates. Then the first elephant will come back out while the other goes in to get his or her share.
The motivation seems pretty simple--the game provides a chance to prolong their time outside and maybe thumb their trunks at the keepers. But think about it: the game also requires that one elephant trust the other not to eat all the treats. What is going on here? Are the animals communicating and planning, or did they arrive at this apparent strategy by blind trial and error? Jot down your own interpretation of this little game; we will come back to it later.
We encounter animals continually and ubiquitously in our everyday lives. These encounters, however, are usually so routine (at least for us), whether they involve petting the dog or cat in the morning or going to the zoo, that for most of us, animals are little more than simple components of the landscape--"Did you see that beautiful bird at the feeder?" "My cat Molecule killed another mouse today." We might pause and chuckle for a moment when we hear about a pet that does something "smart" like learning to flush a toilet, or when we watch a television special about an elephant that likes to paint, but most people spend very little time wondering about what, if anything, is going on in an animal's head when it interacts with people. It's easy to forget that every other creature on the planet is, like us, engaged in its own active struggle to survive, and that for an enormous number of animals, a large part of life involves figuring out how to deal with the dominant species on the planet--humankind.
There are people, however, who are, by necessity, very aware that animals are not just a passive part of the landscape. These are the veterinarians, researchers, and zookeepers who deal with animals on a daily basis; people like Chris Wilgenkamp. Some are scientists, some dedicated amateurs. Most are not studying animal intelligence, but they encounter it, and the lack of it, every day. Get a bunch of these people together and inevitably they will start telling stories about how their charges either tried or succeeded in outsmarting, beguiling, or otherwise astonishing the humans in their lives.
Such tales are the material for this book. These stories are about attempts by animals to deceive or manipulate their keepers or each other, stories about games, stories of understanding and trust across the vast gulf that separates different species, stories of animal heroism, and, especially if the keepers have had a few drinks, stories about escape.
Such was the situation at the 1998 annual meeting of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association ha Tulsa, Oklahoma. Sitting around the table in the cocktail lounge of the convention center Doubletree Inn were keepers from Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida, from ZooAtlanta, from the Columbus Zoo, and other keepers from a number of other zoos who stopped by to say hello. Almost everybody at the table was smoking cigarettes. In demeanor the keepers reminded me of cops: they have high-stress, demanding, and sometimes dangerous jobs; they are more comfortable with each other than with outsiders. But as the evening wore on, they began to relax and decided that it was OK to tell me some of their stories. When the conversation turned to animal escape attempts, Charlene Jendry, a veteran gorilla keeper from Columbus, said, "Tell him about the wire." Another keeper smiled, nodded, and said, "Oh yeah, Fu Manchu."
Fu Manchu was a male orangutan who had lived at a number of zoos. His most memorable escapes took place at the Omaha Zoo in Nebraska over thirty years ago. Not once but twice keepers arrived at the outdoor exhibit to discover Fu Manchu as well as a female orangutan and their three offspring up in trees outside the exhibit area. Both times the keepers opened the doors of the display area, cajoled the family back inside, and diligently double-checked all the locks. A few days later, however, the keepers again arrived to find Fu Manchu and family enjoying the morning sun on the roof of the exhibit.
Only after the keepers set up a watch did they solve the mystery. On nice warm autumn days when the orangutans were allowed into the outdoor area, Fu Manchu would head for the moat. In the wall of the moat was a door that led into the furnace room. On the other side of the room were stairs and another door that led to freedom. Drawing on his great strength (keepers have watched orangutans playfully twist steel-belted radial tires into pretzels), Fu Manchu pulled the door back from its frame. Taking a piece of wire from his cheek, he then tripped the latch, much the way a thief might slip a credit card between a door and its frame.
Once the keepers took the wire away from him, Fu Manchu's escapes ended. But plenty of his successors have carried on this distinguished orangutan tradition. Within the zoo community, orangutans are legendary for their escape attempts. Papillon and other virtuoso breakout artists have nothing on orangutans in terms of the patience, improvisation, and sheer bravado they bring to bear in their escape attempts. Not only are orangutans by far the most imaginative escape artists, but their facility with human tools continually amazes those humans who deal with them. Keepers are fond of quoting a remark made by Ben Beck, a zoologist who was one of the designers of Think Tank, an ambitious program to explore the cognitive abilities of orangutans at Washington's National Zoo. He once noted that if you give a screwdriver to a chimpanzee, it will try to use the tool for everything except its intended purpose. Give one to a gorilla, and it will first rear back in horror--"Oh my God, it's going to hurt me"--then try to eat it, and ultimately forget about it. Give it to an orangutan, however, and the ape will first hide it and then, once you have gone, use it to dismantle the cage.
Make no mistake, other apes and indeed any number of zoo animals will try and succeed in escape attempts (some of which I will describe later), but orangutans have no peers when it comes to the frequency and ingenuity of their attempts. Zoo designers take every type of precautionary measures when it comes to trying to anticipate when and how an orangutan might breach a barrier. They hire rock climbers to determine whether there are hidden handholds they might not have anticipated. They put "hot wires" with a mild electrical current at the top of a wall. No matter, in one Texas zoo, an orang grabbed clumps of grass to make an insulating mitt, then climbed over the hot wire without harm.
Of course, humans could easily design cages from which no escape is remotely possible, but that is not the point of a zoo, particularly since the current trend is to try to create as natural a display as possible without jeopardizing the welfare of the animals or those who come to see them. So zookeepers and orangutans are trapped in the pongid equivalent of an endless arms race in which designers try to come up with exhibits that seem natural and will still keep the animals inside, while the orangutans probe every weak point or hidden flaw the builders might not have noticed.
There is one major difference between those daring human prisoners who have escaped from captivity and their orangutan equivalents: motivation. Both ape and human may feel that they have been unjustly imprisoned, but many keepers believe that a number of complex motivations drive orangs to continually test their keepers, ranging from a simple desire to outsmart and turn the tables on the humans who control their lives to curiosity about the strange world outside the walls and moats that contain them. (Rather than head for the hills, in most cases, ape escapees hang around. Orangs and gorillas might explore the grounds, or, as in the case of one orangutan at the National Zoo in Washington, take a piece of fried chicken from a traumatized tourist and eat it.)
Once outside, except for those animals raised among humans, most escapees are terrified. For better or worse, the zoo offers three squares a day, companionship, and security. Most escaped animals have not learned the survival skills to get by in the wild by themselves. Even if they could get by, more often than not escaped animals would find themselves in places with completely different climates and surroundings from those of their native habitat. At some level, most captive animals recognize that the zoo is where they must live.
This has been brought home on many occasions. When high winds destroyed the netting that made up the outer layer of the New York Zoological Society's huge aviary in the 1960s, zookeepers moved those birds who remained and left the netting open. According to William Conway, president of the society, almost 75 percent of the escaped birds returned within two days. When another storm collapsed an aviary in 1995, the escaped birds hung around but could not get back in because the structure had collapsed in on itself.
And then there was the case of the orangutan found eating fried chicken, an example that beautifully underscores the complex motivations that underlie escape attempts. Rob Shumaker, who with Ben Beck helped design Think Tank at Washington's National Zoo, which he now coordinates, recalls that a new keeper had mistakenly left some big green barrels in the outdoor enclosure with the animals. Rob had no idea that anything was amiss until word got back to him that Bonnie, one of the female orangs, had been spotted eating fried chicken and drinking orange juice not far from a concession stand. As Rob reconstructed the event, she had simply stacked the barrels and exited, followed by other orangutans ready for adventure. The chicken and juice came from a cooler she had taken from a terrified tourist.
Later, after the animals had been led safely back into the enclosure, a tourist came up to Rob and asked, "Did you get 'em all back in?" Rob, a little perturbed and very perplexed that the orangutans had been out for some time before anyone contacted him, was in no mood for casual conversation. "You saw them outside?" he asked testily.
"Yes," the man answered, a little taken aback by Rob's tone.
"Didn't it occur to you to tell someone?" Rob continued.
"No," replied the visitor. "We didn't think it was anything unusual since they'd been going in and out all morning."
Clearly, for these orangutans, this escape was not about getting back to Indonesia. For every story of escape, there are many stories of animals that would rather remain in their cages, however bleak. Some years ago in the Congo I came upon what for me was the most poignant story illustrating the conflicted feelings that accompany captivity. This was at the Pointe-Noire Zoo, a dilapidated relic of the colonial era with ancient cages. Among the few animals remaining was a small colony of chimpanzees. One of these, an old female appropriately named La Vieille, lived in a small concrete cage with a barred gate as its front. It was hard to imagine how the poor animal could live in the cage for more than a month, much less the years that she had spent there.
Much harder to fathom, however, was why she stayed inside. The latch on the gate had broken many years earlier, and the gate swung freely on its rusty hinges. The old female could have left the cage at any time, yet she didn't, apparently preferring the impoverished security of her home to the terrors of the outside world.
Escape is but one of the many reactions that animals have to captivity that can reveal some degree of cleverness. At the opposite end of the range are stories that illuminate the extraordinary degree of trust that, despite all the inconvenience of captivity, the animals feel for their human masters. There are of course some dunderheaded and mean-spirited keepers in the zoo community, as in any profession, but the great majority choose the vocation because they love animals. All the zookeepers I spoke with talked about their charges in some respect the way parents talk about their children--with amusement at their pranks and foibles, and genuine pride in their feats. Eventually conversation among animal keepers turns from tales of mischief to stories of insight, trust, and understanding.
Charlene Jendry, for instance, tells of one extraordinary moment with a gorilla named Brigette at the Columbus Zoo. In 1986 Brigitte gave birth to Fossey, the first baby gorilla reared by its mother at the zoo (named for Dian Fossey, the larger-than-life figure who was murdered in Karisoke, Rwanda, the field station she established to study mountain gorillas). One day, Charlene walked past the cage and noticed that Fossey was nursing sloppily. Without thinking, she said to Brigette, "That kid's got milk all over his face. Bring him over here and I'll wipe it off." Without hesitation, Brigette brought the baby over and pushed his face up to the bars so that Charlene could wipe it clean.
Did she know what Charlene was saying? An innocent enough question--but as noted in the preface, the issue of how much of human language animals can understand has been a subject of intense debate in the behavioral sciences during the more than three decades since R. Alien and Beatrix Gardner first taught a chimp named Washoe to make some of the signs used by the deaf in American Sign Language and another scientist named David Premack taught a chimp named Sarah to communicate using plastic tokens. What then can we make of Brigette?
Brigette never had any formal training in understanding English. Did she bring the baby over and put his face up to the bars to be wiped on some impulse of her own, unrelated to Charlene's request, or did she vaguely understand some fragment of what Charlene said, like "Bring it over here," a phrase that is often used when the gorillas get their hands on some forbidden object? Or did she understand that Charlene was saying that the baby had a messy face and that if Brigette brought him up to the bars of the cage, Charlene would clean it?
If this was the only example of a gorilla responding appropriately to a casual comment, it might be dismissed. But Charlene has many more examples that suggest the gorillas pay close attention to their human masters. She remembers that one day Molly, a twelve-year-old female, was very sick. Charlene and another keeper named Adele Absi decided to try to take the gorilla's temperature by using a paper-strip thermometer they had purchased at a drugstore. Charlene, who had never used these strips before, experimented by putting the strip on her forehead. Molly was watching, her foot right next to the wire mesh, while Charlene and Adele discussed how they were going to take her temperature. The two keepers decided to put the strip on Molly's foot in order to get a reading, but they weren't sure whether this would work. It didn't matter. With no prompting, Molly took the strip from her foot and placed it on her forehead. Once a reading appeared, Charlene and Adele asked Molly to bring the strip over, and Molly took the paper from her forehead and brought it to the keepers. It is possible that Molly was mimicking something she had seen Charlene do, but her other actions suggest that she understood in some way that the strip might help her keepers help her.
Well, maybe Charlene Jendry is unreliable, romantic, or prone to overinterpretation. If so, there is an epidemic of mass hysteria among keepers around the country, because I have been flooded with stories of apes' eavesdropping on human conversation or responding appropriately to complex statements. As I probe further, it turns out that most keepers make a practice of choosing their words carefully around gorillas, chimps, and orangutans because the animals are always listening. At the Woodland Park Zoo, for instance, keepers use code words when discussing one particular female orangutan because she becomes paranoid when she hears her name mentioned. When Kyle Burks was at the Atlanta zoo, he would say to Ivan, an adult male gorilla, "Go around the corner and we'll meet you," just like he might say it to a friend.
Ivan was initially raised by humans, which means he spent his formative years in a language-rich environment. Most keepers will agree that the more time an animal spends with humans, the better it seems to understand spoken language. At ZooAtlanta, the keepers have noticed a difference between the English competence of orangutans like Allen and Hanti, who occasionally respond to spoken English phrases appropriately, probably cued by the context and tone of voice, and Chantek, an orangutan who for fifteen years was part of a long-term language experiment undertaken by Lyn Miles at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. "If we tell Allen or Hanti to 'go get the paper,' they may eventually show up with it," says Laura Mayo, a keeper at the zoo, "but if we give the same instruction to Chantek, he will search his cage, find the paper, and bring it to us."
Before coming to ZooAtlanta, Chantek spent several years at the Yerkes Regional Primate Center, where his keepers, hoping to reintegrate him with other orangutans, refused to communicate with him in American Sign Language, the language that had served as his primary means of communication with humans for the prior fourteen years. Although Chantek forgot a number of signs during the several years at Yerkes, he still uses many signs appropriately to this day. Indeed, his new keepers, like Laura Mayo, say that they are learning sign language from the orangutan. They will point to a tomato, for instance, and ask Chantek the word for tomato, and he will make the appropriate sign.
Chantek has even invented signs to tell the keepers what he wants. When he feels that it is time for a meal, he will look at a keeper and tap his wrist as though tapping a watch in the universal gesture of telling someone that it is getting late. He likes his food scattered on the floor of his cage when it is delivered, and when a keeper approaches with a bucket of food, he makes a scattering gesture.
What one man can do, another man can do, goes the saying, and it is no less true of apes and other animals. Within any species there will be brighter individuals and dim bulbs, but if one animal demonstrates understanding of a sentence or complex proposition, you can bet that others within the species are capable of that same understanding.
Thus, while scientists debate whether apes can understand and use language, many keepers assume that apes understand what they are saying and actually count on that understanding to make their jobs easier. At the Bronx Zoo, Chris Wilgenkamp says that two of the elephants, Happy and Grumpy, have learned some English words like tambourine (a favorite plaything) and tree (another toy), and that when he wants the elephants to get something in one of the games they play, he will simply say, "Go find it."
Let's now reconsider that opening anecdote about the game two Bronx Zoo elephants invented to prolong their time outside. It turns out that there are many other examples of animals coordinating their response to humans in ways that suggest some form of sophisticated animal-to-animal communication. I witnessed one such example when I visited Lou Herman at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Hawaii. In this particular case, he was probing the dolphin's ability to cooperate in response to a human command. The dolphin subjects of this experiment were Akeakemai and Phoenix, two bottlenose dolphins who lived in a tank at the laboratory. Somewhat compensating for the relative confinement of the tank was the near constant attention they received from graduate students and volunteers, who engaged them in a variety of stimulating activities.
In this case, two instructors stood on a platform on the edge of the tank. Holding a finger high in the air, the instructors caught the dolphins' attention and issued a command in a series of gestures. First, the instructors tapped two fingers of each hand together, forming the gesture that has been taught to mean "tandem." Then, they threw their arms up in an expansive gesture that meant "creative." Akeakemai and Phoenix had just been told, "Do something creative together."
The dolphins broke away from the instructors and submerged in the six-foot-deep water. There they circled until they began to swim in tandem. Once in sync, the dolphins leapt into the air and simultaneously spit out jets of water before plunging back into the water.
Even in this controlled setting, critics could find fault. Perhaps one dolphin is just very closely following the lead of the other. But if so, how would it know to take in water before jumping? Nor do the dolphins perform the same routine every time trainers ask for a "tandem creative." On other occasions they might backpedal and end the routine with a wave of their tail flukes or do synchronized back flips. The instructors never know what they are going to do.
Scientists justifiably revere Occam's razor, which holds that until proven otherwise, scientists should hew to the simplest adequate explanation for an event. In 1894 a pioneering psychologist, Lloyd Morgan, came up with an analogous formulation for understanding mental abilities that came to be called Morgan's canon. It holds that "in no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher psychological faculty if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the one which stands lower in psychological scale."
In the case of the tandem creative, some complicated bit of imitation is certainly possible, but it may not be the most economical explanation. (Looking at this question of scientific parsimony another way, if consciousness is understood to be the product of evolutionary forces, then the most reasonable position to take is that it or its precursors exist in many other creatures.) The simplest explanation may be that the dolphins listen to the command, communicate with each other and agree on a routine, and then do it. In any event, Herman's work makes it easier to consider the possibility that other highly social mammals like Max and Patty, the Bronx Zoo elephants, might be capable of planning and coordinating a response to a human signal. Yet in considering how these animals coordinate their responses, keep in mind that the possibility they are cuing each other in some manner does not guarantee that this is what they are doing.
Excerpted from The Parrot's Lament by Eugene Linden Copyright © 2000 by Eugene Linden. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.