For centuries, animals were considered nothing more than robots, machines that made noises but nothing more. They were considered to have no intelligence and certainly couldn’t learn other than by constant repetition. They certainly couldn’t use tools or show emotions like love.
However, the more we engage with animals where they are—not where we think they should be—the more we learn that we have underestimated them.
When given a stick to find food, a chimpanzee can fashion it into a tool to dig termites out of rotted tree trunks. When given a stick to reach food, an elephant ignores it. Are elephants “dumber” than chimpanzees? No, elephants don’t use sticks the way chimps do. If an elephant wants to reach food, especially food suspended above her head, she will extend her trunk. If the food is too high, and there is a suitable object that the elephant can step on to reach the food, the elephant will move that object and step up to grab the food. Once we begin to recognize the species’ differences, and develop “tests” to test their abilities on their terms, the more we learn about their intelligence.
Can animals love? Can they show compassion and empathy for their own kind or for other species? Can they learn by adapting what they already know to new situations? The answer to these and other questions about animal intelligence is more often today “yes.” When you think about it, a species with a brain should be able to think.