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Talking to the animals

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The cover of a Time magazine posed the question "Can Animals Think?" The accompanying photo showed a chimpanzee sitting on a rock, in thoughtful pose, perhaps pondering the whys and wherefores of a species (human scientists) who can’t accept what is there in front of their noses because they haven’t been able to prove it.

The chimpanzee can rest assured however: It seems that finally the scientific community are for the most part admitting what any self-respecting animal lover sees as obvious - at least some animals are capable of working out consequences of actions and of showing emotions.

Of course every pet owner thinks their own little darlings are the most amazingly intelligent animals ever born - apart from those few who own to living with pets who seem to have brains the size of a pea.

You will all know people who claim their pet "understands every word I say". Whether such an animal does in fact interpret the actual words, or merely reads its owner’s body language, it is evident that, for a lot of pets the level of understanding with their owners can reach quite high levels.That’s not quite the same as saying that a dog, for instance, is capable of intellectual thought. But even those diehard scientists who used to insist that animal behaviour was no more than an automatic response to training, there being no proof that it was anything more, are now acknowledging that animals are capable of emotion and reasoning.

Take Bolte, for instance. This rather lazy Irish wolfhound knows that gumboots mean, at the most, a one kilometre walk to the mailbox. So when her owner puts on his gumboots, she will deign to accompany him, if somewhat lethargically. But let him get out his running shoes, and, like a flash, she’s gone into hiding - no 110 km run for me today thank you very much.

Tramping boots are another thing - they mean a bush walk with lots of great smells, so she’ll get really excited when those go on. But if at the end of the walk her owner turns for home instead of continuing on down to the beach, there’s no one who could deny the aggrieved look on the big dog’s face. As far as she is concerned, the beach is the highlight of the trip - miss it out and she’ll let you know she’s hurt.

So here’s a dog that can work out what’s in the future from the shoes her owner chooses; a dog which can show emotion, that of disappointment. She also does a good line in guilt. Her usual response to her owner on his returning home is one of utter bliss. A joyful wolfhound is not something you can easily ignore - there’s an awful lot of dog to be happy.

So when there’s neither sight nor sound of her as he opens the gate, his suspicions are naturally aroused. To find her curled up in her basket studiously ignoring the fact that her favourite human in all the world has reappeared after an absence is enough of a message to the increasingly apprehensive owner to take a look around the property.

Is the garden dug up? Is it ever! And you try telling him that dog doesn’t have guilt written all over every inch of its skin. So it’s nice that the scientists have caught up with the action - it might have been cheaper if they’d just bought themselves a pet.

- Virginia Williams & Bert Westera