The staff had used a forklift and stretcher to hoist the 420-pound infant out of the main tank for emergency medical care. In a remarkable act of trust, the baby's parents, Orky and Corky, patiently watched the proceedings from the other side of the tank. The trouble began when the keepers tried to return the baby to the tank. The forklift operator, lacking a clear line of sight, halted the stretcher a few feet above the water, just beyond the grasp of the keepers who were waiting below. As the keepers struggled to reach and release the orca, it began throwing up—which, as trainer Gail Laule recalls, made for a desperate situation.
Orky, the father, then did something he'd never been trained to do. He swam beneath his baby, let a keeper stand on his head, and, using the awesome power of his flukes, held himself steady so the keeper could reach the latch on the stretcher and let the baby slip into the water. Not only did he seem to realize that the humans were trying to help; he appeared to understand that he could help them help.
In December 2005, a female humpback whale did Orky one better—by acknowledging the help. While swimming in the Pacific near San Francisco, the whale found herself entangled in a web of crab traps and lines. A team of divers assembled by Marin County's Marine Mammal Center spent an hour working to free the 50-ton animal. Like Orky, she seemed to realize that they were there to help. And when they succeeded, she swam around them, gently nudging each diver as though saying thank you.
After nearly 40 years of writing about wild animals, I'm still astonished by their "humanity." And sometimes I just have to laugh at their humanness. Wildlife researcher Charlie Russell and his partner, Maureen Enns, were working in the Russian Far East when a mother grizzly bear apparently decided she could trust them to look after her two cubs. Despite the fact that hundreds of grizzlies are killed by hunters and poachers in the area each year, the mother, named Brandy, deputized the humans for daycare duty while she did her foraging. And like many a human parent who's confessed to sneaking away in order to avoid a scene, Brandy cleverly waited until the cubs were distracted before making a quick exit.
These anecdotes are just stories, of course; they're not scientific in the way that strictly controlled studies are. I've come to realize, though, that credible stories can tell us what animals are like in ways that strictly controlled studies cannot. I spent years writing about animal intelligence before it dawned on me that I might convey a fuller picture of the animal mind and—yes—soul by complementing studies with insights I'd collected from hundreds of scientists, zookeepers, and field observers. These days, after years of frustrating attempts to test elusive abilities such as intelligence or language, even behavioral scientists are more willing to consider observation and anecdote as guides.
The picture that emerges when you look at animals this way is a far cry from the simplistic wind-up-toy model of old—a model that presented animals as virtual automatons, sleepwalking through life. In addition to indications of intelligence, there are strong suggestions of animal capacity for emotions and states of mind that most people would identify as human. And once you begin to see these capacities in animals, it becomes impossible to believe that the natural world is an us-and-them proposition. Humans, it turns out, don't hold the patent on characteristics that "humanity" comprises: humor, generosity, love, even empathy—a trait that, in the animal kingdom, is far rarer than love because it requires the emotionally sophisticated act of understanding another's plight. (I'm thinking of a female chimp at the Dallas Zoo consoling a zookeeper who had lost her daughter. Or Sophi, an elephant at the Indianapolis Zoo, who, after watching a keeper struggle to push a cart up a hill, walked over and began pushing the cart herself.)
Understanding another's plight requires consciousness. In its simplest form, consciousness means that we recognize ourselves as separate from other creatures. It's a tremendously powerful evolutionary development—and it doesn't just lead to empathy. If you are aware of yourself as distinct from others, you can understand that others might know something that you don't. You can also understand that you might know things others don't—which is the basis of trickery and subterfuge, not to mention a good prank.
In children, this awareness doesn't emerge until sometime between 3 and 4 years of age. The old view was that in animals it never emerges, but in that case, how to explain the game witnessed by Suzan Murray, chief veterinarian of the National Zoo, when, as a veterinary student, she was doing research on chimps in Tanzania's Gombe National Park?
In the late afternoon when the young chimps were playing, Murray would sometimes see an adolescent sneak up behind one of the alpha males and proceed to make rude gestures to another adolescent. The offended youth would respond with a threat, and the alpha male, thinking the threat was directed at him—a huge breach of etiquette in chimp-world—would become enraged at the poor dupe. The prank suggests that the chimp was intentionally manipulating the big male.
Like Wall Street types, some animals are savvy enough to game the system. Spock, a dolphin at another now defunct marine park in California, discovered that if he brought stray pieces of paper to his trainer, he would be rewarded with treats. But the trainer, Jim Mullen, wasn't always around when Spock found a piece of paper. Perhaps this is why Spock started hoarding, collecting pieces and wedging them against an outflow pipe, demonstrating an admirable thrift and an understanding of the basic principles of paper money and banking.
Chantek, an orangutan raised in a lab as part of a language experiment at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, stumbled upon the concept of inflation during his off hours. Part of his day involved doing simple chores, for which he was paid in poker chips. Eventually he figured that he could extend the supply of chips simply by breaking them in half. When Lyn Miles, the scientist in charge of the experiment, switched to metal washers to thwart the scheme, Chantek moved on to counterfeiting—collecting pieces of aluminum foil and rolling them into crude circles to look like washers. Countless other stories suggest that animals are quick studies when it comes to estimating the value humans put on various objects—itself a sophisticated ability—and are not above cheating when they can get away with it. (Once, when asked to share some grapes with me, Chantek gave me the stem and kept the grapes for himself.)
While conniving is complex, love is simple. Because reproduction is a fundamental drive, common sense tells us that nature would make producing offspring a positive experience. That's the perspective of biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, PhD, who notes that chemicals in the brain produce the feelings associated with love (and lust, and long-term attachment) not just in humans but in a broad range of species. Obsessed with the object of your affection? That's probably because an elevated level of dopamine has driven down your serotonin levels, which in turn permits obsessive thinking. Similar chemistry is at work in elephants, lions, beavers, and a host of other creatures. To be sure, humans are the most eloquent animals when it comes to reflecting on feelings of love, but the neurobiology of the feelings themselves is widely shared.
Intelligence may be widely shared as well—and of all the things I've learned about animals over the years, this has been perhaps the biggest surprise. I'm not alone in that broadening of perspective. "I was something of a snob about where to look for animal intelligence," admits Karen Pryor, a behavioral biologist, "but over the years I've seen animals do things they're not 'supposed to' be able to do." Forty years ago, Pryor caused a stir when she demonstrated that a dolphin could invent its own tricks. Now she's gotten dogs to do the same.
The late zoologist Donald Griffin, a pioneer in the study of animal intelligence, would not be surprised. He always believed that some degree of awareness was present in many animals. For the sake of argument, let's say Griffin was right. If consciousness is broadly spread throughout the animal kingdom—if animals share to some degree the abilities and feelings that combine to make us human—what does that mean?
It shouldn't make a difference in how we treat animals—no creature need pass an awareness test to justify its existence—but, of course, it does. Once you've heard enough stories about the intelligence and valor of pigs (like Priscilla, who towed a struggling boy safely to shore in a Texas lake; or Harley de Swine, a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig who literally ran to work, such was his enthusiasm for helping head-injury patients at a medical facility in California), it's hard to keep eating pork. I should know: I gave it up, even though it was my favorite meat. The short, miserable life on a typical hog farm is bad enough, but the possibility that pigs might be aware of their situation is intolerable.
We tend to treat animals as commodities (useful for food, clothing, labor, research and experimentation, etc.) or as personalities (remember Free Willy?). Yet the evidence of animal awareness suggests a third choice: that animals are fellow participants in an unfolding evolutionary drama. We humans want to believe that we are special. The idea that we're intrinsically different from other animals gives us, among other things, the moral justification for treating those animals as so much stuff. But nature has no stake in any particular species, including humans. And if natural selection can produce identical shapes in animals with utterly different ancestries (witness the pangolin and anteater), perhaps it has also produced similar emotional states and mental tools in humans and, say, crows.
This perspective allows us to appreciate that other creatures besides ourselves might have a sense of humor, pride, even honor. And, we can hope, appreciation might lead to recognition of our deep bonds. We can see ourselves as the lone species capable of thought in a landscape otherwise populated with wind-up toys. Or we can embrace the idea of a world filled with many sentient beings, some of whom can scheme and joke, and some who would cooperate with humans to save their babies. Acknowledging consciousness in other species might be inconvenient for us comfort-seeking omnivores (it requires treating animals with respect—particularly the ones we eat), but I know which world I would rather inhabit.
Animals are especially captivating on camera. Watch video clips that stirred our souls and split our sides
From the June 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.