'Animal Wise' Explores the Inner Lives of Animals

There's more to animal behavior than just strategy, though: Morell examines one of the most remarkable long-term experiments in animal cognition, conducted on a parrot named Alex. Researcher Irene Pepperberg showed that Alex could do much more than just name objects — he could count, categorize things by color and shape and even tell if two things were the same or different in some way, a concept that animals supposedly couldn’t understand. Morell sees for herself that Alex definitely has a mind of his own when he berates a younger parrot who mispronounces a word, ordering the other bird to "Talk clearly!"

Understanding the Animals

Remarkable creatures like Alex may make you wonder why scientists were once so dismissive of animal abilities, but Morell explores what a challenge it can be to understand these alien minds. For example, researchers assumed that elephants couldn’t use tools because they won't use a stick to knock down fruit that is out of reach. It turned out that the real problem was that scientists didn't understand what it's like to have a trunk: You can’t hold something with your nose and find food by smell at the same time. Give the elephant a stool instead, and now he has the right tool to extend his reach. In another chapter, Morell reveals that rats laugh — but their giggles are out of our range of hearing, so we'd never have known about them if a researcher hadn't been listening in with special equipment.

What about the animals closest to us? It's probably no surprise that few scientists have figured out how to get cats to cooperate in experiments, while dogs are uniquely suited to working with humans. In the book's final chapter, Morell explains that dogs were once considered uninteresting to study because domestication had supposedly made them less intelligent than their wild relatives. But a recent explosion of research has shown that dogs are far from inferior versions of wolves — they have special abilities that enable them to communicate with people. You know that look your dog gives you when a toy is stuck under the couch? When you’re sure he’s asking for help? You’ll be glad to learn that science has proven that you’re right.

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