Wild Wisdom

My city friends tell me there have been an increased number of sightings of feral creatures in the streets since the coronavirus pandemic closures and social distancing. One of them even called me to mention it. I live on a little island near Vancouver, and because she probably figured that I’d also gone feral since I retired, I suppose she wondered if I might have seen something similar over here -one animal noticing another…

That she used a term usually reserved for escaped, but once-domesticated animals, surprised me. “You mean pets?” I asked, picturing packs of lean and scruffy dogs rummaging through garbage cans all over the city.

The phone went silent for a moment -city folks take a while to process rural humour. “No, I’m pretty sure these aren’t pets…” she answered carefully, after she’d given it some thought. “More like skunks and racoons… But I did see an off-leash dog running through the neighbourhood park one evening,” she added, perhaps to be polite.

“Probably an urban coyote,” I said. “They’re getting bolder nowadays, I guess.”

“Smarter, you mean.” I couldn’t hear a question mark, so I think she’d read something definitive in a chi-chi city magazine about them.

“I suspect they’ve always been pretty clever creatures; but with fewer people around, they’re just becoming bolder, don’t you think?”

“No, some of them are now able to figure out things they couldn’t before,” she quickly added, but defensively, I thought; I must have touched a nerve. “Animal-proof garbage cans, for example. And one of my friends told me he saw a racoon actually opening a gate…”

I smiled into the phone. They really love urban myths over there on the mainland.

“They’re getting smarter, G,” she added, to clinch her point. “They’re figuring out the city!”

More likely simply adapting to the city, I thought, but I didn’t want to argue the point with her -she’d only phoned because she was stuck at home, and starved for conversation.

But it did remind me of a discussion -argument, actually- that I’d had with Jeff, a friend of my teenage son several years ago at a family dinner. He was convinced that humans were far and away more intelligent than animals. It wasn’t so much that he was pointing out something that he felt was obviously true, but that he seemed to feel there was a need to defend our superiority.

I have never appreciated arrogance in an argument, so I remember rising to the challenge. “So I take it that you feel we are more intelligent than, say, sheep, Jeff.”

He looked around the table, certain of support, and nodded.

“And how would you define intelligence?”

He thought about it for a moment and then shrugged. “I don’t know… maybe the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and, uhmm, skills…”

“Could you scrabble together a meal in a field, then?”

He rolled his eyes and smirked at me. “I wouldn’t think I’d have to try -humans don’t live in fields.”

I mounted a gentle smile and rolled my eyes across the table to interrogate his face. “Nevertheless, could you manage to fill your stomach there? Would you be able to recognize the more nutritious areas and only then start eating from them?”

He shook his head. “Humans did not evolve to eat grass.”

I was actually tempted to ask him what humans did evolve to do, but I stuck with sheep.  “And sheep did, obviously…”

“Of course.”

“And they are able to eat the grass and other nutritious plants growing in a field.” A statement, not a question for him.

He nodded his head.

“So, they manage quite well in the field?”

“They’re sheep…”

“And they are able to utilize the resources, and thrive where we could not, then?”

“Like I said, they’re sheep.”

“Don’t you wonder if we merely judge things from our own perspective: our criteria for what we think constitutes knowledge are human criteria. But sheep are applying sheep knowledge, and sheep criteria. A different creature, a different lens.”

I remember him staring at his plate and then helping himself to some more turkey.

“So,” I continued when his plate was full again, “If you or a sheep can survive efficiently in the conditions in which you find yourselves, why doesn’t that count as acquiring and using -what did you call it?- the appropriate knowledge and the necessary skills?”

I don’t think I convinced anybody that evening -teenagers are a stubborn lot- but I have wondered about intelligence in animals on and off since then.

Perhaps that was what led me to read an article by Chris Baraniuk in the BBC Future section about whether civilization effects the ability of wildlife to adapt and learn to live in cities: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200416-how-city-life-can-breed-smarter-pests

‘Do the secure locks, traps and barriers we use to keep so-called pests at bay actually prompt them to learn or evolve in order to outwit such measures?… The first thing to note, says MacDonald [Suzanne MacDonald from York University], is that Toronto’s raccoons are not dependent on cracking into the locked bins for food, so there is no selection pressure prioritising the survival of the raccoons that know how to bust open a bin. Plus, she adds that raccoons are not social learners, so the raiders of the locked bins won’t have taught others how they did it.’ And anyway, ‘Traits such as boldness, behavioural flexibility or attraction to novelty can all come into play.’

Still, despite the numerous examples cited in the article that demonstrate the cleverness (or luck) of urban animals in solving some of the city’s novel puzzles, none seem to indicate features (perhaps apart from boldness) that would not be found in their wild counterparts faced with similar needs or situations.

And yet, the ability of urban wildlife to adapt to new situations and their attempts to solve the variety of new problems they encounter does seem to fulfil Jeff’s definition of intelligence as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. And no, neither a sheep nor a racoon is likely able to acquire a deep knowledge of mathematics, say, or compose a symphony -but why would they? What use would it serve in their universe?

As the poet says: The hidden well-spring of your soul must needs rise and run murmuring to the sea… But let there be no scales to weigh your unknown treasure; and seek not the depths of your knowledge with staff or sounding line. For self is a sea boundless and measureless.

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