BOOKS: The Parrot’s Lament

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2002:

The Parrot’s Lament
and Other True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity
by Eugene Linden
Dutton (375 Hudson St., N.Y.,, NY 10014), 1999. 224 pages,
paperback; $12.95.

The Parrot’s Lament and Other True Tales of Animal Intrigue,
Intelligence, and Ingenuity may sound noncontroversial, but as
author Eugene Linden points out, the issue of animal consciousness
is “contentious,” meaning it cannot be argued without reference to
ideology.


Really? Animal consciousness, certainly for vertebrate
species, seems a straightforward matter to most of us who truly
share our lives with animals, observing them closely and seeking to
understand their communications. Indeed, I am tempted to give this
book a one-word review: Duh!
This would be, however, a respectful “duh,” simply meant
to indicate that millions of people who spend time among animals will
probably feel they have stories to tell as compelling as any of
Linden’s. That is not to say that his tales are not fascinating,
gripping reading and worthwhile examples. Each is, just as a book
about the antics of human toddlers would be, but the capabilities
illuminated will not astound those who know and love animals.
The stories may surprise some scientists, however. As
Linden observes, while enormous strides have been made in other
scientific fields in the past thirty years, “the debate about
whether animals might acquire some aspects of human language has
advanced on a time scale that might best be described as geologic.
It has been easier to end the Cold War and defeat Communism than it
has been to find agreement among scientists about what an animal
means when it uses human language.”
Other debates in the arena of animal consciousness have
proceeded as slowly.
Linden does little to directly advance the scientific debate,
for he explores animal consciousness through what scientists dismiss
as anecdotal stories. The incidents are grouped into accounts about:
games and humor; trade and barter; deception; mind reading and
“mental chess”; cooperation in work, conflict, and healing; tools
and intelligence; escapes; and empathy and heroism.
The stories are drawn from zookeepers, researchers,
therapists and trainers. For some Animal People readers, this might
make the book unendorsable, and many of the stories are hauntingly,
if unintentionally, sad. For instance, after a gorilla who had
been taught sign language is transferred to a zoo, he goes to the
door of his cage and signs “open.” He signs “get key.” He signs
that he wants to “go home.” He is told via sign language, “This is
home.” Linden uses this an example of a gorilla methodically
exploiting language to try to get out of the zoo, but it also could
have been used to explore captive animals’ capacity for grief and
frustration.
Given captive wildlife’s great motivation for using their
intelligence, it is not surprising that many of Linden’s stories
come from zoos. As Linden points out, “Much of the mischief,
tricks, and escape attempts perpetrated by captive animals seems to
be motivated by a desire to assert independence and control.”
Later he notes, “For most mammals, the main challenges of
life are securing a livelihood, competing within the group, and
finding a desirable mate. At least for males, success at this third
ambition rests to a great degree on meeting the first two challenges.
Being good at any of these tests probably makes an animal feel
complete and good. Unfortunately, even the most sensitively
designed captive situations cannot help disrupting these occupations
and preoccupations. Which is to say that for better or worse,
captivity takes away most of an elephant’s opportunities to feel good
about being an elephant. It largely eliminates the challenges that
make snow leopards take pride in their power, grace, and skill,
and it deprives an orca of an oceanscape big enough to fulfill orca
dreams. Finding some meaningful way to relate to their strange new
world may partially compensate for the loss of freedom that captivity
entails.”
The final chapter, entitled “What Do They Make of Us? A
Place Where Humans are the Novelty,” is by far the most powerful.
Linden describes his visit to a remote and heretofore inaccessible
part of the central African rain forest.
What is it like to be the first human that a very large band
of chimpanzees has ever seen, as one stands surrounded by them? And
what was it like for the chimps?
Linden proposes it was the “ape version of Close Encounters
of the Third Kind.” Noting the dry climatic changes brought about by
human-caused massive deforestation in Africa, Linden observes that
“animals in the most remote places on earth are still captive to
human activities even if they have never seen a human being.”
Ends Linden, “As we are proving, without some controls to
represent the longterm interests of the biosphere, our brand of
intelligence is dangerous. Perhaps it has come and gone several
times in different species in the past. The unfettered application
of propositional abilities does not seem to be a prescription for
long-term evolutionary success. Once minds break free of religious,
cultural, and physical controls, they burn hot and fast, consuming
and altering everything around them. Perhaps that is why higher
mental abilities, though present in other creatures, are more
limited and circumscribed.”
Intelligence ultimately may prove to be the human’s lament.
–Patty Finch

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