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The many ways we misinterpret animal behavior

A young Bornean orangutan.

A few years back, a friend who works with elephants told me about an animal communicator she met, who reported she had a telepathic conversation with an aggressive zoo elephant. The communicator claimed the elephant really liked her — so much so, in fact, that she said the elephant had wanted to put his massive head in her lap.

Unbelievable! And in fact, it was.

If indeed the animal communicator had received a message from the elephant, she had grossly misinterpreted it. A child might show trust and affection by laying her head in your lap, but an elephant who does this is trying to kill you. They use their heads to squash irritating individuals like a person grinds out a cigarette butt with his shoe.


Misinterpreting an animal’s motives or behavior is easy to do. We want to understand animals — and we want them to like us — and this colors our perceptions. A zoo veterinarian about to do an exam on a Tasmanian devil, a carnivorous marsupial the size of a small dog, noted with pride and relief how calm the animal seemed in her presence.

“Look,” she said, pointing to his wide open jaws, “he’s so relaxed he’s yawning!”

It was then that the animal bit her. What looked like a yawn was really an attempt to warn the veterinarian to stay away. The “yawn” was what’s known as a gape-threat, the animal’s effort to advertise the power of its strong jaws and sharp teeth.

Such mistakes may lead people to conclude that an animal is mean, or its behavior is senseless or even crazy. We like to congratulate ourselves when our own wise behavior saves us from the animal’s viciousness. An excellent example of this is when people “narrowly escape” being “eaten” by a white shark. Most humans actually survive white shark “attack” — this despite the fact this animal can weigh more than a ton, has a sensory system that can detect the electrical current of a beating heart, and 300 razor-sharp, serrated teeth capable of severing the head from a two-ton bull elephant seal.


Do you think a person can escape such a predator? Not likely. People survive because the shark never intended to eat them in the first place. Particularly when the person is on a surfboard. From below, where the shark is coming from, a human looks like a seal. But the shark instantly realizes the mistake and spits the person out.

Another error people make is concluding an animal does something for “no reason.” Once, when I was in Borneo at Birute Galdikas’s orangutan study and rehabilitation camp, a volunteer who was smitten with the orange apes rushed up to one particular female she had met just the day before. She wanted to hug her. The orangutan promptly slammed the woman to the ground — “for no reason!” the woman said in hurt dismay. But the orangutan had a perfectly fine reason for her behavior: She didn’t feel like being grabbed by a stranger.

During this same visit, Galdikas’s husband, Pak Bohap, told me through a translator that sun bears — small, short-haired ursines that look like fat, short-legged rotweillers — were vicious and untrustworthy beasts. As proof, he explained that a sun bear had once, years earlier, attacked him “for no reason.” How terrible! What was he doing, I asked, when he became the victim of such an unprovoked attack? The answer: He had been stuffing her cub into his shirt.


Even if it’s not evident to us, animals have reasons for what they do, usually excellent ones. They have the same basic motives we do. They want to eat when they’re hungry and sleep when they’re tired. They love and protect their mates and their babies. They sometimes want company and other times want to be left alone.

We can’t always assume that animals experience and react to the world exactly as we do; otherwise dogs would not eat horse manure, and fish would try to escape from the water. But in the ongoing practice of trying to understand what happens in an animal’s head, there’s a far worse mistake than assuming animals think like we do — and that’s assuming that animals’ thoughts and motives are nothing like our own.

What is far more interesting than the mistakes we can make when misinterpreting an animal’s behavior is the fact that quite often — despite our very different bodies and different sensory systems — we understand each other very well indeed. Our views on many matters are often strikingly similar.

Consider a Stockholm University study of the aesthetic values of different human faces. The researchers presented undergraduates with photos of the faces of 35 young men and women and asked them to choose the most attractive ones. Then they asked a group of chickens the same question. The chickens’ preferences overlapped with those of the humans 98 percent of the time.


Why should this be so? Possibly both humans and chickens favor symmetry. Interestingly, it’s well-documented that chickens and people recognize each other by the same means: by looking at the face.

Sy Montgomery is a naturalist and the author of more than a dozen books including the bestseller “The Good Good Pig.” She can be reached at syandlizletters@gmail.com.