We see ourselves as a unique species. And we are. Every species is unique and, like us, its members view themselves as such. To a fox, for example, every animal is either a fox or a non-fox and is dealt with accordingly.
But we take our uniqueness to extremes. Nothing that was said about an animal (except a pet) could hint that she was anything like us. She could not be “who,” she had to be “which” or “that,” and had to be “it” even if her gender was known. Even now, the spell- and grammar-check on one’s computer insists upon the way we speak of animals in an entirely inappropriate and inaccurate way, having been programmed by someone who has swallowed what political correctness decrees.
I run into this often, and so does my co-columnist, Sy Montgomery, who once described a bird who laid an egg. Her editor tried to change the bird from “she” to “it.” Was there doubt about that bird’s gender? Did the editor think male birds lay eggs? But pseudo-science and political correctness had decreed that every animal is “it” and the editor went along with the notion. Neither Sy nor I allow this. If an editor doesn’t like our wording, it can edit someone else.
At one time, animals were believed to have thoughts and consciousness and could even commit crimes. This disappeared with modern science, because thoughts and emotions are hard to measure or to prove and scientists had formed the excellent practice of testing things before drawing conclusions about them. Thoughts and emotions are hard to test, so animals were assumed not to have them. This was somewhat strange. Since no information was available, the assumption could have gone either way. The negative direction must have seemed the safest. But today the more enlightened scientists are refuting this notion and now agree with what most pet owners already know. It will take the rest of the population time to catch up, and this will be influenced by the way we speak of animals.
So please allow me to boast a little. It’s my great privilege to be among the 200 members of the Usage Panel (linguists, writers, and the like) of the prize-winning American Heritage Dictionary. Every year, the panel is asked to comment on word usage as it changes over time. A few years ago, I brought up the subject of using “who” and “whom” for animals. The panelists were asked for their opinions, and guess what? The vast majority approved of “who” and “whom.” Today, the animals whom we discuss can be described more respectfully and correctly, at least by some of us. I know this improvement is tiny, but it’s forward motion nevertheless.
Meanwhile, animals have long understood what we just now are realizing. They gain all kinds of information by watching what happens and use what they learn to their advantage. In contrast to us, their important tools are empathy and observation, which lions are particularly good at.
When I was involved in a research project in Etosha Park in Namibia, I had an interesting experience with a lioness. I was inside a fenced area, sitting on the ground repairing something, and she was lying outside, watching me without much interest. Then for some reason I yawned. She yawned too. Amazed, I waited a while and yawned again, and so did she. She did this four times but not a fifth time. By then she knew I was messing with her.
The empathy she felt for me was evidently strong. That doesn’t mean she liked me, but she was certainly thinking about me, knowing I was another creature somewhat like herself and what applied to her applied to me too. What we don’t know is how far down the taxonomic ladder this consciousness might go. Birds and mammals certainly qualify, and fish are said to dream, so they qualify. What about insects? A friend of mine, an important scientist, believed they might qualify too. They do appear to make decisions, which probably means they can think. If you watch an insect for a while — perhaps a bee trying to keep a hummingbird away from the hummingbird feeder — you can see her making decisions. “Should I go this way or that?” she may be thinking, flying sideways. “Can that greedy bird get past me or not?”
We believe we understand the natural world, and in certain ways we do. Yet the gaps in our knowledge are enormous and important.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is a naturalist and the author of several books. Send questions about animals to email@example.com.