This Dog is Unbelievably Smart: Does That Mean She Deserves Some Rights?

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Nov 29, 2013 in Rat News | Subscribe

Animals are objects, things, property — at least according to most U.S. laws. There is little recognition that they have intelligence, emotions and interests of their own (e.g., in not being hungry, or in playing) despite scads of evidence. One smart dog is offering further proof that animals deserve to be treated better than chairs.

Chaser knows more than 1,200 nouns, verbs, prepositions, adverbs and adjectives, and she understands what they mean when combined. Tell her what to do and she does it, correctly.

Celebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson demonstrated that her smarts go beyond understanding vocabulary and grammar. She also uses logic. First he asked her to find several of her toys (she has 1,000) by name, which she did flawlessly. Then he asked her to find “Darwin,” a doll she had never seen or heard of before who was mixed in with a jumble of toys she knew. Chaser inferred that the unfamiliar word corresponded to the unfamiliar object, which she grabbed and brought to Tyson. He was bowled over by her smarts. So was Popular Science writer Dan Nosowitz, who called her inferential reasoning ability “bonkers.”

You can watch the video here.

Chaser knows how to play the “hot or cold” game to find things. Her memory is much better than people tend to expect of animals: she remembers objects and their names even when she hasn’t seen them in years. She understands what it means when a person points at something, and she knows when someone wants her to copy them and does so. Those last two in particular prove that she has a “theory of mind” — she gets that other beings have their own minds with different thoughts than she has.

There was a time when scientists believed that only humans, or at the very most primates, had a theory of mind, and that this was a crucial difference between humans and non-animals that justified us in exploiting them. That was after scientists argued that non-human animals couldn’t use tools like we do, so we could do whatever we wanted to them, and before they decided that the real difference between humans and all the other animals is empathy and altruism.

All those arguments have been disproved. For instance, when rats see another rat in a cage, they get that cage open, even when it takes many tries to do it. If there happens to be a pile of chocolate chips handy, they share them with the newly sprung animal — who, after all, is having a very bad day and could really use them. Rats are more thoughtful than some people I’ve come across.

The differences in other species’ intelligence have been reliable fallbacks for people who want to justify treating non-human animals so much worse than humans, like people who experiment on them, or hunt them, or eat them. As science advances, it becomes clearer that some non-human animals’ intelligence is a lot closer to ours than those people would like. Dolphins, elephants and chimpanzees have earned some respect for their intellectual abilities, as has Koko, the gorilla who talked with people using American Sign Language. Now Chaser, whose intelligence is on par with a two-and-a-half year old human, is bringing dogs into the debate.

So animals are smart. That is one reason to give them legal protection from the torture many of them routinely suffer at human hands. Another irrefutable reason is that animals feel pain, both physical and emotional. They suffer when factory farms cram them into cages so tightly they can’t move. They suffer when researchers pour chemicals into their eyes to test (inaccurately and unnecessarily) the safety of some household products or cosmetics.

There are countless other examples that should make our species ashamed. Chaser has it pretty good, but what about the smart dogs forced into a short, violent life of dog fighting, or a lifetime in a small cage making puppies for pet stores to sell? There is no difference between us and them that makes any of that okay.

Chaser is as smart as a toddler and more polite, but Americans are free to treat her species shockingly badly. Even the tamer examples are surprising. If a toddler’s parents divorce and argue over custody, a family court judge will make a decision based on what is in the baby’s best interest, but if the separating couple argues over who gets the dog, the judge won’t ascertain who treats her better or draw up a visitation schedule so she can keep both her beloved people in her life any more than it would do so for the piano. Chaser knows what’s going on. She deserves better.

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