We humans like to think that we are intellectually and morally superior to “animals.” But are we?
Let’s look at intelligence first. I just read about avian arsonists.
These birds, including falcons and kites, like to take advantage of fires. They pick up a burning twig, fly it an area that is not on fire and drop it.
They then wait, with no competition from other predators, until that new area catches fire and prey animals run out. Voila – instant dinner, partly cooked.
You have to give these birds credit for intelligence.
Crows and similar birds show intelligence in other ways too. For instance, some crows intentionally drop hard nuts at intersections. Cars run over the nuts, and the crows swoop in to eat the tasty insides when no cars are coming. Some gulls use a similar strategy to break open shellfish.
You may have heard of the late, great Koko the captive gorilla, who learned more than 1000 hand signs. Koko is most famous for signing “bad, sad” when told that her pet kitten had been hit by a car and killed. Not bad for an ape.
Other primates use tools similar to those we use. For example, some dolphins use sea sponges to protect their beak while foraging at the bottom of the sea. Some types of primates shove twigs into mounds to capture termites to eat.
We may be smarter than these critters in many ways, but they are still plenty smart.
What of moral superiority? The avian arsonists deserve no morality award for setting fires.
If we want morality, we need to look to herbivores. Think of alpacas that defend sheep and hens from dogs, foxes and other predators. These woolly creatures are heroic.
Elephants also seem quite nice. For one thing, they mourn their dead. Deer lead a moral life, except for mating tussles among the bucks.
The main herbivore villain I can think of is a Judas goat. That is a goat trained to lead sheep or cattle to the killing point in a slaughterhouse. The goat is not killed. What a Judas!
I am not sure that we are morally superior to herbivores. I wonder what animals think about this question.
I have a feeling that prey animals would take a dim view of the morality of omnivores like us. But, fortunately for us, most animals don’t speak.
John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England.