Sunday, September 13, 2009

Animals sense of future?

Once a week, Mina and I make a special trip to get coffee. This is more for my benefit - Mina wouldn't care if we brought Celeste along or not, but I sometimes feel bad for usurping Mina's six year position as only dog. As we approach the final turn to the coffee place, Mina tenses, leans a little out the window and stares. When we get to the actual corner, where a small gym is located, she shifts her gaze left to right, left to right, looking for something.

Someone, actually. We used to walk the small downtown street every day. The first time we passed the gym Mina encountered The Dog. He was a geriatric Labrador Retriever who lived with the owners of the gym. He had free run of the place and loved to sun himself in the doorway. When Mina first met him, he was *thankfully* asleep in his dog bed (I cursed his guardians for having a dog bed the same color as their dog). She noticed him when he shifted a little in his sleep and, before I could react, she dragged herself over to the dog and sniffed him from head to tail. And he did not wake up. Mina's not anti-dogs, per se, but she's picky and Retrievers tend to hit her "do not want" button. I was able to coax her away and, from that day on, Mina would always look for The Dog. For a few months, we kept the same route. We stopped because it was becoming annoying dealing with Mina as we approached the gym. It didn't matter if The Dog was there or not, Mina was on high-alert. Sometimes she would snark, sometimes she would whine, and just to throw me off, sometimes she'd pretend there was no The Dog and I was just a silly guardian.

One day, The Dog wasn't there. Or the next. A week went by, no dog. Mina seemed confused, sniffing the sidewalk in front of the gym, sitting down and just staring at the spot where The Dog usually lay snoring. For weeks, she would do the same thing - sit, stare and seem to wait for The Dog to appear. I asked one of the folks working out what happened to the dog. He had died, he was old, it was to be expected. We stopped going that route.

But Mina hasn't forgotten. She still expects The Dog to be there. It is only this corner that inspires her to stick half her body out the window. Nothing other than another dog inspires such behavior (she's a "stick only the edge of your nose out the window" kind of dog). I keep wondering when she'll stop, it's been two years, after all.

I remember learning about the Clark's nutcracker, a bird who caches tens of thousands of nuts for the upcoming winter. They cache these nuts in up to 5,000 different hiding spots. Months go by before they return to gather their hidden bounty. In my mind, this seemed such an obvious example of planning for the future, of recognizing that at some point, there would be no nuts and so the bird had to cache a whole bunch to last. Science is finally acknowledging that these types of behaviors aren't just instinctive patterns, they actually indicate a basic understanding that there *is* a future and, since for the Clark's nutcrackers it involves a depletion of food, they need to plan for that future accordingly.Studies have seen similar behaviors in other birds and mammals.

I'm not suggesting nonhuman animals waste their time like we do worrying about their future or that they waste an inordinate amount of time worrying about death. I am suggesting that our understanding of how other species think is still a mystery. I'm probably more willing than most to believe that many nonhuman species are capable of remembering the past and considering a future.

For Mina, she has an association with that corner. She remembers that that is a place where she encountered a dog who sometimes let her sniff him from snout to butt. And when we start getting close to that particular spot, she expects a dog to be there. I don't know why she still does it after so many years of an absent dog, but there is still that expectation, that knowledge of a future event (the dog being there, her joy/annoyance/whatever at the dog being there).

For me, to disavow their intellectual complexities, ignore their rich inner life makes it easier to exploit and harm them.


Anonymous said...

My old girl once got "bitten" by an electric fence in the yard of a (former) dog friend. For years, she pulled me to the other side of the street when we passed that way.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, my dogs do it to. There is one lady who cares for a group of feral-ish cats that are always lazing around in her yard and my dogs always prance high and jump up a little (there is a small hill they cannot see over in their normal walking height) looking for the cats at that spot -- whether the cats are there or not. There is another spot where there is a persnickety lab that is often chained up that comes out barking at us as we walk by and Stella pulls to get away faster -- even if the dog isn't there. It is funny what they remember and anticipate.

Daisy Dog said...

Great post and so true. Daisy and Roscoe wait every night for the 3 chows to walk past the house and they are in high alert barking at them.

Anonymous said...

Cash always gets tense at the same spot on our walk- a Dog named Pantera used to live there and would throw herself agains the fence when we walked by.

It's been over a year since she was there, but He still raises hackles and expects her to be there.