There’s a great story that my mom used to tell regarding her family’s dog. It involved her brother, who was at the time a young man just returning from three long years in the Pacific theater during World War II. When he stepped out of the car and onto the lawn, the dog walked up to greet him, took a good look and a sniff and then began to jump and dance around uncontrollably. She did that for about 30 minutes straight. When she finally settled down, it wasn’t two minutes before she got up and expressed her joy all over again. She repeated this 30-to-two-minute cycle for the remainder of the day.
Those of us who are close to our pets know without a doubt that animals form and hold memories much like us: how much fun it was to go to the lake; that treats are given out at drive-up bank windows; the way to the veterinarian (when I turn onto that street, I inevitably hear whimpers); and the faces of people they love, despite an absence of years. But now, there is scientific evidence from the wild world to back up our belief.
Total crow recall
In the first formal study of human face recognition in wild birds, John M. Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, demonstrated that crows could identify individual researchers — as much as four years later.
To test the crows’ recognition of faces separately from that of clothing, gait, mannerisms or other characteristics unique to any one person, Dr. Marzluff and two students wore rubber face masks of cavemen while trapping and banding seven crows on the university’s Seattle campus. In the months that followed the banding, the researchers and several volunteers either donned one of the cavemen masks or a “neutral” Dick Cheney mask and walked around the grounds, ignoring the crows.
It turns out that crows neither forgive nor forget. They scolded those wearing the cavemen masks significantly more than they did those wearing the Dick Cheney ones — even if the researchers wore the masks upside down or disguised them with hats. In fact, poor Dick hardly provoked any reaction at all. And, over the past two years, the results have multiplied. While wearing the caveman mask on one recent stroll through campus, Dr. Marzluff reported that he was scolded by 47 of the 53 crows he met: that’s far more than the seven initially trapped. The crows, then, are learning to recognize threatening humans from others in their flock.
In another part of the country, Kevin J. McGowan, an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who has trapped and banded crows in upstate New York for 20 years, says that he is regularly followed by birds that have partaken of his peanuts — and harassed by those he has trapped in the past.
Elephants never forget
In recent years, elephant attacks have made the headlines — both from those animals in captivity and those in the wild. Normally, elephants will go on the offensive only if provoked or threatened, so it’s difficult to understand why such docile beings are suddenly becoming aggressive. More and more tourists to Africa are reporting elephants that try to attack them following a snapped photo or after a Land Rover outing where the vehicle got a little too close.
In Africa, India, and China, elephants have destroyed villages. People in some places are afraid to come out of their homes or cross roads if elephants are grazing nearby.
Elephants in the wild have suffered much at human hands. People moving into their natural habitats provide them with less land to live on and less food to eat. These pachyderms have been captured, shot, taken from their mothers, and poached and killed for their tusks. Circus elephants are routinely abused (beaten with sharp, metal bull hooks), and zoos often do not have the resources to meet their requirements. It could be that elephants have simply had enough of us and are fighting back.
A change in policy
Gay Bradshaw, executive director of The Kerulos Center, a research and education animal sanctuary in Oregon, argues that the world’s elephants are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, causing them to behave more aggressively. According to Dr. Bradshaw, events that can cause post-traumatic stress include captivity, physical abuse, isolation and witnessing the loss or death of a loved one. We humans have purposely visited all of these conditions on our largest land-dwelling mammals.
If animals are as capable of forming memories as we are, should our wildlife research methods and practices toward them be changed?
Perhaps before we band another bird, radio-collar another wolf or mount a camera on another penguin, we should think about the memories we’re creating — and their consequences.
Feature photo: It could be that elephants have simply had enough of us and are fighting back. © Pat Marron