How the Hen House Turns—Theory of Mind
By CARY NEEPER
As I review our 40 years with domestic birds and dogs (while raising our family in Los Alamos), I realize that what has driven my curiosity has been Theory of Mind.
That’s the idea that animals and three or four-year-old people are able to realize that someone else is thinking something else. It’s not self-awareness. It is other-awareness, the realization that someone else or some other animal is also aware, maybe even aware of you.
Whenever I passed Lucy goose in the yard and said, “Hello Lucy,” she would answer with a quiet “honk honk.” So did Gwendolyn the Rhode Island Red chicken. Her “br-r- r-k” was a very quiet sound. It was easy to miss.
My first experience with chicken other-awareness was when Peeky’s egg was in trouble. It had been peeping for some hours, so husband Don suggested I try helping the chick out by gently peeling the egg, leaving the last piece to drop off by itself if it was bloody.
At first mother Peeky did not welcome my handling her egg. I suffered a few angry pecks before she realized that I was trying to release her chick. Then she sat back and let me peel off most of the egg shell.
Lucy goose hated to be touched. In order to look at her sore foot, I had to corner her and grab her around the wings. Of course, she struggled at first, but when she realized I was interested in her sore foot, she settled down and let me treat it. Hauling her into the house through deep snow was more of a struggle. She didn’t understand what I was doing, until I dumped her into the bathtub full of water. Then she was perfectly happy. She didn’t object when I toweled her off after the bath and carried her back to the pen.
In his book “The Soul of Animals,” Gary Kowalski takes the theory of mind a step further by suggesting that animals know right from wrong. Dogs certainly reveal their guilt, as when you return home to a shredded pillow.
Dolphins have been known to protect people in trouble in the sea. Chimps lead other chimps to ripe fruit. Mother birds act wounded to lead hawks away from their young.
Many different species us camouflage to fool both predators and prey. At the very least these are examples of animals recognizing the mental state of others. The list goes on and on in Frans deWaal’s new book “Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?” There is a lot of new information flooding in since the days of “behaviorism,” in which animals were regarded as automatons without conscious feelings or awareness, and many striking anecdotes were discounted.
Darwin is quoted as saying animals’ “…difference in mind…(from humans) is one of degree…not kind.” That’s been my experience. More on that later, as I decide how to review Helen Macdonald’s book “H Is For Hawk.”