OK I like Jon Katz. He's one of my favorite popular authors on the subject of companion animals.
Most of the time, he makes good sense. I took exception to a few of his comments in this article, however.
Animals don't think. How does he mean this? He goes on to say that animals don't have words (which is true), so I assume he is associating language with thinking, and figures that if an animal can't use words to identify objects and concepts, he can't conceive of those objects or concepts outside of the present moment.they are not aware of time, and of course, they don't think.
When he says an animal doesn't have an awareness of time, I'm even more confused. You mean, an animal can't tell the difference between the early morning and the early evening? An animal doesn't know that time has elapsed between the two stages of the day, and it literally can't tell the difference between a half hour's worth of time and three hours worth of time? An animal can't tell time, but just like our ancestors who didn't have clocks or watches, it's got to know something about its passage.
Can't an animal think in pictures? He says an animal's brain would look like a "sensory streaming video," which is an incredibly mechanistic interpretation of the process. It's as if he's implying that all you would see is whatever pictures the eyes are sending the animal's brain at that moment. But we know animals can make mental associations between things and events.
They can anticipate probable results by analyzing past data. My cats know when I am going to sneeze by interpreting the sharp intake of breath and the changes of posture just prior to the explosion. Some of them don't like to be in close range when I sneeze, and they'll take off in all directions before it's even happened. That means they know some actions in the present mean a probable result in the future.
Katz talks about his dog learning to open the refrigerator. He states that the dog ate all the contents of several packages and then concealed the packages. His explanation that the dog "just really wasn't that hungry." doesn't make much sense. The dog ate the food and left the packages. OK, so the dog wasn't hungry enough to eat the packages, but is it possible that he knew the empty packages meant something to his owner? Is it anthropomorphizing to think that the dog already knew that eating food from the fridge was something he was likely to get punished for in the future? Is it a terrible stretch of the imagination to assume that the dog concealed the packages in an effort to avoid the future consequences of his acts?
The other weird thing is that Katz automatically falls into the anthropomorphic pattern he warns his audience against. He said his dog was a "scholar" of food. That is interesting. He means to say that the dog wasn't eating out of hunger, but out of curiosity. Curiosity about the world is one of the hallmarks of an active and analytic mind.
I agree with Katz when he says we attribute far more complex motives to animals than they are capable of having. It's ridiculous. My neighbor's dog found a way around the flimsy barrier they built to keep him from leaving the yard. I found him waiting for me under one of the cars parked in the front. He'd been alone all day, and he needed water. He showed me the empty bowl, himself, and when I filled it, he drank and drank. He was glad to see me and wanted to show me how he'd expanded "our" territory by escaping from the yard. To prove his skills, he did it right in front of me a few times, before he finally figured out that I wasn't as pleased about it as he was.
Am I anthropomorphizing here, or am I just interpreting the dog's body language? Tail up, tail down. Picking up the empty bowl in his teeth while I watch and letting it clatter against the concrete. Running well outside the boundaries of the yard right in front of me, in all innocence, and then running back towards me checking to see if if I'd noticed. I don't know, but I THINK that this dog was trying to communicate a few things to me. I would not have known he was thirsty unless he'd used the bowl as a TOOL to catch my attention and get a result.
When I explained to my upstairs neighbor, I later heard him tell his wife: "He did it on purpose. He was trying to defy me." Now THAT, in my opinion, is anthropomorphizing. The dog was thirsty and lonely and bored. He found a way out. Maybe he KNEW the gate had been put there to keep him inside, but it's unlikely. It's also unlikely that his thoughts were on competing with, or challenging someone who wasn't even present. How could the dog think in abstract terms of a possible threat to his freedom from an absent person? There was no evidence to suggest that anything like that was in his mind at all.
Yes, I told about the water bowl and all that. Thirst seems to me to be a primary motivating force for escaping confinement. Not playing mind games with an absent human. Of course, there could be many other explanations for the dog's behavior that day, but the key to figuring out what's in an animal's mind is watching their behavior, not slapping presumptions about human behavior onto them before we even see what they're doing.
Animals CAN think. In fact, they're good thinkers, and they have to be in order to manipulate the environment around them. The fact that some animals can live successfully with people is an indication that those animals are quite skilled at communicating their wants and needs to other species, and that they can maintain their own in challenging situations.
I mostly agree with Katz, but I am afraid he gets a little too mechanistic in his interpretations of animal behavior, at times. Animals are capable of more thought than he gives them credit for.