Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The intelligence of animals

Yesterday, reporter Jacques Kelly ran a story in The Baltimore Sun with this opener: "It took just 10 minutes for a dozen prairie dogs to outwit the creators of the Maryland Zoo's new $500,000 habitat." What can I say? I found myself rooting for the prairie dogs.

Zoos and other controlled habitats provide an interesting opportunity to watch human and animal intelligence pitted against each other. Animal escapes aren't rare, as shown by articles like "The Great Animal Escapes of 2009" in The Huffington Post. Unfortunately, wise animals seldom fare well in these situations.

Years ago, I heard a story from a reliable source about American bison at a state park. Apparently, when these animals were introduced, there was one wily fellow who taught the others how to step over the cow grate and escape. After several escapes, this particular bison was put to sleep. Later, upon visiting the park, we were offered buffalo meat. I always wondered if it came from this particular bison.

Conserving habitat is a tricky science. Nature has a way of adapting to situations that are outside of our plans. How we adapt to those changes is just as important as our intended goals.

Photo credit: Claire Dobert, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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