Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Readers’ Poll: Surprising Animals?

August 13, 2010

This week, I’d like to pose a question to readers: Have you observed animals (of any species) acting in ways that surprised or moved you? Ways that indicated a remarkable depth of intelligence or feeling?

I’d like to restrict this poll to only actions or events that you yourself have observed, rather including second-hand or published accounts.

My motive here is based on the idea that people who live with animals day by day, are a huge and largely untapped source of information about animals. Some scientists might say, but such people aren’t trained observers! And while this is true (and while I’m always telling my students that it takes years of training and patience to really see reliably the nuances of what apes are doing), I also believe there’s a role for reports by non-scientists.

Here’s one example. Last weekend, I had the pleasure of participating in a booksigning at my favorite local bookstore, Twice Told Tales in Gloucester, Virginia. Nancy Halstead, the bookstore’s owner, told me a story about two cats, and later sent me a version in writing that I use here with her kind permission. The next two paragraphs are in Nancy’s words:

Once during a bitter cold snap in the late fall, where the day was bright and sunny but the wind chill made the temperatures plummet I observed our family cat moving slowly towards our house. She was coming across the side field which was backed by dense woods. Her stop-and-start journey was so unusual that for a moment I thought she was injured. She would walk about five feet and then stop and look behind her.

I was baffled until I noticed another cat following her. She continued this journey until she brought him to our house. I was able to see that he was a battered and hungry feral cat, who stood anxiously at the perimeter of our yard. I let her in and he disappeared behind our shed. I quickly prepared food for him and set it outside. I went back in and watched through the kitchen window. He cautiously ventured to the bowl and wolfed his food down. I refilled the bowl three times and he disappeared after he had his fill. I never saw him again, but I do feel that our cat led him to a place where she knew he would be provided with food and shelter; I just wish that he had decided to stay.

I find this story compelling because the female cat alters her own behavior (that is, makes a “stop-and-start journey,” and peeks over her shoulder) in ways that can’t be hard-wired. Of course, I can’t claim to know the cat’s thoughts, and it’s always possible to come up with alternative explanations. Yet the cat’s behavior strikes me as fitting “theory of mind,” a term used by scientists to describe behavior based on an ability to know that another creature may be in a different state or have a different perspective than your own.

When a mother chimpanzee slowly rotates a tool in order to demonstrate to her youngster how to use it, showing sensitivity to the juvenile’s skill level, that’s theory of mind (because the adult figures out that possesses knowledge lacked by the juvenile, and acts to correct this).

Usually, we link theory of mind to big-brained mammals like apes, elephants, and cetaceans. Could cats have theory of mind? My goal here isn’t to prove this point, an endeavor that would take long-term observation on lots of cats. Instead, it is to seek observations that may make us look anew at, and ask fresh questions about, animals.

Please join in this poll, using the comments section below!

And oh yes, that booksigning I mentioned? It was my privilege to share the event with my friend Nuala Galbari. In Being With Animals I wrote about Nuala’s beautiful friendship with a crippled crow called Reggie. Now Nuala has written The Woods of Wicomico, a children’s book full of vital animal characters, original songs, and a compelling environmental theme. Luminously illustrated by Buttons Boggs, the book is available at Amazon and I recommend it.

The Woods of Wicomico


  1. August 13, 2010 7:02 AM EDT
    Last week we decided it was time to bring our dear cat Bucky to the vet for euthanasia as he had cancer and we clearly beginning to be in pain. We brought his body home in the little cardboard coffin our good vet provided but we buried him directly in the ground. My husband put the box in the recycling, but later I realized that it was a good size for our surviving male cat, Thumbs, who enjoys sleeping in boxes, and who had been quite subdued (he had always been a very lively, loud, galloping sort of cat) since Bucky's illness. Thumbs was, in anthropomorphic terms, Bucky's friend. They enjoyed wrestling, chasing, and sleeping curled up near one another. I brought the box in the house and set it down. Thumbs approached it very warily, sniffed it all over for a minute or so, and climbed into it. He chewed out a curved area to rest his head in, and now it's where he sleeps. He has also stopped waiting by the cellar cat door for his friend to come up. I don't know if he recognized the scent of Bucky, or death, of the vet's office, or what, but the box seems important to him. The female cat, who has always been indifferent to both the guys, shows no interest in it.
    - Mary Pratt
  2. August 13, 2010 11:31 AM EDT
    We used to have a dojo loach (a fish!) who played with our youngest daughter. The goldfish and the loach could recognize me, because I fed them, and they surfaced whenever I came close, ready and hopeful. But Flash, the loach, not only greeted me for food, he greeted Sara for a game. He spent most of his time sedentary (hence his name) but, when he saw her, he would speed the one of the sides of the aquarium. She would press her face to the glass and puff out her cheeks, and Flash would dart across and up to the opposite side. She would move to that side and "face" him, and he would dart to the other side. If she didn't "face" him, he would swim up and down the side to attract her attention. He wouldn't do it with anybody else!
    - Marian Allen
  3. August 13, 2010 6:50 PM EDT
    Thanks, Mary and Marian. What unites your two posts, to me, is that each animal did something unusual in a targeted way: the fish played with Sara but with no one else; the cat who was Bucky's friend responded to the aftermath of his death in a way the non-friend cat didn't. That makes each example very interesting for me because it so clearly points away from species-typical (if there are many such things!!) behaviors.

    I had hoped others would chime in, but in any case I'm delighted with these two responses. And I'd like to pass along to Mary my condolences on the loss of Bucky. We know all too well the sadness this kind of loss brings.
    - Barbara J. King
  4. August 14, 2010 7:02 AM EDT
    I don't have specific stories like these, but I'm always struck by our animals' ability to "talk" to us. Once, for example, I was drying my hair in the bathroom, and my cat kept running up to the toilet, looking in, and then running back into the bedroom (where her food is)--she must have done it about six times. I thought there might be a bug in the toilet, and I was puzzled when I couldn't see anything that might be attracting her attention. It turned out she was out of water. I have to stop now because she is very clearly telling me she wants breakfast. Intelligence? She understands English, and I can't speak cat at all.
    - Colleen
  5. August 14, 2010 8:57 AM EDT
    Our previous Golden Retriever loved balls but hated to swim in the water, although she would often sit in water to cool off. One day, while sitting, she let go of the ball she was carrying and wind started to move the ball into the middle of the pond. The dog became quite frantic - racing back and forth, trying to figure out a way to get the ball. Finally she found a stick and carefully used it to push the ball close to the shore. She then grabbed the ball and happily continued on her evening walk.
    - Molly
  6. August 14, 2010 9:09 AM EDT
    My family used to have a dog named Patty D who learned from observation to turn the outside water spigot on with her mouth when she was thirsty.
    - Charlie
  7. August 14, 2010 9:14 AM EDT
    These are great additions! To Colleen (who, by the way, is one of the most articulate people I know), it's so interesting that the cat could associate water in one context with water in another. Not as simple cognitively as it might sound. To Molly: in all sincerity, if an ape did that it'd be publishable news! That's *precisely* the kind of thing I'm intrigued by-- a tool-using dog. To Charlie: the cool thing here is that Patty D learned by watching another species, to make her own life easier. Thanks everyone.
    - Barbara J. King
  8. September 9, 2010 8:57 PM EDT
    Barbara, I'm late catching up on your blog- I have over the years saved a whole roster of "surprising" cat stories that I may have already shared with you at some point. But here is one, brought to mind by Colleen's story, with our very smart first black cat Disaster years ago:
    The toilet in the back bathroom has several times recently failed to flush properly and made a very strange repetitive wheezing sound. Today when I became aware of the sound and went to the bathroom to fix the toilet I found our black cat Disaster already there, standing on the toilet seat looking down into the water. I corrected the problem by jiggling things inside the toilet tank, and verbally thanked Disaster for his helpful concern as he watched the whole process. He then ran ahead of me into the kitchen, paused looking to see if I was following, and then ran into the hall where the second bathroom is. As he often runs to the kitchen when he wants to be let out, I went to the kitchen door and asked, "want to go out?" He came to me but instead ran back to the hall, and looked back at me, making eye contact. I followed and he ran into the second bathroom (NOT the one that had the flushing problem)hopped up on the toilet and looked into the water and back at me, making eye contact several times! I assured him that though the other toilet made funny noises, this toilet was working fine, at which reassuring verbalization on my part he hopped down and left the room.
    (to me this indicates a mental representation of the category "toilet" where if A=B, perhaps A1=B1. Useful in a natural habitat... if there’s a strange new animal down one hole, maybe the next hole has that strange animal too. )
    - Joanne Tanner
  9. September 9, 2010 9:06 PM EDT
    OK just one more. DO CATS POINT?
    (1997)Our kitty Tiger Lily loves to play with any toy, and plays a lot on her own. She has a game of putting her toys in the hole in the scratching post, then peeking in, pouncing, and pulling them out. Repeat ad infinitem.
    She somehow lost her two favorite furry toys and we couldn’t find them despite extensive searches. We finally got her a new furry toy. She didn’t seem to like it as much as the first ones, though. We were sitting on the sofa with her one day after the toys had been lost for weeks when she suddenly miaowed, looked at me and reached a paw behind the sofa several times. I moved the sofa and looked straight down from where her paw had been. There were both missing toys. This showing me where her toys were came out of the blue- we had not been playing. In fact I had just finished helping Chuck put ear mite drops in her ears, which she does not like. The toys were certainly not visible at all, to us or Tiger Lily; Chuck said he had looked for her toys there weeks ago but hadn’t found them. Tiger Lily must have remembered where they went or smelled them, but also had to know that only we could get them for her. So being with her on the sofa was the required setting for a solution.
    - Joanne Tanner
  10. October 20, 2010 5:24 AM EDT
    One of my friend had a young puppy and we left her in the car when we went to watch soccer game during summer Olympic(soccer is big thing in Korea). I think she was very distressed in the car because when olympic came around again this summer, she refused to get in the car. It's amazing she recognizes that it's olympic season again because it's been four years.
    - Youjin
  11. October 20, 2010 8:19 AM EDT
    I love that stories are still coming in. Youjin, that's an interesting thought. Do you have a suggestion for how the dog may have made the connection that it was Olympics time again? Joanne, only today (10/20) did I realize you had posted these cat stories. The "category toilet" story with Disaster urges me to think in a new way about our cats (to look for new things). Years ago, our cat Mickey hated being made to bathe. When we put Sarah into the bathtub, (she was a toddler), he became very distressed, to the point of putting his front paws on the bathtub and looking at us in an agitated way. ("Get her out of there, please.") However, in that case, the location was the same- the same bathtub across two different cases of bathing. The double-toilet story shows something different cognitively. And the paw-indicating by Tiger Lily is notable as well. The skeptic would say she was reaching, not pointing. However, it doesn't sound as if her reach was effortful (a real try at retrieving). As you know I've always thought pointing is far too narrowly defined.
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.