Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Surprising Animals, Part Two

October 22, 2010

Iíve decided to revisit a topic I covered a while ago: how animals we live with, or observe in nature, may surprise us.

With the fast-fast pace of life today, it may be challenging to carve out 50 minutes to watch and reflect upon an animal documentary. Iím going to strongly recommend that you do just this, however, if you havenít already seen the latest ďNatureĒ show to air on PBS (Sunday, October 17); it was nothing short of astounding.

The focus is Echo, matriarch of a large elephant family living in Amboseli National Park, Kenya. Echo is a repository of knowledge for her family, and a loving skilled mother; the bonds between Echo and her daughter Enid and son Eli become evident during the show in some affecting --and unexpected-- ways.

Watching it, memories welled up of my 14 months living in Amboseli, with Mt. Kilimanjaro looming up high. There, I followed baboon families day by day. Primate-obsessed as I was, I loved being surrounded by elephants, giraffe, ostrich, warthogs, zebra, wildebeest, birds of prey, and so many other species.

A word of warning about the film: itís not all beauty and joy; it captures, too, animal suffering, largely because of a serious drought. Yet I believe itís well worth the tears you may shed.

View the Echo film here:


Also, check out the comments made in response to ďsurprising animals part oneĒ (blogged back in August) offered by my friend Joanne Tanner (well-known, widely-published observer of gorillas). Her descriptions of two cats, one with an apparent ability to think in categories and the other with surprising skills of memory and pointing, are fascinating. The words are Joanneís:

**Here is a story about our very smart first black cat Disaster I wrote up 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 thereís a strange new animal down one hole, maybe the next hole has that strange animal too. )

**OK just one more. 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 infinitum.
She somehow lost her two favorite furry toys and we couldnít find them despite extensive searches. We finally got her a new furry toy. She didnít 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 hadnít 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.

Now this is Barbara again. We can all be careful recorders of surprising animal behaviors. Please do add your own examples and reflections below.


  1. October 23, 2010 6:33 PM EDT
    I don't have terribly surprising stories other than the one I posted on your part 1. But you were interested in my cat, Marlowe, who "punishes" himself (the quotes are VERY deliberate). I think it's an issue of inadvertent training--a similar thing happened years ago with my old dog, who would get time outs in our bathroom if I caught him doing something he wasn't supposed to so. After a while, I'd come home and find something chewed up and the dog sitting in the bathroom. Anyway, after that dog, I've done "sit, stay" time outs with Rexy which work better (though Rexy is a great dog and almost never needs them). Back to Marlowe--although he will sit on command (if there's a treat involved), he won't stay, so if he gets in our other cat's very expensive prescription food, I shut him in his big room downstairs to keep him out of it. He doesn't like closed doors, so it kind of works--unless he decides he REALLY wants that other cat's food and he knows I'm home. Then he runs up, chomps the food, and runs back down to his room and curls up on the couch on his own. Sigh.
    - Colleen
  2. October 23, 2010 7:47 PM EDT
    Hi Colleen; the dog before Rexy did something I do consider quite surprising (and interesting). This dog didn't wait for your response (or even a behavioral cue to take himself off to the bathroom conveyed via your body language or tone of voice, a type of conditioning) but instead, removed himself from a preferred part of the house to sit in the bathroom even in advance of your return. So the "cue" here is a memory entirely in the dog's head, right? I'm not very knowledgable about dogs, but isn't this combination of memory and strategic response pretty notable? And if Marlowe is doing the same, ditto...? I'd love to know a) the animals' motivation for doing this (instead of trying to get away with something!) and b) if this is familiar behavior to other dog or cat owners.
    - Barbara J. King
  3. October 24, 2010 9:15 PM EDT
    I taught our dog to sit by giving him treats and saying "Good sit!" whenever I saw him sitting. Now, any time he gets in trouble, he immediately sits. It's like a person thinking that the words "I'm sorry" magically make anything all right, no matter what.
    - Marian Allen

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.