March 18, 2018

Rabbits Are Stupid?!?

By Julie Smith

It’s so stupid, it will mount your arm if you reach into its cage.
He’s so stupid he always knocks the food bowl out of your hand when you try to feed him.
He’s so stupid, he doesn’t know he’s chasing one of his friends instead of his competitor.

The Smart Species
We human beings are quite vain about our intelligence. We are good at solving problems, and so proud of our discoveries that we will give them our own names, even if they are diseases. We humans find nothing more exciting than retiring into our own thoughts, a mental intensity that dissolves all of the world into the self-center.
But this love affair with intelligence can be a liability when it leads to an attitude of superiority over animals. We are quick to judge animal intelligence, deciding that this species is smart and that species is dumb. In truth, animals seem most dumb when we do not understand them. Once we figure out why an animal does what he does, the animal becomes smarter!

Not So Dumb
Consider the first rabbit. He mounts a human arm because he is a sexually mature, unneutered individual deprived of the company of his own kind.

And what about the second rabbit who persistently knocks the food bowl from his human hand? His blind spot is right below him, at chin level, where the human sticks the bowl. He’s hungry; he can’t find the food because the human has put it in one small place that he can’t see. So he takes charge of the situation and scatters the pellets around where he has a better chance of finding them.

And what about that third rabbit who lost track of his competitor and started chasing a friend? He was not the only ‘stupid’ rabbit in the group I watched a few months ago, because when he started chasing the guy he was mad at, the other eight rabbits started chasing somebody, too, although they were not mad at anyone. And the first rabbit could not keep track of who he was chasing because everybody was wildly chasing somebody different every few seconds. As I watched this group, I thought I was in a rabbit lunatic asylum.

A few days later I wondered, maybe something like a ‘chaos factor’ exists in rabbit group behavior. Perhaps as a way to manage the aggression of one individual, every rabbit in the group will start chasing someone to distract and then confuse the one who is really angry. This might also explain something about our rabbit couples: one rabbit will start chasing a partner if a third rabbit gets too close to the cage. This is not just misplaced aggression, I now believed, but behavior that has social importance when rabbits live in a group, the arrangement in nature.

Now the rabbits seemed less stupid because I had a theory that made sense of their behavior. But perhaps even that theory greatly simplified rabbit mental life. When misplaced aggression occurs in humans, it is explained as symbolic aggression that helps an individual feel and look important when someone who has more power than he has bruised his ego. He lashes out at someone weaker because he is afraid of the powerful one whom he is truly mad at. Is it so farfetched to think that rabbits too may try to save face with other rabbits? Is it unreasonable to believe that rabbits, in their own way, understand what they are doing as well or better than we understand them?

The point is, we are very, very ignorant about the mental life of animals. We do not even know how animals visualize the world, never mind what they are thinking. No agreement at all exists among animal behaviorists about the thoughts, feelings, desires, beliefs and intentions of animals.

Instinct or Intelligence?
Ten years ago, two men watched my rabbit, Pajamas, drink from the spout of a water bottle. Both were professors at major universities in the field of philosophy of science, with a subspeciality in philosophy of mind. One of them had earlier commented on the intelligence of Pajamas. He had noticed that when Pajamas came into a room, he made a mental map of the objects in the space (the professor, however, needed to call the map “primitive”) in order to memorize a path of escape among objects that blocked his vision. I later realized that a rabbit in a human home must constantly remember and recheck the floor plan, not an easy mental task.

Now the two men speculated about the instinct that enabled Pajamas to drink from a spout, since nothing like a spout existed in nature. They assumed that his ability was hard-wired and I was influenced by them.

Four years later, I watched another rabbit, my dearest Thumper, bat away at a water spout with his paw because the water was not coming out fast enough. I had never seen this before. In fact, over and over I thought I had seen just the opposite: rabbits who failed to use their front paws. A rabbit will chase a carrot around the floor with his nose rather than put a paw on it to hold it still while he eats. Soon he will manage perfectly well with just his teeth, but he may seem slow to us for not using his paws the way we would use our hands. When I saw Thumper bat that spout, I thought, “Wow, this must be evolution in the making paws becoming hands!” I naturally thought that rabbits would be much better off with hands, since this is what humans have. And I thought this because since I was a child I have been drilled to look for the ways in which humans are different and by implication, superior to other animals. The list includes some strange traits that now I find pretty funny: an opposable thumb, the ability to smile, erect posture, possession of private property, inability to wiggle the ears. These don’t seem so important any more or so exclusive, since at least one other species has at least one of these characteristics or something similar.

But to return to the water bottles. Last year I decided to change the water crocks for all of the foster rabbits, some 19 of them, to bottles. I did this all at once and watched to make sure each one had the proper instinct to use the bottle so he would not go thirsty. What I saw was 19 rabbits figuring out how to use the spout. Some started biting up and down the spouts; one grabbed hold of it with their teeth and shook it. Some licked the wrong part of the spout for awhile. All figured it out pretty quickly. The scene looked a great deal more like bunny self-education than rabbit instinct. This small fact about rabbit intelligence took me ten years to learn and was learned by chance.

Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, once traveled to Zaire, Africa, and visited the free-living gorillas there. He laid down next to one for awhile and each observed the other. His comment is an excellent corrective of our attitude towards all animals: “I began to feel how patronizing it was of us to presume to judge their intelligence, as if ours was any kind of stand by which to measure.”

In our relations with each other, we try to celebrate diversity rather than judge, rank and exploit. How wonderful it will be when we do the same with animals.