This Month’s Featured Article

Animal Smarts

By Published On: March 4th, 2024

My name is Lily and I am a dog. Yes, it’s my real name, but I do my best to keep up with whatever Grampy calls me, be that Willie, Shorty, Beans, or Stinkweed (I unequivocally do not stink, unlike the other doggy here, who smells like a dead goat half the time). Sometimes, he calls me The Brains of the Operation, although that gets to be a mouthful, and I pretty much cease listening after “the brains.” Apparently, I am all of those things he calls me. For the curious, there is a photo of me under “staff” on this magazine’s website, by the by. I’m the brainy, cute one licking the ol’ geezer’s face. Today, he tastes like spicy hot chicken wings. Maybe later on he’ll taste like ice cream … and maybe he will share.

A day in the life of

Although I haven’t entirely gotten my head around how this works, the place where we eat and sleep (on what Grampy calls my lily pad) is a magic box. It has everything I need. It’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It has food (ears up – there’s activity in the kitchen area!) and water. I don’t have to punch a time clock or sign into a Zoom meeting. Grampy loves me. What else could there be? And most afternoons, we climb into the silver box with wheels, leave the big magic box, and at times return with a doughnut for me and the stinky dog. That’s a lot of fun. 

Some words and phrases I recognize: Snow. Rain. No. Excuse me. Walk. Want some of this? Get in [ed. note: the car]. Come up. Kitty (ewwwww). Hang on. Water. Deer. Window. Few minutes. Over here. Ride. That’s it (ordinarily Grampy accompanies this one with a palms-up gesture, like you’d see at the casino when a dealer is leaving or joining a blackjack table). Train. Luna (Grampy’s two-legged granddaughter). Cow. Brought you something. Sometimes Grampy calls me a snake, usually reserved for the times he’s eating and I affix upon him my big, brown eyes filled with abject heartache.

Then there are such things as (you may sense a theme here) chicken. Chocolate chips. Milk. Ice cream. Cheese. Peanut butter. General Tso’s. Meatballs. Sketti. 

Define intelligence

There are many words and/or phrases that I understand. These are words that I let Grampy know I know because, you know, it’s not always the best strategy to let on that you know what you know. But the fact that I can identify and act upon a few people words doesn’t particularly impress me. While this might be considered burying the lead, let’s remember this small yet intriguing fact: Unless I’m missing something, it’s humans that have defined what is meant by “intelligence.” How would that definition appear if we, as in dogs and (I repeat, ewwwww) cats and crows and lizards, for instance, had been tasked with cooking up the definition? Hmmmmm? 

So I’m lacking Broca’s area of the brain. Well, darn. Humans could do 

a lot worse by speaking a whole lot less, if you ask me. Except, of course, when it comes to me. I like it when Grampy talks to me. (What would really come in handy are opposable thumbs, if that could somehow be arranged.) I heard this somewhere and I   forthwith and with great alacrity apologize for my inability to recall exactly where: Buffalo give the impression that if they are not     speaking, it is because they understand the value of silence. Maybe once upon a time I was a buffalo. However this all works, y’all realize it’s rather twisted to try to define me and my friends against  the intelligence of humans, right? Maybe try looking a little deeper? Philosophers way back when thought only of humans, and humans only, as sentient. René Descartes, no simpleton so far as I can ascertain, maintained that animals are automata, unable to feel pain or suffering. Hogwash. Clearly, he was off his rocker, but what of it? Let’s think about this for a second: It wasn’t so long ago that doctors were of the mind that babies were incapable of feeling pain until they reached the age of one or so. Anyhoo, this seems like a good time to go see if anything tasty was recently dropped on the kitchen floor and give Grampy a chance to pipe in.


Grampy here, in living color, which, I might add, Lily failed to mention she is not so great at seeing, but conversely I’m not so great at smelling and I’m certainly no match for her hearing abilities. Because of the latter, let’s think about the times all’s quiet and Spot is seated alongside you on the chesterfield, when suddenly his ears perk up and he adopts that head-tilted listening position. You don’t hear a thing. What is it? A chipmunk in the attic? A family of mice in the wall? Chances are, Spot can make an excellent, informed guess, while you sit there thinking he’s lost his marbles.

When we’re in the silver box with wheels and happen to drive by a spot at which we ordinarily stop, such as a coffee shop, and we don’t, Lily, from her position in the front seat, will watch it go by, then look quizzically over at me, clearly bamboozled over why we didn’t stop. Try telling me animals have no memory capabilities or understanding of their surroundings. Going by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, right from the top, intelligence can be defined as the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations and/or the skilled use of reason; the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly; mental acuteness or shrewdness. 

All my life, as with many of us, I’ve been around dogs and cats and whatever else. Early in life, it was dogs, then cats midstream, now back to dogs. At this ripe old age of I-forget-what, having observed them and other wild critters (I could do without the fisher screeching out at the creek, but fishers gotta screech or they cease being fishers, is my guess) around me go about their daily lives, I continue to grapple with the question of what is meant by “intelligence” and what might be labeled “instinctive” when it comes to animals. If all animal behavior is instinctive, driven by their DNA and whatever other magic chemical stew is comprised within their beings, then what’s the scoop with humans, who take years to so much as grasp many of the fundamentals essential to their existence?


If there’s one understanding that age brings with it, it’s that all the dogs and cats that have lived life alongside me were all individuals in their own right. That’s not to mention the highly sociable skunk who, back in the day when I engaged in such an activity, would join me on the back porch when it was cigar time, this prior to me handing him pieces of kitty food, when he showed up simply to hang out by my feet. He soon acquired a name, Ambrose, short for ambrosia. Once the kitty food entered the equation, I’m guessing I could have easily induced him to climb up onto my lap, but I do have standards, limited in scope though they may be. We were quite comfortable in our arrangement. And then we got a dog. Buh-bye, nightly assignations with Ambrose, who no doubt filled the air with X-rated skunk words at this revolting development.

Years before meeting up with “my” friendly skunk, a phrase – “the implication of intelligent design” – uttered by Carl Sagan on the Tonight Show worked its way in through an earhole and has lived inside my head ever since. As I recall, he’d said it as part of a response in regards to what might be running through the mind of someone from outer space approaching the planet Earth for the first time. What if the first thing he/she/whatever were to spot was the bear out in my yard, lifting the lid on the trash container, perusing the contents, and finally reaching in to remove a bag, ultimately to liberate its contents and settle in for breakfast? Not knowing anything about anything, why wouldn’t that outer space being be led to believe that bear simply had to be the brightest being extant?

Plan ahead. Be like the squirrel.

Okay, none of the denizens of the animal kingdom will be parsing the mysteries of quantum mechanics (can we really be sure about that?) anytime soon, but how many among us will? Settle down, people. If there’s one thing at which homo sapiens almost universally excels, given our raging anthropocentrism, it’s our certainty of our utter brilliance and how desperately convinced of our superiority we can be. One can tell a lot about someone by the way they walk their pooch – stuff you see on virtually a daily basis makes this human shake his head, stuff like people hurrying their dogs along on a walk, yanking on their leash and such when they’re stopping every two feet to smell what’s new in the ‘hood. Telling them to get their business done now because they, the human, needs to get somewhere wildly important, like back to their video game. “Plan ahead,” I envision filling the dog’s thought bubble, which might be the mild version.

Be like the local squirrels, who have trained me to plan ahead and expect a less-than-mild winter by carefully piling pine cones around the bases of the copious pine trees here. Initially, this was confusing, as my human thinker told me they really should shelter them away from pine cone thieves and the weather, so I have no idea how to explain it, but over time it became a surefire indicator to keep the snow shovel nearby and the plow guy on speed dial for that particular winter. 

You know, following the conception of this story and the go-ahead from the Big Cheese, I ordered up a pile of books from the library and began banging around the inkernet in search of words of wisdom from people who know about such things as animal intelligence, in order that this might turn out to be at least a halfway scholarly look at things. Ha. And then Lily took over. And here we are.