Can animals really “think”? Can they actually “reason”?

Each time I witness another act where it appears an animal has “thought it through”, it just confirms my belief that animals do have wisdom and intelligence. One might argue that animals act mainly from innate intelligence (instinct) or memory only. But when I see an animal deliberately make an action that can’t be categorized as instinctual, it makes me more convinced that they know a heck of a lot more than we think!

“Honey”, one of our barn cats, recently had a litter of four kittens. On the morning that she birthed her babies, Honey was adamant about getting my attention. It was a very cool April morning, with a few inches of snow on the ground, and I was making my way to the barn to get morning chores done. Honey intercepted me halfway to the barn, suddenly throwing herself down just inches from my boots, and refused to move. I gently picked her up and continued to walk. She ran ahead of me and again flopped onto her side, effectively blocking my path.

Her behavior was starting to annoy me, as I had my hands full with a plastic bottle of warm water and heated up food for the outdoor cats. It was icy in places and I wanted to stay upright. Honey was making my mission difficult.

Once I reached the feed room where the horse’s oats were stored, Honey darted in front of me – again – and once I opened the door, the long-haired, very pregnant kitty bolted inside. She had been accidentally trapped in the feed room on several different occasions, after she’d sneak inside and hide behind some feed sacks. So the room was nothing “new” to her. This time, however, she hurried to the southwest corner of the space, laid down on a sparse bed of leftover hay, and refused to move. I picked her up and set her outside the door, but before I could fasten the latch, she scurried right back in, settling her body back in the corner. This time I noticed her fluffy tail and back legs were wet, signaling the beginning of her labor.

I attempted to get her to stay in an area where there was plenty of loose hay at the other end of the barn, which would be warm with plenty of cover, but to no avail. She was adamant that the feed room was her space, and no amount of coaxing or moving her was going to work. So I got a large styrofoam cooler (one that temperature-sensitive veterinary products are shipping in), collected a few small fleece blankets, and laid them inside the cooler. Honey curled up and went to work pushing her babies into the world.

The feed room is completely enclosed to keep raccoons and other critters out, so the only way Honey could enter or leave, was when I cracked the door open. She had the life of a queen, with warm water, a heat lamp, and a variety of food to keep her comfy while she was nursing her babies. Even when I cracked the door open, Miss Honey rarely left her babies for more than a minute; she went right back to looking after the two orange and two tiger striped kittens. If any of the other cats attempted to come into the room, Honey rapidly went into “attack mode”, and allowed none of the other cats to check out her newborns.

A few days later, I attempted to move the styrofoam box with her kittens to an area in another shed that was fairly protected, and where another mom, Bonnie, had given birth to her two kittens. Before I could even walk back to the barn, Honey passed me, trotting through the snow with one of her babies in her mouth. She jumped up the small step into the feed room, carting her precious baby to the southwest corner of the room and plopped onto the packed-down hay.

“Okay, Honey cat, you win girl,” I told her as I made my way back to get the box with the other three kittens. Honey was going to have it her way, in no uncertain terms. As I write this, two weeks later, Honey is still in the room with her growing kittens, although she spends a little more time away from them than at the start.

It occurred to me, as I thought about her “odd” behavior, was that last year when she and Bonnie, another barn cat, had their babies, only two survived. The other kittens came up missing, and eventually I found parts of their fur and other evidence that they had been eaten (sorry for the graphic description). We don’t know if raccoons or opossums got a hold of the babies, or if the tomcat that frequents our farm killed them. But Honey remembered. She knew that feed room was safe, and she chose the corner where she felt she could protect her babies best.

Interestingly, Bonnie’s two kittens were attacked by the unknown predator. They were approximately 10 days old and came up suddenly missing, except for a few tufts of fur where Bonnie had them very well secluded.

How did Honey know that feed room was completely enclosed, and safe?

How did she know the southwest corner was the most protected area of that room should another cat or predator gain entrance?

How did she know the best way to get my attention by plopping down in front of my feet?

You might call this a complete coincidence, but I feel strongly that this cat knew exactly what she was doing. Without a doubt.

Another example I can talk about is our elderly quarter horse, Pal. Pal and his partner in crime, Chaser (a 10-year old Arabian gelding), have the run of several acres of pasture and an old apple orchard. There are only two apple trees left, but the horses like to help themselves from the windfall apples. Very early one summer morning, Gary and I heard a big “whap”, then plop, plop, plop. Perplexed at what was making the sounds, we hurried over to our bedroom window that overlooks the orchard. To our utter astonishment, we witnessed Pal backing up to one of the apple trees, then delivering a strategically-placed kick to its trunk. Several apples fell to the ground which were devoured quickly by both horses. Then the process was repeated.

On one of Pal’s attempts, no apples fell. So instead of kicking the trunk of the tree, he put his large, muscled butt into high-speed reverse and slammed into the tree. You could almost hear Pal yelling, “SUCCESS”! as more tasty fruit hurled to the ground.

So if you’re still skeptical that animals can’t think, aren’t smart, or don’t have wisdom, can you tell me how this horse could figure out that blunt force to the tree would cause the apples to fall?

We have so much more to learn about life, don’t we? ♥