How Much Do Animals Understand? (Non Human Primate Edition)

Written by Devtome wiki contributor Bomac


This first story comes out of India. A pair of monkeys of a smaller species were walking above a train station on high powered electrical wires. One of the monkeys got electrocuted and fell. You would think the fall alone would killed her, or the electrocution alone, but her companion was not having that. The surviving monkey made her way down to her unconscious friend and did everything she could think of to revive her.

She patted her, but did not get a response. She tried biting her friend, but nothing happened. Perhaps she felt that her buddy's body was warm from the electrocution and decided to cool her off.

She dragged her friend to some water and dipped her in it. After 20 minutes, in all, the unconscious monkey seemed to come back from the dead. She came to consciousness and looked around, to cheer from the crowd of people awaiting their train, who had witnessed the whole thing. They stayed put for a while, as the rescue monkey groomed her friend.

It must have been absolutely moving to have been there and experienced it. Even if it wouldn't have the happy ending, it would have been incredibly dramatic to see the love and compassion shown from one animal to another. Add to the fact the fact that the monkey lived and the two monkeys ran off together – along with a third monkey that stood by watching the whole thing – it had to be a once in a lifetime kind of event that one could never forget.

There was at least one video of the event on YouTube but it was taken down due to a copyright infringement claim. Perhaps there were several videos posted from different angles, because it has been reported that many people were taking pictures with their phones. At least you will be able to see several images by going here.

The Least Intelligent Of The Primates Make Nuclear Bombs

Of course, we know that non human primates are intelligent. Koko the gorilla was taught words and sign language and is said to understand and convey different feelings. In 2001 when her life long partner died, she was sad for several months. It was not until Robin Williams came to meet her, did she play and smile for the first time in the six months since the death of her friend.


I can't imagine why, but her researchers felt the need to tell her that Robin had died. They report that she teared up and grew very somber. Here is a video report on that.1)

One suggestion that actually makes sense to me, is that it was a way to generate publicity for the foundation working with Koko, which could lead to monetary contributions.

Hyperbole In The Mist?

There is debate among scientist as to how accurate not only Koko's trainer is, but also the researchers for other gorillas who do the sign language work. Reading the story link in the following footnote (as well as the previous link, above), I can't help but believe there is a considerable amount of exaggeration involved, even if the researchers are not actually lying, per se. On the other hand, there definitely seems to be real breakthroughs in communication with the species.2)

Blinded By Science?

Scientists are notorious for not believing in things if they haven't been documented in scientific journals, and without a consensus of a large number of other scientists. I am not even addressing conflict of interests in science for hire, where the status quo in a particular field does not want it's position threatened.

Many scientists and scientific minded people are the ones quick to tell you that you pet is incapable of love or other emotions, when you know from experience they couldn't be more wrong if they tried.3) So it comes as no surprise to think that scientists might not believe that primates could learn hundreds of words and their signs, yet there is one passage in the literature on this topic that readily shows that even skeptical scientists accept that some level of word communication is going on between research gorillas and humans.

First He Said Water Bird - Then He Asked For Matinee Tickets For Swan Lake

It's about a chimpanzee named Washoe, the first primate to be taught sign language, whose researchers said knew signs for 250 words. They would take her for rides in the car. One day she saw a swan and made a sign for what she saw, “Water bird.” The researchers took that to mean she formulated a new word or thought, but skeptical scientists say, it was simply two things she saw, a bird and water. (Therefore, they at least admit she could identify. in words. what she was seeing, a bird and water.)

Frankly, I'm not sure for the reason of the skepticism, because putting two things together is how human often form new words, but the fact that that even the skeptic with initial after their names didn't try to argue that Washoe communicated those words, is ample evidence that the research is extraordinary. How much so, of course, will continue to be debated, but here is one of many examples from this field of research: When Koko's partner died, or her pet cat died, he researcher explained they had gone away, Koko signed words like, “sad,” “cry,” and “mad,” both times.

We'll finish up this edition of How Much Do Animals Understand with some events that took place with gorillas in a zoo, here is a video of an ape taking care of a little boy that feel into the ape pit at a zoo in England. The ape goes over and looks at him and then strokes his back, before standing guard to prevent other gorillas from approaching.

Here is a story about another such accident, this one in Illinois. A mother gorilla actually picks the boy up and takes him to zoo keepers.

This video shows a gorilla letting workers know she doesn't like them pestering her.

In this video that is mistitled, Orangutan Saves Baby Chick From Drowning, an orangutan shows her curiosity regarding the chick, who had perfectly safe, swimming in the water below. It's nerve racking to see the huge animal picking the tiny bird up by it's head, but yet, you can tell that she's being very gentle, obviously knowing she could destroy it easily if she isn't careful.4)

That's the orangutan's arm reaching down, offering the chick a leaf to eat - Hey if it's good enough for orangutans, it's good enough for ducks. Right?

Talking about gorillas knowing to be gentle, here's an 18 month old girl playing with a gorilla. The video is 20 years old, The 22 year old woman is interviewed, along with her gorilla researcher father who allowed her to play with them. He has an 8 year old daughter who doesn't get to play with them, due to laws that have since been enacted.

Lastly, here's a dog and a young orangutan who fell in love at first site. When they first crossed paths, it was like they recognized each other from a lot of past lives. They ran toward each other and embraced and played and have been inseparable ever since.

Science | Social Sciences | Philosophy

In fact, the story linked above is written by someone who evidently prides herself on being scientific minded and open minded. She tells how she wrote an article when her research showed the they can feel and show jealously. She remarks that she was flooded with reactions along the lines of, “Anybody who has ever had a dog, knows that.” She then goes on to say that it's so easy to read human emotions into animals. So, her point seems to be, that all those people were simply projecting their beliefs about their dogs, but she, a scientific minded person, was able to objectively discern jealousy in dogs, so when she says that dogs are capable of jealousy, it's science, but when people write to her and say they already knew that, it's silliness. Does anybody but me want to barf at that typical scientific condescension?
Language warning. I'm quoting a profane YouTube commenter here: I usually don't like all the negativity that goes on online with people speaking to strangers in ways that would get them punched out or shot if they spoke to others in person that way, but this comment made me laugh. Not only did the OP (original poster) of the video get it wrong, in terms of the saving the chick from drowning, since it was simply paddling in the water and was not showing signs of drowning in any way – but many of the commenters bought that misinformation, hook, line and sinker. So this person wrote, “What the fuck is going on? Do people not realize that ducks float? The chick was not “drowning” you imbeciles.”

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