“The ferocious rats cannot be handled,” Mr. Albert said. “They will not tolerate it. They go totally crazy if you try to pick them up.”
When the aggressive rats have to be moved, Mr. Albert places two cages side by side with the doors open and lets the rats change cages by themselves. He is taking care that they do not escape to the sewers of Leipzig, he said.
The original purpose of the breeding was to create a friendly breed less likely than wild animals to fight when put to death. But in time, geneticists saw that far-reaching changes they observed in the foxes' physical and neurological makeup merited scientific study. The scientists apparently underwent some changes, too. Close bonds developed between the tame foxes and their human wardens, and the staff at the fur farm is trying to find ways of saving the animals from slaughter.
Moreover, the faces of adult tame foxes came to look more juvenile than the faces of wild adults, and many of the experimental animals developed dog-like features, Dr. Trut reported. Although no selective pressures relating to size or shape were used in breeding the animals, the skulls of tamable foxes tended to be narrower with shorter snouts than those of wild foxes.
The anthropologist Brian Hare has done experiments with dogs, for example, where he puts a piece of food under one of two cups, placed several feet apart. The dog knows that there is food to be had, but has no idea which of the cups holds the prize. Then Hare points at the right cup, taps on it, looks directly at it. What happens? The dog goes to the right cup virtually every time. Yet when Hare did the same experiment with chimpanzees—an animal that shares 98.6 per cent of our genes—the chimps couldn't get it right. A dog will look at you for help, and a chimp won't.
"Primates are very good at using the cues of the same species," Hare explained. "So if we were able to do a similar game, and it was a chimp or another primate giving a social cue, they might do better. But they are not good at using human cues when you are trying to coöperate with them. They don't get it: 'Why would you ever tell me where the food is?' The key specialization of dogs, though, is that dogs pay attention to humans, when humans are doing something very human, which is sharing information about something that someone else might actually want. "Dogs aren't smarter than chimps; they just have a different attitude toward people. "Dogs are really interested in humans," Hare went on. " Interested to the point of obsession. To a dog, you are a giant walking tennis ball."
"Using his parents' garage as his lab and the family dogs as his research subjects, the 19-year-old devised a simple experiment. When a dog wasn't watching, he hid a treat beneath one of two plastic cups. He then showed the dog the cups and either pointed to or looked at the one covering the treat. "They knew exactly what to do," he recalls. "They headed straight for the right cup and got their treat." (The dogs couldn't smell where the food was hidden.)
Although the results of Hare's experiment might not have surprised many dog owners, the study caught the attention of scientists who study animal cognition. At the time, most were hesitant to credit any animal with the ability to infer what another being is thinking—only humans were supposed to have that facility.
"These experiments test whether an animal is able to think about the thoughts of others, as we do," says Hare.
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