Animals like us?

That elephants can recognise themselves in a mirror has led to a great deal of excitement with some arguing this places them in a cognitive elite. But I’m not so sure.

A little while ago, vets were warned of the dangers of prescribing antibiotics to dogs. Such drugs can destroy the bacteria that give a dog his unique scent, the consequences of which can be devastating for the animal. It’s likely that other dogs will no longer recognise him and will subsequently shun or even attack him. The human equivalent would be to have your face so horrifically disfigured that friends and family no longer recognise you.

With this in mind, I can’t help but think that, in welcoming elephants to a higher club, scientists are guilty of anthropomorphism. As you walk down the street with your dog, it’s fair to say that the two of you are enjoying a very different experience. The human is focused primarily on sight and sound; the dog is more concerned with scent. The dog doesn’t recognise anybody – human or canine – by the way they look. But if the dog were capable, he’d most likely think his owner stupid for failing to recognise the scent of friends and family. Yet the dog’s experience of a walk down the street is just as real, just as true and so just as valid as the experience enjoyed by his owner.

That the elephant uses his senses in a more human way than the dog, does not mean the elephant is necessarily cleverer than the dog.

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