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Cognitive Connections: Dolphins, Dogs, and Us!

Ken Ramirez, executive VP of animal care and training at the Shedd Aquarium, will speak at the 2013 Chicago Humanities Festival on Saturday, November 2.

As humans we are fascinated with the topic of animal intelligence. How smart is a dog? How smart is a dolphin? These are questions asked frequently by visitors to Shedd Aquarium, but these questions do not have easy answers. Generally speaking, I have always suggested that animals are as smart as they need to be to survive in their world. Whatever the measure one uses to gauge intelligence, I believe animals develop their skills and their brain power based on what is necessary to survive. We see it in humans and we see it in animals as diverse as fish, insects, birds, and mammals.

Sometimes I believe we are focused on intelligence because we believe that it is one of those traits that sets us apart from most animals. However, in reality, I am not sure it is possible to truly gauge or measure intelligence. As scientists and educators, we argue over whether an IQ test is an effective and fair measure of human intelligence. Since we cannot seem to agree on how to evaluate and gauge human intellect, I believe it is arrogant and presumptuous of us to assume we can truly measure the intelligence of most animals.

Dolphin and dog face off in front of a beach ball
(Image by Alissa Zhu)

However, as someone who has dedicated my entire life to caring for and training animals, I look at intelligence and cognitive abilities of animals differently. I have no doubt that all animals possess some degree of intellectual capacity. All animals can learn new tasks and all animals can adapt when they are faced with challenges—is this not a sign of some degree of intellect?  

However, what bothers me most about the human fascination with intelligence is the value system used by many to determine an animal&'s worth. If an animal is intelligent, cute, or charismatic we tend to put a great deal of effort into protecting it, whether that be a panda, a gorilla, or a dolphin. But animals that are not as attractive or not thought to be as intelligent are often overlooked, whether that be a snake, an insect, or a deep sea fish. Unfortunately this value system skews our perception of the animal world and fails to recognize the value that every creature brings to an ecosystem. One of our primary goals at Shedd is to help connect people to the animals we care for and help our guests see how each of us can have a positive influence on our world.

A coiled snake prepares to lunge at a butterfly (drawing)
(Snake and Butterfly by Johann Teyler)

What I find far more compelling when discussing intelligence are the similarities in how all creatures (including humans) learn and what that tells us about ourselves. Traditional animal training used to be about force and compulsion—make an animal do your bidding—just as was commonly seen in raising children. However, we have entered into a kinder, gentler age in training our animals and teaching our children. Interestingly, I believe we have made greater progress in the training of animals than we have in the training and teaching of people. 

My presentation at the Chicago Humanities Festival will focus on the great progress we have made in positive reinforcement training and what that has allowed us to accomplish in improving animal care in the zoological world and improving reliability in the working dog community. It has been because of the positive reinforcement techniques pioneered with marine mammals that we have seen great breakthroughs in teaching dogs in recent years. I believe that if we can learn from what we have accomplished with animals and transfer that to how we teach people, we would see a kinder and more productive workplace, more motivated and courteous children, and improved interpersonal skills in all aspects of life. 

These are the cognitive connections that I will refer to and highlight during my presentation on Saturday, Nov 2.

Ken Ramirez is the executive VP of animal care and training at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, where he oversees the care of more than 32,000 animals.

Tags: animal training, intelligence, shedd aquarium

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