originally published January 6, 2013
That is a photo of my senior-ranking bulldog, Rufus. Rufus has a multitude of delightful quirks, like the unrestrained stomping of his front paws when he’s happy to see someone, or the way he conveniently eats his own vomit, saving me the need to clean up. But while I’ll proudly toss in a boast for his rugged, unconventional good looks, when folks start to brag about how smart their dogs are, I go quiet. Rufus won’t be winning any scholarships from any ivy league dog colleges. He won’t be sniffing any butts at gatherings of whatever the dog equivalent of MENSA might be. He just doesn’t have a lot going on upstairs.
As a basis for comparison, I offer up the following animals who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps (or whatever they have in the spot where our natural bootstraps are) and learned how to use tools.
I know, comparing a bulldog with primates is a bit unfair. But these guys are the show-offs of the animal kingdom – well, apart from humans. That’s a gorilla using a walking stick to wade through deep water without falling. Orangutans use sticks to measure the depth of a body of water, and one savvy little beast was seen using a pole to snag fish out of a net after watching some humans spear fishing.
Chimps in the Fongoli savanna use sticks as spears when hunting. Capuchin monkeys use hammers and anvils (likely ordered from the Acme Corporation) to open up nuts in the wild. If you handed one of these primates a slide rule, they could probably figure it out in time, or at least figure out a way to use it to capture ants.
By contrast, Rufus once used one of my screwdrivers. Over the course of an afternoon he gnawed its rubber handle down to a slimy, misshapen nub.
After primates, elephants are probably the most impressive tool-twiddlers in the wild. Fortunate enough to have a versatile appendage hanging off their face, they have a tremendous advantage when it comes to using what they find. They’ll use branches to swat away insects or to scratch those impossible-to-reach areas. I imagine that, in addition to using branches to access food, they’ll also have pretend-lightsaber duels. Elephants are hip animals; I’m sure most of them have seen Star Wars.
But it doesn’t end there. Elephants use tools creatively. Upon encountering an electric fence, one elephant was seen dropping a rock onto it in order to smash it without making contact. Sometimes elephants in captivity will stand on stools to reach food – though this makes me wonder if the handlers are just being dicks by leaving the elephant’s food out of reach. In the wild, some elephants have been spotted digging holes with their trunks to drink water, then ripping bark off a tree and chewing it into the shape of a ball. They’d drop that ball overtop the hole to keep the water from evaporating, then return to the spot later for another drink.
Rufus uses the side of our house to scratch his body, to the point where he has rubbed fur off in clumps. Just thinking about what a bald bulldog would look like sends chills from my neck to the back of my knees. There’s no way that would be pretty.
The only entry bears get on this list of handy animals (or ‘Handimals’, which might be a great pitch for a kids’ show) is their ability to exfoliate themselves with rocks. That’s still a notable step up from Rufus, who frequently pees overtop his own pee, just to ensure his territory is safe from that other dog who happens to smell just like him.
Sea otters have been observed using stones to hammer abalone shells free from rocks. This isn’t by itself impressive, but they tend to hammer at a rate of 45 hits in fifteen seconds. That works out to a rate of 180 smacks per minute, thus proving that sea otters are truly the Neil Peart of the animal kingdom.
Rufus, on the other hand, tends to walk head-first into the dishwasher when it’s open.
Dolphins excel with tools, but not by such primitive means as using stuff to smash other stuff. The bottlenose dolphin pictured above has torn off a scrap of sea sponge and wrapped it around its proboscis in order to prevent abrasions whilst sifting about the sea floor in search of grub. This might be the only instance of a wild animal making use of tools for precautionary purposes.
They’ll also trap small fish in conch shells, then lift the shells out of the water, causing the fish to tumble into their mouths. But perhaps most impressive is their willingness to use tools to play.
Dolphins have been observed blowing bubbles, then forming those bubbles into rings. Then they’ll use their nose and body to maintain the shape of the bubble and try to keep it from floating to the surface. They’ll spin their noses to create little vortices and flip the rings 180 degrees, or join two bubble rings together.
Meanwhile I have seen Rufus entirely consume a roll of paper towels, simply because it was there.
Ravens will break off sticks to use as toys. And while some birds will use sticks to dig insects out for food, I’m more interested in the Hooded Crows’ ability to use bait to catch fish. Or the seagulls and crows who drop oysters and nuts onto city streets to allow cars to run over them and crack open the shells. I’ve never had a lot of respect for the mind power of birds, but I suppose there are some exceptions.
Rufus doesn’t need to open anything to get to his food. But I have seen him stare at the cupboard behind which his food is stored. He’ll stare at it for an inordinate amount of time, as though believing he can will the food free from its prison simply by being pathetic enough.
I suppose an animal’s charm, warmth and unwavering companionship, even when they get kicked in the head repeatedly because they sleep directly between my bed and the bathroom at night, are all more important factors to a pet’s worth than intelligence. I don’t need a border collie that can do complex math, or a super-poodle who can edit my articles for grammar infractions. I’m content with a lovable and loyal moron.