Studies of Animal Nature

“ THE beasts that perish.” It would probably be impossible, now, to retrace the lost links of application whereby a phrase which the Preacher uses in regard to man—“he is like the beasts that perish ” — has come to be generally accepted as a divine disparagement of the animal nature. Man has the right of dominion, indeed, as the last and loftiest form of organic life on this planet; but it is difficult to find in nature so broad and deep a gulf of division as he seems to have arbitrarily set between himself and all lower forms, —whether we consider these as distinct creations or inferior phases of evolution. He somewhat contemptuously puts them aside, as creatures of use or injury, having at best a scientific value through their physical structure, locality, groupings, and habits. The highest he has been willing to grant them, hitherto, is a dim emotional or sympathetic quality, chiefly developed through long association with himself.

It has often seemed to me that our conceptions of the Deity, of the human race, and of animal nature preserve very nearly the same relative distances from each other. The exaltation or depression of one elevates or depresses all in the same degree, so that we may infer the individual estimate of all from the manifestation of that of any one of the three. It would therefore be quite logical that, in these days, when the revelations of science have so grandly uplifted the endeavor of the human soul towards some faint comprehension of the Divine Power, we should turn with a new sympathy, if not respect, to the humbler forms of life below us. Thus, if Darwin’s theory should be true, it will not degrade man; it will simply raise the whole animal world into dignity, leaving man as far in advance as he is at present.

I have always had a great respect for animals, and have endeavored to treat them with the consideration which I think they deserve. They have quick perceptions and know when to be confiding or reticent. I have learned no better way to gain their confidence than to ask myself, “If I were such or suet an animal, how should I wish to be treated by man? ” and to act upon that suggestion. The finest and deepest parts of their natures can be reached only by an intercourse which is purely kind and sympathetic. Since the key to the separate languages has been lost on both sides, the higher intelligence must condescend to open some means of communication with the lower. The zoölogists, unfortunately, rarely trouble themselves to do this; they are more interested in the skull of an elephant, the thigh-bone of a bird, or the dorsal fin of a fish, than in the intelligence or rudimentary moral sense of the creature. But the former field is open to all laymen, and nothing but. a stubborn traditional contempt for our slaves or our hunted enemies in the animal world has held us back from a truer knowledge of them.

in the first place, animals have much more capacity to understand human speech than is generally supposed. The Hindoos invariably talk to their elephants, and it is amazing how much the latter comprehend. The Arabs govern their camels with a few cries, and my associates in the African desert were always amused whenever I addressed a remark to the big dromedary who was my property for two months; yet, at the end of that time, the beast evidently knew the meaning of a number of simple sentences. Some years ago, seeing the hippopotamus in Barman’s Museum looking very stolid and dejected, I spoke to him in English, but he did not even move his eyes. Then I went to the opposite corner of the cage, and said in Arabic, “ I know you; come here to me! ” He instantly turned his head towards me; I repeated the words, and thereupon he came to the corner where I was standing, pressed his huge, ungainly head against the bars of the cage, and looked in my face with a touching delight while I stroked his muzzle. I have two or three times found a lion who recognized the same language, and the expression of his eyes, for an instant, seemed positively human.

I know of nothing more moving, indeed semi-tragic, than the yearning !helplessness in the face of a dog who understands what is said to him and cannot answer. We often hear it said that no animal can endure the steady gaze of the human eye; but this is a superstition. An intelligent dog or horse not only endures, but loves it. The eye of a beast is restless from natural habit, but hardly more so than that of savage man. Cats, birds, and many other animals seek, rather than avoid, a friendly human eye. It is possible that tigers may have been turned away by an unflinching gaze, but I suspect the secret lay in the surprise of the beast at so unusual an experience, rather than in direct intimidation. Thieves are said to have the belief that a dog, for the same reason, will not attack a naked man, but I do not remember any account of a burglary where they have tried the. experiment. Cattle, however, are easily surprised. Once, in 1849 on the Salinas Plains in California, I escaped exactly the same onset of a vast herd of wild cattle as Mr. Harte describes in his Gabriel Conroy, by sitting down upon the ground. They were so unaccustomed to seeing a man, except on horseback, that the position was an absolute bewilderment to them. The foremost halted within a hundred feet, formed a line as regular as a file of soldiers, and stared stupidly, until a team, luckily approaching at the right time, released me from my hazardous situation.

Few persons are aware of the great effect which quiet speech exercises upon the most savage dog. A distinguished English poet told me that he was once walking in the country with Canon Kingsley, when they passed a lodge where an immense and fierce mastiff, confined by a long chain, rushed out upon them. They were just beyond his reach, but the chain did not seem secure; the poet would have hurried past, but Kingsley, laying a hand upon his arm, said, “ Wait a moment, and see me subdue him!” Thereupon he walked up to the dog, who, erect upon his hind feet, with open jaws and glaring eyes, was the embodiment of animal fury. Kingsley lifted his hand, and quietly said, “ You are wrong! Yon have made a mistake: you must go back to your kennel!” The dog sank down upon his fore feet, but still growled angrily; the cation repeated his words in a firm voice, advancing step by step, as the dog gave way. He continued speaking grave reproof, as to a human being, until he had forced the mastiff back into his kennel, where the latter silently, and perhaps remorsefully, lay down.

I cannot now tell whether I remembered this story, or acted simply from a sudden instinct, in a very similar case.

I was in San Francisco, and went to call upon a gentleman of my acquaintance, who lived upon Rincon Point. The house stood a little distance back from the street, in a beautiful garden. I walked up between clumps of myrtle and fuchsia to the door, and rang the bell. Instead of answer, there was a savage bay; a giant dog sprang around the corner of the house, and rushed at me with every sign of furious attack. I faced him, stood still, and said, “ I am a friend of Mr.——, and have come to visit him.

You must not suppose that I mean any harm. I shall wait to see if the bell is answered; you may stay, and watch me. lam not afraid of you.” The animal paused, listened intently, but was evidently not entirely convinced; he still growled, and showed his teeth in rather an alarming manner. Then I said, “ I shall ring once more; if there is no answer, I shall go away.” He followed me up the steps to the door, glared fiercely while I rang, and would undoubtedly have dashed at my throat had I made a suspicious gesture. As no one came to the door, I finally said, “ I see there is nobody at home, so I shall go, as I told you I would.” His growling ceased ; side by side we went down the walk, and when I had closed the gate he turned away with a single dignified wave of the tail, which I understood as a combined apology and farewell.

Brehm, the German naturalist, gives a very curious account of a chimpanzee at the Zoölogical Garden in Hamburg. He satisfied himself that the animal understood as much human speech as an average child of two and a half years old. For instance, when he asked, “ Ho you see the ducks? ” the chimpanzee would look about the garden, passing over the geese and swans, until he found the birds indicated. At the command, " Go and sit down! ’ ’ uttered without any inflection of voice or glance towards a chair, he would promptly obey; on being told, “ You are naughty,” he would hang his head, with an expression of distress; and he very soon learned to express his affection by kisses and caresses, like the children whom he saw.

I presume it is a very common observation of persons who own intelligent dogs, that if they happen to describe to a visitor some fault for which the animal has been scolded or punished, in the latter’s presence, he will exhibit an uneasy consciousness of what is said, even sometimes quietly slink away. But the extent to which a horse, also, may be taught to understand speech, is not so generally known. The simple fact that he likes to be talked to makes him attentive to the sounds, and I am convinced that in a great many cases he has an impression of the meaning, I have at present a horse who served his country during the war, and came to me only after its close. His experience while on scouting service made him very suspicious of any gray object, as I soon discovered; he would shy at a fallen log in a thicket, a glimpse of mossy rock, or a laborer s coat left in a fence-corner. By stopping him whenever this happened, and telling him, in an assuring tone, that there was nothing to fear, he was very soon completely cured of the habit. But he still lifts up his head, and would, if he could, cry “ Ha! ha! ” when he hears the sound of the trumpet.

The affection and fidelity of the horse have always been admitted. My first acquaintance with these qualities was singular enough to be related. When a boy of fourteen, I was walking along a lonely country - road with a companion of the same age, and came upon an old gray horse, standing, in the middle of the track, over a man who was lying upon his back. We hastened up to give assistance, but presently saw that the man, instead of being injured, was simply dead drunk, He had tumbled off, on his way home from the tavern, and a full bottle of whiskey, jolted out of his pocket in falling, lay by his side. The fore feet of the horse were firmly planted on each side of his neck, and the hind feet on each side of his legs. This position seeming to us dangerous for the man, we took the animal by the bridle and attempted lo draw him away; but he resisted with all his strength, snorting, laying back his ears, and giving every other sign of anger. It was apparent that he had carefully planted himself so as completely to protect his master against any passing vehicle. We assisted the faithful creature in the only possible way, — by pouring the whiskey into the dust, — and left him until help could be summoned. His act, indicated not only affection, involving a sense of duty, but also more than one process of reasoning.

Darwin, as I understand him, is still doubtful whether there is a moral sense in animals. We can judge only from acts, of course, but our interpretation of those acts depends upon our sympathetic power of entering into the feelings of the animal. This is an element which science will not accept; hence I doubt whether her deductions may not fall as far short of the truth as a vivid imagination may go beyond it. To me, it is very clear that there is at least a rudimentary moral sense in animals. I have had two marked evidences thereof, which are the more satisfactory inasmuch as they include a change of conduct which can be explained only by assuming an ever-present memory of the fault committed. If this be not a lower form of conscience in its nature, its practical result is certainly the very same. Were we to judge a strange man by his actions, his speech being wholly unintelligible to us, we should give him the credit of a positive conscience in like circumstances. Why should we withhold it from an animal?

Let the reader decide for himself! I have a horse who is now not less than forty-one years old, and it. is possible that he is a year or two older; for thirty-eight years ago he was broken to use. He is at present on the retired list, only occasionally being called upon to lend a helping shoulder to his younger colleague; but his intellect is as fresh and as full of expedients as ever. No horse ever knew better how to save himself, to spare effort and prolong his powers; no one was ever so cunning to slip his halter, open the feed-box, and supply the phosphates, the necessity of which to him he knew as well as any “scientist. ” I have seen him, through a crack in a board shanty used while the stable was building, lift and lay aside with his teeth six boxes which were piled atop of one another, until he found the oats at the bottom. Then, when my head appeared at the window, he instantly gave up his leisurely, luxurious munching of the grain, opened his jaws to their fullest extent, thrust his muzzle deep into the box, and gravely walked back to his stall with at least a quart of oats in his mouth. This horse had a playful habit of snapping at my arm when he was harnessed for a drive. (I always talk to a horse before starting, as a matter of common politeness.) Of course I never flinched, and his teeth often grazed my sleeve as he struck them together. One day, more than a dozen years ago, he was in rather reckless spirits and snapped a little too vigorously, catching my arm actually in his jaws. I scarcely felt the bite, but I was very much surprised. The horse, however, showed such unmistakable signs of regret and distress that I simply said, “ Never do that, again! ” And he never did! From that moment, he gave up the habit of years; he laid back his ears, or feigned anger in other ways, but. he never again made believe to bite. This, certainly, goes far beyond the temporary sorrow for an unintentional injury which may be referred to an animal’s affection. What else is conscience than knowledge of wrong made permanent by a memory which forbids the repetition of the wrong?

The other instance was furnished by a creature which is popularly supposed to be as stupid as it is splendid, — a peacock! This, being a long-lived bird, and therefore dowered with a richer experience than other domestic fowls, ought to be wiser in proportion; yet I have never heard of the peacock being cited as an example of either intelligence, or moral sense. The bird is vain, it. is true; but if vanity indicates lack of intelligence, what will become of men and women? I have often watched “ John ” (the name we gave him and which he always recognized) spreading his tail before a few guinea-fowl, who were so provokingly indifferent to the rayed splendor that he invariably ended by driving them angrily away. On the other hand, can I ever forget the simple, untiring attachment of the gorgeous creature? The table at which I wrote stood near a bay-window, so that I had the true left-hand side-light, with a window at my back. As soon as I took my place there, after breakfast, the peacock flew upon the window-sill, and, whenever I failed to notice him, the sharp taps of his bill upon the glass reminded me of his presence. Then I turned, and, as in duty bound, said, “ Good morning, John!” after which he continued to sit there, silent and content, for two or three hours longer. The peacock is ordinarily a shy fowl, hut John was bold enough to eat out of our hands.

As often as spring came, however, it was impossible to prevent his depredations in the garden. He had a morbid taste for young cabbage and lettuce plants, especially when they were just rooted after being set out, and he would sometimes pick a whole bed to pieces while the gardener’s back was turned. For awhile, I amused myself by testing his powers of dissimulation. I waited behind a clump of bushes until he was fairly on his way to the garden, making long, swift strides, with depressed neck and tail, and then I suddenly stepped forth. In the twinkling of an eye John stood upright, walked leisurely in the opposite direction, and seemed quite absorbed in the examination of some trifling object. His air and manner, to the tips of his feathers, expressed the completest ignorance of a garden. He would spread his tail, call to the other fowls, peer under the hedge, and in similar ways attempt to beguile me out of sight of his secret aim. If I humored him for a few moments, he was always found a good many yards nearer the garden when I turned again. I have never seen a more hypocritical assumption of innocence and indifference in any human being.

There came a season when even the patience of old friendship was too severely tried. The peacock was presented to a friend, who lived two or three miles away and was the possessor of a couple of hens, I missed the morning tap at my window, the evening perch on the walnut-tree, the unearthly cries which used so to startle guests from the city, but consoled myself with thinking that our loss was his gain, for we had never replaced his lost spouse. He had been gone about a week, when one evening the familiar cry was heard from a grove on the farm, nearly half a mile from the house. Next day, John was seen in a weedy field, but slipped out of sight on finding he was detected. We let him alone, and in the course of a fortnight he had advanced as near as the chestnut-tree which I proudly exhibit to strangers as one of the antiquities of America, for it was growing when Charlemagne reigned in Aix-la-Chapelle and Haroun al-Raschid in Bagdad. He now allowed himself to be seen, but utterly refused to recognize any member of the family. When we called him by name, he instantly walked away; when we threw him food, he refused to touch it. Little by little, however, he forgave us the offense; in another fortnight he roosted on the walnut-tree, and at the end of the second month I heard his tap of complete reconciliation on the window. But the exile and mortification had chastened his nature. From that day the young plants were safe from his bill; he lived with us three or four years longer, but was never once guilty of the same fault. No one denies that an animal is easily made to understand that certain things are forbidden. Discipline, alone, may accomplish thus much. But when two creatures so far removed as a horse and a peacock assimilate the knowledge to such an extent that the one gives up a habit and the other resists a tempting taste, we must admit either the germ of a moral sense or an intellect capable of positive deduction.

The same horse once revealed to me the latter quality in a surprising way. On telling the story privately, I find that it is sometimes incredulously received; yet I am sure that no one who cherishes the proper respect for animals will refuse it credence. In the company of a friend, I was driving along a country roa in a light, open buggy. I paid no attention to the horse, for he could turn, back, or execute any other manœuvre in harness, as well without as with a driver. Halting at a house where my friend wished to call, I waited for him outside. Presently the horse looked back at me, twisting his body between the thills in a singular fashion. I perceived that he had some communication to make and said, “ What is the matter now, Ben? ” Thereupon, by twisting a little more, he managed to hold up his right hind foot, and I saw that the shoe had been lost. “That’s right,” said I; “ you shall have a new shoe as soon as we get to the village.” He set down his foot, and for a moment seemed satisfied. Then the same turning of the head and twisting of the body were repeated. “ What, Ben! is anything else the matter? ” I asked. He now lifted up the left hind foot, which was still shod. I was quite at a loss to understand him, and remained silent. He looked back at me, out. of the corner of his eye, and evidently saw that I was puzzled, whereupon he set down his foot, and seemed to think. Almost immediately he lifted it up again, and shook it vigorously. The loose shoe rattled! There was a positive process of reasoning in this act, and it is too simple and clear to be interpreted in any other way.

I have had plenty of opportunity, yet very little time, to study bird nature; but ever since I saw a gentleman, in the park at Munich, entice the birds to come and feed from his hand by standing perfectly still and whistling a few soft, peculiar notes, I have been convinced of the possibility of a much more familiar intercourse. Simply by feeding such birds as remain through the winter, and keeping sportsmen off the place, all varieties of birds soon became half tame, in the summer, when the windows were opened, they entered the house every day, and I frequently found that a bird which had once been caught and released readily allowed itself to be caught a second time. Once a litlle red-breasted creature, with a black head, lay exhausted in my hand, overcome with the terror and mystery of a glass pane. At, first I thought it dead; but suddenly it hopped upon its feet, looked in my face with bright, piercing eyes, and chirped a few notes, which distinctly said, “ Did you deliver me? Am I really free? ” Then, still chirping, it slowly hopped up my arm to the shoulder, sang a snatch of some joyous carol, and flew away, brushing my cheek as it went. Another time, when I picked up some callow catbirds out of the deep grass and replaced them in the nest, the parents actually dashed against my head in their distress and rage; but after I had retired a few minutes to let them he reassured, they allowed me to approach the nest without interrupting their talk with the young ones. Even a humming-bird, drenched and chilled by a September rain, soon learned to be happy in a basket of warm cotton, and to sip sugared water out of a teaspoon.

We had a parrot but once, and that only for a few weeks. The bird was a mystery to me, and I found him almost too uncanny to be a pleasant acquaintance. Our parrot came directly from a vessel, but from what port I neglected to learn; he apparently understood the English language, but would not speak it. He preferred toast and coffee to any other diet, and was well-behaved although tremendously exacting. When he became a little accustomed to us, he would sing the gamut, both upward and downward, in an absent-minded, dreamy way, as if recalling some memory of an operasinger. He would sit beside me on a perch, seemingly contented, until he saw that I was absorbed in writing. Then he mounted to the table, planted himself on the paper directly in the way of the pen, or managed, by nips of the ears and hair, to get upon the top of my head and make coherent thought impossible. Once, remembering Campbell’s ballad, I ventured — though with some anxiety, for I half expected to see him flap round the room with joyous screech, drop down and die — to speak to him in Spanish. He was surprised, interested, and at first seemed inclined to answer in the same tongue; but after reflecting half an hour upon the question he shook his head and kept the secret to himself. No phrase or word of any kind could be drawn from him; yet the same bird, seeing my daughter a week after we had given him away to a friend, suddenly called her by name! The parrot should have been the symbol of the Venetian Council of Ten.

Three weeks after the great fire in Chicago, in 1871, I saw a parrot which had saved itself from the general fate of all household treasures there. It had belonged to my old friend, Mrs. Kirkland, and was doubly cherished by her daughter. When it was evident that the house was doomed, and the red wall of flame, urged by the hurricane, was sweeping towards it with terrific speed, Miss Kirkland saw that she could rescue nothing except what she instantly took in her hands. There were two objects, equally dear, — the parrot and the old family Bible; but she was unable to carry more than one of them. After a single moment of choice, she seized the Bible, and was hastening away, when the parrot cried out, in a loud and solemn voice, “ Good Lord, deliver us! ” No human being, I think, could have been deaf to such an appeal; the precious Bible was sacrificed and the parrot saved. The bird really possessed a superior intelligence. I heard him say “ Yes ” and “ No ” in answer to questions, the latter being varied so as to admit, alternately, of both replies; and the test of his knowledge was perfect. In the home where he had found a refuge there were many evening visitors, one of whom, a gentleman, was rather noted for his monopoly of the conversation. When the parrot first heard him, it listened in silence for some time; then, to the amazement and perhaps the confusion of all present, it said very emphatically, " You talk altogether too much! ” The gentleman, at first somewhat embarrassed, presently resumed his interrupted discourse. Thereupon the parrot laid his head on one side, gave an indescribably comical and contemptuous “ H’m-m! ” and added, “ There he goes again! ” If there ever was an oiseau terrible., it is the parrot ; his instinct for discovering ways and means of annoyance is something diabolical.

If the little brain of a bird contains so much, manifested to us simply because its tongue may be taught to utter articulate sounds, why have we not a right to assume a much greater degree of intelligence in animals to whom articulation is impossible? If dogs or horses were capable of imitating our speech, as well as comprehending it, would they not have a great deal more to say to us? Articulation is a mechanical, not an intellectual peculiarity; but in the case of the parrot, and notably the mino, it is generally so employed as to prove very much more than routine and coincidence. I never saw a mino (the name is possibly a corruption of moineau) but once. I entered the vacant reading-room of a hotel, early in the morning, took up a paper, and sat down, when suddenly a voice said, “ Good morning! ” I saw nothing but what seemed to be a black bird in a cage, and could not have believed that the perfectly human voice came from it, had it not once more said, in the politest tone, “ Good morning! ” I walked to the cage, and looked at it. “ Open the door and let me out, please! ” said the bird. “ Why, what are you? ” I involuntarily exclaimed. “I'm a mino!” answered the amazing creature. It was the exact voice of a boy of twelve.

When we turn to the lower forms of life, a feeling of repulsion, if not of positive disgust, checks our interest. Very few persons are capable of fairly observing snakes, toads, lizards, and other reptiles which suggest either slime or poison. The instinct must be natural, for it is almost universal. I confess I should never select one of those creatures as a subject of study; but in a single case, where the creature presented itself unsolicited, and became familiar without encouragement, it soon lost its repulsive character. It was a huge, venerable toad, which for years haunted the terrace in front of my house. Strict orders had been given, from the first, that he was not to be molested; and he. soon ceased to show alarm when any one appeared. During the warm weather of summer, it was our habit to sit upon the terrace and enjoy the sunset and early twilight. From hopping around us at such times, the toad gradually come to take his station near us, as if he craved a higher form of society and was satisfied to be simply tolerated. Finally he seemed to watch for our appearance, and whenever we came out with chairs and camp-stools for the evening, he straightway hopped forth from some covert under the box-bushes and took his station beside some one of us. He was very fond of sitting on the edge of my wife’s dress, but his greatest familiarity was to perch on one of my boots, where his profound content at having his back occasionally stroked was shown in the slow, luxurious winking and rolling of his bright eyes. His advances to us had been made so gently and timidly that it would have been cruel to repel them; but we ended by heartily liking him and welcoming his visits. For several summers he was our evening companion; even the house-dog, without command, respected his right of place. One May he failed to appear, not from old age, for his term of life was far beyond ours, but probably from having fallen victim to some foe against which we could not guard him.

I have found field-tortoises with dates nearly a hundred years old carved on the under shell. Such an aged fellow never shows the same fear of man as those of a later generation. Instead of shutting himself tip with an alarmed hiss, he thrusts out his head, peers boldly into your face, and paws impatiently in the air, as much as to say, “ Put me down, sir, at once! ” I once placed one of them on the terrace, and let him go. Nothing could surpass' the prompt, business-like way in which he set to work. In a few minutes he satisfied himself of the impossibility of squeezing through the box-edgings, and recognized that there was no way of escape except by the steps leading down to the lawn. This was an unknown difficulty; but he was ready to meet it. After a careful inspection, he mused for the space of a minute; then, crawling carefully to the edge, he thrust himself over, quickly closing his shell at the same time, and fell with a thump on the step below. When he reached the lawn, I noticed that he struck an airline for the spot where I found him.

I give these detached observations of various features of animal nature for the sake of the interest they may possess for others. The man of science, as I have said, may reject evidence into which the element of sympathy enters so largely; but he may still admit the possibility of more complex intelligence, greater emotional capacity, and the existence of a faculty allied to the moral sense of man. If one should surmise a lower form of spiritual being, yet equally indestructible, who need take alarm ? " Yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preëminence above a beast; for all is Vanity,” said the Preacher, more than two thousand years ago. But Goethe is more truly in accord with the spirit which came with Christianity, when he put these words in the mouth of Faust: —

“ The ranks of living creatures Thou dost lead
Before me, teaching me to know my brothers
In air, and water, and the silent wood.”

Bayard Taylor.