Animal Wise – a review

I have discovered a blogger who has interesting things to say about dogs and dog training. This is a review she has written about an interesting book about animal intelligence. Sounds like it would be well worth checking out.

Animal Wise, by Virginia Morell: A Book Review

Animal Wise

Animal Wise is a remarkable book, it really is. It’s written by a science writer who has spent time in labs all over the world and who spoke to scientists that were exploring animal behaviour.

The Structure

Animal Wise is structured so that each chapter deals with one species in the animal kingdom.  Chapter 1 starts with the ant and the species get progressively larger.  Her book explores ants, fish, birds, parrots, rats, elephants, dolphins and chimpanzees.  In a final and delicious chapter, she looks at dogs and wolves.  Her goal? To prove definitively that animals have intelligent minds; that they are sentient beings with feelings.

Pet owners intuitively know that animals are intelligent and have feelings. It’s a no-brainer.  What really surprised me in Animal Wise was the author’s insight into intelligence and emotions in animals as small as the ant. Another surprise was how obstructive the scientific community were to the notion of animals having thoughts or feelings.  Darwin believed that animals had a rich internal life, but this idea has fallen out of favour as scientists have insisted on ‘proof’.


One of my favorite chapters in Animal Wise is the chapter on ant behaviour.  It’s certainly made me think twice about walking on ants or carelessly flicking an ant off my arm.

Ants teach each other.  A ‘leader’ ant will teach a baby ant how to find it’s way to a new home.  This teaching involves the leader ant stopping every once in a while, checking back to see that the baby ant is following, waiting for them to memorise the way and then continuing on their path. The leaders also show compassion by carrying a tired ant on their backs!  Amazingly, there are whole laboratories devoted to ant reasearch, with the passionate scientists doing this sort of work for decades.

Other amazing stories?

  • The parrot who would ask it’s owner for breakfast (“Want grape!”). This parrot, when shown two green items by his owner and asked “What’s same?”, would answer “Colour!”. Or when the other bird in the room was mispronouncing a word, would admonish “Talk clearly!”
  • Australian animals who  create beautiful works of art, paying attention to things like perspective and depth.
  • Rats laugh when tickled and have a highly sophisticated system of play.  They also exhibit rage, lust, fear, panic, grief and seeking behaviours.
  • Fish can learn by imitating other fish (it used to be thought that animals were incapable of imitation).
  • Fish are perfectly capable of feeling pain and have many nociceptors (pain receptors). No such thing as ‘harmless’ fishing! Fish who are in pain display many of the same distress signals that humans do – for instance, rocking back and forth and loss of appetite.
  • Certain animals know how to make and use tools eg the chimpanzee sharpening a stick in order to use it as a spear.
  • Animals are perfectly capable of deceitful behaviour.  Eg the young chimp who waited for her father to fall asleep before going to grab the banana that she knew was sitting there in a corner.  She knew if she went to get it before he was asleep, she would have to share it with him.


Of course, I couldn’t wait to get to the last chapter in Animal Wise, about dogs and wolves.

  • Dogs are amongst the only known species who can follow pointing cues.  So when their human points to something, a dog can track this with his eyes and follow that cue.
  • The bonding behaviour of dogs to their owners is strikingly similar to that of mother and child.  A dog’s joy on seeing their owner return home mirrors the child’s joy when their parent returns.
  • Dogs have a sense of ‘right and wrong’ and can follow human rules. They also understand the inconsistencies of these rules.  They know that ‘sometimes it’s ok to sit on the couch, such as when mom is not around’ and sometimes it’s NOT ok.  These are sophisticated cognitive skills at work.

There is much more to Animal Wise.   It is a well-written, thoroughly researched book and will give you a whole new take on the animal kingdom.  It’s quite humbling, actually, because it makes us realise that our human abilities are not unique. I mentioned previously that my curiosity about the animal kingdom has been piqued. This book satisfied some of that thirst for knowledge.


About transformational1

I have many interests and I have had a varied career. I am a semi-retired professional dog trainer, specialising in the use of positive reinforcement. I do some consultations, I run instructor workshops and I am setting up a Dogs and Psychotherapy Research Project. I have a law degree from Melbourne University (but have never practiced) and I am passionate about Human Rights. My first degree was in Sociology. I worked as a social researcher on issues such as low income housing, women's refuges and women in the workforce. I live in an inner suburb of Melbourne, Australia, and I have a German Shepherd called Chance.
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