The natural world is teeming with mysteries, and one of the most intriguing questions is whether wild animals possess conscious thought. Can they experience emotions, ponder their surroundings, and engage in complex cognitive processes? While the inner workings of the animal mind remain largely enigmatic, scientific research and observations hint at a fascinating realm of thought and feeling among the creatures that share our planet.
In 2012 the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness stated a consensus that humans are not the only conscious beings. Non-human animals, including all mammals, birds, and many other creatures, possess neurological substrates, which are complex enough to support conscious experiences.
Most scientists agree that animals have complex mental capacities once thought to be unique to people, such as the ability to give objects names, use tools and show empathy. However, it’s different from what we humans do. No animals have all the attributes of human minds, but almost all the human minds’ attributes are found in some animals.
Elephants offer a compelling glimpse into the world of animal consciousness. Renowned zoologist and elephant observer Iain Douglas-Hamilton, through years of dedicated research and first-hand experience, has illuminated the social and emotional lives of these majestic creatures.
I mentioned in a previous blog of mine my first-hand experience witnessing an elephant’s capacity for empathy. Douglas-Hamilton also recounts his own story of a young injured female elephant and the group that surrounded her in unwavering protection. This particular elephant had sustained an injury that rendered her vulnerable to predators. Instead of leaving her to fend for herself, the herd took an incredible course of action: they kept pace with her for an astonishing 15 years.
This act of solidarity came at a cost. The elephants’ decision to protect their injured herd member meant that they couldn’t cover larger areas for forage, as they typically would. It meant sacrificing potential food sources and facing their own risks from predators. This selflessness speaks volumes about the complex emotional lives of elephants.
African elephants have also demonstrated their ability to use tools and solve problems. In some areas, they have been observed using branches or tree bark to swat at flies and other bothersome insects. This behaviour implies a level of conscious thought related to recognising a problem and devising a solution.
Beyond elephants, the world of wildlife presents further evidence of conscious thought and emotion among animals. Consider the case of giraffes – these elegant creatures also offer insight into the depth of emotions that can be found in the animal kingdom.
Giraffes are known to exhibit behaviour that suggests a form of mourning for their fallen young. In the wild, where predators pose constant threats, infant mortality is not uncommon. When a young giraffe calf dies, it is not unusual to witness its mother remaining in the area where the loss occurred.
In essence, giraffe mothers’ willingness to stay near the site of their calf’s demise indicates a level of conscious thought and emotional depth that goes beyond basic animal instincts. It implies that these animals experience a form of attachment and emotional connection to their young, reminiscent of the way humans mourn the loss of loved ones.
The Cape Buffalo
Cape buffaloes are highly social animals that live in herds, and their collective decision-making processes provide a fascinating glimpse into their conscious thought. When it comes to choosing their direction of movement or responding to threats, these animals showcase a remarkable level of group cognition. For instance, when faced with the possibility of danger, such as a predator approaching, Cape buffalo herds often deliberate collectively. They assess the situation and, through various non-verbal cues, come to a consensus on how to respond.
The Broader Implications
The examples of elephants protecting an injured companion and using “tools”, along with giraffes exhibiting mourning behaviour and buffalo using collective cognition, invite us to contemplate the broader implications of animal consciousness. They challenge the traditional view that animals are governed solely by instinct and survival instincts.
I’ve mentioned it before, but as we continue to explore the mysteries of the animal mind, it becomes increasingly clear that the boundaries between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom are not as distinct as we once thought.