Learning on two, four of even eight legs!

Most of us associate autumn with the idea of going back to school. If spelling and counting symbolize what is taught to humans, learning and intelligence are described in very different ways in the animal world.

Animals are often considered intelligent when they can be trained to follow commands … yet, most of them are capable of extraordinary feats in their natural habitats! Octopus, for example, can solve complex problems when it comes to finding food or for outsmarting a predator. This can be explained because they are very curious and have the ability to test different techniques for a solving a puzzle or for getting themselves out of a bind; In a zoo setting, they are able to find their way through a labyrinth or unscrew the lid from a jar with surprising ease through trial and error. 

It is difficult to measure animal intelligence, simply because we haven’t found an infallible way of doing it yet. We started out comparing animal abilities to those of humans (we’re still making comparisons today!). For a long time, humans had proclaimed their intellectual superiority because of their capacity to create and use tools … until this same ability was also observed in several animal species such as chimpanzees. At Zoo de Granby, we encourage this behaviour with many of our primate species during our enrichment activities. For example, peanut butter applied inside a punctured cylinder is patiently collected with a twig which, in the hands of a primate, becomes a spoon!

Le learning process is a slow one, especially if the goal is complex… Surgeons will certainly confirm this, since it takes years for them to master their techniques and the rest of their career to learn new ones! With animals, knowledge is passed down from one generation to the next and is often unique from one population to another, even within the same species. In a group of elephants, the matriarch, or the alpha female, stores in her memory where they can find water sources and the best grazing pastures according to the season and keeps this information year after year.

The elephants’ learning ability is an ally in the everyday care given to them within a zoo setting. The ones residing at Zoo de Granby can understand and comply with about thirty commands given in biomedical training sessions thus making it easier for technicians and veterinaries do perform their tasks.

In the animal world, the ability to learn allows many species to better cope with changes in their environment and to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. As thousands of young people are heading back to school during the upcoming weeks, they too will learn how to deal and be prepared to survive and thrive within the jungle of the working world!