How Alike Are We? Wildlife Show Signs of Imagination

The more we find parallels between animal behavior and our own, the more likely we are to mind how we treat and protect those animals. Last year we found out that endangered Great Apes are prone to midlife crisis, just like people. In 2011, it was discovered that even chickens show signs of empathy. And recently, the BBC investigated whether animals have imaginations.

One dictionary defines imagination as the ability to form mental images of something that’s “not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.” What do you think? Are animals like us in this way?

During a visit to the Bronx Zoo as a child, I was delighted to see a female gorilla walking around with something cradled in her arms as if she were nursing it. I stood on my tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the baby gorilla, and watched this nurturing for a good minute. Then, to my horror, the “mother” dropped the baby and ran over to hang out with some other gorillas.

But there was no damaged infant in her wake. Where she dropped the “baby” there was nothing at all. Had she been playing mom as some of us would play air guitar?

The BBC article gives an endearing example from the gorilla Koko, who has been trained to use American Sign Language.

… a caregiver showed the ten-year-old Koko a photo of a bird in a magazine. THAT ME, Koko signed. "Is that really you?" KOKO GOOD BIRD, she responded. "I thought you were a gorilla." KOKO BIRD. The caregiver asked, "you sure?" Koko responded, pointing to the bird, KOKO GOOD THAT. "Okay, I must be a gorilla," the caregiver said. BIRD YOU, the gorilla signed. "We're both birds?" Koko responded by signing GOOD. "Show me," the caregiver prodded. FAKE BIRD CLOWN. "You're teasing me. What are you really?" Finally, Koko gave in, with a laugh: GORILLA KOKO.

Another intriguing example from the article discusses the antics of a bonobo named Kanzi:

Kanzi, the famous bonobo, liked to pretend as well. Primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh described watching Kanzi hide invisible objects under blankets or leaves, later removing them from their hiding spots, and pretending to eat them. "Kanzi also engages the participation of others" in these games, Savage-Rumbaugh notes, "by giving them the pretend object and watching to see what they do with it.

I was happy to read about Koko and Kanzi. These anecdotes seemed to corroborate what I'd seen at the Bronx Zoo so many years ago. But I wanted to be sure, so I turned to Brian Hare, professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University and co-author of a riveting new book on the intelligence of dogs. Hare and Vanessa Woods, his wife and co-author, have had deep experience with bonobos.

When I asked him about Koko, his answer made me feel like I did when I learned there is no Santa.

“These are informal observations that have never been published, so they have no real scientific standing. Koko and Patterson are sadly ‘fakes’ in the sense that Patterson has never published anything from her ‘research’ with Koko,” he explained. “She is essentially a woman with a Ph.D. that has a pet gorilla. Sorry if this sounds harsh but being frank.”

B-b-b-but can’t observations be viable evidence? And what about Kanzi? Surely a bonobo expert would see that she was using imagination, right?

“Kanzi on the other had is actually capable of doing some pretty cool stuff—especially in terms of his comprehension of spoken English. (This is published). I have no doubt there are ‘stories’ of Kanzi using his imagination/having imaginary play sessions,” Hare told me, much to my relief. But then he let the hammer fall: “However, none of this is published and the source is not particularly reliable if it’s an unpublished anecdote.”

As much as I wanted to put my hands over my ears, I had to venture on in our interview, so I bit the bullet, and asked if animal imagination is just a product of human imagination.

Fortunately, he doesn’t think so. It’s just that he’s a hardcore scientist who needs more evidence than I do. He says the chimp Ayumu makes a better case:

“The best example I have seen of imaginary play was actually documented by Tetsuro Matsuzawa. He is the most famous primatologist in Japan and has a gorgeous video example of Ayumu the chimpanzee pretending to drag blocks across the floor. It is very compelling when you watch it with your own eyes! Unlike Koko and Kanzi there is no need for the ‘scientist’ interpreter to explain each case,” he said.


Unfortunately I couldn’t find the video of Ayumu doing that. But if you want to see Ayumu blow you away in a memory game, check out this amazing video.

Here’s the thing. It seems I needed to be thinking of imagination a little differently, not just as make-believe. “If you broaden your definition of imagination as we do in the book to include what most psychologists/neuroscientists would call a representation, then we have lots to talk about with regards to animals,” Hare said. “Animals can imagine the solution to problems they have never seen before and that are not perceivable at the time they’re trying to solve it.”

Hare’s new book on dogs is actually full of examples of this type of inferential reasoning. Hare says lots of animals (birds and mammals in particular) are capable of making inferences in a variety of contexts. He also suggested I go to 5:16 of this video about ape genius if I wanted to see a stellar example of imagination being used to solve a problem.

After seeing it, I strongly recommend it to you to watch. It’s incredible. I probably would have looked for a stick to pick the peanut out of the bottom of the tube. Not finding one (there were none in the enclosure), I would have just sat there drooling until I was led away by scientist. I would never have dreamed up the solution this chimp did.

As for the “mama” gorilla I saw once upon a time, I may have been only seven, and it may not have been sound science, but I know it wasn’t just my imagination. That “mama” gorilla was imagining a baby in her arms, and that helped me see how much the two of us had in common. 

Do you think animals have imagination? Or is the notion of animal imagination just a bunch of wishful, anthropomorphic hooey? If you have a story to tell, we’d love to hear it!

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• WWJD: Why Are Elephants Dying for Religion?

• It’s Official: Vietnam’s Javan Rhino Is Extinct. Which Species Is Next?

Maria Goodavage is author of The New York Times bestselling book Soldier Dogs. She has been a staff writer at USA Today and the San Francisco Chronicle, and is a regular contributor at Dogster online magazine. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, daughter, and a big dog.