What Bella did

12 01 2020

Bella has many talents. One of her favourite things to do is to get her teeth into whatever we give her, and some other things she finds for herself: fence posts, rails, plastic buckets, plastic trays, grooming kits, j-cloths, hay-nets, Jo’s bonnets, including the vehicular kind. This morning I put down a new bucket filled with salt water ready to clean Bella’s hoof, and while my back was turned, she drank it.

It would be easy to become irritated with Bella. She watches your every move, and carefully chooses the moment you take your eye off the ball, to let herself out of the field and destroy a storage box to reach the sack of feed inside. On this occasion, she worked in tandem with her partner-in-crime Sheranni. Bella’s timing is impeccable and maybe the less crafty horse used this to his advantage. I would have loved to have been present, witnessing the interaction between them…’go on Bella, you know how to split open that plastic box in just the right place to pull through the feed sack, just make sure you leave room for me, so that I can have some too!

Bella, who was born a hill pony on Dartmoor, uses her native intelligence to her advantage, and she understands very clearly what she needs to do for survival. She knows how to work with other horses and she knows what she wants. Her actions show an ability to visualise, an understanding of cause and effect, forward thinking, an ability to work things out and an ability to take both independent and collaborative action, which I think is pretty sophisticated cognitive behaviour for a formerly-feral animal.

It used to be thought that some attributes such as taking a visual perspective were limited to the human species, but animal behaviour pioneers such as Charlie Menzel conducted experiments that showed that many animals were much more intelligent than some in the scientific community wanted to admit.

In one experiment to test the mental abilities of chimpanzees, Menzel hid food, while watched by Panzee, a female chimp. Digging small holes in the ground, he hid packets of M&M sweets in the forest around the outside of her enclosure. Contained in her area, Panzee could not reach the hidden goodies. She needed to remember where the treats were hidden and wait until the morning to find someone to help her to unearth them. Her caretakers were not aware of the experiment so Panzee had to find a way to ‘tell them.’

In his illuminating book exploring animal intelligence Frans De Waal, explains that the caretakers had a ‘high opinion’ of the abilities of the chimpanzees and this, remarkably, was essential to the success of the experiment.

“All those recruited by Panzee said they were at first surprised by her behaviour but soon understood what she wanted them to do. By following her pointing, beckoning, panting and calling, they had no trouble finding the candies hidden in the forest. Without her instructions, they would never have known where to look. Panzee never pointed in the wrong direction, or to locations that had been used on previous occasions. The result was communications about a past event, present in the ape’s memory, to ignorant members of a different species. If the humans followed the instructions correctly and got closer to the food, Panzee would vigorously bob her head in affirmation (like Yes, Yes!), and like us, she’d lift her hand up, giving higher points, if the item was further away. She realized that she knew something that the other didn’t know, and was intelligent enough to recruit humans as willing slaves to obtain the goodies of her desire.”

Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are. Franz De Waal 2016.

Bella recruited me one day. She met me at the gate and kept looking at me intensely as if she needed to tell me something. When I picked up on her focus, she started walking purposefully across the field, looking back over her shoulder every now and then to check that I was following. The other horses did not follow; this seemed to be something between Bella and me. I followed Bella from one side of the field to the other, and she kept checking to see that I was with her. When she reached to water trough, she dipped her nose into it once, and then looked round at me with a different expression, an almost puzzled look. Curious to see what the pony was pointing to, I went to have a closer look. The trough was empty.

I was still disbelieving what had just occurred as I called the farmer who let me know there was a water leak. The day before, he had turned off the mains and forgotten to turn it back on again. He came out immediately and the old trough filled up again.

My opinion of Bella rose that day. How impressively she had let me know what she knew and understood that she needed to show me so that I could take some action. When I shared this story with Jo, she said: ‘you took Bella seriously,’ and I realised that noticing the pony wanted to share something was key, just as it had been the key with Panzee’s caretakers. I might have discovered the empty trough anyway, but Bella was not going to leave it up to chance.


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