Can Animals Perceive Human Relationships?

From the thought-provoking Beyond Words by Carl Safina:

When one individual knows another’s relationship to a third, it’s called “understanding third party relationships.”

Primates understand third-party relationships … and so do wolves, hyenas, dolphins, birds of the crow family, and at least some parrots.

A parrot, say, can act jealous of its keeper’s spouse. When the vervet monkeys that are common around camp hear an infant’s distress call, they instantly look to the infant’s mother. They know exactly who they and everyone else are. They understand precisely who is important to whom.

When free-living dolphin mothers want young ones to stop interacting with humans, the mothers sometimes direct a tail slap at the human who has the baby’s attention, signaling, in effect, “End the game; I need my child’s attention.”

When the dawdling youngsters are interacting with dolphin researcher Denise Herzing’s graduate assistants, their mothers occasionally direct these – what should we call them: reprimands?- at Herzing herself. This shows that dolphins understand that Dr. Herzing is the leader of all the humans in the water.

For free-living creatures to perceive rank-order in humans – just astonishing.

I am only about a third through the book but it is already changing the way I interact with my 5-year-old Labrador Retriever Google.


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