Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Pet (1955 - 2006): Who Says We're Smarter?

(One of the beautiful pachyderms at the Oregon Zoo. Sorry...I don't know which one.)
In the recent edition of Zoo Tracks (Fall 2006, Volume 28, No. 3), I read a tribute to Pet, the matriarch to the herd. Keepers and doctors were unable to resolve or manage her pain from age related ailments including arthritis, and the only option to stop her pain was euthanasia.
The article, which didn't have a by-line, tells a wonderful story about Pet that I feel compelled to pass on. It is just too good not to.
"In the late 1960s, explained Keele [former keeper who worked with directly with Pet, now the Zoo's deputy director], Pet and the other Zoo elephants were involved in a study to test their visual acuity. Using a slide projector and a custom-built box with a screen and large white buttons on either side, the researchers presented a series of slides to the elephants. The idea was, when the researcher presented a white slide, the elephant was supposed to push the right button, and when the researcher presented a barred slide, the elephant was supposed to push the left button. Each correct response earned the elephant a sugar cube delivered down a tube by the researcher.
"The slides were presented at random so the elephants could not discern a pattern. Once an elephant got 20 correct responses, the trial concluded and the elephant no longer received sugar cubes. Some elephants figured out the routine quickly, while others struggled. In time, all of the elephants mastered the test. Several years later, the researchers were curious as to whether the elephants remembered. They retested the same elephants. Not surprisingly, three of the four elephants remembered and almost immediately got 20 correct responses. But Pet labored over the trials. She would get 12 correct then make an error, 14 correct then make another error, 12 correct the next day, 17 the next, 18 the next, then back to 13. There really wasn't any pattern to her success or failure, according to Keele.
"'One of the researchers told me how smart the other three elephants were,' Keele recalls. 'But poor Pet, he said - she just didn't have everything in order upstairs. I told him to look at it from Pet's point of view. She'd learned how to do this several years before: Once she hit 20 correct responses, the sugar cubes stopped coming. I told him that I doubted that she would ever get 20 correct again - after all, look how many more sugar cubes she'd scored than her "smart" classmates!'"
(The same elephant pictured above.)
We are lucky to be able to share the planet with such magnificent creatures. Pet, thanks for being such a wonderful presence and teaching us a thing or two besides.
The moral of the story?
Never mess with a woman's access to sugar!
Wanda Tucker, Coach

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