Have you ever wondered about the mental capacities of animals? Can we know which behaviors result from thinking and which behaviors are caused by instinct?  

The other day I discussed our cat’s smarts with my daughter Brooklyn. Ever since she was a kitten, our Felis silvestris catus (that is her Latin name) has relieved herself in the litter box 100% of the time. Except for when she ate foam and got sick, she has gone in the right location every time! Should I also expect her to barf in the litter box? Well, we humans rarely make it to the porcelain throne when we throw up, so I will cut her some slack on that one.

Anyway, I told Brooklyn that I think our cat is smart. Our cat may think something like: “I gotta go and don’t want to mess up this nice carpet. Where is my litter box?” Come to think of it, if she relieved herself in a conspicuous location of the house and no one found out for weeks, wouldn’t that be a sign of smarts? At the same time, however, I said that her Freudian cleanliness may be due to instinct. She may think nothing at all and just instinctively run off to her litter box.

I am not certain of my cat’s cognitive abilities, but like so many pet owners, I am certain that animals experience joy. Watching my boyhood German shepherd burst into joyous tail wagging, bouncing, and spinning when she spotted me coming home from school, it was pretty clear to me that dogs feel joy. Some dogs even smile, and not just those in photoshopped funny dog pictures. The endowment creation video even tells us that animals feel joy.

If animals feel joy, can they also express gratitude? Can they display overt behaviors that are intended as expressions of thanks? I don’t know, but this heartwarming video of a freed whale comes as close to any display of gratitude as I’ve ever seen. Sure the whale is happy, but that it went on with jumping and tail wagging for an hour in the presence of those who saved its life seems to indicate gratitude. The person who saved its life comments on the possibility of gratitude at 7:09.

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