Every August my garage floor fills up with tiny sticks, dried grass, and pebbles. For three days the ants that live within the walls perform an all-out summer cleaning of their quarters, leaving me to sweep the remains out the garage door.

I admire them for working as a unit to keep their environment clean, for their diligence and organization. Yet, if we think about ants at all, we don’t consider them intelligent.

Yesterday I sat in my hairdresser’s chair staring out the window. A rat appeared on the meticulous landscape and scoured the ground for good eats. “That’s Templeton!” she declared. “He lives under the building. I think he’s a riot the way he scampers and scavenges.

“Templeton cleaned up all the rotting crab apples this spring,” she continued.

“At first I thought the landlord hired the landscaper to clean everything up, but one day I noticed that rat hard at work, and I realized there is no landscaper. He must have a huge store of apples under this building.”

That rat was no dummy. He had a dry home, a store of food, and all the nesting material he could want judging by his busyness that day. My hairdresser said, “He’s got his job, and we’ve got ours.”

My old and drafty house has mice. They don’t seem to hang around too much in summer, but I occasionally catch them in humane traps and release them outside in winter. One winter night I caught one when it was frigid outside. I put the mouse in a five-gallon bucket in the garage, covered it with a heavy screen frame, and put an old towel on top for warmth. I gave it some water and left a little food. Call me nuts, but I didn’t see any reason to use a humane trap only to let the poor thing out at midnight with no reserves in an icy world. It wouldn’t stand a chance.

Early next morning, I went into the garage to check on the little guy. I don’t know how he did it, but he had somehow jumped up, grabbed bits of towel through the screening, and made himself a cozy bed.

He was sound asleep. The towel was shredded. I gained a new respect for mice. Put them in a challenging situation and they make themselves a comfortable home. How many of us can say the same?

So why do we consider some animals intelligent and others not? Isn’t that clearly a human-centered egotistical argument, putting the humans at the stop of the intelligence scale?

We are geniuses when it comes to technological advances, it’s true, but we don’t adapt well to our environments and we certainly aren’t diligent at keeping our environments clean enough to sustain life.

Admit it. When we say animals are “smart,” what we’re really saying is some animals think more like us than others do. It has nothing to do with intelligence. It’s simply a sliding scale of how closely the observed behavior of animals fits our own.


– Special to the Telegram