BEFORE Jane Goodall’s pioneering study of wild chimpanzees, most of us believed that tool-use and especially tool-making were exclusively human activities. Goodall was intrigued when she first observed a chimp poking a stick into a termite mound, waiting a minute, pulling out the stick, and then licking off the termites.
But a Border Collie named Gurr and his toy-making is one notch above chimp termite-fishing.
On 13th August 2005 I set out for a hike with a friend, Kanako, and the large handsome Border Collie mix.
We set out from Sacramento County to hike the little-known Bassi Cabin loop trail. The hike is a symphony of coniferous forest, running water, and glacier-polished granite.
I walked down through the trees, Gurr ran ahead to be certain that there were no ferocious Golden Retrievers in our path, stopped to sniff the shrubbery, ran back to check up on us, and then ran forward again. When we came to some large Jeffrey pines, we turned off the trail for the short cross-country leg of our adventure. In a few minutes, we came to the creek. Gurr promptly jumped into the water, and when he came out, we walked downstream for about 200 m, before crossing over. We followed a game trail to Bassi cabin, which is still occasionally used by the Bassi family.
The cabin itself is fairly ordinary, but the backdrop is gorgeous: the steep face of a gigantic granite boulder, flanked by conifers, towers over the cabin. About 100 m past the cabin, my friend Kanako and I sat down by the creek for lunch.
Unlike humans, Gurr thinks that a lunch break is for playing fetch. He prefers to fetch big sticks, rather than small ones, because the heavier sticks give his neck muscles a better workout. Gurr managed to find a nice piece of wood of the right weight. Then, to my surprise, he started chomping down on one end. He is not normally a very chewy dog. When Gurr has excess energy–which is most of the time–he usually runs, swims, or digs. But the wood chips were flying, and I wondered what he was up to. My question was answered a few minutes later, when Gurr brought the wood chunk to me, knowing that I would throw it for him. Initially, the wood chunk was too large for Gurr to grip comfortably in his mouth; so he chewed a handle on one end!
The canine craftsmanship had nothing to do with high-priority survival, and everything to do with lower-priority preparation for play. As an indicator of cognitive function, toy-making trumps tool-making. In terms of intelligence, chimpanzees have nothing on Border Collies!
Larry lives in California and is a regular reader and contributor to this weblog. The picture is of Gurr.