I read your website about bunnies but as a psychologist I must say that intelligence is not measurable with the argument you quote. The evolutionary adaptability has definitely nothing to do with the straight intelligence you are talking about, the species continuity is better explained by ethologists with the conservation instinct coupled with the reproduction instinct. These behavioural responses (called fixed action pattern by Konrad Lorenz) are an unconscious reaction to well defined stimuli and in any way can be related to a conscious intelligence, besides, most if not all species humankind included, possess this instinct, therefore, the simple fact that the rabbit has evolved thus far doesn’t make it cleverer than others.
As to the intelligence you claim the rabbit has, I personally believe this animal basically does not show much of an elastic aptitude. The rabbit has indeed its own behavioural drives and way of thinking, but both are very rigid, thereby people keeping these pets at home must adapt themselves and the environment not only to their needs but also to their stubbornness and struggle for territory. Indeed a certain amount of time and patience is required before we eventually get a rabbit to do or not do something, and since negative feedback is quite useless, only the positive one is left as a teaching resort.. Besides, the rabbit has a fiercely independent attitude and as such naturally tends not to listen to what he’s said, even when it could benefit from it, also, being very prudent by nature, the same amount of time and patience is required before the rabbit will eventually trust you and, listen to you. This leads to the conclusion that rabbit’s learning curve is really long while psychology rather demonstrates that the shorter it is the more intelligent a subject actually is.
Finally, the rabbit will strive to score its dominance even over humans in order to become the territory leader you settle it in (that is your home), it goes on and on and on struggling to have the upper hand on a 100 and more pounds living thing heavier than it ! Personally I don’t think this behavioural rigidity makes this animal really conscious of the actual relationship installed between it and the human who adopted it, the same one that decides what and when it drinks and eats, where it sleeps, when and where it goes out and in of its cage or else.. this doesn’t sound like intelligent behaviour to me.
In conclusion I say that sure this pet is cute and entertaining and sure it has a certain intelligence but it still remains on a low level among all other mammals.
As the owner and a breeder at Verlannahill Rabbitry I greatly appreciate the input and suggestions I receive from individuals who visit our web site. This is especially true when such suggestions come from informed individuals, like yourself who can offer valuable critiques on the articles I post to the site. Please understand that what follows in my response to your letter is not at all an argument to the position you have taken in your critique. To the contrary, I stand corrected in regard to the position I took as it dealt with evolutionary adaptability and the role of intelligence. It is obvious that in attempting to express my strong belief in animal intelligence that I failed to express myself as well as I might have.
I fully agree that much of animal behavior is indeed structured and driven by underlying instinctive reactions to stimulus response patterns; however I do not believe that instinct alone can fully account for what are obviously learned behaviors that in turn often modify and in some instances override what might otherwise be regard as instinctual. I believe that the socialization process, apparent in domestication, appears to have a powerful influence to modify instinctive animal behavior. That these processes could or even would occur in nature is probably questionable at best. I would also agree that for the most part animal behavior as witnessed in the wild would fall under fixed action patterns and are thus unconscious reactions or responses to an environmental or biological stimulus. Accepting this premise then reduces most animal behavior to that which is driven by conservation, or basic survival needs, and that behavior that is driven by the instinctive desire for reproduction.
In defense of my position it should be recognized that I was writing for a much younger audience where an understanding of the role of instinct and intelligence in behavior is often blurred, especially when it comes to understanding the family pet. In an effort to impress upon my reader the nature of the rabbit as a living and sensitive being, deserving of the up most consideration and care I chose to cloak the animal in the most attractive and charming of fashionable garments as I could without creating a totally false impression of the animals true character. Trying to define the subtle differences between instinct and intelligence can easily result in the animal, as a valued member of the family, becoming lost somewhere in the process. It is rather hard to love Spot in quite the same fashion if you must believe that all his lovable little habits and behaviors are nothing more than unconscious reactions to well defined stimuli reoccurring within the limits of his environment.
As a breeder and animal lover my observations on animal behavior has been based heavily on my years of working closely with the animals I breed and raise as apposed to undomesticated animals living in the wild. I have observed behaviors in domesticated animals that are quite difficult for me to explain based solely on my education in behavioral psychology. In my masters level studies toward my degrees in education and school psychology I have often been troubled by the purely clinical explanation of animal behavior and intelligence, or the lack of, that is often at odds with the observations of behavior as witnessed in animals I have raised and cared for.
One simple observation that would seem to illustrate such learned behaviors and exhibitions of animal intelligence in my rabbitry had to do with the water bottle attached to the animal’s cage. Should a bottle go empty between normal feeding times a rabbit would normally just ignore the bottle after discovering that no water was available from it. The rabbit would not expend fruitless energy manipulating something that produced no tangible results. Only after the bottle was refilled would the rabbit regain an active interest in pursuing a drink of water from the bottle. After only a few such occurrences I took notice that upon entering the rabbitry, an animal with an empty bottle would often go to the bottle and begin to rattle the empty container by vigorously, manipulating the marble at the end of the stopper. Such behavior could be interpreted as an obvious effort to attract my attention to its plight. This behavior, I reasoned, was a learned response; one in which the rabbit associated my presence in the rabbitry with the opportunity to quench its thirst, and obviously a conscious effort on its part to gain the desired response from me of filling the bottle with water. This purposeful behavior was made even more obvious by the fact that the heavy rattling of the bottle did not begin until after I had entered the rabbitry. This is not to be confused with the normal clicking noise that is made when the rabbit drinks from the bottle nipple.
Another observation involved the natural response of a rabbit to avoid being touched or otherwise handled. After caring for my rabbits over time they learn to sit at the front of their cage door to be petted. Some will position themselves in such a way as to invite being picked up. This is not at all an instinctive behavior for a rabbit; in fact the normal instinctive response is for fight or flight. The ability to Show a rabbit requires that this natural instinct for fight or flight be modified and the rabbit trained to respond positively to being handled by the show judge or other handlers. Instinct is a hardwired response that occurs without intentional thought and as such is an unconscious behavior produced by a stimulus of some description. To modify this behavior requires the existence of an intelligence that can be manipulated and trained to override the natural occurring instinctual response. Not unlike over coming the instinctive fear of a human child to having its head submerged under water requires an intelligence that can be trained to modify and eventually override the natural Fear before swimming lessons are possible. Without intelligence there can be no learning. Instinct is more usefully described as an auto response system that is coded into the animal’s brain and can be passed from one generation to another without the need of relearning the coded information. Animal experimentation would suggest that such instinctive or coded responses can be masked or modified by the input of new information and the animal’s intellectual ability to learn and retain the new habits and skills. Over time if the new learning is continually reinforced the modified instinctual behaviors will remain suppressed. However if reinforcement is absent the learned response will dim and eventually give way, allowing the instinctive response to resurface and replace what had been learned. This is seen with show rabbits when their training is allowed to lapse. In such cases their natural fear of being handled and picked up will eventually replace the skills learned for the show ring, and the rabbit will become unmanageable.
Over the years that I have raised or cared for animals, horses, dogs, cats, rabbits and birds, to name a few. I have gained a deep respect for and been greatly impressed by the degree of intelligence animals posses. How that intelligence is measured is something that for me has taken many long years of careful observation to access and even then I still know of no assertive way to measure the true intelligence of an animal other than by observing its behavior and noting the ease of modifying objectionable instinctive behavior and replacing it with desirable behavior. I think problem solving and associative responses could be two of the characteristics most often look for when measuring potential intelligence. For higher animals such as dogs their intelligence is much easier to recognize. I have dogs on my place that have learned to interpret an impressive vocabulary of English words. How those words are used and strung together convey very different meanings to the animal. For instance, “Go to the gate” will produce a totally different response than the command, “go to the kitchen.” Likewise the command, “go up the stairs” carries a far different meaning than a simple command such as “go!” The first will send the dog bounding up the stairs to the living quarters of the house while the latter will produce a tail between the legs position and a decidedly dejected look of rejection on the dogs face. Though I would not expect one of my rabbits to respond with anything approaching the degree of animation and intelligence that my dogs do, I am still astonished at the level of intelligence they are capable of demonstrating. I have come to realize that animals of every description are quite capable of feats of intelligent reasoning far greater than what one might first expect. Only when we as humans are willing to invest the time to observe and form a bond with our animal friends are we able to learn their true potential as intelligent beings.
I believe that as humans, commanding the top position on the hierarchy of life, we have formed some decidedly arrogant attitudes of our own superiority in the web of life. When comparing our intellect to that of a rabbit we are quick to observe their far inferior position and the small evidence of intelligent reasoning in use by our long eared friends; but perhaps we are using an inferior measuring scale. I believe that the creator in his infinite wisdom endowed all animals, including the human animal, with instinctive behaviors designed to assure the survival of each individual species. But to each animal he also gave a brain capable of learning and adapting to ever changing environmental hazards that might otherwise adversely affect its natural ability to survive and multiply. That some animals should need greater intelligence than others is probably due to the limitations of their instinctive behaviors alone to compensate for lower birth rates and longer maturation periods as seen in most larger animals. In all cases we must assume that survival was, and always has been, the paramount consideration of creation or evolution. Animals of lesser means will most always be compensated with some offsetting characteristic to help insure its survival. Rabbits for instance are well compensated with vastly enhance reproductive characteristics that assure by shear numbers their potential for survival in a world of many predators.
The human animal, being the weakest and most vulnerable of all the animals living upon the earth, has been compensated by owning the most powerful brain in all the animal kingdom. Thus intellectual prowess is always a balance between the instinctive and the rational; one never existing in isolation from the other; but rather in a state of harmonious balance and always with survival at the core. Instinct alone may not prepare the family cat for the perils of grammas rocking chair, but one experience of a carelessly placed tail will leave a lasting impression that will not soon be forgotten.
In comparison to its instinctive abilities our rabbit possesses an intelligence possessing proportional abilities. A sufficient intelligence to allow for a degree of learning and adjustment to environmental conditions that instinct alone could never anticipate. Instinct alone cannot account for my rabbit’s ability to adjust to life inside a cage. Learn how to take water from a stoppered bottle or take food from a plastic feeder. Nor does instinct prepare a mother rabbit to teach her young to drink and eat from these same utensils. All of these behaviors are further evidence of intelligence and a learning capacity beyond the limitations of simple instinct. I have observed one bunny within a litter take special interest in a toy hanging from the roof of its cage while others of its litter totally ignore its presence. Such behavior entertains the possibility of intelligent curiosity, particularly when a bell added to the toy drives the inquisitive bunny to investigate further into the source of the new sound. I am doubly impressed when I see the animal reach for the clapper inside the bell. Is it making an irrational jump to believe the bunny is investigating the clapper as the possible instrument that causes the bell to make the noise? Possibly, possibly not, but when coupled with other observations of similar behaviors I am forced to lay aside my preconceived animal prejudice and give credence to the possibility of animal intelligence and the possibility that, like me, there is potential for real thought behind those eyes staring back at me. It should not seem unreasonable to believe that this potential for thought is in perfect balance with the natural instincts that makes my rabbit behave like a rabbit. Or for that matter help me to behave like a human.