Dogs that drive cars (and other amazing animals)

Mankind has marveled at its own mind for forever and a day. Aristotle deemed rationality an exclusively human trait. We as a species literally named ourselves after wisdom. ("Homo sapiens" translates as "wise man.") Heck, one of the greatest compliments you can give another animal is calling it person-like. That's the interspecies equivalent of praising an idea because you already had it. It sounds nice but smacks of punchable arrogance. Besides, all that human vainglory starts to seem pretty inglorious and a bit overblown when you see what other creatures actually can do, given means and motivation. So hold on to your windbreakers because your sapient mind is about to get blown. 

Chimp pan sear

Bonobos, formerly referred to as "pygmy chimpanzees," have received worldwide recognition for resolving conflicts through sexual healing. While that alone warrants a Nobel Peace Prize, some sexy simians want to heat more than their loins. Enter Kanzi, the bonobo that cooks.

As shown in the video above (as well as this one), Kanzi can pan-fry food, roast marshmallows, and ignite campfires using matches and lighters. This flirtation with flames makes sense. According to Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh –- who helped raise Kanzi –- as a baby bonobo he became enamored with the film Quest for Fire. Apparently he wanted to emulate what he saw on the screen, which thankfully didn't include slasher flicks. In fact, Smithsonian Magazine observed that Kanzi loves to watch films with friendly human-animal dynamics. And he's not alone.

Kanzi lives with a group of bonobo buddies at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa. There they have access to movies, microwaves, a vending machine, and even a touch-screen computer. The appliances have pictographic buttons in lieu of words and numbers, allowing the apes to use them autonomously. The use of symbols also facilitates communication with humans. Kanzi, who purportedly understands a stunning 3,000 spoken English words, can ask to roast marshmallows by pressing pictures for "fire" and a "marshmallow." Hopefully researchers neglected to make symbols for "Charlton Heston" and "world domination." Regardless, a future ape-ocracy may prove inevitable. After all, Kanzi also loved Planet of the Apes as a child

Bee ballers

Bees: they give people honey, puncture wounds, and better crop yields, but that's about it. Sure, they have the aesthetic perk of resembling Charlie Brown's sweater, but they probably also suck at football. Seriously, ask a bee to kick a field goal and see how far it gets. Then again, maybe that's just the wrong kind of football. According to science, bees ain't half bad at soccer.

Regrettably, researchers didn't create a tiny federation of David Bee-ckhams. But they totally got the little guys to maneuver a miniature soccer ball into a goal. That might sound like entomology run charmingly amok. But according to Dr. Clint Perry of Queen Mary University of London, researchers (much like the bees) had a real goal in mind. Namely, they wanted to determine if the famously brainy arthropods "could use a non-natural object in a task likely never encountered before by any individual in the evolutionary history of bees."

To test this, researchers taught bees to associate goal-scoring with sugar water rewards, according to Popular Science. In some cases, the insects learned from previously trained bees or plastic stand-ins. In others, a magnet guided the balls. A final group of flying footballers had to infer the rules from seeing a ball in a goal paired with sugar water. Bees not only mastered simplified soccer (especially when learning from other bees), but also found smarter ways to score than what researchers showed them. Maybe they flopped on the ground to get penalty kicks.

This little piggy went 'Wii, Wii, Wii'

Humans value farm animals for usefulness rather than acumen. Why teach a pig to read Orwell if it's going to get canned by Hormel? Scientists, however, enjoy playing with their food and happen to find swine fascinating, so they subjected the oinkers to an awesome intelligence test: video games.

In a unique experiment, Professor Stanley Curtis placed pigs in front of a computer and tried to make gaming magic happen. Wired provided a breakdown of the 1997 study. Curtis recruited two pigs hungrily named Hamlet and Omelette. (Perhaps "Ham" and "Eggs" was too on the snout.) He then gave his two-member breakfast club a modified joystick. Researchers got the pair to use it by implementing an M&M's reward system because gaming and junk food always go together. They then got Hamlet and Omelette to play a computer game premised on touching various objects with a cursor.

If you watched the video, you already know the porcine pair exceled at the game, mastering it faster than most chimps. In fact, according to Curtis, the pigs' only shortcoming was their tendency to get bored and take naps. In 2012, another group of researchers sought to keep swine entertained with Pig Chase. Using an iPad interface, humans can guide an orb of light across a wall, which oinkers help lead to a triangle. If successful, the triangle emits a flurry of light that pigs can marvel at like squealing children. Suddenly, ham doesn't sound so appetizing.

Bird brainy

With the exceptions of Mike Tyson and Nikola Tesla, most people see pigeons as sky trash. But behind their comically small noggins lurk impressive minds. Researchers at New Zealand's University of Otago demonstrated this by teaching pigeons to count and make numerical comparisons. As the LA Times summarized, pigeons studied the numbers one through three in the form of colored shapes they had to peck. Each time they selected the shapes in order, they received a wheat treat. After a year of gorging on carbs, the birds then had to compare unfamiliar quantities -– specifically, numbers four through seven. Naturally, they passed with flying colors.

If counting isn't impressive enough, consider that pigeons utterly crush humans in probabilistic reasoning. Ever heard of the Monty Hall problem? It's a game show dilemma premised on selecting a prize behind one of three doors. Once a contestant picks a door, a second non-prize door gets eliminated. With two doors left, the individual must decide whether to change their original pick. The odds favor switching, but human brains favor failing. That's not true of pigeons.

In a 2010 study, pigeons spent a month practicing the Monty Hall problem, except with light-up keys instead of doors. The birds consistently learned to prefer switching. Researchers then inverted the odds, making it better not to switch. The pigeons again proved unflappable. College students, on the other hand, performed those same tasks and bombed harder than a bazooka fight. Now who's bird-brained?

Air woof

Common sense tells you that only highly trained professionals and raging alcoholics should fly planes. That usually removes nonhumans from the running, no matter how qualified. Geese, for example, would probably make great pilots, but they lack thumbs and can't honk "mayday" into a headset. Land animals sound even less suited due to their ergonomic constraints and general inclination to stay grounded. Even so, high-profile animal trainer Mark Vette agreed to put canines in cockpits for a U.K. reality show.

An obvious homage to Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, the series Dogs Might Fly offered all the enchantment of Dr. Doolittle with none of the realism. As The Telegraph explained, scientists helped Vette vet 12 shelter dogs for cognitive capacity and emotional stability to prevent midair puppy tantrums. The ablest animals got to vaunt their sky skills on camera after completing a rigorous training regimen. Meanwhile, countless failed pilots probably prayed not to get bested by animals that eat their own poop.

Not everyone expected success. Psychologist Stanley Coren predicted canines would crash and burn (metaphorically speaking) because they purportedly have the smarts of 3-year-old children. By that standard, toddlers should totally ace flight school because the dogs certainly did. As Stuff described, the animal aviators remained airborne and even executed turns and figure eights –- possibly in hopes that the plane would catch its own tail.

So easel a chimp can do it

Monkeys may need forever to type Shakespeare, but Congo the chimp took less than a decade to conquer abstract painting. Surreally, three of his masterpieces completely outshined works by Warhol and Renoir at a 2005 art auction, as per The Telegraph. That's either a glowing testament to chimp creativity or a blistering commentary on modern art. Anthropologist Desmond Morris would firmly affirm the former.

Morris might have a biased assessment since he coaxed Congo to paint in the first place. It started in the mid-1950s when Morris gave the great ape paper and art supplies to see what he'd do. Congo did not disappoint. Unsurprisingly, he started out with lines and then moved on to basic shapes like circles. He soon blossomed into a hairy painter, preferring to make amorphous compositions with a "radiating pattern." Congo even appeared to know when a work was finished, refusing to continue when prompted. Conversely, premature interruptions were met with furious eruptions by the chimp. Congo was a moody artist, but not a starving one.

Of Congo's 400 creations, few remain. Most sold for thousands, with art juggernauts like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali acquiring a couple. Sadly, like many great artists, Congo died before he could witness the full impact of his work. Tuberculosis claimed his life at age 10. Despite his early passing, Congo hugely popularized animal art. Nowadays, paintings by apes, birds, snakes, and stingrays are regularly showcased. That's bananas, which, strangely, Congo never painted.

Thelonious trunk

Elephants have long, floppy trumpets on their faces. They're endearingly goofy-looking and inspire madcap fantasies of pachyderm musicians. But even if you never get an album from Babar Streisand, you can indulge in the brief but whimsical toots of a Shanthi.

A beloved resident of the Smithsonian National Zoo, Shanthi the Asian elephant has captivated ears and melted hearts with her passion for music. She loves harmonicas and horns but also turns random objects into instruments. Zookeeper Debbie Flinkman practically portrayed her as a sound junkie in constant pursuit of a fix. She explained to Smithsonian Magazine that Shanthi drums her ears against different surfaces and rubs herself against bushes as if literally scratching a musical itch.

Strikingly, the pachyderm percussionist has also established herself as a competent composer. Despite receiving zero instruction, Shanthi devises ditties with distinct beginnings, middles, and endings. And like any showman worth their salt, she likes to end pieces on a climactic note. But even without an audience, she jollily cranks out tunes like a giant jukebox. This deep musical devotion inspired the zoo to mount two harmonicas in Shanthi's enclosure, according to CBS, so she could play as often as her massive heart desired. One can only hope she eventually teams up with Peter the piano-playing elephant. A meeting of musical pachyderms sounds unforgettable, especially for the elephants.

When pig's sly

Nelly the show pig is an anti-supermodel: short, portly, and esteemed for what she does rather than how she looks. Thankfully, none of her tricks involve hopping into an oven or slathering herself in gravy. However, someone did show the pig how to spell "ham," which seems tantamount to getting a human infant to say "baby burger." Morbidity aside, the pig's feat seems scintillating on a number of levels.

The above BBC clip suggests Nelly has a nose for sequences and object recognition. Moreover, that comprehension goes deeper than rote memorization. Case in point: basketball. Nelly's no Jordan, but she knows her way around a hoop. More importantly, she seems to understand what doesn't belong around a hoop. An animal expert tested this by encouraging Nelly to put an oblong object wrongly called a "ball" through said basketball hoop. Instead of dumbly obeying, the pig looked questioningly at the object and suspiciously eyed her owner like a crazy woman. Later in the video, she discerns the rules to an unfamiliar task to get snacks, proving munchies are the mother of invention.

You might want to treat Nelly as an anomaly. But a BBC Earth video indicates otherwise. In addition to touting more of Nelly's talents, it features 6-week-old pigs figuring out mirrors and older oinkers trouncing toddlers at soccer. They also rivaled children at recognizing shapes and making piggy bank deposits. Basically, Babe the pig is probably real and definitely smarter than your baby.

The ollie cat

If a feline respects you as more than a comfy couch that dispenses Whiskas, you've already fared better than 99 percent of cat owners. Cats ooze aloofness, likely because they just "don't care what you want," according to Smithsonian Magazine. So have fun finding one that won't claw you to kibble the second you make too many requests. If you're exceedingly lucky, you'll end up with a cat like Didga.

As you probably guessed from the video, Didga digs skateboarding and will bound over big dogs for the sake of awesomeness. Her name, an abbreviation of "Didgeridoo," tells you almost everything else you need to know. Namely that she lives in Australia (which suggests she's poisonous) and acts as an instrument of joy. Didga seems remarkably social for a feline and even obeys commands instead of greeting them with hiss-laden scowls. As per Guinness World Records, she has officially done more tricks in a minute than any other cat on the planet.

In 2016, the cooperative kitty completed 20 actions in 60 seconds, including high-fiving, handshaking, and hopping over a bar onto a moving skateboard. In 2017, the organization let Didga redo the challenge, and she upped the number to 24. But for all her agreeableness, she still shows others who's boss. Owner Robert Dollwet told Guinness that Didga does what she feels like, and those filming her have to roll with it. Yep, she's definitely a cat.

Bark-seat driver

 

Dogs and humans have tons in common. Both will stick anything in their mouths, though most humans grow out of this. Both get coddled as babies and learn people-imposed norms for adulthood. And the homeless ones tend to get callously discarded. That last comparison might make you uncomfortable, but think about it. Many homeless hounds get placed in shelters like furry orphans. Only, in the case of man's best friend, those that aren't adopted get sent to where all dogs go: heaven

You can stop rubbing onions in your eyes because there's a happy ending here. To reach it, you have to visit New Zealand. There you can feast your leaky eyes on an unusual undertaking by the Auckland SPCA. As ABC Australia explained, the group wanted to boost dog adoption rates by teaching shelter dogs a tremendous trick: driving.

Guided by animal whisperer Mark Vette, who would later go on to teach dogs to fly, three rescue dogs learned to start, stop, and steer a vehicle. Once ready, they independently operated a car equipped with paw-friendly handles and a speed limiter. As you can tell from the above clip, the budding chauf-furs happily hopped behind the wheel as a bubbly assistant cheered them on. Overall the dogs did swimmingly, but Vette also acknowledged a wacky mishap in which a canine careened down a track as humans laid chase. That's an irony on par with people catching pet-thrown Frisbees. Once dogs deliver mail to barking humans, the role reversal will be complete.

Simian says

Kanzi cooked and Congo created. But Koko the gorilla topped them both by donning Robin Williams' glasses and persuading him to have a tickle fight. How did Williams know to tickle Koko? Obviously he used his genie powers. Also, Koko apparently knows sign language, which likely helped.

Koko's linguistic odyssey began in 1971. A then-inhabitant of the San Francisco Zoo, she got sick at 6 months old and came under the care of psychology student and oddly unhairy gorilla mother Francine Patterson. Sensing the ape's potential, Patterson devoted her doctoral studies to teaching Koko sign language. Before long, a seemingly run-of-the-mill zoo animal became the poster primate for ape intelligence.

Numerous scientists doubt Koko's communicativeness, believing she mostly apes what she sees. But Patterson scoffs at such skepticism. After more than four decades of watching Koko cuddle kittens, blow out birthday candles, and admire her own face in the mirror, she's convinced that the simian's a savant. Patterson told The Guardian that her primate companion can use over 1,000 signs and can rhyme and even crack jokes. (Koko should have been named "Signfeld.") Whatever the depths of her intellect, Koko often appears more human than most people. It doesn't take a wise man to see that.