I've been thinking more and more about intelligence in Varanus Salvator the Asian Water Monitor and pretty much monitors in general. Humans generally view intelligence in animals in the form of modified behavior. Aka what can it do for me? Thus regular people confuse trainability with intelligence, and trainers can occasionally mistake trainability for intelligence. Regular people think the trained dog is smarter than the untrained dog, when really nothing has changed as far as intelligence. Trainers teach a chicken a few behaviors and suddenly have to question if we are eating little Einsteins.
I personally think the truth, as usual, is in the middle.
Teaching behaviors and modifying behavior gives you a window into intelligence. The interaction becomes two way and you can communicate with the animal vs simply observing it. It's in this communication that you get to see whats going on upstairs, or not.
Little Fran is about 16 months old now and my initial goal was simply taming the animal (my hand is not food, and don't run away from me are basic "taming"). My other goal was to have a monitor who is comfortable being groped, carried and lifted (desensitization). I didn't do this with Sammi and now that shes 20lbs, its not really feasible or worth doing. Especially since her cage is on the floor, theres no real need. When I interact with Sammi physically I get the vibe of being tolerated, and I didn't want this with Fran.
I put some time into it and now Fran is very comfortable with being manipulated and carried, and took to it in very few sessions. He moves around a bit more than I'd like, but that's just teenage spunk and normal IME. Theres no fear of being dropped or that vibe of " I'm just tolerating this" that I so disliked. Its hard to say until I rear another monitor from birth if this is a personality difference (genes), a born in captivity difference (cortisol levels), or early experience difference (socialization)
We have a bathtub we use for cleaning and sanitizing big items in the rear of the store. Its a bit scratched up and well used. Historically Big Fran was given baths in this tub and the practice disappeared when Tim left and Big Fran was sold. I decided to try it out on both Sammi and Lil Fran to see their reactions.
Sammi, perhaps stressed from being lifted and carried to the tub, seemed pretty disinterested and quickly grew bored and tried to leave the tub. Sammi likes water, as is normal for this species, but didn't like the tub experience. She ignored me for the most part, acting like the traditional animal automaton. All instinct and no mind.
|Sammi, uninterested, trying to leave.|
Fran on the other hand was full of notable behaviors.
Firstly, he did not try and leave the tub as I had anticipated. This being a new experience I expected an initial response of fear resulting in him spooking. As would be normal for his age when exposed to a novel enviroment.
I was quite surprised when this did not occur. He did sit there for a minute or so, unsure what to do with himself. He made eye contact with me during this, as if looking for guidance. I told him it was "OK" and began to point at the water. I had already taught that "OK" is a safe word and a release and had introduced pointing* previously. (*Monitors learn what pointing is so quickly it would be easy to mistake it as innate if you aren't paying attention) Immediately he began to explore the tub in the spots I pointed to.
Then the first face dip under the water, seemingly on "accident" or instinct. Followed with what is known in mammals as an "approval glance". The animals way of saying "is this OK with you for me to do?" by hesitating and making eye contact. He did several of these to each I nodded and said it was "OK" to do. He quite enjoyed face dipping after that.
He wasn't understanding he could swim in that depth of water so I grasped him and pushed him around a bit like a toy, all while giving verbal approval. He did not object and seemed to like it. He then began to experiment with swimming, each motion was punctuated by another approval glance (three, just like for face dipping) and thus he decided it was ok with me, and began to swim.
The really interesting thing happened when I got bored and tried to walk away after 15 mins of this. When I did this he immediately stopped what he was doing and stood tall to see where I went. I stood out of sight and watched him for a minute or so. He sat there and waited for me until I walked back to the tub and then he relaxed and began to play again.
|Fran seeking approval with eye contact.|
If I hadn't told you this was a monitor, it would be easy to write the same story about a dog playing in a pool for the first time. Unsure, until the human encouraged them and upset when they were left alone. The amount of eye contact would rival a domesticated animal, as would the response to my voice. Fascinating stuff, in my mind. I have not done any formal action/reward training with food yet. I did this with Dino and he was an incredibly quick learner, but like Sammi did not seem to care about me at all. It will be interesting to see what an animal that is "bonded" to a person will learn when I start clicker training him. I could put social and verbal feedback into the loop on top of primary reinforcers (or lack thereof). I'll have to see, but I have a feeling that the trainability of such and animal and intelligence (aka problem solving) meets or exceeds the abilities of a dog.
If so the moral implications of keeping such animals in cages, or at least small boring ones, will have to be explored.