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Animals, plants may feel more than we know

The word for today is sentient. Dictionary.com defines sentient as “having the power of perception by the senses; conscious.” Sentience connotes the “capacity for sensation or feeling.”

People are sentient beings. Sentience is supposed to be what puts us in our class of knowing right from wrong. Indeed, the definition of sentient uses the word conscience, the inner sense of what is right or wrong.

So, we humans are sentient beings, but what about the rest of our world?

An early morning walk last week allowed me to cross paths with a beautiful lizard. Lizards are among my favorite critters. Usually the little reptiles scurry away at the first sign of me, but this little fellow held his ground on the sidewalk as I neared him. He watched and cocked his head as I came right next to him. I stopped, he eyed me closely. I gave him a “good morning,” that he acknowledged with a nod of his head. I very slowly moved along toward home as he took his more relaxed basking position to enjoy the morning sun, watching me as I moved away.

A couple of weeks ago a friend brought her dog over for a visit. As I lay recovering from a hospitalization, Taylor hopped up on the bed and noticed her master’s reflection in my mirror. Taylor was fascinated.

Obviously her brain was trying to make sense of having two masters show up magically. Taylor was conscious of the two-master phenomenon and was trying to make sense out of it.

I often wonder what goes through the mind of our fellow beings with whom we share this planet. Just how much do they understand about our world, about us, and about themselves. Ants and bees are collective societies, every bit as sophisticated as any urban town. Birds to zebras teach their young, just as we higher-intelligence humans. And what of the plants around us? How much do they communicate and feel? Just how conscious are they?

As an Oregonian, I confess to being a tree-hugger. Since I was a small tyke I remember learning that research had shown that trees have a memory that allows them to “concentrate their entire growth and development precisely in the expected (waterfall) period” (Günther Witzany of www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov) and sound wave studies show that trees scream when they are cut.

According to Laurie L. Dove (science.howstuffworks.com), “The smell we associate with newly cut grass is a chemical distress call. … To protect themselves, plants employ a volley of molecular responses. These chemical communications can be used to poison an enemy, alert surrounding plants to potential dangers or attract helpful insects to perform needed services.”

Half the fun of having family and friends come to visit is the sharing of thoughts that comes from our time together. Sentience was a recent topic under my roof with favorite out-of-town friends and family.

From our discussions I learned that plants respond positively to stroking their leaves and being spoken to kindly.

I have done this for years and find that the periods when I get too busy to talk to my plants they tend to wilt more quickly and shoot out fewer growth sprouts. Now there is research to back up my idiosyncratic behavior.

Along with learning about plant intelligence, I learned that my cousin, Mike, has firsthand experience with animal sentience. In the 1960s, a couple near Reno raised a baby chimpanzee they named Washoe. Raised in a human environment, Washoe was taught rudimentary English and American Sign Language. Washoe knew at least 130 words and the alphabet.

In the late 1970s Washoe was moved to Central Washington University where Dr. Roger Fouts and his wife, Debbie, conducted primate research. As a student aide in 1981, cousin Mike met Washoe and her chimpanzee family, including Washoe’s adopted son, Loulis.

Mike relates, “Despite her curled up primate fingers, she would assert her dominance as the alpha female and speak when spoken to or ignore you if she chose. As a communications major, I learned that despite our assumptions to the contrary, these primates are more like humans than we want to accept.

“By developing a relationship and becoming a nondominant person in a chimp’s world, they allowed me to see that they were and are excitable. They jousted and kidded with me as my friends and family do with one another. They understood right from wrong.

They told me when they were hungry, when they wanted to play, and when I wasn’t welcome. They knew what a friend was. I learned that when Lou signed the word ‘friend’ to me. If Lou could have texted, I may have been one of his BFF’s.”

Washoe died in October 2007 at the age of 42.

For more information on Washoe, see www.friendsofwashoe.org/meet/washoe.html.

Cat Trico has been a resident of Boulder City since 2003 and is a past president of the Senior Center of Boulder City and co-founder of the Decker Lake Wetlands Preserve. As an author and editor, she contributed to “Rights, Responsibilities, and Relationships” for youth. She can be reached at cat.circa1623@gmail.com.

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