The Squirrel, Duck and Goose Stories

I intended a different essay than this one when I published The Key Story.  I wanted to continue the story of truth for few human attributes have caused so much havoc and are in need of explication.

Serendipity trumped intention when a most interesting e-mail message arrived in my inbox.  It told a story that continues my previous essay The Key Story.  It also reminded me of two similar stories. The first comes from a Reader’s Digest Magazine a long time ago:  The winter was hard.  Frost accumulated on the windows and icicles depended from gutters and cornices.  The college dorms were wrapped with deep drifts of snow.  One night three roommates heard an odd scratching sound that they could not immediately identify or locate.[1]  After a bit of searching they discovered that the sound came from outside the window and they pushed and pried and opened it.  A half-frozen squirrel was piteously scratching on the window screen!  They rescued it.  They warmed it.  They fed it.  They bought a cage with a – you guessed it – a squirrel cage runner.  It was one happy squirrel through the winter.  In the spring the boys set the squirrel free.

After the first frost the next year the boys heard that scratching again.

Late one evening a fox got into the hen house at our farm in Minnesota and killed some chickens.  My parents heard the commotion and rushed out to chase the fox away and save the chickens.  Their eggs were my mother’s cash crop and the hens were valuable.

Momma duck and her ducklings were kept in the fenced yard adjacent to the hen house.  As my father closed the gate, she set up a furious quacking and pushed against it.  He reopened the gate and she walked through.  He let her go and watched as she headed straight for the barn door about 150 feet away with her ducklings in single file behind.  He got the idea and opened the door for her.  He left them inside for the evening and in the morning they returned to the hen yard to be fed.  On the second night, momma duck once again refused to settle down and stayed by the gate quacking loudly until he opened it.  For the rest of the summer at dusk she and her ducklings would gather at the gate waiting for my father to open it, then leave the yard and walk to the barn and stay there for the night. Every morning my father was there to open the door for them and they returned to the hen yard.  I remember seeing them, noting their unusual behavior and asking about it.

One story is interesting; two stories are very interesting.  The evidence piles up and a pattern begins to appear.  Here is the third story:[2]

This is a most astonishing story, let’s look at it in detail.  Her gosling was hopelessly tangled in a balloon string and she knew that she was unable to untangle her baby.  She needed help.  She left her other goslings behind to seek that help.  Her first attempt was misunderstood.  She persisted, refused food and continued to peck on the police car door.  She walked away and when officer Givens did not follow, she returned and resumed pecking on the door.  When he finally got out, she knew to lead him to her gosling.  Then she stood by while Officer Charron picked up her gosling and untangled it.  Officer Charron asked “…do they know to turn to humans when they need help?” after she rescued the gosling.  She observed that momma duck had exhibited unusual behavior.

I’ve told you three similar and unusual stories and now ask “what is going on here anyway?”  That question is an expression of the Asimov Dictum: science proceeds less on eureka moments than on the observation “that’s odd!”[3]  Let’s look at each of the stories to discern the commonality of the oddness, the pattern that binds them together and out of that craft a new story to answer the question what is going on – the Asimov Dictum at work.

The squirrel knew where to find warmth and it was able to overcome its natural fear of humans, to reduce its normal approach distance to zero and allow one of the boys to pick it up and bring it inside to warmth.  Squirrels are not normally domesticable – they will not live in cages or in close proximity to humans.  This squirrel clearly preferred incarceration to cold – it came back the following year and lived in a cage out of choice.  The cage and proximity were a good exchange for warmth and food.  The squirrel communicated its needs to the boys in the face of its fear the first year and with anticipation the second year.

The duck also communicated her needs – she needed safety for her ducklings and herself.  She was one worried momma duck and she quacked until my father figured out that she feared being in the hen yard at night – the fox could come back.  She knew that safety was found behind closed doors.  She wanted to be inside the barn.

Momma goose had a serious problem.  Her gosling was in danger, she needed help and persisted asking until officer Givens got out of the car and followed her.

The commonality in these stories is that each one, the squirrel, duck and goose, asked a human for help in the time of their need.  They exhibited hope in the midst of fear and despair.  They communicated with us with some difficulty, but eventually someone understood what they needed and gave assistance.

They knew our power even if they did not understand it.  The squirrel knew that the college dorm was somehow akin to its nest with its warmth and security.  The duck knew that the barn was safer than the chicken yard.  The goose knew that humans could save her gosling.

We, that is H. sapiens, are a major element in their world and they are keen observers of us, our actions and our constructions.[4]  Is it possible that they react to their observations according the Clark dictum: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” [5]  Are we magicians performing feats of unimaginable and incomprehensible power in their perception?  When they needed that power, they asked for it, earnestly, hopefully and persistently.

I return to my previous essay The Key Story.  Bill exhibited earnest hope in the midst of fear and despair.[6]  He asked for help from his higher power.  Is there any fundamental difference between the goose pecking at the door of the police car and Bill praying while he walked back to the beach?

I have written several times that the gods themselves are the most human of human inventions.  But the squirrel, duck and goose stories suggest that the gods may be incipient in animal minds.  We created our godly stories out of what other animals had already perceived – that some other animals are powerful beyond their comprehension.  This must be particularly true for prey animals for their predators have the power to take their lives.  Are their predators like gods to their thoughtful prey?

Nature, their physical environment, is also powerful.  I remember those crashing thunder and lightning storms in Minnesota – raw power rendering me fearful and helpless yet amazed and wondrous.  Homo sapiens was once a prey animal huddling in abject fear beneath a black thundering and flashing sky.  Might not other animals experience the same fear and wonder at immense power?

This is “the ground of our being…,”[7] the vast commonalities of life from the molecules of bio-chemistry to animal intelligence, emotion and motivation.  The stories I’ve told comprise a small element of that intelligence.  In the title of his recent book Franz de Waal asks if we are intelligent enough to know how intelligent animals are.  I’ll answer his question “while I do not know how intelligent animals are, I posit that their biological and mental attributes are the basis for mine.”  We are hot-rodded primates.[8]  That is a very good story I think.[9]  I will answer Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” with “I am an animal therefore I think.”


Our stories arise out of animal perception, emotion and intelligence modified by the development of our species.  Out of evolutionary theory I took the idea that some gene complexes are conserved across time and speciation, and used this to develop my ideas about mental abilities.  What works is conserved.  I found commonalities in fundamental mental attributes such as perception of danger, sounding alarm, experiencing fear, preparation for fight or flight, even hope in asking for help.

Because we share neuro-chemicals I proposed that having successfully evaded danger the doe might experience a mental pleasure as her reward for successful fulfillment of motivation – survival.  Her brain releases the same chemicals as ours so upon this foundation I proposed that the pleasure I experience upon successfully crafting words into a story thus fulfilling my motivation is fundamentally the same process as her reward for fulfilling her motivation – survival – thus tying stories to survival – one motivation for constructing and telling them.

I have noted that intelligence and other mental abilities are very unequally distributed in our species.  I assumed that within less intelligent animals, mental abilities would be more equally distributed.  But The Squirrel, Duck and Goose Stories have pushed my thinking into another pattern.  Is it possible that intelligence is distributed unequally in other animals and that the actors in these stories are themselves squirrel, duck and goose geniuses?  Their behaviors are well outside their normal.  This surprised me so I found a new pattern: animal genius – a distribution of intelligence within a species as well as between species.  The Asimov Dictum – that’s odd – at work in my mind again.

The idea that the gods themselves are a product of our animal heritage is brand new fresh on the page in this essay.  It also surprised me and sent my thoughts spinning off into new directions.  Maybe in some sense we did not invent the gods, they were there all the time.  We simply did what we do consistently: recast our animal heritage into stories comprised of words.

[1] I can’t resist noting that they did not find an aural pattern match to their available patterns or templates in their path dependent memory of their sensory system inputs and subsequent pattern development.

[2] This story and the short video are repeated on several websites in various forms.  If the link goes dead, search on “cop helps goose” or “Cincinnati cop helps goose.”  I did a brief fact check with no reported problems.

[3] This is my paraphrase of a quote from Isaac Asimov.  The source of the quote is uncertain – I think it is in one of his essays for If Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  He expressed the observation as “…that’s funny!” but I prefer “that’s odd.”

[4] See: Temple, Grandin, Animals in Translation for more on keen observation of their environment.

[5] Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future, 1973.  Also known as Clarke’s Third Law.

[6] Dorm rules required both Bill and his girlfriend to be in by the curfew.

[7] I borrowed the phrase from the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich.  I think that if he knew of our increased understanding of animal intelligence he would approve – that is, he might himself think that the idea of gods derived from our animal heritage finding agency in our physical environment as we do in our social environment.

[8] I am having increasing problems with the dualism/tribalism of ‘animals and humans’: us and them.  I have not yet adjusted my vocabulary to reduce this cognitive dissonance.  I need a neologism that expresses ‘we are animals with increased intelligence superimposed upon a common neuro-mental, emotional, and motivational substrate.  As I move ahead in my essays, I will make extensive use of this continuity.  Life is a continuing exploration of the potential of biochemistry, of the four-bonded carbon atom.

[9] The word play was accidental and delightful.

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