Togo’s Story

Squirrels, ducks and geese thinking!  Animal genius!  Gods incipient in their thoughts!  Have I totally lost my mind?  Maybe not.  Gather around me once again my friends and I will tell you another story:

It was a dark and stormy night …no, not that famous night of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, this is a true story in the stormy winter of 1925 – Nome, Alaska.  Children were dying of diptheria, an epidemic was building and the doctor had an insufficient stock of serum.  The closest source was 700 miles away in Seattle, WA and Nome was frozen in.  The winter storms made it impossible for bush pilots to fly. The only way to get the serum from Seattle was by rail and from the last railhead to Nome by dog team.  These were truly dark and stormy nights, days too as the mushers and their dogs made their way north in temperatures ranging down to -85 deg F.[1]  Children were dying and the teams were driving.Now this was back in the days when the ships were made of wood and men were made of steel.  Well, alright, both ships and men were by 1925 made of steel and few men were made of finer steel than those mushers who drove the serum north.  But even men made of steel were powerless against the cold and darkness without their dogs.

Travelling on land in the Arctic winter is tough but crossing a waterway is utterly dangerous.  The shortest route to Nome crossed the Norton Sound, an inlet of the Bering Sea.   Shifting currents can cause the ice to break into floes and to open leads that strand the team and driver.  The event that I will relate happened on an earlier traverse of the Norton Sound by Leonhard Seppala[2] and his team led by Togo.[3]  They had become stranded for several hours on a floe surrounded by water.  Eventually the wind shifted and pushed the floe close to the shore-fast ice but there was still a five-foot opening that was not closing.  Seppala tied a towline to Togo’s harness, picked him up and threw him across the lead.  Togo understood what to.  He dug his nails into the shore ice and headed toward the land.  The towline broke.

“As Seppala stood staring across the lead at Togo, the dog dove into the water, snapped the line up into his mouth, and struggled back out onto the shore-bound floe.  Holding the line tightly in his jaws, Togo rolled over until the line until it was twice looped about his shoulders” and began to pull.  The floe with his teammates and master started to move and Togo continued to pull until it was close enough for them to jump safely across.” [4]

I will take that story at face value.  There are many similar stories of dogs and men in the Arctic and the sum of the stories is that sled dogs can think, and can solve problems.  I posit that Togo was thinking when he first began pulling on the towline, that he understood that the line had broken, that he knew to solve that problem by jumping in the water and grabbing the line in his mouth, and that he thought to roll over to tighten the line around his body and then resume pulling.

He had never before confronted such a difficult problem.  In contradistinction to the crow genius he had not been trained in each individual task required to solve the problem.  Togo knew what to do, immediately, intuitively, and creatively solving a unique problem.

Do other animals think?  Fifty years ago, the answer to that question would have been “of course not, only H. sapiens has the capacity to think.  When you show me that pigs can fly, I will consider that animals can think.”

I chose the vignettes in “The Squirrel, Duck and Goose Stories” to illustrate the possibility that other animals might have mental processes that are indistinguishable from thought albeit without words.  I wrote “Bird Brain” for the same reason.  In particular I interpreted the crow’s pause when it realized it had made a mistake as a moment of bird thought.  It then corrected the mistake and continued solving the problem.  I wrote The Togo Story to cap those stories.  My parsimonious hypothesis is that animals can think.  The consensus opinion is not yet in complete acceptance of this notion but I think it only a matter of time.[5]

Some, not all, animals can think, some better than others, and maybe some are geniuses within their own species.  I am an animal with a complex nervous system, therefore I think.  The ground of my thinking is our common mental abilities.  The words come from elsewhere.

What’s in a thinking animal’s mind?  Let’s look at the evidence I have so far presented.

First the squirrel: cold and hungry, it was in danger of dying.  I find in its mind a need for simple survival that it may live for another summer and a chance to pass its genes onto the next generation.  Momma duck had a need for survival of her ducklings and for herself – the fox may come back.  Momma goose similarly had a need for a higher power to rescue her gosling, but she herself is not in danger.[6]  The crow genius[7] is similar.  It solved a complex problem to find food to survive and thereby retain the possibility of passing genes to the next generation.

Those are simple stories displaying simple motivations based upon what I like to think of as the Survival Rules for each species.  In these four stories the theme is fulfilling the burden of those self-replicating molecules bundled into cells and then into organisms: survival and reproduction.

The Togo Story is a bit more complex.  Leonhard Sepala picked up Togo, threw him across the open water and onto a shorebound floe.  Togo knew to pull the towline and when it broke, Togo plunged into the freezing water, seized the line, scrambled back onto solid ice, wrapped the line around his shoulder, and began pulling.  He knew that they – his team mates which included a human being – needed help.  This is different from the squirrel, duck, and goose stories who only knew that they themselves or their offspring needed help.  There are more inferences[8] to be drawn from the Togo Story but I only need at this time the inference that Togo had knowledge and was thinking albeit without words to solve a new and difficult problem.

When I developed the idea of animal genius, I asked myself ‘what is the standard deviation of intelligence in different species?’  Behind that question is the idea that the variance of intelligence in ungulates is less than in the great apes and that less than in H. sapiens.  And that somehow led to the question ‘do other animals have mental illnesses?’  Behind that question is an observation that I made about words in my mind.  That will be the subject of my next essay.


It took a bit of time before I found the source of my speculations on animal genius: Temple Grandin’s book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.  The titles of her last two chapters are ‘How Animals Think’ and ‘Animal Genius: Extreme Talents’.  Clearly I borrowed the idea of animal genius from her and I had forgotten my debt until now.[9]

I picked up Animals in Translation to review her idea that our word processing mental module overlies and suppresses our ability to think in images, this separating us from our animal substrate.  It also restricts our ability to pay attention to sensory details thus suppressing mindfulness.  The stories in my head interfere with other mental functions.  I conceptualize this as ‘my brain has a finite information bandwidth.’  Words require a sizable bandwidth and this leaves less for other functions.  I am here thinking of the absent-minded professor as an example.  Meditation and mindfulness exercises may now be interpreted as reverse suppression of the word processing module: turn the words off to tune in and return to animal mindfulness.

Two sources on animal intelligence are Franz de Waal, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?[10] and Bradshaw, G. A., Carnivore Minds.

I remarked above that the consensus opinion might not yet have accepted animal intelligence and thought.  This idea is now sufficiently main stream that Time produced a small book by Jeffrey Kluger titled The Animal Mind: How They Think. How They Feel. How to Understand Them.  I think this will be debated for a few years but that the conclusion has already been written: other animals can think and do so entirely without words.  That implies that the words in my mind are not the thought but the conscious emanation of thinking.

[1] With wind chill factor.



[4] This epic story is told in: Salisbury, Gay and Laney, The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic, p. 210.  Note that the title gives pride of place to the dogs.

[5] “Science proceeds one funeral at a time” (Max Planck.)   Even in science there is an element of conservatism – the subject of another essay.

[6] Momma goose may have been uncomfortable with Officer Charron picking up her gosling but this motivation was clearly over-ridden by her need for help.  Motivation is complex, layered, and possibly conflicting.

[7] It took me awhile to realize that this video was the basis for my idea of animal genius in the previous essay.  The back story of that idea was path dependent – I found what was already in my mind, somewhere, although I was not aware of it at the time.  I simply changed the word ‘Einstein’ to genius.

[8] In particular altruism but I am not brave enough to go there at this time.  So far as I know Togo’s team mates were not litter mates or other genetic relatives.  There was no calculation of relatedness value r and kin selection.  Other motivations were in play, one of which will become very important later.

[9] The video, on which I based my essay ‘Bird Brain’ arrived in my email inbox later and I used it as another example of animal genius.

[10] Again I remark upon the dualism of us and other animals – de Waal uses it so I can forgive myself for also using it in place of another locution