by Edward Campbell
A substantial extract from a fascinating account of communicating with animals that was originally an Institute for Cultural Research Lecture in 1970. The complete monograph is available for download at http://i-c-r.org.uk/publications/monographarchive.php
… A European animal trainer, a very remarkable little man called Hans Brick, was fascinated by legends of lions trained to retrieve game in the chase. He trained his own lion Habibi to shoot a dart from a spring gun, then to seek it out, retrieve it and bring it back and drop it at his feet. I have watched this perhaps fifty times.
So it would seem that some of the mansuetari (legendary lion trainers of Roman times) feats, long thought to be apocryphal, have been validated in recent times.
What I should like to suggest is a range of activity which involves something beyond the purely reactive, beyond the motor-instinctive level. But I should say in advance that there may be other explanations of any such apparent instances.
Early this century a showman in Germany produced a counting horse. When its owner asked it to add three and three, it pawed the ground six times. Asked to take five away from nine, it pawed the ground four times.
This surprising genius for mathematics created quite a stir and a committee, which included a journalist, a veterinary surgeon and the current professor of physiology at Berlin, went along to investigate. Scientific credulity must have been pretty high in those days because this committee came out with an entirely favourable report. They seriously concluded that this horse could count – admittedly to a limited extent.
This seems to have been too much for other earnest investigators because a second committee was prompted to have another look and they saw quite quickly that the horse was merely trained to start pawing the ground when it received a signal from the showman and to stop pawing when it got another signal.
In other words, simply the old Joey pony routine which has been a circus stand-by for untold years.
Counting horses were however in the air, so to speak. Most rich men of the time had stables and various people with time on their hands began training their favourite horses to learn simple arithmetic. Some remarkable discoveries were made.
In one case the trainer experimented with reducing the stop signal almost to vanishing point. The horse still obeyed. He then took a real header into uncharted country. He did not give the signal at all. He merely thought about giving it. The horse responded as before.
This horse even transferred its conditioning from the trainer to visitors. It was discovered that the trainer could leave the room. A committee of visitors would agree on a small arithmetical problem, ask the horse for the answer and when the correct number of scrapes with the hoof had been reached the horse duly stopped.
Was the horse receiving, by some sort of telepathy from the people watching it, the correct answer?
If so, it would appear that by association with humans, a conditioned reflex had led to such a refinement of ordinary perception that a new, wholly unsuspected modality began to operate. If this was really the explanation, the counting horse vogue may have uncovered a principle which is not normally suspected: that if an ordinary sense is refined to its ultimate, something begins to happen in a higher range.
This may however not be the explanation of the telepathic horse. There are other possibilities. In the early 1930s Hanusen, a professional cabaret clairvoyant who became the oracle of the early Nazi Party, used to perform a ‘thought reading’ experiment at Society parties.
While he was out of the room the company would choose an object in the room, an ornament or a book, or even a word on a particular page in a book. On his return, Hanusen would choose someone in the company, generally a young woman, and taking her hand would begin to walk slowly round the room.
Presently he would stop at one general area, then seemingly eliminate inch by inch until he finally decided on the object chosen. The rationale of this was that he had trained himself to such a degree of sensitivity that unconscious giveaway contractions of muscles in the girl’s hand acted as an infallible indication and enabled him to arrive at something which had all the appearance of telepathy.
But if he could interpret minute unconscious muscular contractions in another person and give the illusion of telepathy thereby, perhaps a horse could do the same.
The telepathic horse – or horses: there were several of them – may have developed merely an ability to react to involuntary changes in audience tension as the correct total was drawing close. On the other hand animals may have latent capacities for cognition in areas which so far we have only just begun to suspect.
The lions’ tale
I have one personal example of this and I have not been able to find a ‘rational’ explanation for it. Shortly before the war I trained a lion, two lionesses and a brown bear to perform in an indoor menagerie. I was a young newspaper reporter then and I did this because I was interested in the subject and also because I wanted to see if the allegations of the anti-circus societies – that no wild animal act could be trained to professional standard without cruelty – had any basis in fact.
I was on very good terms indeed with the two lionesses and would often go into the cage and simply play with them. There was a great deal of crude horseplay – or lionplay – but I was never injured in these romps and we had great fun.
Early in 1940 I went away on military service and it was about six months, if I recall correctly, before I got my first leave. Even before I went home, I had to pay a visit to the zoo to see the lions.
The zoo was on the first floor of a large building and the approach was through a turnstile set in a wall across the entrance. It was impossible to see into the premises until one had paid admission and gone through the turnstile.
There was however a small spy-hole for the use of the staff so that it was possible to see in and get a rough impression of how many visitors were present. I had a look and could see that on this Saturday afternoon the place was packed.
At the far end I could see the wild animal cages and could catch a glimpse of the lions intermittently between the heads and shoulders of the people who were standing or strolling about. After a few moments I saw that the lions had stopped pacing and were facing in my general direction in an attitude of extreme alertness.
I remained where I was and after a few minutes more the two lionesses suddenly went into frenzy. They ran from end to end of the cage, leaping over each other on the way. This performance was so alarming that I could see that the spectators who happened to be at the far end, nearest the lion cages, were moving away and making tracks for the exit.
I went through a staff pass-door and mingled with the visitors – perhaps 100 to 150 people. At the moment I did this, the lions stopped their leaping and bounding and came into the caution position with heads outstretched, backs deeply arched down, but with tails mobile.
They seemed to be scanning the whole space between the bars of their cage and the far end of the building where I had just entered. Final recognition was, I am sure, by sight.
As I walked towards the lion cage, elbowing my way through the crowd, they finally identified me to their satisfaction and with one accord went into the leaping and bounding performance of a few minutes ago. I went up the two steps to the cage door, went through the safety cage and in beside them.
If you can imagine the sort of welcome you get from a favourite Labrador who hasn’t seen you for six months and pulls out all the stops to assure you he remembers – and then multiply that by several hundredweight you will have some idea of what I was treated to.
Finally they lay down panting, rolled over on their tummies and insisted on being slapped and petted.
Some facts should be noted. When I first peered through the spy-hole something communicated itself to two lionesses. They could not see me or hear me and I discount the possible use of the sense of smell because there were at least a hundred people in a tight mass between the cages and where I stood.
Yet there seems little doubt that they knew.
When I finally came into the building and mingled with the spectators they went quite clearly through a period of elimination and uncertainty before they finally decided that identification had been made. Yet I was one of 100 people and I was dressed in RAF uniform which they had never seen before.
I am convinced that these two animals knew I was there, but that neither sight sound or smell was responsible for whatever communication was in operation. What then? I do not know.
One of these lionesses was extremely intelligent and learned a number of ‘feature’ tricks quite effortlessly, tricks which are often cited by antiperforming animal societies as being obtainable only by cruelty. She learned for example to walk twin parallel tightropes like a leonine fil-de feriste.
If I did a performance in the morning, largely for the fun of it and there were only a few people in the zoo to watch, she would do her 16 foot walk along the ropes, reach the far end and without hesitation, jump down: trick over.
If however it was a Saturday evening show and there were many spectators and she got a ‘good hand’, she would turn round at the far end and walk back again!
I am not suggesting that egoism and vanity are animal latencies which should be developed, but I am quite sure they do develop even in wild animals as a consequence of their relationship with humans.
Attention and understanding
Hans Brick had a quite extraordinary relationship with his own lion Habibi. They busked together across Europe and on one occasion when times were very bad, Brick prised out the gold crowns from his own teeth to buy meat for the lion.
Their relationship was quite extraordinary. Certain boundaries were laid down by tacit agreement. One of them was that Habibi was entitled to kill Brick if he could find a moment when his trainer’s attention was less than continuous. Provided he could maintain this, the lion never made the attempt.
On several occasions over many years Brick momentarily lapsed and attack came instantly. Brick was seriously injured several times. Always Brick insisted that the fault was his. “I know the rules” he would say, “so does he”.
Yet at certain times and in certain conditions Brick could require from this lion certain concessions. He could, as it were, ask for an ex-gratia suspension of treaty, and could call upon something very much like understanding.
Brick was interned in the Isle of Man during the war as an alien and his lion never saw him for several years. When he was released, Brick was asked to do wild animal sequences for the film The Dark Tower at Pinewood studios.
The owner of the zoo where Habibi had been kept all through Brick’s internment felt that he was entitled to some recompense for providing the lion with bed and board and flatly refused to release either Brick or lion.
Habibi had been housed on the first floor of the same building already mentioned in connection with my lions. Brick had no tunnelling to take his lion from its cage on the first floor to a travelling cage at street level. He had no ‘shifting den’ (a very large barred packing case) which might have sufficed to get the lion out and away.
Yet when the zoo was opened one Monday morning, Brick and his lion had flown.
I was sure I knew how the trick had been done and some years later I confirmed it exactly.
At six o’clock on a Sunday morning, Brick opened the cage in which Habibi had spent the war, called him out and ‘made his pact’. He looped his whiplash loosely round the lion’s neck like a dog lead and led him through the zoo, down a flight of stairs into the main street of a large city.
He walked him – a 12-year-old male lion that had once killed and totally eaten a man – along a city street, round a corner and up a lane where Brick’s wagon-cage was stored. He opened this and the lion jumped in.
A few minutes later they were off to Pinewood studios.
One has to look very carefully at this incident to see just what was involved. When Brick opened the lion’s cage in the zoo and called him out, every other animal must have gone berserk. There were lion cages and a cage containing a leopard close by. Adjoining there was a stall with shetland ponies.
Monkeys, in netted enclosures, must have been screaming. Across the floor of the building rabbits were allowed free range at the weekend and so was a peacock. Through this bedlam Brick walked a man-eating lion.
In some way Brick could make a claim upon this beast, involving the exercise of some capacity never normally associated with a wild animal and could count upon the lion’s tolerance for a certain period.
I should be hard put to it to name what it was that Brick could invoke in this animal or the means of communication he used. But something quite extraordinary had been developed in a wild beast by association with a very remarkable man.
At the moment we are trying to find examples of unusual communication between man and beast that go beyond the motor-instinctive, or conditioned level. The next example may appear to be at bottom storey level but it would seem to include also a ‘certain something’ at a better level.
Knights in the Middle Ages, engaged in combats of chivalry, developed certain tricks in their chargers. A horse would be trained to lash out with hind hooves at a certain moment and so secure the knight’s rear.
Or it would rear up, swing round and paw the air, so as to discourage an opponent engaging from the front. With the end of knightly combat the functional aspect of this vanished, but the horse movements seem to have become stylised and elaborated as ‘Haute Ecole’ riding.
In the last century the centre of this fine-art horse-training was the Spanische Reitschule at Vienna, associated with the high and palmy days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There, high school riding reached very great standards of refinement, but there were other places where the same – or perhaps even a superior – standard was achieved.
Therese Renz, a member of a famous European circus dynasty, seems to have taken school-riding to an exceptional pitch. She was still riding when she was over 80 and could produce even then a remarkable effect on audiences.
A German publicist, Dr Kober, made some interesting observations of Therese Renz’s effect. In brief the theory is that at a certain pitch of high-school training and a certain degree of rapport between horse and rider, ‘something else’ switches in.
The brain of the horse goes into abeyance and the rider’s brain takes charge of two motor-instinctive circuits – the horse’s and the rider’s own.
Dr Kober noticed that when this ‘something’ happened, it was communicated instantly to an audience, whether it was an audience of farmers in Bavaria or a sophisticated Society audience in Berlin.
The phenomenon communicated itself. People felt they were in the presence of something in an unfamiliar area and, though they could not rationalise it, they could not fail to notice it.
Again the explanation offered may be fanciful. It may merely be possible to reduce the ‘aids’ (muscular contractions) from the rider’s hands and thighs to vanishing point yet leave an unconscious minimum, adequate to convey instruction to a horse whose sensitivity has been very highly developed.
Or it may be that when ordinary sensory communication is enhanced to the ultimate, other modalities of cognition do move from the potential into the actual. The dog would seem to provide many examples of a ‘higher area’ being switched in as the result of long association with a higher intelligence.
There are many examples of a dog running back for help when its master has been injured. I think the significance of this is often lost in the usual ‘shows how intelligent a dog can be’.
The capacity for reasoned initiative in a dog must be minute, at best. The behaviourists would say that it is nonexistent. Yet here is a situation in which no conditioned response (running for help) has been trained in as the consequence of a stimulus (an unconscious owner).
Yet the dog appears to show a rational initiative.
Again, is it possible that something of man’s intelligence can be imparted by some sort of emanation as the result of long association? Man and animal have been associated almost from the start of human evolution. There appears to have been a magic relationship and a domestic relationship. Maybe the two lines sometimes overlap.
Could it be that the man-animal relationship is one of reciprocal advantage at some level not easily seen? That man – though unconsciously – is contributing something to an animal evolution?
Some of the suggestions I have made are no doubt fanciful and they are clearly to be labelled with a very big question mark.
Here, to conclude is a final suggestion, more fanciful still. Suppose man’s destiny requires that in future time he should encounter other intelligences in the universe. It seems unlikely that with the means at present available to him he would be able to communicate. Some new technique, some radically different grammar of communication would be necessary.
The Sufi, Idries Shah, has suggested that the human population of planet Earth is now living in ‘the eighth day of the week’. He has also hinted at the difficulties (and dangers) of a first encounter with another order of Being.
Perhaps we should be applying ourselves seriously to the fundamentals of communication against the time when communication becomes a necessity rather than an option. The animal world may offer us a place in an invaluable kindergarten.
Edward Campbell was formerly Literary Editor of the London Evening News. He began his journalistic career in the late 1930s with Kemsley Newspapers in Glasgow. At the same time, he was able to pursue a passion for animals by working in a small zoo under Glasgow Central Station. There he demonstrated that animals, in this case three lions and a bear, can be trained to high commercial circus standards without resort to any form of cruelty. He also discovered something of the depth and subtlety of communication possible between men and wild beasts.