Thursday, March 5, 2009

What do elephants have to remember anyhow?

I have been thinking lately of something that we are probably all guilty of, namely how often we say things that are quite silly without even realizing it. I suspect there is hardly a day that passes that we don’t say something that would falter upon even the most cursory examination.
What prompted me along this line of thought was a conversation I overheard at Starbucks the other day.
A young woman was sitting at the table next to me when a group of several young people came in. One of the people, also a young woman, noticed her and approached.
“Aren’t you Christina?’’ she said. “I met you at Jamie’s wedding.’’
“Yes, but that was over a year ago,’’ the young woman replied. “You’ve got a great memory!’’
“Yeah, I’ve got a memory like an elephant.’’
The memory of an elephant, eh? Really? People have been lauding elephants for their ability to recollect for decades now, but I am not at all convinced that elephants have earned the reputation.
Admittedly, I don’t know any elephants personally, so I don’t have any anecdotal evidence to support my skepticism. But I strongly suspect that the elephant’s reputation for memory relies largely on the fact that there are really only a few things that an elephant is expected to remember in the first place.
Elephants are generally not held accountable for remembering birth dates, anniversaries, pin numbers, where the car is parked at the mall or to put the lid down on the toilet. It is true that an elephant never forgets where he put the TV remote, but only for the obvious reason that he never had the TV remote in the first place.
Until an elephant demonstrates that he can help an 10th-grader with his algebra homework 25 years after finishing high school, I am not inclined to imbue the pachyderm with any remarkable faculties for memory.
It also makes me wonder what other qualities are ascribed to animals that could not bear serious scrutiny.
For example, dogs are loyal. This is very often true. But not always. When I was a kid, I had a Boston terrier named Buddy who was my loyal friend through thick and thin or until somebody showed up with food. At that point, Buddy was very much inclined – like, say, France - to change his allegiance. He had no pangs of conscience about it, either.
On the other hand, I don’t think anyone will question that the cat has a great sense of hearing. I know this from several cat-sitting jobs with my friend Geri’s cats – Halle and Jade. Jade, quite social for a cat, was always around. Halle only showed up at meal-time. We met at the feed dish and then she would simply disappear for the next 10 hours or so. I had no idea where she went, but I quickly discovered I could find Halle simply by opening the refrigerator door. Before the fridge light came on, she would be sitting there by the fridge.
To be honest, it was sorta unnerving. Halle seemed to just materialize out of nowhere when I touched the refrigerator door handle.
My experience tells me that cats hear well and listen, not at all. Try calling a cat and you’ll see what I mean.
I suspect there are a whole range of qualities assigned to animals that are either not true at all or are greatly overstated.
I could probably come up quite a few of them, but I’d rather open it up for reader participation. (This means you!!)
Besides, I’m busy at the moment.
Where DID I put that TV remote?