Why we set out to uncover the mysteries of animal minds


Until recently I lived in a magical corner of the city of Seattle, on a hillside overlooking Puget Sound, surrounded by thick stands of big-leaf maples interspersed with mature fir, cedar, and spruce trees. My husband, Charles, and I shared this patch of nature with abundant wildlife: coyotes, weasels and river otters, deer, and all manner of birds.

In our last few months there, we became transfixed by ongoing hostilities between a barred owl roosting in one of our maples and a murder of crows. No matter the time of day, when the crows spotted the owl, they would surround it, caw incessantly, dive-bomb, and generally harass the bird.

It was hard not to feel sorry for the owl, which was, to my mind, simply trying to get some rest before the evening’s hunt. Although Charles reminded me that the two species don’t get along, I kept thinking about these crows’ relentlessness. Why did they have it in for this owl? Did they remember some injury it had done to them? Did they feel something towards it?

Behavioral science’s progress in uncovering what animals think—and, yes, feel—is the subject of this month’s cover story. It’s a thought-provoking look at key discoveries to date on matters from dog pleasure and disappointment to rat kinship to dolphin joy. As it happens, contributing writer Yudhijit Bhattacharjee met a biologist who studies ravens—cousins ​​of those American crows on my property—and has documented the birds consoling each other. So perhaps it’s not so far-fetched to think my crows were harboring a grudge.

Wherever our cover story takes your mind, the research on animal sentience will likely have wide-ranging implications for how we regard, and treat, Earth’s creatures in the years to come.

We’ve got other compelling features this month too: a journey through the Taliban’s Afghanistan, a descent into astonishing (and melting) Alpine ice caves, and an exploration of the unique culture of Brazil’s quilombos, communities established by Africans who escaped enslavement.

We hope you enjoy the issue.

This story appears in the October 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.


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