Insights of Zoological Attribution Theory (2005), 51(2):118-119.


Zoological Bromides: Right or Wrong?

Professor Johannes Smerk
Reykjavik Animal Psychology Center
Dr. Peter Paul Popkin
U.S. Air Force Office of Abnormal Mammalian Deportment

Abstract. Modern cultures are replete with expressions purporting to relate certain
aspects of animal behavior and/or animal character to human activities or tendencies.
Throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries, these quaint and unverified sayings
were largely accepted without any serious effort to establish their truthfulness. In 1927,
Donald Moore and Jean-Jacques Chrétien produced the first work to directly address
this subject, and their research, although preliminary and not without systemic flaws,
nevertheless created the field that has come to be known as Zoological Attribution
Theory (ZAT). Approximately 1,650 hours of field work has now been subjected to
rigorous analysis, and this paper presents the results of six of these studies.


     After Dr. Chrétien's unfortunate accident while trying to determine whether eels are in fact as slippery as they are portrayed as being, and his subsequent death, Donald Moore wrote several articles on the subject of gift horses. Although he spent several months looking at a variety of gift horses both in the mouth and in several other anatomical features such as the ear and the nose, he was never able to adequately determine why such scrutiny should be so zealously guarded against. When he retired, his student Lee van Cynder followed up on the work he had begun with large four-legged farm animals and was able to show conclusively that mules are indeed stubborn. From these modest beginnings, Zoological Attribution Theory became a significant field especially toward the latter part of the 20th century, when numerous mammalian, avian, piscatory and entomological platitudes were investigated. Professor Smerk and Dr. Popkin have made substantial progress on their own, rebutting several animal-related cliches, and now present a summary of the most recent unpublished work in the field by others.

Anger in Moistened Hens (2002)

     There are not many people in the farm belt who have not encountered the expression "mad as a wet hen," and biology student Lily Franks Sternham set out to verify its veracity. Travelling around northern Oklahoma, she performed a series of experiments designed to see just how mad wet hens get. During her first week, a control group of Rhode Island Reds at Henry Dootson's farm near Bluejacket was accidentally locked out of their coop during a sudden mid-day thunderstorm. Sternham was able to personally observe that the hens both looked and acted as though they were quite annoyed, clucking irritably until Mr. Dootson discovered the error. At Dick Mulcahy's chicken farm outside of Salt Fork, she used a garden hose to simulate the same conditions, spraying Appenzell bearded hens for approximately two hours. Farmer Mulcahy was later heard to say that "he had never seen them like that before. Just plumb mad." Sternham then visited the giant Agrichicken Industries where she spend several days chasing Leghorn chickens into ponds and taking extensive notes on their post-dousing behavior. After several more weeks, Sternham concluded that 79% of the wet hens in her study were very mad, another 17% were somewhat mad, and only 4% failed to react noticeably to the liquid harrassment.
     A recent personal communication announced her intention to widen the study to see whether bears are in fact cross, but so far no zoos have agreed to allow her to use their animals inasmuch as her planned techniques of provoking them involve electricity.

Early and Late Birds Vis-à-Vis Worms (2003)

     Two field studies were conducted in the United Kingdom during 2003 to determine whether early birds actually enjoy a significant advantage in procuring worms, one by the eminent British ornithologist Sir Arthur Penny-Swopes Throckmorton, and the other by the equally recognized Scottish ornithologist Dr. Harrison Dudley-Smith. Each carefully selected a group of ground-feeding birds that seemed appropriate for their particular study, with Throckmorton concentrating on robins, wrens, chaffinches and dunnocks, and Dudley-Smith choosing thrushes, starlings, pigeons and blackbirds. Throckmorton religiously arose at 4am, venturing bravely out into the Kentish gloom of Marlboro Wilderness Reserve with nothing but a well-thumbed notebook and a thermos of weak Earl Gray tea, while Dudley-Smith followed a different strategy, sleeping until noon, consuming a large breakfast of kippers and sausages, scrambled eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes and haggis, then being carried to a nearby municipal park in a litter by his four assistants who were also burdened with his 500mm spotting scope, cameras and camera bags, GPS navigating device, laptop computer, and several over-stuffed picnic baskets.
     Each of these studies were carried on for approximately four weeks, at which time Throckmorton's study results were released. Dudley-Smith's conclusions followed about a month later and confirmed that there is an apparently almost inexhaustible supply of worms in the U. K. providing an adequate diet for birds both early and late. It is interesting however that the expression does seem to have some relevance to these two ardent birders in that the "early bird," i.e. Throckmorton, did get the "worm," in this case being the prestigious Southern Wrentit Award given each year for notable scholarship in the field of British ornithology.

Fun Quotient of Monkeys in Barrels (2004)

     Recently a unique experiment was conducted at the Zurich Barrel Festival by Heinrich Eric Strasser, a researcher at the Swiss Primatology Institute. The object was to attempt to quantify the amount of fun provided by some number of monkeys placed in a barrel as compared to that produced by a variety of other activities generally considered by the Swiss to be fun, such as barrel rolling, beer barrel racing, barrel tower building, and bobbing for kumquats in barrels. Just getting the monkeys into barrels proved to be a daunting task, with spider monkeys being the least cooperative and capuchins the most. The difficulty of containing monkeys of all species in standard-sized barrels generally increased by an average factor of from 76% to 87% with each additional monkey depending upon size, and in no case was it possible to place more than twenty-six monkeys in the same barrel at any one time. Strasser's conclusion was that this initial phase of the experiment was definitely not fun, either for the researcher or for the monkeys.
     Once the monkeys were successfully placed in the barrel, very few of the Swiss participants knew what to do with them, and many were only too happy to escape to the other "fun" activities. Strasser took digital photos to record the expressions on their faces, and then required them to fill out a "fun" questionaire. In almost all cases, the respondents considered the questionaire to be the sole fun part of the experiment as far as the monkeys were concerned, with only the 2-to-4-year olds and those over 92 (who found the questionaire "difficult") having registered any degree of mirth or jollity whatsoever at the confined primates.

Correlation of Age in Dogs and Ability to Learn New Tricks (2002)

     One of the most popular of the zoological attributes is that "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," so Southern California canine therapist Raoul Pinderman set out to see if it was so. He was well aware that it is typically the case that small dogs find it easier to learn tricks than big dogs, so he divided his study into three classes, small, medium and large, and then attempted to teach the dogs tricks based on their ages. For the petite class he selected pugs, papillons and poodles. The medium-size group was represented by Rhodesian ridgebacks, Belgian water spaniels, and basset hounds, while the chosen large dogs were giant schnauzers, great danes and Irish wolfhounds. He immediately ran into problems with the basset hounds which refused to learn tricks at any age and eventually had to be dropped from the study.
     Pinderman began by trying to teach the small dogs how to operate various devices such as typewriters and latte machines. Even after eight weeks of grueling practise and although it was apparent that the dogs were making an effort, none of them could perform these functions. He then moved on to the medium-sized dogs, which were required to learn either how to row a small boat or to open cans of beer. Here again the dogs were cooperative but the results were frustratingly the same; not a single dog was able to learn these simple procedures. Finally he turned hopefully to the large dogs which he endeavored to train in CPR procedures. Regretfully, the outcome was the same. His conclusion was that not only could you not teach old dogs new tricks, you could not teach dogs of any age any tricks. Pinderman later resigned from the California Canine Therapy Association and moved to Florida.

Overall Worth of Birds in Hands as Opposed to Bushes (2003)

     Few people have actually had a bird "in the hand" whereas birds in bushes are relatively common phenomena, and therefore it has proven difficult over the years to assess the comparative desirability, usefulness or value of birds in these disparate locations. So veteran Audubon Society avian researcher Michelle LeGrange undertook a long and arduous inquiry into this question utilizing the relatively new science of QNA (Quantitative Numerology Analysis). Applying an arbitrary value of 1 to birds in hands and 2 to birds in bushes, she worked for weeks to factor in such variables as overall length of wing and tail, intersecting angle of upper and lower beak, center of gravity, displacement in various liquids, the absence or presence of uropygial glands, and biomass of feather mites, and developed a formula which she then related to the height, degree of branching, and density of certain selected bushes, and then to the palm width and finger length of a number of average adult-sized hands.
     The first question she had to address had to do with the worth of a bird anywhere. This can be approached from a monetary standpoint, applying the standard of the cost of a bird in a typical petshop, from an epicurean stand-point, applying the standard of the price of a bird on your dinner plate, or from a gardener's standpoint, applying the standard of the value of eliminating harmful insect pests. Her study bogged down over this initial problem, and it was while she was struggling with this determination that she was informed that the expression was meant in a general sense and actually had nothing to do with birds at all. She refused to be dispirited by this untoward setback, and immediately announced that she would be moving on to an investigation of the happiness of larks.

Playfulness of Mice While Cats Are On Vacation (2001)

     Behavorial studies have often demonstrated the frolicsome qualities of mice and other small gnawing mammals, but these were always conducted under strictly controlled laboratory conditions. To our knowledge, no one has ever attempted to record such play outside of a laboratory prior to the ground-breaking work of Roger Cannister and Sally Banning. For their purposes, a test house which was known to be inhabited by a large family of mice was carefully selected in Binghamton, Georgia. Utilizing state-of-the-art miniature fiber optic cameras, Cannister and Banning were able to record baseline data including 229 hours of of rodent rascality in mouse holes and other between-wall hideouts, and this preliminary phase of the study demonstrated that there was no appreciable change in the level of play whether the cat was away or not. The more interesting part of the study employed several special Nikon wide-angle Auto-Zoom Home Reconnaissance cameras to record the behavior of the mice out in the open areas of the house, and it was these digital images which Cannister and Banning used to conclusively report that the mice played on average 67% more during periods when the cat was gone.
     First, the cat was removed to a local pet care establishment for twenty-four hours. By the end of this time the mice were playing approximately 49% more than they had during the previous twenty-four hours while being observed by the cat. Then the cat was driven to Atlanta where it was boarded for three days, and the rate of mousy merry-making went up 62% above the norm. But it was when the cat was flown to Italy for a week that the mice really cut loose, achieving a level fully 90% above that they had formerly enjoyed, and creating entirely new games such as "chewing holes in the carpet," "making recipe files into bedding material," and "filling the cat's bowl with doo doo." Unfortunately, several of the mice became ex-mice when the cat unexpectedly returned after having been fed nothing but spinach pasta.


     There seems little question that humans are inclined to make unverified statements regarding the abilities and characteristics of animals, but in a few cases such as the "mad hen" example and that of the mischievous mice there appears to be some truth to these oft-repeated bromides. It is our recommendation that further studies be immediately conducted to determine for instance such things as how quiet mice actually are, whether owls are any wiser than other birds with similar-sized brains, just how many times cats have been killed by curiosity or camels' backs broken by straws, whether it is advisable or not to substitute one horse for another in the middle of some body of water, and if in fact there are plenty more fish in the sea. These are questions the answers to which are urgently needed, and it is our fervent hope that the Institute of Zoological Attribution Theory (IZAT) will sponsor with both funding and researchers such investigations.


     The authors wish to acknowledge the significant contributions to this work of their research assistants Rex Henersley, William T. Hogarth, Sandra Miller, David J. Abrams, Richard Hoover, Maude Lawson, Craig R.T. Hansen, Joseph Gander, Allan Hancock, Mildred Loefling, Hans Deyeux, Alexander Brumley, Carl Pease, Susan Kearney, Morris Scribner, LeRoy Bloom, Frank Antoine, Josef Seubert, Stafford Bailey, James Gray, Helen Lutke, Elford Conklin, Galen Bridges, Michael Draper, Daniel Harwood, Dennis Brickell, Adam Brannan Monroe, Liz Featherington, Amos Edmunds, Merle Copeland, Iso Asahari, Mark Worrington, George Gordon, John Leach, Mary Child-Stephens, Reginald Drude, Adele Gorman, Harvey Fry Willson, Clare Wills, Joseph J. Parker, and Hannah Devile. They further extend gratitude to the Chrétien Institute of Zoological Attribution Theory in Nice, the staff of the Library of the British Royal Museum, Air France and KLM, and the Sheraton Hotels.



Abbott, Cicely (1990). Busy Bees and Quick Bunnies. Kansas City, Rushworth and Miller Publishing.
Childes, Aaron (1993). "Flocking Characteristics of Similarly-Feathered Avians." New England Journal of Ornithology, 71(1):118-125.
Dennery, Martha (2000). "Is It Actually Possible to Count Chickens Before Hatching?" Reader's Digest, 132:40-44.
Elizabeth, Susan (1999). "Strength of Oxen: A Quantitative Survey." Agribusiness Report, 92(12):31-32.
Henry, Leander C. (1993). "Peacocks, Proud and Otherwise." American Journal of Animal Psychiatry, 41(6):
Jackson, David (1990). "Slyness in Foxes and Other Small Canids." Annual Report of the British Royal Fox Hunting Society, pp. 197-212.
Landrieu, Laura (1987). "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, Or Don't." Nebraska Humane Society Quarterly, March, pp. 37-38.
Landrieu, Laura (1989). "Alteration of Stripes in Large Felines: Is It A Myth?" Zoo Happenings, 25:36-37.
Landrieu, Laura (1992). "Wild Horses Could Drag Me." New West, 10(5):19-24.
Landrieu, Laura (2001). "Hornets' Nests: Leave Well Enough Alone." Proc. 4th Int. Conference on Polistes Wasps, Department of Entomology, University of British Columbia. [Completed by Dr. Landrieu's assistant Beverly McIntyre]
Lawrence, William T. (1998). "Gentle as a Lamb? Don't Believe It." Ranching Monthly, 25:45-46.
Mallory, Roger and Evans, Winston T. (1979). "Destructiveness of Bulls in China Shops: Need We Be Overly Concerned?" Retail Society Journal, pp. 36-43.
Mallory, Roger and Evans, Winston T. (1982). "New Study of Wild Antelope Behavior in China Shops." Unnatural History, 201(4):79-83.
Moore, Donald A. (1932). "Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth." Bulletin of Equine Dentistry, 30:12-13.
Moore, Donald A. and Chrétien, Jean-Jacques (1927). "You Can Lead A Horse to Water And Make Him Drink." The Waterhole, March, pp. 99.
Popkin, Peter Paul (1992). "Seven Things That Are Good For the Goose But Not For the Gander." Flight Weekly, 56(18):10.
Rivery, Harwood D. (2000). "Is It Really Too Late to Close the Barn Door After the Horse Has Bolted?" Farm Anecdotes, Spring, pp. 43-44.
Smerk, Johannes (1998). 1887: The Year March Came In Like a Lamb and Went Out Like a Lion. London, Smythe, Abernathy and Winklehurter.
Weston, Thurston (1974). "Ducks in a Barrel." Fowl News, 23:12.
Woodward, Christopher and Janish, R.B.L. (1991). "You Say Cats Have 9 Lives. Wrong!" Modern Feline, April, pp. 20-21.