M OST people have seen a sick cat eat grass, or an uneasy dog seek out some weed and devour it greedily to make his complaining stomach feel better. Some few may have read John Wesley's directions on the art of keeping well—which have not, however, found their way into his book of discipline for the soul—and have noted with surprised interest his claim that many medicines in use among the common people and the physicians of his time were discovered by watching the animals that sought out these things to heal their diseases. "If they heal animals they will also heal men," is his invincible argument. Others may have dipped deep into Indian history and folk-lore and learned that many of the herbs used by the American tribes, and especially the cures for rheumatism, dysentery, fever, and snake bites, were learned direct from the animals, by noting the rheumatic old bear grub for fern roots or bathe in the hot mud of a sulphur spring, and by watching with eager eyes what plants the wild creatures ate when bitten by rattlers or wasted by the fever. Still others have been fascinated with the first crude medical knowledge of the Greeks, which came to them from the East undoubtedly, and have read that the guarded mysteries of the Asclepiades, the healing cult that followed Æsculapius, had among them many simple remedies that had first proved their efficacy among animals in a natural state; and that Hippocrates, the greatest physician of antiquity, whose fame under the name of Bokrat the Wise went down through Arabia and into the farthest deserts, owes many of his medical aphorisms to what he himself, or his forebears, must have seen out of doors among the wild creatures. and all these seers and readers have perhaps wondered how much the animals knew, and especially how they came to know it.
To illustrate the matter simply and in our own day and generation: A deer that has been chased all day long by dogs, and that has escaped at last by swimming an icy river and fallen exhausted on the farther shore, will lie down to sleep in the snow. That would mean swift death for any human being. Half the night the deer will move about at short intervals, instead of sleeping heavily, and in the morning he is as good as ever and ready for another run. The same deer shut up in a warm barn to sleep overnight, as has been more than once tested with park animals, will be found dead in the morning.
Here is a natural law of healing suggested, which, if noted among the Greeks and Indians, would have been adopted instantly as a method of dealing with extreme cold and exhaustion, or with poisoning resulting in paralysis of the muscles. Certainly the method, if somewhat crude, might still have wrought enough cures to be looked upon with veneration by a people who unfortunately had no knowledge of chemical drugs, or Scotch whisky, or sugar pellets with an ethereal suggestion of intangible triturations somewhere in the midst of them.
That the animals do practice at times a rude kind of medicine and surgery upon themselves is undeniable. The only question about it is, How do they know? To say it is a matter of instinct is but begging the question. It is also three-fourths foolishness, for many of the things that animals do are beyond the farthest scope of instinct. The case of the deer that moved about and so saved his life, instead of sleeping on heavily to his death, may be partly a case of instinct. Personally it seems to me more a matter of experience; for a fawn under the same circumstances, unless his mother were near to keep him moving, would undoubtedly lie down and die. More than that, it seems to be largely a matter of obedience to the strongest impulse of the moment, to which all animals are accustomed or trained from their birthday. And that is not quite the same thing as instinct, unless one is disposed to go to the extreme of Berkeley's philosophy and make instinct a kind of spirit-personality that watches over animals all the time. Often the knowledge of healing or of primitive surgery seems to be the discovery or possession of a few rare individual animals, instead of being spread widecast among the species, as instincts are. This knowledge, or what-you-may-call-it, is sometimes shared, and so hints at a kind of communication among animals, of whose method we catch only fleeting glimpses and suggestions—but that will be the subject of another article. The object of this is, not to answer the questions of how or whence, but simply to suggest one or two things I have seen in the woods as the basis for further and more detailed observations.
The most elemental kind of surgery is that which amputates a leg when it is broken, not always or often, but only when the wound festers from decay or fly-bite and so endangers the whole body. Probably the best illustration of this is found in the coon, who has a score of traits that place him very high among intelligent animals. When a coon's foot is shattered by a bullet he will cut it off promptly and wash the stump in running water, partly to reduce the inflammation and partly, no doubt, to make it perfectly clean. As it heals he uses his tongue on the wound freely, as a dog does, to cleanse it perhaps, and by the soft massage of his tongue to reduce the swelling and allay the pain.
So far this may or may not be pure instinct. For I do not know, and who will tell me, whether a child puts his wounded hand to his mouth and sucks and cleanses the hurt by pure instinct, or because he has seen others do it, or because he has had his hurts kissed away in childhood, and so imitates the action unconsciously when his mother is not near?
Most mother animals tongue their little ones freely. Now is that a caress, or is it some hygienic measure begun at birth, when she devours all traces of the birth-envelopes and licks the little ones clean lest the nose of some hungry prowler bring him near to destroy the family? Certainly the young are conscious of the soft tongue that rubs them fondly, and so when they lick their own wounds it may be only a memory and an imitation,—two factors, by the way, which lie at the bottom of all elemental education. That explanation, of course, leaves the amputated leg out of the question; and the surgery does not stop here.
When a boy, and still barbarian enough to delight in trapping, partly from a love of the chase that was born in me, and partly to put money into a boy's empty pocket, I once caught a muskrat in a steel trap that slid off into deep water at the first pull and so drowned the creature mercifully. This was due to the careful instructions of Natty Dingle, at whose feet I sat to learn woodcraft, and who used the method to save all his pelts; for often an animal, when caught in a trap, will snap the bone by a twist of his body and then cut the leg off with his teeth, and so escape, leaving his foot in the trap's jaws. This is common enough among the fur-bearing animals to excite no comment; and it is sad now to remember that sometimes I would find animals drowned in my traps, that had previously suffered at the hands of other trappers.
I remember especially one big musquash that I was going to shoot near one of my traps, when I stopped short at noticing some queer thing about him. The trap was set in shallow water where the path made by muskrats came up out of the river into the grass. Just over the trap was a turnip on a pointed stick to draw the creature's attention, and give him something to anticipate until he should put his foot on the deadly pan beneath. But the old musquash avoided the path, as if he had suffered in such places before. Instead of following the ways of his ancestors he came out at another spot behind the trap, and I saw with horrible regret that he had cut off both his fore legs, probably at different times, when he had been twice caught in man's abominable inventions. When he came up out of the stream he rose on his hind legs and waddled through the grass like a bear or a monkey, for he had no fore feet to rest upon. He climbed a tussock beside the bait with immense caution, pulled in the turnip with his two poor stumps of forearms, ate it where he was, and slipped back into the stream again; while the boy watched with a new wonder in the twilight, and forgot all about the gun as he tended his traps.
It does not belong with my story, but that night the traps came in, and never went out again; and I can never pass a trap now anywhere without poking a stick into it to save some poor innocent leg.
All this is digression; and I have almost forgotten my surgery and the particular muskrat I was talking about. He, too, had been caught in some other fellow's trap and had bitten his leg off only a few days before. The wound was not yet healed, and the amazing thing about it was that he had covered it with some kind of sticky vegetable gum, probably from some pine-tree that had been split or barked close to the ground where Musquash could reach it easily. He had smeared it thickly all over the wound and well up the leg above it, so that all dirt and even all air and water were excluded perfectly.
An old Indian who lives and hunts on Vancouver Island told me recently that he has several times caught beaver that had previously cut their legs off to escape from traps, and that two of them had covered the wounds thickly with gum, as the muskrat had done. Last spring the same Indian caught a bear in a deadfall. On the animal's side was a long rip from some other bear's claw, and the wound had been smeared thickly with soft spruce resin. This last experience corresponds closely with one of my own. I shot a big bear, years ago, in northern New Brunswick, that had received a gunshot wound, which had raked him badly and then penetrated the leg. He had plugged the wound carefully with clay, evidently to stop the bleeding, and then had covered the broken skin with sticky mud from the river's brink, to keep the flies away from the wound and give it a chance to heal undisturbed. It is noteworthy here that the bear uses either gum or clay indifferently, while the beaver and muskrat seem to know enough to avoid the clay, which would be quickly washed off in the water.
Here are a few incidents, out of a score or more that I have seen, or heard from reliable hunters, that indicate something more than native instinct among animals. When I turn to the birds the incidents are fewer but more remarkable; for the birds, being lower in the scale of life, are more subject to instinct than are the animals, and so are less easily taught by their mothers, and are slower to change their natural habits to meet changing conditions.
This is, of course, a very general statement and is subject to endless exceptions. The finches that, when transported to Australia from England, changed the style of their nests radically and now build in a fashion entirely different from that of their parents; the little goldfinch of New England that will build a false bottom to her nest to cover up the egg of a cow-bird that has been left to hatch among her own; the grouse that near the dwellings of men are so much wilder and keener than their brethren of the wilderness; the swallows that adopt the chimneys and barns of civilization instead of the hollow trees and clay banks of their native woods,—all these and a score of others show how readily instinct is modified among the birds, and how the young are taught a wisdom that their forefathers never knew. Nevertheless it is true, I think, that instincts are generally sharper with them than with animals, and the following cases suggest all the more strongly that we must look beyond instinct to training and individual discovery to account for many things among the feathered folk.
The most wonderful bit of bird surgery that has ever come to my attention is that of the woodcock that set his broken leg in a clay cast, as related in a previous chapter; but there is one other almost as remarkable that opens up a question that is even harder to answer. One day in the early spring I saw two eider-ducks swimming about the Hummock Pond on the island of Nantucket. The keen-eyed critic will interfere here and say I was mistaken; for eiders are salt-water ducks that haunt only the open sea and are supposed never to enter fresh water, not even to breed. That is what I also supposed until I saw these two; so I sat down to watch a while and find out, if possible, what had caused them to change their habits. At this time of year the birds are almost invariably found in pairs, and sometimes a flock a hundred yards long will pass you, flying close to the water and sweeping around the point where you are watching, first a pretty brown female and then a gorgeous black-and-white drake just behind her, alternating with perfect regularity, female and male, throughout the whole length of the long line. The two birds before me, however, were both females; and that was another reason for watching them instead of the hundreds of other ducks, coots and sheldrakes and broadbills that were scattered all over the big pond.
The first thing noticed was that the birds were acting queerly, dipping their heads under water and keeping them there for a full minute or more at a time. That was also curious, for the water under them was too deep for feeding, and the eiders prefer to wait till the tide falls and then gather the exposed shellfish from the rocks, rather than to dive after them like a coot. Darkness came on speedily to hide the birds, who were still dipping their heads as if bewitched, and I went away no wiser for my watching.
A few weeks later there was another eider, a big drake, in the same pond, behaving in the same queer way. Thinking perhaps that this was a wounded bird that had gone crazy from a shot in the head, I pushed out after him in an old tub of a boat; but he took wing at my approach, like any other duck, and after a vigorous flight lit farther down the pond and plunged his head under water again. Thoroughly curious now, I went on a still hunt after the stranger, and after much difficulty succeeded in shooting him from the end of a bushy point. The only unusual thing about him was that a large mussel, such as grow on the rocks in salt water, had closed his shells firmly on the bird's tongue in such a way that he could neither be crushed by the bird's bill nor scratched off by the bird's foot. I pulled the mussel off, put it in my pocket, and went home more mystified than before.
That night I hunted up an old fisherman, who had a big store of information in his head about all kinds of wild things, and asked him if he had ever seen a shoal-duck in fresh water. "Once or twice," he said; "they kept dipping their heads under water, kinder crazy like." But he had no explanation to offer until I showed him the mussel that I had found on the duck's tongue. Then his face lightened. "Mussels of that kind won't live in fresh water," he declared at a glance; and then the explanation of the birds' queer actions flashed into both our heads at once: the eiders were simply drowning the mussels in order to make them loosen their grip and release the captive tongues.
This is undoubtedly the true explanation as I made sure by testing the mussels in fresh water and by watching the birds more closely at their feeding. All winter they may be found along our coasts, where they feed on the small shellfish that cover the ledges. As the tide goes down they swim in from the shoals, where they rest in scattered flocks, and chip the mussels from the ledges, swallowing them shells and all. A score of times I have hidden among the rocks of the jetty with a few wooden decoys in front of me, and watched the eiders come in to feed. They would approach the decoys rapidly, lifting their wings repeatedly as a kind of salutation; then, angered apparently that they were not welcomed by the same signal of uplifted wings, they would swim up to the wooden frauds and peck them savagely here and there, and then leave them in disgust and scatter among the rocks at my feet, paying little attention to me as long as I kept perfectly still. For they are much tamer than other wild ducks, and are, unfortunately, slow to believe that man is their enemy.
I noticed another curious thing while watching them and hoping that by some chance I might see one caught by a mussel. When flock was passing high overhead, any sudden noise—a shout, or the near report of a gun—would make the whole flock swoop down like a flash close to the water. Plover have the same habit when they first arrive from Labrador, but I have hunted in vain for any satisfactory explanation of the thing.
As the birds feed a mussel will sometimes close his shells hard on some careless duck's tongue or bill in such a way that he cannot be crushed or swallowed or broken against the rocks. In that case the bird, if he knows the secret, will fly to fresh water and drown his tormentor. Whether all the ducks have this wisdom, or whether it is confined to a few rare birds, there is no present means of knowing. I have seen three different eiders practice this bit of surgery myself, and have heard of at least a dozen more, all of the same species, that were seen in fresh ponds or rivers, dipping their heads under water repeatedly. In either case two interesting questions suggest themselves: first, How did a bird whose whole life from birth to death is spent on the sea first learn that certain mussels will drown in fresh water? and, second, How do the other birds know it now, when the need arises unexpectedly?