The Human Side of Animals: Chapter 9 - Self-defense and Home-Government by@royaldixon

The Human Side of Animals: Chapter 9 - Self-defense and Home-Government

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Royal Dixon

The Human Side of Animals

The Human Side of Animals by Royal Dixon is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here: [LINK TO TABLE OF LINK]. Chapter IX: Self-defense and Home-Government


"In the days of yore, when the world was young,
Sages of asses spoke, and poets sung;
In God's own book we find their humble name,
Some enrolled upon the scroll of fame."

There is no phase of animal life which is more interesting than that through which Nature governs and protects her children. Each and every species of animal possesses the method of self-defence and protection best adapted to it. Most of the larger animals are of themselves so powerful that they need no protection other than that afforded by their strength, while most of the weaker and less aggressive animals are provided with some special method of defence.

The tiger, lion, panther, and wolf have formidable claws and teeth; while the shark has such immense jaws that he can sever the head of a goat at one bite. And most of them are in reality tyrants. They rule by tyranny—the oppression of the weak by the strong, whether that strength be physical or mental,—a trait as common in animals as in man. Among the animals it takes the commonest form, and they not only oppress the weak, but actually kill and eat them, even though they oftentimes are members of the same family. They are exactly like human cannibals, no better and no worse.

Flight is perhaps the simplest and most natural method of defence. The swifter animals, however, such as deer, gazelles, and hares, which may easily escape by running their fastest, do not always use this method, but have other means so ingenious as to be real arts. Wolves, when they see that they are outnumbered, will sometimes escape by following the exact tracks of a single leader through the snow, and from all appearances only one has passed the way over which a hundred may have gone. Hares will separate and run in opposite directions, while gazelles, if too closely pursued, will jump to one side and lie flat on the earth to escape notice, and as soon as the enemies have passed, run in the opposite direction.

It oftentimes happens that aggressively disposed animals, like cowardly men, are apt to try battle with the unlikeliest adversaries. A missionary from India tells the story of an alligator who was enjoying a noonday sleep on the bank of a river, when an immense tiger emerged from the jungle, made straight for the sleeping saurian until within leaping distance, when he sprang on the alligator's back, and gained a strangle hold before the sleeping monster could awake. At first the tiger was master, for the alligator could not bring his huge jaws into action, and while lashing viciously at the tiger with his tail, he was dragged into the jungle. What happened there no one could see, but in a few moments the tiger dashed out of the jungle and disappeared in the cane brakes, and the alligator reappeared and crawled into the water.

The ape and the baboon are the most skilled of all animals in making their flight. They use every method known to man, and because of their swiftness of action excel man in certain ways. Like man, in the face of danger, they show great bravery and never lose their presence of mind. The ape is fast disappearing before man, but against other animals and Nature he can well protect himself. He is even braver than the lion, who in captivity allows himself to be petted, but rarely is this true of the ape, and then only when conditions seem insurmountable.

In making his escape from an enemy, the ape directs his flight in the most self-possessed and human-like way, never losing his head, and taking advantage of the first shelter or protection that he meets; if the young, or females, or aged linger behind, a strong army of males bravely returns to rescue them at the danger of losing their own lives. Many of their brave deeds, if recorded in history, would compare favourably with those of mankind! Too often has a poor, sickly ape, which by his very feebleness allowed himself to be captured and placed in a zoo, been compared to human beings. Even in spirit and movements he has been considered as a human caricature and heaped with ridicule. We have continually considered his defects, without noticing his better qualities. We would have a much higher idea of his great family, if we would take a human derelict and compare him to an ape ruler! This comparison would be more just.

Certain of the baboon tribes which live among the rocks of high mountains and cliffs, if pursued by enemies, protect themselves by ingeniously rolling immense stones down upon their foes. They also hurl with great force small stones about the size of one's hand. As these tribes have each from one hundred to three hundred members, they constitute a formidable grenade army!

In addition to their skilled methods of flight, the baboons, apes, and monkeys come next to certain of the cat tribes as the greatest fighters in the animal world. This is astonishing when we remember that these animals are not professional warriors, nor do they have to fight to obtain their food. Their greatest defence is their quickness and powers of biting. When they are attacked by a dog, they usually bite off a foot or an ear, or leave him minus a tail!

One of the bravest and fiercest of fighters is the bull-dog. Three of these animals together have been known to capture and hold a large bull. Deer, when fighting among themselves, often play more than anything, and are not serious. Red deer seldom injure one another with their long antlers, but they could easily kill a dog or even a man. Stags, however, often fight to death, in some instances locking horns and tumbling over a precipice.

The most ingenious of all the horned fighters is the sable antelope, whose clever system of self-defence might well be taught in war-schools. His horns are long, sharp-pointed, and bend backwards. When wounded, or attacked by wolves or dogs, he lies down, and scientifically covers his back by rapid fencing with his pointed horns. He can quickly kill any dog that attacks him in this way.

Occasionally great battles take place between a buffalo and a lion, or more often two or three lions attack a buffalo, who rarely escapes them. The strength of a lion is almost beyond our comprehension when we remember that one can actually carry a cow over an ordinary-sized fence.


American Museum of Natural History, New York


American Museum of Natural History, New York


A most unique fighter is the giraffe. He has neither claws nor sharp teeth with which to defend himself; so, if he gets angry with one of his kind, he deliberately uses his long neck like a pile driver would use a sledge hammer. Swinging it round and round, he lets his head descend upon his adversary like a heavy ax! The two animals use the same kind of tactics, and bracing themselves so as to stand the blows, they fight until one has to give in. Their heads are furnished with two small knob-like horns which only protect them from the heavy blows without serving as offensive weapons.

Most singular and amusing of all methods of self-defence are those which entirely depend for their efficiency upon bluff, or pretence. The chameleon, for example, erects his snake-like hood, though he is harmless, and at the most could scarcely injure the smallest animal. Equally curious are the methods of skunks and polecats, which project against enemies a highly disagreeable fluid.

Passive modes of defence are as many and varied as are the active; one of the strangest and most inexplicable of these is that known as spontaneous amputation, technically termed autotomy. The lizard, for example, when captured, will abruptly break loose his tail in order to escape; and certain wood rats, when caught, loosen the skin on their tails and deliberately slip away. Autotomy not only permits flight, but also defends the animal against the most adverse conditions. Nearest akin to this—defence by means of amputation—is the practice of bears and raccoons of amputating their limbs when caught in steel traps.

Mimicry, which is treated under another chapter, comes under the head of passive defence, and form and colour play an important part in it. Strangely enough, animals which have never resorted to mimicry as a means of protection, when associated with others who practice it, take on the habit themselves. This may possibly be due to the fact that new enemies are constantly arising.

As human sharpshooters dress in garments of the same colour as the woods in which they hunt, so many animals use this principle of imitation. The colour of most animals is very similar to their surroundings. This enables them to lie in wait for prey, a practice as old as the hillsides with animals. They have learned the extreme value of silence, and that they must remain at times motionless. This is especially noticeable with crocodiles, which wait for whole days without moving, concealed in the water or deep grass, until their prey comes within striking distance, when they pounce upon it. The same is true of the python snake, which hangs from a tree so immovable that he appears like a vine or a branch of the tree. If an animal attempts to pass, he drops upon it.

Perhaps the most unique and successful method of passive defence is the feigning of death, or "playing 'possum" met with in several animals, such as the red fox, the opossum, occasionally the elephant, and several of the snakes. On many occasions I have been 'possum hunting in the South and found my dog barking at an apparently dead 'possum. As soon as these animals are approached by larger and stronger enemies, they drop absolutely motionless on the ground and close their eyes as though they were dead. Here they remain until the enemy either destroys them, carries them away, or leaves them alone. If left alone for a few moments, they immediately spring to their feet and make their escape.

Elephants often feign death when captured, in order to gain their liberty. Animal catchers tell many interesting tales of elephants feigning weakness from which they fall to the earth and later apparently die. In many instances the fastenings are removed from their legs and head and the carcass is abandoned as useless, when to the utter astonishment of all—before the captors get out of sight—the animal springs up and dashes away to the forest, screaming with joy at the triumph of its deception.

Many animals deliberately assume a frightful, terrifying or grotesque appearance. This they do by inflating their bodies, by erecting hair, skin, or folds, or by unusual poses. Darwin speaks of the hissing of certain snakes, the rattle of the rattle-snake, the grating of the scales of the echis, each of which serves to frighten or terrify the enemy.

Bluffing is another form of defence that many animals use. The cobra, for example, when disturbed, raises its immense hood in a most terrifying attitude! Many of the lizards use the same tactics; while the horned toads of America when disturbed actually eject blood from their eyes. Every one is familiar with the cat's habit of raising the fur on his back when molested by a dog. All bluffing animals, when in danger, try to assume a pose that will make them look most dangerous and impressive to their enemies, and there is little doubt that in most cases they succeed very well, for we have all seen a dog slink away from a menacing cat.

The elk or moose, whose home is in the northern part of America and Europe, is a powerful and large animal, sometimes seven feet in height, and is able to endure much cold. He has many enemies among animals and mankind, and during the summer season he is quite able to protect himself, but in winter there is considerable danger from hordes of wolves. This is especially true just after a heavy snowstorm, if the snow is wet and melting. When it is dry and frozen, he can travel over it with great speed, and this he does by a most unusual trot which carries him along much faster than the trotting gait of a horse. Thus he is able to escape the hungry, carnivorous wolves, whose courage increases with appetite. If crowded too close, he is able also to protect himself by the most terrific blows of his fore-feet.

But when the spring weather sets in, and the snows begin to melt underneath, leaving the upper crust sufficiently strong to support the weight of lighter and smaller animals, such as wolves, especially when they travel swiftly, he is in great danger. For with every step he sinks to the belly in the snow, while his enemies can walk right up to his head and shoulders without his being able to strike or paw them with his dangerous hoofs. The advantage seems to be with the wolves, and if ever they bring the moose to bay in the snow, his life is doomed. For they care little for his arrow-like horns, but boldly jump at his throat and kill him. Herein comes the elk's wisdom—he deliberately sets to work, before the snow melts, and builds for himself and family an elk-yard, which is nothing more than a large space of ground on which the snow is smoothed or trampled down until it becomes a hard surface on which he can walk; it is also surrounded by a high wall of snow, through which are certain exits that allow him to pass out, if he desires. All the enclosed space is not smoothed down, but parts of it only are cut up into roads through which he may pass very swiftly. Woe unto the daring wolves that enter his snowy fortification—his "No Man's Land"—- for sure death awaits them!

A sense of law, order, government; the sacredness of family ties—all these aid in the protection of animals. Family life with them originated just as it did in the human world. The social instinct and the moral sentiments which arise from social relations in man and animal are the same. Moral obligations, especially in relation to family ties and conjugal unions of animals, are in many cases sacred binders to such ties. The bear, for example, is proverbial for his conjugal faithfulness. The married life of most animals is strictly moral, and most of them are monogamists and have reached the highest form of family association and life.

In those places where they live promiscuously, it gives them the same protection in herds as it does among our lower savages. Cattle, sheep, and horses unite for mutual protection; wolves band together in packs; and after they have been domesticated there is still not only a strong desire to band together for social purposes, but also to hold courts of justice. It sometimes happens that an angered husband takes the law in his hands, like uncivilised men, and beats his wife.

In the development and organisation of social and civil life the horse and the goat hold the foremost position. It corresponds to that of man among the lower animals. They do not believe in monarchies, but strictly in republics, or rather, a democracy where all power comes from the working class. The claims of the working class to the exercise of supreme control in all political affairs are practically realised. Among a herd of wild Arabian horses, the leading stallion, or so-called king, is really only the father of the tribe; his functions are paternal rather than regal. If he may be said to reign in a certain sense, the true workers rule, and his scouts and sentinels obey his wishes which the workers have influenced and formulated.

The existence of but one king leaves no room for dynastic troubles and rivalries which disturb, so often, our human countries and empires with such dreadful results. If two rival kings arise at the same time in a herd of horses, instead of forming factions in the state which end in civil war, they fight it out personally until one of them is killed or defeated. Once in a great while the other horses intervene, and drive the less desirable, or the false-claimant of power, away from the herd and its grazing territory. In these troubles the real king has little or no power, all activities are carried on by the workers.

If by chance he dies or is captured, another king, chosen by the herd, immediately assumes the kingship. It is a well-known fact that if the king of a herd of wild horses is caught, it is not uncommon for his herd to remain as near him as possible, and in their attempt to release him are often trapped themselves. The king has no heirs, either apparent or presumptive, and no right of succession is recognised. Any member of the herd, provided the workers choose him, may become the king, as every American school boy is a possible president of the United States.

Among many animals there is a perfect social and industrial organisation in which the division of labour is far better adjusted than in many human organisations. This, of course, is the result of gradual growth and evolution just as it is in the human species. This can easily be proved among animals by their more primitive and savage habits. Monkeys, for example, in civilised monkey communities, differ very greatly from those of wilder and less trained districts. They are constantly changing their habits, becoming more and more civilised by improving their methods of work and their moral and religious life as well. In many cases they have ceased to kill members of their own tribe for small offences for which they used to kill, and the cleanness and beauty of their home lives seem to increase with the years.

It oftentimes happens, however, that powerful ape and baboon colonies relapse into barbarism, and roam, plunder, rob and murder, like a pack of uncivilised wolves or hyenas. They seem all at once to forget their peaceful industries and lose all desire for clean and right living. And strangely enough, when they once turn bad, they seldom reform. Some naturalists believe that they are led astray by a wicked king or ruler who comes into power; the natives believe the evil spirits have suddenly taken possession of them.

There is unquestionably, in the life of many tribal animals, a definite historical connection between the mother tribe and its colonies. This relation extends to the tribes of tribes, and thus there is an international relationship between the various members of a large number of tribes. These communities share the same likes, dislikes, hatreds, and aspirations. A missionary friend told of his experience with monkey folk, and how once, when hunting, his gun was accidentally discharged, instantly wounding a large semi-tame baboon near his home. He hastened to help the injured animal, but saw that the relatives had crowded around and were terrorised, as they thought it was intentional. They not only followed him to his home, but returned in the night and actually tore his fence down. For months he was afraid to leave his wife alone during the day. And the natives reported that large tribes of monkey folk immediately came into the community from remoter regions and were distinctly on the war path. It was evident that their unjust antipathy was extended to all the kinspeople.

This is evidence of hereditary enmity, such as is common among families, tribes, and clans, and it often takes the form of feuds, which are still in vogue in the mountainous counties of the South. The baboons had suffered wrongs and never forgot it, and it was transmitted to their offspring.


American Museum of Natural History, New York



The ability to use weapons, tools, and war instruments is not exclusively human. Even fish are capable of reaching their prey at a long distance. The toxotes jaculator, which lives in the rivers of India, and feeds upon insects, cannot afford to wait until the insects which thrive upon the leaves of aquatic plants fall into the water. So as he cannot leap high enough to catch them, he fills his mouth with water and squirts it at an insect with such aim and force that he rarely fails to knock the insect into the water where he can easily catch it. Many other animals squirt various liquids, occasionally in attack, but most times in defence. The fish makes a veritable squirt-gun of his mouth.

Beavers use sticks, chips, and even stones in building their dams; and their engineering abilities are astounding. They are also capable of meeting emergencies, as shown by the following incident. A farmer in Michigan discovered one morning, just after a flood, that all his potato sacks, which had been hung on a back fence to dry, had suddenly disappeared. A few days later he found them in a nearby beavers' colony, used in rebuilding their dam, which had suddenly overflowed. The beavers wasted no time, when they discovered their danger, in meeting the emergency by using the sacks to prevent the destruction of their home.

Monkeys make skilled use of clubs and stones in capturing their prey and fighting their enemies.

The skill with which some of them throw pebbles would lead us to believe they have already reached the degree of civilisation that many tribes of savages had reached only a few years ago, when they learned to use the boomerang and lasso. Some naturalists claim that monkeys actually set pitfalls for their enemies and lie in wait for them to be caught, just as a hunter would do.

Elephants also know the value of clubs in warfare, and will often use a broken limb of a dead tree as a weapon of defence. The story is told and vouched for by Mr. William B. Smith that on his farm, near Mount Lookout, a few years ago a donkey grazed in the same pasture with a ferocious bull. He was frequently attacked by the bull, and always got the worst of the fight. His feet were no match for the bull's horns, but one day the mule grabbed a long pole in his mouth, and, whirling it about, almost killed the bull, and henceforth the two lived on the best of terms in the same pasture.

I have a friend who owns a cow that knows exactly how to lift an iron latch to the barn door with her tongue and open the door. Innumerable times she has opened a gate in the same way to permit her calf to go free with her. So skilled is she in the manipulation of doors and latches that we are tempted to believe in some previous state of existence she was a professional lock-picker!

Cats and dogs are famed for their ability to open doors by pulling latch-strings. And not a few cats show a strong desire to study music by walking up and down the keyboard of a piano!

Monkeys who live near the seashore show wonderful aptness in opening oysters and shell-fish with sharp stones, exactly as a man would do. Monkeys have already reached the degree of civilization where they select the stones best suited for their work, and from their progress in the past it is reasonable to believe that in the near future they will not only be able to make their own tools—thus placing themselves on a mental footing with our flint-chipping ancestors of the early stone age,—but will also learn the use of fire and eventually the use of guns and ammunition, which marks one of the most important epochs in the evolution of the human species.

The chimpanzees, gorillas, and apes of the African forests have many times been observed in the act of piling brushwood upon the fires left by travellers, and though they do not know how to kindle a fire, they have learned how to keep it burning. The tame ones soon learn how to ignite matches, and often do great harm by starting forest fires.

But they show quite as much intelligence about the use of fire as the average small child. In fact, it has been thought by a number of great scholars that man had not yet made his appearance upon the earth in the miocene age, and that all the marvellous chipped flints of that age belong to semi-human pithecoid apes of wonderful intelligence. There is surely nothing in the facts of natural history, nor in Darwin's theory of evolution, that makes such a supposition unbelievable.

Baboons use poles as levers, stones as hammers, and seem to understand the more simple mechanical devices. Prantl claims that man is the only animal capable of using fire but not a few baboons know how to strike a match, heap dried leaves over the blaze to make it burn, and then heap on dead wood to feed the fire. This knowledge with them, exactly as with primitive peoples, is a product of long experience and does not show any mathematical truths or principles any more than making a direct cut across a field implies "knowledge of the relation of a hypothenuse to the two other sides of a right-angled triangle." This is what Prantl calls "spontaneous mathematical thinking."

I knew of a tame ape in Chicago that learned to swing from the end of a clothes-line and seemed to enjoy it very much. The line was just the right length and properly hung so as to allow the ape to swing out from a kitchen window and touch the ground. Just for fun, some one cut a piece from the line so that he could not reach the ground; immediately the ape hunted another piece of cord, tying it to the end of his line so as to increase its length, and much to his delight, continued to swing on the line.

The distinctive features of animal protection and home government, especially in the higher groups, may compare favourably with any of the methods used by civilised man. This is true both of their offensive and defensive contrivances and for their monarchies and republics. They use shells, scales, plates of every kind, with innumerable modifications for various purposes—spines and allied armaments—all shapes and sizes; poisonous secretions, deadly odours, strong claws and teeth wielded by strong muscles, and form colonies that are more than a gregarious association. In most cases, they have communities composed of individuals living individual lives, yet which act in cases of need as one unit.

About HackerNoon Book Series: We bring you the most important technical, scientific, and insightful public domain books. This book is part of the public domain.

Dixon, Royal, 2006. The Human Side of Animals. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at, located at

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