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Why we get into conflicts with smart animals

If you’ve ever tried to keep a raccoon out of your trash can, you know they’re smart. At my house, it takes a brick on top of the trash can and a bungee cord on top of the lid to keep the raccoons out.

New researchlooks at how animals with complex cognitive abilities might do better in cities, but could end up in more conflicts with people.

Sarah Benson-Amram is an assistant professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology at the University of Wyoming.

“We think there’s a lot of different cognitive abilities like the ability to solve new problems or the ability to act flexibly," she says. "So for example, if one solution to a problem, like you know how to open a regular trash can because the owner of the trash can put a bungee cord on top, do you just sort of bang your head against the trash can and give up, or do you try to find different ways to solve that problem?”

She says certain cognitive abilities, such as memory, can help animals avoid people, or lead them into conflicts.

"There’s fascinating work done out of the University of Washington by John Marzluffand colleagues, and they’ve really shown very convincingly that crows recognize people and they recognize people by their faces, and they can sort of categorize people as either being helpful humans or scary humans, or humans that might hurt them in some respect," she says.

Benson-Amram says based on how the crows remember people and categorize them, they behave differently.

She says there's a lot we don't know yet about animal intelligence.

"We’re just starting to get into even studying urban wildlife and in particular studying the cognition of urban wildlife," she says.

She says she'd like to see more research done on things like spatial memory, learning and problem solving in urban animals. 

You can listen to the inteview with Sarah Benson-Amram above and you can learn more about the Animal Cognition Lab here.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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