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Animal Hands

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You must have watched squirrels or chipmunks many times as they took the nut you offered them. Sitting back on their haunches, they grasp the nut in their tiny paws. They turn it this way and that as they nibble through the heavy shell to get at the meat. Look carefully at the picture and see just how the squirrel is holding his nut.

There are so many things an animal can do with its paws, especially the front paws, which in man became hands. The lion and tiger have sharp, heavy claws with which they kill and tear their prey apart. They do not need knives to get the meat from the bones; you might say they have built‑in knives on their paws.

Or think of the tiny mole or prairie dog, digging his way deep into the earth. With only his paws (and sometimes his mouth) to work with he digs, digs, digs. Soon he has a long tunnel, where the prairie dog even has underground rooms, all shoveled out of the solid earth. We need shovels to dig, but these little creatures make their long tunnels without any tools ‑ that is, without any tools except their paws.

We speak of the busy beaver. Have you ever watched one at work’? Chisel teeth to gnaw the trees, busy paws to help place them, and a shovel tail to pack the mud into place. “Nature’s engineers” they are sometimes called, building their houses and dams without an axe, a saw or a shovel, building without any tools, except their teeth, tail and busy paws.

A squirrel using its hands Howard M. Lambert Studios
A squirrel using its hands
Howard M. Lambert Studios

If you walk quietly in the woods, or watch closely by the road‑ at night, sometimes you may see that little masked animal sometimes called “the woodland clown”! The racoon with paws so nimble that, as he sits back using his front paws, you will see him tear what he wants open and then daintily dip it in the brooklet or lake It looks as though he is being very neat and washing it, but actually he is only wetting it and will dip it into water which is dirtier than the thing he is going to eat. Next time you visit a zoo watch these clever little animals and see how many things their paws can do.

Now look again at the little squirrel holding the nut. Then turn to the cover of your booklet and see the animals that are there. Do you notice anything about the paws of’ the chimpanzee that is different from the squirrel’s paws? Keep looking at the pictures and talking about them until you are sure that you have found the difference before you read any further.

Did you discover how much more the chimpanzee’s thumb is separated from the fingers? (Even his back paws on which he stands have this thumb!) The chimpanzee can do more with his paw — really more a hand than a paw — than any other animal we have talked about.

A few people have tried to bring up baby chimpanzees and apes as though they were human babies. They put them in cribs, tried to teach them to talk, gave them the same kind of food, clothes and toys you had when you were little.

One very famous ape raised this way as Gua. She never did learn to talk, but she could do anything with her hands that the little boy she was raised with could do with his. In fact, while they were both very young, she could do more. But, of course, when an ape or chimpanzee gets to the age at which you learned to write and to draw with your hands she is not able to do it. For these things require abilities in the mind which these animals do not have, but which human minds have.

And so the hands of animals can do many things; with the opposable thumb, the hands of the ape and chimpanzee can do more than other animals, but the human hand goes with a human mind, so it can do the most of all.

All these animals with their clever paws that they use to dig, or hold, or tear or wash are not able to put their shovels, knives or other things down and take up another tool. Each one can do only the thing his paws are adapted (shaped and controlled) to do. The lion and tiger cannot dig tunnels in the ground; the mole doesn’t use his paws to tear meat from bones.

Man, who in some ways can do so little with his hands, in other ways can do so much because he can take a shovel and then dig. I Then he can lay down the shovel and take a knife and cut. He can take a trowel to plaster mud on a dam. And then when the work is done he can lay his tools aside. Animals do not change their “tool-hands”; they do only what their paws are made to do.

Things to Think About

  1. Think about the things that you can do with your hands that an animal can also do with his paws. Now think of the things you can do that are not possible for the animal to do.

Things to Do at Home

  1. Try to keep a list of all the tools you use this week. Try to make a list of the things you couldn’t do just by using your hands.
  2. If you can go somewhere and feed a squirrel or chipmunk, watch very carefully and see just what they do with their paws. If you think you may forget what you have seen, write it down or make pictures.
  3. Look for pictures of animals doing things with their paws. If you have a cat or dog, play with it with a ball, a toy or a string. See just how much you think each animal can do with its “hands.” What are the things that are too hard? What things can each one do with his “hands” that you cannot do with yours?