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On Hans, Zou and the others: wonder animals and the question of animal intelligence in early twentieth-century France.


During the second half of the nineteenth century, the advent of widespread pet ownership was accompanied by claims of heightened animal abilities. Psychical researchers investigated many of these claims, including animal telepathy and ghostly apparitions. By the beginning of the twentieth century, news of horses and dogs with the ability to read and calculate fascinated the French public and scientists alike. Amidst questions about the justification of animal cruelty in laboratory experiments, wonder animals came to represent some extraordinary possibilities associated with their kind. Psychologists speculated on the feats of wonder animals. They considered the possibility that these animals shared consciousness and intelligence with humans, and that-if confirmed-their alleged amazing abilities could lead to a new understanding of cognition for all animals. This article focuses on the few years during which claims of wonder animals occupied a significant place in French psychology and psychical research. It argues that as explanations involving deception or unconscious cues gained increased acceptance, the interest in wonder animals soon led to a backlash in comparative psychology that had repercussions for all animals, particularly those used in experimentation, in that it contributed to the decline of research addressing cognitive abilities in non-human species.