The 'educated' horse and other tall tales of animal behavior

''Appreciate animals for what they are,'' says John Sparks, a zoologist and TV producer, ''but don't imagine that they think and feel as we do.''

Mr. Sparks is the producer of the captivatingly informative six-hour The Discovery of Animal Behavior (PBS, Sundays, 8-9 p.m.)m , a part of the WNET, New York, ''Nature'' series. It has already proved to be one of the most wide-ranging, scientifically authentic wildlife series to air on TV. Unlike the recent ''Life on Earth'' on PBS, which tended to emphasize the bizarre, ''Nature'' focuses on the everyday wonders of the natural universe.

Mr. Sparks' ''Nature'' mini-series concentrates on the ''secrets'' of wildlife behavior - the fascinating facts about bird migration, humanlike pet tricks, and the honeybee's successful search for nectar. In a series of reenactments of the discovery of those supposed ''secrets'' that have puzzled naturalists for years - interspersed among actual wildlife sequences - ''The Discovery of Animal Behavior'' develops amazing insights into how animals ''think,'' how they develop imagination. The show, narrated by Dr. Donald Johanson, a paleontologist, will have most viewers stretching their own imagination as well.

Like the animals whose behavior he chronicles, Mr. Sparks communicates with his body as well as his carefully modulated BBC-type voice - a great deal of enthusiasm finds an outlet in the constant tossing of his head, the explosive movement of his arms and hands.

''So many people,'' he said, ''feel that in every animal there is a little human being trying to get out. There's even a trend among American scientists to try to communicate with dolphins. And they are using the sign language of the deaf with gorillas. I can't help feeling that what they are involved in is actually a massive animal training act. It's easier for animals to pick up little clues from your behavior and act accordingly, rather than actually understand what you are saying.

''In this series, we investigate one of the most famous test cases of all time - the turn-of-the-century German case of the educated horse. [A] schoolteacher took the view that there is virtually no difference between animals and people, that if you took an animal into the classroom and instructed it, you'd end up with a hugely intelligent animal.

''He proved it by taking a horse into his classroom and supposedly taught it mathematics and languages. The horse used to point to words on the blackboard. The teacher would ask: 'What is the square root of 584?' and the horse would solemnly tap out with its hoofs the correct number.

''The teacher was not a faker; he really believed in what he was doing. So it took a long piece of scientific investigation to prove that the horse had no idea of mathematics at all but was simply reacting to unconscious clues of expression and body movement by which the teacher would give away the moment the horse would have to stop tapping. If he stopped properly, the horse got a carrot.

''It is shown on the show that when the teacher did not know the answers, the horse got it wrong. I think modern attempts to educate animals are similar.

''It's very easy for animals to pick up clues to behavior from humans. They simply cannot think and act as human. This doesn't diminish animals. I appreciate them for what they can do. A cat may be able to pick off a mouse at 30 feet and see better in the dark than I can in broad daylight. But then again, no cat or chimpanzee can produce sounds like Mozart did. We each have our own abilities.''

As a graduate zoologist, does Mr. Sparks manage to spend a lot of time with animals?

''I spend more time with people now . . . . I used to be a research zoologist and spent a lot of time with monkeys and rats and mice and birds. In this television series I spend a lot of time with set designers, costume designers, makeup people, and actors.'' Sparks smiles like a mischievous chimp, indicating that he'd rather spend the time with animals.

Does he keep animals at home?

''I've got a couple of cats and a garden full of birds.''

How does he feel about making pets out of wild creatures?

''I don't like it very much. Partly because I feel you can't tame a wild animal. But also because I think the best place for a leopard or an anaconda is in the wild.''

That brings up the question of zoos.

''I have mixed feelings about zoos. I think for someone sitting in New York to be able to have a place where he can actually see an elephant and smell it is wonderful. But wildlife parks are better than traditional zoos, even though some zoos claim to be preserving species. It's very rare that any zoo can save a species from extinction. Very few animals have ever bred in captivity beyond two or three generations.''

Is there any way, then, to save endangered species?

''You've got to preserve the habitat. That's the only reasonable way. Man has to intervene in some way so that certain areas are kept sacrosanct for the animals. The conflict between farming and wildlife isn't limited to Africa alone. It's in this country, too, and everywhere. You simply cannot have continually expanding economies. In the long run, we will have to bring the population of Homo sapiens in line.''

If zoologist John Sparks could be one non-human creature, what would it be?

He thinks for a moment, his eyes darting about the room like a trapped bird. Then, focusing on the window and its seeming possibility for escape, he says: ''It would have to be a bird. Soaring up there must be wonderful. I would have to be at the top of the food chain, though, because I don't want to be killed off too quickly. Maybe an Andean condor or a peregrine falcon.''

Mr. Sparks stands up, says goodbye, and prepares to leave. I don't know whether to open the door or the window.

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