Tuesday afternoon a mouse appeared in an art class in the basement of Woodrow Wilson High School. Shrieks ensued. A student ran out of the class. The mouse scampered along the baseboard and huddled in a corner. About five minutes later, the earthquake hit.
I have this on the incontrovertible authority of one Shane Achenbach, who happens to be an editor for the school paper, the Beacon. Shane assumed she was feeling construction underway — heavy machinery. The school is newly rebuilt and there’s still construction going on. She and her fellow students went back to their assigned tasks as if nothing special had happened. About 15 minutes later, someone ducked into the class and said: The school’s been evacuated! Earthquake!
Back to the mouse: Was it agitated because of the imminent quake?
Did it know something minutes in advance, thanks to special animal sensitivities?
Or is a mouse sometimes just a mouse?
When something really big and strange happens, we naturally search for precursors. We look for things that happened prior to the event that might have signaled (had we been paying sufficient attention) that the Big One was about to hit.
Causality, unfortunately, is very hard to prove or disprove. Prior to an earthquake, animals conceivably may pick up signals completely invisible to us and to our scientific instruments. I don’t mean they simply notice P waves while we’re oblivious. The P waves are easily detected with a seismograph. The question is whether they are picking up something that is beyond our ken entirely. And the answer is: That’s a conjecture that, by definition, is unfalsifiable, and thus is not a scientific hypothesis. It’s a wild guess.
In any case, here’s my story about the zoo animals and the Great Quake of 2011. My colleague Michael Ruane first learned about the zoo weirdness; he’s on hurricane duty and so I got the chance to follow up with the zoo (nice zoo, by the way – why don’t I go there more often??).
Orangutans, gorillas, flamingos and red-ruffed lemurs acted strangely before humans detected the historic magnitude-5.8 earthquake. Now the question hovering over the zoo is: What did the animals know, and when did they know it?
Therein lies a scientific mystery, one in which hard facts and solid observations are entangled with lore and legend. There has been talk over the years about mysterious electromagnetic fields generated by rupturing faults. There has been speculation about sounds inaudible to humans, and subtle tilting in rock formations, and the release of vapors that people can’t smell.
But there also may be less to the mystery than meets the eye, with Tuesday’s zoo weirdness merely serving as a reminder that many wild animals are paying close attention to nature while humans are doing whatever it is that humans do.