Archives for Animal Mentors

Animal Mentors

Me as a Naked Ape

Recently I read a fascinating book called "The Naked Ape." Written by zoologist Desmond Morris in 1966 - four years before I was born - it nevertheless reads like "breaking news" in the ongoing human-animal consciousness debate. Morris states quite matter-of-factly in his introduction that he has always both liked and felt more comfortable with animals than with people. He discloses that his work on "The Naked Ape" book is in part an attempt to help remedy that. His literary premise is therefore fairly simple: by stripping humanity of its rather glamorous "top of the food chain" status and simply taking a look at lifestyle, behavior, breeding, feeding, fighting, even anatomy from an apples-to-apples, ape-to-ape perspective, perhaps it will then become possible to feel more connected to the vast variety of non-human life that exists all around us. Maybe, in this sense, Morris's goal is to finally discover some sense of normalcy - a feeling that he, that we, belong here on this planet we are so intent on dominating and (these days) over-populating. 
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Animal Mentors

Is Your Pet an Emotional Support Companion Animal?

I can answer this question on my own behalf - YES. and YES. My 15-year-old parrot, Pearl, and my nearly-2-year-old tortoise, Malti, are two members of my closest support circle. I work from home, and guess who shares my tiny office with me (it is actually more "their" office that I share with them!). They come with me to most family events and all Sunday brunches at my folks' house (where they are pampered and spoiled while I occupy myself by doing the brunch dishes and documenting each occasion with multiple cute photos). In fact, in pondering this question further, I can honestly say Pearl and Malti are vital - essential - in terms of their ability to keep me on an even keel in what often feels like a very uneven-feeling world. Recently my brother and sister-in-law launched a crowdfunding effort to assist with training a service dog for my three-year-old nephew, FuMing. As it turns out, this is not an easy or cheap undertaking, especially if the child in question is under the age of 12. So here (and as my perhaps all-time favorite article on the topic clearly details) there is a different between a trained service animal (usually a dog) and a registered emotional support animal, or ESA. There are many differences. I think the most critical difference is the training aspect. Service animals are formally trained and certified, and many who go through the process don't make the final cut (I found this out when a friend of mine volunteered to train a candidate dog for a year, then was able to adopt him when he didn't qualify in the final round). Emotional support animals, on the other hand, go through no formal training process at the moment. The process to register an animal as an ESA basically involves two parts: a) stating you have an emotional issue or need, and b) forking over some cash. 
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Animal Mentors

How Parrots Can Help People with PTSD

Out in California, something special is taking place. At a sanctuary called Serenity Park, traumatized parrots and traumatized people are connecting for mutual healing. What is interesting about this is, well, pretty much everything (of course, as a lifelong parrot lover, I may be just a touch biased here). The people participants are formerly homeless veterans (both men and women) victimized by the many and varying traumas associated with wartime military service. The parrot participants have been victimized by a different kind of war - mainly abuse by or loss of their human owners. On both sides, there are emotional and mobility issues to contend with. But in all cases, it is clear that the interspecies participants' minds are still sharp and eager to heal. Speaking of minds, there is no doubt in mine that the pioneering work of Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her now-passed African Grey parrot, Alex, (two of my own most cherished mentors) are responsible for laying the foundation for what is going on at Serenity Park right now. Thanks to Alex & Dr. Pepperberg, we know that parrots can display emotional and cognitive abilities to rival young humans. We know they feel deeply, form intense social bonds, understand abstract reasoning and have the capacity to develop complex and extensive vocabularies. This means that, in some capacity, parrots may be even better suited than dogs to participate in animal-assisted therapy as service and support partners. Perhaps this is what veteran volunteer Lilly Love meant when she told New York Times reporter Charles Siebert, You can look in their eyes....any of these parrots’ eyes, and I myself see a soul. I see a light in there. And when they look at you, they see right into your soul. Look around. They’re all watching. They notice everything. It’s intense. 
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Animal Mentors

Animal Mentors Teach Us About Eating Disorders

In my last post, I shared in a broad-brush overview kind of way about a new favorite book find, "Zoobiquity." The more I ponder the book, the more I realize that what I find most intriguing about "Zoobiquity" is that it wasn't written earlier than it was (the book was published in 2012). It just seems so intuitive - so practical, logical - that we look to those we share this planet with, regardless of species, for insights into health conditions and other phenomena we are struggling to comprehend. In fact, as with most great ideas, there seems to exist as much ongoing resistance to this concept as there is acceptance. But luckily, some medical professionals are keen to collaborate on an interspecies level, which is where today's post comes from. In "Zoobiquity," co-authors Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, M.D., and Kathryn Bowers highlight many of today's most prevalent human health crises. Obesity, bulimia and anorexia all make the short list. But in examining how animals interact with food, we gain access to a deeper dimension of understanding, because we reconnect the human physical organism of body-mind-emotion back with the greater natural world where many species dwell together, and not always in harmony. In other words, as human beings, we have a strong tendency to forget that we both sit at the top of the food chain and have exempted ourselves from participating in that food chain in any meaningful or personally impactful way. For example, if we want something to eat, we zip through the closest drive-through window....or occasionally head out into the wilds well-equipped with all the latest heavy artillery, complete with a secure fort in which to hide as we wait for our lunch to wander by. Animals have no such luxury. In the non-human interspecies community, when food presents itself for the eating, you a) eat as much of it as you can pack in, and then b) attempt to securely hoard the rest in various locations known only to yourself. If a voracious predator is lurking near the food source that is most nutritious, you settle for your second choice, even if it is far less sustaining in terms of your long-term nourishment needs. If that predator decides you look like a good appetizer, you abandon ship if time permits. If time does not permit, you may instead do something called "defensive regurgitation" (basically, vomiting up everything you just consumed) to buy yourself a chance to escape. When times are lean (or predators are numerous, or both) you have two equally unattractive options: a) starve, or b) take your chances that today's meal will be your last. Not surprisingly, many prey animals opt for the former, and some eventually develop a syndrome veterinarians call "fear of feeding" as they slowly starve to death. As it turns out, the fear, anxiety and stressful nature of feeding in the wild can influence everything from what foods are chosen to when or even if those foods are consumed. Research biologists have termed this "the ecology of fear." One example of the ecology of fear at work is this: prey animals in the wild have been observed to opt for high-sugar, high-carb food options over high-protein, high-fiber food options when feeding in very dangerous circumstances. They choose the high-sugar/high-carb foods because the body can access their energy nearly instantly, permitting them to make a quick, energetic getaway if need be. Only when animals are feeling safe and protected are they observed to routinely select high-protein or high-fiber foods, which take longer for the body to break down into energy and require more energy to process. As I was reading the food chapters in "Zoobiquity," slowly a new picture began to form in my mind. The picture was of me, feeding in the wild as an active (if not particularly willing) participant in a very real food chain. What I saw myself doing is as follows: 
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Animal Mentors

What We Have in Common with Our Pets

I just finished (flew through, really) a fascinating book called "Zoobiquity." Co-writers Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, M.D., and Kathryn Bowers coined the term to denote the many surprising places where human and non-human health and disease meet and even overlap. These places are far more numerous than I could have ever imagined. But even more intriguingly, it would seem that in some ways, animal medicine is years if not decades ahead of our own. For instance, veterinarians knew about "broken heart syndrome," a stress-induced condition in animals that mimics cardiac arrest in humans, a full few decades before their human medicine counterparts (vets call it "takotsubo cardiomyopathy") discovered it. As well, from fainting to foreplay, drug abuse to eating disorders, self-injury to STDs, adolescent risk-taking to social bullying, a Zoobiquitous approach (another phrase coined by the co-authors) shows that we have a lot more in common with our fellow species than just our DNA. According to National Geographic, I share 24 percent of my DNA with the average wine grape ('nuff said). And my family's dachshund puppy and I share 84 percent of our DNA in common...for chimps and bonobos that percentage climbs to a jaw-dropping 99 percent. 
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Animal Mentors

Help Me Make Amazing Happen (A Service Dog for FuMing Cutts)

You probably noticed the last name - FuMing Cutts - yup, we are related. :-) FuMing, or we like to call him "Ming" for short, is my youngest nephew. Impressively, he became a world-traveler at the age of 1 when my younger brother, Adam, his wife, Erin, and Teagen, Eli and Gavin, my niece and other two nephews, traveled to China to bring him home. But along with hope, intelligence, strength, courage and the love of his new forever family, Ming brought with him trauma. He brought remembered grief for his birth mom who abandoned him when he was one day old (likely because she couldn't afford the many surgeries his cleft palate would in time require). He brought PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from the many months when he basically starved because no one at the orphanage knew how to properly feed a cleft palate baby. And he brought fear from all those moments before he came into our family when he didn't know if he would belong to anyone, anywhere, ever. 
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Animal Mentors

Mentors with Feathers

Approximately three years ago, I went to Cape Cod with my folks for our annual getaway. While I was gone, I started to miss my parrot, Pearl, very badly. I was already writing his blog, Love & Feathers, so I started re-reading past posts to see if that would help ease the ache. It just got worse. Then I started looking through the photos I've taken of him over the years. Right about that point I realized I had several thousand photos of Pearl - more than every other type of photo I've ever taken (from the moment I was born or when they first invented the camera, take your pick) combined. Since reading old blog posts and looking at old pictures wasn't helping, my next attempt focused on writing. In years past, I have often journaled - either through physically writing in a journal or (more frequently) writing songs. So I began to journal out some of my favorite stories about my life with Pearl. This helped. It helped me not just feel closer to Pearl on the inside while we were so far apart on the outside, but it also helped me feel less anxious about his approaching double-digit  birthday and how I might cope once he and I are separated by more than just geography. So I kept writing....and writing. 
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Animal Mentors

Why I Love My Stomach

Oh. The stomach. That bastion of photoshopping. That naysayer of bikini season. That frenemy of (tasty) dessert. With so much seemingly riding on its relative degree of concavity or convexity at any given moment, it is no wonder I have suffered with digestive issues for nearly as long as I've been alive. But today I am happy to share I am mostly free from these life-long embarrassments and discomforts. Thanks in large part to a combination of affirmations, probiotics, breathing techniques, meditation and other gentle helps, my stomach is too. Today, my stomach and I have an agreement. It takes care of "digestion" and I take care of the rest. 
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Animal Mentors

Unexplained Powers of Our Pets

I really like to read books about animals, and especially about pets. Frequently, one book leads to another and then another. Recently, this led me to Rupert Sheldrake, PhD's book, Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home (and other unexplained powers of animals). If you, like me, have ever wondered if your pet (dog, cat, parrot, tortoise, ferret, et al) is holding out on you, this is the book you need to read. Obviously, Dr. Sheldrake wouldn't have written 300+ pages on the topic if there weren't something to write about. But what he writes about - Oh. my. goodness. 
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Animal Mentors

If People Were Parrots (a Meditation)

Yesterday wasn't such an awesome day in my world. When less-awesome days happen to me, I often try to cheer myself up by making lists of the things that annoy me most. Usually "bugs" are at the top of my list. Often "forms" (such as the kind you have to fill out for the IRS) are right up there with the insects. But yesterday, the number one slot was occupied by "people." In other words, I had just had it. Even biting red ants and buzzing mosquitos ranked higher than my own species. And then, as I attempted to relax into sleep last night, all of a sudden a question popped into my mind. What if I woke up tomorrow and all people were suddenly turned into parrots? 
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