Animal Mentors Articles

Celebrating Plumpness

Thursday, November 20th, 2014
The soft, plump, round seals of Cape Cod.

The soft, plump, round seals of Cape Cod basking in the warm morning sun.

Not so long ago, I found myself standing on a warm, sunny, sandy beach in my very favorite place on earth.

My folks and I were passing a pair of binoculars between us.

The focus of our avid interest?

Soft round brown harbor seals.

After struggling through half a mile of soft sand on foot, we burst over the top of the High Head dunes on Cape Cod to discover them by the hundreds, basking on the warm sand and bobbing happily in the surf with just their plump sweet noses upturned towards the sun.

We were riveted.

So soft!

So CUTE!

So round!

Soft, round, brown, cute, blubbery harbor seals. -Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Soft, round, brown, cute, blubbery harbor seals. -Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Suddenly I heard myself exclaim, “I love seals and all their round soft cute rolls of blubbery goodness!”

Huh? What?

Did I really just utter the equivalent of “I love blubber?”

Yup.

Yet there I was, standing on the beach beside them, feeling uncomfortably, well, blubbery, myself. 


‘Honest Signals’ as Our Mating Mentor

Monday, November 17th, 2014

WildConnectionsBookMy latest favorite read is called “Wild Connection: What Animal Courtship and Mating Tell Us About Human Relationships.”

Written by scientist Jennifer L. Verdolin, the book’s fundamental query is simple:

What can studying animal relationships teach us about our own?

Right from the start I identified with the author, who described her early experiences with the opposite sex as “a puzzle I couldn’t quite figure out.”

In the opening pages, she shares, “I realized that I knew the ins and outs of the mating behavior of the animals I studied, but I knew very little about my own species or even about myself.

Hear, hear.

From the first chapter, years of confusion, frustration, and disillusionment about how my own species dates and mates began to melt away. I began to understand why things often feel so messed up – so complicated when they “should” be so simple.

I felt validated as well – if only through realizing I’m not the only human being who just “doesn’t get” how our species facilitates romance.

Here is one example.


What I Need to Feel Truly Human

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

shutterstock_79866124I recently returned from our family’s annual pilgrimage to Cape Cod.

Cape Cod is my favorite place on Earth.

I can learn more there, unwind more there, rest more there, restore more there, in just 24 hours than in 24 days back in my hometown of Houston, Texas (or anyplace else, for that matter).

This year – my fourth year of visiting the Cape – I have finally begun to detect the reason why.

Here at the Cape, and especially in the small town of Truro where we stay (Truro is the most remote town on the Cape itself), the ratio of nature to humanity is much more balanced.

In other words, here, human beings are in the distinct minority.

There are 100 trees to every one human, and nearly as many wild turkeys, dogs, and assorted wild birds in similar ratios.

Same holds true for sea life.

In fact, much of the Cape is made up of national parks and reserves – places where wildlife merit much stricter protections than man.

For this same reason, Park Rangers are a big fixture here – and yes, they do wear the traditional green and khaki outfits, complete with hats that would make Smoky the Bear proud.

During tourist season, the Park Rangers lead all kinds of nature walks and talks. During these events, they like to tell tourists, “when you enter the sea, you enter the food chain.” 


Do What You Can and Don’t Worry About the Odds Against You

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

VoyageofTurtleREV31-197x300I have been blogging a bit about a fabulous book called “Voyage of the Turtle” by Carl Safina.

At some point, this book has become less about gaining a simple “tortoise education” and more about learning how to simply live life.

In one of my favorite quotes, the author writes (this about watching a single baby sea turtle enter the surf for the first time, encouraged in its first steps by a group of witnessing conservationists):

I wonder if this is the end of something ancient or the start of a future regained. I’m not certain what it is, but I know what it means: it means there truly is hope. Other peoples, other species, even other kinds of sea turtles – in situations as bad, sometimes worse – have recovered. Turtles have taught me this: Do all you can and don’t worry about the odds against you. Wield the miracle of life’s energy, never worrying whether we may fail, concerned only that whether we fail or succeed we do so with all our might. That’s all we need to know to feel certain that all our force of diligent effort is worth our while on Earth. (emphasis added)

So beautiful!

And in fact, I told myself this very thing (although not so eloquently) when I first began my mighty struggle to recover from anorexia and bulimia.

The odds seemed powerfully stacked against me – leaning over me like a slobbering muscular bully, in fact.

My “support team” was minimal – one mentor, and me.

I had no money for therapy – inpatient, outpatient, or any other kind.

No one – least of all me – really understood what was wrong with me or how to fix it.

And I wasn’t yet fully convinced that what was wrong was a “something” – that it wasn’t just me, consummate failure at life and all things.

Yet I had nothing but time at that point, and I wanted to try. 


Understanding Our Desire to Explore and Invent

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

shutterstock_164724497Recently we’ve been chatting (via blog posts at least) about a number of, well, less “naturally desirable” character traits and where they might have come from.

And why.

And how.

And what (if anything) we can do to get them to go away.

The other morning I was snoozing as usual. The night before I had watched a Netflix special about the link between Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens.

Needless to say, after a night of dreaming myself back in the jungle, quite hairy, covered in mosquitos and wielding a spear held together with tree resin “pitch glue,” I was in full-on contemplation mode about the intersection of evolution with invention.

The next night, I watched a special on Yellowstone National Park called “Battle for Life.” The special featured pronghorn – a type of mammal similar to the antelope – and how they evolved to become the fastest land mammals out of a desire to evade a now-instinct type of cheetah.

And it hit me. 


Jealousy: Hard-Wired, Learned, or Both?

Monday, August 25th, 2014
My parrot, Pearl, jealously eyeing my baby tortoise, Malti.

My parrot, Pearl, jealously eyeing my baby tortoise, Malti.

Last month I shared a post about how to stop judging other people.

The post generated some interesting comments.

One particular reader suggested that perhaps the sensation of “jealousy” might have a similar survival-based purpose.

I was most intrigued by her idea!

The truth is, I am personally more apt to look to animal behavior rather than human behavior to better understand why I think and say and feel and do the things I think/say/feel/do.

This is because when I watch animals there is less subtext to wade through.

The link between motive – action – desired outcome is clearer.

In the judging post, I used the analogy of a lady eagle choosing a mate and why judgment might be helpful to that process (especially since eagles mate for life).

In the same way, when I watch television shows about animals, I notice what appears to be a fair amount of what I might call “practical jealousy” – jealousy that could be useful for successfully navigating the various facets of a survival-based daily life.

In fact, I don’t even have to turn on the television to see this – in my own household, my 13-year old parrot, Pearl, is intensely jealous of my new baby tortoise, Malti.

Pearl doesn’t try to hide his jealousy. If anything, he amps up his efforts at self-expression (perhaps assuming his large featherless housemate is too dense to pick up on anything less than the most extreme outbursts).

You might be wondering, “How do I know that Pearl is ‘jealous’?” 


Two Steps to Stop Judging Other People

Monday, July 28th, 2014
A lady bald eagle chooses her mate (image courtesy of Wikipedia).

A lady bald eagle chooses her mate (image courtesy of Wikipedia).

My own tendency to judge (both others and myself) has long mystified me.

On the one hand – yuck. A life spent judging self and others isn’t much of a life at all.

Yet at times, judging others has also felt like it might serve some evolutionary purpose, perhaps even with my safety foremost in mind.

By this I mean – let’s say I am a lady bald eagle.

I tend to mate for life, which means I should choose my mate with great care.

Here, I want to choose a male who is coordinated (otherwise, we both might die during our unique courtship “spiral air dance”).

I also want a mate who is affectionate and persistent (no one respects a suitor who gives up too quickly).

Best of all, I want a mate who is a good hunter, since raising (and feeding!) hungry chicks is hard work.

So in the part of my brain that is wired to choose, as soon as mating season comes around, I am fully engaged in constantly judging, judging, judging.

The same may hold true for us human animals even in our top-of-the-food-chain, big-brained and oh-so-evolved state.

Perhaps we still judge with an eye towards survival.

Certainly we have evolved to judge so we can not just survive but thrive by selecting only the best – the best suitor, the best nesting site, the best victuals, the best of everything.

So then what if that part of our brain just keeps on judging…whether we actually need it to or not?

What if that ancient core of our brain is totally unaware that human life today is not nearly so dire – that it is not quite so absolutely necessary to notice and point out every little (real or perceived) flaw, foible, or fault in those around us?

What if we can’t even really be blamed for judging others – after all, it is in our DNA?


What a Jasmine Flower Has Taught Me About Trust

Monday, June 23rd, 2014
Malti is so small and young she still has her egg tooth - barely visible on the tip of her nose!

Malti is so small and young she still has her egg tooth – barely visible on the tip of her nose!

About a month ago, I acted upon a long-delayed dream.

I became Mommy to a hatchling red-foot tortoise named Malti.

Malti is an Indian girl’s name that means “small fragrant jasmine flower.”

She is very small indeed (3″ from nose to tail tip).

Her fragrance comes in the form of trust.

Even as I type, she is sleeping off her lunch in a mossy corner of her new habitat – totally trusting that her every need will be provided for…..by me.

Eeep!

I, on the other hand, am cramming on YouTube like only a newbie turtle mommy can, ever hopeful of keeping this baby alive for one more day.

We are making a lot of progress, Malti and I, but I have to give her most of the credit. 


When Blinders are a Good Thing

Monday, April 7th, 2014

All his life, my grandpa loved “playing the horses.”

Each summer we would visit my grandparents at their home near Boston, MA, and Grandpa would spend every morning the same way – hunched over at the kitchen table, working out the odds the old fashioned way (yes, with pencil and paper!), and deciding which horse most deserved his precious pennies.

He also loved taking my brother and me to the track to watch the races. Adam, being naturally competitive, enjoyed betting – and enjoyed winning his bets even more.

Me? I just felt sorry for the horses. Those black blinders (today called “blinkers”) looked uncomfortable. For that matter, so did the bridle, the saddle, the bit, and the itty bitty man perched up top.


What Corvids and Humans Have in Common (or why we both grieve and like potato chips)

Monday, March 10th, 2014

MindRavenRight now I am reading “Mind of the Raven” by Bernd Heinrich.

It is great bedtime reading, because instead of attempting to go to sleep while worrying about my bank balance or whether I’ll be single forever, I can go to bed worrying about whether I can finish this 350+ page tome before the library sends the angry check-out police to my door.

Plus, corvids just fascinate me. According to Science Magazine, corvids (crows, ravens, magpies, jays) are capable of mental time travel, social cognition (whatever that is), and tool manufacture. According to fellow corvid enthusiast and author Candace Savage,

Crows, ravens, magpies, and jays are not just feathered machines, rigidly programmed by their genetics. Instead, they are beings that, within the constraints of their molecular inheritance, make complex decisions and show every sign of enjoying a rich awareness.

Cooooool. Plus – I just have to say it – I rather think I already knew that.

PBS’ “Ravens – Discover the Brainpower of the Bird in Black” features studies by Heinrich and others that prove corvids are as smart as canines. Not only that, but Heinrich has observed how his ravens (those he raises and those he studies in the wild) have distinct dining preferences – for instance, these meat-loving avians turn up their beaks at a snack of fresh raw beef liver, but hone right in on scattered potato chips. 


 

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