Animal Mentors Articles

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. 


Oxytocin, Mirror Neurons, and Sentient Plant Life

Monday, February 17th, 2014

MadeforEachOtherBookIn my last post, I introduced you to a great book called “Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond” by Meg Daley Olmert.

Of course, this book addresses the mutual benefits to humans and non-humans of making and maintaining close-knit cooperative bonds.

What I did not expect to encounter within its pages was evidence to support that plants can achieve the same.

I love plants. However, the feeling has never seemed particularly mutual.

Even my highest best intentions has not produced any surefire way to keep the plants in my household either green or alive. So imagine my surprise when I read the following:

Susan Dudley and Amanda File of McMaster University in Ontario found that plants, like humans and animals, are capable of social recognition. Plants actually recognize other plants that are related to them, and when they see another plant as kin, they refrain from competing with it for root territory. It is not known whether plants can extend any sort of social recognition to the humans who care for them, but James Cahill of the University of Alberta and his colleagues found that they do respond to human touch. 


Why We are Made for Each Other

Friday, February 14th, 2014
Mommy and birdie share some quality time together.

Mommy and birdie share some quality time together.

I just finished another great book – “Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond” by Meg Daley Olmert.

Given that it is Valentine’s Day today, and my feathery sidekick and I are celebrating 13 (loud but) blissful years together, I thought the book would make for a perfect post.

The premise of “Made for Each Other” is simple: humans and animals have been bonded together for centuries – until now.

The last 100 years has dramatically changed our ability and need to be connected to our non-human helpmeets in practical ways (think farming, milking, construction).

As this bond slowly breaks down, it is changing us – and not for the better.


A Personal Happiness Mentor

Monday, December 23rd, 2013
Pearl. Admiring prettiness.

Pearl. Very happily admiring prettiness.

I woke up this morning feeling a combination of some of my less-favorite feelings.

For instance, I felt sad. And depressed. And sorry for myself. And stuck. And bored.

I was really starting to dig into these feelings, and I felt myself sinking….and sinking….

Then my bird, Pearl, started singing to his reflection in my bathroom clock. I absentmindedly said to him, “Awww, Pearl – you are so happy! You are so ready to start your day!”

All of a sudden, as the sound of my own words caught my attention, I realized that I was right.

Pearl was so happy.

He had no particular reason to be happy – at least not by human standards. There was no special news waiting in his email inbox, no romantic date planned for later in the evening, no big fat paycheck being auto-deposited into his bank account, no big social plans for the weekend.

But he was happy…..anyway.

It occurred to me that I could be too. I could stop worrying about whether I have enough friends or enough cash or enough plans or enough romance in my life. I could just drop the expectation of “being happy when…” and be happy now.

Just because.

Even better, I could do it with a happiness buddy – because I already happen to have a personal live-in happiness mentor who ushers in each and every morning by sitting on the window ledge chirping oh-so-happily to his own reflection.

This made me feel better – and happier. I realized I didn’t have to wait on big news or big plans or big romance as an excuse to allow myself to feel happy. I could feel happy just because I could.

And now it occurs to me that this is also why I always tell folks at my presentations to get a pet (if they don’t already have one, that is).

Pets are great for self-esteem, great for inspiration, great for mentoring – and, as it turns out, also reliably great at enhancing happiness.

Today’s Takeaway: Do you ever …


Finding Our Niche (and Defending it)

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

DivorceAmongtheGullsBookI love how sometimes, when I am reading one book, that leads to another and then another book….and before I know it I am four or five books into a cycle I started about a completely different topic for a completely different reason.

Take “Divorce Among the Gulls: An Uncommon Look at Human Nature,” for example.

This slim volume came to me courtesy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Committed,” a book about how humans date, mate, and (often, unfortunately) split.

Gilbert, on the verge of being forcefully hitched as she writes, uses “Committed” as a tool to research the crap out of marriage, hoping to find some kind of magical reassurance that hers (the second for both of them) won’t suck. Or disappear. Or both.

In one chapter, she mentions how incompatibility is now thought to be at least partially biological. The example she cites is seagulls.

Other than the parrot – specifically the cockatiel – the seagull has to be my all-time top favorite bird. So of course I rushed right out to locate and acquire such essential reading.

I enjoyed the chapter on gulls immensely, but found the chapter on roof rats (scientifically, “Rattus rattus”) even more illuminating.


 

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