Archives for Animal Mentors
I love animals. Animals don't litter. With an animal, you don't have to dig through layers of meaning and context to find the point. An animal won't pretend they like you to your face then gossip about you behind your back. And, as it turns out, it may just be that animals understand people far better than people understand animals (despite what people may like to tell themselves about being the "superior" species). For instance, a recent study at the University of Vienna has produced evidence that dogs can understand both tone and vocabulary. Not only that, but another study at the University of Budapest showed that dogs process speech in the left brain hemisphere and tone in the right brain hemisphere just like people do. In other words, it will no longer work (and never actually has worked) to criticize a dog using a sweet tone of voice. The dog won't be fooled even if the person doing the criticizing is fooled.
Last week I went outside to take my box turtle, Bruce, for a walk. When he finally stopped for a rest, I plopped down on the warm pavement next to him. That was when I looked down and saw something extraordinary. Right beside me, a colony of red ants was busily engaged in some kind of mandatory work-related conga line, hurrying back and forth with an urgency I can only attribute to being both predator and prey. As I watched, one ant left the conga line and headed towards a small, still, upturned red ant body. He circled the body, then, in one swift movement, lifted the clearly dead ant up over his head. He wobbled. Walked a few steps. Wobbled some more. Dropped the ant. Picked it back up again. Walked a few more wobbly steps. At last he and his fallen ant comrade made it over to a crack in the concrete. A few small leafy plants had sprung up in the dirt there, providing a bit of ant-sized shade. The exhausted ant gently tucked his comrade's body underneath the shade of the leaves. He walked away. Then he walked back, examined the placement of the body, and reached out to adjust the position of the leaves so they were just so. He walked away again.
Being a turtle mommy, for me at least, has been like winning free tickets to the "learning curve rollercoaster" - that really fast, scary one I never wanted to ride in the first place. If you've been following Malti's adventures on her blog, you probably remember that she recently went missing for 6 days. Those were pretty much the 6 longest days of our life together to date. In our personal network, no one seemed surprised that I would ditch work, socializing and pretty much everything else for 6 consecutive days to search for my baby turtle. (This, of course, is because our flock has the coolest network ever.) But outside our network, and sometimes outside (literally) as I was searching, I would get "those looks." Like, "Why are you on your belly on the ground looking under my car with a flashlight?" Well, um, "My baby turtle is lost and I'm searching for her." Oooohkaaaay. "Your baby - what?" "Turtle." "Well, uh, good luck with that...." Yup.
All my life (to date, anyway) I have had a particular preference for flow-charting things. For example, if A happens, then do B. But if B happens, then do C. That sort of thing. Doing this feels the same as opening Google Maps and mapping out my complete itinerary in advance of taking a trip. Reassuring. Smart. But over the years, I have learned (to my great disappointment) that this "no surprises" approach doesn't work well in a surprising number of situations. This appears to be because, for many less clear-cut situations, there exists no black or white "if (this), then (that)" option. In other words, there is no one single best possible choice for each possible scenario. There is only a series of less-best choices, in ever-decreasing amounts of best-ness. Or there is a series of choices that are best for one choice-maker but not for the others. These are the kinds of scenarios therapists like to call "grey areas" and I like to call "frustrating." I will give you an example of one such grey area I have been turning over and over in my mind since the day I learned of it.
As I mentioned in my last post, I recently finished reading a book by David Grimm called "Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs." The book gave me a lot to think about on a lot of different levels. And while I expected to feel upset, especially while reading (or skimming, or sometimes skipping over) stories about the cruel things people have done to animals that is now prompting a push to give cats and dogs expanded "human" rights, I didn't expect it to become personal. As in, I don't think of myself as a cruel person. I have pets - my parrot, Pearl, and my tortoise, Malti - plus a puppy named Flash Gordon to whom I am a proud auntie. I have never deliberately harmed any creature...or at least I thought I hadn't until I read "Citizen Canine." The more I encountered stories of cruel animal abusers, the more everything inside of me began to revolt. To rage. I started questioning everything I thought I believed about how we are all connected....somehow....even though I couldn't begin to explain where my beliefs come from or how all that alleged connectedness might actually work. But I mean, how could I - gentle soul that I consider myself to be - have anything in common with those so-called humans who commit such horrific crimes against the non-human beings we share this planet with? How can those people - the cruel animal harmers - even be considered "human?" And if they are in fact human, then what species am I? I mean, I honestly think I have more in common with the garden rocks in our backyard than with those kinds of people. So I continued to ruminate as I continued to read. I continued to ponder, to worry and rage. This went on for days. And then one day, a small band of black sugar ants snuck under the sill of my kitchen window and onto the counter.
I just recently finished reading a book by David Grimm called "Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs." I won't lie. I was expecting something a little....lighter. At nearly 300 pages and with a 2014 publication date, the book took me on a journey from our earliest interactions with companion animals all the way up to today. Along the way we hit a few (many) rough patches. This was especially true in the chapters addressing animal research, animal rescue during disasters, animals and religion and working animals. In the chapters detailing how dogs and cats' legal rights have moved increasingly closer to our own rights (what the author calls "personhood"), I found myself wishing the book included parrots and tortoises (and all other animals, of course). In the chapters reviewing all the horrific stuff we've subjected our canine and feline counterparts to, I found myself wishing to change my own species affiliation. People can be pretty awful sometimes. There is also an ongoing book-wide parallel drawn between how slaves became full citizens and the trajectory dogs and cats appear to be on now. This (at least as I read it) is not to downplay the significance of the end of slavery, but to signify how, when we change our mindset about the worth of any being, positive changes in the quality of life of that being tend to quickly follow. For instance, after quite a lengthy battle, pets can now legally inherit money left to them in people's wills. But canines working for the military are still classified as "equipment" themselves, and there are groups actively fighting to change that even as I type right now. Perhaps the most gripping part of the book is near the end, however, when one Rutgers university professor named Gary Francione makes an unorthodox suggestion - to do away with "pets," period. When I first read that, everything in me revolted.
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.
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.
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.
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: