Archives for Shannon Cutts

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
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Inspirational

Learning to Ride a Bike Again


This sounded like a great plan and I enthusiastically agreed. Yes, a bike would be wonderful, thank you.

In fact, I told her, I've been having what I call "biking dreams" for several years now. In the dreams, I'm riding my old Schwinn, flying around my childhood neighborhood and feeling totally free.

So she hit "add to cart" and the bike was on its way to me.

Then the anxiety kicked in. 
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Animal Mentors

Is Your Pet an Emotional Support Companion Animal?


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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Mentoring

Feelings and How You Feel About Those Feelings

A few days ago, I posted some thoughts about a possible evolutionary basis for worries about whether or not we are "normal."

Surprisingly, this contemplation came out of a book called "Come As You Are," which is basically about, well, sex.

Author Emily Nagoski is a sex educator and researcher who has tackled (and, I would say, thoroughly knocked out) that age-old enduring myth that there is any kind of normal barometer by which to assess anyone's sex life.

But she accomplished this in a surprising and welcome way - by first knocking out the underlying myth that there is any kind of normal barometer to anyone's life, period.

Male or female, young or old, heavy or slim, tall or short, rich or of limited means, our individual biology can definitely differ significantly from one of us to the next (Darwin liked to call this variation "natural selection").

But our individual psychology can differ even more so.

In fact, our psychology is unique to us and is totally dependent upon our innate mood "set point" as well as who raised us, how well they did, the messages we accepted along the way, whether we were good at what others wanted us to be good at, how well our appearance fit in with cultural sex appeal standards during our lifetime, how we felt about all of this, and - most of all - how we felt about how we felt.

And how we feel today about how we feel.

In other words, we may not have chosen to have the feelings we have, but we are definitely choosing how we feel about our feelings!

Dr. Nagoski calls this phenomenon "the little monitor." 
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Relationships

A Possible Definition for “Normal”

As I've continued reading Dr. Emily Nagoski's "Come As You Are the surprising new science that will transform your sex life," I've happened across all kinds of very surprising new insights indeed.

But very few have been about actual s.e.x.

For example, an eye-popper that crossed my mind right before lights out last night:

Why is normal the goal? What do people really want when they want to be normal? I think that to feel normal is to belong."

What if our continual ruminations (individually and as a society) on the word "normal" have far more to do with our early clan and tribe days than with today's oh-so-independent and largely low-risk lifestyle?

What if, to our ancient limbic/reptilian brain that just wants to help us survive, this is what "not normal" translates to mean:

I'm not normal.

= I am an outcast.

= I must live alone with no one else to rely on.

= I will likely be lunch for a hungry predator very soon. 
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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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Good News

How I Know You Have What it Takes To Live Well as “You”


The first three decades of my life were a pretty rough ride.

I just didn't think I had what it takes to do a good job living life as "me."

So I kept trying to delegate the responsibility to someone else.

For example, when I had a decision to make, I would waffle and wait, stall and stumble, ask others (ad nauseum) for their input, and frequently choose poorly even after all that.

I just didn't trust myself. Even worse, I didn't respect myself....or like myself.

It is hard to do your best job when you don't like, trust or respect the person you are working for.

Today all that has changed.

Today I firmly hold the steering wheel of my own life, and I steer with confidence (if not always with impeccable directional sense).

What changed?

Well, for starters, I began to really grasp - on a much deeper level than just my mind - the unique opportunity that being "me" really is.

No one else can do it - and that is because there are no other openings. There is only one "me." Only ONE.

But maybe for some of you, that reads like a tired cliche, especially if you feel like you've been in a headlock with yourself for the last day or decade. If so, I get it - truly I do.

So here is something else that changed. I realized I am the one with the most to lose - and the most to gain - by learning how to live well as "me."

Yes, my parents would care, my mentors and friends would care, my pets would care if I ended up doing such a bad job at living my life I was no longer here at all. They would care.

But not as much as I would care.  
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Emotions

Frozen (A New Take on Fight or Flight)

A couple posts ago, I wrote about a neat and very effective new tactic I just learned for healing stress.

Oddly, I learned about this technique, called "completing the cycle," in a book called "Come As You Are:  the Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life" by Dr. Emily Nagoski.

As I've kept reading, I've kept learning more surprising new things. In fact, I just finished a section that describes how  our ancient reptilian limbic brains prefer to deal with stress.

I have always believed that when animals (human or non-human) feel threatened, our ancient limbic brain gives us two options: fight or flight.

But according to lots of science and Dr. Nagoski's book, we actually get three options: fight, flight, or FREEZE.

This makes a lot of sense....so much sense that I can't believe I didn't learn about this until age 45.

It also makes sense because I am now realizing that freezing is one of my threat-detection specialities.

Freezing is what baby deer do when they hear a nearby rustling in the grass (hoping that if the hungry predator does spy them, it will think "oh look a dead baby deer - that is not what I had in mind for lunch today").

For that matter, freezing is what adult deer do when caught in a set of car headlights....and likely for similar reasons.

Freezing is what my baby turtle, Malti, does whenever a shadow changes the light around her.

And freezing is what I do in nearly any context when I am startled out of whatever it was I was doing before the startling occurred.

For many of the memories I am now working towards completing, my threat-response option of choice has been to freeze. I have played dead. I have pretended I was part of the scenery (no matter how little I may have actually blended in).

I have dissociated my mind and frozen my body, a good trick that left the predator talking to empty air, however much I may have appeared to still be standing there.

Ha.

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Mentoring

Healing Stress by Completing the Cycle

Although it is a very important topic, I seldom write about intimacy (aka s.e.x.) here...or anywhere.

It is a very personal thing to write about, or talk about, or even think about.

But I read about it more these days, in the sense of trying to figure out answers to questions I have and to find a barometer for where I "fit" in the spectrum of intimate interests and needs.

I mention this because recently I checked out a book from the local library called "Come As You Are: the Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life," by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

Now I should preface this by saying that books with titles like this one often make me feel irritable. This is because they make me uncomfortable. And the last thing I want to do late at night (which is usually when I have time for "free reading" that is not related to required work) is read something that makes me feel uncomfortable.

But since John Grisham isn't likely to have the answers to the questions I have in this particular area, I typically try to soldier on and get through whatever the book of the week happens to be.

In this particular book's case, I'm glad I chose to stick with it, because I may have finally discovered one of the biggest missing pieces that continues to hold me back in certain areas of my ongoing recovery journey.

This is called "completing the cycle."

To illustrate how it works, Dr. Nagoski gives an example from the animal world (see why I'm glad I stuck with it?).

To summarize -

Suppose you are a deer. You are placidly enjoying your lunch when suddenly a hungry lion decides you look like its lunch. You sound the alarm and start running very, very fast.

Here, there are two potential outcomes. Outcome A: you don't escape and the lion enjoys its lunch very much. Outcome B: you do escape.

Let's say you do escape. Whew.

This is great news, of course. But it is what you do next that can determine how that close call affects your life in the future.

Most human beings tend to move right away to take care of the issue causing the stress (this is called "dealing with the stressor" - in this particular scenario it would be outrunning the lion). When we are done with that task, we tell ourselves very grown-up-sounding unhelpful things like, "well, that is dealt with now so you can just get over it and move on."

And then we wonder why we can't sleep for nights or weeks or we turn to alcohol or food or other numbing behaviors to help us rest.

Animals, on the other hand, do things very differently. And what they do usually tends to work much better. 
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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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