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Animal Mentors

Who Needs Who? How Pets Became Pets


Of course, this didn't stop me from adding not one but two additional pets to round out Pearl's and my little family during the years he and I were together.

The first addition was Malti, a hatchling redfoot tortoise. Next came Bruce, a rescued 3-toed box turtle. And then right after Bruce came along, my parents brought home Flash Gordon, a standard wire-haired dachshund puppy I adored from day one.

So clearly I am a "pet person," which I take to mean someone who just craves animal companionship for whatever reason. My former partner didn't have any desire for interspecies company. I do and always have had. It was actually one of the biggest sticking points that finally resulted in our painful demise much earlier this year.

My partner is obviously no longer in my life but all three of my animals still are. And oh how heavily I have leaned on their love and support (as well as my commitment to care for each one of them with diligence and excellence no matter what) as I have learned how to be single once again.

Yet still, underneath it all, I dream of a world where homo sapiens and all the other species can live - coexist - without one species feeling the entitlement it absolutely takes to make a pet of another.

One history of pets I read online suggested that the first pets likely arose when early iterations of modern us took in abandoned baby animals, cared for them, raised them, bonded with them.


Animal Mentors

Yoga with Pearl: A Parrot’s Perspective on Downward Dog


I have to say - aside from Benji, I have yet to see another yogi so accomplished as Pearl.

Even as I tumble out of yet another attempt at Tree pose, I look up to see my avian effortlessly balanced on one tiny pink foot, while the other foot delicately soothes an itch right beneath his left eye.

And here is where practicing yoga with my cockatiel really gets interesting.

Pearl and I have been doing yoga together for a good, solid year and a half now - almost since I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism in late 2017.

Every single day since we first began our daily at-home yoga practice together, Pearl has gotten visibly (and audibly) excited every time I raise my arms.



Animal Mentors

Can a Cockatiel and a Tortoise Be Emotional Support Animals?


I learned the hard, public, shaming way that there is a biiiiig difference between a "service animal" and an "emotional support animal."

I will tell you what happened. But first I will say this: after the horrid burning feeling in my gut passed, I felt some gratitude towards my hecklers, because this is a vital distinction to keep in mind.

I mean, I sort of knew there was a difference, but I didn't realize the terms really really REALLY cannot be used interchangeably. They really can't. And they really shouldn't be.

What happened was this: the day my tortoise, Malti, got her emotional support animal badge in the mail, I proudly posted a pic on Instagram. In the pic, Malti was looking at her new badge with curiosity (likely hoping it was something good to eat). I tagged it #serviceanimal.

Whoops.

A few hours later I casually popped on over to check my feed and BOY. W.H.O.O.P.S. Oopsie. My bad. No, seriously, my BAD. Bad me. Bad bad me.

My feed was flooded with long public explanations of the difference between a service animal and all other animals. I was heartily shamed over my ignorance. I got ranted at about how my ESA badge was from "one of those fake internet doctors" (it isn't - it is from my long-time personal physician of more than a decade).

But they were right - the ranters, the ravers, the shamers, the self-righteous authentic service animal owners. They weren't kind, but they were right.

They are right.

Having said that, I do want to emphasize that there is a valid place for both the service dog (because right now service animal designations are


Animal Mentors

The Cockatiel Who Healed a Family


There once was a time when home was the last place I wanted to be.

To hear my mom tell it, I divided my early childhood years fairly evenly between asking her repeatedly if I was adopted and voluntarily standing in the corner of our kitchen while placidly pulling on the extra-long spiraled telephone cord.

I was an odd child.

Things didn't precisely improve as I aged. I was not even yet eleven when my body burst into bloom, so to speak, and I began to develop. First I grew out....waaaay out. Everyone noticed. My folks noticed. My teachers noticed. The bullies at school noticed out loud and on a daily basis.

Then, not at all surprisingly, I went on a diet. About the same time, I finally grew up....waaaay up. I went from "beach ball" to "flag pole" in short order - so much so that peers I'd spent every year since kindergarten with didn't recognize me when I returned to school that fall.

My seventh grade year was the start of fleeting peer popularity and the end of family harmony. Suddenly all the kids who hadn't wanted to be seen with me now wanted to be seen with me. I didn't want to be seen with anyone, on account of how my new friend the eating disorder was the jealous type. Most especially, I didn't want to be seen eating anything, anywhere, with anyone, ever.

Unfortunately, my mom's passions revolved around the kitchen, where she labored for hours daily to deliver home-cooked delicacies. We ate around the family table in old school fashion - all together, right as Dad came home from work and us kids returned from school - no television, no phone calls, no distractions. Only, suddenly, I opted out, with absolutely all of the chaos and drama you might expect from such a secession.

Things only got worse from there as I got older and skinnier and became (frankly) probably more trouble than I was worth. After a series of mis-fires that lasted several uncomfortable years, I finally launched myself all the way from Texas to California, and then on to New York and finally India and Israel, where I made the life-altering choice to kick the eating disorder to the curb once and for all.

Then I moved back to Texas and did whatever it is a person does when they have just pushed the "reset" button on their whole life and have no idea what to do next.

The eating disorder's exit improved my overall health, as you might imagine. My social life outside the family also began to improve. Unfortunately, it didn't do much for my finances, and my family life actually got worse.


Animal Mentors

Animals Are Just Like Us! They Seek Pleasure & Avoid Pain

Since I was little, I have often felt closer to animals than to others of my own species. This month, in honor of the ninth anniversary of my blog here on Psych Central, I have decided to spend the month featuring some of my first-ever mentors and teachers with a mini-series called "Animals Are Just Like Us! I hope you enjoy it. :-) If you have ever witnessed a group of turtles, or sea lions, or people, lying perfectly still in a beam of sunshine, you already know we share pleasure-seeking in common.

Feeling good feels good. We like it. We love it. We want more of it.

My former partner used to like to turn on nature shows in the afternoon. He would often fall asleep (I have no idea how) while watching what I quickly dubbed "The Cougar Channel." This is because, no matter what day or what time of day he switched it on, it seemed the footage always featured some poor gazelle running for his life, a hungry cougar in quick pursuit.

There is an old joke about how to outrun a bear in the woods. There are two hikers. A bear appears. They both freak. One asks the other, "How are we going to outrun this bear?" The other answers, "I don't have to outrun that bear. I just have to outrun you."

Awesome. So we all want to avoid being eaten. When pursued by a voracious slavering predator, whether it is a fictitious monster insect alien in some sci-fi film or a real-life tiger in the jungle, we don't stop to reason with ourselves about the relative odds of capture versus escape.

We just RUN.

In the same way, we have copious evidence that non-human beings will do all kinds of things people also do for - we can assume - the same exact reasons: these activities produce pleasure.

Let's take, well, mating. I grew up in an era where the reigning school of thought was that only homo sapiens derived any pleasure from the act. To make a long boring story short....we were wrong.

But I didn't really need research to tell me this. Starting at the tender age of eight, I have kept near-constant company with male parrots, first parakeets and then cockatiels. When spring arrives, they know it. If there isn't a lady bird around, a perch, a basket, even a male bird will do. Apparently they need all the practice they can get, and boy do they get it! (I'll spare you the details, but the one time I kept a pair of male finches was the worst.)

To this day, I enjoy watching animal behavior shows, like those shows that feature veterinarians who tackle "lost cause" pets or wild animals with unusual disorders.


Animal Mentors

Animals Are Just Like Us! They Grieve Their Losses

Since I was little, I have often felt closer to animals than to others of my own species. This month, in honor of the ninth anniversary of my blog here on Psych Central, I have decided to spend the month featuring some of my first-ever mentors and teachers with a mini-series called "Animals Are Just Like Us! I hope you enjoy it. :-) What do you do when you feel sadness or grief? I can tell you what I do. Often I cry. Sometimes I don't cry but I get very sad inside and start to feel depressed. I have been known to have a glass of wine (or few). Sometimes I call a friend.

Are these universal traits that indicate grief or are they just traits of homo sapiens who experience grief?

I know what I think, but as so many scientists point out, it is also important not to assume but to observe using both our heads and hearts.

I have long been fascinated with elephant behavior, and not only because each year there are fewer and fewer elephants left to learn from.

Elephants seem so unlike me, with their enormous wrinkly bodies and long trunks. And yet their eyes water when they are under stress - we share that in common. The adults gather to protect their young when a threat approaches (as resident MommyGuard for my own little interspecies flock, I can totally relate).

And elephants gather around when another elephant passes, exhibiting behaviors that often appear quite similar to how we file past a grieving family to pay our respects.

But elephants will also travel incredible distances to pay respects to people who have helped them. When author and "elephant whisperer" Lawrence Anthony died unexpectedly of a heart attack, two herds of elephants walked more than 12 hours across the Thula Thula game preserve in Africa to a place they hadn't been to in a year and a half. Their sudden arrival made no sense - and perfect sense.

Earlier this year, I went through a devastating breakup with my longtime love. It was time. It was the best thing for both of us. I don't second-guess my decision but I often still feel very, very sad. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever find a partner ever again. And when this fear arises yet again, and especially at night when the work day is done and I am all by myself, sometimes I head for the scotch.

As it turns out, I'm not alone.

Remember our genetic cousins, the fruit flies?


Animal Mentors

Animals Are Just Like Us! They Love to Play

Since I was little, I have often felt closer to animals than to others of my own species. This month, in honor of the ninth anniversary of my blog here on Psych Central, I have decided to spend the month featuring some of my first-ever mentors and teachers with a mini-series called "Animals Are Just Like Us! I hope you enjoy it. :-) Do birds fly for fun? Are crocodiles capable of play? Can elephants get depressed without friends to enjoy life with? What do you think?

It wasn't so long ago that any species other than homo sapiens (aka us) was given short shrift in the emotional life department.

Play? Fun? Friendship? Oh, surely that is stuff only people need.

Why do we think this way? In a word: anthropomorphism.

Anthropomorphism as a term comes from the Greek words "anthropos" (human) and "morphe" (form). There is no uniform agreement on just when the term was first used, but everyone agrees it refers to assigning human-like qualities to non-human entities.

In religious circles, anthropomorphism through the ages has been alternately embraced (idols, anyone?) or vilified. In scientific circles, it is a definite no-no on account of how personal bias tends to invalidate research conclusions.

And yet the tendency towards anthropomorphism itself is regarded as one of the fundamental tenets of human psychology. Hmmm. Perhaps those psychologists are on to something, especially since the 2003 human genome sequencing breakthrough proved we share oh-so-much more in common with other species than was previously assumed.

In other words, when it comes to animals and people, and even plants and insects, we now know we are more alike than different in nearly every way.

Guess how much DNA we share with a fruit fly? If you guessed "60 percent," you now understand why fruit flies are used as human research models for studies on everything from alcoholism to Parkinson's disease.

How much DNA do you think we share with bananas (yes, the actual fruit)? More than 60 percent! And when it comes to chimpanzees, our closest living genetic relatives, we find a jaw-dropping 96 percent DNA match.

On top of all this, we share at least one part of our brain with the oldest surviving species on Earth. Did the "reptilian" brain just spring to mind? Scientists now know we've all got one, regardless of the temperature of our blood. In humans, it is called the "limbic brain" and it works pretty much the same in us as it does in every other being - by regulating our fight-flight-freeze response.

All I'm really getting at here is: when we share this much in common with every other organism on Earth, why on earth would we think we are the only species who is capable of having fun, playing, enjoying friendship?

How else can we explain how videos of a crocodile playing with a ball or a panda romping in the snow go viral and stay viral, if not that something in us is resonating so strongly with something in them?

Why do we insist on researching questions like "


Shannon Cutts

Animals Are Just Like Us! They Do the Right Thing

Since I was little, I have often felt closer to animals than to others of my own species. This month, in honor of the ninth anniversary of my blog here on Psych Central, I have decided to spend the month featuring some of my first-ever mentors and teachers with a mini-series called "Animals Are Just Like Us! I hope you enjoy it. :-) Rats with empathy. Elephants who mourn their dead. Lions who remember the person who saved them. A humpback whale who saves a diver from a tiger shark.

With so many stories like this to ponder and wonder at, rarely do we get a glimpse at what might be going on inside the minds of the animals we observe.

Yet in the case of the last example - the humpback whale who saved a diver from a tiger shark - that diver just happened to be a woman named Nan Hauser, a research scientist who has dedicated her career and her whole life to saving whales.

To hear her recount it, humpback whales have a long and well-documented history of such altruistic behaviors, including hiding seals under their enormous fins when sharks are nearby. Was this whale hiding Nan in a similar fashion?

I fell in love with octopuses after reading Sy Montgomery's book "The Soul of an Octopus." She goes into great detail about just how smart, sensitive and communicative these amazing beings are.

Shortly after I read her book, I saw it for myself when a YouTube video of a young octopus thanking its rescuer went viral. As many times as I've watched it now, I still find myself literally holding my breath as the octopus, who could have just quickly moved away, instead took time out to return to its rescuer, placing one thin tentacle right on top of his boot. Was the octopus saying "thank you?"

But truly, as jaw-dropping as these examples are, I don't need to look nearly so far to find examples of animal kindness, compassion and empathy.

I first met my now-20-year-old cockatiel, Pearl, when he was a five-week-old fledgling at a local Petsmart.


Animal Mentors

Animals Are Just Like Us! They’ll Do Anything for Snacks

Since I was little, I have often felt closer to animals than to others of my own species. This month, in honor of the ninth anniversary of my blog here on Psych Central, I have decided to spend the month featuring some of my first-ever mentors and teachers with a mini-series called "Animals Are Just Like Us! I hope you enjoy it. :-) Who can forget Sam the Seagull, who has racked up more than two million views on YouTube for his unapologetic daily pilfering of cheesy Doritos?

Or how about Holly the Labrador, who has saved up more than $90 (and 357,000 YouTube views) over the years by stealing greenbacks out of her people's wallets and trading them in for treats?

Are Sam and Holly the "problem members" of their respective kind, or are they just like, well, us?

Scientists argue there may be evolutionary advantages (as well as cuteness advantages) to subterfuge. From the looks of it, they're onto something.

Let's say it is mating season and you are a young single male Cuttlefish. You look small and skinny next to your strapping three-foot-long masculine rivals and you know the ladies will never go for you. But you've got something the big boys don't - smarts. Before your bigger, stronger male rivals even know what has happened, you've tricked them into letting you make eggs with their ladies!

Or maybe you are an Indigo snake who is caught out in the open by a two-legged predator. You could try to slither away. You could strike. Or you could....play dead. Hey, whatever works, right?

I have had my own delightful personal experience of animal cleverness - many experiences, in fact.

When he was still just a puppy, our now three-year-old dachshund, Flash Gordon, taught himself how to climb up into the dishwasher to lick the dirty dishes (ew) and lap up the pooled water (ugh).


Animal Mentors

Animals Are Just Like Us! They Need Friends Too!

Since I was little, I have often felt closer to animals than to others of my own species. This month, in honor of the ninth anniversary of my blog here on Psych Central, I have decided to spend the month featuring some of my first-ever mentors and teachers with a mini-series called "Animals Are Just Like Us! I hope you enjoy it. :-) About eight years ago, a book came out that knocked me on my, um, softer side. The title of the book was "Unlikely Friendships."

The author, previously a longtime writer for none other than National Geographic, chronicled 47 stories of interspecies friendships which made me question yet again why it is so hard for our own species to get along.

I mean, if they can do it....

Here again, I discovered inspiration and mentoring for my own life and relationships by witnessing how sometimes all it takes to make a new friend is summoning the courage to open up and give another being a chance.

A gorilla and a kitten. A bird and a cat. A tortoise and a hippo. A leopard and a calf.

Who would've thought?

And yet the internet abounds with similar sightings - bears and lions, cats and lemurs, dachshunds and ducklings.

With literally zillions of views to their credit, these micro-documentaries each reliably capture the universal interspecies truth about friendship - it is always possible if we are willing to try.

My own extended family to date includes five different species: a cockatiel, a redfoot tortoise, a 3-toed box turtle, a standard wire-haired dachshund and, of course, the resident homo sapiens, who seems to chronically reside right at the bottom of the household pecking order.

But I don't mind. Far from it. In fact, my low position on the flock totem pole gives me the unique vantage point to observe all the ways in which our respective members mobilize to cope and co-exist, even when we are jealous, even when we don't understand, even when we really don't want to.

There is a particularly noticeable bond that has developed between our dachshund, Flash Gordon, and his small redfooted tortoise sister, Malti.

Although perhaps their unfolding friendship isn't so unlikely - after all, they do share some important friendship-worthy things in common.

For instance, they both love to wander around on the lawn. They both like to eat yucky things they find there that they aren't supposed to eat.

They both enjoy resting, napping and begging for food. They are both very independent and strong-willed.

Perhaps most importantly, they are both very cute.

Another unlikely friendship I have witnessed is my own unfolding connection with our flock's resident rescued 3-toed box turtle, Bruce.

Bruce came to us at a particularly tumultuous time in our family's history. Malti, who at the time was only one year old, had just escaped. She