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.
But the more I watch these shows, the more I realize that a lot of the time, the super-fat dog they’re doing an intervention on is super-fat because his owner keeps giving him more and more and more of his favorite treats.
I know this is true because my redfooted tortoise, Malti, has already been on three diets in the five years she has been alive to date. Each time it happened, it was my fault.
When she was one-year-old, she contracted reptile pneumonia. Formerly a voracious and enthusiastic eater, Malti suddenly lost her appetite. I panicked and started hand-feeding her all her favorite foods.
As it turned out, this was a great strategy. It worked like a charm. Ultimately it worked a little too well. I knew we had turned a corner when Malti’s veterinarian started calling her “little meatloaf.”
All of a sudden, I found myself involved in ongoing discussions about portion sizes and exercise regimens and all the things people doctors talk with people patients about when they start getting noticeably….plump.
Food isn’t the only pleasure we share in common with non-human beings, either. If you’ve spent any time on YouTube (and let’s be honest, who hasn’t?) you’ve probably seen at least one video of a drunken squirrel. In fact, judging by the number of views to date, if you have seen such a video, it was probably this one.
But lots of other animals (and, of course, those poor rejected male fruit flies) also enjoy a good buzz from time to time.
You only have to extract a butterfly from a near-empty beer can once to recognize these are words of truth. To hear insect researchers tell it, beer or wine works equally well as an insect bait trap.
Wild birds, moose, white-tailed deer, tree shrews, leaf-nosed bats, slow loris, Rhesus macaque and vervet monkeys….the list of liquor-loving non-human animals goes on and on.
Then just when you think you’ve seen and heard it all, along comes the video of a pod of dolphins and one hapless puffer fish. These adorable round fish are actually repositories of potent neurotoxins that, in small quantities, have a similar effect to, well, recreational drugs.
A video of the dolphins “passing the puffer” by gently biting down on its body to get it to release its chemicals went viral – perhaps because we can relate?
If chewing gently on a puffer fish doesn’t sound appealing, the lemurs of Madagascar have a different option to offer. Their drug of choice is millipedes.
As it turns out, when bitten gently, the millipedes squirt toxins, including cyanide, which have the happy twin side effects of repelling biting insects and inducing….bliss. It doesn’t take a human-to-lemur translator to decode the slightly dazed, drooling, lurching behavior we see in this video.
Parrots in India don’t have to go to pharmacy school to discover the impact of consuming poppy sap – flocks numbering in the hundreds or thousands regularly descend on poppy fields to get their fix of opium, which seems to act like an “upper” for the birds that is not unlike the effect of caffeine on people.
All over the world, animals are partying just like people. For reindeer, it is a hallucinogenic mushroom reputed to be at the (um) root of the myth of Santa and his flying reindeer! And for Amazonian jaguars, the bark of a native vine readily puts them into an intoxicated daze.
This all makes perfect sense, in a way.
After all, we all have neurons that wire and fire and receptors that bind readily and happily to some pretty zany stuff. Even at the basest level of our shared fight-flight-freeze limbic brain system, which only cares about surviving the next whatever, any chance for pleasure could just as easily translate to mean an escape from pain, which is always a good thing.
Life can get hard sometimes, whether you make your home in a New York City high rise or the tropical forests of Madagascar. Work hard. Play hard. Try to stay safe. The End.
With great respect & love,