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Animal & Nature Mentors

Pets Are Just Little People With Feathers, Shells or Fur


How many times have you looked at your own pet and known exactly what s/he was thinking?

Have you ever had an experience where you felt like you and your animal were communicating perfectly even though you speak totally different languages?

Do you have some kind of super-secret "spidey sense" that alerts you when your pet is ill, upset or simply not themselves?

If you answered "yes" to all three questions (like I just did), you may find yourself wondering why everyone doesn't see animals the way you do.

And yet I have literally lost count of the times people have said to me, or I have said to others, "pets are just little people with feathers, shells or fur."

My pets certainly are, which will make more sense once I clarify what I mean by "little people."

Thanks in large part to the pioneering work of avian researcher Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her most famous research partner, the late African Grey parrot Alex, we now have solid factual evidence that many parrots are as cognitively smart and emotionally sensitive as a typical two to five-year-old human child.

But that isn't all. More recently, Dr. Pepperberg's new research partner, the African Grey parrot Griffin, outperformed young apes on a sophisticated intelligence test.

Wow. And yet not wow.

Honestly, after nearly 21 years together, I feel I have gathered sufficient qualitative evidence (this is evidence gained from focused observation of a research subject rather than number crunching, which I suck at) to unofficially prove my cockatiel, Pearl, is as smart as the average two-year-old.

On any given day, if I simply forget he is a parrot and instead imagine him to be one of my nephews at age two, I realize there is approximately zero difference in their behavior.

For example, Pearl wants what he wants when he wants it and he has absolutely zero patience with that thing called "waiting." If it isn't fun, he refuses to do it. What's his is his and what's mine is his....no matter what it is. He gets really cranky if he stays up too late but doesn't want to go to bed and miss out on any fun. his energy level could run a marathon around mine any day of the week and twice on Sundays. The word "no" is just a shorter version of the word "yes."

Need I go on....?

However, I suspect more readers will be interested in hearing about canine smarts than avian smarts. So what about the family pup? Just how smart is your furry family member?

Very, very smart, at least according to one company that is spending zillions to create technology to bust through the interspecies language barrier once and for all. The product is a talking service dog vest. If the dog's owner goes into medical crisis, the dog can run up to any stranger and the vest will instruct that person to go help the dog's owner.

So brilliant. And yet not brilliant.

After all, if you have a dog you likely already know your dog knows before you do if you have cancer, a rash or even just a very bad day going on.

Sure, dogs don't have opposable digits like apes (or birds for that matter). But who really cares about thumbs when today's domestic dogs have vocabularies that easily surpass 165 words. In comparison, the average two-year-old child knows anywhere from 50 to 200 words. The dog can't say the words.

Now, it is true dogs can't say those words using human language. But yet again, does that really matter when dogs are so creative they have figured out over the millennia how to mirror our facial expressions to communicate with us? Canine paleontologists have proved how dogs' facial structure has quite literally evolved to take the place of spoken language as a communication tool to "talk" with their people.

Incredible. And not incredible.

On that topic, I want to share with you a jaw-dropping story of canine smarts that is very dear and personal to me.


Animal & Nature Mentors

Animal Instincts Are Human Instincts


Now just imagine, instead of two male tigers and one lady tiger, the scenario includes two male humans and one lady human (or two lady humans and one male human, or three lady humans, or three male humans, or whatever scenario makes the most sense for you in your life at the moment).

Point being, imagine this scene playing out between three homo sapiens instead of three tigers. In public. With witnesses. Who have webcams. And handcuffs. And handguns. And access to YouTube and CNN and lawyers.

You could also theoretically swap out the love interest for anything else two tigers (or two homo sapiens) might both want, such as prey or territory, and the scenario still works pretty much the same....at least until you introduce a certain pesky prefrontal cortex into the picture.

In my humble opinion, it is actually quite difficult being an animal who is a homo sapiens today.


Animal & Nature Mentors

Embrace Your Inner Tortoise (and Maybe Save the Planet)


A fellow tortoise-loving friend sent me an article with the most fantastic title: "We are all tortoises."

YES, I thought. Finally someone who truly understands me.

But as I started reading, I got very sad.

Our planet is dying. So are the tortoises who live here. So are we.

Here, I don't mean eventually or inevitably. I mean consciously and continuously.

For instance, did you know that as our ecosystem gets increasingly warmer, this affects whether newborn turtles are born male or female? Without going into too many specifics, too warm and you get a clutch full of girls. Too cool, and every egg hatches out a boy.

This isn't just true of turtles, either. All cold-blooded species (fish, lizards, et al) are temperature and environment-sensitive genetically.

Unlike my redfoot tortoise, Malti, and my 3-toed box turtle, Bruce, I have warm blood. So does my soul bird, my 20-year-old cockatiel, Pearl.

But the fate of the cold-blooded amongst us deeply affects us all, whether it is within the confines of our little flock or out in this greater round blue world we share together.

Here is something else I find interesting that you might find interesting as well.

I realize that my kind is doing some very bad things to warm up the planet rather too quickly. I also believe the planet is warming up on its own and likely would be anyway even if we weren't here.

As proof, I submit the following: Climatologists tell us there are times in our distant past that were much hotter than what it is right now. We also have proof (sorry, dinosaurs) that our planet has previously been much colder.

So yes, this whole global warming thing is our fault. And no, it isn't our fault.

Either way, we can still do something - lots of things - to help.

I would like to propose we start by each embracing our inner tortoise, just like the article encourages us to do.

We all have one (you know you do).


Animal & Nature 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 & Nature 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 & Nature 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 & Nature 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 & Nature 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 & Nature 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.