Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Advances in Language Study

Often I am reminded of the damage being done to people's awareness by some of our colleges and universities. Ridiculous ideas like, animals are mere biological machines (Descartes), animals' actions are merely conditioned reflexes (Skinner), and language appears to be a uniquely human phenomenon, without significant analogue in the animal world (Chomsky) are religiously clung to and promoted, in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary available to any true observer.

Fortunately, there are people who are willing to observe and learn.

starlingA study of starlings, led by Timothy Gentner of the University of California (San Diego), shows that these birds not only have a language of their own, this language includes complicated sentence structure. Although the scientists did not actually decipher the birds' language, they created an artificual grammar from recorded starling songs and found that the birds were able to understand what is called recursive sentence structure, such as changing "the bird sang" to "the bird the cat chased sang".

From the article on the UCSD web site:
Gentner says, "The more closely we understand what nonhuman animals are capable of, the richer our world becomes. Fifty years ago, it was taboo to even talk about animal cognition. Now, there are [TV shows] on the subject and no one doubts that animals have complex and vibrant mental lives. This study is a powerful statement about what even birds can do: Look at what they’re learning."
I'm glad that Gentner can believe that "no one doubts" these things. I wish that philosophy were true in all schools.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cruel to be Kind?

In today's New York Daily News, Stephen Budiansky writes that when people pamper their dogs, they don't necessarily give the dogs what they really need to be happy.

And, just like when I read Budiansky's book "If a Lion Could Talk", I think he has a point, but he goes about making that point in the wrong way.

In today's article, he ridicules such things as doggie day care centers, designer pet foods, and people who refer to themselves as "pet parents".

While I would agree that there are plenty of useless (or worse) excesses for people to waste their money on, I would like to give the "pet parents" the benefit of the doubt and hope that they actually want what's best for their dog. What they need is education along that line, not ridicule. Reducing such education to a glib line like 'you must be crueler to be kind' is not helpful or even correct.

Budiansky argues that a dog needs to know its proper place in the family structure. Of course, this is true. It's true for any animal (or human) that has a relationship with any other animal (or human). A clear idea of one's role in any society, no matter how microcosmic, is of key importance to one's psychological well-being.

That Budiansky credits this need to a mythical wolf-social-structure gene that 'all dogs still carry' is a red herring and gets in the way of the education all animal "parents" need. Any decent tiger handler will tell you pretty much the same thing I said in the previous paragraph; that you need to establish for the tiger what the family or society structure is, for the well-being of all involved. And I defy anyone to find the "wolf-social-structure" gene in a tiger.

What I'm saying is that Budiansky needs to leave the ridicule and false science behind and concentrate on the education that dog owners (and all animal owners) need: your animal needs to have a clear picture of his role in your family. The entire value of Budiansky's article is found in the last paragraph. You have to be firm; you have to be consistent; you have to take on the role of a true parent. You have to pay attention to your animal. There is nothing "cruel" about any of this. It's what any social animal needs to be happy and a good family member.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

More from Shaun Ellis

I have received a great deal of encouraging comments about what I've written about wolves and especially about the previous article with a true story from Shaun Ellis (whose book, The Man Who Lives with Wolves, will be available this coming Tuesday).

Because of these positive reactions, I would like to offer another passage from Mr. Ellis' book:
Once upon a time wolves and men lived alongside one another, each respecting and benefiting from the other's way of life. Sadly, those days are gone and I believe that we are the poorer for that. The natural balance in nature that they promoted has been whittled away and several species, including our own, have been allowed to go unchecked and become diseased--in the truest sense of the word.

This may be a little fanciful but I believe that as well as healing the natural world and restoring its balance, human society could benefit from having wolves roaming the forests once more. We could learn a lot from the loyalty they display to family members, the way they educate and discipline their young, the way they look after their own, and the circumstances in which they use their considerable weaponry to kill.

The world is not ready for that, but I like to think that in some small way my work of the last twenty years might have begun the process.
I share those feelings and hopes. And the positive responses I'm getting give me hope that maybe the world is ready for that.

For more about Mr. Ellis and wolves, check out his web site, WolfPackManagement.com.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Saddam Hussein of the Animal World?

propaganda posterIn case you don't get the reference in the title of this post, I've included a picture of a poster that's frequently used by people who want to exterminate all wolves from North America. It's just part of the propaganda that people (inexplicably, to me) deliberately perpetuate.

Turning from propaganda to truth, next week a new book will be published called The Man Who Lives with Wolves. The man is Shaun Ellis, who has been on TV in the show Living With The Wolfman. Ellis is an expert on wolf behavior as a result of many years of living with wolves and paying close attention to them.

The following is condensed from the Preface of this new book. Mr. Ellis says,
I was helping out at a wildlife center in Hertfordshire, just north of London. A man appeared outside the wolf enclosure one day, pushing a child in an old-fashioned wheelchair with a large tray on the front of it. He told me that he and his son, who may have been 13 or 14 and who, I could see at a glance, was severely disabled, had driven 500 miles from Scotland. He had heard that we allowed members of the public to interact with wolves and he wanted his son to meet one.

The Man Who Lives with Wolves by Shaun EllisI was surprised that this man had gone to such lengths to show his son a wolf. The child didn't look as though he would get anything out of the encounter. He sat immobile, silent, staring into space, and I doubted that he would even be able to stroke the animal's fur. Normally, I loved this part of the job. Children arrived with such preconceptions. They pulled back when the wolf came near, convinced by all the stories they'd read and the cartoons they'd watched, that wolves were sly, vicious creatures that ate grandmothers, blew down the houses of little pigs, and ripped the throats out of little girls. I had grown up with exactly the same terror. It had taken me many years to discover that wolves are actually shy, intelligent animals with a very sophisticated social structure, whose bloodthirsty reputation is not deserved. I found nothing more gratifying than watching children touch the wolves and listen to what I had to say, and watch their prejudice and ignorance fade away.

I felt almost evangelical about this. I thought that if children could feel wolves' coats and look them in the eye, they could make up their own minds about them so that in time, future generations will be ready to give back to wolves the place in the world that is rightfully theirs.

Whenever I introduced a child to the wolves, it was vital that the child not become frightened. I had to watch their reaction carefully so that I didn't do more harm with this exercise than good. This boy didn't speak. His disabilities were clearly mental as well as physical. I asked the father, as tactfully as I could, whether the child would be able to indicate when he no longer wanted to be near the wolf. "He won't be able to," said the man, bluntly. "He has never spoken, and never reacted in any way to anything. And he has never expressed an emotion in his life."

Common sense was screaming at me to tell this man to turn around and take his poor child back to Scotland. But for reasons I can't explain, and a few I can, I agreed to go ahead.

We had a young wolf called Zarnesti who had been hand-reared and was not nervous around humans. His jaw had been crushed soon after he was born, and he looked a bit like Goofy in the Mickey Mouse cartoons.

I went into the enclosure and came out carrying Zarnesti. He was about three months old, the size of a spaniel, and a wriggling, struggling bundle of energy. It was all I could do to hold him; he was almost flying out of my arms as I put him down on the tray of the wheelchair, in front of the boy. I had the pup in a vise-like grip, but something miraculous happened. The moment Zarnesti saw the child he became still. He looked into the boy's eyes and they stared at each other. Then the pup settled down with his back legs tucked under him and his front legs stretched out in front. I took one hand off him and realized very quickly that I could take the other hand away, too. After a few moments, still looking into the boy's eyes, the cub reached forward and started to lick the boy's face. I lunged to intercept him, afraid that Zarnesti would nip the boy's mouth, which is what cubs do to adult wolves when they want them to regurgitate food. But Zarnesti didn't nip; he just licked, very gently.

The scene was electrifying. As I looked at the boy I saw one single tear welling up in his right eye, then trickle slowly down his cheek. Guessing that this had never happened before, I turned to his father. This big strong Scotsman was watching what was unfolding in front of him with tears streaming down his face.

In a matter of seconds, the wolf cub had gotten through to this boy in a way that no human had managed to do in fourteen years.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Get Real

Everybody knows about Michael Vick, the guy who made dogfighting--not only unconscionably cruel but illegal in all 50 states--into a misdemeanor that nobody cares about as long as people involved in it can play football. Now, dogfighting is in the news again as the Supreme Court tries to decide whether to strike down the law that makes it illegal to sell videos of dog fights.

One of the justices said that they have to consider the rights of people who like dogfighting, who like cockfighting, and so on. The arguments extended to the right to sell snuff films and to establish a "human sacrifice channel" on cable.

All this centers on the First Amendment and the right of free speech. None of it considers the suffering of the animals involved. None of it considers the depravity involved--although the Supreme Court is reserving the right of the government to squelch things relating to sex and obscenity.

Obviously, since they are operating in a world where logic and reason do not apply, the answer to the problem will not come from lawyers and courts. The answer will come from eliminating the need some people feel for these inexcusable things.

I want to help move things in that direction. That's the basic impetus for what I write here. I don't know how to speed up the process. Things like the popularity of the Christian the lion video give me hope. The Supreme Court doesn't.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Another Interspecies Friendship

This is a story about just one of my own cats. They're all unique personalities, but this one was a standout. He was the happiest cat in the world.

He was gray--the purest gray you have ever seen on an animal. And he had a white chest, to give him the classification of a tuxedo cat, plus a splash of white on his nose and chin.

We found him at the county animal shelter. He was one year old at the time. His previous owners had given him up because someone in their family was allergic to him. It was definitely their loss and our gain.

We took him home in a canvas bag that the shelter volunteer had assured us was escape-proof. Five seconds into the car ride, he popped out of the bag. All cats must earn their names, and this one had quickly earned his: Houdini.

When we arrived home, our other cat, a pure black cat named Lucky, was sleeping on the couch. Violating all known wisdom about how to introduce a new cat to a household, we threw Houdini onto the couch next to Luck. Luck reacted about how you'd expect, and ran upstairs. For three days Luck expressed suspicion, distrust, and general displeasure at this invasion of his house, during which time Houdini always responded in a way that obviously said, "I'm happy, why aren't you?" Houdini won. Houdini always won. The two cats became the best of friends.

That pattern was to be repeated by Houdini all his life. He would burst into a room, spring onto your lap, or sometimes just jump straight up in the sure faith that you'd catch him in your arms, and then assuage whatever adrenaline he'd caused to flow with a loud purr that never stopped. He loved life and loved everyone, and he just naturally assumed that everyone loved him. I never once saw him angry. He never got upset at other animals in the vicinity, even other cats. Everyone was a potential friend to him--cats, dogs, squirrels, people. He was no fool; even at an advanced age he outdistanced a dog that jumped into our yard with evil intentions. But everywhere he went, even at the veterinarian's office, he perked up at the sight of other animals and was eager to meet them. The vet never could hear his heartbeat because Houdini was always purring.

And Houdini loved to watch people work. Houdini's world was already perfect, and it was just so wonderful to him to watch people make it more perfect. When I constructed book shelves, he was there to make sure every measurement was exact, every screw driven in straight. And purring his approval all the time.Houdini - photo by Tim Gadd

When my wife would work in the garden, Houdini would be there. You could see his double enjoyment of sitting in the warm sun and watching my wife work. Anyone could just immediately tell this was a happy cat. Houdini even made friends with the squirrels who lived in our trees. It was a remarkable sight to see Houdini and a squirrel sitting close together on the grass, apparently having a conversation that we were not privy to.

As much as I wish that a life force like Houdini could exist forever, old age snuck up on Houdini like I suppose it does on anyone. Oh, there had been signs--like, lately you had to bend over to catch him when he jumped straight up to your arms. But he still was always the same Houdini, always happy, always purring.

Houdini had had a history of infections in his mouth. Some antibiotics and a lot of struggling to get them into him always had put him right. But the time inevitably came when even the antibiotics couldn't kick-start his aging immune system any more. It was such an infection that would take Houdini from us soon.

Despite our best efforts, Houdini got weaker and weaker. One day, toward the end of March, we were having an unusually warm spell, so I took Houdini outside to enjoy some time in the sun. I placed him on the little landing outside our kitchen door, about 5 feet high off the ground, and I stood on the ground next to him, to protect him. In his current condition he was weak and unsteady on his feet.

As he was lying there with me standing guard, I was startled by a loud rustling sound at the back of our yard. I quickly realized the sound was made by a squirrel, who was charging full speed up the yard, directly at me! Never had any of the squirrels allowed me to come within 20 feet of them, so all sorts of scary thoughts, of rabies and such, raced through my mind. But something told me to do nothing, even as the squirrel ran up to me, right up to my feet, and then ran past me and up a tree stump directly across from the kitchen landing--and the same height as the landing. The squirrel just sat there, looking intently at Houdini. Houdini was too ill to return the look, but I can only conclude that the two friends could still carry on one last wordless conversation. After all, something had told me not to fear the charging squirrel. I felt privileged to be a witness to the event, and grateful for the sun and warm weather that had prompted the occasion. Houdini's squirrel friend stayed and watched Houdini with me for quite some time. But as the sun moved, Houdini was left in the too-cool shade. Houdini meowed softly to be taken back in to the warm house. The squirrel watched me pick up Houdini and carry him into the house.

Whether you believe animals communicate telepathically, or just enjoy each other's company, I was impressed by this obvious display of friendship, and I was glad the two friends had one last chance to see each other.

Houdini died peacefully on our couch a few days later. Friend to everyone that wanted him for a friend, he was definitely a life force that cannot be forgotten.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Animals + Live TV for Thursday Lite

A couple of videos for Thursday Lite... First, Freud the myna bird performs on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show:

Then, Hernandez the beagle finds Ed McMahon a bit scary: