Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cucumber Battle

A couple of Guinea Pig videos for Lighten Up Thursday. In the first one, there's three of them, and only one cucumber...

And the second one is a guinea pig vocalizing. Looks like he has an amusement park for a home. Which is a good thing...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Just Machines

I am constantly perplexed by the way some people perceive animals. For example, I've written about how language gets warped and changes people's perceptions (i.e., the phrase "dumb animals" is NOT supposed to mean they're stupid), and I frequently will comment on how the scientific community is only now beginning to crawl out from under the horribly damaging notion that animals are mere "biological machines".

But while the biological sciences may be leaving the "machine" idea behind, the electromechanical field is bringing it back. There are an increasing number of robotic "pets" and apparently some people find them an acceptable substitute for the real thing.

That's the premise of this video from Slate V:

I notice that the one robot that was considered the most pleasing was the Pleo, a robot dinosaur. I would guess that the biggest reason for its success is that no one has ever seen an actual dinosaur, and so the robot was working with a blank slate. Anything that it did would be realistic enough, because there was never a real standard to judge by. On the other hand, none of the robot dogs looked any more like a real dog than that joke robot in the Woody Allen movie.

But can anyone get the same satisfaction from a machine as from a real animal?

I guess it depends on how they connect with real animals.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


The British newspaper The Daily Mail has a story about a cat named Charlie that regularly climbs straight up a 13-foot high wall to get to the balcony and get in the house where he lives. In the picture at the right, you can see him mentally preparing for the feat.

While it is cool to see a cat do this (my cats used to go straight up a cinder block wall, and they didn't even have the advantage of grasping it around a corner), it's more than a physical achievement. The article says that Charlie does this rather than try to get someone to open a door for him. This means he has a clear "map" of the house in his head and he knows that, even though he can't see it from the ground, 13 feet straight up that wall is a way in to the house.

There is a video of Charlie in action on the page linked above. Go, Charlie!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Happy Thursday

3 videos for a happy Thursday...

I love this one... This is SUCH a great metaphor for the way things go in life...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Transcendental Encounters

Marc and Joachim, Bongo and Kanyou: Bridging their worldsIt took me a very long time to write today's article, and still I feel I've done a poor job of conveying what I want to convey. I think I have come to fully understand the word "ineffable". Anyway, here goes...

What causes these reactions?
"...they tend to go, literally and figuratively, a bit overboard: nearly tipping over boats for a passing touch; spontaneously breaking into song; crying out in ecstasy; or just flat-out crying..."

"...I completely forgot the world outside the enclosure - it was like being in trance, being one with them..."

"...I can't tell you how beautiful and peaceful it was, how amazing it was to just look at the two of them from so close and lying on the ground next to them, how it changed how I see myself..."
Meetings with some of the larger animals of the world, that's what. One of those quotes was me talking about some lions I got to be good friends with; another is a friend of mine talking about being with a pair of cheetahs, and the third is Charles Siebert describing people's whale encounters.

I understand the "crying" reaction. It comes from having something deep inside touched in a way that it may never have been touched before. There is something about being able to commune, one-on-one with the larger animals that we just don't get from the smaller animals in our lives. And I have to wonder why that is.

One word that comes up repeatedly in these encounters is "trust". You look into the guileless penetrating gaze of an animal that can easily do serious harm to you and in an instant you establish a relationship that you know excludes any harm. (Trust is a two-way street, and you have to have no idea of harm in the gaze you give the animal, as well.)

Once mutual trust is established, you are transported into a new world. You are happy to just "be", together. You experience a beauty you hadn't seen before. Holding hands with a lioness, having a tiger hold your fingers in her teeth, hearing the purr of a cheetah are all experiences that touch your soul. You lose track of time, you forget the rest of the world.

As Marc said, describing his visit with the cheetahs,
"These two cheetahs showed neither fear nor reservation toward us. We approached carefully and with respect, but when we started to pet them, they immediately begun purring. Unbelievable. After a while, one cheetah started licking my hand and arm. This was more than I ever could expect, and I enjoyed it so much.

"During our time within the enclosure, I NEVER felt any fear or discomfort (and I'm sure the others did not, too). Right from the beginning, from the first second we entered the enclosure, the atmosphere was completely relaxed. And I am absolutely convinced that the key for this was trust. Trust between us humans and the cheetahs. We tried to show the cheetahs all the respect they deserve.

"For all of us it was an affair of the heart to have a deeper interaction with these animals, and we all were stunned by the extent of the reality of it. I'm sure that the cheetahs felt that we completely trusted them and that we did not intend to harm them in any way, so they trusted us. As for me, I completely forgot the world outside the enclosure - it was like being in trance, being one with these big cats.

"We wished that it would never end. Finally, when leaving the enclosure, Bongo followed us with his eyes - I will never forget his glance. It seems that he too was sad that our meeting was already over.

"I'm still overwhelmed by this experience."
I fully understand what he means, even as I feel that to someone who has not experienced this, mere words cannot convey the soul-touching depth of the feelings.

As I said above, for all the love we share with our pets at home, we don't report such moving experiences with them. Why is this? Is it the complete trust you must have to be in such contact with a "top predator"? Is it merely the strangeness of such animals? Is it that we need an animal as big or bigger than us to really connect with them? Is it that we just don't set aside enough quiet time?

I don't know.

I do know the world would be a better place if more people were able to experience such things.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Nom nom nom squirrel... and more.

Cute x 3 for Lighten Up Thursday...


2: (Your cats, if you have any, might appreciate hearing this more than you...)

3: (looks like you'll have to click again to see it...)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Toward a New Understanding of Animals

There's a new book out called The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals by Charles Siebert. (If you are in Australia, the book is called Roger's World: Toward a New Understanding of Animals. I don't know if any other countries have yet other titles.)

The book is one man's contemplation of humanity's relationship to nonhuman animals.

I didn't know at first if I wanted to recommend this book, for a couple of reasons.

Siebert is deeply mired in the "humans at the pinnacle of all creation" model of evolution. I just cannot support that. What makes us seem so superior is the lack of communication with other species; lack of insight.

And most of the book is written from the perspective that consciousness arises from the structure of the brain. I realize that to keep his credentials as a science writer he has to take that point of view, but I have to be realistic. I cannot deny what I have personally observed over many years, and I have come to the conclusion that the brain acts as the interface between the non-physical 'life force' and the physical body. The basic difference between my point of view and Siebert's is that I contend there is an intrinsic similarity between all forms of life, whereas Siebert must look at the shapes of brain cells and count their numbers in order to see a similarity.

But in the long run the point is that there is a unity between all forms of life, and Siebert gives some vitally important examples.

He points out how senseless killings have damaged both human societies and elephant societies in the same way.

He tells of the damage to animals' psyches as a result of being taken from their mothers at an early age.

He even goes into the subtleties of psychological developement, how even easily ignored things as the exchange of a glance between mother and child has a real effect on a developing personality.

He relates how monkeys are permanently traumatized by seeing their mothers shot and killed.

This last idea is very important to me. I have seen the effects of the deep, lasting trauma inflicted by gratuituous hunting. This is not hunting for food, but pointless, meaningless destruction of families and societies for a body part or two.

It's good that someone with accepted credentials is putting these ideas before the world, even if he has to constantly hammer on the idea that humans are superior to all other life. It is Siebert's description of how intelligent animal species develop real, deep mental disorders as a result of inhuman treatment that makes this book valuable. And I certainly agree with his hope that a self-centered humanity may stop abusing nonhumans if we perceive them to be part of ourselves, even if his and my points of view are different.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Harry Potter and the American Humane Association

Not that I had any doubt, because the American movie industry pretty much tries to do things right, but it is official that "no animals were harmed in the making of the film" Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Information on some of the animal stunts is contained in the article linked above.

PLEASE REMEMBER that it is the AHA (American Humane Association) and not HSUS that looks out for the animals on movie sets.

Political Correctness and Perceptions

What does the word "dumb" mean? Almost always, you'll interpret it as "stupid". But at, there are 10 definitions, 5 of which refer to an alternate meaning: "unable to speak". It's also noted that using "dumb" in this way for humans is "often offensive".

And for that reason the "unable to speak" definition is falling out of our collective consciousness. But the phrase "dumb animals" lives on. Only it is taking on a new meaning, one that says animals are stupid. The phrase simply was supposed to mean that animals don't speak our language.

But in the course of researching a new book on animal psyches, I found the phrase being used repeatedly by a number of people to indicate that animals are lacking in brain power. This is what "dumb" means to people now, and they have heard the phrase "dumb animals" over and over.

Animals don't use our language, so they are dumb, in the incresingly archaic sense of being unable to speak our language.

We do use our language, but are seldom aware of how it colors our perceptions.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Understanding Bears

There is a wonderful documentary called The Bear Man of Kamchatka, about Charlie Russell, a man who insists that greater understanding of bears is necessary for the bears to survive in the wild. He says that people's perceptions of bears are based on fear and horrible myths that are perpetuated by those who profit from the hunting of bears. And as has been shown over and over, what man fears, he destroys.

In the documentary, we see Mr. Russell rescuing orphaned bear cubs from a zoo and preparing them to live in the wild. A sort of ursine George Adamson, if you will.

The documentary has had very limited exposure in the US and is only available on DVD in the UK. Thus, it requires you to have a region-free DVD player if you wish to view it in the US. But those who can view it will find it very worthwhile viewing (as well as remarkably inexpensive).

I would now like to quote Mr. Russell himself about his work with bears. This comes from his own web site, Added emphasis is mine.
I am a 66-year-old ex-rancher who, while ranching in grizzly country for 18 years, was interested in the question of whether grizzlies were really as much of an enemy to that industry as all the ballyhoo about them suggested....

I encouraged grizzlies to be on my ranch. Because my place borders Waterton Lakes National Park I had plenty of them to observe. In 1972, I started my own interceptive feeding program. My idea was that when the bears came out of their den, giving them a few cows that had died during the winter would take the edge off their appetite, keeping them away from my and my neighbors cows that were calving at that time of the year, further out from the mountains. Now, each spring, 34 years later, Alberta Fish & Wildlife and Parks Canada have taken over my program and bears are being fed on both sides of the park boundary for about a month every Spring.

During those ranching years it became increasingly apparent that you got back what you put into the relationship. If you made an effort to get along with the bears, they rewarded you by not causing problems for you. I never lost any cows to bears. My neighbors occasionally would, but it didn’t happen to me.

The most valuabe thing that I learned back then was that everything that decreases the fear and tensions between land managers and brown bears, which let them live on productive land, was a huge help for grizzlies. In other words, I thought that perhaps one of the best ways to create habitat for them was by understanding them better. Man can kill bears literally until the cows come home, but there is absolutely zero tolerance for bears killing us. I eventually accepted that but then wanted to understand what people could do to stay out of trouble.

I got very interested in all the possibilities for the grizzly if we could change our approach and try to get along with these animals. That is why I went to Russia for the last 11 years. There I put myself among as many bears as possible; having encounters with them virtually every time I went out the door of my cabin. Soon I understood that disharmony between bears and humans was not the bears' fault. It was a human inadequacy brought about by our fear and distrust of them.

I added to my challenges by rescuing ten brown bear cubs over the years from a zoo in Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, bringing them to my cabin so they could live wild and free. This allowed me to understand other questions: Are they unpredictable? And are bears that did not fear people inherently dangerous? Neither of these things turned out to be true. The bears were trustworthy, but man was not.

Of course certain individual bears can become dangerous; most of these are males that are hunted or adversely conditioned and very, very rarely perhaps an individual that has no history with humans can be dangerous too, even if they are not abused. Females who feel their cubs could be hurt are very dangerous, but ones that do not feel threatened, I would go as far as describing some of them as being compassionate.

I found that virtually all dangerous situations can be avoided by a few precautions.... Three things that I found helpful:

1. It has never happened yet, but if I ever I find myself facing an angry bear, I will have pepper spray in hand. (Twice, with the use of it, I have saved one of my cubs from being killed by a male bear. These males were not angry, just hungry).

2. I always used electric fence to keep bears from messing with things that I did not want damaged.

3. I give a wide birth to any bear that show signs of not wanting me around.
Now, before anyone takes umbrage at his statement "The bears were trustworthy, but man was not", let me point out that Mr. Russell's point is that bears are among the most feared animals on Earth, and when one acts out of fear, he is unpredictable. His guidelines, above, for co-existing with bears are simple: a non-lethal, yet effective defensive weapon, a simple (you should see it) electric fence to mark territory, and paying attention to the bears themselves. Mr. Russell is then fully equipped to take on the role of mama bear for the cubs he reintroduces to the wilds of Russia, and any close encounters with the bears native to the area end well for all involved.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


In yesterday's article, I told of how Tufts University in Massachusetts chose to circumvent the law in order to continue their cruelty to animals.

Now comes news (here's just few sources: 1, 2, 3) that Massachusetts zoos may have to kill 20% of their animals in order to make up part of the state's budget shortfall.

How much of the budget shortfall will be made up by this? 0.08%

Killing off 20% of the healthy, innocent animals in the state's zoos is worth less than one-tenth of one percent of the budget problem.

Massachusetts is showing us where their priorities lie.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Our Colleges and Universities

The children are our future.
Teach them well
and they will lead the way...

If you've read past articles here, you know I've criticized academia for clinging to the unprovable and indefensible idea that animals are not conscious. Now from the Associated Press and the USDA comes proof that Tufts University puts that idea into action.

The USDA, as part of its duties in enforcing the Animal Welfare Act, found that the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine regularly castrates animals without any use of anesthesia. This is standard operating procedure on their teaching farm.

Now get this: Gail Golab, Director of the Animal Welfare Division of the American Veterinary Medical Association tried to come up with excuses for this inexcusable behavior. She tried to question whether anesthesia is effective. She tried to create doubts that the anesthesia would still be present in the farm animal's flesh when it is eaten.

But a reporter at The Examiner apparently knows more about this subject than the American Veterinary Medical Association, noting that 7 years ago a veterinarian at Kansas State University demonstrated the safety, ease, speed, and cheapness of using a volatile (read: won't remain in the animal's system) liquid as an anesthesia agent.

Tufts University also tried to squirm out of the charge by saying that farm animals are excluded from the Animal Welfare Act. Fortunately, the USDA didn't buy that, since the animals here are used for teaching students the proper way to handle animals.

Unfortunately, the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine continues to castrate animals without any anesthesia. They get around the law by not allowing students do it now.

The following video is satire. (I hope.) Like any good satire, it makes its point in a way you'll remember.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Squirrely and Harpo

Two videos today, for Lighten Up Thursday. First, a man who found a baby squirrel and raised it. Now, they are inseparable.

Now, a short little video of a raccoon investigating a lawn sprinkler...

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Sit. Speak. Read.

Continuing with yesterday's theme, there is a book called Paws & Effect: The Healing Power of Dogs in which author Sharon Sakson tells of dogs who can predict when a person is about to have a seizure, with near perfect accuracy.
"How dogs detect an oncoming seizure in a human remains a mystery. Some trainers and researchers think they detect subtle changes in their owner's behavior or movements. Some think they can sense the 'aura' that precedes a seizure. Or maybe they are aware that the brain waves of a person about to seizure are substantially different from normal. But most researchers are arriving at the opinion that what is at work here is the dog's incredible power of scent."
So research is focusing on the scent idea rather than some of the other possibilities. (Some of the other possibilities aren't even universally acknowledged to exist.)

What I found notable was the part of the book about Bonnie Bergin, at the The Bergin University of Canine Studies, who says that dogs can be taught to read.
"For a person with a handicap, it could be useful to tell the dog, 'Exit,' and have the dog look for and locate the appropriate sign, and then go there. The same would be true for 'Restroom' or 'Park.'. . ."
So she wrote such words as, Sit, Down, and Stay on separate sheets of paper, and set out to teach her own dogs to read.
"'It was straight classic conditioning,' Bonnie says. She showed Keila the 'Down' card, and asked her to lie down, and gave her a reward. Within one lesson, whenever she showed the word, Keila lay down. Lesson learned."
And the number of words that a dog can recognize by sight appears to be quite large.

Funny that this abstract pattern recognition is so seldom mentioned in discussions of animals' intelligence.

Further details, and tips for teaching your dog to read, can be found at this page at the International Parti Poodle Gazette.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The World We're Not Aware Of

Whenever animals' intelligence is questioned or measured, it's in terms of human capabilities--learning a human language, solving a human-devised puzzle, and so on. But the underlying assumption in such things is that the humans are already aware of everything in the situation.

People ask if animals are aware. Part of the reason that question won't go away is that we're not aware of what they're aware of.

And along that line of thought, here's a new category of service animal: the disease-warning dog. The link is to a video at the National Geographic site.

The video shows a dog that has achieved service animal status by warning his diabetic owner that he is about to have a hypoglycemic episode, something the man is not even aware of, but the dog can smell.

Other uses for dogs' abilities to sense things we can't include detecting bladder cancer.

There are many things in this world that we simply are not aware of. And yet, people ask if animals are aware... The question shouldn't be about the existence of awareness, but of how to communicate one's awareness in a form another can understand.

Here's another video on the subject of diabetes-awareness service dogs:

Monday, July 06, 2009

Raised by Wolves

"Wild Child" stories are not really all that uncommon. I chose "raised by wolves" for the title of today's article because it's such a common phrase. Wolves are the most widely known in this context, but you can find such stories involving all sorts of animals.

Here's one at the Daily Mail (UK) site, involving dogs and actually occurring in a house, because the father left and the mother was not mentally competent to take care of her daughter.

And in this story we return to the idea of socialization. Without anyone to teach the girl how to act as human society dictates, to dogs took over the role and socialized her in their ways.

The girl was only 3 years old when she was found, so she shouldn't have any trouble becoming socialized to humans. I wonder if the dogs will be able to stay with her...

Friday, July 03, 2009


picture from cougarhill.infoThe folks at Cougar Hill Web did a nice job of putting together some pictures of various facial expressions by lions, along with explanations of what the expressions mean.

Possibly the most commonly misunderstood expression is the one I've shown at the right. Housecats do this too. It's called "Flehmen" and the cat is essentially circulating a scent around a sense organ that humans don't have. It does not represent displeasure, just investigating a scent.

So I hope you'll give that page a look. The expressions shown cover the range from happy to angry. I think the page can be very instructive in understanding the visual language of cats.

Now if we could do something about all the times a puma's snarl is used to represent a lion's roar...

Wednesday, July 01, 2009