Justifying Judgement or Choosing to Compassionately Face Fears?

The Cherokee Wolf Legend invites us to ask: Which Wolf Are We Feeding?

“The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear.”
– Gandhi

🎙NOTE: This can be listened to as an audio recording here.🎙


Hello, Friends!

Happy mid-March!  What are you up to this weekend?  I hope you’re up to something that brings you joy. I’m sure you’re aware that St. Patrick’s Day (Lá Fhéile Pádraig) is today, but did you know …?

  • The real St. Patrick wasn’t Irish.
  • He didn’t drive the snakes out of Ireland; many see this as symbolism for banishing the Celtic “heathens”.
  • Adding green dye to food/beer symbolizes not only the green countryside, but also the time of the Great Famine, when Irish people were so deprived of food they resorted to eating grass; their mouths were green as they died.
  • March 17th is also the feast day of the original Cat Lady (St. Gertrude, the Patron Saint of Cats).

➡ You can get all the Deetz about AllaDat in This Post


Hugging a new friend I met at New Grange, Ireland

We stand somewhere between the mountain and the ant. 
-Native American (Onondaga) Proverb


I share those St. Patrick Day facts with you because it’s just one of the many ways that we continue to follow traditions without questioning them. We let ancient beliefs and centuries of practices go unquestioned. Sometimes it’s harmless; other times it’s quite harmful. One particularly harmful example is the unquestioned belief in being superior to any species or group within a species is a belief to be undone.

That unquestioned belief is at the heart of this heartfelt post.

Speaking of judgey-judgements and blindly following the masses, I’d like to ask you about a common one that comes up in communities around the world. How do you feel when you read, hear, or see the word “Spider”? What does the sight of an insect do to you? What are your thoughts about Arachnids?

I ask because yesterday was Save A Spider Day.  Seriously, it’s a real day. And frankly, it should be.  It may seem as nonsensical to you as celebrating an unquestioned evangelical saint and green-food-dye-day is to me, but it’s important.

Hear me out …

In a previous post I explained the importance of questioning our thoughts, judgements, and beliefs.  I explained how it ripples out to the universe and how taking responsibility for this matters.  But questioning our thoughts and beliefs and judgments doesn’t end with our little lives.  

I believe it should extend to everything our eyes see.


This includes every being; strangers, spiders and such. This questioning of thoughts, emotions, and beliefs should include ALL beings with whom we share the universe.

Here’s an easy example: Yesterday, on our Conscious Companion Facebook page, I shared a wonderful teaching moment that Hocus Pocus & I had with some lovely Canada Geese. You can check that out here. That respectful experience between three species is just one example of how we can choose to change they way we treat others in every moment.

All creatures have value whether we find them cuddly, affectionate, beautiful or otherwise.  Our own perspective–in a way–is neither here nor there.  Theology, at its best, can help to liberate us from our own anthropocentric limitations.  – Rev. Dr. Andrew Linzey

I get it. Not all species are easy on the eye of the beholder.  And physical characteristics set aside, not everyone has had a positive experience with every species on the planet.  But the looming fact remains:  Whether you’re a person or pet, those early life experiences with any species (or lack thereof) need to be positive ones.

For example, if I were to choose to hang onto a grudge for the guard geese who used to attack me (while I was riding my bike to school) every day, I would be cruel or careless to the Canada Geese whom we encounter every day. And if I were never exposed to snakes early in life in a positive light, I would have never become a herpetologist who taught people to set aside their fear for the Slithering Ones.

Every experience adds up.
And so does every judgement, thought, and belief.

We don’t need to look far to see how hateful judgements and unquestioned beliefs deeply affect lives. Just this week we witnessed another attack, based in fear. This can end. But it has to begin within.

Taking responsibility for your beliefs and judgments gives you the power to change them. ~ Byron Katie

I believe change begins with changing the way we see the seemingly little things that scare us. The little frights are merely symbolic of greater fears. What scares us is an invitation to question our fear. What frightens us is an invitation to fearlessly look within. What evokes revulsion, terror, or hatred is an invitation.

What we are a afraid of is an invitation to inquire.

Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears. – Rudyard Kipling

Last Night’s Fright Night

So, let’s get to the fearful fright we had last night. Do you follow synchronicity in your life?  I never understood what that meant until I learned about how powerful and transformative it can be.  Now I love how things are always In Sync.  Last night, there was a frightful sight in our house.  Then yesterday, I discovered it was Save a Spider Day!  That’s why I am so inspired to share with you now!

Ok, friend, find your comfy spot.  Grab a yummy drink. Invite a Cuddle Buddy. Settle in. It’s gonna get Real … and also funny. 😉


If we are to use our tools in the service of fitting in on Earth, our basic relationship to nature–even the story we tell ourselves about who we are in the universe–has to change.  – Janine M. Benyus


Okay so here’s the rundown.  Last night I had been in my office for a couple of hours working on my new website and participating in a soul sister’s live Q&A call for her chakra series. You can check out her program here.   Mr. Beaux was with me.  Hocus Pocus was sound asleep in her bed next to us.  Knox, was strangely not in the vicinity. 

After the call ended, I went downstairs to pour myself a glass of wine and begin the process of winding down.  When I entered the kitchen, not only did I discover that all of my chips and queso had been devoured to my dismay, but Knox was wide-eyed, low to the ground, looking crazed.  (I was honestly less concerned about Knox looking crazed than my shock at how and why my carefully cached chips and queso had been devoured.  I felt like the dude in this French Fry scene from the movie “Men At Work”.

Seriously. 

Knox being a naughty boy on the counter, cleaning his paws after stealing my pizza. With cuteness like this, how can I get upset?

After I realized Knox couldn’t have possibly eaten the chips and queso because the lid to the queso had been replaced (and he lacks opposable thumbs) 😉  I went to ask my husband about the thievery.   As I was leaving the kitchen, I looked over and saw Knox frantically pawing at something under the dishwasher.   Knox has a great recall so I called him to come over to me.  Rather than coming quickly as usual, Knox stayed put, but glanced back at me.  I could see that his eyes were fully dilated.

At this point I realize he has something cornered. A critter.

So, I go to investigate.  I look underneath the dishwasher where he’s crouching but I see nothing.  I call Knox away from the area, reward him for coming, and get down on the ground for a closer look.  I see nothing still.  Hoping it wasn’t another mouse, I leave the kitchen and head back upstairs do discuss The Chip Incident with the suspected thief. 

A few minutes later, I come back down to discover Knox playing with something at the foot of the stairs. He’s frantically pawing at something again, but this time he takes a several swat-breaks to shake his head, spit and salivate as if he has something poisonous in his mouth.  Then he goes back to pawing at something in the crevice of the stairs.  I quickly recall him away from whatever he’s attacking. He complies.

Hocus is intently watching all of this go down, anticipating when she can intervene.  I ask Hocus for a down-stay and she complies.  Now cat and canine are watching intently as I creep towards the critter.

I can see it.

The House Centipede (Scutigera coleoptrata) trying to survive in our house 

Doing its best to make itself a small target as possible, a gigantic alien-like insect sat motionless at the bottom of the stairs.  Now I am doing my best to work up the courage to capture it. At this point, I am aware that my attitude and actions will either elicit an aggressive or calm response from both feline and canine, so I keep my cool.

Internally, I’m experiencing full on heebie-jeebies.

Jason Bateman’s expression perfectly exemplifies how I felt.

Stay with me here.

Suppressing the visceral reaction I’m experiencing just looking at this thing, I am aware that I need to act quickly. Hocus, being the ever protector, will go after something if she thinks it is a threat.  Knox, being the ever hunter, will kill something if he thinks he can eat it.  Neither of these are options.

Not only do I not know how toxic this creature is if consumed by cat or canine, I am doing my best to keep everybody calm and safe.  Including myself! And including this creature who is now huddled in a corner.  As I creep closer, doing my best to work up courage to investigate this alien insect, I was surprised to notice that I wasn’t afraid.

I felt compassion.

Crouched in a corner, exposed and vulnerable, this little critter was just trying to survive.  It was absolutely terrified.  I could intuitively tell by its body posture.  And I could feel it.  I was moved even more when my suspicions and senses about its fear and the harmlessness of its nature were confirmed. 

Acting quickly, I grabbed a conch shell.   My intention was to carefully scoop up the creepy critter without harming it, letting it escape, and lawd help us all in the house — without it actually touching me.  (If any of my entomologist friends are reading this, I know they are laughing). 

I set aside my fears and went to work.

Based on the behavior and structure of this alien insect, I assumed capturing it would be a challenge. Thankfully I was incorrect.  I had to coax it into the conch shell.  Rather than fighting back or fleeing, this long legged being shut down.  It wouldn’t move.  It put up no fight.

It was terrified.

And when I knew this, I was no longer afraid.  I saw it differently.  My heart began to open, and all I wanted to do was help it.  I saw it as someone who needed help.  And I was willing to be of assistance to this long-legged alien.

Funny how that happens when we can see clearly.  Funny how fear blocks the truth.  Funny how an open heart allows us to see others as they really are.  -Not as monsters, but as beings just trying to get by.  

When the fear leaves, love walks in.

I felt like the Grinch when his heart grew 3 sizes after seeing the Whos, who he once hated.

With an open heart and questioned mind, a carefully navigated the creature into the conch shell.  While simultaneously telling him he’s safe, I thanked Hocus and Knox for allowing that to go as smoothly as it did.

I then brought the little being down into our basement, intending to release him in a safe spot.  Slowly and carefully he crawled out of the conch shell.  He took a moment to pause where I had placed him. Then he slowly walked away.  I wished him well and thanked him for teaching me.     


A good deed done to an animal is as meritorious as a good deed done to a human being, while an act of cruelty to an animal is as bad as an act of cruelty to a human being.  -Mohammed

The centipede & conch capture reminded me of sweet, misunderstood Remi of Ratatouille when he was captured and nearly killed.


Seeing Species In A New Light

I would be doing all species a dis-service if I wasn’t honest in sharing this with you:  Just googling for an image of that creature gave me the full on hee-bee-jeebee chills.  But that’s normal considering it’s only the second time I’ve seen it, and via my PC I’m looking at an image of it magnified 50 times bigger than it is in real life. So yeah, it’s still a little creepy to look at up close. And unless I continue to have positive associations with that creature again, I may recoil a bit. Like any person or pet, until we change the underlying emotional response to a perceived threat, we will respond fearfully.

Although it was a really moving experience, I have not been completely desensitized to this species yet. But give me some chips, queso, and a Guinnes while I observe it again and I’ll be feeling much more comfortable with this critter skittering! But the next time I encounter one, my response will be filled with kindness because now I know better.

By ethical conduct toward all creatures, we enter into a spiritual relationship with the universe.
Albert Schweitzer, The Teaching of Reverence for Life


If you aren’t feeling compassion for “creepy crawlies” yet, I understand.   For as long as I can remember I’ve been terrified of roaches of all shapes and sizes. In fact, I was so afraid of them, I hated them. So I killed them.

It was only through my career at the Audubon Zoo, that I began to have compassion for creatures who I once killed as soon as they came into my sight.  My fear of them was so intense my immediate reaction was to kill them.  Destroying them did not stem from anger.  It stemmed from a deep-seated fear.

But since all fears are learned, all fears can be undone.

“The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear.”
– Gandhi

Each of us has the ability to remain fearful or become empowered.  This includes every species in the universe.  Once the root of the fear is recognized, we can change the underlining emotion.  Some fears take longer to undo than others but it is possible.  Again, this does not pertain to specific species; All is One.  The scientific principles behind this pertain to every species on the planet.

If we try to get rid of fear or anger without knowing their meaning, they will grow stronger and return.Deepak Chopra

I am forever grateful to my entomologist friends for teaching me to see even roaches in a new light. Through witnessing their kindness and compassion towards “creepy critters”, and their unending patience with helping me to unravel my deeply rooted fears, I learned to see insects of all shapes and sizes in a new light.  

I even “adopted” an 8 inch centipede as my first venomous pet while doing field research with the Louisiana pine snake project.  (Looking back, I realize I actually stole a viable female from the wild, and should have left her where I found her; lesson learned.) Although, she was initially unsettling to look at, and her venom is wicked powerful, I fell in love with her.  She was a fierce, brilliant, and beautiful bug.  I began to see her this way when I was no longer afraid of her. 

Blinded by fear initially, I could not see her beauty.

If we are willing to be still and open enough to listen, wilderness itself will teach us.  Steven Harper


Fear Binds. Love Unfolds.

Speaking of beautiful and brilliant, the image above is of my closest Soul Sister utilizing her joy, love light, compassion, kindness, and beauty to contrast the scariness of creepy crawlies to kids.  Liberty was the Super Hero Bug Lady who ran the Bug Mobile at Audubon where we worked together.  She was beyond amazing at her job with bugs.  She could transform children’s fears of insects into curiosity. The curiosity transformed aggression into kindness towards these creatures.  Kids came forward instead of recoiling.  They were open to learning.  They were open to changing their limited perspective about all insects.

And so was I.

I learned how sensitive they are.  I learned they can experience fear.  I learned they have personalities.  I learned they care for their young.  I learned they all serve a very important purpose.  I learned that the human species would not survive without them.  But mainly, I learned they’re not out to get me. 😉

You have to hear this.

One of my favorite entomologist friends shared this today, and I promise you will learn something amazing about Arachnids:

I always liked to talk about the Amblypygids (Tailess Whip Scorpions) and kin recognition. These are the arachnids that most people will recognize from Harry Potter when he was being taught the curses. They actually not only recognize family members, but prefer to spend time with them, especially in stressful situations. Siblings will huddle together with mom and stroke each other with their whips to calm down when they are put into new environments. -Matt Thorne

You read that, right? Please take a moment and let that sink in. Even the scariest looking insects are not what we believe them to be; they are capable of concern for their young. They provide comfort to their family when they are scared. How is that not unlike us?

This is the scene Matt is referring to; you can view a short clip of it HERE.

Matt continues: As a personal story, I’ve had many arachnids that are total sweethearts and completely handleable. My giant Asian forest scorpion, Beatrice, was definitely more like a dog with a crunchy exterior. She would walk right onto my hand and nuzzle my palm, and she would eat crickets right out of my hand. She was so gentle and looked like she genuinely liked to be held.

Matt also shared this humors but poignant example of how his compassion and care was witnessed by a stranger:
While evacuating for a Hurricane, I was sitting outside of my motel room holding her, letting her get some exercise crawling from hand to hand, and giving her a mealworm to snack on. In the middle of this, a man staggers out of the bar down the street and walks my way. He gets closer and then stops, trying to focus on my hand.
“Is that a scorpion?” he slurs in disbelief.
“Yep.”
He leans in a little closer and in a conspiratorial whisper asks, “Are you a wizard?”
I nodded in the affirmative and he hurried away.


Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.
– James Stephens


Species Serving a Purpose

All life is valuable. All species serve a purpose. There is a connection and interdependence within the Whole. But are we open to accepting this? Can we become compassionate to all life?

Even after everything my entomologist friends taught me over the years, I was amazed to discover that the creature we captured in our house is considered a very beneficial insect. An entomologist has a great write up about the species on his website. You can check it out here.

It turns out, this particular critter in question is called a house centipede.  He refers to them as curious. They are docile to non-prey items (you and me and our pets). He explains that the venom of house centipedes is not particularly toxic (to humans/pets) and they seldom bite.  He further explains they prey on tons of unwanted house “pests” such as clothes moths and cockroaches. How cool is that?!?

And this species does all of this without charging a dime for their services. 😉


Kindness & Compassion Connects Us All.

Kindness or Cruelty is a Choice.  
And Choices Allow for Change.

The really cool thing about changing the way we perceive something is that it brings the power back to the observer.  The power of perception lies within.   We have the ability to change the way we perceive something.  No one else has that power over us.  When we change the way we perceive something, change occurs on all levels.  

Change Is a Choice.

People aren’t the only ones that learn from observing.  How we choose to react to, and how we treat other creatures with cruelty or kindness does not go unnoticed.  I’m convinced that our cat and dog learn something from observing me and not experience with the creature.  Had I finally reacted towards it, you can bet their response would’ve been similar in the future.

If emotions can change, so can behavior.

models of emotion suggest all the feelings we experience as being discrete emotions vary in how they feel to us/how helpful they are.

If we want to change the behavior of any being, we gotta dig. Aggression in all species does stem from fears, but the details are complicated. Today we will keep this simple.

Both people and animals learn that aggressive behavior gets them what they want. This can be social status, resources, or a sense of safety. Behaving aggressively comes in many forms; bullying other school kids to biting someone who tries to pet you without permission. Both of these behaviors receive desired results. Quite effectively actually. The bully feels powerful and the impinged upon pet gets the pushy person to go away. Aggression towards an Archind serves the same purpose; I kill the spider. Now he/she can’t crawl on me. Attacks on other people have the same results; I shoot them; now they can’t impinge upon me.

But until we look at the underlying emotions and beliefs or prior experiences that have created the fear, we cannot undo the fear that’s led to the aggressive behavior.

Harm no other beings.  They are your brothers and sisters.
– Buddha

 


Spider Symbolism

So, all of this discussion about “creepy crawlies” is now coming back full circle.  This brings us back to the eight-legged species of the day:  The Spider!  A souls sis shared that spider meme with me yesterday and it made me laugh out loud. As silly as it seems, now you’ll think twice before you kill your 8-legged roommate. 😉 And let’s not forget what our entomologist friend Matt shared with us about spiders having social behavior!

Bottom line: Spiders are awesome. Spiders deserve respect.

As do all insects in every corner and crevice of the world.  Bugs are doin’ the best they can, man. And they’re doing a damn good job at what they do. Let’s do our damnedest to be better to them.

We are the earth, made of the same stuff; there is no other, no division between us and “lower” or “higher” forms of being. 
Estella Lauder

Have you seen Ellen Degenere’s stand-up comedy bit about how quick we are to kill “creepy crawlies” and other critters? You can check it out here. It’s so true! And if you really think about it, we see humans doing this with other humans, too.

Fear is Fear. Love is Love. With whom we love or fear, the species does not matter. It’s all the same.


I hold that, the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.  -Mahatma Gandhi

Ok, so here’s something you may not know about spiders:  Their symbolism is astonishing.   If you have never heard about Nature symbolism, please let me explain.  This tool was utilized by all of our ancestors, most of whom were deeply connected to Mother Earth and Mother Nature.  My Cherokee and Celtic ancestors recognized important communication and clues that surrounded symbolic patterns in nature.  In our modern-day society, we have forgotten this, and we often miss the signs, but we can learn to use our intuition to recognize these subtle messages from Spirit.

All we need is a little willingness to learn.

You can see the short post about Spider Symbolism here.


Life is as dear to a mute creature as it is to a man.  Just as one wants happiness and fears pain, just as one wants to live and not die, so do other creatures.  –The Dalai Lama

Compassion for Fears with A Willingness to Change

How would we see things in a new light if we weren’t judging them as bad, wrong, evil, or scary?  How would everyone’s experience change if we weren’t afraid?  This pertains to every species on the planet.  As the title of this post asks us, are we Justifying Judgement or Choosing to Compassionately Face Fears?

I choose compassion. I choose to face every fear.

Find out what you’re afraid of and live there.
Chuck Palahniuk

Once we remove the fear, the underlining emotion changes.  When the underlining emotion changes, the behavior changes as a consequence. This is not woo; it’s actually based in science. Thoughts, beliefs, judgments and emotions are intrinsically linked.

It’s All Connected.

The fear we have about a species, person, place, idea, or experience is not our fear alone.  It ripples out. It is shared. This is why we all have so much responsibility to each other.

But there’s a flip-side; the fear we have about something that scares us can give us compassion and understanding for what another soul is experiencing. We don’t have to fully understand their fear, but we can respect it and then help them to undo it. This is true for both people and pets!

Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough.  We have a higher mission — to be of service to them wherever they require it.  St. Francis of Assisi

If we understand what it feels like to experience revulsion, fear, and even anger towards something that frightens us, we can show compassion to the one who is afraid. We can understand that fear is at the root of all anger and aggression. This includes every person, animal, and insect.

Those who are not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

As I discussed in my last post about the power of our thoughts, the power to change our thoughts brings the power back to us. When we question our upset, angry, hateful, and fearful beliefs we open the door to compassion, empathy and understanding. We move out of fearful or reactive energy and shift into a loving presence. This allows gratitude and love to enter our mind.

This is what transforms worlds.

These are not trite sayings, my friend. They are true. And Love is who we all are without our stories, beliefs, judgments, and justifications. When we can tap into the compassionate side of ourselves, we will ripple that out to the world. Like a stone tossed into a pond the impact of the stone penetrating the surface of the water eventually reaches the shore.

We Are One.

Looking closely at our disgust or dismay for something frightening or unfamiliar is a doorway to a new way of seeing all beings in a new light. Finding compassion for the smallest-sized critters is no small feat, my friend. If we can show compassion to a ant, spider, or centipede that once annoyed, scared, or creeped us out, imagine how we would begin to see other communities, other nations, and other worlds of life. One seemingly small shift in perception from fear to love is the beginning to peace within and without. Empathy is the first step in conquering fear.

We are all in this together.

It will take time. It will take a little willingness on our part. When we lead by example, others learn. But will we teach and lead with love? I Am hopeful we will. I have faith in you.

What has been your experience with fears, limiting beliefs, and judgments? Has something occurred in your life where compassion became the focal point instead of fear? We would LOVE to hear❣


And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much, much too late
Well, maybe we should all be praying for time
These are the days of the empty hand
Oh, you…

Listen without Judgement …
🎥 — George Michael, “Praying for Time”


Recommended & Related Reading:

🔸Animal Emotions and That Icky Sticky Fear

🔸How Fear Becomes Aggression in Dogs and Humans

🔸Looking At Fear

🔸 Be Kind.

🔸The Many Faces of Feline Fear: ​​Kittens, Adults, Adolescents, Seniors

🔸Aggression in Canines

🔸How Cats Learn – ​The Hierarchy of Learning by Cat Stages: ​Kittens, Adolescents, Adults, Seniors ​

🔸Amazing Arachnids

🔸Social Behavior in Amblypygids

🔸 True Facts : Bolas Spider

🔸The Matters of The Mind … It Matters.

🔹 3 Words to Change Your Neural Pathway: I love You.

🔹 The Empowered Path: Tools & Tips for Empaths with Pets!


Conscious Companion®
Life with Your Companion, Improved.


Amazing Arachnids

Teach them a spider does not spin a web. Spiders spin meaning. Cut one strand and the web holds. Cut many, the web falls. With the web’s fall, so too falls the spider. Break the web. Break the spider. So breaks the circle of life. – Frederic M. Perrin

Spiders. They either invoke reverence or revulsion in the eye of the beholder.

But what if the presence of Spider is much more than meets the human eye???

Spider energy, (or as my Cherokee ancestors refer to it, “spider medicine”) is a sign that your higher self is guiding you toward a deeper understanding of your place and purpose in this life. Grandmother Spider spins the web of time and knows all aspects of the future and the past. In Shamanism the Spider is an inventor. The creature’s 8 legs represent the medicine wheel, and Spider spirit was the sacred keeper of Native American history.

As the weaver of the web, the spider symbolizes the spirit of creation. In several traditions, she’s the totemic symbol of the Mother, strong feminine energy. To the Egyptians, Spider was sacred, and associated with the Goddess Neith – a mother figure. Similarly Native Americans see Spider as a creator and a symbol of the divine Feminine aspect. This creative energy is central to Spider’s lessons.

Spider says, “Haste makes waste. Go slow and steady and wait for the right time.” As you do, you’ll achieve greater understanding of all your aptitudes and traits and pull them together as a cohesive whole. Spider reminds us that planning and taking your time with a heartfelt project is the key to success.

Spider as a spiritual guide and mentor encourages you to try looking at a problem from different angles. Follow one strand – where does it take you? Try another – where are you then? Stay flexible and don’t be afraid to test out a new Path.

Spider asks us to ask ourselves, “Where do you want to build your web/network so that it’s strong?”

Most spider webs are round-ish spirals which unite at a central point. In this, Spider webs are mandalas! As the center of your own “web”, are you focused on what you truly want or are you spending time concentrating on negative energy?

Great things to consider as we celebrate Save a Spider Day !

“What’s miraculous about a spider’s web?”, said Mrs. Arable.

“I don’t see why you say a web is a miracle–it’s just a web.”

“Ever try to spin one?”, asked Mr. Dorian.

–Charlotte’s Web

Learn more about incredible creatures at Conscious Companion.

The Secrets and Splendor of Squamata

People fear what they don’t understand and hate what they can’t conquer. ― Andrew Smith

snake eye

My heart is so happy right now.   My social media news feed has been overtaken with posts about snakes!  These post are not snake-hating posts; they’re posts from snake savvy people who absolutely adore these magnificent, valuable, and misunderstood species.  They’re posting about snakes today because it’s World Snake Day!

Snakes (like most reptiles) are one of the most misunderstood and least researched animals in the world.  Before you decided to disengage from this article, please give me just a few minutes of your time.   It’ll be worth it.  And one thing is for sure:  You’ll learn something new!  And, if you are lucky enough, you might see snakes in a new light by the time you are done reading this.


1889068_10153303537121060_5048655039113329961_o
In my watershed/wetlands class my students found a juvenile Queen snake (Regina septemvittata) 🐍 We said hello then released her back into the water.

If you have been following this blog, you know that I usually discuss companion animal topics, but I have a secret: Reptiles are my passion.  When I see a snake, toad, frog, turtle, or lizard my entire being lights up with glee.  While others are screaming and running away, I am trying to figure out how I can get closer to the animal without freaking him/her out!  I know that might seem crazy to many, but if you have been in my shoes you would feel this way, too.

I have worked with snakes for nearly 20 years.  I was indifferent to them prior to this, but things change after 20 years of educating and research.  After working with exotic and domestic snakes, venomous and nonvenomous, boas and pythons, constrictors and prey chasers, common and critically endangered, captive and wild, I saw every species of snake in a new light.  Each snake taught me something new and captured my imagination.

I would like to share some of this with you.

During my career with snakes one of the most amazing things I was able to coordinate and witness still warms my heart. Youth and adults (many who were once afraid of snakes) learned to love and respect them.  Then, if that wasn’t amazing enough, I watched these youth and adults share their love and appreciation of snakes with strangers.

These mini miracles happened at The Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Me and my amazing volunteers and inters on Discovery Walk
Hanging with my amazing volunteers and inters on Discovery Walk

In a very special area of the Audubon Zoo, called Discovery Walk, we focused on educating the public with facts not fear. And since most people are scared of anything that slithers, snakes were the perfect teachers. Some snakes were common snakes you could find in your backyard, and some were critically endangered.   Our collection of public education snakes were animal ambassadors. They were the voice (and face) for snakes all over the world.

My volunteers and interns learned how to care for each snake in our collection, they learned each snake’s temperament, and learned how to safely handle the snakes. They learned how to transport snakes on outreach programs, how to recognize when the snake was stressed, and when the snake was having a really good time!

Yes, you read that right; snakes can have good times!  In fact, snakes are very sensitive to our emotions, our moods, how we are feeling one day to the next, and our scents.  Some of our snakes even had a favorite handler!

Snakes are not the mindless creatures that many believe them to be.  In a word, they are spectacular.

Below is a slideshow of images that capture fun-filled education and appreciation of the species of snakes in our ambassador program.
(Note: You can see the images & captions better from your computer, not on your mobile device).

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“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”― Marie Curie

There are so many ridiculous myths out there about snakes.  And honestly, fear is at the heart of these misconceptions. The initial reaction when someone finds a snake is to kill it.  People do this because they are afraid.  So I am going to share a few snake facts with you today, in honor of World Snake Day, to help people to not be so afraid.

Let’s Remove Fear and replace it with Facts!

anaconda_
Anaconda researchers in the field with a live specimen – Notice the snake is NOT trying to eat the humans (another myth perpetuated in the movies).

Snake Stats:

  • “Squamata” means scaled reptiles.
  • Squamata is the largest order of reptiles, comprising all lizards and snakes.
  • Worldwide, there are about 3,000 species of snakes.
  • Snakes are on almost all continents except Antarctica, Iceland, Ireland, and New Zealand.
  • At least 50 % of Americans are afraid of snakes.

    snake skeleton
    Snakes have a beautiful skeleton
  • A true fear of snakes is known as ophidiophobia
  • Only about 15% of snakes worldwide can do actual harm to humans.
  • Only about 1/4 of all snakes are venomous.
  • There are hundreds of snake species in the U.S. but about 90% of them are non-venomous. Only 10% have venom!
  • Snakes are not “poisonous”.  Snake can be venomous.  Poison and venom differ in the method of delivery.  Poison is ingested orally or absorbed; venom, is injected. There are no “poisonous” snakes.
  • The venom gland is a modified salivary gland, and is located just behind and below the snake’s eye. The size of the venom gland depends on the size of the snake.
  • Venom is a protein. In fact, it is a very precious resource to snakes. This protein exists to subdue their prey (not to inject into humans!) Snakes do not want to waste this precious resource on us.
  • This is why over half of the snake bites that people receive from native venomous snakes are “dry bites”, meaning no venom is injected into the person.
  • Venom delivery is voluntary — snakes squeeze their venom glands with muscles to deliver venom. All venomous snakes could deliver dry bites.
  • Some snakes, like the Coral snake deliver venom to their prey (other snakes) by chewing on the snake. They use teeth in the back of their mouth to deliver the venom.  Coral snakes are extremely reclusive and are not aggressive towards anything except their prey!  In fact, no deaths from coral snake bites have been reported in the U.S. since 1967.
  • You are 9 times more likely to die from being struck by lightning than to die of venomous snakebite.snakebite_death_stats
  • A snake will bite a person (and other perceived threats) as an absolute last resort. They depend on camouflage and retreat as their preferred method of avoiding threats. When someone is bitten by snake, it is always the persons fault.  Always. And many times it could have been avoided.  I have worked with hundreds of snake species over the years, but have only been bitten 3 times.  Every single time it was my fault.
  • Snakes try to avoid human contact. Wild snake bite incidents occur when humans inadvertently step on or otherwise disturb the peaceful creatures.
  • Snakes (and other reptiles) allow more energy to remain in the food chain compared to mammals and birds. Snakes can convert 10 times more of their food to actual biomass (instead of losing it through metabolism).
  • Snakes’ presence is important for healthy ecosystems as they are predators as well as prey for other species.
  • One of the most vital roles that snakes hold is their position in the food chain. As voracious predators, snakes provide an indispensable contribution to human survival. If snakes were to disappear, we would be besieged with vermin, pestilence, plague and crop destruction within a matter of months.
  • Snakes are important to our medical advancements: Medicines for heart disease and diabetes were derived from snake venom. And new treatments for cancer, autoimmune diseases, and pain management are currently being developed using proteins and peptides in venom toxins.
  • Copperhead venom has cancer-fighting abilities and is being tested to treat breast cancer and other forms of cancer: The vemon has a protein that inhibits the growth of tumors and growth of blood vessels into tumors without damaging healthy tissues.
  • The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) estimates that about 28% of snakes are threatened.
  • 1 in 4 snake species are threatened worldwide.
  • 12 snake species are listed as Threatened (9 species) or Endangered (3 species) in the U.S.
  • Sea snakes are now critically endangered due to over fishing and habitat loss.
  • 1.5 – 2.5 million snakes are killed for the skin trade yearly.  Even with their skins removed, they can live on in agony for days and days before dying. ~ Eden Bio-Creations, LLC © 2015
  • Conservationists believe that habitat destruction and climate change are to blame for snakes’ declining numbers.

Indy, the endangered Indigo snake, one of our snake ambassadors.  Indy was so gentle. He would sit calmly as I removed eye caps - parts of his snake skin that were stuck on him after she had an incomplete shed
Indy, the endangered Indigo snake, one of our snake ambassadors. Indy was so gentle. He would sit calmly as I removed eye caps – parts of his snake skin that were stuck on him after he shed incompletely


Snakes are not the malevolent creatures portrayed in the Bible. Over time, they have become convenient victims of superstition, bad movies and the anthropomorphic misassumption that animals can be evil. It is entirely possible that if Satan had appeared to Adam and Eve as a squirrel, humans today would try to justify an irrational fear of squirrels.

World-Snake-Day-children-and-snakes-2

Snakes Need Compassion and Conservation.

Snakes deserve much credit for the invaluable role they play within ecosystems, including the ones in our backyards!  Focusing on facts –not fear, can help raise awareness and support to better understand these misunderstood species.  Jul 15, World Snake Day, is a opportunity to see these animals in a new light, and to gain respect for them.   Let’s remove our fears and illusions about snakes.  Let’s help our fellow travelers of this Earth gain recognition as a spectacular species.

An Indian girl from a snake charmer community plays with a local snake on World Snake Day
An Indian girl from a snake charmer community plays with a local snake on World Snake Day

If you want to join the conversation, please share and use the hashtag ‪#‎WorldSnakeDay and ‪#‎CelebrateSnakes365!  And Thankssssssssssss for helping to ssssssssave snake speciesssssssss!

Related Recommended Reading

world snake day education kids

This is dedicated to every snake I have ever met.  Thank you for teaching me what I did not know.  Thank you for showing me that you are to nothing fear, but a species to be understood and respected. Thank you for showing me that within each species, each one is an individual; each having his or her own personality, preferences, and abilities.  May your beauty and gifts be seen by all men one day.  May we loose all fear of you and see you with eyes of love.

And thank you, to all of my volunteers, interns, and colleagues. You all were the greatest, most powerful voices for the voiceless.  You affected thousands of people’s lives. You were the compassionate educators. You literally saved species.  This is dedicated to you as well. All my love.

Growls Are Better Than the Alternative

dog growls
Hocus Pocus is offering an appeasement behavior to both the camera in her face and Albert in her space.

Growls Are Good. 

Let me be clearer: Growling is good when compared to not growling, and biting instead.

In this post I will share with you what I have learned over the years concerning The Growl.

Why I Don’t Recommend Punishing a Dog for Growling.

When a dog growls he/she is asking for help.  They need an out.   Growls are a dog’s way of telling you, another dog, another person, child, or animal, I do not like this. I cannot handle this. Go away, or let me get away. NOW.

A dog that chooses to growl instead of bite, should not be punished.  Punishing a dog for growling doesn’t teach the dog that growling is unacceptable behavior.  It only suppresses the dog’s natural form of expressing their fear and discomfort.

Punishing a dog for growling takes away a very critical warning signal.  Dogs who are punished for growling learn to not growl anymore, to avoid being punished.  So if you have successfully managed to stop your dog from growling, you have only suppressed your dog’s behavior.  The fear and stress are still present within your dog!   You haven’t addressed the underlying cause for growling.  Now you have a dog who is just as stressed as before s/she growled, but the dog has no safe means of express his/her discomfort. The growl may be gone, but now you run the risk of having a dog who could bite without warning.

Instead of punishing a dog for growling, we must learn to see the growl for what it is – Communication.  

Growling is a valuable (and productive) form of canine communication.  There are many reasons dogs growl!  Growling is a behavior that more dog guardians should understand, appreciate, and respect rather than punish.


Give Your Dog a Mental High-Five for Growling.

I suggest giving our dogs a mental “high-paw” when they growl because our dogs haven’t done anything wrong.  In fact, they did something right!   Growling is normal canine communication!   By choosing to growl your dog is clearly and appropriately expressing his/her fear, discomfort, anger, frustration, and stress level in that moment.  Without the growl, a bite can happen when we (or another animal) fails to recognize the dog’s warning signals.

Growling is a dog’s way of saying, Back Off! Go Away! I’m very uncomfortable!!

What many people don’t realize is that aggression is caused by stress. The stressor may be related to pain, fear, intrusion, threats to resources, and past association or anticipation of any of these things. An assertive, aggressive dog attacks because he’s stressed by the intrusion of another dog or human into his territory. A fearful dog bites because he’s stressed by the approach of a human. An injured dog lacerates the hand of his rescuer because he’s stressed by pain. –Pat Miller


Is Your Dog In a Grumble Zone?

In our Family Paws Parent Education program, we refer to crowded, close quarters as “Grumble Zones.”  These areas in the home have an escape route, but a child, cat, or another dog may be blocking the escape route.  This can lead to a potential “grumble”.  Grumble zones are important for families to consider if you have multiple dogs, cats, or children in your home. You can see examples of these here.


Is Your Dog In Pain?

Growls can occur during a defensive reaction if a dog is in pain or any form of discomfort.  The growl can happen when a dog anticipates being moved or touched.  Questions that need to be asked? Could your dog have an upset stomach, tooth ache, stomach ache, or arthritis?  When is the last time my dog had a full check up, including blood and urine analysis?


Is Your Dog a DINO?

Some dogs need more space.  They are referred to as DINOS (Dogs In Need Of Space).  We have a DINO dog.  In the past she would become reactive in certain circumstances if I did not properly manage her environment.  Dogs who need more space (and display this through various behaviors) are not “mean” dogs.  The have learned to communicate to people, dogs, cats, or other species that they either need some more space, a slower introduction to a newcomer, or a gentler interaction with another dog.  Growling is how dogs communicate this.  Growling is meant to avoid aggression.

In general, the more behaviorally healthy and mentally sound a dog is, the more relaxed that dog will be in varying situations. This means the dog is less likely to aggress quickly.   Since dogs are not able to verbalize their thoughts, they communicate through very specific and deliberate behaviors.  But we have to know how to read and recognize these behaviors.

Let’s look at the image below.  To the untrained eye, it looks like our dog and cat are just hanging out.  Ah, not so.  Hocus really does not want Albert in her space.  Albert just wants to be near Hocus. But she is tired, and wants to relax right where she is, without anyone (including me) in her space.  She IS communicating.  All of the canine clues that she’s sending out are not being heard.  This is a perfect opportunity for me to step in and  help Hocus by calmly calling Albert away from her.

Do you ever see these behaviors in your dog? These are Canine Clues.
Do you ever see these behaviors in your dog? These are Canine Clues.

In the next image you will see another Canine Clue that is often overlooked; the stress yawn.  This behavior usually happens repeatedly in a situation that’s stressful to the dog.  This type of yawn is done with more intensity than a dog’s “sleepy” yawn.

dog behavior_stress yawn_dog yawn
STRESS Yawn

Other Canine Clues 

When Hocus begins to emotionally respond to something that makes her feel threatened or uncomfortable, she will display physical signs of this.  I call these her Canine Clues.  It varies based on the situation, but these are some of her common canine clues:

First she will close her mouth.  Ears will fold back.  Then maybe she will close her eyes, or look away.  She then she gets very still (she freezes).  If she is standing, her tail will raise very high and start to wag vigorously.  If she is sitting her tail is motionless.  If I am unable to intervene at this point you would see her whiskers stiffen.  If I am not able to intervene quickly and positively at this point, her emotional response to the perceived threat will continue to escalate and present itself in more physical forms.  I will then see a slight forward or backward wrinkle of her lips, or the top of her muzzle will begin to twitch.  When I see any kind of stillness, flick of a whisker, or her lip wrinkle I am already behind the ball.  I am late to the “Help Me” Party, and I have failed to help her.  She is now screaming  BACK OFF.


The image below is a great example of what I call “The Perfect Storm” in our home.  I’ll share more on this in an upcoming post, but I for now I will quickly cover the factors involved here that are setting Hocus and the cats up to fail.

This scene could become the perfect storm for a growl
This scene could become the perfect storm for a growl, or air snap.

The arrows in the above image are triggers, perceived threats, or circumstances in which she’s unable to cope effectively:
  • Beaux, the black cat creeping up behind Hocus
  • Albert the grey cat in Hocus’ space
  • Hocus is “pinned” to that spot, unable to back up because the stairs are behind her.
  • She is tired, and does not want to get up from her chosen place of rest.
  • She has just returned from a long romp in the woods; the stress hormones in her body are high.

I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.― Maya Angelou

I have no problem admitting that when our dog growls at one of our cats or another dog, it upsets me.  Thankfully, it rarely happens these days, because I have learned how to better manage Hocus, the cats, and also Hocus with new/unfamiliar dogs.  But life happens.  And growls can happen when the perfect storm creeps up.  If she does growl, I can feel the fear and anxiety hit me in the stomach immediately.  That’s how I know how easy it is to yell at a dog for growling.  But I don’t.  I know better now. 

Yelling “HEY! Cut it out! Stop it!” at the dog is our natural response when they’re doing something that makes us afraid or uncomfortable.  Growls and lunges make us feel awful!  We just want it to stop!

But if you step back and think about it, responding this way is really just telling the dog to shut up and stop doing what’s making us feel awful at the moment.   We don’t help them by yelling at them.  We only added MORE stress to a stressful situation.

And, if you are in the habit of hitting, yanking, poking, or “tttssst”-ing your dog, he/she will quickly learn to not growl in front of you.  Why continue to do a behavior that you are going to be punished for?  By punishing the growling behavior, you teach your dog to avoid doing that behavior.  Well done!   The next time your dog feels uncomfortable, he or she might skip the growl, and bite instead.

 Growling is meant to avert aggression, not cause it. ~Nicole Wilde


The Fear Doesn’t Have to Make Sense. 

Our belief or personal opinion about what’s threatening the dog does not have to make sense to us.  The perceived threat is very real to the dog.   My fear of roaches is ridiculous to my entomologist friends, but the fear and my response to the perceived threat (The Roach) is totally appropriate to me.  Usually I flee, but under the perfect storm I will fight.  -Sorry bug friends, trigger stacking happens in people, too and we lash out.  Our dogs’ fears and perceived threats are not unlike my issues with the “R” word.

roach fear
Even googling “roach images” was hard for me.


Growls Work!

In the past our dog learned that growling and/or air snapping worked for her.  Each of these behavior increased distance between our dog and the perceived threat.  So today, if our dog is placed in a situation where she is unable to cope, I know that the growling and/or air snapping behaviors will happen again.  Why?  Behaviors that work (and were reinforced — the animal leaves her space) are likely to repeat.

 Growling and air snapping is a distance increasing behavior.  Dogs do what works for them. 

For example, let’s say Hocus is chewing a high value treat or bone and another animal (cat or dog) has the opportunity to get too close for Hocus’ comfort, a growl will most likely occur if The Perfect Storm is at hand.  (We refer to this as Trigger Stacking.)  When the growl or lunge happens, the other animal quickly leaves Hocus’ space.

What has happened here?  The growl has effectively increased the distance between Hocus, her prized possession, and the perceived “intruder” threat has left.  Growls work.  That’s why dogs choose to use them.


Growls Are Better Than the Alternative.

There are far worse things than a growl.  Think of it this way: Would you rather your dog warn you, a child, or another animal with a growl, or would you rather your dog skip the growl, and go straight to lunging or biting?

I’d prefer a lip curl or a growl, compared to a lunge, air snap, or bite.  But we ultimately want to help our dog to feel like he/she doesn’t need to growl, or lunge at whatever is making our dog feel threatened.

Clearly, no one wants their dog to growl, but we don’t want the dog to NOT growl if something makes her uncomfortable. Growling is communication. So it’s very important information that needs to be heard in a successful canine-human  canine-feline, or canine-canine relationship.


Thanks for the Head’s Up!

If we encounter an unplanned negative situation and Hocus growls or becomes tense, like the images above explain, I make a mental note along these lines, “Oh wow, so that really freaked you out and made you very upset.  Ok. Noted.  Looks like we have to work on how that (insert the perceived threat) makes you feel threatened.  Got it. Thanks for expressing that.  Now I know.  Next time I won’t put you in that situation or I’ll know what to avoid.”

Thank your dog for growling, then calmly remove your dog from the situation or remove the perceived threat away from your dog.


Shake It Off!

After I make the mental note and thank her, I then shake off the stress that I’m feeling, and I encourage her to shake it off too.  I encourage her to play, run, or be goofy!  Help your dog shake off that stress and switch gears in their mind.  We have to remember that seeing that kind of behavior does affect us; it’s alarming and scary to witness, but we don’t have to stay in that fearful place and neither does our dog.  Get out of that situation.  And Get Loose together!

shake it off _dog behavior
Encouraging Hocus to Shake It Off, be Loose, and have FUN after an awkward dog encounter


Set Them Up for Success!

Of course we don’t want dogs to continue to growl all the time.  We want to change the way they feel about a perceived threat.  We do this by setting them up for success.  We do this through positive training techniques.   We do this by managing the environment very carefully.  We do this by using counter conditioning / active desensitization techniques.

How I Set Our Dog Up for Success

I practice full, awake supervision when she is around other animals that might trigger her.  I am aware of the possibility of Trigger Stacking, so I work around that and prevent that from happening.  I am proactive when I know there could be potential triggers for my dog.   Now that I know better, I never put my dog in situations where she is unable to cope.   She now makes better choices that work for her, and the perceived threats are diminished because we helped to change the way she feels about them!


Learn Your Dog’s Canine Clues.

If you can learn to recognize the Canine Clues you will understand your dog’s language, and be able recognize when your dog is uncomfortable and unable to cope.  Set your dog up for success by preventing those circumstances.  Positively respond to the message your dog is sending.  Thank your dog for the message.  Then work with a force-free, science based trainer or behaviorist to work on changing the way your dog feels about that perceived threat.  Rule out any medical issues, and ensure your dog is healthy and free of pain or discomfort.


This week is National Dog Bite prevention week.  We are focused on increasing the safety and harmony of kids and dogs, but I would also love to see an increase in the safety and harmony of all animal companion species in the home.  Cats and dogs, canine companions, and dogs and other pets can become harmonious house mates if we know what to look for, manage them appropriately, and set them all up for success.  This is how be become Conscious Companions.

We are continually faced by great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems.
Success

Recommended Reads:

Save The Paw!

The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?” ― Jeremy Bentham, The Principles of Morals and Legislation

declaw my cat_why not to declaw your cat

Have you had an experience that changed the way you once viewed something? Have you ever known in your gut that something you were watching unfold or helping with seemed ”so right” to everyone else, but it felt so wrong to you?  I’ve had this experience more than once, and I would like to talk to you about it today.

This is not a feel-good story, but it’s one that needs to be shared.

From the age of 14 to 17, I worked and volunteered at local veterinary clinics in Orlando Florida, where my family lived at the time.   I worked closely with pets that people brought in for boarding, minor procedures, and major surgeries.  Even though I was young, the staff let me work alongside of them for many of the procedures.  This was in the 90s, so veterinary staff were much more lax about safety procedures than now.  Some of the procedures were fascinating.  Some were bloody and heart wrenching.

As a teenager, and later as an adult, I had an all inclusive pass and a front row seat to participate in tail and ear dockings and amputations.  Tail and ear docking was considered “minor” surgery, but what I witnessed as a post-op staff was not “minor.”  The harmless-sounding term “declawing” was used to hide what amounted to an amputation procedure.   You might raise an eyebrow reading that because these procedures are something we hear about often, so they seem rather innocuous.  I am here to tell you from first hand experience: declawing is not a minor, harmless procedure.  Onychectomies (declawing of cats) is quite controversial, and quite complicated.

declawing cats procedure

Experience Changes Perception

During my teenage veterinary life chapter and my post college veterinary school chapter I witnessed and participated in many things involving or resulting from decalwing.  It always felt wrong to me, despite the docs who quickly dismissed my questions and concerns.  None of what I saw was positive.  I saw cats in pain, cats sick from the procedure, cats later euthanized due to major complications post-surgery, and I saw cat owners devastated because of the uninformed decision they made for their cats.  I have even known cougars who had been declawed out of safety for humans, but ended up living a life dominated by physical pain and discomfort.  Fast forward to today.  Now I help people who made the decision to declaw their cats (either out of convenience or because of a veterinarian’s recommendation to solve undesirable scratching behavior), but now they have more issues because of declawing their cats.  I share this with you today because tomorrow is Declaw Awareness Day.  This is your chance to spread the word and become involved.   

Educations spreads Awareness. Awareness breeds compassion


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT DECLAWING

 Declawing is NOT a “Kitty Manicure” 

People often are often misled to believe that declawing is a harmless procedure.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Declawing is the surgical amputation of all or part of a cat’s third phalanges (toe bones) and the attached claws.  If this surgery was done on a human, it would be like cutting off each finger or toe at the last knuckle.

declawed cat claws

Onychectomy is an amputation and should be regarded as a major surgery. ~ AVMA American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)

cat declaw like human amputation

Feline Fact:  Cats claws are NOT like our fingernails.

Cat-Declawing

How Declawing Is Performed 

The standard method of declawing is amputating with a scalpel or guillotine clipper.  The wounds are closed with stitches or surgical glue, and the feet are bandaged.  I had the job of doing the “kitty super glue” when I assisted veterinarian staff as a teenager.  Laser surgery is another way this procedure is done.  I helped during the post-op procedures for this technique at the Louisiana State University Veterinary Teaching School.  A beam of light cuts through tissue by heating and vaporizing it.  This procedure still amputates the last toe bone of the cat and carries the same long-term risks as the other method.

declaw_what happens when cats are declawed_the truth about declawing_amputation

 Feline Fact:  At least 22 countries have banned declawing.


A Cat’s Anatomy Matters

Did you know that cats are digitigrade, which means that they walk on their toes?  As a cat walks or runs, he/she will usually retract their claws into sheaths, leaving behind just the smooth, small toes and footpad.  Humans and bears are plantigrade mammals.  We walk on the soles of our feet, with the toes only touching the ground briefly toward the end of each step.

Declawing Complications

Once a cat is declawed, it changes the way a cat can move.  There can also be a regrowth of improperly removed claws, nerve damage, and bone spurs.  A cat’s leg muscles and back muscles can weaken over time. This can lead to back and joint pain.

Clawed-vs-Declawed-Toes _cats Declawing

Removing claws changes the way a cat’s foot meets the ground and can cause pain similar to that which humans experience when wearing a very uncomfortable pair of shoes

Medical Complications of Declawing:

  • pain in the paw
  • infection
  • tissue necrosis (tissue death)
  • lameness
  • nerve damage
  • bone chips that prevent healing
  • postoperative hemorrhage
  • regrowth of the claws inside the paw pads.

Behavioral and Physical Complications of Declawing:

  • Many cats are less likely to use the litter box due to pain after being declawed.
  • Most cats are more likely to bite because they no longer have their claws for defense.
  • There are long lasting physical problems for your cat.

 Feline Fact: Declawing changes the way the cat’s paws function, and this creates stress on the joints of the paw, wrist, elbow, shoulder, and spine.


Why Cats NEED Their Claws

1. Offense and Defense – Your cat’s claws are a vital part of his/her arsenal for offense and defense. Did you know:

  • Cats use their claws to capture prey (toys or real prey)
  • Cats use their claws to settle disputes among themselves, other animals, and with people who are hurting, threatening, or annoying them.
  • Cats who need to climb to safe place use their claws to grip onto the surface and pull themselves up to safety.

2. Health and Habits – Your cat’s claws are a vital part of his/her daily rituals.  Cats instinctually pull the claws on their front paws through surfaces that offer resistance (trees, logs, rugs, scratching posts, etc.) They do this to mark territory, exercise and stretch muscles, relieve stress, and to remove worn sheaths from the nails.

declaw_why cats need their claws

Scratching Serves Many Purposes.

Despite what you may believe, cats don’t’ scratch your furniture or other personal items to “get back at you”.  Cats have a biological (physical and emotional) need to do this behavior!  Scratching is a very normal and healthy behavior.   There is another popular misconception that cats scratch to sharpen their nails.  This is not true.   Cats scratch for a variety of very important reasons:

 Why Cats Scratch:kitten-with-scratchpost

  • To communicate; scratching on surfaces deposits pheromones that send messages to other cats.
  • To condition the claws by removing aged cuticles
  • To serve as a visual territorial marker
  • To defend themselves
  • To stretches the muscles of the limbs, thorax, and back
  • To express joy, excitement, frustration, stress, and as a displacement behavior

Experts Weigh-In on Declawing

Read what the respected feline veterinarians and animal welfare organizations have to say about this declawing:

The ASPCA is strongly opposed to declawing cats for the convenience of their guardians. The only circumstance in which the procedure could be condoned would be if the health and safety of the guardian would be put at risk, as in the case of individuals with compromised immune systems or illnesses that cause them to be unusually susceptible to serious infections.

 The Humane Society of the United States opposes declawing except for the rare cases when it is necessary for medical purposes, such as the removal of cancerous nail bed tumors.


Feline expert Dr. Margie Scherk shares her experience and thoughts on the issue:


Some people feel it’s unnatural to remove a cat’s claws, and it’s done for the owner’s benefit and not for the cat’s benefit. There are many other arguments you can make for this — the pain they go through, the complications after declawing. But I think it really boils down to cats are born with claws and they should keep them. ~ Drew Weigner, Atlanta veterinarian and president of the Academy of Feline Medicine

The American Association of Feline Practitioners statement on declawing (PDF) 

The AVMA’s Policy on Cat Declawing and what’s actually Involved (video)



Is declawing bad for cats AND YOU?  You bet.  Jackson Galaxy sets the record straight:



Alternatives to Declawing

Sometimes, people feel like there is no other option but to remove a cat’s claws.  Thankfully, many progressive and humane veterinarians are now teaching their clients about other humane and respectful methods for managing destructive clawing and to prevent injury from cat scratches.  Here are just a few alternatives to declawing:


Facts Aren’t Enough

I was going to simply share the facts about declawing along with the humane alternatives and just keep it at that, but as I write this I am moved to share more.  I have three cats laying around me right now.  All of them have their claws intact.  Have we had issues with scratching in the home before?  Sure. It’s what cats need to do.  But I didn’t chop off their toes because of unwanted scratching.  I taught my cats where and what to scratch on.  I took the time to learn my cats’ individual preferences and thresholds so they would never feel the need to scratch me, our house guests, each other, or the dog.  I teach my clients, family, and friends how to do this as well.  It’s humane. It’s fun. And it works.

The Bigger Picture

Those of you who have been following my blog for some time know that I steer on the positive side of things.  I do my best to not judge, and I focus on compassionate education.  But I have to ask: Who do we think we are to do this to cats?  Why do we think it’s perfectly acceptable to amputate an animal’s body part because it makes our lives easier?  How did we get to this point with the animals we invited into our lives?  Will we continue to do this procedure without exploring other options?  How did the disconnect happen between caring for our cats and fully honoring them for who they are?  When did we choose to overlook their emotional and physical needs?  Who are we to decide that this procedure is justifiable? We would never consider doing this to a child if there was a behavioral issue; we would look into every other option available. Are cats considered less than deserving of the same treatment?

I understand these are tough questions, but they need to be asked, and we need to take an honest look at all of this.

Before you make the decision to amputate your cat’s toes, try humane alternatives.  There are too many available to ignore.  Choose wisely.  My cats are family.  Are yours?

Declaw awareness_why not to declaw cats
Me and Knox

 When we understand that all animals are our relatives, perhaps then we will treat them as our brothers and sisters. ~ A.D. Williams


Recommended Reading

Read This Before Declawing Your Cat

Think Twice Before You Declaw

Declawing: Another Veterinarian’s Perspective

Physical Consequences of Declawing

Declawing Cats Required to Rent?

Paw Project Movie on Netflix

Relief for Declawed Cats

Chronic Pain of Declawing

The Paw Project

Welfare Implications of Declawing of Domestic Cats

don't declaw_save the paw_Conscious Companion_Declaw awareness day

Try Giving Instead of Taking

There is a very common myth that taking an animal’s food or toys away while they are enjoying them, will teach the animal to allow anyone to come up and take things from them.  This “technique” at best, is usually viewed as an annoyance to the animal, but at worst it can trigger or create defensive behaviors such as resource guarding, growling, and even biting.

Instead of taking food or toys away from an animal, offer Good Things to whatever they are enjoying!

For example, calmly approach a relaxed pet (cat, bird, dog, pig, etc.) when they are eating their food, or chewing on a toy, and add another yummy piece of food, or another irresistible toy to his/her bowl or play area, then walk away.

This teaches your animal companion that approaching humans or brief touches that happen while they are enjoying their valued resource are Good Things!  This technique helps to prevent resource guarding and other defensive or aggressive behaviors. It also helps to build confidence and trust with you, other people, and other pets!

You can see an example of how to do this here:

For it is in giving that we receive. ― Francis of Assisi


Recommended Reading: Myths, Truths, and Tips about Resource Guarding

Related VIDEOS:

Butt Sniffing 101

“Hello! Do I know you? Have we met before?”
“Hey there! Do I know you?? Lemme smell to find out…”


Butt Sniffing.  It’s gross to most humans, but it’s very important to our canine comrades.

Derriere sniffing is just one of the many fascinating forms of chemical communication in the animal kingdom.  Animals all around the world use chemical communication to communicate.  Pheromones are the source of this communication!

Pheromones are chemicals released by living organisms that send information to other organisms of the same species via scent.  They’re used to scent mark, attract mates, claim territory, find prey, and identify other animals.  Pheromones can be released as alarms, food trails, sex lures, and much more.  Plants, vertebrates, and insects communicate in this chemosensory way.

Our dogs and cats (and even hedgehogs!) are just as sensitive to these pheromones, and they decipher them using a very cool method!  Like many reptiles and other mammals, these animals have a “scent collector “in the roof of their mouth that’s called a Jacobson’s Organ, or a vomeronasal organ. (Which, by the way, is absolutely one of the coolest tools in the animal kingdom.)  This organ is used by many species to send chemical scents directly to the brain.

Snakes use their Jacobson's Organ to detect pheromones in their environment, similarly to how dogs do!
Snakes, like many animals, use their Jacobson’s Organ to detect pheromones in their environment! Snakes are actually tasting the air when they stick out their tongues.


The Jacobson’s organ is useful in the process of communicating chemical messages between members of the same species. The organ helps snakes hunt and track their prey. Much evidence suggests that this organ may also be involved in the detection of chemical signals related to aggression and territoriality in some species.


Fun Fact:  Elephants touch the tips of their trunks to the Jacobson’s Organ (inside the roof of their mouth) to engage their chemosensory perception of things in their environment.  Lions use it for sensing sex hormones.

A great view of an elephant's Jacobson's Organ.  I have had the pleasure of an Asian elephant named Gene, letting me feel hers. They are so cool!
A great view of an elephant’s Jacobson’s Organ.  Elephants touch the tip of their trunk to this organ to discern scents in their environment.  I have had the pleasure being able to feel one of these organs, thanks to a very special Asian elephant named Gene.


This same organ recognizes chemicals as they enter a dog’s nose, via circular sniffs through each nostril. This organ then interprets the pheromones collected. It’s sensitive enough to not confuse fecal matter scent with pheromones.

Underside view of a dog's Jacobson's Organ
Underside view of a dog’s Jacobson’s Organ

According to the American Chemical Society, when dogs get their derriere sniffing on, it’s really all about one dog literally sniffing out important information about the other.  Find out why “Bacon is to people, as butt sniffing is to dogs” in the video below:


Fido Fact: Dogs possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in us.  Proportionally speaking it’s 40 times greater than ours.

Feline Fact: A cat’s sense of smell is 40x stronger than ours.  Scent is crucial when it comes to social situations, locating prey & maintaining safety.  Scent is also crucial when it comes to evaluation of food.


Scent-Secreting Sacs!

Our pooches have pouches called anal sacs.  These sacs are a pair of small, kidney-shaped structures on each side of the anus.  These sacs hold glands that secrete chemicals.  Every dog has a unique scent “signature” created by the secretions of its anal sacs.  This unique scent not only distinguishes one dog from another, but it also reveals the dog’s sex. Genetics and the state of their immune system can influence the aroma of these sacs.

All predators, whether they are canines or felines in the wild or skunks in your backyard, have anal glands. They just use them differently. . In dogs and cats, every time a stool is passed, it should put enough pressure on the anal glands that some of the secretion is deposited on the surface of the stool. Other dogs and cats are then able to tell who has been in the neighborhood, just by sniffing the stools they find. Additionally, dogs and cats recognize each other by smelling each other in the general area of the anus, since each animal's anal glands produce a unique scent.

 

When an animal passes a stool, it should put enough pressure on the anal glands so that some of the secretion is deposited on the surface of the stool. Other dogs are able to tell who has been in the ‘hood, just by sniffing the stools they find.  Dogs can smell these anal sac scents when they are nose-to-rear as well.

cat anal sac_anal glands_how cats smell_cat urine_cat spraying_cat communnication

Cats also have two little anal glands on each side of the rectum that release a very strong-smelling liquid to mark the cat’s stool as it passes through. And cats have scent glands on their paws pads, cheeks, and head! You can read more about these here.


cat flehming response_jacobson organ
A feline experiencing a flehmen response


The flehmen response (/ˈfleɪmən/; German: [ˈfleːmən]), also called the flehmen position, flehmen reaction, flehming, or flehmening. This is a behavior in which an animal curls back its upper lip exposing its front teeth, inhales with the nostrils usually closed and then often holds this position for several seconds.  It may be performed over a site or substance of particular interest to the animal (e.g. urine or feces) or may be performed with the neck stretched and the head held high in the air.

The Flehmen response is performed by a wide range of mammals including ungulates and felids.  The behavior facilitates the transfer of pheromones and other scents into the vomeronasal organ (VNO, or Jacobson’s organ) located above the roof of the mouth via a duct which exits just behind the front teeth of the animal. The word originates from the German verb flehmen, to bare the upper teeth. The flehmen response often gives the appearance that the animal is grimacing, smirking or laughing.

horse _Flehmen response
A horse in Ireland displaying a Flehmen response when I am offering him food

 

Intraspecific communication
The main reason for, or function of flehmen is intraspecific, or within-species communication. By transferring air containing pheromones and other scents to the vomeronasal organ (VNO), an olfactory-chemosensory organ located between the roof of the mouth and the palate, animals can gather chemical “messages”.

The response is perhaps most easily observed in domestic cats and horses; both exhibit a strong flehmen response to odors.  Stallions usually smell the urine of mares in estrus whereas the male giraffe’s flehmen response includes actually tasting the female’s urine. Elephants perform a flehmen response but also transfer chemosensory stimuli to the vomeronasal opening in the roof of their mouths using the prehensile structure, sometimes called a “finger”, at the tips of their trunks.

 

Interspecific communication
The flehmen response is not limited to intraspecific communication.  Goats have been tested for their flehmen response to urine from 20 different species, including several non-mammalian species.  This study suggests there is a common element in the urine of all animals, an interspecific pheromone, which elicits flehmen behavior. Specifically, chemical pheromone levels of a modified form of androgen, a sex hormone, were associated with the response in goats.

Other animals which exhibit the flehmen response include buffalo, tigers, tapirs, lions, giraffes, llamas, hedgehogs, rhinoceros, giant pandas, and hippopotami.


 

When it comes to companion animals such as dogs and cats, they recognize each other by smelling one another in the general area of the anus, since each animal’s anal glands produce a unique scent.  Sniffing another derriere is just another form of chemical communication. Think of this behavior as “speaking with chemicals”.  It’s how they learn about another dog or cat’s diet, gender, and even their emotional state!

So the next time you see your dog or cat getting a good whiff of another’s derriere or  doody, let him/her get their sniff on!  It’s not gross; its purely instinctual and it’s a very effective form of communication!  Your cat or dog will thank you for letting him/her Bbe themselves.

 

Sniffing Butt
“oooh, what do you have going on?! Let me get a good whiff and find out!”

 


References:

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/286/5440/716

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK55973/

http://physrev.physiology.org/content/89/3/921

Recommended Video:

How dogs “see” with their noses!

Tortoises Teaching Us Through Touch-Screen Technology!

The old assumption that animals acted exclusively by instinct, while man had a monopoly of reason, is, we think, maintained by few people nowadays who have any knowledge at all about animals.  We can only wonder that so absurd a theory could have been held for so long a time as it was, when on all sides the evidence if animals’ power of reasoning is crushing.  ~Ernest Bell 

"Don't judge me by my appearance. I am much smarter than you realize." ~ The nearly 100 year young Aldabra Tortoise, Magma
“Don’t judge me by my appearance. I am much smarter than you realize.” ~ The 100 year young Aldabra Tortoise, Magma

I am beyond excited to share this post with you!  Huge breakthroughs have been happening for tortoises and turtles behind the scenes for decades, but most of the world has no idea what we have accomplished and learned from these complicated reptiles.  Thankfully, a new study has proven what reptile trainers, zoo, aquarium and nature center educators, and reptile enthusiasts all over the world already knew; turtles and tortoises are not simple, mindless creatures.

Thanks to scientists who are thinking outside the box, and who are willing to share their results, the world will finally know that turtles and tortoises are capable of decision making and complex cognitive behavior.  Yes, you read that correctly; tortoises and turtles make deliberate decisions, and use complex thinking to solve problems, and to gain rewards for themselves.

The title of this post is actually true! Tortoises have officially entered the world of touch-screen technology!  Scientists recently discovered that tortoises are capable of learning how to use an electronic device in exchange for strawberries!  The tortoises not only mastered the task in exchange for strawberries, but the animals also transferred their knowledge to a real-life setting.

 


The Tortoise Test Subjects

The tortoises they chose as test subjects for this experiment were Red-footed tortoises. Like most turtles and tortoises, they are very inquisitive and very eager to eat tasty treats.  “This makes them very good test subjects”, Anna Wilkinson, of the University of Lincoln, England explained.

These tortoises lack a hippocampus.  This is an area of the brain associated with learning, memory, and spatial navigation.   The researchers believe that red-footed tortoises may rely on an area in their brain called the medial cortex.  This is the same area associated with complex cognitive behavior and decision making in humans.

Red-footed tortoises are inquisitive and eager to eat treats, making them good test subjects. ~Wilkinson

What better way to a tortoises heart than through a strawberry??
What better way to a tortoise’s heart than through a strawberry??

“Tortoises are perfect to study as they are considered largely unchanged from when they roamed the world millions of years ago. And this research is important so we can better understand the evolution of the brain and the evolution of cognition.”

 


Learning How Tortoises Learn

First the researchers needed to understand how tortoises learn, so they tested how the reptiles relied on cues to navigate the area.  To do this, they gave the tortoises treats when the reptiles looked at, approached, and then pecked on the screen.   All four red-footed tortoises learned how to use touch screens fairly quickly.

“It’s comparable to the speed with which the pigeons and rats do it. I’ve trained dogs to use a touch screen and I’d say the tortoises are faster.” ~ Wilkinson

Wilkinson explains that turtles’ and tortoises’ speedy learning is due to the fact that “tortoise hatchlings don’t receive parental care, so they have to learn how to make decisions about food and shelter for themselves from the moment they hatch.”

 


The Main Experiment

The tortoises attempted to bite a red triangle in the center of the touch screen.  When two blue circles flashed, the tortoises had to consistently peck at either the circle on the right, or the one on the left to get a tasty strawberry.

The results:  All four of the tortoises mastered the tortoise touch-screen task! However two of the tortoises eventually stopped cooperating; Wilkinson explains that it’s possibly because these two were too small to reach the screen.  Two of the tortoises, Esme and Quinn, continued to try and applied  their knowledge to a real-life situation.

You can watch part of the experiment below.

Tortoise With A Touchscreen Tests Testudine Perception Video

 


Learning Applied to Real Life

In the next part of the experiment, the remaining two tortoises applied their knowledge to a real-life situation.  The researchers placed the tortoises in an arena with two blue, empty food bowls that were similar to the blue circles on the touch screen.  The tortoises walked over to the bowl on the same side as the red circles that they were trained to bite at on the screen.

The researchers then trained the tortoises to go to the opposite blue bowl in the arena to see how flexible they were with learning.  When they were reintroduced to the touch screens three months later, the tortoises immediately began biting at the same side of the screen as before.

 “The big problem is how to ask all animals a question that they are equally capable of answering. The touchscreen is a brilliant solution as all animals can interact with it, whether it is with a paw, nose or beak. This allows us to compare the different cognitive capabilities.”

 


What Does This All Mean?

The experiment reinforces other findings that tortoises are intelligent creatures. ~Professor Vonk, psychology department, Oakland University, Michigan

These new findings will help researchers compare the perceptual and cognitive abilities of tortoises to other animals that can perform the same tasks.

Red-footed tortoises are native to Central and South America. When placed in captivity, tortoises and turtles of all species need mental enrichment! Science is continually proving this!
Red-footed tortoises are native to Central and South America. When placed in captivity, tortoises and turtles of all species need mental enrichment! Science is continually proving this!

“Their task was to simply remember where they had been rewarded, learning a simple response pattern on the touchscreen. They then transferred what they had learned from the touchscreen into a real-world situation. This tells us that when navigating in real space they do not rely on simple motor feedback but learn about the position of stimuli within an environment.” -Dr Wilkinson


“If you are taking on a reptile, you must consider their need for cognitive enrichment.” ~ Wilkinson

 

Red-footed tortoises are native to Central and South America. Here is one of our educational reptile representatives, the Red-footed tortoise
Here is one of our educational reptile representatives, the Red-footed tortoise. Educational outreach can be great mental and physical enrichment for reptiles, but we do need to consider that they can get stressed, too. Science is now proving that turtles and tortoises do have complicated cognitive abilities, so we must honor that with how we interact with them and care for them in captivity.

 

“Generally people see reptiles as inert, stupid and unresponsive.  I would like people to see that there is something much more complex going on.” ~ Anna Wilkinson, senior lecturer of animal cognition at the University of Lincoln, England


This study was published in the July issue of the journal Behavioral Processes.

Story Source:  Materials provided by University of Lincoln


Journal Reference:

Julia Mueller-Paul, Anna Wilkinson, Ulrike Aust, Michael Steurer, Geoffrey Hall, Ludwig Huber. Touchscreen performance and knowledge transfer in the red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonaria). Behavioural Processes, 2014; 106: 187 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.06.003