“When efforts that are wisely executed, the situation and condition don’t affect the performance.” ― A.Patel
We have arrived in California! Finally. 1.1 humans, 3.0 felines, 0.1 canine, 0.0.8 plants, and 0.0.2 vehicles made it safely from the east coast to the west coast! It only took us a MONTH to move out of our home in VA, drive across the country, and move into our home here in Cali, but we are here. And everyone is doing very well.
We must have had Falkor with us in spirit on our move out here because we had a lot of luck, magic, and miracles along the road less traveled. We also had a lot of patience, gratitude, and very successful animal menagerie management tools and techniques at play.
This is going to be a quick post, because we have been going nonstop since we got here, and we still have much more to do. But I wanted to at least update my readers because you are dear to me. Plus with all that is going down in the world, I wanted to share some Love Light.
Here’s the abbreviated Bad News from our laborious move out West:
The moving company packed up our household goods (everything) out of our home, then moved it all into storage (unbeknownst to us for several weeks).
I lost my voice on Day One of The Drive. Then that evening I had full blown flu-like symptoms.
Knox Zydeco decided that riding in a car was no longer an option for him anymore. In fact, it was one of the most terrifying experiences of his life (We discovered this within minutes of leaving our temporary hotel in VA and setting out on the road.)
One of our cars broke down at 10:30 at night while driving through the Texas desert.
We lived out of 8 different hotels across the country for 24 days.
Once we arrived in Cali the movers took another 8 days to get here so we stayed in another hotel for a week.
But that’s not where the seemingly never-ending moving story ends. There’s more. If you have been following this blog, then you know that I always focus on the positive in life and especially with our animal companions.
So… Here’s the abbreviated GOOD News from our Big Move:
Our feline veterinarian was absolutely incredible at immediately responding to and diagnosing Knox’s Full-On-Freak-Out while we were in transit.
We now know how incredibly helpful (and safe) the right medications can be for fearful cats. And we learned that these are the same meds that people are prescribed for panic attacks and anxiety! (more to come on this important topic ).
I learned why one should never have a deep healing acupuncture session prior to moving across country (hence the flu-like symptoms).
Hocus Pocus had zero aggression, frustration or fear reactivity issues. I am so proud of her!
Our senior kitty boys were total rock stars; Beaux and Albert both did exceptionally well on the long 11 hour drives each day. And King Albert’s health challenges did not cause him any noticeable duress.
My animal communication skills were put to the test and I passed with flying colors.
We all grew closer together during this trial.
Everyone did exceptionally well, considering how hard it was on all of us for such a long time.
They have all settled into our new home and are far exceeding what I thought they were capable of.
Everyone is thriving!
It’s All Been Worth the Time and Effort!
All of the techniques, tools, and behavior modification methods I have learned over the years of being an animal trainer, pet parent, and animal behavior consultant came into play during this long transition. The methods I share with you and use with my clients were all put to the test. Including some I had never tried before! They were such a huge success.
All of my efforts have paid off. What I thought was impossible was possible. I didn’t believe the cats or canine were capable of coping. I had anticipated the worst, but each of them found their way to SHINE during a very difficult and long process. Each of them adjusted, adapted, and They proved all of us wrong. They were total champs. At times they even seemed to understand that we were all in this together.
I am still in awe of them.
But that’s all I am going to write about for now. In the near future I will be sharing with you how I was able to create and maintain safety, peace, and harmony during the Long Haul with each of the animals. I will also share how we have been able to help each of them to settle into our new dojo with flying colors (and with no flying fur!). I can’t wait to tell you all about everything that’s working, and the new tools I have discovered. These tips and techniques will make such a huge difference for you and your companion animals.
Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.-Robert Collier
In Other News
I hope those of you in the U.S. and Canada enjoyed (and survived) the recent independence holidays. We are still experiencing bomb-like-fireworks nightly here, so we are continuing to help the animals cope with that. If you need some suggestions to help your pets with post-Independence day celebrations, check out this post and this one as well.
If you were affected by the tragic events in Orlando (my hometown), my heart goes out to you. Our friends and family still live there, so this really hit home for us. My mother was able to send her team of therapy dogs to help the first responders from that event. You can read about that here.Now they are visiting with the Orlando community as their team is able, helping so many to heal.
Also, if you or anyone you know are either a HSP or an Empath, this Instagram page might be helpful. As we move forward in the world, and as I continue to share here, I will spread as much love and light as I can. With all of the drama, anger, and sadness we are witnessing unfolding in the world right now, we need more love. We must uplift and love one another. When the world appears dark, we need to be The Light. Remember that our animal companions are such perfect teachers for this. They are pure unconditional love.
“There are darknesses in life and there are lights, and you are one of the lights, the light of all lights.” ― Bram Stoker, Dracula
OH! Before I go, I wanted to share one more inspiring thing with you. Here’s the view from our new backyard. Gah! Can you smell the salt air and feel the sand between your toes??
Well, I am off the watch tonight’s sunset. So Much love to you and yours!
“May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
“Lacking a shared language, emotions are perhaps our most effective means of cross-species communication. We can share our emotions, we can understand the language of feelings, and that’s why we form deep and enduring social bonds with many other beings. Emotions are the glue that binds.” ― Bekoff
Ants teach. Earthworms make decisions. Rats are ticklish. Chimps grieve. Horses understand and react to human facial expression. Some dogs have a thousand-word vocabulary. Birds practice songs in their sleep. Mice and rats show empathy. Crows use tools. Jays plan ahead. Moths remember being caterpillars. Cats are worlds wiser than your iPad.
What else will we learn about animals today?
In mylast postI discussed how our personal and collective fears affect progress, success, and peace with our pets and within ourselves. This follow up post is intended to help you to become aware of the range of emotions that animals can experience. When we begin to see our pets as conscious beings who can experience deep and profound emotions we are better equipped with the knowledge and empathy to help them, when life challenges arise. My hope is that you learn something here so you and your animal companions can live a more fulfilling and peaceful life together, no matter what comes your way.
Most people believe that animals have some emotions. But there is a lot more happening within animals than most realize. Did you know that some animals, when faced with stressors, often respond in body and mind the way humans do? It’s really amazing.
Let’s take a look at what emotions are.
From the scientific perspective, emotions are the internal changes in the body (hormones, adrenal glands, etc.) that cause changes in expression (the animal’s external behavior), and the thoughts and feelings that accompany them. From the layman’s perspective, they are feelings one experiences in the mind that affect one’s mood and body.
Emotions have evolved as animal adaptations in many species. Emotions serve as a “social glue” to bond animals together. Emotions also regulate a wide range of social encounters among both friends and competitors. Emotions allow animals to protect themselves by using numerous behavior patterns in a wide variety of settings.
To assume that animals are incapable of experiencing the same kinds of fears and stresses that we as humans experience is a common pitfall and misconception of pet parents. Animals are very capable of experiencing a wide range of emotions! Like us, many companion animals can and do experience a range of basic emotions such as happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, grief, and surprise.
“Common sense and intuition feed into and support science sense, and the obvious conclusion is that at least mammals experience rich and deep emotional lives, feeling passions ranging from pure and contagious joy shared so widely among others during play that it is almost epidemic, to deep grief and pain. There also are recent data that show that birds and fish also are sentient and experience pain and suffering.”
We are hearing more often these days that animals are “sentient beings”, but what is sentience? What does this mean?
“Sentient animals may be aware of a range of sensations and emotions, of feeling pain and suffering, and of experiencing a state of well being. Sentient animals may be aware of their surroundings and of what happens to them.”
Sentience is the ability to feel or perceive the world around you and as a result have subjective experiences (i.e. good, bad or neutral experiences). In its most basic sense, sentience is the ability to have sensations and as a result have experiences which then may be used to guide future actions and reactions.
Similar Brain Structures
Thanks to research with imaging studies we now know that some animals have many of the same brain structures, hormones, and neurotransmitters that humans do. Just like humans, animals have temporal, occipital, frontal and parietal lobes of their cerebral cortex. Each region is connected in the same way. We’ve also learned that emotions are centered in the limbic system, (known as the mammalian brain). We also know that emotions such as fear, frustration, and anger drive a lot of unwanted behaviors in animals (just like in people!)
Neuroscientific research has even shown, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, that elephants have a huge hippocampus. This is a brain structure in the limbic system that’s important in processing emotions. We now know that elephants suffer from psychological flashbacks and likely experience the equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Animals’ Advanced Abilities
Most people believe that a human’s ability to communicate is far more complex and evolved than that of other species, but cetaceans have us beat. Cetaceans have several sound producing organs. They are capable of conveying and receiving 20 times the amount of information as we can with our ability to process sounds! This surpasses the amount of information we can perceive based on vision (a human’s primary sense).
Research with cetaceans has even discovered that the frontal and temporal lobes (which are connected by their function in speech production and language processing) are capable of astounding abilities. Communication is so spectacular in cetaceans that scientists believe there is a strong possibility that this species is able to project an “auditory image.” via sonar messages they receive. The researches at MSU claim, “A dolphin wishing to convey the image of a fish to another dolphin can literally send the image of a fish to the other animal. The equivalent of this in humans would be the ability to create instantaneous holographic pictures to convey images to other people.”
Yeah. So that’s happening in the ocean and in captivity. Just let that sink in for a moment.
Pets, People, and the Mind’s Landscape
Could our pet’s mental map be similar to ours? According to researchers at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, the physical structure of our brain and that of felines are very similar. Cats have the same lobes as we do in the cerebral cortex (the “seat” of intelligence). And our brains function the same way, by conveying data via identical neurotransmitters.
In the region of the brain which controls emotion, they are similar as well. Cats have a temporal, occipital, frontal and parietal lobe in their brains, just as we do. Additionally, cat brains also contain gray and white matter and the connections within their brains seem to mirror those of humans.
We also know that cats’ brains release neurotransmitters in a similar pattern to that of humans when confronted with information from their five senses. Cats also have a short-term and long-term memory, and are able to easily recall information from up to 16 hours in the past. Researchers are even studying cats’ Brain structures and neurotransmitters that regulate aggression to learn more about the implications for human aggression.
Recently through MRI research doctors have discovered that dogs and humans both house impulse control in the same area of the brain. Both human and dog brains by the prefrontal lobes, but in dogs this area is much smaller relative to brain size. There is an actual link between the level of self-control a dog has and the behavior they display. Dogs who have more brain activity in their frontal lobes, tend to have more self-control and are better able to control their behaviors, reactions, and responses to stimuli in their environment.
The Workings of the Inner Clockwork
All mammals (including humans) share neuroanatomical structures: The amygdala and hippocampus and neurochemical pathways in the limbic system that are important for feelings. Let’s look at two areas of the brain to better understand the commonalities of the inner clockwork:
The Amygdala: The “Emotion Processing Center”: There are two almond-shaped areas in the human brain that control emotional responses. The most common function of the amygdalae involves synthesizing fear responses from the environment. Animals also have amygdalae that initiate emotional responses such as fear.
The Hippocampus: Where Memories Trigger Emotions: The hippocampus is the area in the brain where long-term memories are stored. The hippocampus feeds directly to the amygdala. Scientists believe that this is why a flood of strong emotions often follows after we recall a vivid memory.
Our companion animals also have a hippocampus. If your pet had a fearful experience before, and the sight of something reminds her of that situation, the information from her sensory cortex triggers the memory in her hippocampus, which communicates with her amygdala, which then floods her with fear.
They have found that with dogs who are experiencing the emotion of anger, the amygdala and hippocampus play key roles. When these systems become overactive, they cause the amygdala pathway to bypass the cortex entirely. This results in an animal who will literally react without thinking. Ahem, Hocus Pocus and King Albert can both attest to this. And I know of a cockatoo who lives in this state during the peak hormonal months!
But don’t we all have the ability to react this way at some point in our lives? I find it fascinating that our animal companions have this hard-wiring as well.
Emotions and the Autonomic Nervous System At Work
When an animal looks at the world, he or she is confronted with an overwhelming amount of sensory information—sights, sounds, smells, and so on. After being processed in the brain’s sensory areas, the information is relayed to the amygdala, which acts as a portal to the emotion-regulating limbic system. Using input from the individual’s stored knowledge, the amygdala determines how they should respond emotionally—for example, with fear (at the sight of a predator or stranger), in affection or love (at the sight of their beloved person walking in the door) or indifference (when facing something trivial).
Messages cascade from the amygdala to the rest of the limbic system and eventually reach the autonomic nervous system, which prepares the body for action. If the animal is confronting a threat, her heart rate will rise. Her body might sweat in some areas to dissipate the heat from muscular exertion. The autonomic arousal in turn, feeds back into the brain, amplifying the emotional response. Over time, the amygdala creates a salience landscape, a map that details the emotional significance of everything in the individual’s environment.
This internal mind map is a reminder of how to stay safe and alive.
When a threat is perceived, the body’s brilliant sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear. The body then releases hormones that are responsible for either Fight or Flight. The hormones are adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. These hormones serve a very important purpose: They increase chances of survival.
“Fight or flight is a body’s primal response to anything one perceives a threat, hazard or danger; it is an immediate release of hormones to pump up our body to fight or run from a threat, whether that threat is perceived or real.”
Fear Digs In Deep.
There are some fascinating facts when it comes to the subject of fear. We now know that negative experiences effect the brain more deeply than positive experiences. Fear sinks in deep. And it holds on tight. Once a learner (us or an animal) learns that something is scary, should be avoided, or becomes a trigger, the negative effects can be long lasting and hard-wired in the brain.
Remember when that creep who wore a clown costume to your friend’s birthday party when you were a kid? Or what about that roach that crawled on you once while you were sleeping as a child? How do you feel about roaches and clowns today? It just takes one negative experience and that fear sticks to our minds like super glue.
Animals are not unlike us when it comes to how fear can set in and grab a tight hold in their minds.
Fear from Watching
Did you know that both people and pets can learn to be fearful of something, someone, or somewhere just by watching another animal or person? The amygdala plays a critical part in the physical expression of a fear response in humans as well as animals. Scientists have shown that the amygdala responds when a person or animal exhibits fear through observing someone else experiencing a fearful experience. This means that the amygdala is involved in learning to fear something even without directly experiencing the aversive event. Animals can merely observe something fearful and learn to be afraid of that person, place, or event!
The Scent of Fear
You know that phrase, “I can smell fear a mile away!”, or “They can smell your fear.”? Well, it turns out there is some truth to that. Researches in 2014 discovered that young animals have the ability to learn fear in the first days of life. Just by smelling the odor of their distressed mother. And this doesn’t pertain to just “natural” fears; If a mother experienced something before pregnancy that made her fear something specific, her offspring will quickly learn to fear it too. How? Through her odor when she feels fear.
When the odor of the frightened rat mother was piped in to a chamber where her offspring were located and the juvenile rats were exposed to peppermint smell, they developed a fear of the scent of peppermint. Their blood cortisol levels rose when they smelled it! I mean, come on! How incredible is that?!
“During the early days of an infant rat’s life, they are immune to learning information about environmental dangers. But if their mother is the source of threat information, we have shown they can learn from her and produce lasting memories,” says Jacek Debiec, M.D., Ph.D., the U-M psychiatrist and neuroscientist who led the research.
“Our research demonstrates that infants can learn from maternal expression of fear, very early in life,” he adds. “Before they can even make their own experiences, they basically acquire their mothers’ experiences. Most importantly, these maternally-transmitted memories are long-lived, whereas other types of infant learning, if not repeated, rapidly perish.”
Credit: Image courtesy of University of Michigan Health System
But wait. There’s more. The scientists exposed the rat pups of both groups of mothers to the peppermint smell, under many different conditions with and without their mothers present. Fear still occurred.
Using special brain imaging, studies of genetic activity in individual brain cells, and cortisol in the rat’s blood, they focused on the lateral amygdala as the key location for learning fears. Note: Later in life this area is responsible for detecting and planning a response to threats; that’s why it would also be the “hub” for learning new fears.
“But the fact that these fears could be learned in a way that lasted during a time when the baby rat’s ability to learn any fears directly was naturally suppressed, is what makes the new findings so interesting”, says the lead scientist, Debiec.
Their research even showed that the newborns could learn their mothers’ fears even when the mothers weren’t present. Merely the scent of their mother reacting to the peppermint odor she feared was enough to make them fear the same thing.
Fear In Pheromones
Fear can be passed through scent glands. Not only can pheromones be used to scent mark, attract mates, claim territory, find prey, and identify other animals, but they can be used as alarms. Our dogs and cats can smell when fear is present in these glands. I refer to these as FEAR-amones. When they smell fear, they instinctively know to Get The Heck Out of Dodge.
Our Similar Structures
In An Odyssey with Animals: A Veterinarian’s Reflections on the Animal Rights & Welfare Debate Adrian Morrison provides a great description of just how mammalian and animal-like we humans are. As Morrison explains, we share common brain structures with other mammals:
My cat, Buster, and I both flinch and yowl or curse at a sudden painful stimulus, and our legs both jerk in response to a tap on the patellar tendon of the knee. The spinal organization of the neurons responsible for these activities is the same in cats as it is in humans.
Moving forward into the lowest part of the brain, in both Buster and me the same neurons control basic bodily functions, such as regulation of breathing, heart rate, and vomiting. Farther forward reside the nerve cells that regulate the behaviors of sleep and wakefulness, which are identical in humans and other mammals, and where dysfunction results in similar problems, such as narcolepsy … and REM sleep behavior disorder. In this brain region in all mammals are found the neurons containing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which degenerate in Parkinson’s disease.
At the base of the cerebral hemispheres is the almond-shaped amygdala, where mechanisms leading to fear and anxiety in people and animals operate. Monkeys and rats have contributed much to our understanding of the amygdala. The overlying cerebral cortex is where all of us mammals analyze the sensations coming from the skin, muscles and joints via the spinal cord, or eyes and ears in the cases of vision and hearing.
Where we depart from our animal brethren is in the great development of the front part of our cerebral cortex, the frontal lobes, and the greater proportion of cerebral tissue, called association areas, which integrate the information obtained from the regions that directly receive sensory information. These latter regions are called the primary sensory and motor areas because they receive simple, pure sensations and direct the movement of the body. It is within the frontal lobes that we humans mull over the past, prepare for the future, and reflect on its implications. Animals do not have this last capability in particular, as far as we can discern. Animals prepare for the future in a limited, instinct-driven way: Think of squirrels gathering and burying nuts for the winter. …
His last three sentences get right to the point of why I am sharing with you: If we have the ability to plan, predict, and prepare, and our pets are instinctively coping, adjusting, and surviving this rollercoaster (we put them on), then we have a lot of work to do as their guardians.
If fear is sticky and hard to remove, then as animal guardians we need to know how fear sets in, how we can minimize or prevent it, and how to effectively remove it. We have serious business at hand if we want them to live in our human world with minimal stress and fear, and with a maximum sense of security and safety. If we want them to thrive, rather than merely survive, then we need to get to work.
The willingness to recognize that animals have emotions is key. Their feelings matter, their fear is real to them. Animals are sentient beings who experience the lows and highs of their live with us. We must respect this.
To continue with the status quo, because that’s what as always been done isn’t enough anymore. Now that we know more, we do more. Now that we know better, we must do better. For them. For us. For all species.
All that we once believed about animals has changed, and so should our relationships with the animals we live with, care, for and are stewards for. When it comes to what we can and cannot do for animals, it is their capacity to feel, experience complex emotions that can be a catalyst for how we change the way we view them, and how we act on their behalf.
“Emotions are the gifts of our ancestors. We have them, and so do other animals. We must never forget that”. ― Marc Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy – and Why They Matter
My next post in this “Fear Series” will address both the causes and effects of of emotional and environmental stress on our pets, so stay tuned!
And the last post in this Fear Series will be chocked full of fun tips and techniques that you can implement to help your pets reduce their fears and live a fearless life!
Until then, I am going to plan, prepare, and be proactive about our upcoming Big Move with our animal companions!
Full disclosure: I am breaking my no-more-blog-posts-until-I-finish-writing-my-books-and-move-out-west rule. Again. But it’s so hard not to share things with you all, especially when I am passionate about something!
The topic on the table is something that every single person on this planet has done at least once in their life. For many, it’s something we all do almost every day. We anthropomorphize.
What is Aɴᴛʜʀᴏᴘᴏᴍᴏʀᴘʜɪsᴍ?
The big “A” word is the attribution of human traits, emotions, motivations, and intentions to non-human entities (objects, animals, natural phenomena). Anthropomorphism is derived from its verb anthropomorphize, which is derived from the Greek word ánthrōpos, meaning “human”, and morphē , meaning “form”. It was first attested in 1753, originally in reference to the heresy of applying a human form to the Christian God.
The practice of anthropomorphism is an innate tendency of human psychology. We all do it. We see it everywhere: The Easter Bunny is an anthropomorphized rabbit. Shel Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree anthropomorphizes the tree. I named my first car.
It’s natural for us to want to relate to an animal, a plant, the weather, an object, the gods, goddesses, deities, angels, God, and anything else that seems to be outside of us. We want to connect! We want to create a connection that helps us to feel good. We need connections that help us to feel safe and supported. These connections can be powerful. They can heal. They help. They can foster loving connections.
But this natural tendency can also be very unhelpful and sometimes detrimental.
Eye of the Beholder
Let’s set the plants, weather, and goddesses aside for now. I am going to address our human view of animals’ behavior today. How we perceive behavior is key. When we don’t know how or why an animal is doing something, we tend to make it about us; we personalize it. We place the meaning that a behavior has for us, onto the animal. We anthropomorphize.
Let’s use two common examples of cat and dog behavior.
When we see a cat languidly rolling around on the floor, stretching and yawning in front of a child, or in front of another cat or dog, we see this behavior and think, “Awe, he’s so relaxed! He wants someone to love him!” But what could actually be happening with that behavior is very clear in cat language: Calm Down, Dude. It’s all good. I am not a threat. Be Cool. Chillax man. The cat is most likely offering a displacement behavior. But from our human perspective, we see sleepiness and invitation.
When a dog interrupts play to sniff his or her uro-genital body parts, we most likely will be embarrassed or grossed out, then label the dog as “nasty”. But the dog is far from nasty. The dog is offering a behavior that helps him/her to feel safe, or to feel better in that moment. What is most likely happening is the dog is performing a displacement behavior that occurs in stressful situations. But from our human perspective we have labeled the behavior and interpreted it much differently from the dog’s reality.
An animal’s particular behavior may seem to be “adorable”, “annoying”, “affectionate”, “rude”, “playful”, “disgusting”, “excited”, “happy”, “bored”, “mean”, “loving”, or “spiteful”, but there may be more than meets our human eye. Behaviors have functions. They are not always what we perceive them to be. The behavior that we have chosen to label as “excited” may actually be stress arousal. The behavior that we labeled “affectionate” may be used as a distance increasing behavior, or even scent marking for security. Fearful, unsure, overwhelmed, and incapable could be easily labeled as “stubborn”. What we perceive from our humanistic viewpoint is often way off the mark of what the animal is experiencing.
Pitfalls of the Big “A” Word
Misreading those two examples of behavior are not harmful in and of themselves. But some of the ways we misread, mislabel, and anthropomorphize animal behavior is harmful. And sometimes it’s dangerous.
One pitfall of anthropomorphizing animal behavior can be harmful and unfair to our pets. When we perceive our pet’s behavior from our human perspective (beliefs, intentions, and motivations), we miss the mark. We are unable to see what’s really happening with the animal. We see a behavior, assume it’s happening for one reason, then we get frustrated or upset with the animal. All too often the result from these kinds of misunderstandings and misperceptions is detrimental to the animals: They are the ones who are punished. All because of the belief, projection, or label that the person has placed upon them.
But in the animal’s reality – from the animal’s perspective- the behavior was performed for an entirely different reason or need. It was necessary.
Perception is consistent. What you see reflects your thinking. And your thinking but reflects your choice of what you want to see. -ACIM
Pet owners are simply unaware that the stool they found on their antique rug was from a very painfully constipated cat who needs medical attention. The dog who chewed their favorite shoes is suffering from anxiety. The cat who howls all night is suffering from a variety of aging ailments. The dog who barks at strangers is suffering from deep-rooted fear issues.
But what does the human see? A mess. Embarrassing behavior. Disruptive behavior. We miss the reality of what’s behind each of those behaviors: A call for help.
We are the ones who can respond to their calls for assistance.
When we don’t know how or why an animal behavior problem exists, we tend to make it about us; we personalize it. We make it into something that we can relate to. We label the animal. In the animal behavior world, this Anthropomorphism at its worst.
Hidden in the complex world of behavior science is a simple, often underutilized, fact that there is never just behavior. Behavior never occurs in a vacuum or sprays out of an animal haphazardly like water from a leaky showerhead, independent of conditions. Behavior always depends on the environment in some way.
– Susan Friedman. Ph.D.
Another pitfall of anthropomorphism is a lack of safety. Take for instance the dog and baby or toddler who are “the best of friends” in the parent’s eyes. But dog and baby are not the best of friends. Dog is tolerating, and baby is on the borderline of dog’s boundary. The parents want to create a connection between dog and baby that helps them to feel good, and maybe even to feel safe. But the parents are unaware of the danger because they want so badly to connect. They want their dog and baby to be best friends, so that is what they see. But that is not the reality.
One example of this is “The Kiss To Dismiss.” A parent might assume her dog loves her baby because the dog is often licking the child’s face. But this is often not so. The behavior of face licking appears to be stemming from affection, but it certain circumstances, this behavior is intended to increase the distance between the licker and the lickee. This is a very effective way for a dog to get someone who is pestering, threatening, or annoying them them to go away. In dangerous situations like this, the unaware parents have placed their human attributes, human traits, emotions, motivations, and intentions onto the dog. Anthropomorphism is at work here.
The Desire to Create a Connection
Do you see a theme here? People want to connect with their pets. They want their kids and other people to connect with their pets. This makes people feel good. People ultimately want to feel safe ans secure. But when their pet’s behavior becomes unacceptable, or is labeled as something familiar and relate-able to the person (ex. spiteful, vengeful, malicious, rude, annoying, or aggressive) they lose trust in the animal and they don’t feel connected anymore. This loss of connection only widens the gap of communication and understanding.
When it comes to people, pets, and wild animals, anthropomorphism is usually at the root of many misperceptions and many mishaps. People not only want to connect with their pets, but they also want to connect with animals in nature. Part of the fun of indulging in a bit of anthropomorphizing of animals allows people to feel that animals are “just like us!” Of course we want to connect to animals. Connecting makes us feel good. But our lack of awareness, combined with our desire to connect with species who should remain wild can cloud our judgement.
Having worked with nonhuman primates in captivity, I have seen all too many of them who are abandoned and discarded as a result of the all too common must-have-it pet trade. The desire to own an exotic animal, or even wanting to interact and connect with it can be a very slippery slope. Unfortunately and all too often, lemurs like Sefo, and other exotic animals are taken from their natural habitat, sold or orphaned, and in return have poor quality lives; they are left alone in the unfamiliar and foreign human world, no longer able to survive in the lemur world.
What we are seeing in that “adorable” video is only a fraction of what’s the truth; Sefo was taken from his family and abandoned.The ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) live in large family groups. These groups preen (groom) each other all day. If Sefo was with his natural born family he would never consider letting a human approach him.
Everyone anthropomorphized what we saw in that video. It’s a natural response for anyone, if we don’t know about healthy and normal primate behavior. But that’s the point. When we lack knowledge of an individual animal’s needs, when we don’t know the natural biology and behavior of an animal, the only perspective we have is from our limited human point of view.
And Then Came “Anthropodenial”…
So by now you are probably realizing that how you view your pets, wild animals, and even the weather is largely based around anthropomorphizing. Attributing human characteristics to the weather and animals does create great material for humorous cartoons, but it’s not helpful if we want to understand why things happen they way they do, and why an animal behaves a certain way.
Placing human-like intentions on animals is often thought of as unscientific. But there are some who argue that anthropomorphizing’s opposing position, “anthropodenial” — an unwillingness to recognize the human-like traits of animals — is too prevalent in our attitudes toward other species.
I have to ask: Could the absence of anthropomorphism be just as harmful?
Through decades of analyzing animal-cognition research, animals have exhibited many of key behaviors that were once thought to distinguish humans from animals. Some of these abilities and behaviors include the ability to consider the past and the future, the ability to demonstrate empathy and self-awareness, and the awareness and ability to anticipate the motives of others. Certain skills are considered key signs of higher mental abilities. These skills and abilities were once reserved for the human species, but now the animal kingdom shares many of these abilities!
These include, but are not limited to:
– a good memory
– ability to recall a specific past event
– a grasp of grammar and symbols
– understanding others’ motives
– imitating others
– being creative
Animal cognition research humbles us. We are not alone in our ability to invent or plan or to contemplate ourselves—or even to plot and lie. -“Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?,” the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal
Over the years and through ingenious experiments, researchers have documented these skills in other non-human species, gradually eroding the deep-seeded belief that human beings are the superior species. But there is research to show us otherwise. Animals can be incredibly complex cognitive creatures. Animals’ abilities can and do rival ours.
Darwin even suggested that earthworms are cognitive beings! Based on his close observations, earthworms have to make judgments about the kinds of leafy material they use to block their tunnels. Darwin did not expect to discover thinking invertebrates. He shared that even a hint of earthworm intelligence “has surprised me more than anything else.”
Behind The Scenes of Each Species
I have found myself thinking similar surprising thoughts with the species I have worked and lived with over the years. What I have learned from them has revolutionized the way I perceive animals and their behavior. I may not understand the motivation behind an animal’s particular behavior, but I do understand and I do recognize and respect that every behavior serves a purpose for each animal. Whether this behavior is a choice, a preference, or it serves a vital outcome, it must be respected. Even if I am unable to perceive it at the time.
There is indeed, more happening “behind the scenes” in an animal’s world than we are aware.
If an octopus were to measure human intelligence, it might test us on the number of color patterns we can produce on the skin of our (pathetically few) appendages. Seeing us flunk the test, it might conclude that we are pretty stupid.
-The Soul of an Octopus” by naturalist Sy Montgomery
Not All Are Created Equal.
Thanks to science and observing behavior, we now know that animals do have abilities and skills that rival ours:
– Scrub jays are aware that other jays are thieves and that their stashed food can spoil
– Sheep can recognize faces
– Capuchin monkeys can experience envy
– Chimpanzees use a variety of tools to probe termite mounds and even use weapons to hunt small mammals
– Crows can hold grudges against the biologists who capture and tag them
– Orcas use highly coordinated synchronized swimming to push seals off ice floes and into the water
– Sea lions can associate symbols (if A goes with B, and B goes with C, then A and C belong together as well)
– Dolphins can imitate human postures
– The archerfish, which stuns insects with a sudden blast of water, can learn how to aim its squirt simply by watching an experienced fish perform the task
– Chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas have been taught to use sign language and symbols
– Alex the parrot turned out to be a surprisingly amazing speaker
– Betsy the Bodercollie has a vocabulary of more than 300 words.
– Octopi can be shy, playful, cantankerous, or sneaky. They crave attention and play with toys.
Squirrels may fail at memory tasks that are important to humans, but, whereas we need apps to help us find our misplaced cell phones, they can remember where they’ve hidden tiny caches of nuts.-de Waal
Awareness, Knowledge, and Intelligence Coexisting
So, let’s say for a moment that some species of animals are capable of the full spectrum of intelligence and awareness of we humans. Does that mean that our pets ARE doing things out of spite and malice? Does this mean that our pets “should know better?” Does this mean that we shouldn’t use anthropomorphism? Does this mean that all conscious beings are fully armed knowledge of absolutely everything in the universe?
My short answer to all of those questions is NO.
History has shown us that extreme anthropomorphizing of animals can lead to blaming animals for crimes and it can end terribly for the animal. For example, in medieval and early modern Europe the animal’s mind was considered sophisticated enough that domesticated animals such as dogs and pigs could be put on trial for crimes. Seriously, this happened.
As crazy as that case was, similar situations still happen today. Pet owners tell me (all too often) why they blame their pet for “deliberately” behaving in ways that are “clearly meant to piss them off”. They claim the animal “knows what she’s doing!” They are convinced that he is “doing it on purpose!”
Then they punish the animal. Or they toss their family pet out like the trash.
Of course animals are behaving in ways that serve their needs. They are not mindless creatures. They are sentient beings who are trying to live in our human world the best way they know how. But the animals with whom we share a home are not doing things for the reasons that we humans might be doing them.
Our pets are not being spiteful, vengeful, or malicious. They are behaving in ways that help them to coexist in our human world. They are behaving in ways that help them to feel better. They are behaving in ways that help them to feel safe. They are behaving in response to their internal and external environment! Their behavior always serves a purpose. That purpose is not to upset you. I promise you this.
Your job as their guardian is to discover what they are trying to communicate. Your duty is to learn why their behavior is happening. Your job as their guardian is to learn their language. It’s not enough to love, shelter, and feed them. We have to learn to communicate clearly. We must set aside our human perceptions and limited beliefs. And we must learn as much as we can.
Our duty as an animal guardian is to become fluent in their needs, their biology, their health, history, and their species-specific language. We need to know about each species’ natural behaviors! And if you don’t know them, learn them. Read about dog or cat behavior. Read up on the particular species of lizard or parrot that you have. Read about the requirements of rats. Know what your kid’s guinea pig needs. Read about the red flags to be aware of in cat behavior and health. Know what your cat needs to thrive! Learn what dogs need to feel safe and secure in our human world. Know what your dog needs to feel safe and connected.
Our animal companions want to connect with us, but it may not be in the way that we know how to, or how we prefer to connect. Each animal is an individual. And each species has their unique needs. Our pets want to feel safe. They need to be supported in their environment. They want to thrive. They are no different from us when it comes to wanting their individual needs to be met. And they will do what they can to ensure all of this. This theme is one that connects us all. Animals know what they need. They feel. They respond to their world. They behave in ways that work for them.
The question is I feel we need to ask ourselves is: How am I viewing all of this from my human perspective?
“It’s easy to project our own feelings onto animals—and that’s a mistake, but it’s a worse mistake to think that we are up on some kind of pedestal and that animals can’t also think, feel, and know.” – naturalist, Sy Montgomery
“The roots of all goodness lie in the soil of appreciation for goodness.” –Dalai Lama
This is a shout-out to you. A huge, sincere thank you to you.
Today is all about you.
It’s National Pet Parent Day! Yep. I have to admit that I laughed when I realized this and thought, “Every day is pet parent day in our home! I don’t take a day off.”
There seems to be a worldwide or national day for everything these days, but today is a good day to celebrate. Today is a worthwhile day to recognize because it’s all about honoring everything that we do as devoted animal guardians. Whether you are a pet parent at home, an animal care taker at a shelter, zoo, or aquarium, or whether you are a trainer, behaviorist, veterinarian, or energy healer, you deserve thanks. No matter what our exact role is, we all need to hear thanks. No matter how we serve them, we all need to feel appreciated for all that we do for them.
How This Day Was Created
National Pet Parents Day was created to “honor all dedicated pet parents across the nation with a special day of their own.” This date was founded by Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) in 2007. And although National Pet Parents Day is an unofficial holiday, it was created out of the inspiration of realizing that the majority of their insurance policyholders consider their pets to be part of their true family. If you are following this blog, then you (like our family) see your “pets” as animal family members. They may not be related to us by blood, but they are f a m i l y.
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” -Cicero
We Aren’t Always Living On Easy Street.
If you are a professional animal caretaker, or a professional pet consultant, people may see you and think you have the coolest job in the world. If you have beautiful pets people may envy you. They may assume your life is perfect with them. If their rescue story melts their hearts they may want to rescue one, too. And they assume that your animal companion’s rescue story ended when you invited them into your home.
If you are an animal behavior consultant, an animal trainer, an animal communicator, or an animal healer, people might assume you have “perfect pets.” They assume that these pets are never sick, never wild and crazy, they never backslide, and they are all perfectly trained, and never misbehave. You must be the envy of the world if you are one of these people with one of these pets!
Ah, but we know the truth.
We all know that life is not always easy-going with the animals we care for and share our homes with. We know that some days there seem to be constant challenges. We know what it feels like to want to cry or scream when we are at our wit’s end. We know all too well how hard it can be to juggle a busy work and a family life with a pet-family lifestyle.
We know what it means to have our own physical challenges while living and working with animals who have their own challenges. We know what it’s like to be a new parent struggling with a new baby while trying to manage your pet “kids” as well. We know what it means to have a crawling toddler and a conflicted canine. We know that a rescued animal’s rescue story really only begins the moment that we bring them into our human environment. We know that there is never a “cure” for every behavioral issue. We know the real meaning of patience. We understand what it means to rearrange our lifestyle to ensure that our animal companions feel safe and secure. We know the meaning of selflessness and sacrifice. We know and understand that there are a myriad of challenges that we encounter with every animal that we care for. We know that we have invited these animals into our lives and we are bound to them for the rest of their life. We know that life with animal companions can be a blessing beyond words, but it can also be wrought with unexpected trials and circumstances.
But we also know that we never give up. Ever.
We are dedicated to them all. We believe in what can happen when we are armed with knowledge. We know how far we can go together with love and compassion. We know that healing is possible. We know that there are solutions that can be found. We know that together we can create miracles. We know that we will find a way to succeed with them. We know that they might never know all that we have done and will continue to do for them. But we do it all anyway. We do it with love and devotion.
And our lives will never be the same.
We know this truth.
We live it every day.
A Thousand Thanks
I have taken a break from writing blog posts to continue my focus on writing a few books in the works, and to prepare for an upcoming move to the west coast. But when I felt into what today represented, I was inspired and really wanted to take a moment to write to you.
Thank YOU for being a true and loyal Conscious Companion. I know it’s not always easy.
★Thank you for never giving up on them.
★Thank you for allowing them teach you.
★Thank you for being open to new ideas.
★Thank you for being willing to implement something new every day.
★Thank you for learning how to speak their language.
★Thank you for learning how to listen to them.
★Thank you for accepting challenges as they arise.
★Thank you for helping them to become well-adjusted to your human world.
★Thank you for helping them to age with grace and ease.
★Thank you for knowing when it’s time to let them go.
★Thank you for loving them with all of your heart.
Thank you ALL for being dedicated, determined, and downright amazing!
I am graciously sending you and yours my love and gratitude.
Training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care.
There are many reasons people choose to train an animal. Some people train animals to avoid being bitten, attacked, or crushed by them. Some people train animals to avoid being their next meal. Some people train animals to make their lives easier when working with them.
Those are a few of the reasons why I started training animals, but over the years I started to appreciate other reasons for training them.
I became dedicated to training animals because we had fun together! I enjoyed training them because it enhanced our relationship. I looked forward to training them because it was fun challenge, where everyone would win! I appreciated training animals because I always learned something new about them. I became humbled when training animals because they always found a way to “train” me in the process. Training became one of my favorite forms of communication. Training became an essential part of my life. Training was an essential part of their life.
Something else I learned while training animals: If someone acquired the skills, understood the techniques, and practiced patience, they could do it, too.
I am not special. I merely took the time to learn the techniques. I practiced the skills. I learned patience. I made mistakes. And I tried again and again.
That’s why I want to talk with you about training. You can train animals the force-free way, too! But before we begin, you have to understand what training really is.
What Is Training?
Training is “teaching”.
When we make a conscious effort to train an animal to display a particular behavior, we are training the animal. However, sometimes we influence (train) our animal’s behavior inadvertently, without being aware that we are teaching them. We do this through our actions, or through other stimuli present in their environment.
That’s why it’s so important that we become aware of that fact that we are always training.
Whether you are consciously aware of it or not, you influence what your animal companion learns. You are their teacher. As their caretaker, you are teaching the animals that you care for 24 hours a day! Now ask yourself, what are you teaching them?
Training is all about associations.
The key to an optimal environment at home (or in captivity) is to assist an animal’s opportunity to make associations that enhance its overall well-being. Simply put, as their guardians (or caretakers), we help animals to feel more secure, safe, and content in their environment by creating scenarios where the animal feels good about who and what they encounter every day. As various training methods are being applied to an increasingly diverse number of species, it is important to understand what methods are appropriate (and which are not appropriate).
Training is about building a relationship.
When we are training an animal using positive methods, we are building trust. Trust is the foundation on which all relationships are built upon. Positive-based training is one of the best ways to enhance the relationship between a person and an animal, and maintain this trust for a lifetime. Training increases trust and builds confidence. It builds bonds that last a lifetime! Training creates a happy, harmonious environment.
Trust is one of the most important aspects of any training plan. What defines a good relationship between trainer and trainee is a strong positive reinforcement history.
Why Training Is Essential
Training is a key component to an animal’s well being. Training is the key to safety, harmony, and well-being in our homes! A home without a well trained, well behaved animal is chaotic and stressful. Most – if not all – animal behavioral issues can be successfully managed with a formal training plan. From trips to the vet, to trips to the park, training is at the heart of having these experiences be a positive one for everyone involved.
Animals deserve the best care we can possibly provide. Training should not be considered a luxury that is only provided if there is time; it is an essential part of good animal care. Just as one would never consider developing an animal care program without a veterinary component, a nutritional component, a social component, and an environmental component; nobody should consider caring for an animal without a behavioral management component integrated into the program. ~ Ken Ramirez
Every year, Ken Ramirez leads a sold-out seminar for students and professionals in the animal training field. Ken was one of my greatest teachers as I was learning about the science of animal training. Watch Ken’s interview, as he explains why training is essential, how we are training animals every day- whether we realize it or not, and how the laws of learning work on all species, including people!
We are limited in what we can accomplish because of preconceived notions of what is possible. When we limit ourselves or our pets, we also limit our view of what is possible. Of course, there are limits to what we can train. But sometimes we don’t give our dogs credit for being capable of far more than what we see them do traditionally.
Why Training Your Pet Improves Their Life, and Yours!
In the video below, Ken Ramirez share tips on how to train your own furry friend using the same world-class training and care that endangered species receive in captivity! He also explains why clickers and “targeting” are helpful when training pets. Ken demonstrates these techniques with a shelter dog that was once trained for dog fighting. See how force-free, science-based training has transformed this Fighting Fido into a Canine Companion:
My message would be simple: Training is not a luxury, but a key component to good animal care. Everyone who has a pet should understand that basic fact. Training is a way to enhance the quality of life for our pets. It is far more than just teaching a dog to do a cute trick. Training is about teaching a dog (or any animal) how to live in our world safely. ~Ken Ramirez
Animal training should be about mutual respect. The goal is to build a relationship based on trust. When we build trust while respecting the animal’s individual needs and preferences, we enhance the bond between the animal and the human. The results improve our life, and the life of our animal companion. ~ Conscious Companion
Coming Up Next: How Animals Learn – It’s Not an Opinion; It’s Science!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
“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
The video below is a test of spatial cognition. This Red-footed tortoise was presented with shapes in varying positions, and she was rewarded with strawberries when she touched the targets.
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.
“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
“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
Story Source: Materials provided by University of Lincoln
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