Animal Emotions and That Icky Sticky Fear

animal emotions

 “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 my last post I 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.


Emotional Beings

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.”


love hormone_animal emotions_conscious Companion


Sentient Beings

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.”

-CIWF

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.

Animal Emotions_fear


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.

animal brain_intelligece_play_emotions


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.

dog brain impulse control_MRI
Brain region in dog prefrontal cortex for impulse control.

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.princess Amidala_fear_cats_dogs_pet brains

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. 

animal brain
Primary amygdalar nuclei and basic circuit connections across species.

 


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.”

fofbraindiag


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!

Knox In His Box


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.”

fear learned

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.

sniffing-butt
Butt Sniffing : Think of this behavior as “speaking with chemicals”. It’s how dogs learn about another dog’s diet, gender, and even their emotional state!

 

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.


Emotions Matter. 

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!

All my love to you and yours.

-Amy & The Critter Krewe

 

Finding Hope Through Writing About Loss

henriandbill

Have you ever lost an animal companion so suddenly and unexpectedly that you struggled to come to terms with it for weeks, months, or even years? If you follow this blog, chances are you view your pets as part of the family, just like I do. I’d like to tell you about my experience of healing by writing about the loss of Henri.

Early in 2013, mhenriandliamy beloved Bichon, Henri, started showing signs of illness. He was gaining weight rapidly and he had strange skin issues, like a rash that wouldn’t go away and cyst-like sores. I was no stranger to a Bichon’s allergies and the vet didn’t think it was too big a deal. He was more concerned that Henri was getting fat and we both figured he was just eating too much and not getting enough exercise.

More problems kept popping up—the skin rash was a staph infection and he had fungus growing between his little toes. The vet ran tests and amped up the meds. Then, Henri went blind. It was horrible, but I was prepared to do anything for that little dog. I researched how to care for a blind dog, started a blind dog blog, and of course gave him plenty of bully sticks and games to play with. Henri is wicked smart and could solve puzzles in a snap, blind or not.

bullystick

Then, his hearing started to go. Trips to specialists were almost daily, because his sores wouldn’t heal and he kept getting more. He hated the constant poking and probing as much as anyone would! He was on so much medication I didn’t know how his little body could handle it. I had to wear gloves to give him one of the pills. I had to put eye drops in his poor blind eyes twice a day and it was obvious this scared him. One consolation was that, since he was blind, I had to carry him everywhere, so at least he was getting lots of snuggling and so was I.

Gradually, we were starting to realize that Henri was not going to puzzlesget better; he was only going to get worse. Before long, he didn’t want to be petted and comforted any longer. He didn’t want to sleep. He barked all the time, confused.

We made the hardest decision a pet owner could make, and on his last night with us we gave him a steak dinner. He couldn’t even smell the steak in front of his face. But once he had a lick, he devoured every bite.

I was so grief stricken after he died that I was inconsolable for days. Understand, I didn’t want to admit that Henri’s condition was fatal until about a week before he died. Maybe that’s what the vet was telling me, but since they couldn’t even name the disease—it seemed like some kind of multi-system, cascading thing of mysterious origin—I denied that he couldn’t be fixed until the very end. His breed should have a life expectancy of at least fifteen years. Henri was only seven-years-old when he passed.

My friend Amy Martin encouraged me to celebrate his life (and that’s something I tried so hard to embrace), but I wasn’t ready to stop mourning. I wanted to hold onto him somehow.

That’s when I decided to make Henri a character in the book I was writing at the time. We come into the story as a new character is introduced, driving into the small town of Shirley…

Driving into Shirley from the east always shocked Aaron Walsh after he had been away for a while. He’d be driving through the gentle rise and fall of the highway, traversing mostly highlands between the taller peaks, for miles. Then, he’d round the last summit, Widow-maker Point, and then bang!—the valley plunged, a deep crevice in the countryside below the granite cliffs. The transition was breath-taking. He usually felt contented by the vision, flooded with memories of a happy childhood spent rampaging through the forests with friends, siblings and cousins. But not that day.

That day, the scene made him feel homesick and sorry for himself. He wanted nothing more than to curl up in a cozy lounger and watch a Mystery Science Theater marathon under blankets. He turned up the volume on a melancholy country song and let his mood settle in. Aaron reached up to squeeze Henri’s collar. He hung it from his rearview mirror after the vet had returned the collar, empty, along with other personal items. The grain of the fabric was worn and soft, slightly oily from years of use.

Henri had started out as his wife Chloë’s, dog years before, but the dog had taken to Aaron. Aaron loved to give Henri bacon treats and dinner handouts under the table. Chloë bought him for a show dog. He was a Bichon Frisee with Champion lineage—his sire was actually named Champion, no kidding—but Aaron had spoiled her chances in a matter of months. He smiled, thinking about how mad his wife was when Henri got too fat. He remembered that glorious, flowing-white tail that Henri would wrap around his wrist while he petted him. Aaron had grown up with hounds and mutts, and he never would’ve imagined a fluffy white dog would or could steal his heart, but he had.

Then, Henri started showing signs of mysterious health problems. A pure bred dog after all, Aaron had tried to reason that inbreeding often caused strange issues. He took him to dozens of specialists and spent thousands of dollars on testing and treatments. Finally, he had to accept it. Henri was dying. Once Aaron decided to have him put to sleep, he made the commitment to be there with him when he passed away. He cried like a baby for days leading up to it and for days after it was done, but he was able to stroke his fur and whisper thanks in his ear, for being such a good dog. As difficult as it was, he was grateful to have been able to tell him good-bye.

Chloë was sympathetic and patient at first. But after several days of Aaron’s prolonged mourning, his moping around the house uselessly, she started to lose patience. He lashed out at her for not seeing Henri’s worth as a show dog (which was ridiculous; Henri would have hated that prissy crap), and Chloë suggested a week in the mountains might help.

She was right, of course. Camping always helped heal the soul. Aaron couldn’t wait to get out there, among the elements. He’d spent too much time indoors the last few years. City life did that to you. He figured he’d stop in and say hello to Dad before he headed south, into the most secluded wilderness along Red Ridge.

–Excerpted from The Tramp.

henriWhen I read that now, two years later, I know that what I was doing was witnessing Henri’s life and death. I felt so guilty about his illness, because I didn’t realize for so long how ill he was. I wondered if I had treated him kindly enough when he was probably feeling worse than I understood. Henri never complained.

Any pet owner who has had to make the decision to euthanize a beloved friend knows how hard it is; even when all professional opinion tells you you’re doing the right thing, the “right thing” is excruciating.

But also, I was sharing Henri with the world, making him eternal in literature. That helped the healing process begin. As Aaron Walsh finds peace in the book, so was I in writing about it. The sunrise that he watches, and the peace he feels afterward, was my way to describe what I hoped was in store for myself.

I’m not the camper he is, but I can imagine it…

Right on time, an American Robin broke into her, “Cheer up, cheer up, cheerily,” whistle not a hundred yards away, and Aaron decided to quit his tent for an early start.

He unzipped the door flaps and ducked out into the fresh morning air, then reached back inside for his coat, shocked at the drop in temperature. Feeling the yawn in his abdomen, he considered breakfast, but since the sun wasn’t completely up, it would be a hassle in the dark. Instead, he sat down on the blanket of fallen pine leaves outside his front door, tugged on his boots, and decided to sit out the sunrise with a better vantage point closer to the river. He inspected his jeep as he passed for any signs of ransacking, but seeing nothing amiss, he ambled toward the rim of the bluff.

The stroll was easy through towering pine trees, their high plumes of needles overhead floating over the forest floor like thunderheads. He could barely see the stars, much less the blossoming horizon to the east, but he knew the giant trees would stand aside for maples, dogwoods and holly bushes along the edge of the pinewoods. The heavens would open up for a gorgeous sunrise over the southern canyon. He heard the rapid, stuttering trill and then low, buzzing tones of a warbler in the distance, announcing the dawn.  Aaron picked up his pace. Near the edge of the forest, he slowed down to navigate a thicket of mountain laurel and rhododendron. He heard more birdsongs announcing survival of the night and warning enemies of nests still protected, and Aaron worried he might miss the sunrise.

But the canopy above cleared abruptly, and he was kissed by the fresh air of the open ravine, with an earthy smell of fast moving water churning up the riverbed below. He could just discern a delicate lavender wash seeping across the sky into the western blackness, the stars beginning to wink out with the advance of light. Aaron collapsed to the ground, leaned back in relief and dangled his boots over the side of the bluff, his palms damp on the cool, crusty granite. He thought about the healing power of a new day—of every new day—and admitted that he was starting to accept his friend Henry’s death.

“Bye, little buddy.”

The burst of sunfire was spectacular, perfect for Henry’s requiem. Bright pinks and oranges flared and rippled amongst feathers of clouds. Aaron’s face warmed as the sun rose and the pageant faded and the sky gradually fused back together in a cool, peaceful blue. It was morning, fair and full of promise.

–Excerpted from The Tramp

I am happy to report that I’m now able to truly celebrate Henri’s life. When I shed tears for him, they are tears of joy and gratitude. Recently, Amy Martin introduced me to Denise Mange, a certified animal communicator who helped me contact Henri. It was an amazing experience and one that I will share in my next post. Stay tuned! If you’d like to learn more about animal communicators, ask Amy or visit Denise’s site: www.denisenyctraining.com.

–Sarah Wathen, guest author


Headshot_1_smallTo learn more, follow Sarah’s blog at www.sarahwathen.com.

Sarah Wathen is an artist, an author, and the founder of the independent publishing house, LayerCake Productions, specializing in the fun part of creative writing—original artwork, video trailers, and musical soundtracks. She was trained in Classical Painting at the University of Central Florida, and received her Master’s in Fine Art from Parsons School of Design in New York City. If Florida was where she discovered her passion, New York was the place she found her voice. “Writing a book was my obvious next step, once I realized I’d been trying to tell stories with pictures for years,” Sarah says about transitioning from visual artist to novelist. “Painting with words is even more fun than painting with oil.”

Sarah lives in Florida with her husband, son, and at least a dozen imaginary friends from her two novels, a paranormal mystery called The Tramp, and a young adult coming of age story, Catchpenny. A painter at heart, her novels incorporate art judicially, both in narrative content and supporting materials. Her characters are derived from the people and places that have influenced her own life—at least one beloved pet makes it into every book—but the stories they live will take you places you have never imagined and won’t want to leave.

Contact

Email: layercakeproductionsllc@gmail.com

Twitter: @SWathen_Author

Facebook: SarahLWathen

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Medium: @sarahwathen

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

 

Let The Games Begin!

invitation PPG

Today is the “opening day” of a brand new, fun competition and you are invited!

Event Details

Who:  You! Your friends! Your family! Your colleagues! Your coworkers! And of course, your animal companions (pets)!

What:  The International Day of Celebration for Force Free Training & Pet Care

When:  Friday, January 17, 2014 – Saturday, March 15, 2014

Where:  In your own home, in the backyard, at the beach, in the mountains, in the forest, in the wetlands, in your neighborhood, at the pool, or at the park! Anywhere you can think of! This is an International Virtual Educational Event, so they possibilities are endless!

Why:  The community of force-free pet professionals and animal guardians recognize, value, and celebrate the positive effects and power of force-free animal training and pet care! We want to share that knowledge with the world and teach others that Force-Free is the way to be!

HostThe Pet Professional Guild

All profits from this event go to the Pet Professional Guild Advocacy Fund for PPG’s advocacy goals in 2014:

The Pet Professional Guild, the Association for Force-Free Pet Professionals (The PPG or The Guild), is a nonprofit member organization headquartered in Bonifay FL, USA. The PPG represents over 1600 members around the world.  The mission of PPG World Services is “Global News & Views on Force-Free Pet Care” and will serve as an advocacy forum for force-free dog training and pet care issues. The key advocacy goal of the PPG is to facilitate an ongoing conversation with pet owners, pet care professionals and industry stakeholders aimed at moving the pet industry forward toward better informed practices, training methods, equipment use and pet care philosophies. The Guild’s message will strive to build widespread collaboration and acceptance of force-free methods and philosophies consistent with its guiding principles.

If you are wondering what all of this means, here it is very simply; Force-Free is defined as:

No shock, No pain, No choke, No fear, No physical force, No physical molding, No compulsion based methods are employed to train or care for a pet.

Animals can be trained without fear, force, or intimidation. That includes ALL pets, ALL animals, ALL species, ALL the time!  Training can and should be FUN for everyone!

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Participation in this global event is simple.  All you have to do is participate in any 30 minute Force-Free Fun Activity with your pet!  Take a walk or a jog, swim or hike, bike or skate, train and teach, but the idea is to spend 30 minutes of Force-Free Fun with your animal companion!  This can be anything and anywhere that you decide. Where do they love to go? What do they enjoy doing? What’s your favorite place to be with them?  Do it when and where it’s convenient for you!

Note: If you don’t have time to complete your chosen event all at once, you can split it up over several days.

force free fun training pet tricks

Photo Fun!

Participants are encouraged to submit photos showing what they did for their fun, chosen event. The photos will be judged on these three criteria:

  • Originality
  • Creativity
  • How much force-free fun the human and pet are having together (this one is strongly encouraged!) Fun is the key!

What’s In It For You!

Each participant will receive:

  • A special competitor medal for your companion animal!
  • A certificate to show off that you rocked the contest!
  • Entry to the fun photograph competition!
  • PRIZES!

Get a sneak peak of the awesome prize list here! And remember to check back as more goodies are added to the list!

Register today to help celebrate and educate others about this important event. Through education and celebration, we can help others learn the value and importance of force-free training and animal companion care methods.  Education and inspiration starts with you!  Won’t you join the fun, Force-Free revolution with us?

Note: The registration deadline is March 3rd. So be sure to add your name to the fun, force-free list today!

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  • We welcome and encourage you to check out the pet owner resource section of The Pet Professional Guild website! You will find tons of helpful resources! You can also listen to a few of the PPG’s free podcasts on iTunes here.
  • If you are still wondering why our Pet Professional Guild has proclaimed An International Day of Celebration for Force Free Training and Pet Care, check out this video and our news release here!  
PPG Web Header
Please spread the word to everyone you know!  Download the event poster here and feel free to share it with your networks and community!

If you are interested in sponsoring the event or becoming involved on any level then please contact Niki Tudge at IFCC@PetProfessionalGuild.com


If you missed the event, don’t worry! We will have another event in February of 2015!!!

… Stay tuned and never miss another event by joining us at The Pet Professional Guild!

Will you become Force-Free All the time?
Will you become Force-Free All the time?

Day of the Dragon!

Kadar, our male breeding Komodo dragon at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.
Kadar, our male breeding Komodo dragon at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.

Today is International Appreciate A Dragon Day!  Yeah, I know.  It sounds crazy, but if there is an international peanut butter day, then dragons can certainly have their turn in the international spotlight.  As soon as I heard that today was appreciate a dragon day, I was really psyched because one very special dragon came to my mind.  He was amazing in every sense of the word.

Because of this dragon, I learned and felt more than I ever thought possible from a 140 pound lizard.  I cared for him, bred him, trained him, enriched him, and during his last days on earth, I held him between my legs as he breathed his last breaths.

His name was Kadar and he was a Komodo Dragon.


Here There Be Dragons!

I was introduced to Kadar on the first day of a very challenging and amazing career path.  I had the pleasure of working at the Audubon Zoo in the Reptile Section for many years.  I was a reptile and amphibian “keeper” (animal caretaker) and an enrichment specialist.  Kadar was one of the many species of reptiles that opened my mind to the depth of intelligence and perfection that many animals have.  He dispelled many myths about reptiles, and showed us how to be more conscious of caring for reptiles in captivity.  Kadar was a gorgeous specimen, and quite a sight to behold!  He was a favorite among many zoo visitors and staff.

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Kadar gently chasing his mate, Kali around their exhibit

Leaping, Learning Lizards!

Force-free training was just barely beginning to be embraced by the zoo community when I was working there.  Thankfully, in 1999 we learned that “even lizards” can be taught to do almost anything because they are incredibly intelligent!  Each day at the zoo, there were scheduled public feedings.  Zoo visitors loved to come and watch us as we climbed to the top of Kadar’s exhibit, and then toss him a deceased rabbit, mackerel, or beef heart into his enclosure.  Kadar would come running over and gobble the gory goodies down within seconds!  The gory (but fascinating) scene was quite a sight to see!

Then a female reptile colleague and I taught Kadar to station where we wanted him to in his exhibit, using a laser pointer.  We also taught him to recall on command so we could shift him in and out of his night den without force.  He learned to target, and to trust people again.  We also learned how to safely work with him without using fear or force.

With training and enrichment we encouraged his natural hunting and stalking abilities by encouraging him to “hunt” for scents all around his enclosure, to mimic conditions that he would have experienced in the wild, on Komodo Island.  Through force-free, choice based training we gained Kadar’s trust, we eliminated fear on both ends of the stick!


Lessons Learned 

One day we needed to perform a medical procedure on Kadar (to remove a few rocks in his belly that he had ingested) and in the process, a vertebrae and some nerves in his neck were severely damaged.  Kadar soon lost his strong, regal gait and was not responding to his training cues.  He was becoming severely challenged while eating and moving around his enclosure.  We did everything we could to help him.  Our hospital staff worked around the clock during those last days to monitor his vital signs and keep him alive.  We took shifts at night breathing for him.

I will never forget the honor and respect I felt, holding him between my legs as I gently pushed air into his lungs, hoping that it would keep his organs and brain functioning.  We even took him to the Children’s Hospital next door to the zoo to perform a CAT Scan and MRI to see how extensive the damage was, but it was too late.  Kadar’s heart was still beating but he was no longer there.  He had passed in the night while in my arms.  We mourned his passing, but we never forgot what he taught us about reptile intelligence, and what he brought to the zoo community.  We all learned something from Kadar.

 


Not All Was Lost.

After Kadar passed, we were all heartbroken, but were able to honor his legacy by continuing the force-free reptile training movement with Kali, his very clever Komodo mate.  We taught Kali to station on a scale, allow nail trims, and to be crated.  Our team created a special crate designed to facilitate safe, force-free annual exams without anesthesia.  In the latter years, Kadar and Kali had to be anesthetized for these important annual exams.  This really cool create enabled the hospital staff to come out to our area for medical procedures such as weighing her, blood draws, radiographs (x-rays), colloquial swabs, and checking for eggs.

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Trained Komodo Dragons!

komodo dragon training reptile force free training and enrichement
Images from The Zoological Society of London

When we trained Kadar, there were hardly any force-free reptile training programs in existence at the time.  Thankfully, now zoos all around the world are utilizing more force-free training with the species that they breed and care for in captivity.  They use everything from laser pointers to target sticks and clicker training!   Below are just a few of the safe and enriching management tools that zoo staff around the world are using with Komodo Dragons to maintain their health and well-being:


One of the enrichment devices that has been developed at ZSL London Zoo’s Herpetology Department, in conjunction with Aussiedog© is a ‘Tug-Toy’.  This ‘Komodo Tug-Toy’ is the first of its kind and it comes complete with a strong elasticised bungee, two removable tug grips and several different bites.  The device was developed after lengthy email correspondence with specialists at Aussiedog©. We discussed every possible component and variable from anatomy, force and bite radius to enclosure size to what colour to use/not use (as Raja, our male dragon, is trained to a white target for example) and we carefully considered what texture and material would be preferable for the detachable bites.  The device can also be hung from a tree or retaining wall, and meat joints can replace the bites to encourage the natural pulling and tearing motions the dragon uses to consume carcasses.

Raja enjoying a game of Tug with keepers. This was a specially made "Tug Toy" safe for the handler and Komodo
Raja enjoying a game of Tug with keepers at the London Zoo’s Reptile House.  This “Tug Toy”  was designed to be safe for the handler and Komodo

Raja even has his own facebook page!

These training and enrichment techniques allow zoo keepers and medical staff to work safely with, and in close proximity to, Komodo dragons in captivity. These force-free techniques facilitate the animals’ well-being through mental and physical stimulation.


Lethal Lizards?

Many people are terrified of Komodos and see them as monsters.  This is not true.  Most komodos in captivity have strong bonds with their keepers. However, safety is always the utmost priority because they do have quite a bite when they are in prey drive!   Any number of their prey would attest to this (if they could). They are not slobbery monsters that will attack you at a moment’s notice.  They are usually calm, clean, and calculating.

Dirty Dragon?

New research from the University of Queensland published in the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine has found that the mouths of Komodo dragons are surprisingly ordinary for a venomous species.

Venomous Varanus!

In 2009, scientists concluded that komodo dragons (and all monitor lizards and iguanas) produce venom.  Venom is a toxin that’s secreted by glands and injected into an animal by a bite or sting (versus how poison is delivered).  There is a common myth that highly toxic bacteria in a Komodo’s mouth is what’s responsible for ultimately killing the dragons’ prey.  Zoo and reptile management and researchers have long thought that the Komodo dragon kills its prey via blood poisoning from the 50 strains of bacteria in the dragon’s saliva.  Well, it turns out that the bacteria tale has been a “scientific fairy tale”.  They found that the levels and types of bacteria do not differ from any other carnivore; it’s the venom at work:

The dragon’s venom rapidly decreases blood pressure, expedites blood loss, and sends a victim into shock, rendering it too weak to fight.  In the venom, some compounds that reduce blood pressure are as potent as those found in the world’s most venomous snake, western Australia’s inland Taipan.

Fry used a medical MRI scanner to analyse the preserved head of a dead Komodo dragon and found that it has two long venom glands, running down the length of its jaw. They are the most structurally complex venom glands of any reptile. Each consists of six compartments, with ducts leading from each one to openings between the teeth.
Professor Fry used a medical MRI scanner to analyze the preserved head of a Komodo dragon. He found that it has two long venom glands, running down the length of its jaw. They are the most structurally complex venom glands of any reptile!  Each consists of six compartments, with ducts leading from each one to openings between the teeth.

Other venomous lizards, like the Gila monster, channel venom down grooves that run the length of their teeth but the Komodo dragon doesn’t have these – it just drips venom straight into the wounds that it inflicts. The venom itself consists of over 600 toxins, a chemical arsenal that rivals those of many snakes. Many of these poisons are familiar and they greatly exacerbate the blood loss caused by the dragon’s bite. They cause internal haemorrhaging from leaky blood vessels, prevent blood from clotting and cause muscle contractions and paralysis. Fry calculated that a typical adult dragon would need only 4mg of venom proteins to send a 40kg deer into toxic shock from collapsing blood pressure. A full venom gland packs at least eight times this amount.

After the CHOMP,  a Komodo waits patiently, following its bitten prey for miles in a leisurely fashion. He or she then locates the dead animal by its smell.  Like most lizards, Komodo dragons have an exquisite sense of smell.  But it’s not the kind of smell most of us are familiar with.  Like a snake, a Komodo “tastes” by collecting air with its forked tongue, then deposits the collected scent particles on receptors on the roof of its mouth.  Using this method, it can detect a dead animal up to five miles (eight kilometers) away!

The Komodo's sense of smell is its primary food detector. They detect odors much like a snake does. It uses its long, forked tongue to sample the air, which the two tongue tips retreat to the roof of the mouth, where they make contact with the Jacobson's organs. Here the air is deciphered carefully.
The Komodo’s sense of smell is its primary food detector. They detect odors much like a snake does. It uses its long, forked tongue to sample the air, which the two tongue tips retreat to the roof of the mouth, where they make contact with the Jacobson’s organs. Here the air is deciphered carefully.

The chemical analyzers “smell” prey by recognizing airborne molecules.  If the concentration present on the left tongue tip is higher than that sampled from the right, it tells the Komodo that the prey is approaching from the left. This system, along with an undulatory walk in which the head swings from side to side, helps the dragon sense the existence and direction of odoriferous carrion from as far away as 2.5 miles (4 km), when the wind is right.


Varanus komodoensis Komodo
Open Wide! A captive Komodo showing off his clean mouth during an afternoon yawn in the sun

 


Komodo dragons are actually very clean animals.  After they are done feeding, they will spend 10 to 15 minutes lip-licking and rubbing their head in the leaves to clean their mouth. The inside of their mouth is also kept extremely clean by the tongue. ~Professor Bryan Fry, Associate professor from The University of Queensland


The Komodo dragon isn't a filthy, bacteria laden creature, as people believe. They are clean animals that are highly intelligent.
The Komodo dragon isn’t a filthy, bacteria-laden creature. They are clean animals that are highly intelligent.

Komodo Dragon

Scientific Name: Varanus komodoensis

Fast Facts:  

  • Thekomodo dragon is the world’s largest lizard.

    Komodos have a rough, durable skin reinforced with osteoderms (bony plates) protecting them from injuries from scratches and bites.
    Komodos have a rough, durable skin reinforced with osteoderms (bony plates) protecting them from injuries from scratches and bites.
  • They are classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), But with only 3,000 to 5,000 left in the wild the latest data suggests they are endangered.
  • Komodos are native to a few volcanic Indonesian islands of the Lesser Sunda group including Komodo, Rintja, Padar, and Flores. The largest island is only 22 miles (35 km) long.
  • Komodos are called the ora, or “land crocodile” by locals
  • For centuries, a local tradition required feeding the dragons. Hunters would leave deer parts behind after a hunt, or sacrifice goats. In the past, the practice maintained a friendly relationship with the animals. Ancient customsstrictlyforbidharmingthekomodos, which is why they survived on their native islands and became extinct elsewhere.

    Kadar and Kali, our breeding pair, mating on exhibit at the Audubon Zoo
    Kadar and Kali, our breeding pair, mating on exhibit at the Audubon Zoo
  • Female Komodo dragons have been known to give birth without ever mating with a male dragon. Some call these “virgin births” but it’s actually parthenogenesis.
  • They are one of the most intelligent reptiles! They can distinguish between their different keepers in a zoo, by voices and different clothing worn by their keepers. Locals on the islands also say that the dragons know who’s who!
  • Their vision and sense of smell are highly sophisticated.
  • The largest verified specimen reached a length of 10.3 feet (3.13 m) and weighed 366 pounds (166 kg)
  • Komodos have about 60 teeth. Teeth grow back quickly if when they lose any.
  • They use their teeth to cut their prey into sections, and then swallow without chewing.

    When raised in captivity alongside humans, Komodos have been known to be quite docile and curious lizards
    When raised in captivity alongside humans, Komodos have been known to be quite docile and curious lizards
  • They rarely drink water. They prefer to get their fluids from the food they eat.
  • They can consume up to 80 percent of their body weight in one sitting.
  • They will a variety of prey including snakes, other lizards, young komodos, fish, eggs, carrion, deer, pigs, goats, dogs, horses and water buffalo.
  • They prefer to hunt as an ambush predator; they lay in wait, then surprise their prey. Chomp!
  • When hunting large prey, he/she attacks the feet first, knocking the animal off balance. When hunting smaller prey, h/she usually lunges straight for the neck.
  • They are extremely fast for a lizard of their size. In short bursts, they can reach speeds of 12 miles per hour.
  • JuvenileKomodos are very agile climbers. They live a more terrestrial life (in trees)untiltheyarefully-grown and able to protectthemselvesfromotheradultKomodos on the ground.

     Komodo dragons hatched in AZA zoos  are giving a small boost to their endangered population.
    Komodo dragons hatched in AZA zoos are giving a small boost to their endangered population.
  • Komodos can throw up the contents of their stomachs when threatened to reduce their weight in order to flee.
  • Large mammal carnivores (lions, tigers, etc.) tend to leave 25 to 30 percent of their kill unconsumed, (leaving the intestines, hide, skeleton, and hooves). Komodos eat much more efficiently; they only leave 12 percent of their prey. They eat bones, hooves, and the hide. They also eat intestines, but only after swinging them vigorously to scatter the feces from the meal.
  • Because large Komodos cannibalize young ones, the young komodos will roll in fecal matter which seems to be a scent that the larger dragons avoid.
  • Young dragons also have rituals of appeasement; the smallerlizardspacingaroundakomodo feeding circle in a ritualized walk.Theirtailis stuck straight out and they throw their body from side to side with exaggerated convulsions. This helps them to stay near the feeding circle without being attacked.
    Photo by National Geographic An adult Komodo dragon enjoys the view near Indonesia's Komodo village.
    Photo by National Geographic
    An adult Komodo dragon enjoys the view near Indonesia’s Komodo village.

  • Dragons may live up to 30 – 50 years in the wild, but scientists are still studying this.
  • Female Komodo Dragons live half as long as males on average, due to their physically demanding ‘housework’ (building huge nests and guarding eggs for up to six months).
  • Scientists have been searching for antibodies in Komodo blood in order to help save human lives.
  • Poaching, human encroachment, and natural disasters are its greatest threats.
The Denver, Phoenix and Memphis Zoo all successfully hatched Komodo dragons last year. Even the famous Betty White was excited!
The Denver, Phoenix and Memphis Zoo all successfully hatched Komodo dragons last year. Even the famous Betty White was excited! These hatchlings represent a joint conservation effort between zoos: the hatchlings will all go to different zoos for education and breeding purposes.

Recommended Reading for Lizard Lovers!

This book has the latest information on Komodo dragon biology, ecology, population distribution, and behavior.  It also includes a step-by-step management and conservation techniques, both for wild and captive dragons.  This model is a useful template for the conservation of other endangered species.
This book has the latest information on Komodo dragon biology, ecology, population distribution, and behavior. It also includes a step-by-step management and conservation techniques, both for wild and captive dragons. This model is a useful template for the conservation of other endangered species.

This blog is dedicated to you, Kadar.  Thank you for teaching me what reptiles are capable of, what exquisite and perfect creatures you are, and for teaching me more than I could have ever imagined.  You were loved and adored by so many.

dragon


Resources:

“Komodo Dragons, Biology and Conservation” by James B. Murphy, Claudio ciofi, Colomba de La Panouse, Trooper Walsh

http://www.uq.edu.au/news/article/2013/06/fear-of-komodo-dragon-bacteria-wrapped-myth

http://scienceblogs.com/notrocketscience/2009/05/18/venomous-komodo-dragons-kill-prey-with-wound-and-poison-tact/

http://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/reptilesamphibians/facts/factsheets/komododragon.cfm


 

Pets are not iPads: Thinking Outside the Animal Gift Box

puppy-wearing-red-bowIf you are a last minute holiday shopper, you may be tempted to buy Christmas or New Year gifts for loved ones without doing your homework.  This time of year, parents and partners can be easily persuaded to get the most heart-warming gift of them all: a cute and cuddly new animal.  It may seem like the sweetest gift idea, but often it is not most responsible decision.

Animals are unlike any other present.  They require a level of commitment and responsibility that few other holiday gifts do.  Often because people fail to recognize this, countless dogs, cats, birds, and other animals given as gifts during the holidays end up at animal shelters shortly after the New Year, facing a very uncertain future.

An animal gifted as a present isn’t a Christmas Day gift, it is a life-long commitment.  Let’s be clear here.  It’s not a gift for your life, but their life.  Thinking of getting that teeny, tiny, adorable tortoise?  Are you ready to ensure its care for well over a hundred years?  Do you want a dazzling parrot?  You can plan on 60 to even 100 years of care.  Even aquatic turtles live over 30 years of age.  The average lifespan of a cat is 13 – 17 years.  A dog’s average lifespan is 10 to 13 years.  Are you ready to dedicate yourself to this animal for that long? Animals are not just pets.  They are family members for life.

Ask yourself another tough question.  Have you considered the extent of responsibility, time, care, expenses, education, commitment, and love that this one animal will require?  These responsibilities last far past Christmas day.  Take the time and do your homework on what exactly is involved by adding an animal companion to your lifestyle.

Let’s take dogs for example.  When you decide to bring home a new canine companion, please understand that you are making a commitment for the entirety of that dog’s life.  So many people that have the best intentions rush this very important and life-long decision.

The honest and informative graphic below from The Uncommon Dog should help you and your family decide if you are truly ready to welcome a dog into your home at Christmas Time.

christmas-doggie
Graphic provided by The Uncommon Dog

When the kids, wife, husband, or partner pleads for a new adorable pet, answer their request with a realistic question:  “Are you fully committed to this soul for its life?”  If either of you cannot answer with an unequivocal yes, then you might want to reconsider.

Parents, no matter how well intentioned your child may seem about caring for a new animal family member, the reality is that you will inevitably end up being the true caretaker of that animal.  Deciding to give your son or daughter that puppy or kitten that he or she has been asking for is really a decision made by the adult, to add another living, breathing, needing member of your family – for which you, the parent will be ultimately responsible.  It’s not quite the same, or as easy as investing in an iPad.

kitty gift
After the holidays are over, animal shelters are literally overwhelmed with discarded “Christmas pets”

If you decide that “gifting” an animal isn’t the best decision, consider these options as an alternative:

  • Joining Petfinder’s Foster a Lonely Pet for the holidays program. You can give a shelter dog or cat a much-needed break from the stress of shelter life.
  • Donating in-kind goods; many shelters need used blankets, sheets, and towels to make the animals more comfortable. They often need food, toys, and medical supplies. Call or check online to see your shelter’s “wish list” items.
  • Give a goat and two chickens. Through Animal World Vision, goats nourish hungry children and families with healthy milk, cheese, and yogurt
  • Make a donation to your local shelter or local humane society.
  • Start an animal food drive. This can be for an animal food bank in your community, or in conjunction with other charity drives that may be taking place through your work, house of worship, or other organization.
  • Volunteer at your local shelter. You can help by walking dogs, offer love, affection, and attention to cats, assist with adoption events, and many other ways that are much needed

Think outside the animal gift box. Find another creative, thoughtful way to show your love this season.

The excellence of a gift lies in its appropriateness rather than in its
value. ― Charles Dudley Warner

The Landfill Dogs

“The dog’s agenda is simple, fathomable, overt: I want. “I want to go out, come in, eat something, lie here, play with that, kiss you. There are no ulterior motives with a dog, no mind games, no second-guessing, no complicated negotiations or bargains, and no guilt trips or grudges if a request is denied.” 
― Caroline Knapp

Mistletoe
Mistletoe ~ Photo by Mary Shannon Johnstone

Not long ago I came across something that really moved me, spoke to me deeply, and inspired me to help something greater than myself.

Shannon Johnstone, an art professor at Meredith College in North Carolina, recently launched the Landfill Dogs project.  Every week she takes one shelter dog on an afternoon outing and photographs him or her playing, frolicking, sniffing, lounging in the grass, and just being a dog at the state landfill where they will end up after they are euthanized. Yes, you heard right.  These dogs are on death row.

So why would someone even care to do this?  Johnstone explains:

These are not just cute pictures of dogs. These are dogs who have been homeless for at least two weeks, and now face euthanasia if they do not find a home. Each week for 18 months (late 2012–early 2014) I bring one dog from the county animal shelter and photograph him/her at the local landfill.

The landfill site is used for two reasons. First, this is where the dogs will end up if they do not find a home. Their bodies will be buried deep in the landfill among our trash. These photographs offer the last opportunity for the dogs to find homes.

The second reason for the landfill location is because the county animal shelter falls under the same management as the landfill. This government structure reflects a societal value; homeless cats and dogs are just another waste stream. However, this landscape offers a metaphor of hope. It is a place of trash that has been transformed into a place of beauty. I hope the viewer also sees the beauty in these homeless, unloved creatures.

As part of this photographic process, each dog receive a car ride, a walk, treats, and about 2 hours of much needed individual attention. My goal is to offer an individual face to the souls that are lost because of animal overpopulation, and give these animals one last chance. This project will continue for one year, so that we can see the landscape change, but the constant stream of dogs remains the same.

Here are a few of Shannon’s images that so beautifully capture the spirit of each dog: 

Momma: Impoundment #68215 Photo by Mary Shannon Johnstone
Momma: Impoundment #68215
Photo by Mary Shannon Johnstone

“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and man.”
― Mark Twain

Rose: Impoundment #82564 Photo by: Mary Shannon Johnstone
Rose: Impoundment #82564
Photo by Mary Shannon Johnstone

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

Pigpen. Impoundment #85852. He never found a home.
Pigpen. Impoundment #85852.  He never found a home.

“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.”
― Milan Kundera

Ice Frosting:  Impoundment #82263 Mary Shannon Johnstone
Ice Frosting: Impoundment #82263
Photo by Mary Shannon Johnstone

“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”
― Josh Billings

Charo, impoundment #90561. She is still looking for a home. It has been 118 days.This good girl is very busy, likes to keep herself occupied, and LOVES to be around people. She does not miss meals, is extremely treat motivated, already knows "SIT".
Charo, impoundment #90561. She is still looking for a home. It has been 118 days.
This good girl likes to keep herself occupied, and LOVES to be around people. She never misses a meals, is extremely treat motivated, and she already knows “SIT”.    Photo by Mary Shannon Johnstone

“The assumption that animals are without rights, and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance, is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion in the only guarantee of morality.”
― Arthur Schopenhauer, The Basis of Morality

 

Her images are poignantly beautiful.  Looking at these faces, I can’t help but think about the millions of dogs and cats that end up at landfills all over the world because of factors that we do have direct control over: lack of spaying and neutering, lack of planning and prevention, the endless need that we have to breed more and more dogs to satisfy the desire for a designer dog, or because dogs and cats are surrendered to shelters due to “behavioral problems” – many of which could be prevented with education, proper training, and socializing.  Every dog, cat, or other companion animal that ends up in these landfills is a life that could have been saved from such a fate.

It’s hard to not get emotional looking at this images, knowing the ground that the dogs are standing on, and what their fate will most likely be. But we can help them.

We do have the power to help all companion animals – right in our own backyards – that need our help.  We can speak up for them by sharing their story and their faces.  We can help other animal guardians avoid having to surrender their companion animals to shelters through education and training.  We can stress the importance of microchipping, spaying and neutering every cat and dog!  If someone can’t afford to spay or neuter their animal, we can show them that there are affordable spay and neuter options!  We can speak with our local shelters and ask to volunteer there, or even be a foster mom or dad to animals in need.  We can be an advocate for no-kill shelters and support their never-ending hard work. We can encourage our friends, coworkers, and family members to adopt dogs, cats, birds, etc, that need loving, forever homes, rather than buying from breeders. There are so many ways to prevent this.

These are not “abandoned pets” or “throw-aways”.  They are living beings with a soul. They deserve a life of compassion and mercy. Each one of them has so much love to give, so many lessons to teach us, and ways of opening our hearts so that we may know, feel, and understand unconditional love and acceptance.

Our Hocus Pocus was rescued from a no-kill shelter here in North Carolina.  If it wasn't for Robeson County Humane Society, she would have been one of the Landfill Dogs.
Our Hocus Pocus was rescued from a no-kill shelter here in North Carolina.  Her mother was found pregnant along the  side of the highway during winter.  If it wasn’t for Robeson County Humane Society, Hocus, her mother, and all of her siblings would have all become Landfill Dogs.

Landfill Dogs who are still looking for homes:

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Landfill Dogs is a photographic project to showcase the beautiful souls of the most overlooked dogs, located in Wake County Animal Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA.  You can read the full story from The Unexamined Dog about Beautiful Animal Advocacy here.  To learn more about Shannon Johnstone’ project visit here.

To see most recent Landfill Dogs – the souls who are still in need of forever homes please see the Landfill Dogs facebook page or visit this gallery.  Landfill Dog Adoption info here!  Please share their story with others!

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” 
― Anatole France

A Porcupine and His True Love: A Pumpkin

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Have you ever seen a tiger bat at a boomer ball, an octopus play with a water toy, an otter hunt down live fish, or a sun bear play eat a real honey comb?  If you were to visit a reputable zoo or aquarium you might see these fun and entertaining behaviors in action!

The reason animals in captivity are given things like this to play with or eat, is not for our entertainment.  Behavioral enrichment is a necessary part of life in captivity.  It’s defined as “the environmental enhancement of the lives of animals in a managed setting by providing them with mental and physical stimulation to increase natural and healthy behavior.”  Or more simply put; we add a little creativity, fun and stimulation to animals’ lives!

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Sand, mud, rotting logs, and leaf litter might not seem very exciting to us, but for some animals that is the perfect playground!  Providing the right environment for animals in captivity is crucial.  Animals need opportunities to run, jump, pounce, climb, burrow, dive, hunt for food, and explore — to do all of the things that come naturally.  Enrichment provides stimulating and challenging environments, objects, and activities for animals. It’s designed to stimulate them mentally and physically!  Read more about why animal enrichment is a vital part of Animal Husbandry and Welfare.


Environmental enrichment is just as critical to Zoo animal welfare as nutrition and veterinary medicine.

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In this video below, Teddy Bear, the “talking” porcupine, demonstrates one of his most favorite enrichment items!  Click on the image so you can hear what Teddy Bear has to say about one of his favorite Fall treats!

CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO WATCH TEDDY BEAR IN ACTION!

You can follow Teddy Bear the Porcupine here:

Zooniversity is a wildlife education company and exotic animal rescue located in Dallas, Texas, USA.