26 January 2017

Understanding Animals: Are Animals Happy Or Sad?

Fate And Chloe: Are They Happy?

When I wrote about the New York Carriages, and said they seemed content in their lives and healthy, I received a great deal of indignant mail from people who assured me that the horses were "sad" and looked depressed. They were unhappy, people told me. This was, in fact, a staple claim of the animal rights movement, which claimed the horses seemed dejected and miserable working in the city.

I wrote recently about the decision of Ringling Brothers to close, and about the lack of any real evidence that its own elephants were either sad or abused, even though I saw scores of stories from reputable (and some lazy) journalists insisting the elephants hated to be performing for people.

I received even more angry messages, mostly on Facebook from people who had never seen an elephant and knew nothing about them.

"You can see from the photos and videos," Jane wrote me, "that the poor things feel demeaned and awful having to do tricks for human beings. This is disgusting, I will never read a word you write again. They belong in the wild." This idea – that some animals are sad when working with people or entertaining them – nearly wiped out the horse carriage trade in New York and ultimately, killed the circus.

It nearly killed 200 carriage horses and will soon be responsible for the death of  a number of elephants, with no work to do or places to go.

For several years now, I have been gathering and reading studies by behaviorists and animal biologists about what is really known about animal emotions. I is tough reading but good reading.

I have also been living with animals – cows, sheep, donkeys, dogs, barn cats, sheep – for years and writing books and articles about them. This May, my experiences communicating with them – "Talking To Animals" will be published by Simon and Schuster.

The studies are invariably dense and filled with scientific jargon. But they are compelling and useful, and the correspond closely with my own observations. Animals are not human and while they have emotions, they do not have human emotions, a difference that confuses many people, especially in our media culture, which emotionalizes animals as intensely as it emotionalizes politics and the news.

I've seen – and animal biologists have found – that animals experience fear and pain.

Both instincts are visible. Biologists also know that animals instinctively hide their other feelings and emotions to confuse or mislead predators. And they know that animals do not have our vocabulary, emotions, or imagination. They can't project the future or work to improve their lives.  They don't have consciences. They don't ache to travel or worry about money or aging. They don't have words. They live to survive, and they survive on instinct, not calculated decisions or  motives like happiness or adventure.

On her fascinating blog, biologist Dr. Holly Muraco writes about the things that drive animal behavior. It is almost never emotion.

"…dolphins living in nature aren’t spending their time “going on adventures and exploring with their families," she writes.
"That is a human desire and pleasure. All wild animals (yes that means dolphins and whales too) have one very important, all-encompassing, instinctual job to do; it’s to pass their genes to the next generation. To get to that ultimate end goal of passing on their genes (mating), an animal has to eat for energy and avoid death. To be successful at eating, mating and avoiding death, wild animals employ different life strategies and reside in specific ecological niches."

Mostly, they do what the have to do to survive, including for domesticated animals and pets charming and tricking humans into thinking they love them so they will get fed. Dogs are perhaps the greatest practitioners of this animal behavior, we let them into our homes, give them human names, call them "furbabies" because they show emotions to us – excitement, tail wagging, licking – that we humans translate into recognizable emotions. Mostly, the dogs are excited because they will get attention, treats, a walk or other activities. Instinctively, they have figured out how to live with us and survive.

Dog owners fret that their dogs are bored when left at home or lonely. There is some evidence that dogs react different to people who are away for 20 minutes or two hours, but there is no evidence that dogs are aware of how long they are being left alone, or grasp the concept of loneliness. Dogs are pack animals, they prefer to be in the company of other living things, especially other dogs, but that is an instinct,  also shaped in the litter, by the mother and siblings.

Of course dogs instinctively wish to be with other dogs – in nature, that could mean the difference between life and death, or getting food or shelter or warmth and protection. It also, as with dolphins, means breeding, which is a powerful instinct in any animal. But dogs in the wild spent enormous amounts of time sleeping in enclosed spaces, it is not cruel for them to be in a crate, done right, it is comforting and grounding. Many people just can't bear to do it.

I have never had a dog who suffered from separation anxiety, or who had any problem being in a crate, or who suffered in any visible way from being alone in the house. I think this because I don't really believe in those things – they are often human engineered, for human needs, or triggered by traumatic dog experiences in early life or the litter. We need to believe they love us in human terms, hate to be apart from us. So they are. Dogs survive by being what we need them to be. Raccoons don't know how to do this, which is why we usually only see them lying dead by the side of the road.

In New York City, animal rights activists claim the carriage horses were "sad," because they hung their heads in the carriage lines and cocked a rear leg. These are, in fact, signs of calm and contentment for horses. Many people projected the idea of sadness onto the circus elephants, assuming they must hate performing in circuses because they were not in nature, their natural world. It is natural for people to assume that, since most of us would hate to do it.

But there was little or no evidence that the Ringling Brothers elephants were "depressed" or suffering. They were healthy, they ate heartily, were alert, attached to their trainers, responsive and obedient. They experienced none of the many dangers and struggles of the wild, and they were fed constantly and were busy and engaged and attached to people.

One could argue, as some did, that these were the luckiest Asian elephants in the world, although this idea is absolutely stunning to people fed on horrific videos online and the almost hysterical emotional projections. They must be sad, after all, prodded and poked and made to stand up on their hing legs for thousands of applauding people. They must hate to be on those trains, moving from one city to another.

They are gone now, and whether the claims of the circuses critic's had merit or not, these animals will now disappear from our world. A few will get to those mystical preserves we keep hearing about, the others will go to some zoos or smaller circuses, or be sent to slaughter. Ringling Brothers said it costs $65,000 to care for an Asian elephant each year, not too many places will be footing that bill. Few of those places where the elephants do go will have the money or resources or motivation to care for them as well as Ringling Brothers did.

The "happiness" or contentment of animals is a relative thing. Were the Ringling Brothers circus worse off than the elephants slaughtered by poachers in Asia every year, or those starving and dying because climate change and development are destroying their habitats?

In New York City, the head of the animal rights group leading the campaign to ban the carriage horses said on tape that the horses wold be "better off dead" than pulling light carriages for lovers and children and tourists in Central Park. He nearly got his wish.

We are "saving" more and more animals in order to worsen their living conditions or kill them.

The truth is much more complex than that, and the longer it takes us to see it, the more of these animals will die and be gone from the world. Animals generally do not make career or lifestyle choices. Truth is a struggling concept in America today, but it does exist, and people who truly love animals would be well served to try and dig it out.

Almost all animals live to eat, be with with other members of their species and to pro-create. Working animals live to work, they need the physical and mental stimulation of it to be healthy and content. Working animals like carriage horses, dogs and elephants are most often bred to connect with humans, to focus on them and attach to them so that they can work naturally with them. Think of the Lab out in the field with his hunter for hours. Breeding does that, not emotion.

This connection with people, over time, has become a breeding instinct – think of border collies and hunting dogs. There are signs of animal depression if they are hungry or sick or frightened, but no one can say for sure what an animals emotions are, or if they are "sad" or "happy." Behaviorists do not use those terms.

That is because they are human, not animal,  constructs. In my experience, animals are content or uneasy, not happy or sad. When a dog dies in a household, the other dogs are understandably upset, there is a disruption in the pack and the routine, and animals love routine. That is not the same thing as human grief.

I have lived with many dogs and had many dogs die, and I have never seen an animal "grieve," as opposed to being disoriented, confused or depressed. The very idea trivializes human grieve, which is all too real.

Since dogs have no understanding of death – only humans of all the species of the earth know they are going to die – how could they possibly mourn and grieve like we do? What words would they use, since they don't use words?

Think of the Katrina dogs, many thousands of them re-homed, away from their homes, people and canine companions. I don't know of one who mourned to death or did not eventually adapt. Dogs live to survive, not to emotionalize their lives like we do. Or the millions of rescue dogs and cats happily re-homed every year.

They are the most adaptable of creatures.

Frieda and Lenore both died a couple of years ago within months of one another, the border collies looked around for them, and ran to the door to go to work. When Frieda died, I gave Lenore a bone and she ran off happily to chew it. It is very difficult to separate what animals are thinking from what human beings want and need them to think.

Animal biology is a fascinating field, and it is a shame that very few animal lovers pay much attention to it. I think the future of animals depends on our having a wiser and more mystical understanding of them.

The best-selling dog books are not about the truth, but rather the truth we would like to believe in,  like the very sappy Rainbow Bridge, in which dogs wait for their humans to join them in heaven and play together for all eternity. It is the most selfish idea in all of the literature of the human-animal bond.

Emotionalizing animals harms them, even kills them. Overfeeding is the leading cause of death for dogs in America, reports the American Veterinary Association.

Researchers and science holds the keys to a better understanding of animals, and the better we understand them, the better off they – and we – will be.

Posted in General

Writing Together

Writing Together

In the evening, Maria comes in from her studio with her laptop to write on her blog. Minnie hops up onto the sofa on her three legs and curls up as close to her as she can get. Maria loves Minnie and loves to cuddle with her. I loved the ease and peace of this photo and this relationship. Minnie is getting older, a little more sensitive to the cold. This time of year, she comes at night to sit by the wood stove (and Maria) and stay warm. Flo comes in also, if there is nothing good to kill out there.

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Doing Good List In The Spring Of Good: No Whining

Not Whining

The challenge is for me to try to do good without lapsing into self-righteousness – the belief that I am superior to others because of what I believe. In America, a nation of whiners, complainers and victims, it seems sometimes, this is not a simple balancing act.

I do not ever believe I am superior to other people, or that I know more than everyone. I learn something new every day, and if I listen and open my mind, then I come to see how ignorant I really am, and how insignificant I am in the great scheme of things.

This year, in the challenging and disturbing and divisive year of 2017, when the country seems absolutely pschizophrenic, angry, f earful and quite polarized, I have decided that my response to will be be and join, if possible, an Army of Good. Rather than argue my beliefs, I will live them. Rather than complaint about what other people are doing, I will focus on what I am doing, rather than argue my values, I will simply live them.

The country and the world are too big, too overwhelming for me to focus on, I'd simply crack up (again.)

I think I am off to a pretty good start, just beginning.My Do Good in 2017 Winter/Spring  list.

  1. Do not tell other people what to do, believe, or think.
  2. Do not fall into the trap of believing I am nobler or superior to others because I have different ideas.
  3. Do not argue my beliefs with strangers on social media. Facebook and Twitter can connect, they can also instantly divide us.
  4. I am continuing my hospice and therapy work with Red, for now, focusing on the residents of the Mansion Assisted Care Facility in my hometown. Rather than pay quick visits to a number of different places, I want to focus on this one place, Red and I can get to know the staff. Through the blog, we sent everyone gifts and messages for Christmas, we are doing the same thing for Valentine's Day, and hopefully for Easter (11 S. Union St., Cambridge, N.Y., 12816). I will do more of this work in the coming months than I did all of last year.
  5. I am working with newly arrived immigrant refugees, several hundred of whom have made it to my area before the new President's virtual shutdown of immigration this week. Through the blog, I am helping raise money for their immediate needs. Hundreds of people have joined with me in this undertaking.  These good people are not stereotypes, they have not come to harm us. Maria and I will also help publicize and write about and work on a refugee art show being planned for March 30 in Albany, N.Y. I plan to teach English and literacy to them (I am a literacy volunteer) and also mentor a family. With permission, I will photograph them and write about their lives.
  6. Maria is going to India in February to teach the victims of sex trafficking how to make her very beautiful and popular potholders. I will do everything I can to support this trip. So have many of you.
  7. In my writing and my life I will work to promote listening and communicating, rather than arguing and raging. I truly hate whining, I just can't abide it, and every time I peek on social media, I hear this vast chorus of whining, like a billion bees circling over my head. Everyone thinks they are a victim. Here is the self-righteous part: I have to refrain every day from writing or saying messages that go like this: shut up, stop whining and go out and do something.
  8. I will continue to teach my writing class, it is an extraordinary experience to see people find their voices and free their inner spirits through writing. I have been trying to figure out how to teach writing for many years, I am getting closer, thanks to a wonderful group of people who trust me, fight with me, inspire me.
  9. I will continue to use my blog – now with about four million visits a year – to do good, to unite rather than divide, provoke rather than insult, inform rather than preach, and seek out common ground. The animals might be the path. Nobody fights about Red or Fate. Through the animals, through the dogs, perhaps we can learn once again how to love and listen to one another.
  10. 10. I am not a victim, and will never be one. A distant relative wrote me to say she knew I had had a terrible time with my divorce and open heart surgery, and I said nothing could be further from the truth. I am nothing but happy, and am lucky beyond my imagination. Life happens to all of us, in one form or another, and the refugees I meet and see remind me of what suffering really is. Few complainers in America can come close, even when elections don't go their way.

There are other things on my mind, on the Summer list, but I think this is enough for now. I have a good friend who keeps asking me how she can survive all of the challenges to her values and beliefs. We can't – perhaps shouldn't – take on the system. One person at a time. One idea at a time. One good deed at a time. The human scale. I will not surrender to despair or lament.

I talk to many good people who differ from me, and while they sometimes puzzle me, I do not hate them and will not argue with them We are holding together the sometimes frail threads of humanity. I am very hopeful, people are waking up on both sides, defining their values. I hope to do much good this year, that is my way of staying grounded and living my life, and I will never turn my life over to politicians or arguments.

I am grateful to my beating heart. It defines and guides me, for all that it has been through, and for all that I have put it through We are opening up to life together.

Posted in General

Black And White Sheep In Winter

Black And White Sheep In Winter

Three things are happening with sheep and my photography. One is that their wool is growing in, and they look more stately and photogenic every day. The other is that black and white goes well in the winter, it is beautiful contrast, the winter pasture. The third element is the Romney's, who are just beautiful and dignified sheep with gorgeous wool. My camera likes them. Here Susie (not a Romney) watches Red. She is almost always out front these days.

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Buy A Spoon: Feel Good. Heartbreaking Stories.

Buy A Spoon

Feel good for as little as $7: Donate A Spoon Or Towel Or Teapot To A Refugee Family.

I buy something for the refugees every morning this week, the inauguration week for my campaign to do good every day if  can rather than argue, complain, or whine. This morning I bought a spoon for a refugee family arriving in this area today, they have absolutely nothing, and the thought of them ladling soup with this big blue spoon lit up my morning.

We have a choice, every day. What do we wish to put out there?

I heard a heartbreaking story yesterday of a Syrian family on a waiting list for the United States for two years. The family was planning to come to Boston. The mother was a trained nurse, the father a software engineer, neither has ever been involved in any kind of politics. One son by a bomb dropped over head was killed riding  his bike in the Northwestern town of Kafraya. He was six.

The father's company closed, her hospital was destroyed in the fighting and bombed. They filled out their paperwork, were exhaustively questioned by U.S. officials, and were scheduled to come to the United States this week. A church and a synagogue teamed up to raise money for the family, who had lost everything. They raised a substantial amount of money, both congregations worked closely together to welcome this family to America and safeguard their arrival and transition.

Kamal was offered a job at a tech company, Adid was going to take courses so she could be certified to work as a nurse.Their two surviving children would enter a local elementary school. They left their home, dog, lives and money behind them. They were coming with nothing, their town has been virtually destroyed by conflict and bombing. They were clinging to the idea of America, seen all over the world as a haven for the weary and oppressed, and offering a better life for their children.

They won't be coming, they couldn't get through the paperwork in time to avoid the new ban on all refugees from Syria, announced yesterday by the President. They are devastated and also desperate, their village is in ruins there is no medical care or work.

Both congregations are also in despair, they had come to know the family well, and were so ready to love and welcome them and watch over them. This is  a hard story to hear. I hope they get here one day. The church and the synagogue will continue their work together and will keep on fighting for this family to come here.

But the story doubled my resolved to help the refugees who are here, and those few that have gotten through it this week. The refugee volunteers are in a panic, desperate to help, fearful of retribution or too much publicity. It doesn't feel like America to me.

What does feel like my  America is the flood of household necessities – blankets, soap, towels, plates, teapots, silverware, strollers – pouring into the volunteer's warehouse near Albany, N.Y., courtesy of the special page put up on Amazon by the volunteers working with the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants. You have all been very generous and I thank you.

Maria and I will soon be meeting a refugee family, have also been asked to help out with a refugee art show planned for March 30 in Albany. Details to come. I am resolved to do good whenever  can, hopefully every day. I have no desire to argue my beliefs.

The refugees who are here are in  desperate need of inexpensive and everyday household items. You can see a list of these items sought on the special Amazon gift page set up for this cause. Make sure you click on the USCRI address listed at checkout in Albany, so the donations go to the warehouse and not to you. The system was working perfectly last night and this morning.

if you can write in ATTN: Jake, that would be great.

I have my eye on the design doodle shower curtain for $9.90 for Friday.  The families need everything. This is the most fun I have ever had shopping, and a way of keeping me focused and in a good place. I will be thinking of the spoon all day, whenever I hear some bad news or run into yet another angry person Got to stay grounded.

Your gifts have filled up the volunteer warehouse, the packages are going into the hallways, where there is still room. I hope we can fill these hallways soon, the gifts are being rushed out to refugee apartments as soon as they arrive.

The gifts are inexpensive, and sorely needed. The volunteers tell me again and again to imagine a group of refugees who arrive from the Middle East, unable to speak English, and with no belongings in the middle of an upstate New York winter.

By donating, you are not only helping a family, you are keeping Liberty's torch l it.

I feel great about my spoon. You can see the page here.

Posted in General