Archive for the ‘animal behaviour’ category

Pandiculation

March 20, 2009

That looks a bit like me doing the downward dog, if it weren’t for the fur, tail and claws – oh, and I don’t usually yawn while I’m at it. Yoga has become a big part of my life over the past few years, to the point where I wonder how I used to manage without it.

When I go for a few days without yoga, as per lately due to too much time at the computer, my body starts to let me know that things are starting to go awry. Protests start to emanate from my neck and shoulders, lower back, hips, knees and ankles. Even if I do other exercise, such as walking, or karate – it’s the yoga that brings everything back into harmony again. Not all at once, mind – it’s more of an ongoing process built around a regular practice that creates gradual but real results. Ya, kind of like any exercise – I know.

What intrigues me about yoga is how it resembles what my cats do every single day, at various moments and without a regular schedule (at least not one I can decipher). Sometimes, they’ll do an energetic, yang-like spinal twist movement out of the blue and hold the pose for a several seconds while they lick that itchy spot on their back or comb out the matted fur in the lumbar area. Other times they sit on their sacrum to take a bath in a movement reminscent of a spinal curl or butterfly. They lie in passive yin poses for hours as they sleep. Upon waking, they do a few stretches, yawns and shakes, and they’re ready for action – just like my yoga DVD instructor does before we start sun salutations. My cats are so beyond sun salutation; those ritual moves are for beginners – for lower beings who have forgotten, and have to be taught how to inhabit their own bodies again.

So I like to think of pandiculation as feline yoga, or for that matter, a very primitive, pre-human kind of yoga – and I’m not using “primitive” pejoratively. Primitive as in sensual, in a context where the nerves and synapses of the cerebral cortex have less influence, and sensual information gets processed more directly- whether those senses communicate pain, pleasure, proprioception, information on surroundings, and instincts on what to do, now.

Healthy cats do yoga at any time, in just about any situation. Cats who don’t pandiculate don’t feel quite like cats. I can think of at least four reasons why cats I see at the clinic pandiculate less often than the cats I don’t see. Number one on my list has always been (and I hope won’t always be) – obesity. Or as we put it more delicately in French: embonpoint. While I am willing to allow that some humans can be simultaneously very healthy and overweight, this is rarely the case for cats. Embonpoint in cats leads very early to all sorts of woes, such as feline urinary tract disease, and later in life, it is the most significant risk factor in developing diabetes. In the time it takes for a young and svelte kitten to develop into a young obese cat who is one or two years old, it has lost a lot of body awareness and comfort. Overweight cats are generally grumpier, less active and have slower reflexes than slender cats; so it’s not all about weight and appearance, it’s also about movement and suppleness. A cat is definitely carrying too much weight if she is unable to turn around and wash her back – and has the matted hair to prove it.

A second case of decreased or absent pandiculation happens in long-haired cats who have been bred to grow unnaturally long and fine hair that they can’t manage without human help. If these cats are abandoned or neglected, they develop painfully matted coats that prevent them from stretching, twisting and holding positions that should normally be very comfortable. The hair is matted to the root, and pulls on the skin as they move. These cats are also very grumpy and inactive.

Thirdly, loss of pandiculation happens in cats who are simply ill, for any reason. The ill feeling might be fever, dizziness, weakness or pain – any feeling that would prevent a human being from feeling like exercising.

A fourth reason that is really important to me to mention is that many declawed cats – not all – but many, including my own Mädchen, whom I had declawed back when I was an ill-advised vet student – don’t pandiculate as much as they would if all of their distal phalanges had not been cruelly amputated. I think that some declawed cats rightly resent the feeling of their shortened digits, and don’t feel like doing yoga because it doesn’t feel right. Others have phantom pain or are depressed.

Mädchen, in fact, is the only one of my cats who is declawed, and the only one who never joins me for yoga. Cats love being with humans while they do yoga. At first I thought it was just a coincidence, but there’s youtube evidence that they are doing something cats have likely done ever since humans started doing yoga, a few thousand or so years ago in the Near East and India.


See how the kitty’s tail points straight up as he approaches – that means he’s familiar with this routine and is delighted he can participate. This guy is lucky, he can talk about staying undistracted, but I can’t – my junior cat enjoys attacking my hair when I lie back on the ground, or when it hangs down. I have to be aware of him, because I could get a claw in my eye one of these days. My senior cat generally installs himself on top of me and won’t move unless I physically dump him. He doesn’t hold it against me though – he comes right back.

Here’s a link to another long cat-human yoga session; it’s 10 minutes long and one of these days I’ll get around to watching it myself:
Stray Cat Yoga.

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Temple Grandin, feeling like an animal

February 11, 2009

Temple Grandin is back in the news, with a new book, Animals Make us Human (the sequel to Animals in Translation). A university animal science professor and consultant and designer of livestock handling facilities, Grandin is also the subject of an upcoming HBO semi-biographical film with Claire Danes.

I’ve been thinking about Grandin on and off ever since I was in veterinary school in the mid-1990s, when she was starting to gain recognition for her approach to fixing problems in cattle handling facilities such as feedlots.

In 1998, I was invited to be on a committee to rank candidates for a major U.S. animal welfare award. Of the list of candidates with impressive resumés in animal welfare work, she was the only one I had heard of; the one who had made the most notable impression on veterinary education and practice. I ranked her as my first choice, based on her resumé and what I had learned about her when I was a vet student headed for large animal practice. In one of my classes, we briefly studied some corral designs by this professor from Colorado State University, designs which had rapidly replaced the old models in the space of a few short years. I had presumed Temple was a man’s name, and only found out later that not only was Grandin a woman, but she was autistic, and that she was all about a cinemascope attention and memory for sensory details plus fundamental knowledge about cattle instincts. Her novel designs for corrals and squeeze chutes meant that handling for vaccinations and other procedures went more smoothly for everyone involved.

I learned in bits and pieces that she saw the world through animals’ eyes, and translated their experience so that “neurotypical” people such as myself (I presume that’s what I am) could understand their reactions and motivations a bit better. In the end, she was awarded the prize from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation (that’s R$ for Rockefeller, and Dodge, for the car company), along with Diane Halverson.

In 1997, I had a summer job as an assistant researcher in the bovine medicine department, and one of our projects was to study a new Big Pharma cattle dewormer. On the first day of the project, we had to put a group of jumpy dairy heifers through a corral with a squeeze chute at the end to identify each one with an ear tag, take individual manure samples, and collect a small vial of blood from the tail vein. Once we were done, we opened the squeeze chute and sent each tagged heifer into one of three study groups. Halfway through, in spite of our improvised Grandin-style corral, the remaining heifers decided as a group that they wouldn’t be cooperating with us anymore – one of the farm hands was drunk and behaving unpredictably, periodically yelling abuse and jumping at them to chase them out of the chute. About fifteen heifers backed away and galloped off to the opposite end of the field, some 500 metres away. Rounding them up looked impossible, at the very least it looked like one of those time and energy-consuming activities that I dread. Some of us wanted to call it a day, but the head researcher reminded us we’d have to start all over again at the beginning if we put it off.

Inspired by Grandin, I remembered my pre-veterinary experiences with cattle, back when I was delighted by their friendly curiosity. If you walk into a field of cattle, they won’t take their eyes off you for minutes on end, and if they are docile like dairy cattle, they’re likely to come right up and lick your boots and clothes. I walked out towards them till I was about 10 metres away from the boldest ones, and showed them a long rake I’d brought with me. Then, I turned around and dragged it behind me, hoping they would follow. I started out slow at the beginning and then faster so they’d have to pick up the pace. The long stick dragging along the ground was intriguing enough for the more dominant heifers, and the rest of the herd followed. Nobody wanted to be left behind in the field all alone.

I always thought this mix of curiosity, skittishness and attention to random detail was something more scientists and vets should think about, just as Grandin pays scientific attention to sensory details and behaviours. It would add some interest to the boring data collection we always seemed to be doing, and would contribute to animal well-being.

But when I left research and started practicing bovine medicine, the more I paid attention to behaviour, reactions, sensations and emotions of cattle, the less I was able to concentrate on doing my job. Not the jobs where I was caring or healing, relieving pain, replacing a prolapsed uterus or helping an exhausted cow during a calving – those were invigorating and rewarding; it was the job of fitting in and playing my role in the industrial-agricultural system – treating the intractable metabolic diseases and lameness that result in short lifespans and which are caused by the kind of nutrition and genetics that make cows produce incredible amounts of milk; endless infections of the mammary glands from bacterial resistance, crowding, stress, little or no time outdoors, milking machines, etc.; and most important of all, ensuring that estrus and pregnancies are properly detected and monitored so that no time is wasted between a calving and a new gestation, to keep the milk flowing. The objective of my new job as a farm vet was increasingly oriented toward figuring out ways of making dairies more efficient and profitable, and culling the non-profitable animals. It’s a system that not only wears down the animals, but it wears down everyone who’s involved with it, including me, and it wore me down quicker than most. I wasn’t in it long enough to even glimpse the rewards, but I always suspected they were driven by the evil twins of debt and profit.

As for Grandin, I am sure that she is driven by a desire to do what is right by animals. She believes it is ethical to use animals for food, and she wants it to be done right so that animals can have a decent life and a painless death. I think that’s a good and sensible approach, but I can’t help noticing that her designs and push for ethics are co-opted by a cattle industry that wants things working more smoothly for its own ends (debt and profit again), not for the animals. Still, I suppose that what she does “has to be better than simply wishing [the system] didn’t exist in the first place.”

Still. In her new book Grandin claims that it’s hard for “normal” people to think like animals, because we think in words, while the animal world is all sensory-based, all the time. Her own lifetime spent overcoming a purely sensory-based world as an autistic human supposedly places her in the unique position of identifying with and empathising with animals, and encouraging everyone else to tune into sensory experience to think more like animals.

I haven’t read the book, and I’m not convinced that thinking in words is really all that easy for humans. Most people struggle to find the right words to communicate their feelings and experience, whether in speech or in writing, and a lot of the time we don’t even come close, especially if we count the part of our lives we spend as babies and small children. And yet words have been used skilfully in so many books to communicate animals’ experience, by recording observations and sometimes even imagining what they might be thinking. One of the best examples of this is Black Beauty, but there are so many others. Some of my greatest revelations about animal and human experience have come to me through reading novels; then I’ve returned to animals and humans with a different attitude that has made me more empathic and observant. In fact, my own sensory experiences haven’t always made me more empathic, sometimes they’ve even had the opposite effect.

But whether our empathy comes from sights, sounds or words, there is still the fact that we have this food-producing system that’s built on the backs of suffering animals, a system that grinds them down for as long they have something to give, after which we dispose of them callously – when it’s not with outright cruelty.

Grandin worries that there are less people all the time who are willing to go out into the field to work with cattle, to observe, to participate and to make changes that will give them decent lives. I see the same thing she does, but from the other side of the fence. I’ve crossed that field already, and I don’t wish to go back, because I’ve seen that the role of workers such as veterinarians and scientists is to find ways of making things work more smoothly, more profitably; animal well-being is only a collateral benefit. Problem is, the more we acknowledge that animals share our emotions, sensations and perceptions, the more we shy away from engaging with them in the system we’ve built.

The upshot is that the ones who stay to work with it are those who don’t think about these things, or if they do, they have no other viable choices to make about their working lives. I don’t mean to say that there is no one left who engages empathically with animals; certainly there are, but as long as they are playing the role of facilitators of an industrialised system, I’m not sure what to think about their efforts to improve animal welfare. Vet students know this; every year it’s harder to get students to choose farm animal medicine.

Not that I ever got away from it myself: as long as I drink milk, and eat butter, cheese and meat, or wear leather, I’m still participating in a system that makes me shrink inside.

Here’s Temple:

Ain’t nobody here but us chickens

February 4, 2009

Just came back from the henhouse, where the chickens are starting to go stir crazy from the long winter. They have room to walk around, various shelves and objects to perch on, and they even have a new rooster (name’s Chicken) to henpeck. I think they notice the light is returning – for one thing, they’re laying more eggs these days.

But they’ve given up trying to find new and exciting places to lay, and they seem to be walking round in circles. A highlight of their day is when I drop an egg by accident and they take that as a sign from the gods, all evidence of which must be destroyed.

They are definitely bored. No worms to scratch, no dirt for baths, no tiny pebbles to ingest, and no garden shade to enjoy. Winter sucks for them even more than it does for us humans.

At least we can sing and play to pass the time.

Here’s the original version, made popular by Louis Jordan in 1946 (strangely, the video does not include a single chicken):