Elephants Who Marry Mice

Don’t you just hate when you’re forced to face up to the fact you’re not as virtuous as you think you are?

One of the courses I’m currently writing for the International Fund for Animal Welfare came back to me with some corrections. My reviewer had changed the following sentence, the change in capitals.

“Dogs WHO showed pessimistic behaviours were more depressed.”

And try as I might, my gaze kept tripping over that word. Dogs Who, Dogs Who, Dogs Who.

Let us momentarily leap backwards in time to our English classes. My education contained very little formal grammar training, which may be obvious to the casual reader, but even I know that personal pronouns (e.g. who, he, she, they) are reserved for people. Animal are referred to as objects (e.g. which, it, that).

“The dog which barked” is preferable to “The dog who barked”.

“It is lying in the cat basket” may be preferable to “she is lying in the cat basket”.

This can lead to the English language treating animals very strangely. For example, say you visit a new acquaintance. You know this acquaintance has two cats, Gin and Tonic (this friend might be a bit odd), but you see one cat on the windowsill. You want to know, is that cat Gin or is that cat Tonic? You may ask “What cat is that?” or “Which cat is that?” seeing as you know it is one of two. It would be wrong to say “Who is that?”

Is it problematic to refer to animals as objects? Well first we have to ask if grammar affects the way we think. (And before we go any further I want to tell you that journals on grammar and semantics are almost as impenetrable as journals on molecular genetics)

Boroditsky (2009) investigated the differences in how speakers of English and Mandarin thought about time. In English we speak of time as a horizontal construct (you look ahead to the good times and back on the bad times) whereas in Mandarin time is spoken of in a vertical manner (the paper gives the translated example “what is the year before the year of the tiger?”).

The experiment itself is a bit odd to get your head around, but first they primed English and Mandarin speakers with either vertical or horizontal concepts (i.e. the black worm is ahead of the white worm, the black ball is below the white ball) and then given ‘target’ statements about time ‘March is earlier than April’, ‘March is before April’.

English speakers answered these questions faster after hearing a horizontal prime (similar to how they think of time) and Mandarin speakers answered these questions faster after they had heard a vertical prime (similar to how they think of time). Boroditsky concludes that the way we speak frames the way we perceive the world.

But does this happen in animal welfare? Well I’m not the only one who wondered about this. Gilquin & Jacobs (2006) wrote a paper which is whimsically titled ‘Elephants Who Marry Mice’. They reviewed style standards in various publication manuals. For example, the Guardian’s, which you can find here, says:


pronoun “it” unless gender established


The Guardian also says:

any more

Please do not say “anymore” any more


So I don’t dream of writing a Comment Is Free column anymore.

Unsurprisingly, Gilquin and Jacobs found that it was the familiar animals (horses, dogs, cats, etc.) which scored a ‘who’ more often than the non familiar animals. Furthermore, publications aimed at animal-related interest groups were more likely to use ‘who’, e.g. Dogs Today.

They noted that in general texts or interviews, the personal pronoun was used when the author wanted to garner sympathy for the animal in question. It is “the poor cat who was stuck in a tree” rather than “the cat which was stuck in the tree”.

More interestingly, given some of my other posts on anthropomorphism, 60% of the sentences they found which used the personal pronoun for the animals attributed human-like characteristics to the animals.

Gilquin and Jacobs conclude that ‘who’ is used in English to refer to animals, although inconsistently. They suggest a wider adoption of this grammatical structure might engender more empathy for animals from humans, something which I think reflects what Ganea et al found in their work.

Should animal welfare scientists be calling for the personal pronoun usage?

I really can’t decide. I’m not convinced that it will completely change the way we think about animals. But it’s a nudge you might want to be aware of if you’re talking animal welfare science.


And for what it’s worth, I changed the text on the course.

The Black Dog

In the last twelve months one of my little sisters has struggled with depression. I think she’s coping remarkably well with it and I’m really very proud of her. Recently she got some bad news and in one of my weekly ‘putting the world to rights’ calls with my mother, I said that if she looked like this might set her back we should encourage her to get a cat.

Mum laughed and agreed, and then the next day phoned me frantically to exclaim: you should blog about that!

So here is the blog about pets and depression!

I have good reason to suspect a pet would help my sister, as well as other people with certain kinds of depression. And it’s not just because of this Eddie Izzard sketch.

There are two many theories regarding why we keep pets, and I’ve spoken about them before. They boil down to this: either pets take advantage of us, or pets give us some advantage in life. Much of what I’m going to talk about today falls under this second theory, but remember – it could just be a way our little social parasites have evolved to keep us sweet.

Pets Matter to People

One of the most interesting (and sadly unpublished) pieces of research I’ve ever done was investigating how online pet obituaries represent owners feelings about a pet passing away. Pets are very dear to their owners. People often say they love their pet ‘like a child’.

Interestingly, when people have been asked to rate how the loss of a pet makes them feel, they’ll say it’s analogous to losing touch with an adult child (Gage & Holcomb, 1991). Therefore the loss of a pet is a stressful event – just what I want for my blue sister, right? The inevitable loss of an animal.

What I find really interesting about that comparison is that it talks about children, but doesn’t directly compare the loss of a pet to the loss of a child. Part of me wonders if there’s not a little bit of cultural bias in there. You’re not allowed to say that losing a pet is as bad as losing a child (and personally I can’t imagine that it is), but that language seems to put it as close to the worst possible feeling as is socially acceptable.

Pets Are Good For People

If I was to put on a white lab coat and force you to do a mental arithmetic test, you’d get stressed out. This is a pretty common psychological stressor. If I made you do it in front of a friend, you might even get more stressed out, your heart rate would rise. However, if I made you do arithmetic at home, you’d feel calmer.

What’s really interesting about all this is if I made you do arithmetic at home in front of your best friend, and then made you do arithmetic in front of your dog, and lastly all by yourself,  you would be even calmer with your dog than by yourself. (Allen et al, 1991). Animals have this amazing ability to calm us down.

Blood pressure (and heart rate) go up with mental stress. Allen (who seems to have enjoyed making people do mental arithmetic in their home, I can only imagine she creeps up on neighbours with multiple choice tests) tested the presence of a dog against ACE inhibitors, drugs designed to lower blood pressure, and in the presence of mental stress, the dog helped people to cope better than the drug (Allen et al 2001).

This doesn’t mean dogs are natural anti-depressants. Karen Allen (unfortunately, not this one) uses a great phrase to describe how we view dogs: nonevaluative social support.

Which is a scientific way of saying ‘dogs are awesome because they don’t judge me when I’m eating Nutella out of a jar’. As an aside, I’ve heard some people complain that cats are more likely to judge than dogs, but I’ll point out cats have this weird fascination with accompanying you to the toilet, and like to make eye contact with anyone in the vicinity while they themselves are defecating, and so I’ve never felt too judged by any of my cats.

Don’t go to down the road of thinking that pets, or dogs, can ‘cure’ depression. But what they can do is alleviate stressful states (Wilson, 1991).

Pets and the Vulnerable

I have this belief that a child should have a pet. It’s probably one of my strongest child-rearing beliefs (apart from the whole ‘feed them, love them, clothe them’ idea). But I also believe that the elderly should have pets too.

My stepmother recently passed a significant birthday (I hasten to point out she’s not elderly). Her and my dad’s beautiful dog Rosa is entering old age however. At the  significant birthday we talked about retirement and I pointed out that after Rosa passed, they’d have to get a new dog at retirement. I couldn’t imagine them filling their days without a dog, for all there will be a long period of grieving after Rosa’s death.

My dad tells a story about his family. He, his sister and his mother conspire to get their dad a new dog after the old one dies. My Grandpa insists he doesn’t want a dog, can’t stand the thought of another dog, that their old dog was the only one for him. Newly retired, he sits in his living room and sulks.

My dad, my aunt and my grandmother go to a breeder who has some highland terrier puppies. They select a tiny white ball of fluff and take him home. They open the door to the living room and send the puppy through, waiting in the hallway for the reaction.

The puppy’s name was Angus, and he is the first dog I remember. He was my grandpa’s companion through my grandmother’s death, and helped me and grandpa chase flies with the hoover.

My Grandpa and his terrier Angus on the shores of Loch Lomond
My Grandpa and his terrier Angus on the shores of Loch Lomond

This is the essence of non-evaluative social support. When there are bad times, or particular stresses, they somehow help us cope. Elderly people require more social support, this manifests in reports of feeling lonely, of multiple visits to the doctors, etc. However elderly people with pets report visiting the doctor less often (Siegel, 1990, Knight and Edwards, 2008). And given the physiological changes that Allen recorded, I’m happy to assign this difference to the act of owning pets (as opposed to pet owners being less likely to visit the doctor because of some internal difference), but it should be pointed out that there are lifestyle benefits to pet owning.

But one of my absolute favourite papers about the benefits of pets to vulnerable people (yes, I have a favourite), is one by Kaminski et al (2002) [someone hosts a pdf here].

What’s more vulnerable than a hospitalised child? It’s a horrible thought. We have all sorts of therapies to help children adjust to being in hospital, and these include pet therapy. In this simple little study, the authors asked kids to rate their emotions before and after a play therapy session and before and after a pet therapy session. Pet therapy had a bigger effect on their positive interactions than play therapy did. Pets made sick kids feel good, and it wasn’t even their pet.

We Know The Effect, What’s the Reason?

This is the kind of scientific question I love – we see a nice measurable effect, but the why of the question is something intangible. It’s not a ‘real’, ‘quantifiable’ thing, and I think this is why I love animal personality. I love the difficulty of wrestling with non-linear qualities and multidimensional space. No one tell my old maths teacher.

Archer (1997) [a pdf here] wonders ‘why’ people love their pets. I love the part of this paper that talks about how often people show such an attachment to their pets that they do something ‘odd’, such as make the pet the best man at a wedding, fight for legal custody, etc. He talks about the commonly held idea that people own pets to make up for a deficiency in their human relations. If you can’t make real friends you go out and become a cat lady. (Here I’ll point out I’m currently considering getting a cat of my own). Ultimately Archer dismisses this, in part because in Western society we are very influenced by a particular line of thought which gives humans “ dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26), and in part because many studies show that pet-owning correlates with a lot of personality traits we consider desirable in our society.

In the end Archer is a proponent of the social parasite theory and says these advantages are not enough to provide an advantage to human survival. I’m not sure I agree, but that’s a topic of another post. The point is that whatever the mechanism, people feel a very strong attachment, undeniably love, to an entity which does not judge or present them with the kind of social contract that we engage in with other humans.

Back to the Sister . . .

I think my sister is doing fine. I hope she continues to do well. Do I think that cat would ‘fix’ her? No, not at all. But I do appreciate the phrase ‘unconditional love’. This next statement I have no reference for, but I think you’ll see it for what it is . . .

In films, tv shows and stories, there’s often a moment where somebody with little else to value in their life has their precious pet taken from them. We’ve named a trope for this effect: ‘kick the dog’. Who didn’t cry the first time they watched Kes? We know this feeling of love for our pets so well that when someone hurts a pet, we know it is immediate short-hand for ‘this person is so evil they have removed the last remnant of support from a person’s life’.

I don’t recommend dogs to combat the black dog in general, but I do think there’s something to be said to coming home to a pair of brown eyes.


Edited to add:

I thought I’d link to some depression resources for anyone in need of support. And I want to point out I sought my little sister’s permission to share her story. If you are feeling depressed, I really hope you find the support you need. xxx

NHS Depression Support Groups


AACAP Depression Resource

Hyperbole and a Half – Not a resource but a truly insightful look into what it feels like to be depressed.


Fluffy Friday – WolfQuest Part Two

Welcome to FluffyScience’s ‘Fluffy Friday’! This will be a semi-regular slot on the blog reserved for silly pieces such as talking about educational gaming, personal stories, etc. I figure that by having a regular slot for it, we can keep a good balance between the fun stuff and the serious work.

So what have you got this week? First – we have the continuing adventures of Fluffy and her mate Diet Coke as they try to fulfil their genetic imperative on the slopes of Amethyst Mountain in Part Two of WolfQuest!



Secondly, Wednesday’s post on anthropology reminded me of something I’d written a few years ago. I’ve kept a diary throughout my PhD and my first experiment involved me spending 12 hours a day with a group of cows over a three week period. Much of this was because I wanted the cows to habituate to me before I started my behavioural observations. As a result you get to know the individuals very well indeed.

Somewhat facetiously, I must admit, I started recording my day-to-day interactions as if I was living with a tribe. A parody of the 19th Century Anthropologist. Based on this week’s discussion I’m amazed at how pertinent this four year old piece of writing is! I present the whole thing for your reading pleasure:

I had been lobbying for some months to visit the native cow tribes of the countryside. Visas took time, the locals were not willing to invite another documenter that will fall afoul of their own personal Everest – the Cow Tribe.

Still, after much negotiating, and agreeing that I would not bring a camera, I was able to gain access for three weeks. All I brought with me was a small, slim notebook, a palm computer and a selection of gifts for the Tribe if I was lucky enough to gain access.

Day One

I’m met by a friendly local. Like most of the villagers around here their language is almost incomprehensible to those raised in cities and I am thankful for my many years in other countrysides. I need no translator and with a small amount of effort at first I can make myself understood. The locals are wary, they know I will create more work for them, and they insist I stay with them and not in the Tribe. Previous researchers have been lost. I assure them this won’t happen to me and my guide leads me to the Tribe. My initial meeting with them is a dizzying blur of their peculiar naming system and splodgy faces. There’s evidently a strict hierarchy and communication that I am clueless of. The locals are sympathetic but they seem to expect this. I leave the Tribe with some relief that evening and return to my humble dwelling. It’s not perfect, but it is away from the Tribe, and gives me some time to collect my thoughts.

Day Two
I rise earlier than I would usually in order to be present for the Tribe’s morning rituals. Their milking is evidently an important routine, but they greet it with a strange mixture of impatience and irritation that I do not expect. I attempt to immerse myself in their culture, in their worship of Feed Truck. Feed Truck is displeased today and they are not allowed to reach their feed face. This displeases the matriarch 1019. She is a large, old cow with a grey face. She is almost dinosaur like in her physical appearance, with a large arching back and powerful shoulders. She is from another era, and she completely intimidates me.

Day Three
The Feed Truck is pleased with whatever penance the Tribe had paid and they are fed in time. However, the penance appears to be that one of the youngest members of the Tribe lost her sacred collar over night. These tokens appear to have religious symbology for the Tribe. I find the collar in one of their beds and return it to the young member, allowing her to once again approach the holy feed face. Although she reacts with annoyance, I feel as though I have done something for her that no one else could have. I hope her gods are happy with her now.

Day Four
Today is a day of celebration for the Tribe, one of their members is fertile. She is chasing all of the others, even the Matriarch at times. The Tribe tolerate this for a while, but will see her off when she becomes too persistent. I wonder at their behaviour. In her position, they are just as eager to show their amorous intentions. The Tribe appear to place great significance on their fertility, painting themselves differently when they are in-calf. I try to remember this.

The locals assign me an assistant, another traveller like myself. Girl and I are allowed access to the Tribe, although she must return to the locals more often, whereas I am allowed to be isolated with my Tribe.

I realise I begin to think of the Tribe as my own and know that I must curtail this line of thinking. I do not want to become one of those others . . .

Day Five
I am beginning to understand the Tribe. 1019 is the undisputed leader, deferred to in all manners relating to the Feed Truck God and feed face temple. Her ‘muscle’ as it were is 1405, an older Tribe Member who is quite simply massive. I expect some kind of power struggle between them, but 1405 is content in her place. The Tribe members then decrease in number to the youngest ones who are small and still slightly long haired. They are wariest of me and have no desire to communicate, whereas the older Tribe members have begun to approach me, and discuss the Feed Truck God, as well as the importance of their beds and the irritation that is the sludge scraper. I am honoured by their attention.

Day Six
The Matriarch has evidently passed some kind of judgement on me for her acolytes have accepted my presence in every facet of their lives. I am allowed to be present whenever I choose and I find their company soothing. When I return to the locals I am compelled to tell them of the Tribe’s activity. They are interested, but seem concerned at the amount of time I spend with the Tribe and continuously ask if ‘everything is going well?’ I reply that it is. My Tribe is fine. The Tribe members have started to groom me if I wait long enough with them. Their tongues are rough.

Day Seven
The Tribe were greatly disturbed today by a festival that the locals put on. This involved some kind of appearance by someone the locals worship, but who the Tribe regards as a devil. The Foot Trimmer Daemon selected six of the Tribe and I was complicit in this, wishing to observe every aspect of their lives. The Tribe were not pleased with me and I was forced to sacrifice my left index finger by having it jammed between a steel bar and one of the Tribe’s horn butt. The pain is intense but I cannot react as I would normally for the local children are there, and the Tribe know this. I nurse my wounds and retreat, I feel this festival has set my entire study back.

Day Eight
The Matriarch has announced that I may stay an extra day, a reprieve for my sins yesterday. I get the sense that the Tribe has some affection for me as 1825, one of the youngest, starts to eat my sleeve. I record of this in my palm computer which they have taken to calling my little demon. The Tribe accept me and my strange ways as I accept they and theirs. It is a comforting relationship and when I leave in the evening, I am somehow . . . tense.

Day Nine
One of the Tribe’s sister groups roams in a pen near to my Tribe. One of the locals discovered that one of the sisters had trapped her head in a pen. I go to assist, and though she frees herself, I get the feeling the Matriarch is pleased with me. I enjoy my time with the Tribe more than with the locals, and I feel they even enjoy spending time with Girl.

Day Ten
It strikes me today that I misjudged many of the Tribe when I first arrived. I wonder now why I ever thought 1405 was only the ‘muscle’. She is second in command, constantly at 1019’s side and pushing the smaller Tribe members aside. Today she initiates a grooming session with me. I can barely move for excitement, although her strong licks almost send me flying.

Day Eleven
Disaster strikes. The Feed Truck God makes a delay before his morning appearance. 1586, the best singer in the Tribe, raises her voices to the heavens in order to inform them they have forgotten to send their blessed angel. I try to reassure the Tribe that their Feed Truck God will come soon, he has just been delayed, but they disagree. One of them, 1541, who is small and strange looking, suggests we must sacrifice Girl to appease him. I discourage this firmly, and sure enough Feed Truck God appears. 1541 subsides, but she does not go to the feed face temple for some time. I am concerned. Later that evening I realise she is not as young as I first thought, in fact she is one of the older Tribe members, though small. She is also wearing the paint of an in-calf Tribe member, and I am surprised for some reason. She then disappears under my nose and reappears on the wrong side of the gates I promised to man for the locals. I fetch her with little difficulty, but I am informed by the others that she is their shaman.

I return to my dwelling and wonder about this.

Day Twelve
Today my ‘demon’, my palm computer that so fascinates the Tribe breaks. 1541 is watching me from her bed, saying nothing. I spend some time fixing it but I have lost precious notes. I am concerned that the Tribe are saying 1541 caused my demon to flee. I observe their rituals, but I do not believe. If I believed I would be in danger of losing myself. When Girl comes in, 1541 says nothing, but merely turns away.

Day Thirteen
Yet again my ‘demon’ breaks. I replace it with another that the locals have gifted me and it breaks also. I am terrified, and 1541 is watching everything I do. She wants the Girl. I cannot give her that, but I can wake Girl early for an emergency as I try to fix the demons frantically. My demons work suddenly and I sense that 1541 is appeased by Girl’s missed sleep, although I am later told she would have preferred spilled blood.

Day Fourteen
Girl attends the whole of the morning milking ritual, which greatly appeased 1541. I gift the Tribe with the jewellery I have brought and hope they like it. As we are waiting for the afternoon milking ritual to begin, I tentatively begin to groom 1541. The Matriarch is revealed to be in-calf yet again and her paint is changed. This is some celebration for the Tribe, and the Feed Truck God is lenient. I am content to sit among the Tribe that evening, in the sweltering heat, listening to 1584 gently singing as she eats.

Day Fifteen
The jewellery I have provided the Tribe with is now encased with dirt and sawdust, as everything is that the Tribe appreciates. I realise that I am one with the Tribe, that I am Tribe. I lean against 1541 as we wait for the afternoon milking ritual, and one of the younger Tribe members licks the left over feed from my arm.

Day Sixteen
A local invades the Tribe’s territory to provide some essential maintenance. 1599, the Tribe’s best hunter, is assigned to investigate. She once followed a flightless pigeon all the way through the pen, and I watched as she almost caught it before it escape through the fence. The Tribe and I all agreed it was a marvellous feat to even have her nose so close to its tail feathers, though 1599 is a proud individual, and was saddened to lose the bird. Today she investigates the man very slowly, and his power tools. She captures one successfully and he is forced to move.

I have negotiated for extra food from the Food Truck God, and this wins me great approval. With 1599’s success and my own, the Tribe is content this evening.

Day Seventeen
I am supposed to be returning soon, and I barely remember civilisation. I barely remember non-Tribe living. The fumbling of the afternoon milking ritual by the new young local priest irritates the Tribe, and I share their annoyance, share their jubilation when they finally return to the pens. As we wait, I find myself falling asleep against 1541’s flank and she takes me on a dream walk. We are interrupted by a laughing local, but I am oddly touched by 1541’s power.

How will I leave the Tribe when they have so much to teach me?

Day Eighteen
The Tribe do not want me to leave. They are incessantly grooming me, their rough tongues curling around my arms and pulling me into their mouths. I am concerned suddenly about why they were so keen to sacrifice Girl. The Feed Truck God is equally displeased and is late again, the Tribe sing for him and I find myself begging 1541 as my demon begins to play up. I think I will stay.

Day Nineteen
The locals have come for me. They say the Tribe must move on to newer pastures where I may not follow. I notice 1019 has a scratch on her hip that she did not have yesterday and I am suddenly afraid for the old Matriarch. I hope she continues her long and wise life. I hope 1541 remains strong and small. I want to know which of the young Tribe will grow to be as big as 1405, and if 1599 will ever catch her pigeon or if 1586 will ever stop singing. Will 1494 stop kneeling all the time and will 1825 learn that she doesn’t need to perch on the ridge of the feed face temple to get in? All these questions I can not answer because I must leave.

I return to civilisation and it feels odd, strange. I wonder what I will do tomorrow when there is no morning milking ritual for me, and yet for the Tribe it will continue. Their lives will continue as mine does not. I will miss them.

The Other

One of my colleagues recently took a sabbatical year and worked with another university’s anthropology department. This week she gave us a fascinating seminar about how anthropologists view human-animal relations and how different it is from the ethologist’s view.

I can only simplify what my colleague had already simplified for me (if you’re all interested we can harass her to write a guest blog post for us), but anthropologists don’t seek to understand and quantify their subjects like we do. Instead its more about a holistic documentation that incorporates the feelings and inherent biases of the observer. This is because the observer is coming in with their own culture and can never fully escape all those biases.

To me it seems as though anthropology does a lot of case studies, and as an ethologist I’ve been trained to look down on case studies. I’m not entirely au fait with everything that anthropology does (I worry about the inevitable changing of anything you observe so intimately) but I really like that they take the time to look at cases, and that they acknowledge how our own culture biases us.

But I do take issue with one thing in particular. They talk about their subjects as the ‘Other’. I don’t fully understand this concept from the brief seminar I got this week, but to the best of my understanding they are very concerned about their subjects being objectified. Therefore when they study animals they are reluctant to do anything that would objectify them, e.g. keeping them as a pet. The equivalence given was that you wouldn’t keep a woman or a tribesperson as a pet, so you can’t study an animal, ethically speaking, in that context.

I think this is forgetting just how ‘other’ the nature of animals can be. For example my colleague at the seminar quoted a paper by Smuts (2001 – and incidentally, what a wonderful name).  In the paper, Smuts investigates human-animal relationships. She details a revelation that occurred when the baboons she studied started to treat her like a baboon.

As a result, instead of avoiding me when I got too close, they started giving me very deliberate dirty looks, which made me move away. This may sound like a small shift, but in fact it signalled a profound change from being treated as an object that elicited a unilateral response  (avoidance), to being recognized as a subject with whom they could communicate. Over time they treated me more and more as a social being like themselves, subject to the demands and rewards of relationship. This meant that I sometimes had to be willing to give more weight to their demands (e.g., a signal to ‘get lost!’) than to my desire to collect data. But it also meant that I was increasingly often welcomed into their midst, not as a barely-tolerated intruder but as a casual acquaintance or even, on occasion, a familiar friend. Being treated like a fellow baboon proved immensely useful to my research…

To me this final sentence is a fundamental misunderstanding. We do not know that the baboons treated her like a baboon. I think they recognised her as an ‘other’, an ‘agent’ in anthropological speak (which, in fairness to Smuts, she does say in her lead in). They communicated with her in the only way they could and she responded as a human, therefore they knew she could understand some form of their communication. That doesn’t mean they recognised her as baboon, with all the inherent baboon culture. (I guess this then raises the question anthropologically speaking as to whether baboons tell science fiction stories of other species that have hugely different cultures – without the concept of another culture, can you truly have a culture of your own? I wonder).

We see this every day with pets – I’ve spoken before about how a special language can evolve between two members of a completely different species. Dogs, my favourite example for this kind of stuff, have so clearly adapted to us that they’ve survived across different human cultures, and yet they have their own dog language that they use within their species. When they don’t know this language they have huge problems interacting with their fellow dogs. When they don’t know the human language they have huge problems interacting with us. But do dogs understand the difference between dogs and humans, or do they just accept that humans are entities that are capable of interacting with them. (Possibly they accept that humans are entities that they can love, be loved by, etc., if dogs have a concept of love – I leave that for you to judge for now).

With that critique aside it is a very interesting paper.

Why do I go into all of this? Well there’s another interesting example of strange animal behaviour on the internet today. An Indian elephant was on a rampage, destroying houses as elephants are wont to do. At one house its wreckage disturbed a baby’s cot and the baby began to cry. The elephant stopped and picked rubble off the cot until the baby was freed.

Does the elephant recognise that the crying infant is an ‘other’? Does the elephant recognise that it has done something which has caused pain? (I’ve often wondered if cats recognise they hurt people when they scratch – or if it’s simply our emotional reaction they’re responding to). That’s quite a cognitive leap. We drill into children that our actions can hurt others and yet we’re forever hurting peoples’ feelings inadvertently.

Or has the elephant been distracted by an unusual noise and investigated (thus freeing the baby) until its curiosity was satisfied? With its energies so directed the rampage stopped.

I don’t  know because I cannot understand elephants. To me, the best way of getting to know elephants is to observe their behaviour, to objectify them, and to gather data on them (how often to elephants respond to infant cries, do elephants respond to any cries, etc.)

But I do like talking about the other possibilities.

LolCats and Doge, YouTube and Animal Behaviour

In 2013 Nelson & Fijn published an absolutely brilliant paper in Animal Behaviour. It’s called ‘The use of visual media as a tool for investigating animal behaviour‘ and it’s about watching animals on YouTube.

I watch a lot of animals on YouTube so I love this paper. It provides a methodology for using YouTube videos in animal studies, all very simple rules, like not using videos with editing and the like.

Why is this important? How can YouTube contribute to the study of animal behaviour? Well have you seen this video? It was doing the rounds on the internet recently.

The video’s description says that the dog has become protective of the unborn baby, going so far as to defend the baby bump from the soon-to-be-dad. It’s a cute story and makes for good internet memes. I have to be honest that as a behaviour scientist my immediate reaction was to roll my eyes.

How does a dog know what pregnancy is, or that it will result in a baby that will be part of the family? How does a dog even know that a baby is a thing to be protected?  But as I thought about this I remembered our old cat who became fascinated with my mum’s belly when she was pregnant. According to my mum all her cats have been fascinated by her pregnancies. I’m sure they hear the second heart beat and it must be a fascinating thing for them.

This dog, I thought, is probably just responding to some weird behavioural cue that its owner is giving it. Like the well known story of Clever Hans, the horse who could count by reading its owner’s behaviour. This is actually a well known behavioural phenomenon, and is blamed for things like your dog looking guilty when its done something wrong (Horowitz, 2009).

Oh if only in this age of connectivity, I could somehow ask the owner if she might be aware of any cues . . .

It turns out the protective dog in this video is called Tebow, a 2 year old dog owned by Mekesha and her partner Justin. 3 weeks from her due date, Mekesha found the time to answer some of my questions.

As it turns out, Tebow is fascinated with Mekesha’s belly at the moment, just as I remember my cat being fascinated by my mum’s. Tebow will sit beside Mekesha with his head on her belly, or will lick it if he gets the chance. He’s also devoted to Justin’s young nephew and their younger dog, also in the video.

Something I thought was really interesting is that Mekesha wanted people to know Tebow isn’t an aggressive or mean dog. In fact she’s pretty upset that people think he might be. In the video you can see she’s laughing and she says everyone found it funny. As for whether she might be anxious in some way that Tebow is picking up on . . .

We have found it hilarious ever since, not threatening. I have no anxiety about my belly being touched and I actually don’t mind people doing it, I do know that certain pregnant woman who hate it, I am not that way.

I think that seems pretty certain! Of course, you can always argue that perhaps there’s some subconscious anxiety, that perhaps the anxiety is coming from Justin and not Mekesha – there are a hundred ways to interpret this video. But it’s interesting that most people who view it go with the ‘anthropomorphic’ one. That Tebow is protecting his family, even the ones he might not quite understand.

It might be easy to say “well this is somebody and their pet, of course they’re going to think the best of them”, but for another video doing the rounds this week:

National Geographic photographer describes a leopard seal’s attempts to feed him, graduating from live prey, to hurt prey, to dead prey, to partially eaten prey, as the seal becomes more and more convinced the photographer was incapable of feeding himself.

We should never forget that animals don’t think like we do. They don’t process the world like we do. But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss the similarities we do have in common. Videos like this get to the very essence of animal behaviour science – why do animals behave in the way the do? YouTube, and the internet, will help us by showing us more and more examples of these strange behaviours. What was once an odd story about something your friend’s dog did, becomes something an animal behaviour scientist might be able to analyse.

Plus I just want to get some funding to sit around on YouTube all day. Ethologists of the world, who’s with me?!

Old People Make Culture

Human culture fascinates me. I’d like to do more in anthropology, I always enjoy the little snippets I find out as part of my research. Culture amazes me so much because we’re so similar to animals in so many ways, and yet we do things like build skyscrapers, write epic novels, judge each other on how we cook . . .

Some anthropologists think that human culture happened pretty late in our timeline. I came across an article by Laura Helmuth on Slate.com today about how growing old helped us grow a culture. It’s fascinating and well worth a read. I particularly laughed at this excerpt

As Barbara Tuchman points out in A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, one of the reasons the Hundred Years War lasted a hundred years is that repeated plagues killed off anyone, including kings and other established leaders. Again and again, teenagers or very young people inherited the throne and promptly did stupid, aggressive, frontal-lobe-deficient teenage nonsense like invading neighboring countries.

Read the rest here