It’s clinging to one of the blades of the ceiling fan. No, wait! Now it’s on the lampshade. Oh, and now it’s flapping spasmodically at the window–seeing the trees, drawn to the trees, but barred by glass and walls, possibly forever…. No. This cannot stand.
The door is still open. The bird just needs to find it and aim for it, and it will be free.
Why was the door open?
The door is often open because I like it open. I like the sounds of nature–a breeze jostling the leaves of the mature oaks that preside over my backyard, birds saying undecipherable things to each other in cheeps and chirps, squirrels scolding my cat for being a predatory jerk who belongs in the house.
The windows in my living room look out on all these living things, but they don’t open. So I can see all this life. but I can’t hear it, and I want that. The door opens onto an enclosed deck, and when the door is open, my dog and cats can come and go at will. I like that I can spice up their day by giving them choices, and access to places that interest them. Especially my little blind cat, who lives in a world of sounds without sights. The great outdoors is too dangerous for him, but in the safety of the deck he can dream of wild ways.
This door-propping behavior is unpopular with my family. Some of these living things I want auditory access to…they find their way inside. Or really, they lose their way and wind up inside. Usually it’s just bugs. Which make great cat toys–especially buzzy, frantic cicadas. And naturally (this is nature, after all) there’s the occasional wasp, which freaks out my kids.
I tell them beating their fear of wasps is one of the most empowering life changes they’ll ever make. Imagine becoming someone who can dispassionately observe all that flamboyant whirring and ominous hovering and just think to yourself, mmm-hmm. There goes a wasp. That is so cool.
I am this someone. I wasn’t always, but now I am. And I feel smug and bad-ass about it. When a wasp zooms in, I let it wear itself out a little with its hissy fits of bashing into lights and crashing into windows. I wait for it to land. Then I calmly place a cup over it, slide a piece of cardboard under it, walk it outside, and liberate it. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
But when the intruder is a bird, that calls for a different tactic–one that eludes me. In the past it’s usually just been quite literally a hit or miss thing (with the bird hitting stuff and me missing the bird) until the bird accidentally escapes through the open door.
There must be a better way. But it’s not coming to me as I plot with my daughter about how to solve this thing.
We helplessly, foolishly try to communicate with this bird. We point to the door. No comprende. We walk toward the door with an exaggerated stride, inviting the bird to follow. It does not. We appeal to it in words: “Bird! Over here!” Not surprisingly, this also has no effect; the bird continues to flit randomly from edge to ledge to tip to top, occasionally in the direction or vicinity of the door but never through it.
I get a broom.
My plan with the broom is nebulous so far. I’m not going to swing it at the bird and panic it to death. But maybe I can block the bird from flying away from the door by brandishing this broom at a strategic angle in a strategic spot? As I grasp the handle and hold it aloft, lo and behold, the bird swoops over and alights on the bristles. All I have to do is march the bird outside as it surfs the broom! But the moment I move, the bird startles and flutters off. Drat.
Think. THINK! I’m a lifelong student of animal behavior. How can I commandeer this bird’s natural behavior to get it out of my house to freedom–and fast, before it poops all over my rug? What has it consistently, repeatedly been doing the whole time I’ve been effetely following it around trying bird-brained ways to save it? It’s been looking for perches.
What if I could entice the bird to perch on something that lies beyond the door?
I step outside and out of view, holding the broom horizontally about chest height in the doorway. The bird spies this new perch. It is an excellent perch, if I may say so. The bird agrees! It flaps over from across the room and lands on the broom. It seems to instantaneously recognize the sensations of the outdoors. It takes flight and disappears. I feel relieved and a little bit self-congratulatory.
Will this work next time? Because there will be a next time. Because I like the door open so I can hear the natural world out there. And when the natural world pays me an intimate visit? Well, as you may have heard, I like animals underfoot.
My 7th grader’s science teacher is letting her opt out of dissecting a rat, as a conscientious objector. She says the rats were murdered just so her fellow students could slice them open for a peek inside, and that is NOT okay with her. My husband, a doctor who places great value in the tactile experience of dissection to plumb the mysteries of anatomy and physiology, says opting out is NOT okay with HIM.
I, too, dissected stuff in my day, without much compunction–even though I’m a card-carrying bleeding heart who won’t even kill a stink bug. (I euthanize them in the freezer). As I encourage my daughter to participate, in spite of her objections, so she can learn from the experience, I start asking myself: What did I learn by eviscerating a frog, fish, and fetal pig? I did find value in it, a sense of discovery. But perhaps there is a dark underbelly of dissection that I haven’t thoroughly probed.
I trust animals that become dissection specimens have been euthanized according to humane standards. And frankly, euthanasia is a much gentler death than many humans experience, or than wild animals suffer in the jaws of a predator or after prolonged starvation or disease. But what of the lives of these animals before euthanasia and dissection? Were they treated humanely by people who cared about their welfare and understood their needs? Is this even knowable? Would I want to know? That is, perhaps, a topic for another day.
My daughter can be melodramatic, but her feelings are genuine. Her concern is valid, though unexamined. Her teacher is empathetic and won’t force the issue. I remain conflicted. I value a science education and respect the teacher’s choice to provide a hands-on zoological deep dive. But my heart bleeds when animals suffer, and surely the life of a lab rat before it becomes a dissection specimen cannot be devoid of suffering? Still, the rat my daughter will (or, according to her, will NOT) dissect has already lived and died; if she doesn’t make good use of it now, doesn’t that add insult to injury? Has the rat died in vain, only to be wasted?
I encourage my daughter to research the lives of lab rats, so her feelings can be guided by facts, heart and mind in sync. I share a coping strategy of my own: when I witness an animal suffering, I try to symbolically offset it with an act of kindness toward another animal–a pet, a shelter animal, a wild critter, whatever. Maybe she can counterbalance her rat dissection by donating to a rescue organization, putting up a bird feeder, playing an extra-long ball game with our dog, or some other gesture that feels right to her.
Whether my daughter comes down on the side of dissecting or objecting, I’ve decided to use this space to cleanse my conscience about the whole thing by honoring the rat. How are rats special and worthy of awe? Let me count the ways:
1. Rats laugh when you tickle them.
So you’ve never heard a rat dissolve into a fit of giggles? That’s because the sound they make is supersonic–exceeding the highest frequency human ears can perceive. In 1996, when neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp and his team used a bat monitor to listen in on rats playing, they picked up a 50 kHz twittering noise. Panksepp had been searching for a vocalization associated with play to use as a quantitative metric in his research, and there it was. As he reflected on the emotional significance of the sounds, it dawned on him that, given the context, maybe the rats were laughing.
Crazy? Plenty of his colleagues thought so. But further studies replicated Panksepp’s findings and substantiated his hunch. Consistently, rats expressed these chirping sounds only in fun situations, like play with other rats and tickling by humans. How do we know they think tickling is fun? Rats who love tickling chase after hands to solicit more tickles. Some rats valued tickling even more than treats as a training reward. Scientists have even purposefully bred a strain of tickle-loving rats for further research.
Naturally there was plenty of skepticism about Panksepp’s theory. I say naturally, because humans habitually seek–and defend–distinctions between ourselves and animals, loath to credit beasts with those qualities and capacities upon which we base our superiority. For much more on this, read Frans de Waal’s spellbinding book Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?
So we object to sharing a trait like laughter with a lowly rodent. But think about it. If rats make a distinctive utterance in the same circumstances that make humans laugh–and we know this sound represents pleasure because rats keep wanting more of it–then you can call it whatever you want, but it’s hard to prove it’s not laughter.
Studying rat chuckles might sound frivolous, but investigating rat behavior during positive and negative emotional states can be applied to the wider scope of mental health and mood disorders in humans. And if a rat has to endure scientific experiments that may include aversive experiences, it’s heartening to think laughter could also be part of this life.
2. Rats empathize, cooperate, and share.
Rats will break their friends out of jail. In a study published in Science magazine in 2011, Inbal Bartal and his colleagues encased a rat in a clear plastic box, stashed a piece of chocolate (a favorite rat treat) in another, and then turned one of the trapped rat’s pals loose to see what he would do. The free rat quickly solved how to unlatch the boxes–no surprise given rats’ dexterity and shrewdness. But instead of leaving the other rat locked away while hogging all the chocolate, he first emancipated his friend and then shared the treat with him. And loads of other rats went on to do the same. This clever video from How Stuff Works includes a snippet of this experiment.
In another study, rats in separate enclosures took turns giving each other food. In the first phase, Rat #1 could serve Rat #2 either bits of banana (rat candy) or scraps of carrot (a decidedly meh food). In phase two, Rat #2 could dole out cereal to his partner at whatever rate and on whatever schedule he chose. Rats who had dined on banana were quick to supply their server with plenty of cereal. Those who just got crummy old carrots gave less cereal to their stingy partner, and took their sweet time doing it. Rats recognized who had been good to them, calculated how good, remembered it, and reciprocated proportionally–kind of like people do.
3. Rats can learn and perform eye-poppingly awesome tricks.
We hear a lot about lab rats learning to run mazes or press levers, so we know they can master some simple chores. But if you want a sense of how much is going on in their little pea brains, check out this video by sixteen year old rat lover Abby Roesner. She’s trained her pets to do some stunning stunts, including dunking a miniature basketball, fetching her a Kleenex when she sneezes, and pulling money out of her wallet!
4. Rats can detect landmines and sniff out tuberculosis.
In one of the most gripping (to me, anyway) TED Talks of all time, Bart Weetjens showcases his “Hero Rats”, which he trains to locate buried landmines in Mozambique, Angola and Indochina. Why use rats? Because they have a superpower: an ultrasensitive nose. Rats have more DNA devoted to the sense of smell than all other mammals except African elephants. Weetjens’ rats learn to recognize the scent signature of mines, scratch at the ground when they find it, and return to their trainer for a nibble of banana. They’re also trained to wear a harness and walk on a leash.
Once they’ve attained proficiency, the rats undergo a certification test. Those that pass become accredited detection animals, just like bomb sniffing dogs but–as Weetjens points out–they’re 80% cheaper to train and maintain. Plus, because rats are so lightweight, they don’t trigger land mines to detonate. Once a rat identifies a mine, a de-mining team is called in to disarm it. More than 50,000 explosives have already been deactivated with assistance from Hero Rats.
Weetjens’ rats are also helping diagnose tuberculosis (TB) in human patients. The standard diagnostic method recognized by the WHO (World Health Organization) is to examine sputum (gunk coughed up from the lungs) under a microscope for the presence of TB. Visual inspection at best picks up only 60% of actual cases, though, so many sick people miss out on early treatment. But the nose knows; rats seeking the faint tar-like odor TB patients exude rarely come up with a false negative.
Plus they’re faster by far. It takes a rat just two hundredths of a second to sniff out TB. What would take a full day with microscopy, a rat can process in seven minutes; given a day, a rat can test 6,000 samples. In Tanzania Weetjens’ HeroRATS have already screened nearly 300,000 sputum samples and correctly diagnosed more than 7,000 patients whose TB was missed by microscopy.
So. Rats. Wow. Do you have a rat story? A deep admiration for rats in general, or one rat in particular? Have you ever dissected a rat, or refused to, on moral grounds–or any other grounds for that matter? Let me know!
A couple days ago CBS Evening News aired the story of a little girl who plays mom to a pet duck. The duck lives in her house (wearing a custom-made duck diaper), sleeps in her bed, and follows her wherever she goes–whether it’s to the pond at the park or trick-or-treating or a sleepover party. It’s the story of a beautiful friendship, and a heartwarming illustration of an avian instinct called filial imprinting. (Watch the video at the bottom!)
To be precise, we’re not talking about all birds–just precocial, nidifugous (“nest-fleeing”) birds. These are fancy terms for birds that were born ready: fully feathered, able to bust out of the nest at the first opportunity. The most common examples are waterfowl–ducks, geese and the like. Contrast this with our stock mental image of bare-fleshed, open-beaked nestlings waiting helplessly for mama bird to deposit regurgitated worms into their mouths. Nidifugous birds would call them candy-asses.
So precocial, nidifugous birds have this natural drive to venture out. But if they didn’t have a mechanism that impelled them to follow a leader, they might waddle off in all directions, including into the hungry jaws of their predators–turtles, raccoons, foxes, big fish, and the list goes on. In these species’ distant evolutionary past, such mavericks and heedless wanderers were weeded out; they bumbled into danger and didn’t live to reproduce. Those that played it safe by velcro-ing themselves to mom were more likely to survive to adulthood, and produce offspring that shared their mother-following tendencies.
Over time, filial imprinting–the instinct to attach to their mother and follow her everywhere–became deeply ingrained in nidifugous birds. This survival imperative is so strong that, if their biological mother is absent at the time imprinting would naturally occur, chicks will imprint on the first moving object they see. Konrad Lorenz, one of the most influential animal behavior scholars in history, identified this phenomenon and then manipulated it to amusing (and enlightening) effect. He found he could get chicks to imprint on him, his boots, other animals, and even a box traveling atop a model train. In each case the birds toddled after these surrogate “imprintees” as devotedly as they’d’ve trailed their own mother.
Manipulating the process of filial imprinting hasn’t just been done for scientific discovery, or laughs. It’s also been an effective tool in wildlife conservation. When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was attempting to establish a second migrating population of endangered whooping cranes, they induced chicks to imprint on an ultralight plane, and then had them fly behind the plane to their designated wintering grounds. Having learned the route this way, the cranes returned to their breeding grounds unassisted. If you’ve seen the movie “Fly Away Home”, based on a true story, this approach will sound delightfully familiar.
A whimsical look at imprinting can be found within the pages of a favorite childhood classic, Are You My Mother? A baby bird hatches while his mom is off searching for food. Finding himself alone, he naively strikes out on quest to find her. But he doesn’t know what she looks like; he hasn’t imprinted on her yet. To him, it’s equally plausible that a cow, an airplane, and a snorting piece of heavy construction equipment might answer affirmatively to his pleading question, “Are you my mother?” It’s probably a good thing all those non-mother entities were sitting still; if they’d sprung into motion, he’d probably have followed. Then the baby bird might’ve ended up imprinting on, say, the cat. And the story would’ve had a far different ending indeed.
While I was digging around for evidence of, or anecdotes about, a human-reptile bond, I stumbled upon another line of inquiry that hadn’t even occurred to me:
Do reptiles play?
Turns out some scientists have concluded that they do. Here’s University of Tennessee psychology and evolutionary biology professor Gordon Burghardt on the matter:
“I studied the behavior of baby and juvenile reptiles for many years and never saw anything that I thought was play. Then I had an epiphany when I saw Pigface, a Nile softshell turtle, batting around a basketball at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. I realized reptiles play, too.”
Take 2 minutes and 58 seconds to watch Pigface with her ball, and a Komodo dragon called Kraken engaged in what looks for all the world like a game of tug.
Now see if you agree with biological anthropologist Kerrie Lewis Graham of Texas State University: “When you see it, you think, ‘What is it, if it’s not play?’ They’re not feeding themselves, they’re not trying to get a mate, they’re not searching for shelter. They’re playing.”
And yet, it’s hard to say for sure. Play remains something of a black box; we can observe its components, but its inner workings stay hidden. Even its purpose remains ambiguous. A lot of it seems to be practice for real life, but some of it sure does look like it’s just for fun.
Among dogs and other social animals, the language of play is so complex and nuanced that researchers have to analyze video footage frame by frame, hour after hour after hour, to decode it. Play among solitary animals holds plenty of mysteries as well. And when animals we don’t even expect to play do something that looks like play, what do we make of it? When it comes down to it, what IS play anyway?
Scientist who study play need a set of “diagnostic” criteria that can detect actual play and weed out non-play. These have to be exacting enough to filter out noise in the data, but universal enough to apply to a broad range of taxonomic categories–e.g. from octopuses to orangutans.
For our purposes, let’s stick with the criteria developed by Dr. Burghardt. Why? Because they make sense to me, he’s published prolifically in a multitude of reputable scientific journals, and he’s widely cited by other scientists in his field.
To qualify as play, Burghardt says a behavior has to be all these things:
Incompletely functional in the context in which it appears
Spontaneous, pleasurable, rewarding, or voluntary
Different from other more serious behaviors in form (e.g., exaggerated) or timing (e.g., occurring early in life before the more serious version is needed)
Repeated, but not in abnormal and unvarying stereotypic form (e.g., rocking or pacing)
Initiated in the absence of severe stress
I’ll leave it to the scientists to run their data through this rubric and issue verdicts on what’s play and what isn’t. When I watch animals who look like they’re playing, I don’t trot out Burghardt’s Big Five. I invoke the words of former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart grasping for a definition of porn: “I know it when I see it.” Sometimes just believing that something is play is enough for me.
But how cool is it that a science of animal play exists, and that “serious” scholars study it? And would you believe the journal Current Biology this month devoted its entire 25 year anniversary issue to the biology of FUN. Can you imagine, there’s even an article in there called “Fun and Play in Invertebrates”?! I can’t wait to dive in.
Got a fun story about reptiles playing? Or any other surprising play or play-like action by any pet? Share it!