When animals talk, people don’t listen.  And yet animals have a lot to say.  Con Slobodchikoff is a PhD researcher who has spent countless hours listening to prairie dogs.  He has been been able to detect nuances in their language that distinguishes the height, direction,  and color of shirt an approaching human is wearing.  In his book, “Chasing Dr. Dolittle,” Slobodchikoff gives many examples of sophisticated communication among the animals.  Some birds have 3,000 songs in their repertoire.  Humpback whales share their songs underwater for thousands of miles.  Like our list of the top popular songs, these songs are re-sung, re-arranged as others pick up the tunes oceans away.

Slobodchikoff is sure that “We have only a limited understanding of the nuances of animals’ lives — of what is important to them, of how they perceive the world around them — but we make assumptions based on our very limited knowledge.”  He points out Monty Roberts of “The Man Who Listens to Horses” who trains horses to accept human riders by using a series of body orientation signals he has observed in wild horses.

Teaching chimps to communicate with humans in sign language has only been minimally effective.  “One of the complaints about signing with chimps is that they mostly make signs about food, and not too much else.  But one possibility is overlooked here:  If you simplify the communication system to the bare basics, this may be all that the animals have in common with their human experimenters to talk about.”

The B.F. Skinner behaviorist narrow view of outside stimulus and response “mutated into the position that animals did not think at all, and in fact were incapable of thinking, as yet another way to keep humans and animals apart.”

I have personally known a lady who played with wild rabbits who came daily to visit her.  In 12 years of volunteering with the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, I saw seals and sea lions up close.  I remember a definite sense of dignity in the eyes of a suffering adult sea lion who knew she was dying.  I saw many other behaviors that easily related to shared human emotions and characteristics.  Once in a Chinese restaurant with a tank of live lobsters next to me, I saw a dead lobster and observed another lobster who was desperately, but gently, touching and prodding him to awaken.  Intuition told me that the live lobster was grieving for the dead lobster.  Some ants bury their dead, and a pod of whales will have a funeral for a dead baby.

In Slobodchikoff’s words, “For us, the idea that other animals have language is a bridge back to the natural world.  We can begin to cross the vast chasm that we have set up between “Us” and “Them,” and start to see that we are not very different after all.  We certainly have a lot of talents that they do not have.  But they have a lot of talents that we do not have.  The one thing that we all have is that we are in this natural world together, and the quicker we realize that we are all interdependent on one another — and one species is not any better than any other –  the quicker we can bring harmony to our lives.”

Thank heavens for books.  When there’s something I can’t do personally, I can do it vicariously through books.  I envied the abilities  that Philip Connors has to hike in tough terrain, be resourceful enough to survive at the top of a mountain in a small lookout tower,  be able to identify species of wildflowers, as well as  have close encounters with wild animals .  One heart wrenching,  poignant part of his story was when he came face to face with Bambi.

I was pretty sure how this part of his story would end because I’ve seen the same thing happen at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center where I’ve volunteered for over 10 years.  Someone walking on the beach sees a tiny infant sea lion on the beach, assumes it has lost its mother, picks it up and takes it home.  THEN, they wonder what to do with the adorable baby sea lion, and the tiny creature eventually ends up at our Center to save its life.  There is actually a $20,000 fine that can be levied for interfering with a marine mammal.  What these kind-hearted people have done is basically ruin the infant sea lion’s life.  We do our best, but infant sea lions usually have their moms with them for 8 to 12 months.  The relationship is dependent and intimate.  Without that, they will die just like a failure to thrive human baby.  We treat it like a human baby.  We handhold the baby, bottlefeed the baby, talk to the baby, play with the baby, teach the baby to swim and fish.  BUT we can’t teach the baby how to be wild.  IF it survives, its fate will be a life in a zoo or wildlife park.  What the kind hearted humans should have done is call our Center BEFORE touching the baby.  We monitor the infant from a distance for a couple of days to make sure the mom isn’t coming back.

When the author of “Fire Station:  Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout” happened upon a crying fawn, he assumed it must have been abandoned by its mother for some reason and carries it to his home;  whereupon, he realizes that he doesn’t have any milk to feed the possible orphan.  Being on the peak of a mountain five hard hiking miles from his car, he can’t just run down to the supermarket.  He radios for help to come and rescue the animal, and is advised to put Bambi back and “let nature take its course.”   It’s heartbreaking.  He tries awhile longer to devise a way to give the baby a pitiful amount of powdered milk he’s discovered at the back of a shelf.  He carries the baby outside again.  The next day its pitiful cries  bring him back again.  He watches Bambi die.  He feels many things, among them deep remorse.  There are no easy solutions to such a predicament.

How to deal with wild animals as well as wildfire in the mountains are quandaries that have no easy answers.   Fire was a natural way for nature to regenerate  healthy forests.  Forests NEED fire as an integral part of the balance of nature.  Humans have upset the balance of nature in so many ways.  There were homes and businesses to protect, as well as saving trees that were needed for more building.  Fire became “the enemy” that must be eradicated.

Smokey the Bear was first invented in the 1940s by the Wartime Advertising Council after a Japanese submarine shelled an oil field near Los Padres National Forest in California.  Civilians were warned to keep a sharp eye out for forest fires.  In 1950, a real Smokey the Bear cub was found clinging to a tree in a forest fire.  He became the mascot for the cause of fighting evil wildfires and preventing fires.  The author,  Philip Connors, put together a catchy slogan that expresses the present confusion of what to do with forest fires  — “Remember – only YOU Can Prevent Your Cigarette or Campfire from Starting a Wildfire We Are Forced By Long-standing Protocol to Suppress with Every Available Resource so as Not to Encourage Promiscuous Pyromaniacs; On the Other Hand Some Fires Started by Lightning Ought to Be Allowed to Run Their Course, for Reasons of Forest Health and Ecological Renewal — Fires We Call Wildland Fire-Use Fires Managed for Resource Benefit.”

Yes, humans have made a mess of the balance of nature.  Philip Connors cannot solve the problem, but thanks to him, I got to spend hours vicariously by his side seeing through his eyes and mind.  Coincidentally, Huell Howser had a tv show about visiting a fire lookout tower high on a windy mountain peak.  I felt like I had already visited it.

Comments?? E-mail Suellen at ZimaTravels.com

Dear Zenyatta

8 Nov

I am curious to know how you are feeling today.  I started thinking about you when I read an article about the big Breeders’ Cup Classic race at Churchill Downs that you lost by literally only inches.  It said, “One can only imagine how confused she must have been when they led her off to the barns, not the victory circle.”  Were you confused?  Disappointed?  Devastated?  Did you know that you lost the chance for a perfect 20 out of 20 races?  Perhaps you were sad because you sensed the loss through the tears of your loving jockey and owners.

I have never had a close relationship with a horse, but I remember when I was sad and crying,  my dog came by my side and quietly laid her head on my lap in sympathy.  My dog could sense my moods, and I could sense hers.  We were loving companions.  I know from cowboy movies and from a horse stable right  in my retirement community that horses and humans also develop very close relationships.

My connection with wild animals has mostly been through my weekly volunteering at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.  The sick and injured seals and sea lions brought there for treatment are intelligent, sentient beings that I have been able to observe over the years.  I am not one of them, but I am somehow related.  Although we humans have an annoying tendency to attribute human behavior to animals, I have sensed a level of communication between humans and pinnipeds that is as exciting as it is mystifying.  For one magical afternoon in Scammons Lagoon in Baja California, I interacted with wild gray whales that came up to play with us from our small boat.  There was no doubt it was an intentional encounter on both parts – human and wild sea creature.

Cultural ecologist and environmental philosopher David Abram in his book, “Becoming Animal,” laments how distant many humans feel from nature, including  wild creatures.  Instead of rejoicing in our connections with nature, we deny them or simply don’t see them.  Language has been one of the many ways we have closed our human selves off from the rest of nature.  Neuropsychologist Karen Shanor tries to illuminate for humans the sensitivities of animals in her book, “Bats Sing, Mice Giggle” to appreciate what mostly has remained unknown and unacknowledged.

So, dear Zenyatta, can you find joy and contentment in being  a “once in a lifetime athlete?”  You will undoubtedly continue to be loved and very well cared for.  You have achieved fame and glory in the eyes of humans.  Yes, you are a winner as  well as a loser.  I can only imagine what you feel, but I have no doubt that you do feel deeply.

Sincerely yours,

Another Sentient Being

I am, and always have been, a bleeding heart. So, it’s not difficult to find things that upset me. Before I discovered that teaching was my niche, I was a social worker. I wasn’t a very good social worker. I bled too much and couldn’t find that all-important boundary between empathy and not falling apart. Since this list could go on and on, I’m limiting it to a few things I’ve been feeling bad about lately.
In this Sunday’s paper, I read that Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle is going to be performed in Los Angeles. I can’t read the word, “Gotterdammerung”  without feeling a twinge of  guilt.
Long, long ago, I took a six hour bus trip and sat next to a talkative, congenial man. The one thing I remember talking about was how he had gone all over the world listening to opera. The climax of the cycle, Gotterdammerung, was the one part of the cycle he had never heard. His dream was to complete the cycle, but felt he never would because his own life cycle was closing in on him rapidly due to a terminal heart problem.
Even longer ago, my husband and I had gone to the San Francisco Opera to see Gotterdammerung. Prior to the performance, we ate in some restaurant that my long term memory remembers as The Happy Hippo. During the performance, I began to feel nauseous. At intermission, I seriously considered not returning. Regretfully, I did. The second half of the performance was sheer agony. All I could think about was how I could step over all the intervening people in the row if I had to rush to the bathroom. Needless to say, the performance seemed interminable. When would that high drama on stage end so that I wouldn’t have to worry about throwing up on the opera lovers around me — and probably during a lull in the singing?
That very, very uncomfortable memory was my memory of the opera of my bus companion’s longing. Just one of many examples of how life just isn’t fair.
Something else I’ve been feeling bad about lately is eating meat. Psychologically, I know I’m a vegetarian. But I can’t get over liking, and even craving meat. Plus I do believe that the human body was designed to eat meat for adequate nutrition.
I haven’t been naive about where meat comes from since that single moment I looked at tongue in the meat market and actually understood where it came from. I recently saw a movie, Food Inc., that makes it all graphically clear how animals are slaughtered. I have personally seen a chicken slaughtered in China, and a goat’s throat slit while hiking in the Sinai. I cringed in Korea when I heard the howls of dogs being killed. And the squeals of a pig being butchered is indeed terrible to hear.
Does it help to know that some animals are only raised to be slaughtered for food? Does it help that some slaughter houses kill animals so-called “humanely?” Well, not much. Dead is dead. When a co-worker and I were walking through the Arab Israeli village where we lived and worked, we saw a shop selling live chickens. My co-worker turned to me and said that I was the only person he knew that understood how animals were treated, but still ate meat.
I truly DO like vegetables. But I rarely feel full for long after a vegetarian meal. And I’m not one for “imitation meat.” Just another part of life where I behave ambivalently.
On the subject of animals, I feel so sad for the yearling sea lions that are piling up at our Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach (California). Although most problems for marine life are human-caused, I probably can’t blame humans for the El Nino that brings warmer water and makes the fish seek out cooler, deeper water. The yearlings, rather recently sent off on their own by their moms after 8 months or so together, can’t find the fish. Many are only skin and bones, barely the weight they were born with last summer. We save many of them and return them to the sea. But some are too emaciated to save. And, we suspect the worst is yet to come as more and more sea lions are brought in every day.
The albatross has also been on my mind. I was composing a letter to my tax accountant in which I described a disastrous investment I made as “an albatross.” While this is a perfectly good idiom in English, I thought of the large, beautiful birds I had huffed and puffed uphill to catch a glimpse of in New Zealand. They were magnificent to see. I was particularly excited to see them because I had, for no apparent reason I can think of, thought of them as extinct. How strange indeed that such a wondrous bird has been connected with being a heavy burden.

I generally read or listen to anything about whales. So, when I saw a picture of a whale on the local news tonight, I stopped to listen. And then I saw a couple of familiar faces talking about cutting off clumps of fishing lines to allow the whale to swim freely.
They were two of the 80 volunteers from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach (CA), and they were freeing a 40-ton gray whale stuck in Dana Point Harbor hopelessly entangled in fishing nets.
I first visited the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in 2001 on my way to somewhere else. But the unusual sounds drew me there. A docent came out to speak to me about the wild animals at the rehabilitation center. I was fascinated, but when she said she was a volunteer, my jaw literally dropped and I said, “They LET you volunteer here.” And I signed up. I was already too old, slow, and weak (plus at that time I had no medical insurance in case I was bitten) to be an animal care volunteer, so I became a docent.
I have spent most Sunday afternoons for the past 9 years at the Center, talking to visitors about our patients and doing presentations to any groups that wish to come.
We cater to mostly three types of pinnipeds — sea lions, elephant seals, and harbor seals. Their worst enemies are humans. Humans have transformed the sea — their home — into treacherous territory. Survival is getting more and more difficult as we muck up the oceans in so many intentional and unintentional ways.
It is at the Center (www.pacificmmc.org) that I have personally met a variety of people that I admire most in the world. Ages and professions vary greatly, but I’ve seen a dedication from these volunteers and the small staff we have that is remarkable.
I’ve also come to know some pretty amazing animals too. So, when the news commentator pointed out that the whale stayed calm and seemed to know that people were trying to help him, I had absolutely no doubt that was true.
When I spent one of the most memorable afternoons of my life in Scammons Lagoon in Baja California surrounded by gray whales, I had no doubt that the whales that came up to interact with us were doing so absolutely intentionally. Everyone on the small boat knew the huge whales could easily overturn our boats with a flip of a fluke, but we had no fear. These highly intelligent animals knew exactly what they were doing, and we felt so honored that they wanted to play with us.
I can never forget that afternoon with the gray whales any more than some divers a couple of years back who spent hours freeing a whale from fishing nets. Before swimming away, the whale went up to each diver and thanked him. The divers never doubted it, and neither do I.
Volunteering is supposed to give one a feeling of satisfaction, but being one of the volunteers helping to save sea animals is particularly poignant at a time when the BP oil spill is indiscriminately spewing destruction in a vast area.

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