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Monday, September 29, 2014

Friendship and Coexistence

Bow and I recently saw two little videos that I think will add something positive to my discussion here about the relationship of other animals to man and of the interdependence of all living things to each other, including predators and their prey. While I did not make these films myself and do not know the background of the people who did, I think the videos speak for themselves. Bow liked watching them, and I hope that you enjoy them as well.

The first video I came across quite by accident in my Facebook feed. Since it involved a dolphin, and I had just  written about the dolphin movie, I was unusually open to watching it, despite the fact that I am often jaded when it comes to "cute animal videos." Bow found it quite engaging, too.

To watch the video click here

While I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the video, unless it is severely edited, the dolpin does not seem to be coerced or bribed in any way. Nobody is standing over it with a stick, nor is anybody giving it a fish for returning the ball. The little boy and the dolphin are just having fun. This is taking place, I assume, in Russia or some Russian speaking location, and the caption says "Просто играют друг с другом", "  or "just playing friend with friend."

Bow watched the video once, then asked to see it again, and for the third repetition, he figured out where he should press. Sometimes he got excited, but much of the time he sat still and watched, sometimes vocalizing his involvement, and sometimes sticking out his tongue at the boy and the dolphin, which is what he does when he likes someone.

Are dolphins wild animals? Can they be violent? Well, yes, to the same extent that we are also wild animals and can get violent when it serves our best interests. But this dolphin does not see this particular child as a threat, and he seems to enjoy playing with him. They are friends.

That is such a simple concept, that if there were no animal rights activists in the world, there would be no point in belaboring it. But there you have it. There's your answer to the wild animal propaganda.

The second film is somewhat more sobering, because it deals with predation, and how life comes from killing. Bow watched it only once, and he did find it enjoyable, but he did not ask to see it again. 

The video is called "How Wolves Change Rivers" and it is a very glossy, high production piece with a message. It may very well be propaganda of some sort. I am not sure who is putting it out or for what reason, but they use the word "sustainability" which sounds very politically correct.

However, the uptake, for anyone who thinks about it, is that predators make life better for everyone, including the prey. I have long believed that, and it's not that different from what my father wrote in his article about the greater good.

Greater than Ourselves by Amnon Katz

My experience with trying to share this article has been mixed. A lot of people of the altruistic persuasion respond favorably to some of the set phrases, such as "greater than the individual." But when I explained to them that this is an argument in favor of laissez faire, they got mad at me. One woman even blocked me on a social networking site. She thought my father's article was great, but that my take on it was not.

Vegetarianism does not pay, if everybody practices it. It is fine as a limited way of life, and I have nothing against those who choose it for themselves for personal reasons. But those who want everybody to be vegetarian, including wolves and cats, have no idea what they are wishing on the world. Herbivores need carnivores to keep themselves healthy and to make sure that their population is not too great and that they don't overgraze. Even soil erosion can be laid at the feet of rampant vegetarianism. The Middle East is now largely a desert because of the unchecked practice of agriculture, which started there and spread elsewhere more slowly.

Even in economic terms, there are reasons for the trophic pyramid, with few at the top and many at the bottom. Eliminate the one percent, and life becomes much harder for the other 99%. Did the makers of that little nature film realize what they were saying? I doubt it. But there it is.

Bow seems to understand. Do you?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Recognizing Propaganda

Last night, after Bow went to sleep,  I took my daughter and her friend to the movies. The movie they chose was Dolphin Tale II. It was a fairly enjoyable marine film, based apparently on some degree of truth, but I could not help but feel that it was also full of propaganda. The plot of the movie in a nutshell is that a handicapped dolphin named Winter, who lost her tail, is in danger of losing her human companions, too, because her dolphin companion has died, and the USDA inspector is threatening to move her to a facility far away, where she can have a new dolphin companion. The requirement for having a dolphin companion cannot be waived, because it is imposed by the government. Luckily, in the end, an orphaned dolphin is found who can keep Winter company, so that she will not be torn away from the humans who love her. The USDA inspector is satisfied, and all is right with the world. (Sorry about the spoiler.)

This is the brave new world of animal rights. In this world, people don't own dolphins, but the USDA apparently does. Hence even if you own a marine aquarium and run it yourself, the government gets to decide what happens to the animals who are there. In order for an uncompanioned dolphin who depends on you to stay in its home, you have to hope, pray and wish that somewhere out there in the ocean a mother dolphin will serendipitously die so that an orphan can be found who can allow you to keep the animal you love.

I could tell that this film was intended to "educate" the public about animal rights because certain key phrases kept being repeated, most notably "she's a wild animal, not a pet." This was even though there were clear emotional bonds between the dolphin Winter and her human companions on whom she depended.  (The story would not have been interesting if there were not.)

The smaller children in the audience were very much into the story, holding their breaths to see whether the older dolphin and the orphan would bond, but they will undoubtedly go home with some of the key phrases that were smuggled into the script lodged somewhere in their brains, without even knowing it.

Somewhere in my Facebook feed this morning, there was a meme attributed to Robespierre about how the road to freedom is through education. Really?! Are you sure you want to quote Robespierre on that?

The road to freedom is not to be found in being "educated" by someone else on what you should be thinking. The road to freedom begins when you start thinking for yourself.

The USDA is one of those alphabet soup agencies that even predates FDR. It was founded under Abraham Lincoln, the "great emancipator". He called it the "people's department". Shades of Robespierre? The mission of the USDA is to regulate agriculture and to assure food safety and maybe also "end hunger." It's funny how a Federal agency aims to put an end to that growling in your stomach that tells you it's lunch time.

Americans do not eat dolphins. They don't eat dogs. And they certainly don't eat chimpanzees. And yet the USDA has taken on itself the mission to regulate all of these animals and to make decisions about individuals who keep them if they have even the slightest link with "the public". I know of dog breeders who have recently come under USDA jurisdiction. I know that anyone who breeds chimpanzees or allows the public to view them is also subject to USDA requirements.

Bow leafs through the latest issue of Bazaar

I want a female companion for Bow.

But, ironically, if I ever got one, that would open me up to USDA inspection, because they would label me a breeder. So it's in some measure thanks to the USDA that Bow still has no chimpanzee companion. But this does not mean that he lacks for companionship, as he is part of a family that loves him. and I am always there.

Bow should not have to choose between his human family and chimpanzee companions. There is no reason it should ever be that way. In a better world, there would not be any government intervention, and people would be free to meet all the companionship needs of their animals using their own judgment and the means at their disposal. Nobody would have to pray for a wild bottle-nosed mother dolphin to die just so as to keep their own beloved dolphin. And nobody would confuse companion animals with food or believe that it's the government's place to end hunger.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

It's Not All Black or White

I very much enjoyed yesterday's blog post by Kathy Freeze about her purple martins. We can learn many things from reading it, but the one issue I want to focus on today is this: whether an animal is wild or domesticated is not a matter of black and white. There is not one incontrovertible answer. It is fluid. It changes with time. It evolves. It is a cooperative work in progress, and not a matter forced on the animals from without. It involves choice by both groups. It is not about exploitation by one set of individuals of another set. It is about two different populations finding mutual support. It is less like parasitism and more like symbiosis.

Purple martins never built their own houses. They evolved to be opportunistic and find pre-existing cavities to nest in. Native Americans, noting this fact about the attractive birds, started offering them gourds to nest in. Some of the purple martins responded positively to this offer. In time, with the introduction of outside species from Europe, the only purple martins who were able to compete were the ones who opted for man-made housing. Now the purple martins are entirely dependent on humans and feel safer nesting close to a human habitation, due to the protection that the humans afford them, But are they domesticated? Have they been "enslaved"? Hardly. It's their choice, and if they feel a human landlord is neglectful, they will leave the housing and find a better landlord.

Have we domesticated the purple martins? Or have they domesticated us?

There is a cat out there, somewhere on my property, who is courting me. It wants to domesticate me. It keeps bringing me dead birds and parts of squirrels it has killed as offerings of friendship. I am not impressed. Sometimes I am even a little disgusted at these stark signs of carnivorous efficiency. But clearly that cat has one thing in mind: to domesticate me and make me its own.

Am I exploiting this cat? Or is it trying to exploit me? Or could a cooperative effort between us be a mutually beneficial arrangement?

Animal rights people want you to think that in every relationship there is a hapless victim. That every act of assimilation is an act of exploitation. That we have only to search for the more powerful partner to see who is on top, and whoever is on top is the bad guy. It's the same method that feminists use to demonize men.

On my property I have lots of different species of both plants and animals. Some of them eat each other. But even when that happens, it's not as black and white as it seems. Some life forms live by offering themselves to others. Being eaten and reproducing go hand in hand.

I have a friend who urges me to eradicate the thistle flower, because it is really the dread spotted knapweed, that invasive and noxious weed that will take over your property. On the other hand, the milkweed plants are deemed to be good. Well, all my milkweed plants have gone to seed pods now.

There will be more milkweed flowers next year, but right now when a Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly is looking for food, it's the purple thistle flowers that offer it some nectar.

Are the butterflies exploiting the flowers? Or are the flowers exploiting the butterflies?

The persimmon trees that planted themselves on my property are starting to display their fruit, like savvy vendors, looking for a sale. It will not be till late October when they are ripe enough for me to eat them. But they got here in the first place because animals who ate the fruit dropped the seed in our pasture. Their DNA may travel far and wide, and all because they offer to feed the hungry, free of charge. Who is exploiting whom?

And then there are chimpanzees. Chimpanzees are not humans. Humans are not chimpanzees. They must remain apart for the sake of species purity. That is the litany of the zookeepers and the sanctuary trolls. Chimpanzees living among humans are exploited. They are damaged. They cannot socialize with their own kind. It affects them later in life, even if you try to reintroduce them into a chimpanzee population. They can't socialize properly.

But try to introduce a human child into a human population with a different culture after the critical period, and you get the same result. Trouble socializing. Instead of proving that humans and chimpanzees should be kept apart, this shows that they are actually very similar, and that a big part of what makes us different is how we are brought up.

Humans and chimpanzees are separate species. Yes. We diverged a long time ago from a common ancestor and went our separate ways. Well, yes and no. We diverged and then we re-merged.

In the not so distant ancestral past, humans and chimpanzees were drawn back together and produced more hybrid offspring. How do we know this?
Different regions of the human and chimp genomes were found to have diverged at widely different times, and the two species' X chromosomes show a surprisingly recent divergence time.
Are we the hybrid or are they? Or are we both? And really, why should that matter? It's not all black or white. We sometimes go to war with our closest relatives, but at other times we coexist in peace. There are inter-species adoptions. We can serve as parents to children with different DNA.

All life on earth is related, but some are closer than others. The purple martins are much more distant relatives to man than chimpanzees. Yet we can work out cooperative joint ventures with them.

When you see a young chimpanzee living with a human as a dependent child, don't be quick to conclude that one is exploiting the other. Or that a wild animal is being forced to live an unwanted domestic life. Does Bow have a choice? Do I?

Yes and No. We have a choice about what we do. We do not always have a choice about how others react. Bow knows about some of the other choices available. He is aware of some of the dangers and also some of the incentives of choosing a different life. He is in the pens of his own free will. Believe me, he is much stronger than I am, and when he cooperates, it is because he chooses to do so. I cannot force him to do anything. I can only request.

I want us to find acceptance among humans and chimpanzees both. But that does not depend on us alone. It also depends on the other chimpanzees and the other humans. It's not all black or white.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hosting Purple Martins

by Kathy Freeze, Guest Blogger

The Purple Martin (Progne subis) is North America’s largest swallow. They are colonial-style nesters, meaning that they like to congregate and nest in close proximity at a particular location. After observing my aunt’s purple martin colony for years we finally moved to Missouri in 2006, and I decided to become a ‘landlord’ and start hosting purple martins. After 8 years, I now host 74 pairs and their delightful chatter, graceful flight and entertaining antics are the main attraction in my backyard for most of the summer.

Per the PMCA: Purple martins have been migrating to North America from Brazil for thousands of years. In the early years, before the first human beings arrived, the martins nested only in the abandoned nesting chambers of woodpeckers, or in the other natural cavities of dead trees or in cliffs. Today, east of the Rockies, martins nest only in human-supplied housing; either in elaborate bird house condominiums known as “martin houses” or in natural or artificial gourds. Known as a “behavioral tradition shift”, this has been attributed to several factors including the offering of gourds with holes by the Native American Indians, which were an easily obtained nesting site by the martins and later, the introduction of non-native European Starlings and English House Sparrows who took over the natural cavities. The purple martin is now the only bird species in North America that is totally dependent on humans for supplying them with nesting sites. In fact, if humans were to stop supplying martins with homes, they would likely disappear as a breeding bird in eastern North America.

 Today, I offer 84 cavities consisting of a combination of aluminum housing and man-made plastic gourds located approximately 75 feet from my own home. You would think that these wild, beautiful birds would prefer to be further away from their nosey landlord; however, if their housing was located over 200 feet away by my pond, they would likely not nest there. The PMCA suggests the reason for this phenomenon is the martins feel safer when nesting closer to humans as there are likely fewer predators where there is human activity.

Ironically, the downside of having so many noisy birds concentrated in one area is that they draw attention from all these predators. The nocturnal predators are the worst as 100% of the martins are all tucked into the housing and can’t see the hunters coming. Indeed, all my housing poles are equipped with predator guards to keep any ground-dwelling predators such as snakes or raccoons from climbing the poles and making a meal out of my beautiful birds. As of this past summer, after experiencing numerous nightly owl attacks, I’ve added additional protection from flying predators to keep the opportunistic Great Horned Owl from feeding at my colony.  

If I allowed the predators to freely predate my colony, the purple martins would eventually abandon my site. As they only nest and breed once a year (sometimes twice in the more southern states), they are more attracted to sites that are well-managed and predator and nest-site competitor free, or as close to it as possible.

Throughout the course of their nesting cycle, I also participate in a research program with the PMCA known as “Project MartinWatch". It’s a continent-wide, scientific project where participants monitor their martins’ nests weekly, record the information (number of eggs laid, number of eggs hatched, number of young fledged, etc.), which will allow the research group to determine the range-wide reproductive success and annual population trends of the purple martins. For some years, I have also participated in banding more than one thousand young hatchling and adult martins here at my site, which will allow us to track their returns and recoveries (deaths) in upcoming years.  

The very nature of man-made housing, combined with heat, moisture and so many birds nesting on one pole, often results in a huge increase in parasites within the nest cavities. As too many of these parasites can result in a high mortality rate for the young nestlings, I frequently monitor for them and, if necessary, replace wet nests, nests fouled with dead nestlings, or parasite-infested nests with fresh nest material, increasing the chances of survival for the nestlings.

The first purple martin back to my site in early spring will always chirp a greeting and happily fly circles around me in my yard when he/she arrives and some of the regulars have become used to my intrusions into their nests and they will perch above and vocalize their displeasure while I go about my weekly chores. We have a mutually beneficial relationship – the purple martins eat lots of bugs in my area and provide me with hours of delight, while I provide them with a safe, predator-free (as much as possible) nesting site. Even with all the handling and interactions with my purple martins, they have not become a tame pet --  they still remain wild and free to come and go as they please and that’s what makes our relationship so enjoyable.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Conflict of Interest and Artificial Intelligence

When I was a young girl, I wondered about many things. One of them was apes and language. Another was artificial intelligence. What I had trouble understanding, in both cases, was the psychological hurdles to success.

I mean, you can teach an ape language. In fact, you don't really need to teach it at all. They pick it up. But then proving it to your fellow man is very, very hard. Why? Because the ape does not care to prove it. He doesn't cooperate. He won't help. He does not really care if anybody thinks he is smart. He's pretty happy with himself, either way.

Bow looks through a copy of Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain

The psychology of learning, and especially of proving what you have learned, is something that humans are still working out. For instance, among humans, there is a gender gap, according to a recent article in the Atlantic. Girls are hard workers with great organizational skills who like to be graded on their effort, not their ability. Boys hate to be forced into work, but they will gladly rise to the challenge of a test, in which they try to prove how smart they are, not how hard they worked preparing for it.

Why Girls Get Better Grades than Boys Do

But is this really about girls versus boys? Or is it about different types of people, some of whom are compliant, but unthinking and others of whom cannot be motivated to comply for a bribe, because they would rather think for themselves? Isn't it just that there are more girls in the one camp and more boys in the other, so that the unusual girls are discarded as outliers?

At this point, you're probably saying, yeah, that's what it means that boys are different from girls, that most boys do this, not all boys. That most girls are like this, not all girls. But what about a class full of girls? Would they all work equally hard? Would they all rather memorize than think? And does it matter what culture they belong to?

Our Lady of Kaifeng
In my novel Our Lady of Kaifeng the American teacher, Marah Fallowfield, is shocked by the degree of teamwork, compliance, hard work and memorization that her students are capable of, and at how they refuse to think for themselves. It is an all girls' school, so it is not a matter of gender norms. Instead, all the girls in her class are Chinese, and they come from a culture that places a premium on obedience, self-abnegation and collective achievement. rather than on individualism and self-motivated action.

The United States is heading in the same cultural direction at the moment as China went years ago, which is why the more compliant and submissive students are getting better grades. We are rewarding thoughtless submission in the form of grades, and so more compliant people are going on to college. As it happens, more of those people are women.

But you don't have to be some kind of genius or rebel to see which classes in high school have actual content and which involve mostly memory work. Even students who don't excel academically can tell that some subjects require more understanding and less studying, while others you cannot get by with anything less than memorizing the study guide word for word in order to pass the test. For my daughter at the moment, music and math are subjects where the answers can be found in her own head. Other classes have to be studied for. And studying mostly consists of rote memorization.

This is not necessarily because she's good at these more objective subjects. It's because they have content that has a logic all its own. In grade school, she used to ace the spelling tests without looking at the list of words, because she is hyperlexic, and spelling has an internal sense to it, despite the arbitrary elements. But in high school, there are no more spelling tests. People who excel in the humanities have no chance to show it, because the tests are designed for social purposes, not objective content. There are no more translations from Latin or Greek to show your academic merit in the humanities.

So I don't really think it is boys against girls: it's that we have shaped the content in the schools to reward hard work and cooperation and to discourage independent thinking. As a result, even those people who might have loved the humanities in a former era find they are more fairly dealt with in math, where there is still some advantage to thinking for themselves.

When I wanted to adopt a chimpanzee, I wasn't sure whether I wanted a boy or a girl. I thought, as many people think, that a girl might be easier to handle. I had heard that boy chimps were more powerful, and hence more dangerous. And I wanted someone teachable.  But the breeders told me this: female and male chimpanzees are both equally smart, but the girls are more temperamental. If you tell a boy he did something wrong, he will accept it much sooner and move on. But tell a girl chimp that she made a mistake, and she is going to fume and fuss, and you can't get her to try again for a whole day, because you have insulted her! So when Bow became available, and he was a boy, I accepted him into my life. And it's true, he is pretty easy going. He just isn't very eager to prove anything about what he knows.

So much for natural intelligence. But what about AI?

The day before I captured and released the last snake, I came across a very damaged Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly. And there it was, going about its usual business gathering nectar from a thistle flower, even though it was fall, and its wings were frayed and surely its days were numbered. Does the butterfly know it is going to die? Is it following a preset algorithm for behavior? What is the difference between that little creature and a similar artificial drone of about the same size that might be used by the government to gather information or DNA?

A mock-up of an artificial intelligence mosquito that gathers DNA
There is no such capability currently according to Snopes

There are no AI mosquitoes or butterflies as of yet. It is just an urban legend according to Snopes. Most people discuss the technical challenges of miniaturization as being what has prevented this from coming about. But I think there is a bigger problem: the open question of consciousness. I think butterflies are conscious, and drones, of whatever size, are not.

I came across the damaged butterfly again yesterday, and it was feeding next to a counterpart who was still intact.

I don't think there is a simple algorithm that accounts for the butterfly's behavior. I suppose you could build one that is remote control, but for there to be artificial intelligence, the drone must think for itself. It has to decide where to go, when to hide, when to feed, and when to take off for better pastures. Have we solved that problem yet? I don't think so.

Will intelligent robots wipe out the human race? That is a sensational headline that has been hitting the news. But before we can program intelligent robots, we first have to stop trying to turn our children into drones.

An algorithm, no matter how complex, cannot tell you what to do. Even Google can't tell whether a piece of writing is genuinely good, without resorting to tinkering with their own algorithm constantly, because it is based on second-guessing other readers and not reading the piece for themselves. When they decide a site like Squidoo needs to be downgraded in the rankings, they still do it by hand.

Google can't grade an essay to save its life. Yes, they are working on natural language processing. But did you know that they are still paying humans for the menial task of marking the noun phrases? A computer still can't tell by itself the difference between a noun and a verb.

Yesterday, I watched a skipper and a bumblebee share the same flower. The bumblebee buzzed off pretty soon, but that skipper stayed and stayed, and I could really tell it was enjoying every drop of nectar.

Where does intelligence come from? It is not from the desire to comply. It is not from harmony and peace. Intelligence is born out of conflict of interest between and among different beings who are vying with each other for survival. If we ever do discover the secret, it will be by pitting drones against each other and letting them duke it out, not by centrally planning a perfect, compliant drone.

But for the time being, we are turning our children into drones and discarding the best among them, because they won't do as they are told.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A Place Where We Can Meet

It would be nice for both Bow and me to meet other chimpanzees and other chimpanzee owners, but the question is how to do it, without losing control.

Because we are so territorial, Bow and I, allowing anyone in would involve resolving a lot of dominance issues. Entering someone else's territory would necessarily imply similar conflicts and resolutions.

We do this as humans many times a day. When we enter a new space, one that does not belong to us, we have to adjust our behavior. At home, we speak Hebrew. At school we speak English. Outside, we can be louder, but inside we must be more quiet. At so-and-so's house, children have to help with the dishes. At our house, they don't. At one friend's house, they say grace before eating. In another house, they eat standing up off paper plates while watching TV. Every new place requires learning a whole set of new behaviors. Will the lady of the house require us to help clear? Or alternatively, will she be offended if we set foot in her kitchen?

I have met people who don't realize their rules are not universal, their language is not the only one and their way of thinking is not necessarily dominant in other parts of the world. Some of those people can't help it, because they have never left home and have not been exposed to other ways of doing things. But I have been a world traveler, and I travel into another world every time I step out the front door or drive outside my own limited domain.

My whole life I have been negotiating borders, some visible and some quite invisible, but they are just as real and just as powerful, either way. Whoever has control of the territory gets to set the rules. And sometimes, very rarely. we even find a way to meet on neutral ground.

I have very rigid rules about what goes on in the pens, and all with an eye to giving Bow maximal freedom while maintaining order and cleanliness. I realize that other people have different rules for the chimpanzees in their establishment. The different rules are not necessarily bad. It is what works for them. What would not work is applying conflicting rules at the same time and place.

For instance, Bow uses the potty. Some people have their chimpanzees use the same toilet they use, and other people have mesh floors and treat chimpanzees as if they were animals incapable of being housebroken. Which is right? Well, whatever works for you in your own house. That's the point of live and let live.

The problems begin when people think they can dictate to others with the idea that there is only one right way to do things.  And that is one reason I have not consented to place Bow under the rule of a committee.

Centralized control of all the chimpanzees in the United States in just a few sanctuaries is a bad idea. In the wild, chimpanzees live in separate groups, and group membership is strictly delineated. Nature arranges it this way for a reason. A single territory cannot support an infinite number of chimpanzees. When separate groups are living in separate locations, even if one group should perish, another can survive. Disease and over-breeding are kept under control. Bad policies by one group do not have to spread to another.

This is also why humans do not live in uniform hives like bees, but every family is separate and apart and has its own set of rules, its own language, culture, religion and mores. And yet people can meet outside the home and talk to each other, despite how different and separate our households really are.

I sometimes think of how to make a neutral meeting place for chimpanzees. Bow might benefit from knowing others of his kind. I might benefit from comparing notes with others, too. One way is the virtual meetup, which I have mentioned before. Another, far more expensive, way would involve building a set of interlinked tunnels leading to a central location that is safe for chimps. They could meet on the island for socializing with their own in a place where only they set the rules. And then when they wanted to go home, they could each take the tunnel leading back to their own house, each with its own set of rules that only they know.

Rules and fences and borders serve an important purpose. We have stayed safe by making sure there were no encounters between individuals who don't understand or accept each other's conflicting rules. But there is always the possibility of meeting in the middle, as long as everyone is allowed to go home at the end of the day.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Another Snake Caught and Released

 I was taking it easy this morning, while Bow lounged around in the outer pen. The last thing I wanted was to deal with another snake. But the dogs gave the alarm, and Bow got very excited, too. This time, the snake was not nearly as aggressive as the one we met before. Rather than attacking anyone who approached, it was engaged in mostly defensive maneuvers. I was able to get it into my plastic container with very little trouble. In fact, I think the snake cooperated with me. Brownie tried to tug at the tail that was not in the container, but the snake tucked itself inside and allowed me to secure the lid.


I showed the snake to Bow, who was leaning forward in the pen, eager to see. The dogs milled around me, but they accepted that the snake was mine to do with as I pleased, since I had captured it.

The snake seemed very relaxed within the container. It was not making any gestures that indicated a desire to attack.

I took the snake to the front yard near the pasture and opened the lid. At first the snake did not move at all, and I was concerned that it might have been asphyxiated. 

However, when I prodded it with the tongs, it did move.

It had a very stern, but non-threatening expression. At no point did it attempt to strike out at me. The behavior of this snake is what I associate with black rat snakes in general, as I have handled many of them over the years. I would not attempt to handle a snake that I don't feel comfortable with.

Eventually, I tipped the container over and allowed the snake to make its way through the grass to the pasture.


If all goes well for this snake, it will capture and eat many rodents.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Territory and Violence: A Universal Approach

"People all need to look at Earth from space and realize there are no true borders except those made by humans."  

Wrong! There are borders made by humans, there are borders made by other animals, and chimpanzees are known to patrol their borders to keep strangers out. Dogs recognize borders, and so do many other animals. And you don't necessarily need to see a border in order for it to be real. Sometimes you can smell a border, or hear a border, and the true test of the border's validity is whether your life is threatened when you go past a certain point.

The border between my land and the neighbors'
Borders are real. They're important for survival, and they are worth fighting over. If you don't understand this, then you are not only missing the point of all recorded history, you are also never going to understand chimpanzees or dogs or most of the life on this planet.

If you want to start a fight, the first thing you do is set foot on somebody else's turf. You don't have to do anything else to be seen as a challenger. That in itself is an act of aggression. After that, any action that the person defending the turf takes against you is not aggression, but defense.

The border is the fence. A snake outside the fence is safe from the dogs.
Some animals can coexist within a territory, when their interests do not conflict. But a snake that thinks it can go hunting rodents in a yard owned by dogs has got another think coming. The yard reeks of dog. The dogs are noisy and boisterous. There is no way not to know that this yard is dog turf. Any rodents to be had here as prey belong to the dogs.

Being defensively assertive on somebody else's territory while refusing to leave is still aggression. I am guessing that a lot of people are confused about this issue.

Usually, I try to save the snakes, because I do think they make for better rodent control than dogs. So whenever I feel it is feasible, I will capture a snake, transport it in a plastic container and then let it loose in the field. But this snake was much more aggressive than most, and I was not sure at first whether it would be safe for me to intervene.

"I think you mean defensive. There were two dogs trying to kill it."

This is what one of my readers tweeted. The idea being that the fact that the snake was attacking the dogs to save its own life made the lunges defensive. I had to think about that for a while. It really depends on whose territory it is, whether the snake's actions are seen as aggressive or defensive. If the dogs had gone onto snake territory and attacked the snake, the very same actions by the snake would be rightfully described as defensive. But since this was in dog territory, I'd say the snake was aggressive.

If you don't get this rather abstract difference, then you will not understand most of the things that are happening all around you. You won't understand the news. You won't understand the real reasons for war. And you will not understand why a stray human standing right outside the border of a chimpanzee sanctuary   -- within touching range -- is seen as fair game for the male chimps in charge of the border.

Yesterday, in the news, there was an item about chimpanzees and killing.

"Murder" Comes Natually to Chimpanzees

But is it really "murder" when it involves protecting borders? Isn't it more like war?

"Lethal aggression in Pan is better explained by adaptive strategies than human impacts." That's the Nature headline.

Every group has its own territory. The territory provides all the necessities of life, but it will not support an unlimited number of individuals. Therefore, the stronger members of the group work together to keep outsiders out. It is a matter of survival. It works like that for chimpanzees, and it works like that for man. And it is not a matter to get all sentimental about.

But here's another point that various animal rights activists do not understand. Group membership is not decided genetically. It is based on mutual acceptance. The dogs kill snakes, but they know I have a right to be in the yard, because I am the leader of their group. They are killers, but they are also very loyal and supportive of those on their team.

Bow gets very upset every time a stranger shows up on my land. But we are family, and he is not going to hurt me. He often gestures for me to get out of the way, concerned that I might get hurt in one of his displays. He is a true gentleman, that way.

Group membership is a matter of being used to one another and forming lasting bonds. It is not about blood ties. That's why apartheid between humans and chimpanzees is the surest way toward enmity, and why coexistence requires committed and lasting contact.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Brownie Kills a Snake

Brownie killed a snake in the back yard yesterday. I stood by and let it happen. Normally, I try to save the snakes. I get a stick or some tongs and a tupperware container, and I distract the dogs or put them up and get the snake. Not this time, though.

I was alerted to the presence of the snake by the persistent barking of the dogs. I stopped by in the kitchen and reached for some tongs and a plastic container and went to the backyard. I was expecting to see a black rat snake or a prairie Kingsnake, but when I got there, the snake rearing its head up to attack between the two dogs seemed unfamiliar and unusually aggressive. As the dogs kept up their barking, the snake tried to lunge several times, throwing itself at each of the dogs in turn with great power and an open mouth. They nimbly jumped back every time that happened. I realized that I was not equal to the situation. I would not be able to put this snake into a plastic container without getting bitten.

While Leo kept up an almost incessant yapping, Brownie only barked periodically, getting closer to the snake than Leo ever dared. Then when the snake seemed distracted by the other dog, Brownie would pick it up in the middle, shake it, and then throw it across the yard.

I considered trying to get the dogs in the house, but I was afraid that even if they did obey me, which was doubtful, because they were so excited, distracting Brownie in the middle of the fight might end up getting one or both of the dogs bitten. So I let Brownie proceed. Bow, watching from the safety of the inner pens, was rooting for Brownie.

After several captures, shakes in the air, and body-bitings, the snake was dead. Brownie still wouldn't let me touch it until hours later. I thought maybe he wanted to eat it, but it was intact when I finally took it away and discarded its limp body in the thicket of the pasture.

My friend tells me it was just a harmless bullsnake, and that if it had been a venomous snake Brownie would be dead now. But I did the best I could under the circumstances, and Brownie did not get bitten once during the encounter. He was actually very careful and meticulous about his work, attacking the snake only when it was distracted and not allowing the head to make contact with him during the struggle. After the kill, Brownie kept the snake to himself, holding it in the middle and shaking its limp body. He would not allow me to touch it until he was absolutely sure that the danger had passed.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Illusion of Progress

Sometimes it seems that the world is getting warmer and warmer, This summer, for a while, it looked that way to me. And then one day it got very cold, and the wind blew, and it rained, and everything was wet and dreary.

We have had some very hot days recently, almost unseasonably hot. But yesterday when I went for a walk in the pasture, there were no bumblebees on the thistle flowers, only cold little droplets of rain. It was so cold, I had to wear a jacket. What happened to the weather?

Even the spiders could no longer ply their trade. Their delicate little webs were full of sparkling droplets, looking like rare jewels in the dreary light.

The goldenrod, till now unnoticed, seemed to shine out against its dull surroundings.

 If I did not know any better, I would say the world was coming to an end! But then I remembered that it's almost fall. And nature works in cycles. And so it's actually going to be okay. These things are supposed to be happening. Summer will come again, but first we have to get through fall, winter and spring.

Is the globe getting warmer? It's entirely possible. And that trend will continue,  until the next ice age! Our planet lives on cycles. Some of the cycles are small, like day and night. Some are bigger, like the seasons. And some are bigger still, so big that you can't even observe them in a single lifespan.

You can watch the days grow brighter and longer and project that trend far, far into the future and call that progress, and then be totally undone when growth and warmth come to a screeching halt. Or you can recognize that it's a cycle. Unlimited growth is not possible. Growth and decay come each in its turn.

But there is even more at play here. Unlimited growth with limited resources is not possible. There are conservation laws in place. More of one thing always means less of something else. Reduce infant mortality and you get more abortions. Raise more cattle and you get fewer wolves. Start to use tools to enhance your prowess, and your muscles will shrink. It's not progress. It is this for that. There's an equilibrium in place that you cannot escape.

Bow can crack a hazelnut with his teeth. That's because he comes from a long line of beings that use their teeth as weapons and as tools and who have not resorted to nutcrackers or swords. Yes, I know that really big nuts are cracked on stones by resourceful chimpanzees, and that they can use sticks as weapons. But by and large their failure to develop a higher technology has left their bodies strong. We come from a common source. We, too, used to be that strong. We did not develop technology to make up for our physical inferiority. We lost our prowess when we started relying on implements. The selective pressure was lifted, so weaker individuals were not eliminated.

Should we choose one path, or should we choose another? Is there one way that leads to heaven and the other to hell? Does eating from the tree of knowledge cast us out of paradise? Or is it simply that there is a natural price for every choice we make?

There are conservatives who think everything should stay the same all the time. There are progressives who think we should have endless progress. They are both wrong. What we have always had, and always will have, is cycles.

We can change certain aspects of the way we live, and in so doing, we change ourselves. We can sometimes have more of one thing, if we are willing to have less of something else. Less of  natural disease means more of  genetic degeneration. More prosperity means less wilderness. More security means less freedom. We can change our preferences, but we can't change the laws of the universe.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Grooming, Implements and Mirror Neurons

When I look at Bow, I can read his expressions. It is not hard to tell what he is feeling, as his facial expressions often mirror my own.

Looking at this picture of Bow eating an apple, can you tell what he is feeling? Let your face resolve itself into a similar expression. How do you feel? We have mirror neurons that allow us to put ourselves into somebody else's shoes, to let us imagine what it would be like to be doing what they are doing.

Can you almost taste that big, juicy, red delicious apple as Bow bites into it? That isn't just your imagination. Those are your mirror neurons firing.

Bow has mirror neurons, too. When he sees me doing something, he sometimes gets it into his head that he should do that, too. I have long hair, but Bow's is short. Sometimes, when I have a messy task to take care of, I put my hair up into a bun. Bow watches, fascinated as I do that. Sometimes, he gathers as much of his hair as he can, and he tries in vain to put his hair up in a bun, too. Only he can't, because it's too short.

Yesterday, I was brushing my hair, and I thought Bow might like to help me brush my hair, too. He often grooms me, but he does that with his bare hands. I thought that if I handed him the brush, he might want to help me brush my hair.

But Bow was fascinated by the iPhone's small screen filming this, instead.  I had to tap him lightly to get his attention before I handed him the brush and asked whether he would like to brush my hair. Bow did not want to help me brush my hair. He took the brush, started to brush his own hair, and then reached for the iPhone, because he wanted to see himself doing it on the screen.

"Would you like to do what I'm doing?" can have two different meanings. It can mean, if I am brushing my hair, "would you like to brush my hair, too?" Or it can mean, instead,  "would you like to brush your hair?" People with healthy mirror neurons often take it the second way.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Sounds of Nature

They say that simply hearing natural ambient sounds, the wind in the trees, soft repetitive birdsong, the chirping of crickets, can help our bodies reenergize and heal themselves. Bow spends a lot of time immersed in the sounds of nature.

He relaxes outside on his bench, and because we are surrounded by open fields, woods and a pasture that has been left wild, there are natural sounds in all directions.

After lunch, every day I go for a walk. Yesterdsay, here is what I saw when I looked to the north.

The neighbors' cows were grazing peacefully in the field. Puffy white clouds hung in the azure sky. I went for a walk down the path in our pasture that leads south, and I saw the wild persimmons ripening.

Nobody planted them. They just grew there themselves. Some conservationists say "plant a tree." They imply that nature is like an underprivileged child, and it needs our charity. But nature is rich with its own wealth. I say: "Get out of the way, stop interfering, and the trees will plant themselves."

There is a great bounty to be had, if only we would get out of the way, make ourselves scarce and appear only in small numbers. My five acres of pasture in a natural state might not be enough to feed Bow, but five thousand acres just might do the trick!

I stopped for a moment to watch a bumblebee harvest nectar on a thistle flower. Somebody keeps telling me that the thistle is a noxious weed that needs to be eradicated. But the bumblebee did not seem to think so. It was doing its very best, hanging on despite the wind, trying to get as much as it could before the weather changed.

By evening, the skies had turned grey over the woods to the east. The wind moved the branches to and fro and dry leaves came tumbling to ground, occasionally seeming to stop for a moment in midair, as the wind changed.

Whenever I get back from my walks out of doors, I share the pictures and videos that I shot with Bow. He saw the bumble bee on the flower yesterday and suggested that I trim the video, because it ran too long. But then he fumbled with the iPhone and showed me what he really wanted.

The thing that Bow most enjoys about the iPhone is not watching nature videos -- it's taking selfies. And so I humor him.

Someday, I want Bow to be able to go on those walks with me again. That would require building a force field or at least a moat around the pasture. But the purpose is not to "liberate" Bow from an unhappy "captivity". It is just to expand his domain!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Identity Politics and Chimpanzees

Bow is a chimpanzee, and many of his behaviors are natural and inborn and not given to change through enculturation or indoctrination or education or whatever you want to call it when we stamp another person with our culture.  The way he walks, his displays, the simple pleasures that he yearns for are not given to change, regardless of where he has been brought up.

But sometimes -- actually quite often -- Bow will do something that seems so characteristic of humans, that it takes one's breath away.

I dropped a Kleenex on the floor by accident yesterday, and as I was cleaning up the potty, my back turned to Bow, I heard him blow his nose -- loudly! I turned around, and there he was, blowing his nose and then looking at the tissue.

Did I teach him how to do this? No. But I did use a tissue in his presence many times, and when he was little, and he had a cold, I used to wipe his nose. Is this "natural" behavior for a chimpanzee? Well, they certainly don't have facial tissue in the wild, but I would not say that it is unnatural. In fact, it is no more natural for a human than for a chimpanzee. Do you think I have had disposable facial tissues all my life? My mother sent me to kindergarten with a cloth handkerchief! Facial tissue is a new invention.

So what is natural? It's natural for all of us to learn to use the cultural artifacts that we have in our environment. Bow picks up Kleenex and the alphabet with the same facility as a human. I didn't invent facial tissues and neither did Bow. I didn't invent the alphabet and neither did Bow. In fact, the alphabet was only invented once in all the history of mankind. Everybody else borrowed it. Having a writing system is not a uniquely human thing. Using the writing system that everybody else drops in our laps is natural for humans -- and no less natural for chimpanzees. The veneer of civilization is something we all pick up, like a dropped Kleenex.

What doesn't make sense to me  is to call it one thing when a human does it and something else when a chimpanzee does it. But there are lots of  experts who do just that. There is the fellow who made a career out of suggesting that chimpanzees may react to seeing just the same as humans, but they don't understand seeing in the same way. So when they hide behind a tree, they do it for a different reason from the reason a human might have to hide behind the tree. The human knows that you can't see him, because the tree blocks your vision. But the chimpanzee only hides out of instinct!

There has been a long tradition for researchers not to attribute mental states and emotions to chimpanzees, even when the reaction is pretty much the same as ours to the stimulus. A human is sad, but a chimpanzee can't be, because he is just a chimpanzee. A human is amused, but a chimpanzee displaying amusement must never be described that way. Different words for the same behaviors have to be employed. A researcher who breaks these rules is considered to have lost his scientific objectivity.

Under our cross-fostering experiment, I call myself Bow's adoptive mother. All I mean by this is that while I am not his biological mother, I have served him in the capacity of a mother all his life. One "expert" told me that because Bow is a chimpanzee and I am a human, I can't be his adoptive mother. At most I am his surrogate mother. The last time I checked, in ordinary parlance, a surrogate mother is a woman who carries another woman's child in her womb. I never did that for Bow, so I am not his surrogate mother. I am just his adoptive mother. But this person was working so hard to make the point that chimpanzees and humans are different species, that he was willing to break the language to come up with a different word for the same relationship.

Don't get me wrong, Bow is a chimpanzee. He does belong to a different species from me. I am not in denial about that. When the mowers came yesterday to cut the grass, Bow went into a characteristically chimpanzee display.

When he does this, Bow is showing us the parts of being a chimpanzee that are hard-wired and not open to cultural mediation.

But then there are the other behaviors, which are very much like our own. I am not suggesting that Bow has become more human by living among humans. I think, instead, that humans and chimpanzees have more in common than many people are comfortable admitting, including many researchers and self-appointed chimpanzee spokesmen.

An experiment in cross-fostering has at its base the desire to learn which behaviors are due to enculturation, and which are hard-wired. A very large percentage of human behavior is learned rather than inborn. The same is true for chimpanzees, although it may not be exactly the same percentage or exactly the same behavior.

In German, they have two different words for eating, "essen" when a human does it, and "fressen" when a non-human does it. It is part of the identity politics of differentiating us from them. In Hebrew when a woman gives birth, she "יולדת". When a dog gives birth,  she "ממליטה". It's an understandable human move, to want to mark how special we think we are by creating a whole different vocabulary for those in the out-group. But it's not scientific or objective.

When Bow blows his nose using a Kleenex, it's the same as when I do it. It's not "natural", because it is culturally mediated, but the action is the same.

In order to be objective in our attempts to understand chimpanzees, it is important to use the same words for the same behaviors. It is important not to engage in identity politics and suggest that every action has a different meaning when performed by a non-human.