Building for the Future

It’s spring and a young woman’s mind turns to… how utterly buggered the world is right now. I had just finished 2+ weeks of dog sitting a gorgeous pooch who was the cuddliest spooner to ever walk on 4 legs in a big house in a part of town where the bus runs on time and the passengers on it smile instead of scowling and marinating in their own faeces as the passengers on the bus in my part of town do.

I had returned to my own little patch where the meth-heads in my local Woolies were having a domestic in the doorway and every possible item in the store was sheathed in a covering of single-use plastic ready-made to kill every species of marine life still left alive. It wasn’t the best of homecomings. My black heart kept beating in my chest more out of spiteful rage than any life-sustaining function. I carried my box and two bags of groceries across the zebra crossing without making eye contact with the drivers who resentfully stopped for me. I could feel the eyes of the young P-Plate boys burning on me as they revved their engine impatiently; a pit bull of a car snapping at my shins as I passed in front of it. This is a daily occurrence on my street. I made it to the other side and rested my bags and box on the low fence of the housing commission flats and caught my breath. This place, that store, these people; I felt nothing but blind rage at it all and wished nothing more than to be free of this horrible suburb. The sky was low and grey with much-needed rain but even the thought of that lifesaver in this drought couldn’t snap me out of my funk. But then, a rustle in the undergrowth of the housing commission garden on the other side of the low fence caught my eye. I have avoided looking at this patch as it used to be a wildly overgrown area dark and dripping with ivy and trees, looking like the haunted forest from the Wizard of Oz but the council cleared it out completely and now it is an empty barren patch of grass and discarded branches of the removed trees. It depressed me to see even more destruction of what little urban greenery we have left, but it wasn’t as barren as I thought. There was life here.

A family of Australian ravens; mum, dad and what I presume to be last year’s chick were all fossicking in the debris for nest materials. Two of them were on the ground at first and then a third arrived in a whoosh of glossy black wings that reflected the little bit of light that managed to get through the cloud cover. They hopped and waddled around; their piercing blue-grey eyes on the lookout for the perfect twig for their nest. Last year’s chick just wandered around looking a bit confused but mum and dad were hard at it and in no time they had each dragged large branches of the fallen trees out of the debris and had fly-hopped up onto the end of the low fence I was resting against. Those black beaks held sticks twice the size of their bodies and if it was a mystery how they had the strength to hold them, then it was a miracle when they both managed to fly off with them in their beaks.

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I left my belongings on the wall and walked around to where they had flown. A woman and her son were walking down the footpath toward me. The mother had red lipstick on a smiling mouth and she and her son were gazing skyward as they walked. I knew that smile. It was the smile of wonder. The same smile I was likely wearing when our eyes met. “Excuse me, did you see two ravens fly past?” They both started talking at once, as eager to share as I was. “Yes!” “Wasn’t it incredible…” “Branch bigger than the bird…” They pointed out the tree and there the ravens were, making their nest in the low branches above the footpath beside the busy road. We watched for a few seconds together, sharing our wonder. “Have a nice night.” The mum said as she and her son walked away down the hill to the river. The river undoubtedly had plastic rubbish floating on its surface and toxic chemicals sinking into its depth, but for one brief moment in Marrickville, I felt a kinship with two other people who could appreciate the wonder of a family of ravens still trying to build a future for their young in spite of it all.

What We Do With Animal Intelligence

Kanzi and the Animal Mind

A few weeks back a group of old friends and I gathered for a pub lunch. As animal lovers and human guardians of rescue bunnies, dogs, cats, birds and fish, we relish chances to talk about our world with animals and they enjoy surveying the newest scars inflicted on my arms by my cat Rufus.
I mentioned to them a vintage Time Magazine article that I had recently read. The issue was published August 16, 2010 and the cover reads “What Animals Think”. The article inside is written by Jeffrey Kluger and it fascinated and terrified me at the same time. I told my friends an anecdote from the article about a male bonobo named Kanzi who had been raised in a lab and taught English words, 384 of them so far. From his lab home at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa he describes his life with great acuteness.
Here is the quote from the article than stunned my friends and I:

When he tried kale he named it slow lettuce because it takes longer to chew than lettuce.

Just think about that for a moment. This is an animal that has concepts of time and similarity of foods and is able to express it to us in our own language! Imagine all the other things animals feel, know and believe yet don’t express to us in a way we can understand. I will never again call kale by its name; it will be known as slow lettuce from now on as far as I am concerned. When I told my friends this at the table, a few of them had the same reaction I did when I first read it, sheer horror at what we do to animals and how little we acknowledge their intellect. One of my friends’ faces fell and she sat open mouthed at the prospect.

Another quote reads:

It takes me a while to find the ball in an office down the hall, and when I finally return, Savage-Rumbaugh verbally asks Kanzi, ‘Are you ready to play?’ He looks at us balefully. ‘Past ready’, he pecks.

Yikes. Finally, some truth is being shown and told about animal intelligence but only after millennia of mistreatment; talk about shoot first, ask questions later.
How we finally acknowledge this truth and deal with it will be the deciding factor. We now know that animals feel, know, dream, mourn…they have intellect and we share this planet with them. Will we go forward well with this knowledge or will we do as we have with say, fossil fuels and climate change…we are aware of the consequences but they are here to use and we can use them so we should. It is still early to tell but as the article was written in 2010, I don’t know how well we have gone forward in those 4 years.

When I was 14 my beloved dog Sheeba had three puppies. One of the puppies, Ebony, went to live with my aunt and uncle and Sheeba and Ebony spent every weekend together at the cottage and both grew to ripe old ages together. While watching Sheeba and Ebony romp around one day, my best friend Annie innocently asked, “Do you think they know?” We all burst into gales of laughter as my family loved Annie’s unusual way of looking at the world, but on hindsight, her question was a profound one. We all assumed that yes; both dogs knew they were mother and daughter. Sheeba’s memory of the birth must have been present in her consciousness. Their sense of each other’s scent would have been constant throughout their lives. They had to have known. How could they not? But Annie’s question was deeper than that. She wanted to know that they knew.

I have never had any doubt of animal intellect or emotion. Having grown up in an extended family full of animals who were often shared between us, I could see first hand how they remembered us and their different feelings toward us. My cousin’s dog clearly remembered me after 8 years absence and cried with joy for an extended period and an exposed tummy for a rub. My brother’s dog does the same when I return to Canada often accompanied by urination.
Our beloved Sheeba had an extremely close relationship with our elderly next-door neighbours; it was such a close bond, this elderly couple thought of Sheeba as their child. One night as my mother and I were sleeping, we were awoken by an unnaturally high-pitched scream, like a living siren. We awoke to find Sheeba at the end of the bed with her nose pointed to the ceiling in a howl of anguish. It was such an awful sound; we weren’t sure what was happening. I touched her with my foot and she stopped as if woken from a bad dream, licked her lips slowly and curled back up to sleep. The next day we were told that our neighbour Pat had died the night before at the same time Sheeba had let out her anguished cry. My dog was in grief and mourning; of this I have no doubt.

When my very co-dependant cat Rufus is separated from me, his distress is apparent and unfortunately in a very unhealthy way, shared by me. Trips to the vet are fine in the taxi, he enjoys the car ride. He is even fine in the waiting room but the second he is alone with the vet, things change for the worse. When I have to travel overseas and some poor person has to care of him, things get even worse.
Three years ago when I had a couple stay in my flat to take care of Rufus, I stayed with a friend for a few weeks before my trip so Rufus could adjust to this new couple in his home. Things were going poorly so I went back to the flat to see him and try to calm him down. That night while lying in bed I talked to him in my mind, reassuring him that they were nice people who were going to feed him and play with him and take care of him and that he should give them a chance. A few days later the woman in the couple rang me and said that my visit had ‘flicked a switch’ and that Rufus was calm and was no longer hissing and ambushing them and had even slept on the end of the bed with them.

I realise this is all sounding a bit airy-fairy dipped in patchouli and lit up with crystals but the simple fact is people who are animal guardians do have strong emotional bonds with their animals and this is only possible because animals have strong emotional bonds with us. They are sentient beings and to assume that they are somehow lesser or don’t feel things to the same extent we do diminishes both them and us.

This should be the jumping off point for further discussions on animals and us…not whether they feel, but what they do feel and how we respond to that knowledge and those feelings.