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Forty Years with Birds and Dogs 

Weather and Common Sense

Bobbi, Lucy and Little Bear

On most days, Lucy and the Hen House gang cut loose whenever I appear outside. I am greeted with a cacophony of loud honks and squawks. Their message is quite clear, “Let us out of here.” And I do.

But then, when the wind starts blowing the Ponderosas into a wavering dance, usually after noon, they retreat to the safety of the pen.

If the day is not bright and sunny—or if I need to open the Hen House doors a little too early—they do not holler at me with such insistence.

If it is raining, the chicken and turkey stay indoors. They have many choices of shelter—dog crates and a dog igloo, an apple tree, an old dog house, a roof constructed of landscape panels from the set of “Petra and the Jay,” and the Hen House itself. At least, turkey sticks her naked head in the door. The rest of her is dressed in a thick layer of feathers.

The geese and ducks—whose feathers don’t get pitifully soggy when wet—ignore rain. They go about their business as if nothing is happening, until they slip in the mud. To avoid disaster, I keep all muddy slopes in the Hen House pen laced with straw. In winter, when mud freezes, I stomp the straw into the ice to secure it. That works almost as well as kitty litter on ice.

However, if it starts to hail, the geese and ducks take notice. Lucy takes great offense at being bopped on the head for no apparent reason. She looks around to see who did it, and only if it continues with undeserved violence does she retreat to the Hen House.

I’m wondering what the moral of this story is. Are we humans any smarter than the geese? Or do we stand in the air, bopped on our heads during each proverbial storm, wondering where they're coming from, again and again?

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The Power of Imprinting

It’s been almost four years now, since Gwendolyn hen was a chick, raised in our human house during a nasty cold spring, thus imprinted with me as her mother hen.

She still climbs onto my lap whenever I perch on the bench beside the stock tank. She’ll accept a snuggle under my jacket, holds still for several minutes—a rare event in the life of most chickens—then she gets bored and hops off to peck around in the yard for the rest of the morning.

Such imprinting is not unique to birds. When First Turkey was a chick, hunting grasshoppers with us convinced her to eat and live, and she, too, became imprinted on humans. Every time we went into the back yard, she would run to us with a happy bark.

I didn’t realize the power of imprinting on humans until Husband Don and I experienced something like this when we moved to a large apartment in Madison, Wisconsin. The apartment had a large kitchen—too large. My being a less than perfect cook, the floor got stickier and stickier. Worse, the garbage seemed to multiply by spontaneous generation.

Tempers flared and accusations flew: “Why aren’t you taking out the garbage?” I asked sternly. “And why aren’t you mopping the floor?” Don retorted. We answered in unison: “Because that’s man’s/woman’s work.”

Oh! The light dawned. We had been imprinted with different childhood experiences. My dad always did both garbage and floors. Don’s mother did those chores.

True—people are not chickens, but I suspect that patterns of behavioral experience in childhood can define what is natural and acceptable to us humans, as it does with birds.
Our kitchen experience makes me wonder what we do to young human minds with a steady diet of media violence.

Psychologists have defined imprinting as “phase-sensitive learning,” which can be “rapid and independent of consequences” according to Wikipedia. Another phrase is “filial imprinting,” in which the young learn behavior from their parents. We now accept that fact for some animals, also.

Results are mixed in recent studies of the effect of media violence on youth. This is not surprising, given that case study results are hard to make from correlative evidence.

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The Importance of Hands and Imprinting With Media Violence?

In previous blogs, the Hen House has taken on Mark Twain and decided that humans are no better or worse than other animals, given the complex nature of their brains and a wide variety of societal influences.

However, we humans may not be very different from animals in other ways—like our susceptibility to the phenomenon of imprinting. Some call it “phase-sensitive learning” or “filial imprinting.” I doubt many animal behaviorists would argue with the psychologists who suggest 1) that young humans learn behavior from their parents or 2) that environmental factors and experience can influence brain development.

More ominous is the finding that children abused in childhood develop more methyl groups on their DNA, which can be passed on for two generations, at least. No wonder the consequences of abuse are so hard to overcome.

In earlier Hen House stories, I have described the lasting effects of imprinting on newly hatched birds. We raised the hatchling First Turkey and the chickens Gwendolyn and Americia with constant care, and they remained bonded to us for life. (See earlier blogs under Domestic Bird Care)

Such imprinting was first observed in chickens in the 19th century, and Konrad Lorenz discovered that greylag goose hatchlings bonded to their first movable stimulus at 13-16 hours of life.

That’s why I worry about young children who are introduced to computer games before they have experienced using their hands by building real objects with blocks, legos, Tinker Toys, and cardboard boxes. These may seem like baby toys to a computer savvy four-year-old, but I hope not.

In her book called Your Hands, Connie Leas explores the importance of hands in brain development. She reports that some engineering firms will not hire people who have not grown up with physical hand manipulation play.

I also worry about teens who are addicted to dystopias or outright media violence. The latter has been on the rise since the 1950’s. Results are mixed in studies of how media violence might trigger violent acts. Though early studies indicated such a link, more recent studies show little influence of media violence on social actions. Overall, the effects of subsequent aggression after experiencing media violence seem to be evenly split. The data oscillate, and there is no agreement that media violence leads to desensitization or psychological saturation that diminished anxiety or disgust. No wonder. Such studies are inherently incapable of producing sound results since they are based on correlations.

The effects on individuals, however, cannot be denied. Shaking the camera to dilute the effects of horrific acts of murder and torture does not make it okay. The violence is still obvious, and I believe that young minds can be imprinted with the fact that it’s okay—a normal way of being in this fictional dystopic world, after all. If even one mind is so influenced, it’s not okay. The excuse of a revolutionary theme cannot erase the damage such imprinting may have on a mind too young to get the revolution’s message.

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The Hen House Takes On Mark Twain--12. Man, The Only Religious Animal

Mark Twain’s twelfth Horrendous Commendation of the Human Race as inferior to all other animals because of the abuses he has done in the name of religion.
Quotes cited below are from Mark Twain’s Letters From the Earth: Uncensored Writings, the letter entitled “The Damned Human Race, Section V. The Lowest Animal.”

In this one, MT goes for the religious jugular with a well-known sarcastic cliché: “Man is the only animal that has the True Religion—several of them.” He goes on to list horrendous events in history that show that “He is the only animal who loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight.” He mentions the Caesars, Mahomet, the Inquisition, France a couple centuries, Mary’s England, and “...today in Crete.”

It’s true that animals don’t seem to be deliberately cruel in order to support a theory of Existence or requirements for the Hereafter, which they are supposedly forbidden. I’ll make the case that they have religion in some sense of the word—at least some do.

We struggle with the definition of religion. The 2007 American Heritage College Dictionary says religion is “1a. Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe”... or “3a. A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.” Or “4. A course...pursued with zeal...”

Well, that’s descriptive, but not very useful when it comes to animals, unless, as one must, you interpret some of the descriptive words in a broad sense. Two examples: 1) A dog’s devotion to a kind master, and 2) an animal parent’s care of her young. Call it genetic programming if you like. It is no less than religious devotion, even to the point of sacrifice.

Definition # 4 could apply to fandom of all sorts. I remember a riot that broke out during a high school football team when some fans decided to take their zeal off the stands into the fieild. I was supposed to stop the flood of angered teenagers pouring out of the stands. Animals?

The other problem with MT’s argument is that we know very little about animal thinking. It’s been only a few years since animal behavior theorists could publish words expressing emotions, such was the fear of anthropomorphism--as if sincere scientists and honest pet owners produced anecdotes that were re-inventing Bugs Bunny.

At least, now we admit that animals feel real emotions very similar to ours. We know without a doubt that we all came from the same biochemical stock of miracles. We have learned recently that we share a few genes with algae. The evolutionary process simply did not fix some things that weren’t broke. Human uniqueness is a matter of degree and good luck, like hands and a large brain that can invent its own excuses, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

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The Hen House Takes On Mark Twain--13. Man Is The Unreasoning Anima

Mark Twain’s thirteenth and last Horrendous Commendation of the Human Race is more about why man is inferior to all other animals because of the abuses he has done in the name of religion:
Quotes cited below are from Mark Twain’s Letters From the Earth: Uncensored Writings, the letter entitled “The Damned Human Race, Section V. The Lowest Animal.”

MT claims that he put several animals in a cage together and they lived “...together, even affectionately.” In another cage he put people of different religions, and they slaughtered each other. History provides his evidence. “...he is...afflicted with a Defect...permanent in him, indestructible, ineradicable—the Moral Sense...the quality which enables him to do wrong....It...is a disease...for there can be no evil act without the presence of consciousness of it in the doer of it.” The question then becomes--If we are learning that animals do have consciousness, are we to assume that they too will lose their reason?

MT ends his diatribe with a long list of man’s failure as a biological creature, including a useless appendix and a long list of ailments, including the admission that human “intellect is supreme.” Organs and senses are useless, and in the end “...we are not as important, perhaps, as we had all along supposed we were.” Here I’ll have to agree that we have too often over-bloated our uniqueness and our worthiness. But we are capable of learning, of accepting knowledge that might not fit our early assumptions, of finding our real place in a large universe, of being thankful for our ability to appreciate its beauty and to grow in capacity to love, especially those who inhabit the Hen House and its equivalent, our domestic animal friends.

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The Hen House Takes on Mark Twain--10. Humans are the only animal to "enslave their own kind."

Mark Twain’s tenth Horrendous Commendation of the Human Race as inferior to all other animals says that only humans enslave their own kind. “Higher animals...do their own work and provide their own living.”
Quotes cited below are from Mark Twain’s Letters From the Earth: Uncensored Writings, the letter entitled “The Damned Human Race, Section V. The Lowest Animal.”

True, not too many animals –except for ants who farm aphids—entrap other animals and force them to provide sustenance. But neither do too many humans now, though there are some horrendous exceptions the authorities have not yet stamped out.

MT has a point. We call it hired help, but there is a hierarchy of people doing work for other people, who then do work for richer people, etc. It’s supposed to be voluntary, but no one gets hired who doesn't follow the employees’ rules. See movie The Help The wider the differential in wealth, the more repressive the chain of command. Hence the Occupy Wall street movement and needed reform.

It’s also true that MT’s “higher animals”—the carnivores and some insects on the list—provide their own living by entrapping and murdering to “provide their own living.”

I wish some brilliant biochemist would find a way to fuel intelligent life without ending some other conscious life. Some are trying. Serious business efforts are being made to develop attractive chicken-like soy vegetable “meat.” Others are trying to grow “meat” from stem cells; others print it out with 3-D printers.

We do eat lots of insects, and more of us may have to eat more, if we insist on overloading the planet with our teeming hordes. But insects enjoy their brief lives and devise clever ways to survive, like the rest of us. That’s no solution.

Maybe we could get the geneticists to isolate an herbivore gene from cows and implant it into newborn humans. Within a generation we could all survive on plants, who (as far as we know) don’t consciously enjoy life or grieve for its loss.

It’s very dangerous, this trend, because it’s a positive feedback loop. In physics, positive loops always implode if left uncontrolled. The loop? Business in bed with government—money buys politics—its called lobbying—which boosts moneyed interests, which can then buy more politics, which can therefore legislate more business interests, which can...etc.etc. In World War II Mussolini called this Fascism. Don’s blog.

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The Hen House Takes On Mark Twain--8. Man is the Only Animal that Does War?

Mark Twain’s eighth Horrendous Commendation of the Human Race as inferior to all other animals is open to question. Do ants do war?
Quotes cited below are from Mark Twain’s Letters From the Earth: Uncensored Writings, the letter entitled “The Damned Human Race, Section V. The Lowest Animal.”

MT puts it this way: Man gathers together “for sordid wages” other men “to exterminate without passion those who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel.”

I’m not sure E.O. Wilson would agree. Ants do something similar. Ants They are quite good at warlike behavior, but perhaps we can excuse them, for several reasons. They have a smaller brain than we do. It is programmed to do a simple, specialized job (most likely), and the purpose is attaining food and surviving as a species. All life needs to do that. MT’s statement gives defending Homo sapiens two challenges 1) we do war against others of our own kind and 2) against others who are innocent.

I agree that (1 may be unique to humankind. We seem to have nasty tribal instincts left over from a time when competition for food was necessary for survival. Recently we have discovered a gene, allele D4-7, that gives us a dopamine high whenever we win a battle or eat good food.

MT’s (2—doing war with those innocent of hurting us—will bring a storm of protest from many who feel we always have a righteous cause. There’s always something, from someone’s point of view.
Now, however, as borders dissolve under the impact of rising global communication, economic necessity, migration and interracial breeding that produces hybrid vigor in the species—we have less and less reason to war against our human brethren, more and more reason to work together for a stable future.

In short, the writing is on the wall. Our numbers are now so large and our impact on mother Earth is so great, if we don’t get together soon to agree on a way to limit our avariciousness and our blind tribalism, we will forfeit our chances of rising to our best potential as long as Earth is habitable.

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The Hen House Takes On Mark Twain-7. “Man is the cruel animal.

Written at the worst time of his life, Mark Twain’s seventh Horrendous Commendation of the Human Race goes on to say [Man] “...inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it.”
Quotes cited below are from Mark Twain’s Letters From the Earth: Uncensored Writings, the letter entitled “The Damned Human Race, Section V. The Lowest Animal.”

MT’s list of human cruelties is not fun to read. It goes on for a full page. I hate to think what would be on the list of current incidents.

MT excused the cat who plays with a “...frightened mouse...” because the cat doesn’t deliberately torture the mouse. The kill is sudden and quick, as is the deadly throttle of experienced non-human hunters.

As MT suggests, the cat may or may not be conscious of the mouse’s fright . The jury is still out on that issue, but, at last, evidence is gathering that non-human consciousness is more astute than we have recognized to date.

If the cat knows that the frightened mouse is suffering, but plays with it anyway, we’ve got a serious problem. What’s the point? Philosophically, should we write off life knowingly torturing life as the inevitable consequences of a brain too complex for its own good.

Maybe it’s like the price we pay for being made out of stuff. The material called flesh and bone is subject to harm. Pain is an alarm system so you can fix your hurting stuff. Too much pain and you shut down—another blessing in disguise.

Looking at torture as a byproduct of the most complex object in the universe—that’s what students of complex systems call the brain, due to the super-astronomical number of connections between neurons and other brain cells—one can say that our moral or religious challenge is to rise above such complex aberrations and prove ourselves worthy of heaven.

Though that may be viewed as a primitive western myth, it has some merit in giving us motivation to be the best complex critters we can be. However, viewing the ability to do torture as a byproduct of natural processes doesn't make it acceptable, not in the least.

When Creation started tinkering with matter so that is could come alive, consciousness and complexity were as inevitable as vulnerability and imagination. Surely we can meet these challenges and live as if we were grateful for the miracle of our conscious lives.

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The Hen House Takes on Mark Twain 6-“Man Is The Animal that Blushes.”

Scooter, feeling what?

Mark Twain’s sixth Horrendous Commendation of the Human Race as inferior to all other animals since he invented “indecency, vulgarity, and obscenity.”
Quotes cited below are from Mark Twain’s Letters From the Earth: Uncensored Writings, the letter entitled “The Damned Human Race, Section V. The Lowest Animal.”

Well, maybe. This is a tricky one. Nature has pruned and shaped us so that our mating signals are far more obvious than most other animals.’ Hence, we wear clothes, so we can do good work without distraction. The historical and current cleavage fad is a rebellion against this work ethic and should be considered carefully. Because of our blatant biological design, maybe we should not advertise unless we mean it.

MT blames our “moral sense” for our invention of “indecency, vulgarity and obscenity,” but I blame the accident of nature’s creating a “naked ape” with a brain so complex it has resulted in the human capacity to invent such concepts, plus a million reasons why the concepts induce lewdness and/or humor.

“The “...higher animals...hide nothing; they are not ashamed.” MT’s second statement for the superiority of animals on this topic is simply not true. Dog owners know very well that dogs are capable of intense shame—though it may be triggered more often by their sensitivity to human expectations than not. Is it shame that some dogs feel when their luscious fur is shaved?

I need more input on this one. Anyone have any experience with animal shame to share? It’s closely related to, but different from, guilt, isn’t it.? Or does MT have this one correct?

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The Hen House Takes On Mark Twain 5-- Loose Humans Are More Guilty Than Loose Cats

Mark Twain’s fifth Horrendous Commendation of the Human Race is based simply on the fact that humans are consciously loose, while cats are “unconscious,” hence innocent.
Quotes cited below are from Mark Twain’s Letters From the Earth: Uncensored Writings, the letter entitled “The Damned Human Race, Section V. The Lowest Animal.”

How unconscious are animals? My first reaction to this assumption by MT is that in his day no one imagined what we have discovered recently about animal behavior. The old fear of anthropomorphism in this specialized field of science has finally been overcome by the rational acceptance of common sense, a huge collection of anecdotes, and some clever experiments. Recent Titles

I understand that behavior scientists can now publish words like empathy and joy when referring to animals. In MT’s day—in fact, even a short time ago—scientists would not be published if they used such words.

I suspect that what drove this unscientific verbal prejudice was our historical need to feel unique in creation. If animals did not have emotions, then we could feel superior and make cruel use of them more easily.

MT took another angle on the problem, stating that since cats were unconsciously loose, “The cat is innocent. Man is not.” He had no idea how conscious cats are. They know exactly what I’m about when I chase them away from our bird feeder. And I believe they know exactly what they are about. My childhood barnyard cat Oscar certainly did.

Oscar was so “loose,” he sired dozens of kittens, who came into the barn for the pan of milk Pa provided while milking Buttercup, our World War II Victory Farm cow. They came for the milk, I’m convinced, because Oscar showed them and their mothers where it was. He was a good family provider. He knew exactly what he was doing—proof positive of his consciousness. He just didn’t agree with MT’s condemnation of looseness.

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