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Rediscovering Animals 

The Hen House Takes On Mark Twain 4—Do Humans Rank Lower Than Roosters In The Keeping Of Harems?

This is Mark Twain’s fourth Horrendous Condemnation of the Human Race as inferior to all other animals.
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.”

I can confirm MT’s observation that “...roosters keep harems, but it is by consent...” For eleven years, Peeper, the Hen House’s resident male, a gorgeous game cock raised as an only child by a devoted hen, wooed and won his harem with generous offerings of crickets and worms, even his treasured tidbits from the kitchen scrap bucket.

However, when MT states that men keep harems by “brute force,” I’m afraid he exaggerates. Sure, it has happened in our sad history, and we still have MT’s “atrocious laws” that don’t respect women’s rights, but not all men do this. I know many good men who respect and support their wives. I’m married to one. There are many who exercise amazing patience with domestic fal de rals that any self-respecting eunuch would not endure—the famous Honey-Dos.

At least human males don’t have to fight other males every spring for mating rights, as do many of our fine furry friends. Or do they? At least, I’d say humans come out close to the top in the courtship competition category.

The animal at the very top of the list in my opinion is the humble squid--the one who wins the female by imitating her skin coloration, hence fooling the competing males and snuggling in closer than other suitors. Is there a lesson there? Or an analogy I’m missing?

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The Hen House Takes On Mark Twain--3. Are Humans the Only Animal With A Passion For Revenge?

Mark Twain’s Third Horrendous Condemnation of the Human Race as inferior to all other animals is simply wrong. 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 ten-page article, Mark Twain (MT) lays out the evidence as he saw it at a terrible time of his life. Perhaps we should excuse him, but on this point I can’t agree. Personal experience has told me that revenge is not unique to the human animal.

Nowadays we know a lot more about animal behavior—both good and bad. Turns out, we’re all carved from the same DNA, and it shows. Read the work of Frans DeWaal and Colin Tudge.

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The Hen House Takes On Mark Twain--2. Are Humans the Only "...avaricious and miserly" Animal?

This is Mark Twain’s second observation in his list of human faults, due to their unique “moral sense.” 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 states that when several animals were offered the chance to accumulate all the food they wanted “...none of them would do it.” Humans who become millionaires, however, “...show...a rabid hunger for more.

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The Hen House Takes On Mark Twain--1. No Other Animal Wantonly Destroys

Today I’ll begin a series that may not be entirely fair, since the author can’t fight back (at least not directly). The writings I’ll cite were not published until Mark Twain was long dead. His daughter Clara finally allowed DeVoto’s 1939 edition to be published in 1962, says Henry Nash Smith, Editor at Berkeley.

I’ll begin by quoting from Mark Twain’s Letters From the Earth: Uncensored Writings, the letter entitled “The Damned Human Race, Section V. The Lowest Animal.” In this ten-page article, Mark Twain (MT) lays out the evidence—thirteen horrendous reasons why humans are inferior to all other animals. MT’s tone is serious, usually, and seriously distraught at times. The satire is nearly gone. Now, fifty years after this writing was resurrected, I’ll review the thirteen faults he finds in Homo sapiens and test them against our modern perspective from the Hen House.

According to MT, given a choice of many calves, an anaconda ate only one, refusing all others, [with] “...no disposition to harm them,” but an English earl, with “charming sport...killed seventy-two of those great animals [buffalo]; and ate part of one of them and left the seventy-one to rot.” The excess calves offered to the anaconda were perfectly safe while shut up with him.

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The Brain Is Most Complex

The human brain has been called the most complex object in the universe. It deserves that title because its neurons have so many connections to each other. Suns and galaxies are relatively simple, with billions of objects interacting with fewer nonlinear options. The many types of neurons are not alone in the brain. They are enmeshed in a complicated arrangement of fine connective tissue and fed by a vast network of blood vessels and hormones. Recently we have discovered that they can grow and invent needed pathways. In the 1990's my daughter did her master's thesis showing that the neuronal growth hormone in rats spiked after nights of running on its exercise wheel.

Very interesting, but the point here is that brains, even small ones, are not simple. And they are not all the same. Birds, at least scrub jays, have a special lump of brain tissue that remembers where thousands of peanuts are hidden by our front porch. An entertaining read is Colin Tudge's The Bird .

Another case in point: though my Khaki Campbell ducks can't remember to go around the fence to exit the pen if the opening is not visible, they never forget that I'm the person who digs red worms for them. I suspect that evolution—selection working with the complex phenomenon of self-organization in the brain—has provided living creatures with a genius for finding and selecting good food.

Temple Grandin, in her new book The Autistic Brain , emphasizes that every autistic child is an unique case to be treated with specific care and directions. Behavior patterns labeled autism present a continuum of abilities and unique talents. Labels that categorize symptoms limit the imagination and endanger the treatment by those responsible for the care of individual lives.

We humans are addicted to simplifying. We lazily shelve ideas and concepts whenever we can, applying oversimplified definitions and questions to living beings, like when life begins. Every aspect of life is a continuum, a hierarchy of ongoing complex systems at many levels. Nature doesn't do categories. Though useful for organizing our thinking, they do not serve us well when we confront reality.

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Spring Fire--Evacuating Dogs and Birds

Safe in the hills above Santa Fe

Spring is done. One heavy rain, and now just wind and blue skies. Better stay organized for another possible evacuation.

During the Cerro Grande Fire in the year 2000, all we had to evacuate were a turtle, a plecostomas and two swordtail fish. They didn't like being evacuated, but at last I convinced them to stay in the largest salad bowl I could find--all but the male swordtail. I couldn't catch him, and time was ticking away. A huge plume of black, orange and white smoke rose overhead.

It broke my heart to leave the male swordtail behind. We spent five anxious days glued to a TV set in a friend's house in Santa Fe, while our aquatic dependents swam around in a cooler on the front porch. The second week we took off for our daughter's home in St. Louis, while a generous pet store housed turtle and company.

Many homes were lost in that fire, but an alert helicopter pilot spotted smoke opposite our canyon and saved our neighborhood. When we arrived home, we found the male swordtail hale and hearty. The female promptly delivered hundreds of offspring.

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Where Have All the Collies Gone—Hybrid Vigor Is In

Meatball at three weeks

How many people own or breed Collie dogs these days? You hardly ever see them on the street. Even shepherds like Boots, those wonderful, intelligent, sensitive ball-chasers, are more rare than they used to be. It’s all Labradors or a variety of short hair, middle sized dark-haired dogs—as if the flexible canine gene package has reverted to its wild mix.

Maybe more people are adopting shelter dogs, once roamers of the streets. That’s a good thing. It is probably good for the long-term survival of the species. Hybrid vigor may be working good things-though the specialties or unique beauties that result from inbreeding may be more interesting.

Too much in-breeding has led to a remark from a vet I know: “I can tell by the breed what disease to expect when they come in with an ailment.” That’s why people don’t marry cousins. Somehow, biologically, we know better--except for royal families who sometimes forgot that recessive genes can get together for ill effect.

By people of mixed racial heritage, there is a new recognition of hybrid vigor and the perks of being raised by two different cultures. It’s a rapidly growing population, exhibiting all the genetic advantages and getting together to share the experience. Biracial Meetup Groups

My first job was at a home for children of Asian-Caucasian mix. They were gorgeous, strong, healthy kids with a capacity for robust character and the healthy ability to apologize when called-for. I’ll never forget Jadine coming to me after I told her go to go to her room until she could stop screaming—her beautiful tan face turned up to me with wide, tear-filled eyes saying, “I’m sorry, Miss Almond.” I hope you’ve had the great life you deserve, Jadine.

In an earlier blog, I talked about chickens that have been bred for non-stop egg-laying, which seems to shorten their lives. They also suffer the horrors of selective breeding for fast growth (meat), which damages their ability to walk up hill on legs not designed to carry their weight. See my story about Meatball, the sweetheart rooster with the bass crow.(Week of April 19, 2013 Los Alamos Daily Post)

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Dogs and Lost Hens—Time Is Precious

DeeDee and Scooter in their prime

I should explain that the dogs do not reside in the Hen House, but they have a lot to do with it. They have a huge pillow bed and a life-sized artificial bear rug to sleep on under my desk-door-resting-on-file-cabinets and a closet devoted to the two-dog door system husband Don invented to prevent heat loss (into the closet, then outside).

The dogs’ job is to watch and protect the birds while they’re out in the yard. They do their job effectively, except when the hungry hawks that nest next door are on the hunt. They got my old hen Jupiter when the dogs were off terrorizing chipmunks in the woodpile. The hawk must have startled the miniature Mallards, Kiebler and Ms. Ritz. I hunted all over the yard for them. Finally I heard their quizzical quack and found them outside the back fence, waiting for me to let them back in. Some years later the hawk, probably a chicken hawk, got Butterscotch in a heavy rain, when the birds were hunched under an apricot tree. All we found was a small pile of feathers.

The dogs managed to kill a skunk one week, without getting more than a token perfuming. Poor thing. We hadn’t seen a skunk in the yard for several years. In the 80’s they lived under the Hen House, and in the ‘70’s our current dog Poncho was best friends with daughter Indra’s pet skunk Streak. Her story has been told in my weekly online column with the Los Alamos Daily Post. Search "Cary Neeper".
The gophers are also long gone from the yard, after a summer-long pursuit that left a six-inch deep trench in front of the Ponderosas that frame and shelter the Hen House. The one they caught was huge. Until this year, I haven’t had to clip the dogs nails since they were pups.

Now the dogs are aging. They don’t dig for gophers any more, and they are once again invading the yard. I’ll also have to get out the clippers soon. The dogs’ nails are long enough to make them skid and trip on the back stairs—not a good thing, for DeeDee’s arthritis is slowing her down.

So what’s the point of all this? Life is a strange mix of eat and be eaten, live and let live when you’re bonded as youngsters, survive when you can and enjoy the ride. Time is precious.

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Boots—A First Dog

We’ll continue in a more orderly way for a while, viewing life as a continuum of nonlinear interactions that weave us into a complex universe, making things unpredictable at every level for at least six reasons. I’ll be including stories from my forty years with domestic birds and dogs. Many will add to the current flood of wonderful anecdotes and studies that illustrate how we have finally come to realize how much we humans share with other life.

My life with animals began at age three in San Leandro, California, when Ma and Pa gave brother Harold and I a string to pull. We did, and in came two white legs under a waddling ball of brown fluff. We named her Boots. During World War II we had a Victory Garden in the hills above Hayward, California. My dad kept a few chickens in a pen in the apricot orchard. My job was to herd them back into the pen. Read More 

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Picky Birds

Geese must have sensitive taste buds. Lucy is very picky. If a melon is too ripe, she shakes her head, and spits it out with an expression that says, “Puew.” Same for melon that is too green.

The hens are not so picky. They will eat cantaloupe rinds, even the tough green layer just inside the rough brown exterior. And they’ll eat carrot peelings. That’s why we don’t have enough wet garbage to make compost. They love bread, go nuts for meat scraps
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Lucy will have none of that stuff, though she will eat apple cores and fresh lettuce. Dandelions are her favorite treat. She cleaned them out of the backyard long ago. Now I have to try and find them in the front xeriscaped garden. They’re a special treat.

Melon rind that was not too ripe, not to green, just right—was the reason she finally accepted husband Don into her circle of acceptable people (humans), without sticking out her long neck and hissing. He had sense enough to hold out her favorite treat with an outstretched hand. She doesn’t like her melon rind contaminated with dirt or straw.

I’m still wondering how birds in the wild know what to eat. And what not. Rather important bit of wisdom that--necessary to stay alive in a complex world growing with all kinds of potential food or poison. It helps to read the wonderful “Natural history of who birds are, where they came from, and how they live.”
Colin Tudge’s The Bird

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