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The book My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes was a hit with John and Suzanne — and later, their children.

Animal behavior can be fascinating. Some readers may recall my posts about foxes stealing shoes. You may also know the popular author Sy Montgomery, who interprets for the rest of us the mysterious activities of critters from the octopus to the tarantula. Meanwhile at the Washington Post, Marlene Cimons has an interesting look at household pets.

“Bella the beagle loves boxes from Amazon. She tears into them, while ignoring other deliveries. … Little Bit, a recently departed tortoiseshell cat, was similarly obsessed — but with socks. She would raid the laundry basket in the middle of the night and paw through the open suitcases of houseguests, who invariably found themselves one sock short in the morning.

“Pets do quirky things. At least it may seem that way to their humans. But these traits often make perfect sense to the pets, say scientists who study animal behavior. …

“ ‘These behaviors are not invented on the spot,’ says Carlo Siracusa, associate professor of clinical behavior medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. ‘[Their ancestors’ behavior has been] adapted to their new lives as domesticated animals now that they are living with humans.’ …

“Dogs, for example, often ‘make their beds’ — as humans describe it — by scrabbling on blankets, sheets or doggy beds, then turning a few times before settling down, a habit that probably comes from an age-old instinct to create a safe, warm place to sleep.

” ‘Think about where animals sleep in nature,’ says Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona. ‘They mat down an area before they lay in it.’ …

“Sometimes dogs will paw the ground after pooping. (Advice: Wait a few seconds before bending down to pick up their waste to avoid being hit by flying debris.) They are not burying their feces.

“ ‘They are depositing scent in those areas,’ MacLean says, which may explain their pickiness about a pooping spot. ‘They’re looking for the best part of town to put up a billboard. They want a good place to advertise. Scratching creates a ground disturbance, to catch attention. It’s almost like drawing a picture with a big red marker around it.’

“The signpost is meant for other dogs, another quirk they inherited from wolves, he says. ‘Territory marking is very likely one function of this communication, but there is a lot of other information that might be encoded in odors that we don’t understand well as humans,’ he says. …

“Cats, on the other hand, almost always bury their waste. ‘They are covering their tracks,’ says Monique Udell, director of the Oregon State University Human-Animal Interaction Lab. …

“Mikel Delgado, founder of Feline Minds, a Sacramento cat behavior consulting service, says that some of these traits derive from cats’ wild origins.

“ ‘Cats are highly predatory, they are naturally active at dawn and dusk, they are in the middle of the food chain — both hunters and hunted — with some behaviors that are natural, like scratching, and we can’t train that out of them,’ she says.

“Experts also insist that the reputation of cats as socially aloof is undeserved. They have facial scent glands, and when head-butting their human, they are probably depositing secretions to mark their social partners, says Kristyn Vitale, assistant professor of animal health and behavior at Unity College.

“ ‘Kneading’ is what kittens do to their mothers when nursing to stimulate milk production. Adult cats may ‘knead’ humans when they are feeling relaxed or are trying to calm themselves. … ‘It’s like thumb-sucking in toddlers,’ Udell says.

“While dogs share many behaviors inherited from wolves, they’ve also developed a few of their own, for example, ‘puppy dog eyes,’ the innocent look that humans are helpless to resist.

“ ‘They want to be connected to us,’ says Jeffrey Stevens, director of the Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. … ‘They look at us this way, and it changes our behavior.’

“Like wolves, dogs also like to lick faces. Humans think their pet is kissing them. Sorry, they are not.

“ ‘It’s how wolf puppies get food from their parents’ mouths,’ MacLean says. ‘It also can be a sign of submission. When a lower-ranking individual approaches a higher-ranking one, it gets down real low and licks the dominant one to say: “I’m not a threat to you.” ‘

“There are some behaviors researchers can’t explain, such as ‘Zoomies,’ the term often used to describe frenetic and seemingly random movement by a dog, likely an energy release.

“ ‘My dog runs around in crazy manic circles with her mouth open, her tongue out, ears back and butt tucked in, and if I mess with her while she’s doing it, she gets even more hyper,” [Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere, director of the Thinking Dog Center at CUNY Hunter College] says. ‘She’s getting something out of her system and can’t focus until she does this. But we have zero science on this.’ “

Angie Johnston, director of the Canine Cognition Center and Social Learning Laboratory at Boston College, says that one of her dogs tap dances. ” ‘When he gets excited, he taps with his front paws, then he jumps up on all four feet and spins around in a circle in midair,’ she says. ‘He does this when he is excited or happy. I don’t know where it comes from.’

“As for Bella, the dog who preferred Amazon boxes over all others, the explanation seems to be her great success in sniffing out the snacks they contained: She smelled protein bars in the Amazon packages. After ripping her way in, she ate almost all of them, except for the few she stuffed behind the sofa cushions for emergencies.

“ ‘She was very fastidious about it,’ says Jeffrey Levi, professor of health management and policy at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, one of Bella’s people. ‘She never eats the wrappers.’

“Little Bit, the sock-addicted cat, was also apparently motivated by smell.

“ ‘Many animals carry around socks and shoes,’ Udell says. ‘Humans produce smells on the bottoms of their feet, so if you want to get closer to your human, there’s nothing like a good smelly sock.’ “

More at the Post, here.

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As Maria Popova likes to point out, J.R.R. Tolkien maintained there was no such thing as writing for children, and Maurice Sendak said much the same thing. I myself have found that the “children’s books” Popova recommends to her Brain Pickings readers work as well for me as for my grandchildren.

Here she describes a book about the beauty of imperfection: “Wabi sabi is a beautiful Japanese concept that has no direct translation in English. Both an aesthetic and a worldview, it connotes a way of living that finds beauty in imperfection and accepts the natural cycle of growth and decay. Wabi Sabi is also the title of a fantastic 2008 picture-book by Mark Reibstein, with original artwork by acclaimed Chinese children’s book illustrator Ed Young, exploring this wonderful sensibility through the story of a cat who gets lost in her hometown of Kyoto …

“A true wabi sabi story lies behind the book: When Young first received the assignment, he created a series of beautifully simple images. As he went to drop them off with his editor, he left them for a moment on the front porch of the house. But when he returned to retrieve them, they were gone. Rather than agonizing over the loss, Young resolved to recreate the images from scratch and make them better — finding growth in loss.” More here.

(Remember the mortification of John Stuart Mills when his maid mistakenly burned the manuscript of Thomas Carlyle‘s first volume of the seminal French Revolution? I like to think that Carlyle’s starting from scratch on volume one after completing volumes two and three made made volume one better, as Ed Young found with his art. It’s still painful to think about how Mills felt.)

Art: Ed Young
Illustration from Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein

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