Posts Tagged ‘Sy Montgomery’

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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Photo: Candace Croney.
Pigs can play video games, scientists have found. Here, the pig Ebony operates a joystick.

In the same way that most of us are just beginning to understand the deep wisdom of indigenous tribes, we have barely scratched the surface of what animals can do. Fortunately, scientists never stop investigating.

BBC News reports, “Four pigs — Hamlet, Omelette, Ebony and Ivory — were trained to use an arcade-style joystick to steer an on-screen cursor into walls.

“Researchers said the fact that the pigs understood the connection between the stick and the game ‘is no small feat.’ And the pigs even continued playing when the food reward dispenser broke — apparently for the social contact.

“Usually, the pigs would be given a food pellet for ‘winning’ the game level. But during testing, it broke — and they kept clearing the game levels when encouraged by some of the researchers’ kind words. …

“The research team also thought that the fact the pigs could play video games at all — since they are far-sighted animals with no hands or thumbs – was -remarkable.’

“But it was not easy for them. Out of the two Yorkshire pigs, Hamlet, was better at the game than Omelette, but both struggled when it got harder — hitting the single target just under half the time. The Panepinto micro pigs had a bigger gamer skill gap — while Ivory was able to hit one-wall targets 76% of the time, Ebony could only do it 34% of the time.

“But the researchers were still satisfied that the attempts were deliberate and focused, rather than random — what they called ‘above chance.’ That means that ‘to some extent, all acquired the association between the joystick and cursor movement.’

“Kate Daniels, from Willow Farm in Worcestershire, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that while the scientists might have been impressed, ‘I don’t think this will come as a surprise to anyone that works with pigs. … They’re not playing Minecraft — but that they can manipulate a situation to get a reward is no surprise at all.’ ” More at the BBC, here.

The research paper was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

For more on the intelligence of pigs, check out naturalist Sy Montgomery’s book The Good Good Pig.

Montgomery’s website says in part, “The Good Good Pig celebrates Christopher Hogwood in all his glory, from his inauspicious infancy to hog heaven in rural New Hampshire, where his boundless zest for life and his large, loving heart made him absolute monarch over a (mostly) peaceable kingdom. At first his domain included only Sy’s cosseted hens and her beautiful border collie, Tess. Then the neighbors began fetching Christopher home from his unauthorized jaunts, the little girls next door started giving him warm, soapy baths, and the villagers brought him delicious leftovers. His intelligence and fame increased along with his gift, and he was eventually featured in USA Today and on several National Public Radio environmental programs. One election day, some voters even wrote in Christopher on their ballots.”

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Sy Montgomery had a lovely story in the Boston Globe about studies investigating  animals’ dreams. I zeroed in on the beautiful little zebra finch.

“What do birds dream about?” Montgomery asks.


“University of Chicago professor Daniel Margoliash conducted experiments on zebra finches. Like all birds, zebra finches aren’t born knowing their songs; they learn them, and young birds spend much of their days learning and rehearsing the song of their species. …

“The researcher was able to determine the individual notes based on the firing pattern of the neurons. While the birds were asleep, their neurons fired in the same order — as if they were singing in their dreams.”

At American Scientist, Michael Szpir titles a related article “To Sleep, Perchance to Sing.”

“It turns out that single neurons in the forebrain song system of the sleeping birds display a pattern of activity that’s only seen in the waking bird when it sings. [Amish S.] Dave and Margoliash think that this neuronal activity is part of the learning process — the birds are rehearsing in their sleep by dreaming about singing.

“Since the awake male zebra finch will sing when a female is presented, it seems natural to ask whether the male finch has an image in mind when he sings in his sleep. Margoliash won’t speculate, but if human males are any indication we might imagine they dream of fetching female finches. It’s either that or bird seed.

“You can hear the song of the awake zebra finch at: http://www.williams.edu:803/Biology/ZFinch/zfsong.html.” More.

Read what other critters dream about at the Globe, here.

Photo: Nigel Mann

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I was charmed by Sy Montgomery’s recent article in the Boston Globe on the intelligence of octopi (she says “octopuses”).

The author of The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness, Montgomery describes getting to know a clever and apparently affectionate octopus called Octavia.

“Everyone wanted to pet Octavia,” she writes. “And no wonder. She was beautiful, graceful, and affectionate. The fact that she was boneless, slimy, and living in painfully cold, 47-degree water deterred none of us.

“What thrilled us — me, New England Aquarium volunteer Wilson Menashi, and four visitors from the environmental radio show Living on Earth was the surprising fact that Octavia, who clearly wanted to be petted, was a giant Pacific octopus.

“When her keeper, Bill Murphy, opened the top of her exhibit, Octavia recognized Menashi and me immediately; we’d been working with her for several weeks. Turning red with excitement, she flowed over toward us from the far side of her tank. When we put our hands in the water, her arms rose to meet ours, embracing us with dozens of her strong, sensitive, white suckers. Occasionally Wilson handed her a fish from the plastic bucket perched on the edge of her tank. …

“Then, as Menashi reached for another capelin to feed her, we realized the bucket of fish was gone. While no fewer than six people were watching, and three of us had our arms in her tank, Octavia had stolen the bucket right out from under us.

“ ‘Octopuses are phenomenally smart,’ Menashi says. And he should know: He has worked with them for 20 years, and is expert in keeping these intelligent invertebrates occupied. Otherwise, they become bored. Aquariums design elaborate escape-proof lids for their octopus tanks, and still they are often thwarted. Octopuses not infrequently slip out of their exhibits and turn up in other tanks to eat the inhabitants.

“Many aquariums give their octopuses Legos to dismantle, jars with lids to unscrew, and Mr. Potato Head to play with. Menashi, a retired inventor, designed a series of nesting Plexiglas cubes, each with a different lock, which Boston’s octopuses quickly learned to open to get at a tasty crab inside. And just this spring, New Zealand Sea Life aquarists teamed up with Sony engineers to teach a female octopus named Rambo to press the red shutter button on a waterproof camera to take photos of visitors, which the aquarium sells for $2 each to benefit its conservation programs. Rambo learned in three attempts.”

What a different perspective on the scary beast in the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which I saw as a child.

I’d love to copy the whole intriguing article, but I’m afraid that would not be “fair use.” So read it all here.

Photo: Tia Strombeck
Sy Montgomery pets Octavia, an octopus at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

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