How The Hen House Turns: Animal Partners

Youngsters get aquainted. Courtesy photo
Animal Partners
By Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.
The word partner is appropriate, I believe, when applied to the relationship between humans and animals who have agreed to cooperate for whatever they are asked to do.

Asked is the key word here, for animals have been routinely coerced or enslaved by humans over many thousands of years. I’ll look at that in the next article.

A partnership assumes some degree of fulfillment or reward for both parties. Martin Clunes, the delightful animal lover who plays Doc Martin, made a special aired by PBS about how different human relationships with animals can be.

For 20,000 years, Clunes said, cattle have been domesticated. Here in California,  cows graze in the hills above Stanford, unbothered by the traffic on highway 280 whizzing by. In Nepal, cows are not only sacred (playing the role of the goddess of wealth) “everyone” has a cow because people depend on them. Their dung mixed with water makes fuel. Their urine works well as a pesticide. When the cows die of old age at twenty or so, they are given a “sky burial,” courtesy of local vultures. The cycle benefits everyone, a good example of a human relationship with animals that benefits both.

Dogs and cats serve a similar mutual benefit that is more psychological than environmental. There are many “Lassie Come Home” stories and stories of waiting, sometimes for years, for a human to return. Even cats do this, who tend to be more independent.

There are many canine stories of caring for autistic children and alerting the family to danger from fire or epilepsy seizures. Remarkable patience and loyalty  is obvious here at the health facility, where small dogs stay literally attached to their mistresses (by a leash) most of the day. When their mistress must do something on her own or with a nurse, they get quite agitated, and sometimes bark in anxiety.

Trust is the first ingredient in the recipe for training a dog, who are sometimes treated like living dolls or missing children, dressed and allowed to eat in restaurants, or at the table at home. Many love their complicated jumping routines or diving/retrieval contests. I’ve seen a video of a group of thirteen dogs jumping rope together.

Reading to dogs was a fine program at Mountain School for a while. Adults, children (first and second graders) and dogs sat around on the floor, while the children read to the dogs. One mother remarked that she had never heard her deaf daughter reading so well. The theory: no peer pressure in such a setting allowed her to open up to her real ability.

Pride in accomplishment is visible in the Lipizzaner horses and Clydesdales, as well as those horses that relate socially to autistic children who find speech possible when with them. Horses are naturally herding animals, looking to a leader, so if a human assumes the proper role of trusted leader, the relationship can be a success without shouting, punishment or force. Hence “whispering.”

Pig tail macaques pick ripe coconuts for humans. Though the relationship is said to work, it is not one of friendship. In contrast, the life-long partnership between a mahout and his elephant, is said to be one of love. In Nepal the elephant offers his trunk (which is like our nose and upper lip) as a stairway for the mahout. A touch behind the ear is all that is required for direction. A called name gets an answering rumble. Some sleep together and share sandwiches.

In Kenya, baby elephants orphaned by poachers are rescued from protective male herds before they starve. Though the babies are traumatized when losing their mothers, they take milk by morning, responding to loving care.  It took 28 years to develop a successful milk formula.

The babies are never left alone. Older elephant children run to greet new arrivals, welcoming them into the natural park’s herd. Sunscreen is applied to their ears, so they are not burned. In nature they are shaded by their mothers, who would fight to the death to prevent their being taken–unlike the males, fortunately for this survival partnership.