How the Hen House Turns: The Puzzle of Animal Consciousness

How the Hen House Turns:
The Puzzle of Animal Consciousness
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

The movie “The Life of Pi” is thoughtful exploration of religion and meaning and the animal mind. As well as a  masterful use of 3D to express nature’s power and human fragility and beauty without going over the top too often.

The effects did not steal too much story time, just a little, with lengthy storms. What impressed me most was the director’s restraint in leaving the large questions unanswered, and his letting the human be a human and the tiger be a tiger.

Tigers are not dogs, nor are dingoes or wolves, though they share genes with domestic dogs. I wonder if coyotes’ tameness/civilized gene packages may be changing with their urbanization, just as dogs’ did. The many nuances of eye contact may eventually tell their tale.

My geese, Lucy and Bobbi, honk every morning at the ducks, establishing their dominance over the favored area in the pen. Then everyone quiets down to do their morning wash-up, using their fluffy heads as very effective washrags. Geese also do eye contact, but it’s very hard to read, maybe because their facial muscles don’t contract the orange ring that encircles their eyeballs. Or because I lose the eye contact in the constant honking they do when I am in the Hen House pen.

Geese hate being handled, so I don’t try to pet them, and I restrain them only when I must, to tend to a torn toenail or to put them into a dog crate for a fire evacuation. 

I provide shelter from the cold, and I will never prepare Bobbi’s carcass for Christmas dinner, because she trusts me, enough to follow my flashlight into the Hen House for the night. But she insists on honking at me, even when I approach her out in the yard.

I don’t understand goose Bobbi, as Pi failed to understand the tiger. We meet on a primitive level all right ─ the level where hunger and safety and dominance are clear, but to me, Bobbi is also family.

I am committed to her well being, to her health, her happiness. (I do believe she has such a thing.)

In contrast, dogs are family. They’ve had 50,000 or more years to refine their tameness gene cluster. They understand my emotional outbursts, and I understand theirs.

Bobbi eats corn and honeydew melon rind from my hand. In fact, she expects goodies to appear every afternoon at 4 p.m., for she follows me to the pen when I come out with the kitchen scrap bucket. She doesn’t know I’m a carnivore and never will, for I will never stalk her.

She’s a creature of schedule, like most animals, but she’s puzzled. She hasn’t got me figured out. I’m not quite flock. Lucy knows that. She was raised by 4H girls. But Bobbi hasn’t learned what family is. Yet.

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