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Archive for the ‘Pets and Other Fauna’ Category

You may be familiar with an experiment involving five monkeys in a cage, a bunch of bananas on a string, and a ladder. The story has been around for many years.

Sometimes, it’s presented as a scientific study that actually happened (apparently not true). More often, it’s used as an allegory — a parable, fable, cautionary tale, or whatever — that equates the behavior of monkeys to that of people.

The point is to illustrate the absurdity and the dangers of passive thinking. Of mindlessly following the herd.

First the story, then we can discuss.

———

Start with a cage containing five monkeys.

Inside the cage, suspend a bunch of bananas on a string, out of reach. Place a ladder under the bananas. Before long, one of the monkeys will try to climb the ladder to reach the bananas.

As soon as he touches the ladder, spray the other monkeys with cold water.

After a while, a second monkey will make the same attempt. Again, spray all the other monkeys with cold water.

Soon, when any monkey tries to climb the ladder, the other monkeys will act together to forcefully prevent it.

At this point, stop using cold water to punish the monkeys.

Remove one monkey from the cage, and replace it with a new monkey. The newcomer will see the bananas and try to climb the ladder. To his surprise, the other monkeys will attack him.

After another attempt and another attack, he understands that if he tries to climb the ladder, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove a second of the original five monkeys, and replace it with a new one. Newcomer #2 will try to use the ladder to get the bananas and will be attacked. Note that Newcomer #1 will participate in the group attack.

Replace another of the original five monkeys with a new one. Newcomer #3 will try to get the bananas and also will be attacked.

At this point, two of the four attacking monkeys have been sprayed with cold water, but the other two have not; newcomers #1 and #2 have no idea why they aren’t permitted to climb the ladder and no idea why the group attacks Newcomer #3.

Continue this process and replace the fourth and fifth original monkeys. Now all five monkeys in the cage are newcomers and were never sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey will approach the ladder. Why not?

Because, as far as they know, things always have been done that way.

———

This story is especially interesting because of it’s similarity to the beliefs of behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904-1990). Skinner made the controversial claim that “free will” does not exist. He said people inevitably act and react based on previous experience — based on whether a previous action had good or bad consequences.

Skinner believed this opens the door to controlling group behavior, which he called “cultural engineering.” He saw this as a good thing, a means of creating a benevolent utopian society.

Maybe so, but the concept also has ominous Big Brother and 1984 overtones.

Personally, I’m a big fan of critical thinking. Objective analysis. A rational evaluation of the facts. In short, the scientific method.

That approach works pretty well everywhere, not just in the realm of science. For example, in the Marine Corps, in addition to the official motto “Semper Fidelis” (always faithful), many units have adopted the unofficial mantra “Improvise, Adapt. Overcome.”

Excellent advice. But probably not in the lexicon of the average monkey.

Five monkeys

 

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Here are three stories about animal behavior that, to me, seems odd and unexpected. Presented with the stipulation that I’m a Journalism major, not a wildlife biologist.

Story #1

About a week ago, I was driving north on U.S. 129 toward home. I was in the northern suburbs of Athens where the speed limit is 45 and you encounter a succession of traffic lights. Ahead, a light turned red. We motorists coasted to a stop.

While I sat waiting, movement on the right side of the road caught my attention. I turned to see a possum emerging from the undergrowth. He stepped into the crosswalk and ambled across all four lanes of 129 in front of the idling vehicles.

It was an adult possum, rather portly, seemingly well-fed. He was calm and appeared to be in no hurry.

The cars turning out of the cross street, which had the green light, dutifully yielded to him, as if he were a normal pedestrian.

Just as the possum reached the left side of the crosswalk and disappeared back into the undergrowth, the light turned green, and I drove on. My first thought: wow, that was weird.

Possum

Story #2

The following morning, on my way to downtown Jefferson, I was paused at the stop sign where the road from my neighborhood meets Business 129. In front of me, in the middle of 129, four vultures were squabbling over a roadkill squirrel.

Traffic was fairly heavy. The vultures had to scramble constantly to avoid becoming roadkill themselves.

No one was behind me at the stop sign, so I was able to sit there and observe. Two times, I watched as a scrum of cars went by, causing the vultures to scatter frantically and then reassemble.

Finally, as they were taking flight for the third time, one of the birds grabbed the squirrel’s tail in his beak and carried the carcass aloft with him. He rose to about 20 feet and dropped the squirrel onto the grass, six feet off the pavement.

Whereupon, the four vultures reconverged on the prize, this time in relative safety.

I’ve seen countless vultures feasting on roadkill in my time, but I’ve never seem one remove a carcass from the road. Smarter than the average vulture, it seems.

Roadkill

Story #3

My house in Jefferson is built on a moderate slope that, during construction, made a retaining wall necessary. The wall makes the transition from the hillside to the level ground where the house stands.

The wall is built of railroad ties. It ranges from three to four feet tall and is about 30 feet long. A sidewalk along its base leads to the front door.

Wall

The wall is not only an interesting feature, but also a home to all sorts of critters. There are frog burrows at its base. Lizards skitter in and out of the cracks and crevices. In and around it are crickets, centipedes, worms, moles, ants, spiders, and, yes, snakes.

Most of the snakes are of the harmless variety, although I did encounter a small copperhead a few years ago, sunning himself on the sidewalk. I chased him into the woods.

Sometimes, the snakes use the tight spaces between the railroad ties to help wiggle out of their skins when they molt. The dry skins they leave behind are a common sight.

To the local squirrels, the top of the wall is a good vantage point from which to watch for predators while they feast on acorns. The shells make a terrible mess.

As I see it, the presence of these critters is a positive thing, and I do my best to coexist with them. I try not to bother them. I pull weeds by hand instead of spraying chemicals. The one exception: the time a colony of yellow jackets built a nest in the wall, and I had to call an exterminator.

A few days ago, as I was pulling weeds on top of the wall, I came close to stepping backward onto a rat snake (harmless, easy to identify). I don’t know which of us was more startled.

He was young, but still several feet long. He was backed up against the edge of the wall in a defensive crouch, looking at me, tongue flickering. Every time I moved, he tensed.

Rat snake

This snake was unusually antsy. Maybe he had a recent encounter with a dog or cat. Even though I stood motionless a good six feet away, he was agitated. He slithered rapidly along the lip of the wall in both directions, looking for a passage to safety. He found none.

He seemed to be in a genuine panic. And to prove it, he suddenly turned around, glided over the top of the wall, and launched himself into space. I was astonished.

When I got to the wall and looked over the edge, the end of his tail was disappearing into an opening at ground level.

At the spot where he jumped, the wall is four feet tall. That had to hurt.

Frog burrow

One of the frog burrows at the base of the wall. Sometimes, their little heads peek out.

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Zoo Stories, Part 2

More about my trip to the zoo in Greenville, South Carolina…

————

Billy Bob

Sometimes, you run across zoo enclosures that contain more than one species of animal. At the Greenville Zoo, for example, the alligator compound also is home to alligator snapping turtles. Apparently, the animals are simpatico.

Maybe that explains why, after I left the gators and turtles behind and arrived at the toucan enclosure, I didn’t question why a large black snake was inside the cage.

My first thought: hmmm, who knew snakes and toucans are compatible? You learn something every day.

My next thought: hey, wait a minute. The openings in that cage wire are huge. It might stop a python or a boa, but not the snake I’m looking at.

Whereupon, I concluded that the snake must have escaped from its enclosure and was wandering loose. Maybe the staff didn’t know it yet. Or, maybe a frantic search was underway.

The snake didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and the toucan was resting on a perch, ignoring both the snake and me, so I decided to find a zoo employee and report this perplexing turn of events.

The first employee I found was a clerk at the snack bar. “Excuse me,” I said through the order window, “There’s a snake, a large black snake, inside the toucan cage. Surely a snake doesn’t belong there.”

“No, he doesn’t,” the man said, reaching for his walkie talkie. “Sir, you may have saved the life of a toucan today.” I suspect he meant it facetiously.

“Margaret,” he said into the walkie talkie.

“Yes?”

“A guest spotted a snake in the toucan enclosure.”

“Okay. I got it.”

This was getting interesting. I thanked the clerk and hurried back to the toucan cage.

I arrived just as two female zoo employees were assessing things. “Rat snake,” said one. The other nodded.

“Uh… were you looking for him?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s a wild snake, not one of ours,” one of the women said. “They’re common around here.”

“It’s a black rat snake,” said the other woman. “They’re very beneficial. They hold down the population of mice, rats, and other pests. We’re grateful to have ’em.

“But they’re silent and sneaky, and they eat eggs, so we have to keep an eye on ’em.”

While one of the women went into the enclosure to bag the snake, the other explained that the zoo knows of about 15 or 20 wild rat snakes now in residence.

“We bag ’em, measure ’em, log the capture, and release ’em away from the exhibits,” she said.

“Hey,” yelled the woman inside the enclosure, “This is Billy Bob! I haven’t seen him in a while!”

“Some of ’em have names,” the first woman told me. “You get to know ’em after a while.”

“In fact,” she went on, “We’re thinking about micro-chippin’ ’em. That would allow us to track ’em.”

The woman inside the cage, still struggling to get Billy Bob into the bag, called out, “I vote that we micro-chip ’em! Then we can name ’em ALL!”

rat-snake

She finally got Billy Bob secured. The two employees departed, and I moved on to the petting zoo, where I watched a worker hose down the goats.

 

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Zoo Stories, Part 1

I’ve always been conflicted about zoos. Large or small, they’re interesting to visit, but the idea of confining those unfortunate animals for life so people can go look at them, that stinks.

Yes, it’s an opportunity to see the animals and learn about them, which is a good thing. But when you watch a wolf or a leopard pacing, pacing, pacing in the cage from stress and boredom, that isn’t right.

But I doubt if zoos are going anywhere, and I find myself visiting them anyway. I was in Greenville, South Carolina, recently and decided to check out the city zoo.

The Greenville Zoo being rather modest as zoos go, and the elephant, lion, and jaguar enclosures being closed for maintenance, I breezed through in about an hour.

That hour, however, had its memorable moments.

————

The Spider Monkeys

According to its website, the Greenville Zoo has three spider monkeys: Selma, Jasmine, and Mojo. When I arrived at the primate area and looked at them through the wire, I didn’t know the names, of course.

No other visitors were nearby. One of the monkeys was sitting in a swing a foot or so inside the cage. We were at eye level. He (for some reason, I thought of the monkey as a he) contemplated me stoically.

His eyes are so human, I thought. So are his features. You can see the link between us and them so clearly.

I began to ponder the obvious questions. What is he thinking? Was he born in captivity? Does he resent being in captivity? Is he capable of resentment? What does he think of people? What does he think of me, standing here?

As I pondered, the monkey reached out, grabbed the wire of the cage with one hand, and, in a smooth motion, jumped across to the wire.

The safety railing kept me about four feet from the cage. He was still at eye level. We were as physically close as conditions permitted.

The monkey looked at me with great intensity, tilting his head repeatedly, his eyes focused on mine.

spider-monkey

The spider monkey, family Atelidae, genus Ateles, is the most intelligent of the New World Monkeys. Two of the seven species are critically endangered.

“Hey, little dude,” I said. The monkey reacted with a soft, high-pitched chirp.

“I guess if I had my way, you wouldn’t be in there,” I told him. The monkey continued verbalizing softly and studying me closely.

I glanced in both directions to be sure I was still alone. Wouldn’t want anyone to hear me conversing with a monkey. The nearest human was 50 feet away.

But I couldn’t think of anything else to say. We just looked at each other.

I considered getting out my camera, but I didn’t. Shooting through the wire never makes for a good photo. And somehow, a photo at that moment seemed — God help me — rude and intrusive.

After a time, the monkey finished checking me out. He dropped to the ground and moved a few feet to the left front corner of the cage.

Still chittering quietly, he extended an arm through the wire, straining to reach the branches of a privet-like shrub growing nearby. He couldn’t quite reach it.

I looked closer. The shrub was indented where the monkeys had broken off the tiny branches, one by one, until no more were in reach. The greenery, I assume, was tasty.

On some of the cages were signs stating that the animal required a special diet, so you shouldn’t feed them. No such sign was on the spider monkey cage.

I reached down, snapped off a small twig from my side of the shrub, and tossed it on the ground next to the cage. The monkey reached through the wire, snatched it up, and began munching.

Instantly, the other two monkeys appeared. I snapped off more twigs and tossed them on the ground. The first monkey deftly blocked the newcomers, grabbed the twigs, and rapidly scarfed them down.

I snapped off a few more twigs, but this time, I outsmarted the little scoundrel. I deftly distracted him so the others could get their share.

No monkey is gonna make a monkey out of me.

————

In my next post, the story of the rat snake in the toucan enclosure.

spider-monkeys

Colombian black-headed spider monkeys at the Greenville Zoo. Photo copyright Jeff Whitlock, wwwtheonlinezoo.com.

 

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I went to Chattanooga for a few days recently to see the sights. Actually, I skipped the more touristy sights — Rock City, Ruby Falls, the Incline Railway — in favor of the art museum, the riverfront parks, and the battlefields. Okay, so I’m a snob.

I also spent an afternoon at the Tennessee Aquarium, which is impressive, and a morning at the Chattanooga Zoo.

My zoo experience began quietly enough. I set out at a leisurely pace, taking photos of assorted critters that are conveniently on display and powerless to stop you.

Tamarin

Cotton-Top Tamarin.

Sloth

Three-Toed Sloth, conserving energy.

Jaguar

Jaguar. Has the most powerful bite of the big cats. Hunts by going for the head.

I watched the staff feed raw meat to the bobcats. I learned that the cougar is not considered one of the “big cats” because cougars do not roar, they purr.

When I reached the petting zoo, the morning livened up considerably.

Inside the enclosure were 12 or so pygmy goats, doing their usual thing: jumping, prancing, butting heads. Nearby, an employee was saddling up the dromedaries. The zoo offers camel rides these days.

At the time, no children were inside the enclosure with the goats, but a young couple soon arrived with a boy of about age six.

He was a small, frail, meek-looking kid. He had a nervous, deer-in-the-headlights demeanor. He is the kind of child who will get shoved around a lot before his school days are over.

“Eric, would you like to pet the goats?” the dad asked. Eric remained silent and shook his head emphatically no.

“This is a petting zoo, Eric,” said the mom. “The goats are very gentle. They like to be petted!”

Eric stood at arm’s length from the fence in silence, contemplating the goats, still slowly shaking his head no.

Dad leaned down, put his arm around Eric’s shoulder, and said, “Tell you what. We’ll go in together. It’ll be fun. You’ll have a great story to tell when school starts.”

Eric wanted none of it, but he was powerless to avoid what was coming.

For a brief moment, I considered flipping my camera to video mode in order to capture whatever was about to transpire. I decided not to, in deference to poor Eric.

Dad swung open the spring-loaded gate, and he and Eric entered the compound. The boy was rigid with apprehension.

The goats, of course, began to converge on the newcomers in case they had food. Dad had enough sense to stand between Eric and the herd, keeping the goats occupied until Eric had time to conclude that he wasn’t going to die.

And, indeed, the boy soon relaxed somewhat. Eventually, he reached out a hand and touched the back of one of the goats. When he withdrew his hand, he almost smiled.

Dad departed the compound, and Eric slowly got into the spirit of the place. Before long, he was waist high in goats, touching their horns, patting their flanks, even being jostled now and then. He hadn’t uttered a word, but he appeared comfortable.

Moments later, as the sea of goats parted slightly, Eric ran forward a few steps and stopped. I saw no reason for it except sheer enthusiasm.

When Eric ran, several of the goats also broke into a run, going in various directions. This startled Eric, who began to run again. Which prompted more goats to join in.

Then, as he ran, Eric began to scream. It was a high-pitched, safety-whistle scream. The ear-piercing scream of a banshee, or a toddler.

As pandemonium reigned inside the compound, Mom and Dad ran along the fence, yelling at Eric.

“Eric! Stop running! Stop!”

“Eric, don’t run! When you run, the goats run!”

Why they didn’t open the gate and go to the boy’s aid, I can’t say.

Seconds later, Eric found himself on the far side of a water trough with several goats in pursuit. When the goats came around the left side of the trough, Eric ran to the right. When the goats ran right, Eric ran left.

Having regained control of the situation, sort of, Eric also regained some of his composure. His panic subsided.

At that point, Dad came to his senses, burst into the compound, and ran toward the water trough. This caused most of the goats to start running again, but Eric held his strategic position behind the trough.

Dad collected Eric and escorted him toward the gate. On the way, one of the smaller goats ran past them, coming within a foot or two.

Eric let loose another piercing scream — this time, in anger — and delivered a fierce roundhouse punch that landed on the goat’s jaw.

The goat stumbled, recovered, and skittered back to the safety of the herd.

Goats

Why no zoo employees were present as the drama unfolded, I can’t say.

 

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Take only memories, leave only footprints.

— Chief Seattle

————

It happened over 16 years ago, in April 2000, but the incident is still vivid in my mind.

When you visit the North Rim of Grand Canyon, the center of activity is Grand Canyon Lodge at Bright Angel Point. That’s your first stop to take in the views, check into your cabin or campsite, or gear up for hiking.

After that, most tourists drive out the Cape Royal Road, which is a 40-mile round trip along the rim past a succession of spectacular scenic overlooks. If you’re like me, and you stop constantly to gaze into the canyon, take photos, and wander through the trees, you can spend most of the day out there.

The North Rim is perched on the edge of the Kaibab Plateau, elevation 8,000 to 9,000 feet. The area is cool in summer and closed in winter. Plateau country is a glorious place, heavily forested with aspens, birch trees, and Ponderosa pines.

The North Rim also is relatively quiet. The South Rim is much more accessible and thus is choked with tourists; the North Rim simply is too remote for the masses.

During that 2000 trip, I encountered only about a dozen people along the Cape Royal Road. I was alone for most of the day, free to enjoy the silence and solitude.

I stopped at all the scenic overlooks, of course. They were as majestic and as awe-inspiring as you would expect.

But a number of times, I pulled over at random spots along the road and made my way through the forest to the rim. Sometimes, my effort ended with no view at all. At other times, the sight was breath-taking.

On one of those short side-hikes, as I bushwhacked toward the rim, I was astonished when a large eagle glided in and landed on a low branch no more than 15 yards ahead of me.

I froze. Time froze. We looked at each other.

What species of eagle it was, I don’t know. It was brown — didn’t have the white head of a bald eagle — and very large and impressive. Possibly a golden eagle.

It flexed its wings once or twice, as if about to take flight, but settled back and continued to contemplate the human intruder in its forest.

Surely, I thought, raising my camera wouldn’t spook the bird. But it did.

Before I could get a photo, the eagle launched itself into the air and flapped away. The bird was so large and powerful that its departure seemed to be in slow motion.

But at that moment, my attention wasn’t on the eagle winging into the distance; it was on the single feather floating slowly to the ground in the eagle’s wake.

Over the years, my habit has been to bring home a memento from every hike — a pebble, an acorn, a shell, a feather. I display them in two large glass containers in my living room. One container is from pre-retirement hikes, the other post-retirement.

Among the collection are hundreds of feathers, large and small, sturdy and delicate, white, black, brown, and striped.

Frankly, I know nothing about feathers. Except for a peacock feather in container #1, I have no idea which birds any of the feathers came from. The difference between a falcon feather and a hawk feather? Beats me. I simply find the things beautiful and interesting.

But in 2000, for the first time, I had actually seen a feather being shed. This time, I knew definitively it was the feather of an eagle.

I looked down at the feather, lying at the foot of the tree. It was perfect.

I stood there for a time, mentally replaying the scene of the eagle taking flight and the feather floating to the ground in a gentle zigzag pattern. The experience was thrilling and sublime.

But at the same time, I knew I had a problem. I couldn’t take the feather home and add it to my collection. I couldn’t even pick it up. The feather had to stay where the eagle left it.

That’s because the possession of eagle feathers has been illegal in the United States since 1940.

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (16 U.S.C. 668-668c) prohibits “pursuing, shooting, shooting at, poisoning, wounding, killing capturing, trapping, collecting, molesting, or disturbing” a bald or golden eagle.

Without a permit issued by the Secretary of the Interior, It is illegal to “possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, offer to purchase or barter, or transport a bald or golden eagle, alive or dead, or any part, nest or egg thereof.”

Technically, that means you can’t take — or even move — any part of a bald or golden eagle. Not even the feather lying on the ground in front of me.

The possible punishment for a violation: up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine.

As for getting a permit from the Secretary of the Interior, not a chance. Permits are only issued to researchers involved in scientific studies and to Native Americans for religious purposes.

My maternal great-grandmother had some Cherokee blood, but I don’t think that would count.

Now, the chances that Rocky Smith would be apprehended and prosecuted for violating the Eagle Protection Act are pretty slim. I could have picked up the eagle feather, as I have picked up all those other feathers over the years, and dropped it in the container in my living room. Not even the NSA would know.

And, honestly, an eagle feather or two may be in my collection already. I have no way of knowing. I try not to think about it.

But the facts of my North Rim encounter made this situation different. Even worse than being illegal, taking that feather would diminish a collection of mementos of which I’m very proud.

In the end, I walked away with only a memory.

But, oh, how I wanted that beautiful feather.

Eagle feather

 

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The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.

— Thomas Merton

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Some people are wise, and some are otherwise.

— Tobias Smollett

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Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

— C. S. Lewis

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Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.

— Benjamin Disraeli

Merton T

Merton

Disraeli B-2

Disraeli

 

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