When the dog looks

The dog who shares our lives has a hobby. He sits in the garden and looks, just looks. Why would he do that?

Waiting for cats, birds squirrels to appear, to be chased? Maybe. But I think there’s another reason. He’s just assessing the situation, awaiting the inspiration for action.

Take the time he became obsessed with the cat at the back. The vegetation, fencing and screening between the two gardens had deterred two dog generations from venturing into the back neighbour’s garden. But this dog was different. He sat and looked. One day he disappeared, until the back neighbour called and handed him back. He’d bitten a hole in the previously impregnable defences.

More defences were erected. The dog looked. Another day he disappeared, and was handed back again. This became a regular contest, and there was only one clear winner – the dog.

After a summit discussion, a new wooden fence was erected. That would spike his guns! The dog looked, for a long time. Then one day we heard him barking at the cat through a window – in the neighbour’s garden. He’d tunnelled under the fence. Bricks, logs and concrete variously deterred further digging.

The dog looked again. Another day he was barking in the neighbour’s garden again. He’d managed to squeeze through the gap at the end of the fence, which had surely been too narrow for a dog!

The gap was barricaded. The dog looked for a long time. Then went off to look at another fence, which was by now more promising. But that’s another story.

What really struck me about this episode is that the dog’s ‘looking’ is very similar to my own approach to gardening. I have a sort of overall picture of what sort of plants should go where, and when they need feeding or pruning, but the actual decision on what is ripe to do next is done by looking. As I look, it becomes clear what is to be done next.

So really, what’s so different about dog- and human- consciousness? Have we become confused into thinking that language plays a major part in our decision making and our rationality, so we must be so much cleverer than the animals? Maybe we are not so different from them after all.

Squirrel silhouette

It’s a busy time of year for grey squirrels, gathering and hoarding ready for winter. We spotted this one high in the bare branches, perfectly silhouetted against the midday November sky near Marston, Cheshire. With strong backlighting and a maximum zoom shot, there’s no detail in its features. The result is a pleasing, almost monochrome composition.

The Inner Life of Animals

“The idea that there was an abrupt break in the course of evolution, and that at some point everything was reinvented, is an idea whose time is past. The only major point of contention today is whether animals can think; that’s what we do best, after all.”

inner life animalsIn a way this quote summarises the essence of Peter Wohlleben’s important book The Inner Life of Animals: Surprising Observations of a Hidden World. He presents much evidence that the inner life of animals is very much like our own, perhaps except for the thinking faculty.

The evidence is extensive and overwhelming, a combination of scientific research and the personal observations of one who works on the land. For example:

  • ravens have a strong sense of right and wrong, and are very intelligent, using their beaks much as we do our hands.They and other species that live in social groups can match, and in some cases even exceed, the mental prowess of primates.
  • wild boar know exactly which other boar they are related to, even if the connection is a distant one. Indeed, pigs are extremely intelligent animals. They teach their young and help them deliver their own children later in life. They and other animals understand their own names, and thus have some degree of self-consciousness.
  • crows are known for recognising people and for having strong emotional reactions to those they don’t like.
  • horses know just by how tense their rider’s body is and enjoy being directed and exercised.
  • doe’s grieve for their dead offspring.
  • shame and embarrassment are evident in dogs, and function as a kind of act of contrition – they are mechanisms for asking for forgiveness.
  • animals are capable of empathy, and experience fear and pain.
  • it’s quite clear to foresters and hunters alike that wild animals learn from experience. Wild boar hunt at night when they themselves are hunted, but not otherwise.

As well as all this evidence, there is also the suggestion that humans have actually largely lost touch with a capability that animals still have – the sixth sense, which is a necessary tool for survival in the wild. Why is it that, in comparison with animals, we are so unaware of changes in our environment? The answer lies in the way our modern home and work environments overwhelm our senses. How much more accurately must early peoples have been able to read the woods and the meadows, exposed, as they were, to all those stimuli day in and day out?

For us, the wild largely no longer exists. We have already cleared, built on or dug up 80 per cent of the Earth’s land mass. Our disconnection with nature has major impacts, including hundreds of thousands of wild boar and pigs killed every year in EU alone.

In Europe at least half the night sky is affected by light pollution, disorienting many species of animals that depend on stars to orient themselves at night. Moths, for instance, rely on the moon when they want to fly in a straight line.

Instead of the sixth sense we have this highly developed abstract thinking capability. We act automatically and subconsciously, but the conscious part of the brain then comes up with an explanation for the action a few seconds later – a face-saving explanation for our fragile ego, which likes to feels it’s completely in control at all times. In many cases, however, the other side – our unconscious – is in charge of operations. Emotions are the language of the unconscious and as we have seen the evidence is that animals also experience them.

Our scientific society  denies these emotions in animals, so that we can continue to exploit them without troubling our conscience too much. We are living a lie.

Wohlleben actually identifies a root cause in humans: the capacity to feel empathy wastes away in people who are denied early exposure to this skill. So upbringing of children outside of an empathic environment is probably a root cause of our denial of the suffering of animals, as well as that of our fellow humans. One can only reflect on the typical English upper class childhood, sent away to impersonal boarding school at an early age.

We have so much in common with animals and they have so much to teach us, if only we will listen before we’ve exterminated every last one of them. Wohlleben leaves us with this wonderful thought:

“Squirrels, deer and wild boar with souls: that’s the thought that makes life special and warms my heart when I have the opportunity to watch animals.”

See also Wohlleben’s superb and even more gripping book The Hidden Life of Trees.

Animal sentience

Animals clearly have an inner life, feelings, emotions, and so on. You only have to observe them. Start with a pet.

So why the great animal sentience debate? Because somewhere along the line some people started treating animals as objects whose sole purpose was to be eaten, shot at, exploited. Great factory farms became necessary to give cheap food (in the US, Soil Association estimates 99% of chickens, 90% of pigs, 78% of cows are ‘produced’ in concentrated animal feeding operations – CAFOs – animal factories). Farms in UK are gradually increasing in size to stay economically viable. Great swathes of land in the UK are managed to produce birds to be shot at, which is indeed a common sport across many countries. How long is this barbarism to continue?

Fortunately scientists have decided that animals are sentient. Thank God they’ve confirmed the bleeding obvious!

Hurrah for organisations like the Soil Association, whose ambition for animal welfare is for all farm animals to live ‘a good life’ within 10 years.

It seems that EU is moving in the right direction of recognising animal sentience, as is the UK. But this is clearly going to be a major issue in any future post-Brexit trade deal with the US, when they will want us to buy their barbarically produced cheap food as part of the deal.

The root problem is abstracting human affairs from inner values and morality, leaving the money monster in control. We really do need to reclaim our humanity, our inner compass, our conscience.

Mass murder in our green and pleasant land

I can only endorse this impassioned cry…

Eyes in the back of my Head

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This has been brewing for some time and now it’s time to shout it out. I’m both sickened by, and sick of, news of our wildlife – animals, birds and native trees – being killed off.  They are being killed off by various different organisations in our green and still relatively pleasant land. And all of them seem to have intentional murder and the destruction of the natural world and environment in mind.

Otherwise why would they do it? You need to have an intention to do something when it’s as organised as this mass murder is.

Let me elaborate. And imagine explaining some of this to a child. Children learn from the natural world and celebrate nature. It’s one of their first ways into appreciating and enjoying other life species. Children’s story books are full of tales of woodland creatures, birds and wildlife.

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