Archive for the ‘animal behavior’ Category

Is it self aware?

This cat appears to recognize itself in the mirror. Does that mean it is self aware?


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There’s a common statement on various websites related to opossums. It goes something like this:

“Opossums are not as stupid as people think. A study (or studies or tests) show that opossums are better at learning and discrimination showed them to be higher ranked than dogs.”

Okay. I’m going to call bullshit on this one.

Wanna know why?

I can’t find the study or test or any kind of peer-reviewed paper that says this.

And if I were a researcher making comparisons between the cognitive abilities of certain animals and the opossum wound up besting the dog, then I’d have very real questions about my methodology.

Here are the reason for my skepticism:

First of all, opossums have very small, very primitive brains. They are primitive mammals that retain much of the basal mammalian body type. They look very similar to basal placental mammals like the Cuban solenodon. Primitive mammals are unlikely to have many of the sophisticated cognitive abilities of more derived species, especially those that evolved to hunt cooperatively, like wolves and domestic dogs.

Secondly, no ethologist has recognized any sophisticated behavior in opossums. Opossums have been commonly kept as pets and as research animals for a very long time. They have been studied very closely, but no one is writing any great pieces of research on how opossums are able to reach such cognitive heights with such primitive little brains.

Now, there are many, many researchers looking into the cognitive abilities of dogs.  Studies have shown that dogs have very sophisticated social cognition, which they may have evolved through domestication. Dogs recognize the importance of human gestures, and they also know that when a person closes his or her eyes, the person cannot sense what the dog is doing.  There are dogs that respond to hundreds of words, and dogs can think abstractly.

If it were suddenly discovered that opossums could best dogs at these skills, it would be shatter almost everything we know about cognition in vertebrates. It would also fundamentally shift how we understand brain physiology, for an opossum’s brain is far more primitive and less complex than that of a dog.

So here’s my question to every site and book I’ve seen that makes this claim:

Where is the study that shows the impressive learning and discrimination abilities of opossums?

What’s its citation?

My guess is this study either doesn’t exist, or it is a simple methodology error in a multi-species comparative cognition study that the authors attempt to account for in the work.

And one study does not change the entire body of knowledge about a subject. It’s only when a particular study has a superior methodology that one can say it is paradigm shifting.

If this study does exist, it didn’t change the scientific community’s understanding of opossum versus dog intelligence.

If it did, you’d be seeing researchers working with large numbers of opossums to see how their cognitive abilities work.

And that’s simply not the case.

The old saw that states that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence certainly applies here.

And as far as I can tell, this is nothing more than an internet rumor that somehow grew legs.


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Raegan Walter has a wonderful post up on her blog that answers this question.

Skinner laid out the behaviorist theory of learning, but others have added to and refined his work.

The notion that they have done so is to be expected in  any scientific discipline. Through experimentation, hypotheses may be falsified. Theories are adjusted and refined as knew evidence comes pouring in.

The great scientists who came before were not prophets in the religious sense. Their ideas have always been subject to refinement, revision, and even outright rejection.

When these ideas are refined, it is not evidence that they have been entirely negated. It is evidence that we know more now than we did in the past.

That’s the beauty of science. Nothing is written in stone.

Critics of behaviorism often use this refinement to attack it.

This tactic stems from either ignorance (if we are charitable) or outright intellectual dishonesty.

And if someone wants to attack a scientific theory, it is best that the critic understand how science works before opining.

So if you see someone attacking behaviorism in this fashion, please know that they are either ignorant of how science works or are engaging in intellectually dishonest tactics.



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Dave, who writes the wonderful Prick-Eared blog, has just posted what I think is one of the best analyses of the dog and human relationship from a Darwinian perspective.

It is rather foolish to think of humans domesticating the dogs. In fact, it would be more accurate to say they engaged in a pact with us. Now, in order to explain this, one must first dislodges the Judeo-Christian view-point of the world where mankind has domain over nature.

For eons, we have a self-centric view of the Universe which has been proven to be false: the Earth is at the center of the Universe; mankind is the only one capable of developing tools, languages and cultures; humans are the only sentient beings; and we are the only one who broke free of the shackles of evolution. Of course, none of this is true: Johannes Kepler debunked the geocentric view of the solar system; chimpanzees are also capable of fashioning tools; dolphins and whales have complex way of communicating in compositions of low-frequency sounds; elephants have been shown to recognize themselves in mirrors; and the war on viruses and micro-organisms is a constant reminder we are still at the mercy of nature. Let’s go one step further: the delusion of domestication is dependent on who view themselves as gaining the most benefits.

Dog and man have co-evolved together, however neither one of us actually see it this way. From our point of view: we dominated the wolf; employed them to share the load and search games; sculptured their flesh and bones; manipulated their behaviours in our favour; and they are objects of status-elevation. From the dog’s point of view, they domesticated us. The hounds see us as an asset in a hunt, delivering the killing blow to the boar or the bear. The team of huskies request us to hunt for them, to partition the shot moose or caribou, and load up the sled with our opposable thumbs to haul the meat back to their dens. The farm collie struck a bargain with the farmer for a bed’n’breakfast deal in exchange for manual labour. The Chin leads a lofty lifestyle sitting in the imperial palace as a figurehead, with servants swooning all over him; and he is protected from the elements by the sleeves of the kimonos of his escort in the outside world. From their point of view, we are the ones who have been domesticated by the dogs.

With the alliance forged between wolves and humans several millennia ago, a contract has been signed and the two of us has been bound ever since. Once in awhile, the contract is re-negotiated. In the last 200 years, dogs have agreed to an addendum allowing show breeders to sculpt their offspring to be reimbursed with a guaranteed sex life. In the last 50 years, a clause was written in, asking the dogs to become surrogates in absence of kinship among our own kind. No longer are dogs and humans comrades working toward a common goal, but rather as brothers or sisters; or daughters and sons. While they are not our blood relatives, the relationships have manifested as such.

This sort of relationship likely started out in this fashion, but in the past 200 years, the Industrial Revolution has changed it all.

By and large, domestic dogs are not needed to provide vital services to the economy, but the dog exists now in greater numbers than he ever did before.

With the dual forces of increased wealth through industrial production and the democratization of society, a middle class was built. In every country that has adopted industrial production, these forces act upon society to create it.

And this middle class has both money and leisure time, which they very often spend on pets.

In the old days, a dog was kept according to its utility. Only nobles could keep specialized hunting breeds or cute little lap dogs.

But with the rise of a relatively affluent middle class across the West, the market for these sorts of dogs was suddenly open to more people.

For example, during much of the eighteenth century, everyone wanted a Newfoundland dog, even if they lived miles from the coast. Newfoundlands had been widely popularized in literature for their intelligence and gentle natures, traits that everyone wanted to have in a family dog. The dogs were derived from the working water curs of Newfoundland, but in nineteenth century Europe and North America, they evolved into the giant family dogs and the retrievers, which were one of the most specialized hunting dogs. (The idea that they are necessarily specialized is, of course, wrong, but tradition says their only utility was in picking up game. Having such a large dog that did only one thing was a symbol of one’s own wealth and prestige, which is why they were kept primarily for that purpose.)

But this renegotiated contract, which took the dog from the totally utilitarian being that it was, laid the seeds for the ultimate perversion in the relationship. Dave continues:

In the new draft two centuries ago, several groups of dogs forefeited their liberty for promise of safety. In the virtue of selfishness of propagating their genes, several breeds have gone to the extremes; and the English Bulldog has been very selfish indeed at the expense of their own health. The Bulldog sold the ability to cool themselves to capitalize on the tendency of humans equating anything with a squished-face as infantile. The appeal to flat face is so successful, no longer are the Bulldogs required to birth naturally as they can only exist through Caesarean sections; and once civilization crumbles, the bulldog is extinct. The dependence on technology will either be pivotal to their existence or their very undoing. In fact, the fate of Bulldog is so intertwined with technology, we believe they are worth propping up on a pedestal. Truly, the Bulldogs are the master of manipulating the middle-class.

In a way, the bulldog is like the flower that can only exist when a certain species of bee pollinates it. If that bee were to become extinct, the flower would die. Nature creates these specialized alliances, but we fail to recognize that human agency can also create them.

We humans are doing unbelievably stupid things in regard to our “junior partner.”

We see them as nothing more than a medium of sculpture in which we can mold  into whatever esoteric and bizarre forms. They become nothing more than living works of art, even though they are still a biological entity. They have genes. They have behavior. They have instincts and drives.

We have renegotiated the contracts so much that one begins to wonder which species is truly benefiting here. The human drive to stroke the ego becomes embedded in the dog’s very existence. The dogs might get free room and board and plenty of opportunities to breed– if they are of sufficient quality. But their essence as animals– as beings– is not fully appreciated. I don’t think the majority of pet owners approach this aspect of the dog. Too often the relationship becomes anthropomorphic projections and– even worse– projections of human parental behavior and attachment.

We just lost sight of what a dog is.

They are not just dogs.

They simply are dogs. They do not crave our domination or our constant affection.

All they ask is to be taken on their own terms, as the beings that they are.

But too often we lack the empathy to step back a give them what they truly deserve.


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This is the original Bart, a trained Kodiak brown bear who appeared in about a dozen films. If you saw a huge brown bear in a film from the 80’s and 90’s, it was likely Bart. Bart died in 2000 at the age of 23, but Seus and his wife used some of their earnings from the films to start a grizzly conservation organization called Vital Ground,  which works to preserve grizzly bear habitat.


Doug Seus is an excellent animal trainer.

You can clearly see it from the clip.

A neophyte might think that Bar is working for only the food reward, but the truth is Bart is working because of the deep mutual respect that Seus and he share.

That bear could get the apple any way he wanted– and he could have some fresh meat to go along with it!

But you can see an eagerness to please in the bear’s eyes. It’s exactly that same look that one gets from a dog that has been trained using  mutual respect as the basis for the relationship. Bart believes in Seus, which is why he’s willing to be “handled” from a distance. In a weird way, he almost reminds me of a retriever that is being handled on a blind retrieve. Strange, isn’t it?

The brown bear species, which is holarctic in its distribution, is known for its intelligence. It is also known for being a bit reactive toward people, which is why it’s not such a good idea for anyone other than a professional to keep one in captivity.

Doug Seus is a very special kind of trainer, a bear whisperer of sorts.

And that skill is not easily transferred.

If it were easily transferred, man would have domesticated the brown bear– and that would have been a much cooler animal than a wolf!

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From The Training of Wild Animals by Frank Charles Bostock (1903):

An animal learns by association. Though it is a common belief, fear is not the reason for his obedience to the trainer’s commands. Habit and ignorance are what cause the animal to become an apt pupil in the hands of the trainer. The animal becomes accustomed to the same way of doing the same things at much the same time, and ignorance of his own power keeps him in this state of subjection.

This habit is developed in the animal by a laborious and patient process, and it requires an intimate knowledge of animal nature to perfect it. The easiest animal to train is one that is born in his native haunts and new to captivity. The reason is obvious. The one bred in captivity has nothing to fear from man, and knows his own strength and the fear he inspires. Accustomed from earliest infancy to the greatest care and coddling, he arrives one day at the stage of growth where he realizes the value of his own claws, for the use of them has shown him that human beings do not like to be scratched. Some attendant, who has, perhaps, been playing with him day by day, admiring his pretty, innocent-looking little face, soft furry body, and velvety paws while he is still a mere cub, drops him suddenly one day when he feels the deep prick of the claws hidden in those paws. The next time someone comes along, the cub may not be in the mood for handling; he remembers his past experience, that scratching means “let go,” and he puts this into practice. His liberty is promptly secured, and he lies in peace in his cage.

The next man who comes may get a deeper scratch, and he lets the cub alone even more severely, a fact that the cub notes and remembers the next time, for he is gradually acquiring a deeper disrespect for man and his puerile ways; he is beginning to know the value of the little knives he carries sheathed in those paws, and he is very soon autocratic in his independence. He accepts his food as tribute and his care as homage due, and regards man simply as another and much weaker animal.

Such an animal is difficult to train. The only method that may be pursued at all is severe letting alone for several years. All that time he holds himself more and more aloof. He is, in a way, congratulating himself on his success, and man in time becomes a shadowy being who periodically brings his food, and who, in some inexplicable way, keeps him in that oblong box for people to stare at.

He does not mind the people, nor does he mind the cage very much, for he has never known anything else; but deep in him—so deep that he barely realizes its existence— slumbers a desire for freedom and an unutterable longing for the blue sky and the free air. Man, in some way, is to blame for that intangible “something” that he wants, and scarcely knows that he wants; and man has shown him that he is afraid of his claws, and, therefore, the animal hates and despises man and all belonging to him.

The cub grows insolent in his haughtiness; then his undefined desire for freedom decreases somewhat, becomes more and more vague, and his existence is finally comprised in just two sensations: eating and sleeping. The disturbance of either is an insult, and any one who disturbs either an enemy. Man allows both to continue, and so the cub in his arrogance tolerates him.

The cub passes beyond his days of cubhood, and acquires almost the years and stature of a full-grown lion. He has few of the qualities of the newly captured animal. He does not fear man; he knows his own power. He regards man, as an inferior, with an attitude of disdain and silent hauteur….

With a lion which comes straight from Africa or Asia, the case is different. Lions are usually trained when between two and three years of age. A two-year-old of fine physique and restless nature has been brought straight from his native haunts. There he has been actually the monarch of the jungle. His life has been free and fearless.

Suddenly, in the midst of his regal existence, he falls into a hidden pit or is snared in the woods. His desperate struggles, his rage and gnashing of teeth, all the force of his tremendous strength, are ineffectual in breaking the bonds of his captivity.

After his first supreme efforts are over and he has thoroughly exhausted himself, he proves himself a very king of beasts in his haughty disdain. He apparently realizes his helplessness and submits to everything in sullen, dignified silence.

The lion comes to the trainer from the jungle, after having been subjected to abuse and gross indignities. From the time of his capture by natives who have neither feeling nor consideration for the poor animal, until he reaches his final quarters, his treatment, as a rule, is such as to terrify him and render him nervous in the extreme.

He has been kept in cramped quarters, cruelly joggled and crushed in a narrow box, while on his way to the coast from the interior, his bedding left unchanged, and the poor food with which he has been provided thrown carelessly into the refuse and offal which surround him. Clean and fastidious, as the lion always is about his food and person, he often refuses to eat, and this, added sometimes to seasickness, makes his suffering terrible.

The finest health and strength will not stand such a strain for long, and by the time the journey is ended the lion is disgusted with man and his ways. In many cases he arrives in Europe or America sick and weak, and appears only too ready to die and get rid of his troubles. The only passion he has in this State is a genuine hate for man, and this hate seems to be the only thing which arouses him at all.

It frequently happens that wild animals kill themselves in frenzies of fear during transportation. Everything in their surroundings is new and strange to them. They have lost their freedom and the fresh air; they are cramped and half stifled in close quarters, surrounded by dirt and unwholesomeness, and cannot even keep their bodies still for two seconds, owing to the perpetual motion which goes on, and which, perhaps, terrifies them more than anything else. Therefore, when a wild animal is first turned over to the trainer, he is practically mad with his experiences and terrors (pg. 120-126, pg 129-132).

In those days of “lion taming,” the trainers actually preferred to train young lions that were born in the wild– and full of negative experiences with people.

Part of the reason why a lion would be easier to train after having had so many reasons to fear and detest a person is that the primary methods for training a lion are using what we would call negative reinforcement and positive punishment.

For a young lion that had been trapped in this manner, the human appears to have almost mystical power over him. He has spent much of his life scaring other animals, but at the age of two, he most likely hasn’t been a major asset to his pride’s hunts.  He has arrived as scared adolescent, and the only thing he knows about people is that they have absolute power to move him as they desire. Nothing in his life has told him that he has any power over people.

And the fact that he may have arrived in ill health also likely makes him a bit timorous.

But the animal is eventually tamed in this manner:

The feeding of the animal is the first step in his training. The trainer takes him about six pounds of fresh beef or mutton, with a piece of bone, once a day, and fresh, clear water three times a day. No one but the trainer is permitted to go near him or to look at him. He must become acquainted with the trainer’s personality, and must be made to realize that his food and drink come from the trainer only. He must also be made clearly to understand that the trainer means him no harm, but does everything for his comfort.

The meat is usually put upon the end of a long iron fork, and passed to him through the bars. He has to come a little way forward to take the meat, and gradually, without thinking about it, he comes close to the trainer. At first the water-pan is tied to the edge of the cage, because in trying to draw the pan toward him the animal would upset it and make the cage wet and uncomfortable. There would also be the difficulty of getting it out again with a stick, which might arouse the animal’s anger.

When the lion and his trainer have once become acquainted, he is transferred to another cage; and here again, for two weeks, he is fed, watered, and taken care of by the same trainer, until the animal not only gets accustomed to him, but looks forward to his presence, because it invariably means something pleasant to himself. In about six weeks’ time a loose collar is slipped around the lion’s neck when he is asleep. Attached to this collar is a chain, long enough for the animal to move about, but just short enough to keep him from reaching the end of the cage.

The next step is for the trainer to put a chair inside the cage. Instantly the lion springs for it, but, being kept in check by the chain, finds he cannot reach it, and retires to a corner, growling sulkily at the intruder. After casting vindictive glances at it, with occasional growls, he becomes accustomed to, its presence and takes no further notice of it. Then the trainer, after opening the door of the cage once or twice and looking in, finally walks calmly in himself and sits on the chair. He is just out of reach of the lion, and when the animal has growled and resented it as he did the chair, he again subsides into indifference.

Then comes the time when the lion is released from the chain, when the trainer takes his life in his hands, and when he knows that the moment of extreme danger has arrived. No matter how quiet and docile the lion may have appeared to be when chained, he is likely to develop suddenly a ferocious savagery when released.

At this stage Captain Bonavita always carries two stout oak sticks, one in the right hand and one in the left. The one in the right he keeps for immediate use, and when once punished with this stick, the lion, not knowing the purpose of the stick in the left hand, comes to fear that also and backs away from it. If possible, the sticks are used to stroke the lion, if he will permit it; for the condition of a wild animal is one of receptivity—he is willing to welcome anything that will give him pleasure. But it is rarely, indeed, at this stage of the proceedings that he will allow this.

In the first place, the lion is generally a little frightened or nervous himself, and alarm begets wrath. It is feline nature to dissemble that wrath until the moment of action. Leo does not growl or lash his tail. It is not the growling lion that is to be feared most, nor does the lashing tail, as so many suppose, indicate danger. Not anger, but good humor, comes from such indications. It is when the tail stands out straight and rigid that the trainer begins to think of retreat.

When the tail becomes stiff in this manner, it is generally a pretty sure indication that the animal is going to spring. When the trainer sees that tail become like an iron bar, he tries to slip out at the door; sometimes he knows he will never have the opportunity. Before the lion springs he glances aside carelessly, growling quietly, and the next instant, with open mouth and all four paws distended, he is sailing through the air, straight for the throat of the man, his tense body rigid with passion, and his five hundred pounds of sinew and muscle ready to descend on the intruder.

The man who will not have foreseen that terrific onslaught, holding himself in readiness for it, has no business with wild animals, and will, in all probability, never again attempt any dealings with them, because he will never have the chance. The agility which is one of the requisite qualities for a trainer must come into play, and upon it depends his life.

It is here that the chair, which plays no small part in an animal’s education, comes into use again. That chair was not brought into the cage merely for comfort. It is the best defense possible against the lion’s spring. Swift and apparently unpremeditated as the spring has been, the man has seen the tenseness of the muscles that preceded it, and before the animal has reached him, the stout legs of the chair are bristling between them.

Here is another problem for the lion. This unknown thing has suddenly assumed an unexpected and possibly a deadly significance. Snarling, he drops on his haunches and claws at the barrier; perhaps he has plumped into it and has felt the blows from its dull prongs. Then out from behind it springs a stick—the same stick of his pleasant memories, but turned to base uses now, for it flicks him smartly on the tip of his nose, just where a lion keeps all his most sensitive feelings.

Again it lands, and the chances are ten to one that two blows on that tender spot are enough. Howling with rage and discomfiture, the lion ceases to claw the chair and retires to his corner, very crestfallen and extremely puzzled and bewildered. By the time he has had leisure to consider the strange performance, the trainer is out of the cage, leaving the chair behind him.

Now the lion may do any one or all of several things, according to the depth of his emotions. He may glower and sulk in his corner; he may rant and tear about his cage, giving vent to his outraged feelings in loud roars; he may go for the chair and dismember it (not without scars to his own hide, probably); or he may settle down to think matters over calmly, possibly coming to the conclusion that it is unwise to attack any strange thing before finding out whether it can hurt in return.

Generally, after this chair incident, when the lion has got the worst of it, he calms down fairly soon, and on the reappearance of his trainer some time afterward has evidently forgotten the unpleasantness of it all, and remembers only that it is the trainer who brings him all he wants. In some cases he greets him with a gentle rubbing against the bars of his cage and a soft purr, for he is only a big cat, after all. The meat is taken with a slightly subdued air, he allows himself to be stroked and patted,—outside the bars,—and so another great step in his education has been taken and accomplished successfully.

The next stage in the training of a lion is for the trainer to enter the cage again with the chair and stick. No longer militant, but somewhat timid, the animal keeps in his corner, furtively watching the trainer. Little by little, the man edges the chair over until he is within reach; then he begins to rub the lion with his stick. Little by little he decreases the distance still more, until, finally, he has his hand on the lion’s shoulder and is patting him gently.

This is another great step in advance. The lion has learned to endure the touch of the human hand; although he murmurs sulkily, he likes it, for few animals are indifferent to petting. Day by day the trainer familiarizes the lion with his presence and touch; rubbing his back, stroking his shoulders, raising his paws,—a somewhat risky and ticklish trial,— and in the course of about two weeks after first entering the cage, if the animal be of fairly good temper, all alarm and overt enmity have been eradicated, so accustomed has the animal become to the presence of this one man (pg 133-144).

So the lion is tamed through something like the Stockholm Syndrome. They are essentially brainwashed into doing the bidding of people.

Such an animal would have been easier to work with– given the methods they used– than one born in captivity that has learned to treat humans as a social partner.

But no one in their right mind would go out and capture lions for the circus these days. Not only are lion numbers declining in the wild, but the very notion of catching wild animals to perform at a circuses is morally repugnant in the modern era.

But in the days of the lion tamers, they used the healthy populations of wild lions to provide the circuses with their performance animals.

It really is that counterintuitive that the lions that were used in circuses of that day were actually “tamed,” and the term “lion tamer” actually meant exactly as it implies.

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Very informative!


Giraffes are not values voters.

I can tell you that!

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I’m going to have to get this book.

Hierarchies in nature aren’t what they appear.

With wolves.

With red deer.

And now honeybees!

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If we see a lot of familiarity in this behavior, it is because we are not that different.

Remember the documentary I posted about hippo hunters on the Niger?

Hunting hippopotamuses in this fashion is every bit as dangerous for humans as it is for leopards to hunt baboons. However, when the human hunters managed to catch a baby hippo, they wound up treating it as if it were a beloved pet dog.

Why is it that a predatory species would try to adopt the offspring of its prey?

Now, humans and leopards do have very different brains. Humans are much more intelligent than leopards are, and we like to think that we are so different that we would not have similar biochemistry.

But the reality is both humans and leopards respond to “cuteness” in similar ways. An animal that gives off the appearance of cuteness causes a release of oxytocin, ” the love hormone.”  It is the main hormone behind parental bonding with offspring, and its the main force behind the evolution of cuteness in baby mammals.

It is also what is behind our selection for cuteness in many of our domestic dog breeds– and carttoons. Stephen Jay Gould wrote about how Mickey Mouse “evolved” into a cuter animal over time. The big eyes, short muzzle, and round features make us think he is cute and love him even more.

Animals that possess these features into adulthood are called neotenous. Neoteny was first recognized by Konrad Lorenz, one of the founders of ethology. In his theoretical framework, human babies evolved cuteness as a way of getting parents to care for them. Lorenz was the first to note that our selection for these traits in dogs– shortened muzzles, rounded heads, and big eyes– were a selection for animals that resembled cute baby humans.

Humans are so drawn to cute animals that we have always taken in baby animals. Hunter-gatherers often brought home a wide range of baby animals, which were then cared for as babies.  Many of our more successful domestic animal species likely evolved from baby wild animals that were brought home in this fashion. Native Australians, for example, often brought home dingo puppies, which they raised as if they were human infants. The dingoes lived with the camp, accompanying the hunters on their forays and cleaning up refuse.

Of course, cuteness releases oxytocin in a wide range of species, and that is likely what happened with this leopard. When she killed the baboon, she was likely just engaging in normal hunting behavior, but the discovery of the infant caused her to react very differently.

If this leopard had somehow been a social species that was technologically advanced, it might have been able to make a “pet” out of this young baboon.

I should note that cuteness is not universal among all species. In Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s The Hidden Life of Dogs, her Canadian sled dog exhibits maternal behavior toward a very young opossum joey, which was part of a litter she took in and rehabilitated. The joey is hairless, and its eyes are not open. The animal is quite ugly to the human eye, but even the very predatory husky is somehow moved to maternal behavior toward the opossum. Thomas concludes that the opossum joey is quite similar to a neonatal whelp, and it is this appearance that moves the normally quite predatory dog to want to mother it. This sled dog kills all but one of a lower status packmate’s litter, which makes her behavior toward the opossum even that more remarkable.

Cuteness is one of those forces that can overwhelm us. We all want cute puppies we see in the store or in magazines. Some breeds have entirely moved along the cuteness paradigm. American cocker spaniels are almost entirely built upon producing cute puppies. All of our toy breeds are based upon being very much like babies their entire lives.

And as a strategy, evolving a cute phenotype has been very useful for domestic dogs. Cuteness allows them to live very easy lives and have humans care for their offspring. However, we humans have gone too far in selecting for cuteness. How many breeds have such short muzzles and big heads that they no longer can breed, breathe,  cool themselves, or whelp naturally?

What we don’t understand is that we are affected by something deeply primal in our evolutionary history– so deep within us that even animals like leopards are affected by it.

Understanding how cuteness drives our selection pressures and our breed choices is a very important step to solving some problems inherent in domestic dogs.

That is the important lesson that we should learn from this leopard.

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For those of you who don’t live in North America, here’s a very good video on skunks. This show was on PBS not long ago, and the striped skunks were awesome.


I can’t describe what skunk musk smells like. I really can’t.

It’s really not the smell that is bad.

It’s how it irritates your eyes and mucous membranes.

I say this as someone who has been skunked.

I had a dog that reveled in killing skunks, and she attacked one that was maybe 10 feet away from me one evening. As she shook it, the skunk wound up spraying me as “collateral damage.”

In some states, people can keep these animals as pets, but most states ban it because skunks have their own strain of rabies.

Incidentally, skunks are not weasels (Mustelids). They used to be classified with the weasels, ferrets, mink, otters, badgers, martens, and wolverines (gluttons). But now skunks and stink badegrs are in their own family called Mephitidae. Both skunks and Mustelids are members of the superfamiy Musteloidea, which includes the raccoon family (Procyonidae) and the red panda (Ailuridae). This suborder Caniformia within the order Carnivora. This suborder also includes dogs, bears, seals, sea lions and fur seals, and the walrus.

Finally, we supposedly have Eastern spotted skunks in West Virginia, but I have never seen one here. Those are the skunks that do handstands.


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