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Reigning cats or dogs? August 1, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood love dogs. And we love cats. We also love birds, fish (and other aquarium denizens like shrimp, clams and snails), reptiles and amphibians, chickens, and bunnies. So far, we haven’t succumbed to the allure of insects, spiders, or ferrets. But our friend Rob is a ferret fanatic, and we’re following the career of our friend Susan’s tarantula Quentin with interest.

We both grew up with pets—our friend Ben’s first pet parakeet was purchased before I was even born—and we can’t imagine a life without the rich rewards of sharing our lives with them. Which brings us to wonder about the seemingly age-old debate about the relative merits of cats and dogs, most recently rehashed yet again in yesterday’s Parade magazine article, “Cats vs. Dogs.” Which is smarter? Which lives longer? Which is faster? Which is more popular?

Sheesh. Call us cynics, but we sometimes wonder if this so-called controversy is just made up by journalists desperate for stories. Especially when articles like the one in Parade note that only 62% of Americans have pets, but more than 90% of Americans consider their pet a member of the family. (Maybe the missing 28-plus percent have pretend pets.)

But we digress. We wonder about all this because we can say for a fact that every pet is rewarding in its own way, whether it’s a beautiful neon tetra, a cat that’s happiest purring on your lap, a dog whose tail can’t stop wagging when she sees you, a guinea pig who squeals happily when it hears you opening a lettuce wrapper, or a parrot whose funny comments make you laugh after a long, bad workday. Why must we be asked to choose one or another when we can have them all?!

Anyway, returning to the questions raised by the article, let’s dish up a few answers:

What pet is smartest? Setting aside folks who keep great apes as pets (what are they thinking?!), the smartest pet is unquestionably a parrot. The two brightest parrot species, the yellow-naped Amazon (our own renowned Plutarch the Pirate Parrot is a yellow-nape) and African grey (the world’s most famous parrot, Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s Alex, was an African grey), are now acknowledged by animal behaviorists to have the intelligence of a five-year-old child. In our opinion, many humans don’t have the intelligence of a five-year-old child, so this is saying something. (Groucho Marx: “Why, a two-year-old child could understand this! Get me a two-year-old child, I can’t make heads or tails of it.”)

According to the Parade article, the brightest dogs have the intelligence of two-year-old children; even an average dog can learn 165 human words. Presumably the five smartest breeds, which include our own beloved German shepherds and golden retrievers, know plenty more; don’t think for a minute they don’t know what you mean when you spell w-a-l-k, t-r-e-a-t, or c-a-r. (Or, of course, v-e-t.) Cats, by contrast, only recognize around 35 words, according to the article. But at least it acknowledges that the brightest cat breed is our own favorite, the Maine coon. To put this in perspective, Koko, the famous San Francisco Zoo gorilla, understands 2,000 human words; the average person, 60,000 words; our friend Ben, 600,000 words (just kidding about the last part).

Which lives longest? If it’s a dog-cat contest, the answer would definitely be cats. We’ve had a friend whose cat lived to be 30, and one of our Maine coons, Jessie, lived to 19. Small dogs can also live fairly long lives, making it into their late teens regularly or early 20s if they’re lucky, though the larger the breed, the shorter the life; great Danes, for example, tend to live only 8 years, and the max for our own preferred breeds, German shepherds and golden retrievers, is around 13, exceptionally 14 (sob). Given the much-longer lives of larger species like ourselves, elephants, whales, and horses, this makes no sense to us, but sadly, it’s a fact. However, the award in this category as in the intelligence category goes to parrots: A parrot like our Plutarch can live more than 100 years. (Plu is currently a comparatively youthful 27.)

Which is the best hunter? Solo, it’s a cat. Dogs hunt in packs like wolves, and are superb pack-hunters, but pet dogs don’t have a lot of opportunity to practice this skill. However, if you could see our cats Linus and Layla catch a mouse, assisted by our black German shepherd Shiloh, you might have to conclude that cats really can hunt in packs very effectively, and are willing to allow their dog “siblings” to join them, and all these authoritative answers are nonsense. Our old cat Jessie preferred to hunt in tandem with Silence Dogood as her hunting partner; Jessie would catch a mouse but not harm it, yowl to announce the catch, and then wait patiently by the front door, mouse in mouth, for Silence to don a fireplace glove, grab the mouse, and hurl it—outraged but unharmed—out the door.

Which is most useful? That depends. When humans evolved from hunter-gatherers to farmers and agriculture made civilization possible, supporting great civilizations from Mesopotamia to Ancient Egypt, cats were by far more useful. Cats ate the rats and mice that would otherwise have eaten the stores of grain that supported the cities. That’s why cats were worshiped as deities by the Egyptians.

In mediaeval Europe, cats ate the rats that brought fleas and plague, and should have received an even more heroic welcome. Unfortunately, they became associated with Satan-worship and witches and were systematically exterminated, resulting in the plagues and famines that swept Europe repeatedly during that period. Depriving lonely old women of their pets and martyring both for merely existing merits Divine retribution in our opinion!

Today, of course, dogs are more useful, whether they’re therapy dogs in assisted-living facilities or hosipitals, drug- or bomb-sniffers, trackers, hunting dogs, companions for the blind or wheelchair-bound, police dogs, library dogs, sentries, or a thousand other occupations. Our friend Ben feels confident leaving Silence Dogood in our German shepherd Shiloh’s protection, knowing that Shiloh normally loves everyone, but wouldn’t hesitate to defend Silence with her life if she detected a threat. (And I know Silence would do the same if she felt Shiloh were threatened, as I would defend them both with my own life.)

But that’s not to say cats are useless nowadays. Ours patrol the house for mice and insect invaders, and make sure these vile enemies are dealt with swiftly and decisively. They’re also quick to alert us to perceived dangers, whether it’s an oncoming storm or a stranger at the door. And there’s nothing like a cat on the lap to warm you on a cold day!

Which is most affectionate? Dogs have a reputation for slavish devotion and cats for aloofness. But our observation is that this is a bunch of hooey. All our dogs have loved us, and so have all our cats. They’ve all crowded around us for love and attention, praise and petting. We’ve never had an aloof cat, but then, we’ve never expected to have one.

We’ve engaged with all our pets and expected them to engage with us, and they never disappoint. And this has been as true of the most wary feral cat who found its way to our deck as it is of the cats and dogs we raised from infancy; it certainly takes them longer to trust, but what a great feeling the first time one of them makes the decision, rushes over, and shoves its head under your hand with a loud purr! Even our fish rush over when they see us. (Not that we think they’re being affectionate, we just think they enjoy looking out of their aquariums as much as we enjoy looking in.)

We think animals respond as we expect them to respond. If you treat a dog as a “dumb animal,” chained outside to its house without human contact, or assume cats have no interest in interacting with people so you ignore them, you’ll get what you expect. But the poor cats and dogs, who would love to lead a full life as part of the family, certainly won’t get what they deserve. And if that’s the way you treat animals, how exactly do you relate to people, people such as, say, your kids and spouse?!! Oh, yes, we’re sure that ultimately you’ll get what you deserve. In fact, you’re already getting it every minute, aren’t you? Otherwise, how could you act like that towards anything or anyone?!!!

But again, we’re straying from the point. Which is that, for us, it’s not a question of cats or dogs. It’s the joy of cats and dogs, and parakeets and parrots and every other creature that can increase our joy and expand our world. Every pet we’ve ever had the privilege of knowing has enriched our lives and taught us so much about the nature and value of life and relationship. Every pet has shown us the meaning of, the value of, love and trust. Absolute love, and utter, absolute, ultimate trust.

No wonder people risk their lives to save their pets. They know, without question, that their pets would do the same, and more, for them if they could, and never think twice. Not because they’re stupid and incapable of thought, but because of their boundless love and trust. May we find the strength to love them and merit their love, and in the end, may God find us worthy of them.

Of falcons, parrots, and Plutarch. June 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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Our good friend and expert birder Rudy Keller sent us an e-mail this morning with a Chicago Tribune article he thought we’d find of interest. And indeed we did. The article explained that ornithologists at Chicago’s prestigious Field Museum of Natural History, in conjunction with scientists at seven other institutions, had conducted genetic studies on birds to determine their relationships. And they came up with some startling results that are going to call for fast revisions of the field guides used religiously by America’s 80 million birders. (80 million?! Oh, my.)

The biggest shakeup came in the raptor group—the birds of prey—though frankly, our friend Ben isn’t even surprised. After geneticists determined that vultures were actually related to storks rather than hawks, eagles, and falcons, I’m ready for practically any revelation. So today’s disclosure that falcons are actually related to parrots, not hawks and eagles, seems almost mundane. Peregrine, parrot, whatever. (Our friend Ben can imagine the outrage among falconers, past and present, however, upon discovering that their noble birds aren’t that far removed from shouting “Polly wants a cracker!”)

There were a few other upsets, including the revelation that hummingbirds, with their needle-like beaks, are related to nightjars, with their Julia Roberts mouths. (Our friend Ben entirely agrees with Hugh Grant’s apparently disastrous comment about his “Notting Hill” costar. Really, one’s mouth should not cover one’s entire face.) I think it’s safe to say that we can expect a whole slew of revised field guides in the next year, not one of them the least bit useful to amateur birdwatchers who would be best served by a field guide that grouped birds by similar appearance rather than by family. Sigh…

In any event, our friend Rudy thought we’d enjoy the news flash about falcons because of our parrots Plutarch (see our earlier post, “Plutarch and Lola: A love story” for more on him) and, especially, Marcus, our tiny, fierce bronze-winged pionus. Marcus looks like a miniature golden eagle and has a personality to match. If I broke the news to him about falcons and parrots being related, he wouldn’t bat an eye. Instead, he’d puff up to his full 6-inch height and stare me in the eye while muttering the equivalent of “So, what’s your point? About time those stupid scientists caught on. Haven’t I been trying to clue you in all this time that I’m a ferocious, noble predator? Geez. Get used to it.”

Okay, okay, fine. But that doesn’t mean I’m trading in Marcus’s honey-seed treats, sugar snap peas and blueberries for dead mice and roadkill. But I might give him a fragment of cheese and a little hard-boiled egg more often from now on… 


Plutarch and Lola: A Love Story April 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, pets.
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HELP!!! PARROT IN TREE!!! HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Our friend Ben can recognize a crisis when I see one, and the headline of this e-mail from our friend Mary clearly qualified, especially since our friend Ben knows that Mary and her family don’t happen to own any parrots. The e-mail went on to say that Mary had been doing yardwork, and suddenly a voice started speaking, singing, and whistling to her from a nearby tree. After recovering from the initial fright, Mary went over and discovered a large grey parrot with a whitish breast and a bright red tail in the tree. She wanted to know what it was, and if she should try to catch it and contain it in a cat carrier while trying to locate its owner. She was so disconcerted by the discovery that she’d misplaced the Hawk’s Haven phone number and was now praying that our friend Ben would be checking e-mail. Fortunately, I was.

I quickly called Mary and explained that she had one of the legends of the parrot world, an African grey, in her tree. There are two types of African grey parrot—the larger Congo grey, which was the species in Mary’s tree, and the smaller, somewhat less colorful Timneh grey. These birds are renowned for their intelligence—the famous Alex, the “genius parrot” studied by Dr. Irene Pepperberg, was a Timneh grey—and they cost thousands of dollars. Nobody who’d gone to the effort of buying and training one would have simply released it. Clearly, it had inadvertently escaped.

But no, Mary shouldn’t simply send her husband or son up into the tree after it. A parrot that size can crack a nut with its powerful beak. You wouldn’t want a frightened parrot to use your hand for target practice. Our friend Ben suggested that Mary set out a dish of chopped fruit and try to lure the parrot down, then throw a towel on it and put it in the carrier with the fruit and some water while calling the local vets to see if someone had reported a missing parrot.

What if the owner didn’t turn up? Our friend Ben happens to have a huge cage in our storage shed, the first cage used to house our very own Hawk’s Haven mascot, Plutarch the Pirate Parrot. I offered to bring the cage over and set it up with dishes, toys, etc. if Mary and family decided to keep the stray parrot.

But I also know that parrots are not for everyone. Parrots like Plutarch, a yellow-naped Amazon, and African greys were once considered to have the intelligence of two- or three-year-old human toddlers. Our friend Ben has now seen estimates of equivalence to five-year-olds. Like a human child, parrots can be temperamental, loud, and prone to tantrums. They’ll do pretty much anything for attention. Their own attention spans are short, so they’re always in need of new toys and entertainments. And they can live for a hundred years. Three-year-olds are certainly endearing, but not everyone wants to live with a perpetual three-year-old for the rest of his or her life. Big gulp: Our friend Ben told Mary that, if her family couldn’t find the owner and didn’t want to keep it, our friend Ben would find a place for him or her here at Hawk’s Haven. (Let’s hope Silence isn’t reading this!)

Our friend Ben loves birds. I have had birds literally since before I was born—my parents bought a parakeet, Philomelia the Elegant Fowl, for me while my mother was still pregnant with our friend Ben, and I have never been without a parakeet since. Parakeets (budgies) are marvelous, with big parrot personalities in small, colorful bodies. If anyone out there in the blogosphere is considering getting a bird as a pet, our friend Ben enthusiastically recommends them.

However, a number of years ago, our friend Ben felt that it was time to add a bigger bird to the Hawk’s Haven menagerie. I went to a pet store that specialized in birds, and was standing at an open play station admiring all the colorful avian characters climbing all over the play equipment. Suddenly, I realized that the one bird I’d completely ignored, a big, homely green parrot, had marched up to my eye level and was staring me pointedly in the eye. This was surprising to our friend Ben, especially given the intentness of the stare, rather as though the parrot were sizing me up rather than vice-versa. But our friend Ben is a sucker for color and beauty, and this bird had neither. Besides, I wasn’t interested in a big parrot. I moved around to the other side of the play station and continued to enjoy the antics of the smaller, more colorful birds.

But our friend Ben’s appreciation of the other birds was once again interrupted by the appearance of a homely green head in my line of vision. The big green bird had followed me over, and was again giving our friend Ben an appraising look. It was a look that was entirely human, and it pierced our friend Ben to the soul. Our friend Ben recognizes that sometimes we choose the hands we play, and sometimes we play what we’re dealt. The hand of fate was clearly in play here, and our friend Ben bowed to the inevitable. I went off to find a store clerk and buy the big, homely green bird.

Sticker shock!!! That homely bird was the most expensive thing in the store. That’s because he turned out to be a yellow-naped Amazon parrot, widely believed to be as smart if not smarter than the African greys. Our friend Ben left the store parrotless, with the big green bird staring poignantly after me and muttering to itself. But I couldn’t forget the parrot that had looked at me with human eyes and a totally human understanding. After agonizing (and saving up) for a few months, I returned to the store. Either the big green bird would still be there or it wouldn’t. It was in the hands of the gods.

As it turned out, apparently nobody else had wanted a homely, hugely expensive parrot, either. There he was. At the sight of me, he began doing joyous flip-flops, calling excitedly as though to say “I knew you’d come back! I knew it!!!” And so Plutarch the Pirate Parrot came home to Hawk’s Haven. Over the years, he’s become less homely: He developed the bright yellow bandanna-shaped patch of feathers on the back of his neck that gives his species its name. His wing feathers are actually glorious, with bands of brilliant red, blue, and black or yellow, scarlet, and olive against the Romaine-lettuce green of the rest of his plumage, but you can only really see their splendor if he spreads his wings.

Plutarch was already saying a few things when he arrived here, and he picked up English quickly and grammatically. (Our friend Ben: “Plutarch, you’re a big green bird!” Plutarch: “I’m a big green bird!”) He also loved singing, making up his own eccentric, tuneless songs as well as singing enthusiastically along with his favorite rock bands (Jethro Tull is a big favorite) and displaying enormous enthusiasm for any film that features lots of gunfire and explosions (Plu’s a huge James Bond fan, and sings along with the Bond theme song). When we eventually brought home Marcus Hook, our junior parrot, Plutarch realized that he couldn’t understand a word that Marcus (a bronze-winged pionus) was saying, and taught him to speak English in two weeks. (I’m sure that he regrets this, since the first words out of Marcus’s mouth, uh, beak, were “Be quiet, Plu!”)

Obviously, our friend Ben could go on (and on) about Plutarch, Marcus, and parrots in general. I think parrots are appealing because they’re so much like us. They stand upright like us. They use their “hands” to hold and eat things like us. They’re ingenious tool-users and are easily bored, like us. They use sight to navigate their world, which is to say that they have what are called “sighted brains,” like us. (Unlike dogs and most animals, who use hearing and smell to navigate the world, with sight as a backup.) Their senses are identical to ours: They see what we see, hear what we hear, smell what we smell, taste what we taste. If you’re experiencing something, you know that your parrot can also experience it—a color, a flavor, a song—and in exactly the same way. They have a sense of humor. And, of course, they speak our language. We love our cats, dogs, and other pets for themselves. But we love our parrots on a different level, because they are so much like ourselves. It truly is a different order of relationship.

But let’s get back to Mary and that poor parrot lost and up in a tree. Our friend Ben waited anxiously to hear what was happening. Night was coming on, which would leave the parrot prey to great horned owls. Besides, how would the poor bird fare out in the open like that? And would Mary and her family try to catch the parrot, and if so, would they or it be injured in the attempt? Would that simply scare it off into parts unknown?

As it turned out, the story had a happy ending. Mary went out to check on the parrot a final time, and saw a middle-aged man standing under the tree crooning to the bird. He said her name was Lola, and some men working on electric wires had told him they’d seen a parrot on Mary’s road, so he’d been walking around calling for her. She had escaped because he and his wife hadn’t clipped her wings, since they’d just gotten a new dog and Lola didn’t like him. With her wing feathers grown in, she could fly away from the dog. But unfortunately, while they were spring cleaning, she’d apparently found herself outside and flown off. Lola flew gratefully down into the man’s arms, and he called his wife to come over while cradling his beloved parrot in an old sweatshirt. While they waited for his wife to arrive, the man told Mary that Lola knew 90 words, songs, and whistles. Her avian vet refused to call her Lola, instead referring to her as Einstein.

When the man’s wfe arrived, she began sobbing at the sight of Lola safe in her husband’s arms. She’d apparently been praying the rosary for Lola’s safe return before getting the call. Such is the love we can feel for our parrots. Unlike our dogs, cats, and other pets, whose lives are cut off long before we’re ready to part with them, this is truly a relationship, a love story, that endures for all our lives.