Chronicles of Athena – Nine Weeks

For the forseeable future, instead of Fluffy Fridays, we’ll be getting updates on Athena instead. As I’m counting her age based on weeks at the moment, these will probably be at the weekend, and we’ll be talking about the development that happened in the previous seven days.

At the age of nine weeks, coupled with the fact she moved houses, there were a LOT of little connections being made in the little lady’s tiny brain. This has been characterised by bouts of very enthusiastic play behaviour (interestingly, most of it focussed around people, I think because the change in her circumstances at the start of the week made her keen for reassurance. Her favourite way to play is sit on someone’s lap and bat at her toys, or play fight with a person’s hand) and then deep sleeps (which she also prefers to do on someone’s lap). All in all, for a lady who was mostly hand reared I have to say she’s extremely well adjusted, if a little clingy.

Between 8-10 weeks, kittens go through something called a socialisation period – the things they experience this week, particularly people, will set their expectations up for the rest of their life. So I’ve been having guests around and making sure to do things like laundry, hoovering, hair drying, changing the bed linens, etc. I live in a busy tenement flat so she’s been hearing all sorts of household noises (her first siren made her eyes go VERY wide indeed).

The physiology and behaviour is all very interesting, but I thought this would be a cool opportunity to look at how a bond between a human and an animal develops. When will she do the things that are characteristics of my cats, when does she teach me the things she wants?

So in that vein, here are some of the more personal developments:

She’s a big cuddler, and really prefers to be close to your face. Today she’s discovered she can lie on the top of the sofa’s pillows and rest her head on my shoulder while gaming. This is the best place to be and she’ll purr very loudly.

She’s discovered the view outside the window, and was especially fascinated when the football crowds were walking past.

When she’s feeling insecure she hides in the bottom shelf of the TV stand, behind my basket of miscellaneous games controllers, DVDs and chargers. She has not quite figured out what her igloo bed is for.

She very quickly got into the habit of using her scratching tree and is only mildly confused by my rug which is of a similar material. Climbing the scratching tree to the top platform is how she shows off to guests.

Guests are awesome, they mean extra cuddles.

Bedtime is also awesome, because it opens up a whole new type of game to play (the crawl under the covers and tickle Jilly game – if one day I blog about the sad incident where I squashed the kitten, this will be the cause of it), but she’s beginning to think about sleeping in one of her beds as she becomes less reliant on me.

She’s not super amazing at cleaning herself and has a semi permanent gravy stain on her chin.

She thinks claw trimming is great fun.


Things I’d forgotten but quickly learned:

The dangerous way that kittens will feedback into the gaming loop where you can’t stop gaming because you’d move the kitten and that would be cruel.

The scratches all up and down your arm.

Being catted but also desperately hungry.

Welcome Athena

I’ve noticed a weird thing. No matter how much you may earn your rent telling people what animal welfare is, being flown half way across the world to teach this to professionals, and being generally young and successful at this whole ‘making a career of animals’ lark – when you make a big decision like “I’m going to get a cat”, you become racked with self doubt.

Maybe it’s just me.

I know, on an intellectual level, that I am more than capable of looking after a cat. I know that while I might not give her a perfect life (because no animal ever has a perfect life), it is life that will be pretty damn good. And yet I’m a compulsive worrier.

On Monday I picked up Athena from my friend Leigh’s house. She has been fostering kittens for Arthurshiel Rescue Centre, and Athena is one of a litter from 8 month old Star, who couldn’t cope with her babies. After a little brush with tapeworm that had made her feel a bit ill, she was finally ready to come home with me at the age of 9 weeks exactly, with all of her siblings already rehomed.

It was a long car journey, with a very grumpy little lady complaining most of the way. When I caught her eye at traffic lights the complaining would start again.

When we finally got home, I sat back and opened her carrier, trying to ignore the hammering of my heart – would she be terrified? Would she find some unknown hole in the wall and get stuck in the Kingdom of the Mice (never mind that I still haven’t figured out how the mice were emigrating from the Kingdom of the Mice in the first place)? Well she immediately started exploring, finding the darkest, sneakiest corner of the room (turns out not to be gateway to Kingdom of the Mice so we’re all good), and then she came to see me. With a quick head rub and a purr she was emboldened enough to run to the other side of the room.

Purring within ten minutes of coming into her new home. You’d think I’d have relaxed about this point, right?

So there was plenty of exploring, although she steadfastly refused to enter her perfectly pleasant igloo bed, or her tree nest. After a little bout of play she fell asleep on my lap for a while, and only woke up to play a little bit longer.

When I couldn’t stay awake a moment longer I decided to leave the door to the bedroom open, to see if she would follow. After a few minutes of calling, she decided she’d come and see what this whole other world was about. She explored briefly, but in coming to see me for some reassurance, she discovered something quite wonderful, quite mighty . . . the memory foam mattress.

My friends, you haven’t seen true mystified delight until you’ve seen a kitten discover memory foam. She played for a little while before curling up under my arm and falling fast asleep.

I’d love to say I slept like a log and that all my worries faded away. I stayed awake all night and fretted about her habit of chewing on electrical wires.

In the morning Athena was confident enough to explore under the bed for a little while, and then headed to the living room. Knowing I’d no chance of sleep, I followed, and we played and cuddled and bonded all day. Was I feeling relaxed yet? Ask me about the moment I lost sight of her and somehow convinced myself she was stuck behind a kitchen cupboard (she wasn’t, she was relaxing in her hidey place behind the tv stand). When I left her for an hour and a half on Tuesday, I came back convinced she would somehow have broken herself, she had been in her hidey hole and came to see me immediately for cuddles.

For the next few months, Fluffy Fridays will be devoted to Athena’s development, but for now, I’m just trying to relax into the idea that I can look after this little lady, and give her the best possible home, while teaching her that computer charger are not for teething.

But in the mean time I have to pop off as we’ve discovered that our tail is fun for chewing . . .

What do looks matter anyway?

Fluffy Friday – Fluffy Gets Fluffier

I wasn’t sure when to post about this, but I’m much too excited to wait.

The Fluffy Sciences family is growing by one this month, as I prepare to adopt this little lady.

The Fluffy Sciences family grows

The Fluffy Sciences family grows

I will post more about her in the coming weeks, but suffice to say this is a decision I’ve been thinking about for a very long time now, and while I’m (overly) nervous about the responsibility (am I really ready to be a grown up?) I’m hugely excited.

She’s currently being fostered with her siblings by a friend of mine and I expect to pick her up round about the 21st. Currently she’s named Cleo, but I’m leaning towards ‘Athena’ as a more geeky handle that will fit the Fluffy Sciences world better. So stay tuned . . .

Manchester Dogs Home

You may have seen in the news that last night, Manchester Dogs Home suffered an enormous fire.


The Guardian reports that a 15 year old boy has been arrested on suspicion of arson. So far, 53 dogs have died and 150 rescued.

If you want to help Manchester Dogs Home you can donate (the centre is completely destroyed), or if you live in the area, the North Manchester Police office is accepting donations of blankets and food.

I’ve seen a few comments calling for this boy to be treated very poorly by the law. I would caution against this as best I can. Acting out like this is undoubtedly an indication of a very unhappy life. If this kid is guilty, he needs help. After all, animals can be an important part of our social development, and animal abuse is an indicator of future antisocial behaviour.


Not so fluffy this Friday.

Who’s a Pretty Boy Then?

Working in the world of international animal welfare as I have been doing in the last couple of months, you are confronted by your own innate biases. These are little (or big!) ideas you have about animal welfare that influence the way you think about it and the choices you make for animal welfare.

These biases are often problematic as one of our main messages is “It is the animal’s point of view which matters”, and the animals don’t know about our biases. 

Now biases are hard to recognise because they are part of the way we think about the world. I’ll give you an example from my own background. I did a zoology degree which, in all honesty, was not big on the animal welfare side of things. ‘Naturalness’ was prized above all, because  we were conservationists and behavioural ecologists. I then went to work in wildlife rehabilitation with the RSPCA where we did our utmost to avoid interacting with the animals because if we were to accidentally tame one, it would not be appropriate to release that animal back into the wild. This meant that for orphaned wildlife such as foxes we went to great lengths to get them to behave naturally, with so-called ‘soft releases’ where they’re given a cage outside and then allowed out of the cage, getting maintenance feed for a period. This enables the orphans  to learn how to fend for themselves in a manner that attempts to mimic their wild counterparts. 

I then went to work in the world of agriculture, where animals are production units. While I worked in the field of welfare in both of these roles, it is frowned upon, culturally, to show affection to the animals. Most animals would be distressed by what we think of as human affection.

So I have developed an idea about most animals that aren’t dogs, cats and horses, that they really don’t particularly want or need human attention. 

But this isn’t necessarily 100% true. Many exotic animals in the pet or zoo trade, have been raised by humans. While not domesticated (genetically selected for traits that make them more suited for human-association), they have learned to cope with humans, and even desire human contact. It is a bias I have had to confront myself, seeing instances, particularly in primates, where human contact appears to be enriching.

The most difficult part about a bias is that seeing your bias contradicted feels wrong. On my holiday I visited a parrot sanctuary, which rescued former pet parrots. I noticed my bias creeping in as dozens of birds chirruped “Hello” and “I’m a pretty boy then” at me, beckoning to climb up on my shoulder and engage with me. One little cockatoo wanted very much to play with my hair, a parakeet was reciting its full repertoire of phrases  to my aunt while it sat on her shoulder in a  behaviour I could only describe as ‘desperate for attention’.

These birds are very intelligent and, at most, only one or two generations away from their wild ancestors. My training tells me they need all the complexity and diversity of a wild environment.

But behaviourally, I can see that many of those individual birds desperately wanted and craved human affection. They found it enriching and pleasurable, possibly only because their environment was not sufficiently complex without it, but could it be that some animals can simply enjoy the company of humans, much as we enjoy theirs?

This is a difficult question for me to parse, going against the grain so to speak. And yet if we ask the question “what does this animal perceive”, the right kind of human attention must be very positive for them.

You can’t shed a bias overnight, and my (many) cultural biases will remain with me, affecting the way I think about animal welfare. I’ll try and talk more about them in the blog, and hopefully by recognising our own biases, we can move past them to help the animals that need it. 

Bird sits on shoulder

Some animals crave human attention

Fluffy Friday – Frankenstein MD

Did you know that the first science fiction story was written by a woman? I wrote my advanced higher English thesis on ‘monsters’ and The Modern Prometheus was one of the texts I chose.

So imagine my excitement when the team behind the excellent Lizzie Bennett diaries (a YouTube adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that I adored) announced that, in partnership with PBS Digital Studios, they were making Frankenstein MD.

The cool twist is that Victor is now Victoria, which I think is awesome, particularly as women in STEM fields are a problem for us.

Unfortunately the first three episodes have fallen a bit flat for me. They’ve broken away from the Lizzie Bennet ‘video diary’ style and there are multiple camera angles. If you’re going to do that, why have the video diary format at all?

And it may be premature to judge, but I’m terribly worried about how they’ll handle Victoria ‘reaching too far’. Men may have hubris in science fiction, but women always seem to be reaching for knowledge they (or ‘man’kind) shouldn’t. This is an important theme in Frankenstein, but as Frankenstein will ultimately either have ‘reached too far’ or fail to take responsibility for the ‘life’ he has created, I find these troublesome tropes to be laying at the door of a female scientist. Too familiar.

Now I loved the Lizzie Bennett diaries, and I maintain some hope that they will deal with this sensitively (after all, ‘Its Okay To Be Smart’  is the science advisor), but already she’s being dismissive and cruel to her Igor who in this iteration is a man (why not another woman?) and who already appears to fancy Victoria and she seems to know it. Leading to some awkward moment when he kills himself in episode one.

Maybe this will all even out in time. I did think that the Lizzie Bennett diaries would never work. But, that being said, I never got into Emma Approved either.


Before I go – I shall say that FluffySciences is on hiatus for the next three weeks as I will be away visiting old friends and family, as well as attending PAX! I’m very excited and can’t wait to be there, so enjoy your summer break all, and see you on the other side.

FoodInc – The Documentary Problem

I have mentioned a few times that I am a big fan of film, but that doesn’t always extend to documentaries. Why is this? Well I have an instinctive distrust of documentaries – I would not consider them a good source of information. In fact this was why I made my post on the Blackfish documentary. Much as I enjoyed it as a story, I wasn’t convinced it used the facts and science to the best possible way it did.

I am no expert in film, but I have spent a lot of my life consuming media and creating media to some extent. I’m a regular on TV Tropes. But it was this video by Every Frame a Painting (a great YouTube channel if you like film theory) that made me able to iterate what it is about FoodInc that makes me uncomfortable. Documentaries use the language of film to create an argument, and I think we have been trained not to argue with the language of film. Do you remember the uproar of Inception’s ending, was it real, was it not? Film critics talk about how the viewer is given no token to tell them where there is a dream and where there is reality in the film – which is unusual, because as audiences we are used to being told what to believe. The language of movies tells us to accept what is happening on the screen – this is suspension of disbelief. If you’re in a superhero movie, you don’t complain about the destruction of property unless it is egregious or you’re making a point.

Documentaries give us emotional reactions to facts – and when I see people bring them up as something to support their arguments, it sets my teeth on edge.

FoodInc is beautifully slick. That opening sequence is so stylish and borrows so much from the language of traditional films it might seem like an odd choice for a documentary. It uses music reminiscent of a psychological thriller. All of these are cues that a piece of fictional film would use to tell you to be afraid of what you’re about to see. It’s a great piece of film making, but it’s not a component of a rational, scientific argument.

It uses amazing infographics and zooms in and out of the labels, tying the identity of the stories to the situation you are used to being in every day – the supermarket. The message is that you should be afraid of this thing in your very own supermarket, like you should be afraid of the axe murderer undoubtedly waiting right behind you in the horror film.

Early on in the documentary there is a very powerful shot of a chicken in the foreground, prone, struggling to breathe, and the others behind it, out of focus. It’s like something from a Western movie, very stylised, not quite Sergio Leone but really striking – and so striking because the rest of that segment is very ‘documentary’, people talking to cameras, very traditional cinematography, and then suddenly this shot. It’s memorable.

The film works in chapters, each one snappily titled. This kind of style is now pretty well used in these kind of documentary cum educational programs, Crash Course comes to mind. The information is held in small, easily digestible chunks – really just a number of short acts strung together, each act with a different message, like each act has a different part of the story to tell.

For me as a scientist, watching something about an industry I am familiar with, FoodInc gives me a strange feeling. To see my industry treated with the language and style of a film, puts me on edge, even though I agree with a lot of its messages. We are much too disconnected with our food.

But documentaries are chiefly enjoyable because they use the language of film to tell us a story, not to teach us.

The final message – buy from companies that treat workers, animals and the environment with respect – is powerful and important. But let’s not forget this film wasn’t Oscar nominated for its message, but the way it tells it.

And fundamentally, this is why I prefer not to use documentaries as evidence in an argument.

The Calgary Model


This is very similar to a post that’s been knocking about inside my head, so while I play catch up after my week away, have this post instead!

Originally posted on :

In North America we do not have a problem with pet overpopulation, stray animals, nuisance or vicious animals – we have a problem with responsible pet ownership. Virtually every animal that ends up in a shelter or on the street is there because a human relationship failed them…It’s always the animal that pays in the end.

Bill BruceBill Bruce, Director of Calgary Animal and Bylaw Services attacks the problem head-on with a three-pronged approach to responsible pet ownership, incorporating licensing, public education and enforcement, with supporting agencies all working together to achieve the same goals.

As long as owners license their pets, have them spayed or neutered, take proper care of them and ensure they don’t show signs of aggression, such as charging or excessive barking, they won’t have to deal with Bill.

His mission is “To encourage a safe, healthy, vibrant community for people and pets through the development, education…

View original 979 more words

World Animal Protection in Asia: Key Drivers


Berocca and cake? I must be at a conference!

I’m honoured this week to have been invited to the annual key drivers in Animal Welfare for Asia conference, organised by World Animal Protection. (Formerly known as wspa). We’re half way through now and we have discussed the mooc, informal science education, animal welfare in Asia and much more. We’re also being very well fed by our generous and lovely host Ms lui.

I will post more about it later in the week, or possibly at the weekend but just thought I’d let you know that it’s all going very well. Really exciting stuff

When Bill Gates Pops Round For Tea

This post was going to be different, but I can’t resist sharing this story.

On Tuesday morning we received the usual “VIP Guest is coming round, make sure the place is clean” email, and summarily ignored it as we usually do. The gossip going round was that it was someone from the Gates Foundation.

So at lunch time, when these two maroon cars pull up outside the front door and a very recognisable gentleman walks through door accompanied by a flurry of dining researchers suddenly leaping to update Facebook/Twitter/Reddit/etc.

It was only Bill Gates popping round for coffee.

Oor Billy, as his good friends at the Easter Bush Research Consortium passed within ten feet of me, and then I possibly hung around outside the board room while he listened to the important people talk. The Gates Foundation is currently very interested in research, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where we have a lot of research links. They’re currently funding through the Program for Emerging Agricultural Research Leaders (PEARL) grant, the final proposals for which go in November. He visited our beef farm which is a world class methane emission centre, and while we were all greatly tempted to shoulder our way in there with some animal welfare grant proposals, the body guards were quite formidable. I still see this as a fabulous opportunity for animal welfare research, we’re so integrated, not only within SRUC, but the Easter Bush Research Consortium as a whole, that no one discipline of agricultural research is separated from the rest. While we have a lot of inter-team friendly ribbing, I don’t think we could make half the advances in animal welfare we have without the input from both the farming systems teams and the animal breeding teams.

The big take home story from this (aside from the unbelievably awesome fact that I was within ten feet of Bill Gates, the man whose hand has guided this century) is that agricultural research is earning the respect and serious funding it deserves.

It’s not so long ago that agricultural research was thought of as a ‘finished science’, that we knew everything, and there was no funding left there. My colleagues still clearly remember this. And now people are realising how we need to invest in agriculture to create a sustainable future. This is why both us at SRUC and the University of Edinburgh are interested in moving forward with closer relations, it’s why we’re taking part in international projects like the MOOC.

Overall, yesterday was an exciting day for us. And I’m definitely going to be exaggerating how close I was to Bill Gates when I’m telling this story in the pub!