How the Elephant Got Her Trunk

When I was very small I had a beautiful picturebook Rudyard Kipling book of just-so stories. One I particularly remember is the tale of how the Elephant Got Her Trunk. She was staring at her beautiful nose in a pool every day until one day a crocodile swam up underneath her reflection, grabbed her nose, and pulled and pulled and pulled. The little elephant struggled for so long her nose was stretched all the way down to the ground before the crocodile finally released her. And that, children, is how the elephant got her trunk.

It’s silliness of course, we all know that evolution acts upon the populations, in random genetic mutations, and whatever happens to the individual, so long as it doesn’t stop them reproducing, doesn’t matter. All you need is to procreate, after that the genetic material is mixed and the next line of mutations start.

For the most part, these are the rules of evolution. But all rules have exceptions, and sometimes evolution works through a different mechanism, that of epigenetics.

You don’t come to FluffySciences to find out about cell mechanisms and inheritance (if you are coming here for that we need to have a conversation about our relationship) but you do come here for the real-world explanations. Epigenetics results in a kind of Just So story where a stressful event can result in a change that can be passed down to the next generation. And the Just So story we use to illustrate this isn’t so pleasant.

In the Netherlands in 1944 there was a Hongerwinter, when the Nazis cut off food and fuel transports in the river areas. Tens of thousands of people starved to death. Can you imagine the endless hunger, the enemy soldiers in your streets, the cold? At one point the daily calorie allowance was less than 600 calories.

The immediate effects of this horrible famine were obvious. Pregnant women gave birth to very small babies, children lost the ability to digest wheat, and Aubrey Hepburn developed anaemia. But what happened next?

In Painter et al’s 2008 study (which is open access and you can read here) they investigated the results of the Mothers who starved (F0), their sons and daughters who were born during the famine (F1) and their grandchildren (F2). Using a combination of historical health records, interviews and health checks, they investigated whether the ill health of the granddaughters could be attributed to what the mothers experienced.

Between the 07/01/45 and 08/12/45, children in this cohort were being born to mothers who had, during one of the 13 week periods of gestation, an average daily calorie allowance of 1000 calories. To put this in context, the typical pregnant woman needs 2200 calories per day to maintain both her body and her baby’s growth. In the Dutch Cohort study, children which were born between 01/11/43 – 06/01/45 and 09/12/45-28/02/47 were either born before the famine truly began or conceived after the words was over. They act as controls. They are from the same population, similar mothers, similar time period, even similar psychological stressed. They just don’t have that crippling 1000 calorie a day limitation during the important parts of the baby’s gestation.

The researchers monitored the F1 generation (remember that’s sons and daughters) weight, BMI, Socio-Economic-Status and blood tests to look at how they cope with sugar, and their good and bad cholesterol levels.  They did all this when the sons and daughters were 58 years old.

Then they asked about the F2 (grandchildren). Were the grandchildren premature, on time or late? What did they weigh at birth? Were they twins? How many kids? What order? How many girls? How many boys? How healthy are the grandchildren?

At this point the researchers know what has caused the ill health that F1 have suffered – it was the famine. The question is, has this ill health, which was entirely due to a short term environmental challenge experienced in utero, been inherited by the grandchildren? The two categories of disease they were most interested in were cardiovascular/metabolic diseases and psychiatric diseases.

They used a variety of mixed models (which allow you to have multiple children of the same parent, which would otherwise be a case of pseudoreplication), and regression models, among some other statistical tests which can cope with non-parametric (i.e. real world) data to investigate these questions.

Their results showed that the F1 generation were smaller at birth and as adults they had higher blood sugar levels two hours after eating than the ones who hadn’t suffered through the famine. So far so expected. The children of F1 women were also born smaller (though weighed the same) if the F1 woman had been in utero during the famine. This is the really interesting thing. The environmental effect was inherited. Also, the F2 children of the F1 generation who had been exposed to famine earlier in their gestation (i.e. when they were forming) were more likely to have poor health due to ‘other’ causes. Finally, and the one I consider to be most interesting, the F2 generation of those who had suffered in the famine were more prone to being fat babies.

The last point interests me the most. I’m working on a project looking at prenatal effects in farm animals and the way we talk about this phenomenon is to say that the offspring ‘samples’ the mother’s environment in early gestation. For example, if the offspring is receiving little food and lots of stress then it should prepare itself to be born into a world where resources are unpredictable and scarce. Whatever cellular changes it switches on to do this make it predisposed to obesity and heart disease in a normal environment, and can be passed on to its own offspring.

If you remember last week I ranted about nature vs nurture, this is why. This significant change in baby fat in the famine group is not genetics – the population is not genetically different. It’s not the environment, because the famine was long over when these kids were in the womb. It’s historical environment and the changes that produced. Remember, never use Nature Vs Nurture kids.

There’s still plenty we don’t know about epigenetics – how many generations can these effects last for? How cumulative can the total effect be? And when it comes to prenatal effects, what is the mechanism by which the offspring samples the mother’s environment? As a relatively new field, it’s sexy and cool and a lot of people are into it. Expect a lot more information about it in the future.

Just So.

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Fluffy Friday – Fashionista

The letters after my name grant me a small selection of inferior superpowers. Cheaper car insurance. Better tables at restaurants. And the ability to go to very important meetings dressed quite casually.

In the land of animal behaviour and welfare, we don’t really do suits. This week I met the CEO of a very well known animal welfare charity in jeans and a shirt. I met a Board of Trustees in a summer dress. And in all four of the meetings I had this week I didn’t wear make up once (which I possibly should have done because stress spots are popping up on my nose).

The thing is, my colleagues complimented me on looking smart, and we all commiserated with one another about how we don’t own smart clothes. It’s just not in our nature. Oh sure we can look nice, but we’re not good at smart.

When you start at Glasgow Uni, at least back in the early noughties, you had an initial meeting with an advisor. Mine was a lovely microbiologist named Ailsa who wore amber jewellery and beautiful silk scarves. I sat in her office with three other students and clutched my maps of the campus on my lap. One by one she asked us what we planned to do our Honours in, all the time telling us that we could change our course right up until fourth year. Most people never took the Honours they started with, according to her.

What was I planning on? Zoology. She laughed when she heard and told me to buy a woolly jumper. “That’s what we call the zoology lot. The Woolly Jumpers.”

I still think that should be the name of my band. In the zoology museum of the University of Glasgow there was a truly staggering array of woolly jumpers. There’s also a lot of handmade jewellery, a lot of interesting tattoos in unusual places, and people trying soap hair shampoo from Lush.

I tried the soap hair shampoo from Lush. I have thick, dark hair that feels greasy within hours of washing. I used the soap shampoo. I tried the no-shampoo at all approach. I tried the compromise ‘natural type’ shampoos from Lush. I tried the shampoos from the independent little sellers in the studenty areas of Glasgow. In the end I went back to the shampoo that comes in plastic bottles. Greasy hair triumphed over my ethical concerns.

Working with animals and in the fields that I do, vanity becomes a very strange thing. How can you take pride in your appearance when you wear a pair of mucky overalls and steel toecapped boots? Is it appropriate to wear a summery skirt to the office if you might have to jump to the farm? Sometimes you can pay the price for a little bit of style. Once I was rocking a chunky knit jumper over a denim mini skirt one day when I had to pop to our beef unit. I slung some overalls over the top and completely forgot I had hiked the miniskirt up to do so. When we’d finished I was animatedly chatting to colleagues while stripping from the overalls, miniskirt still around my waist.

I have half a dozen little fashion faux pas to mention. Like the undergraduate student of mine who used to move cows with one great dangling earring (she only ever had one – it was when I realised I was no longer ‘down with the kids’), or the time I decided to wear a smart skirt to a conference and ended up sitting in a non-air conditioned lecture theatre sweating through a dry-clean only skirt beside a very important gentleman from another well respected animal welfare charity. Or the time I accidentally wore a top that had very large arm holes and exhibited my bright red bra to my brand new workplace. Or the time I was sitting in my supervisor’s office and pulled a swan louse from my hair. I could go on.

I’m not sure we make it easy on ourselves either. Most of us were the weird kids at school who wanted to know why home economics didn’t use free range eggs, or cried because they missed their dog when they were at camp. All our lives we learned how to pride ourselves in our differences, and I think there’s an element of that pride which tempts us to reject the more classical notions of ‘looking good’.

If you think I’m tarring the good name of scientists unfairly here, I can count two incidences in the past few months where scientist friends of mine have outright criticised or expressed shock at some basic sartorial choices I’ve made (basic in the dictionary, rather than the Tyra sense). At a sushi restaurant, I defended an £80 hairdressers bill to some of my very good friends who laughed at my expense while we all ordered a strange dessert we knew we wouldn’t like just to taste it. At tea break, a month or so later, some colleagues broke off on a discussion about how much they’d spent on their bikes to ask me how I could justify what I’d paid for a Shellac manicure.

In our field we place terribly arbitrary values on what’s considered appropriate. It’s fine to order tempura battered ice cream just to try it (don’t, it was disgusting), but it’s eyebrow raising to have nice nails for a few weeks. We will happily turn up to a meeting that could hold the key to millions of pounds worth of funding in a pair of jeans, but we wonder why the world thinks scientists are scatter brained and odd balls.

My superpower is the power of not needing to care about my appearance. But like all good superheroes, sometimes I try to hide my power. Sometimes I like to look good. Sometimes I like to retro it up, or blow out my hair, or get Shellac, all because I can.

And if you like a little bit of Fluffy Fashion in your life sometime, may I recommend one of the most stylish women I know who launched her Etsy store last week. HauteDog Couture is a geeky, handmade collection of dog collars and other pet accessories. It’s a new store, just starting out, but Armita is one of my favourite people and is a demon with a seam ripper, so check her out!

Clone-O-Matic

I imagine it won’t come as a surprise to most of you when I reveal I am a fan of science fiction. I love the future in all its forms, dystopian, utopian, post-apocalyptic . . . and the future got a little bit closer with some recent news.

In the UK. Channel 4 recently ran a documentary on  Sooam Biotech’s competition to clone a British dog. Spoilers! The Guardian reported that the winner was a dachshund and gave a little summary of all the picky little ethical issues surrounding dog-cloning.

Dear readers, I have watched this documentary for you. If it’s still up you can find it here. This is how much I love you, my readers, I watch Channel 4 documentaries for you. Although I was also making some tea and checking emails at the same time, this is the hobby after all.

It’s . . . it’s interesting. The people in the documentary love their dogs, I would characterise them as ‘novelty seekers’, and there’s definitely an element of natural science ignorance on show.

Now I’ll never penalise someone for general ignorance, there’s plenty in the world I don’t know. I think it’s perfectly acceptable for people to love their pets – in fact the winner, Rebecca Smith, talks about how her dog helped her to recover from bulimia. Seems pretty relevant after last week’s post (which you guys seemed to love by the way – thanks!). And finally, as a sci-fi fan, I’m attracted to the idea of cloning as a sort of intellectual exercise, what will this dog be like, etc., but I still have a great deal of ethical discomfort surrounding this.

The Roslin researcher featured on the show tells the Korean scientists he doesn’t think it will work because genetics are not the be all and end all of behaviour. The show then invokes the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’ which explaining that the Korean scientists have brought two dogs with them, one of whom is a clone and is affectionately referred to as the ‘evil’ one because she’s so spoiled.

My darling readers, if I ever catch any of you using the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’ the force of my rage will manifest in my instant apparition to your side and a swift scolding of the like you haven’t had since you last tracked mud in over your dad’s clean floors.

It’s an outdated phrase which means nothing, puts you into a binary mindset that the outcome of the complexity of biological life is dictated by one trait. If you find yourself in a situation where you wish to express the concept of underlying biology and psychology having different effects on behavioural outcomes, I give you permission to use a much better phrase instead: Genetic and Environmental Interactions. It even boils down to a cool little equation:  GxE Interactions. Please use this phrase. Please banish Nature Vs Nurture from your minds. It’s one of my biggest bugbears.

What Iove about GxE is that it innately implies that both the genetics and the environment come together to produce the behaviour of interest, but it does miss a very important part of the overall picture, one which we scientists are only beginning to understand ourselves. There are elements of your genetic material which can be changed by your environment and you can pass these changes along to the next generation. Epigenetics is a relatively recent scientific field but explains a lot about how evolution can move so quickly. I’m currently working on a project that involves some background reading on epigenetics so I’ll try and do a post on it in the next few weeks, but for the purposes of today, it’s enough to recognise that even though these two dogs started with the exact same genetic material, even smoking more around one of them will start to change certain elements of that code.

So it’s no wonder there is an ‘evil’ clone of these little dogs the Korean scientists are toting around. They’re not the same animals. Identical twins are different people, after all, and they share masses of genetic and environmental information.

So again we come back to the ethical iffiniess around this whole show. They’ve cloned a dog for a woman who clearly relies upon the first animal for support, and the show doesn’t specify whether they’ve really explained the variation inherent in cloning to her. But at the end Rebecca did seem completely smitten by her little puppy. The problems inherent with spoiling a pet not withstanding, I’m sure there’ll be a lot of love there.

But what about the utopia part of this post? Well the EU has recently launched their Code EFABAR, a voluntary code of good practice for responsible animal breeding. This is great news and I hope all breeders seriously take into consideration what this code represents and what traits they’re breeding for. Responsible breeding takes the animal’s health and welfare, along with food chain sustainability and transparency into account. I’d hope all this seems deeply obvious to my readers and I look forward to seeing people sign up to this code (and perhaps the code’s being extended to domestic breeding too?)

So with all that being said, I think I’m going to go search for ‘Sci-Fi’ on Amazon Prime and see what I can rustle up. Live long and prosper, my friends.

Fluffy Friday – Keep a Pen Handy

At the end of 2007, I was sitting on a high plastic stool in the feed prep area, scribbling with a biro on the corner of the admittance card of C390. The radio in the corner played inoffensive, slightly out of date pop music through a soft veil of static and in the corridor beyond one of my colleagues was folding freshly tumbled towels into the linen cupboard. It was called a feed prep area because it was for animals, a food prep area would be for humans, though having worked in both I was equally squeamish about eating meals in either. We just called it the kitchen.

 

In the far corner beside the bin, which stank in summer, I had learned how to skin, de-limb and de-yolk day old chicks in three quick hand movements. It was remarkably easy to do. You could use scissors, of course, but that involved finding scissors. In the middle of summer in a wildlife hospital, scissors are not always in ready supply. In the middle of summer there’s not enough of anything, not enough time, not enough staff, not enough food, not enough dry towels, not enough clean cages. And far too many orphaned animals. But right now it was winter, and I was wrapped up in a blue mac over blue overalls, my fingerless gloves tucked into one pocket, my latex gloves crumpled on the table beside my elbow. My boots were muddy and so had been left by the door. I’d have to sweep and mop the lino at the end of the shift, no sense in making it harder for myself by tracking animal shit through the kitchen whenever I came in to do some paperwork. So my be-socked toes were curled around the support of the stool as I worked on the biro. The ink would not flow.

 

At the time, I was sick of it. I earned decent money in child care, my part time job, and the animal work was fun but not nearly as rewarding. Less responsibility too. My first week into the internship, my boss sat me down and gravely intoned that if I didn’t do my job properly, animals would die. Sitting in the hot, stuffy little office, I thought back to the job I was going to leave for wildlife. If I didn’t do that one properly, children would die. But I’d a get a Masters, so I nodded and agreed and now, with a little over four months of placement left, I had been given a new project to turn into a master’s thesis.

 

There was considerably less shit involved with children. People who think babies make a lot of mess should work with orphaned animals. Or ill animals. Or animals. My hair, just growing out from an ill-advised short crop, was a regular refuge of feather lice and other beasties. Though never yet a bat, despite the myths. My hair, which I was growing long on the self-promise that I’d wear it down more often, was pulled back in a tight ponytail to keep it out of the way. This look, blue overalls, navy mac, welly boots, hair up high, a faint dusting of shit on my face, had become de-rigour for me.

 

Irritated as the project had made me, there were aspects of the wildlife work that I enjoyed. Namely, the clinical stuff. Dressing wounds and administering drugs were like a balm to my ego. Look at me, look how casually I wield these implements of miracles. Injections were the best, intramuscular the most fun, especially for birds. Do it in the wrong place and you stab through the heart. Working outside there was little opportunity to give an injection, but when you did, the joy of walking purposefully outside with a syringe gripped in your teeth, or gingerly placed atop the feed in a bucket, was unmatched. More often, outside drugs were continuations of antibiotic courses. These most often took the form of tablets. In the winter, I would stuff each animal’s dose down a separate finger of my latex gloves and write the ID number of the animal that needed the course on each plastic coated digit. This was less glamorous. Swans were the most common offenders. There’s nothing purposeful about chasing a large, grimy white bird around a fully enclosed paddock, cursing when it makes it into the water, only to catch it in the mud, hold it down and squat above it, wrestling with your glove to get the tablet out, try not to drop it in a puddle, and then stuff it down the bird’s very long throat. BD (bis in die) was worst. First thing in the morning and then at the very end of your shift, so you’d have to go out after you’d swept and cleaned, to return and clean after yourself again. The ineffectiveness of it grated on my soul.

 

Inside there was much more opportunity to look important. Microwaving saline for example. Hedgehogs, the little bags of disease, were always needing saline. That involve sub-dermal injections, so easy you could do it in your sleep, but impressive looking enough to any observing students. Changing a dressing involved a mechanical challenge, a puzzle component that was always fun, as well as the need to assess the progress of the recovery. There was also tube feeding, which was a pain if only because it was so tricky. It also looked more like torture than TLC and I did not enjoy it. Although, tube feeding a snake once was fun, if only for the mechanical challenge.

 

Working in the isolation unit looked very important. White overalls and white wellies, lots of drugs too. All kinds of clinical procedures, as well as assessments, and also a good chance there’d be a vet around to let me try some more advanced techniques. I had decided against the veterinary life but the intravenous injections and blood sampling I did in isolation did make me wonder if I would have enjoyed the veterinary life after all. These procedures could only be done under veterinary supervision, and only because we were working on wild animals. I enjoyed the physical challenge, sensing the pressure of the blood flow beneath the needle, trying not to blow it, trying to deliver the whole dose before the animal got too stressed. The  physics of blood flow, the chemistry of hormones, and all of it slotting together to form an animal who feels something. I still love that puzzle.  After the solution makes itself known you feel invincible, right up until your cheap Biro fails as you try to write it on the admission card. It’s a hard fall back to earth.

 

When you need to gear yourself up to every encounter in your day you want the little things to go smoothly. When you’re wiping sawdust from your eyes and spitting out feathers from your mouth, scooping up an admittance card from the freshly mopped floor – that would have to be cleaned again because you’re currently dripping blood on it – the ability to simply write on the card your name and the time you administered the medication is like a small miracle you have tamed and made your own.

 

After my masters project, I returned to university to complete my course. The backwards way that my university functioned not withstanding, it was odd to go back to the life of lectures and exams after working day in, day out. Lectures mean pens, you need at least three pens to make sure you can continue to follow the discussion leaping around taxonomy. The main writing colour, the highlight colour, and a back up just in case. I became a fan of the gel pens that stained my hands terribly but smudged on the paper less than biros. For all my love of laptops, tablets and phones, I will always have an inkstain on my right ring finger’s knuckle.

 

I write in my lab books, I write in post it notes, I write on papers to review, I write on my own papers. Pens are part of my trade, cheap pens, branded pens, giveaway pens. My one advice for working in animal welfare . . . keep a pen handy.

The Black Dog

In the last twelve months one of my little sisters has struggled with depression. I think she’s coping remarkably well with it and I’m really very proud of her. Recently she got some bad news and in one of my weekly ‘putting the world to rights’ calls with my mother, I said that if she looked like this might set her back we should encourage her to get a cat.

Mum laughed and agreed, and then the next day phoned me frantically to exclaim: you should blog about that!

So here is the blog about pets and depression!

I have good reason to suspect a pet would help my sister, as well as other people with certain kinds of depression. And it’s not just because of this Eddie Izzard sketch.

There are two many theories regarding why we keep pets, and I’ve spoken about them before. They boil down to this: either pets take advantage of us, or pets give us some advantage in life. Much of what I’m going to talk about today falls under this second theory, but remember – it could just be a way our little social parasites have evolved to keep us sweet.

Pets Matter to People

One of the most interesting (and sadly unpublished) pieces of research I’ve ever done was investigating how online pet obituaries represent owners feelings about a pet passing away. Pets are very dear to their owners. People often say they love their pet ‘like a child’.

Interestingly, when people have been asked to rate how the loss of a pet makes them feel, they’ll say it’s analogous to losing touch with an adult child (Gage & Holcomb, 1991). Therefore the loss of a pet is a stressful event – just what I want for my blue sister, right? The inevitable loss of an animal.

What I find really interesting about that comparison is that it talks about children, but doesn’t directly compare the loss of a pet to the loss of a child. Part of me wonders if there’s not a little bit of cultural bias in there. You’re not allowed to say that losing a pet is as bad as losing a child (and personally I can’t imagine that it is), but that language seems to put it as close to the worst possible feeling as is socially acceptable.

Pets Are Good For People

If I was to put on a white lab coat and force you to do a mental arithmetic test, you’d get stressed out. This is a pretty common psychological stressor. If I made you do it in front of a friend, you might even get more stressed out, your heart rate would rise. However, if I made you do arithmetic at home, you’d feel calmer.

What’s really interesting about all this is if I made you do arithmetic at home in front of your best friend, and then made you do arithmetic in front of your dog, and lastly all by yourself,  you would be even calmer with your dog than by yourself. (Allen et al, 1991). Animals have this amazing ability to calm us down.

Blood pressure (and heart rate) go up with mental stress. Allen (who seems to have enjoyed making people do mental arithmetic in their home, I can only imagine she creeps up on neighbours with multiple choice tests) tested the presence of a dog against ACE inhibitors, drugs designed to lower blood pressure, and in the presence of mental stress, the dog helped people to cope better than the drug (Allen et al 2001).

This doesn’t mean dogs are natural anti-depressants. Karen Allen (unfortunately, not this one) uses a great phrase to describe how we view dogs: nonevaluative social support.

Which is a scientific way of saying ‘dogs are awesome because they don’t judge me when I’m eating Nutella out of a jar’. As an aside, I’ve heard some people complain that cats are more likely to judge than dogs, but I’ll point out cats have this weird fascination with accompanying you to the toilet, and like to make eye contact with anyone in the vicinity while they themselves are defecating, and so I’ve never felt too judged by any of my cats.

Don’t go to down the road of thinking that pets, or dogs, can ‘cure’ depression. But what they can do is alleviate stressful states (Wilson, 1991).

Pets and the Vulnerable

I have this belief that a child should have a pet. It’s probably one of my strongest child-rearing beliefs (apart from the whole ‘feed them, love them, clothe them’ idea). But I also believe that the elderly should have pets too.

My stepmother recently passed a significant birthday (I hasten to point out she’s not elderly). Her and my dad’s beautiful dog Rosa is entering old age however. At the  significant birthday we talked about retirement and I pointed out that after Rosa passed, they’d have to get a new dog at retirement. I couldn’t imagine them filling their days without a dog, for all there will be a long period of grieving after Rosa’s death.

My dad tells a story about his family. He, his sister and his mother conspire to get their dad a new dog after the old one dies. My Grandpa insists he doesn’t want a dog, can’t stand the thought of another dog, that their old dog was the only one for him. Newly retired, he sits in his living room and sulks.

My dad, my aunt and my grandmother go to a breeder who has some highland terrier puppies. They select a tiny white ball of fluff and take him home. They open the door to the living room and send the puppy through, waiting in the hallway for the reaction.

The puppy’s name was Angus, and he is the first dog I remember. He was my grandpa’s companion through my grandmother’s death, and helped me and grandpa chase flies with the hoover.

My Grandpa and his terrier Angus on the shores of Loch Lomond
My Grandpa and his terrier Angus on the shores of Loch Lomond

This is the essence of non-evaluative social support. When there are bad times, or particular stresses, they somehow help us cope. Elderly people require more social support, this manifests in reports of feeling lonely, of multiple visits to the doctors, etc. However elderly people with pets report visiting the doctor less often (Siegel, 1990, Knight and Edwards, 2008). And given the physiological changes that Allen recorded, I’m happy to assign this difference to the act of owning pets (as opposed to pet owners being less likely to visit the doctor because of some internal difference), but it should be pointed out that there are lifestyle benefits to pet owning.

But one of my absolute favourite papers about the benefits of pets to vulnerable people (yes, I have a favourite), is one by Kaminski et al (2002) [someone hosts a pdf here].

What’s more vulnerable than a hospitalised child? It’s a horrible thought. We have all sorts of therapies to help children adjust to being in hospital, and these include pet therapy. In this simple little study, the authors asked kids to rate their emotions before and after a play therapy session and before and after a pet therapy session. Pet therapy had a bigger effect on their positive interactions than play therapy did. Pets made sick kids feel good, and it wasn’t even their pet.

We Know The Effect, What’s the Reason?

This is the kind of scientific question I love – we see a nice measurable effect, but the why of the question is something intangible. It’s not a ‘real’, ‘quantifiable’ thing, and I think this is why I love animal personality. I love the difficulty of wrestling with non-linear qualities and multidimensional space. No one tell my old maths teacher.

Archer (1997) [a pdf here] wonders ‘why’ people love their pets. I love the part of this paper that talks about how often people show such an attachment to their pets that they do something ‘odd’, such as make the pet the best man at a wedding, fight for legal custody, etc. He talks about the commonly held idea that people own pets to make up for a deficiency in their human relations. If you can’t make real friends you go out and become a cat lady. (Here I’ll point out I’m currently considering getting a cat of my own). Ultimately Archer dismisses this, in part because in Western society we are very influenced by a particular line of thought which gives humans “ dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26), and in part because many studies show that pet-owning correlates with a lot of personality traits we consider desirable in our society.

In the end Archer is a proponent of the social parasite theory and says these advantages are not enough to provide an advantage to human survival. I’m not sure I agree, but that’s a topic of another post. The point is that whatever the mechanism, people feel a very strong attachment, undeniably love, to an entity which does not judge or present them with the kind of social contract that we engage in with other humans.

Back to the Sister . . .

I think my sister is doing fine. I hope she continues to do well. Do I think that cat would ‘fix’ her? No, not at all. But I do appreciate the phrase ‘unconditional love’. This next statement I have no reference for, but I think you’ll see it for what it is . . .

In films, tv shows and stories, there’s often a moment where somebody with little else to value in their life has their precious pet taken from them. We’ve named a trope for this effect: ‘kick the dog’. Who didn’t cry the first time they watched Kes? We know this feeling of love for our pets so well that when someone hurts a pet, we know it is immediate short-hand for ‘this person is so evil they have removed the last remnant of support from a person’s life’.

I don’t recommend dogs to combat the black dog in general, but I do think there’s something to be said to coming home to a pair of brown eyes.

 

Edited to add:

I thought I’d link to some depression resources for anyone in need of support. And I want to point out I sought my little sister’s permission to share her story. If you are feeling depressed, I really hope you find the support you need. xxx

NHS Depression Support Groups

Samaritans

AACAP Depression Resource

Hyperbole and a Half – Not a resource but a truly insightful look into what it feels like to be depressed.

 

Fluffy Friday – Office Romances

“And they’ll try to mount you.”

Jenny, an affectionate Irish woman, a guru at my new work place, nodded vehemently as I stared at her. “Oh yeah. Especially at certain times of the month. You just feel this big head on top of yours. It’s horrible. All the girls on the farm talk about it.”

Before my PhD I’d never worked with cows. Seals, deer, horses, but never cows. My knowledge of them started and ended at big black and white things that stood beside country road accidents, and big black and white things talking about humans in a Gary Larson cartoon. So it was thought, a general opinion held by all involved in my PhD, that I should do a little work on the research farm to get used to handling the animals.

“And the heifers are the worst.” Jenny’s briefing was an informal one, I’d popped into her office to ask about something else and cows, as they always did, came into the conversation.

“Yes,” Jenny observed, mistaking my regret for disbelief. “It’s scary!”

As I slunk from her office, I didn’t need her to tell me that being mounted by a 500 kg animal was scary. I had enough problems shaking off my friend’s dog.

 

Office romances don’t come easily to people like me. In child care, you’re surrounded by the end result of flirting and it does put a dampener on things. There’s also a limited amount of romancing that can be done among brightly coloured Ikea plates and sweaty faced children. Animals lend an entirely different atmosphere. All that energy and unabashed sex. It’s carnal. Unfortunately, those that work with animals are usually covered in shit and their own sweat. It’s not a good look.

Despite this handicap, I can recall a few great love affairs. There’s the tragic love affair, the beauty and the beast situation between an RTA goose and a lead poisoned swan. That goose spent many a warm autumn evening chasing the swan round and around the pool, while she serenely floated away with a couple of flips of her black webbed feet. The fact she was on a course of antibiotics and so had to be captured twice a day was of no small concern to the goose, and he defended her virtue rigorously. I’m not sure she ever noticed, or appreciated those attentions. The staff at the wildlife hospital noticed. The goose had a powerful bite. One evening, after my colleagues watched me fend off the erstwhile lover while simultaneously stuffing an antibiotic tablet the size of my thumb down the swan’s gob, I returned to the kitchen picking white feathers from my hair. “It’s cute,” said one of my colleagues. My supervisor, shaking his head sadly, managed a morose: “It’s wrong,” which we all felt was rather unprogressive of him.

Swans lend themselves to love. Even in old age. They mate for life, so people tell me, and I try not to bring up the literature that says otherwise. The biggest problem about working with animals is how often people will tell you things they know to be true. I’m guilty of it myself, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating. That same autumn, working the isolation unit, I opened up a swan’s pen and stepped onto the sawdust covered concrete. These pens are roughly 2m by 1m square and painted a soothing, hospital-y shade of green. I don’t think any of the animals appreciated that. The swans were bedded on sawdust, which could flake and get into your eye with alarming frequency. In two big, black plastic bins we kept protein pellets for ducks and corn mix for swans. The ducks and ducklings would get their specific kind of pellets in a shallow bowl. Swans would get their corn in a plastic basin filled with water, occasionally with a garnish of lettuce on top if we had some going. Carrying these basins into the pens was sometimes a balancing act, as the decaying plastic threatened to split from its heavy, sloshing load. This evening I gave the admission card a once over, noted the treatments on the back of my glove, and entered the pen.

The swan was lying with her head submerged in the bowl of water.

While birds, particularly diving birds, are capable of going without oxygen for considerably longer than humans, my initial reaction was to dread the impending paperwork. I plucked the animal’s head from the water and gave it a little shake on the end of its long neck. It rolled one yellow eye in my direction and gave a little flutter of its wings.

Just let me die, it seemed to say.

I cleaned the pen, medicated the bird, and made a slightly facetious note that the bird should be kept on suicide watch. On a more serious side of things, I recommended the vets upped the dosage, as her lead poisoning was severe.

On my final round of the night, I popped my head round once more to find her submerging her whole head. As she had plainly ate nothing, before I left, I made sure to move her bowl a little further away. Do animals have a concept of suicide? Did the poor bugger feel that bad? That didn’t matter. I was three shifts in to my four nights on the isolation ward and I hadn’t lost a single animal yet. The day shift had, but I hadn’t seen them, so it didn’t count.

The following evening I found her again, drowning herself. The day shift had written “seems to like submerging head in bowl” on her card. “Have moved bowl away”. I studied the sawdust shavings. Had the listless animal dragged herself closer to the lurid orange bucket in order to end her days? Could I really justify snatching that chance at swan heaven yet again? Maybe swan suicide was against swan religion. I couldn’t take that chance. Besides, the vet had upped her EDTA dose so surely she’d start feeling better after the double injection I was going to give her. Was this not what we lived for? The healing of poor, innocent animals?

EDTA solution needs to be diluted in saline, so the higher dose resulted in two injections, one in each leg. Despite her attempts at drowning, she was massively dehydrated too. Already feeling as though I was taking this far too seriously, I popped my head out of the door and tried to catch the attention of the vet nurse as she walked by.

The vet nurse was a dedicated woman who lived on site and, seeing the state of the bird, she went to set up a saline drip. I lifted the bird from its sawdust bed and saw, for the first time, its terrible case of Angel Wing. Her wings drooped at the ‘wrist’, she was probably flightless. I mentioned, gently, to the vet nurse that it might be kinder to euthanize. But no, she wouldn’t hear of it. There were plenty of ‘sheltered housing’ lakes we could rehome her to. The next morning, the swan was sitting on the sawdust, head up, a drip sellotaped to the wall above her.

I watched her recovery over the next few weeks and it was with some delight that we released her into the outside pen where she wasn’t even tempted to drown herself in the large pool. And a large one-winged male swan took one look at her and in the golden light of the sun setting over the aviaries, reflecting off the algae tinted pond and the fluffy yellow backs of the last of the year’s ducklings, he fell in love.

We rehomed the pair together in a stately Cheshire home where they could be flightless and happy together.

 

Not all love stories end well. Particularly when I’m involved. 813 and I had known each other for a little over two months. I was working on a farm in Friesland, a land so flat it gave me vertigo. 813 hadn’t paid too much attention to me until the unfortunate few days my hormones happened to spike at the same time hers did. Suddenly I was irresistible. Some things, like laughing at small women being pursued by amorous cows, transcend language barriers, and I never had quite such a good relationship with the guys on farm as when I was the subject of their amusement.

For this particular experiment I spent a lot of time in the pen moving cows, selecting cows, and for a whole week I was also avoiding 813. Sometimes I was even physically fleeing from her. I’d be checking out my notes to find out what cow I wanted next when I’d feel a slobber-covered chin alight upon my shoulder. 813 was nothing if not ever hopeful.

Alas, when her hormones subsided she wanted nothing further to do with me and all that remained of our love was a long drool mark down the right side of my overalls.

I’ve given up on office romances. It’s all very mooving at the time, but it seems best left to the birds and the bovines.

The Anthropomorphism High Horse

I rarely read a piece of scientific journalism and think “what absolute tosh”, in part because I tend not to use the word ‘tosh’ and in part because I know that science journalism involves digesting and reconfirming a complex idea. It’s not easy.

But this article had me gnashing my teeth. It’s a summary of a paper by Ganea et al 2014 [in press pdf download – only link I can find]. The essence of the paper is this: children which grow up in urban environments (in this case pre-school age children from Boston and Toronto) are not exposed to animals. When they’re given anthropomorphic stories about unfamiliar animals (cavys, handfish and oxpeckers) they will agree with statements that attribute complex emotions to those animals, but not statements which attribute human physical capabilities, e.g. talking, to the animals. The conclusion is that anthropomorphic animal stories inhibit a child’s ability to learn animal facts.

The science I think is interesting – it is the conclusion and the bandying about of the word ‘anthropomorphism’ that get my goat. Let rant at you.

The article’s author says:

Setting aside the shades of grey as to whether non-human animals have analogues for things like friends, the findings suggest that for young kids, “exposure to anthropomorphized language may encourage them to attribute more human-like characteristics to other animals than exposure to factual language.”

 

 

This anthropomorphism spectre infuriates me at times. Let me put it this way, one of the questions asked of the children was “do oxpeckers have friends?” I’m asked relatively frequently if cows have friends, and if I want to answer that question accurately, I have to dance around terminology and use baffling scientific language to answer it in a way that means ‘yes but I can’t really say that because I’m a scientist’.

Cows have preferential associations within their herd. Being with these other individuals makes them more capable of physiologically coping with stressful events (Boissy & Le Neindre, 1997) such as being reintroduced to the milking herd (Neisen et al, 2009), being milked (Hasegawa et al, 1997), or feed competition (Patison et al, 2010a). They will preferentially engage in social interactions with these preferred associations, and these associations go on for longer than with other animals (Faerevik et al 2005, Patison et al, 2010b).

How do you explain this to a 2-5 year old child from Boston without using the word ‘friend’ or any synonym of it? Is it any wonder a child might reasonably assume that animals can have friends? Is it wrong to say that an animal can have a friend?

My irritation here lies with the writer of the article saying children believed ‘falsehoods’ about animals, based on anthropomorphism. We get one link, to a website I can’t access being based in the UK, to research which might suggest animals are similar to us in some ways. Then we move on to a paper I’ve referenced before talking about how dogs’ guilty looks are based on our behaviour (Hecht et al, 2012). The underlying assumption is still that animals are so different from us that children are wrong to believe that animals have the capacity for friendship and caring.

Now I’m fascinated by dogs for precisely this reason. They are so excellent at communicating with us, and reading us, that they are almost in-animal as much as they are in-human. They’re a possible model for human-child behaviour they’re so adept at this. I wouldn’t necessarily use dogs as an example for how the rest of the animal kingdom thinks if I was very worried about making cross species comparisons.

Anthropomorphism is either the attribution of human characteristics to animals. In which case it cannot be used pejoratively. For example, to say “This cow has eyes” would be anthropomorphic.

Or anthropomorphism is the inappropriate attribution of human characteristics to animals, in which case you must carefully consider why the characteristic is inappropriate when given to animals. It is not anthropomorphic in this case to say “This cow feels fear”, because fear, as we understand it, is an evolutionary mechanism to increase your chances of survival, it has physiological and behavioural components and the cow meets all of these. Ergo, this cow feels fear, and that is not an inappropriate characteristic.

Much as I lament the fact urban children have very little contact with the natural world, and I think this is a major issue for animal welfare, food sustainability, and the mental health of the children, I don’t fully agree with the paper’s conclusions, or the writing up in the Scientific American blog.

Firstly, the study found that all children learned new facts regardless of whether they read the anthropomorphic story or the non-anthropomorphic story. The results appear to indicate to me there was less fact-retention in the anthropromorphic story (and while I’m not a psychologist, I have worked with children and I do now work in education, I wonder if the anthropomorphic story, being similar to entertainment, indicated ‘you do not need to pay attention here’ to the kids. This does not appear to be discussed in the paper.).

Secondly, the study found that the children who had anthropoorphic stories told to them were more likely to describe animals in anthropomorphic terms immediately afterwards. Now again I’m no psychologist, but after I went to see Captain America I was partially convinced I was a superhero. It faded after the walk home. I’d like to know more about the extent of this effect over time before I declared anthropomorphic stories as damaging to children’s learning.

Thirdly, the Scientific American article presents some ‘realistic’ and ‘anthropomorphised’ images of the animals side by side. This is not what happened in the paper. In the first experiment the children were shown ‘realistic images and factual language books’ or ‘realistic images and anthropomoprhic language books’. The second study used ‘anthropomorphic images and factual language’ and ‘anthropomorphic images and anthropomorphic language’. The upshot of this is that the realistic image condition was not directly compared to the anthropormphic image condition, regardless of how it seems when you read the Scientific American article.

The paper says at one point:

This reveals that, like adults, young children seem to have a less clear conception of differences between humans and other animals in regard to mental characteristics, as opposed to behaviors. However, exposure to anthropomorphized language may encourage them to attribute more human-like characteristics to other animals than exposure to factual language.

 

 

Well there’s little wonder about that because even we scientists don’t have a particularly clear conception of the mental differences between humans and other animals. The paper itself is interesting and well worth a read, but it falls into the trap of thinking about anthropomorphism as a wholly negative thing. If I was a reviewer I’d suggest Serpell (2002) as an excellent starting point for a more balanced view of the phenomenon.

And I’d also suggest they watch this video before assuming that kids are daft for thinking animals feel emotions.

 

FluffyFriday – WolfQuest Part Four!

Oh Fluffy – it’s been such an epic quest, I am almost sad to see it at an end. Warning, some images may be distressing for anyone who got overly attached to Fluffy and her little family.

 

So overall, what are my final impressions of the WolfQuest game?

  • The game represents a large block of ‘learning time’. My final save-game was over two hours long, which is a decent amount of investment from the player.
  • There are lots of little touches. In Episode Three you’ll spot some lovely play behaviour from the pups.
  • The game was pretty difficult in places, not just because I’m a poor gamer, but the balancing of demands like time, food, chasing away predators was quite nicely nuanced in my opinion.
  • While it’s great for an educational game, the production values are a problem. It was very frustrating at times constantly having to correct Fluffy’s trajectories.

But overall I really recommend it for kids who are interested in wolves or animal behaviour. The interactivity, the role play and the community over on WolfQuest.org are all plus points in the game’s favour. It’s a great example of animal behaviour learning, so it gets the Fluffy Sciences stamp of approval . . . which I’ve just now invented.