In preparation for our MOOC, we’ve become a little obsessive. Every time I check the student count the numbers go up – we’re currently sitting at a staggering 19,129 students and roughly 6.7% of you have taken part in our little data gathering exercise we’ve sent out on the emails – so a big thank you for that.
At the moment you come from 153 different countries, and you span the age ranges of 13-70+.
We are so excited to meet all of you, and I have a little clip from the Jeanne Marchig YouTube channel of our third VLog.
Whoops. The eagle eyed viewer might have noticed we didn’t have a Fluffy Friday last week, but now you can finally find out what happens to Fluffy and her babies:
And we’ve also got a Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education YouTube channel now! (Incidentally, saying the name of the channel might be my new test of sobriety). So you can watch all our VLogs in one place. If you haven’t signed up for the MOOC you totally should because we are ready to go on the 14th July!
I’ve been doing a lot of navel gazing lately, professionally speaking of course, because June is a month of anniversaries for me. Most recently, June marks one year since walking out of my PhD viva and being called Doctor. It marks five years since finishing my undergraduate program. It marks ten years since my last day in high school. And it marks my twenty eighth birthday. Navel gazing has been rife. I have a mounting concern that I will never be a real adult.
With that being said, I feel like it’s a good time to take stock of my career, particularly as I was recently reminded of how hard it is for final year PhD students to see anything other than the doom and gloom that surrounds you in that period of your life. So this is my attempt to show you that one day you’ll feel good again.
Earlier this month I was supposed to be converting some slides for our MOOC when I was sucked into the ThesisWhisperer blog, taken there by a link and then unable to keep clicking through the stories. It reminded me just how awful I felt when I was finishing up. I felt defeated, utterly, and handing over the thesis was nothing like the victory I thought it would be when I started.
I was sick. I handed in my PhD thesis covered in chicken pox blisters (unbelievably, the third time I’d had the infection). In the six months that ran up to my submission date I had been constantly ill with sore throats, migraines and repeated colds. My insomnia had never been so bad, I cried in our work’s canteen, and I was so ready to walk away from the office and never return.
Except I was back the next week because I’d scored a three week contract. Despite my conviction that I was out, I couldn’t turn down the money. That led to a month’s contract. Then a three month contract, then a six month contract, and now I have guaranteed paycheques up until the end of March.
The Valley of Shit
The ThesisWhisperer blog talks about the Valley of Shit, and I can remember my valley vividly. It lasted from roughly December 2012 – May 2013 when I handed in.
I’m a competitive person. I like to be the best, and I’d work for nothing if people told me I was wonderful (please don’t tell my HR department). My PhD was the first time I’d ever had to confront the fact I wasn’t the best. My PhD made me confront the fact that not only was I not the best, I wasn’t even in the top percentiles. That was a hard, hard lesson to learn.
Approximately a month before I submitted, my PhD’s key paper was rejected from a journal because of one reviewer’s comments (the worst paper they’d ever read, they couldn’t believe my coauthors had deigned to put their name on it). I cried in the cafeteria in front of my bemused supervisor. She told me I’d need to develop thicker skin, which seemed absolutely impossible.
This month another paper of mine was rejected from a journal (although the comments I admit were much more positive and it was rejected from a very well respected journal that was a bit of a long shot). It barely registered on my radar.
I think this is a big part of the Valley of Shit. Everything feels like the end of the world. I remember being on the phone to my mother and asking her if she would still love me when I failed. Which is ludicrous, of course, but still something I felt I needed to ask. So, yes, the Valley of Shit exists. I clearly lost all perspective in this period of my life.
The Plateaus of Okay
My viva was a long and arduous one that resulted in remarkably few corrections, at least from my point of view. A few months after I’d submitted my corrections and the University’s Senate agreed I could be awarded the degree of PhD, I got my six month contract extension.
One morning I was in the shower, washing my hair, and I felt a distinct sense of unease. It took a moment but I realised what was unnerving me: I had nothing to worry about. For so long I’d been thinking of the PhD and finally there was nothing to be fretting over. What could I think about instead?
I think I ended up reading the shampoo bottle. It took a while to relearn the art of the shower daydream.
It takes a long time to adjust to being on the Plateau of Okay. There are little things, like not wanting to take all your holiday days because you want to be invaluable. There are big things, like fretting over the fact I still don’t have a postdoc and I’m moving further away from research and into education instead. The thing about the Plateau is that you have the space to remember how to cope with these challenges.
Just before Christmas I was offered an interview for a job that I didn’t really want. The interview was at an inconvenient time and in an inconvenient place. But it was a full time, permanent position and with a higher salary than I’m on right now. After some deliberation I declined the interview, and felt sick for the rest of the day.
In the Plateau you start to make your choices based on what you want, rather than what you’re frightened of. And that in itself is terrifying. I’ve turned down a few jobs and interviews because they’re not quite what I want, and I still wonder if that was the right thing to do. I’ve also been turned down for jobs I thought were perfect for me, and that is what the pub and your friends are for. In the Plateau, it’s not about losing the fear, but recognising you have choices again. You’re no longer trudging endlessly, you can go in any direction.
It’s pretty intoxicating.
The Peaks of Happiness
This month I won some project money (a small amount, certainly no postdoc, but still). I have enjoyed what I’ve been doing thoroughly. I’ve booked a holiday with all those holiday days I didn’t use last year. And I got my longest contract extension yet.
When I was reading the ThesisWhisperer I realised I was at the Peak of Happiness. All the things that upset me about academia are obstacles to deal with in a few months time (like the next contract extension, my lack of paper output this year, how I’m supposed to do grown up things like buy a house or a pet when I don’t know where I’ll be next year . . .) I was feeling truly elated.
This time last year I could not have believed that I would be this happy.
A peak means there must be another valley further on. The very fact that I know I’ll need another contract extension, that there are still grants that need to be won, and that if I want to leave those parts of my life behind I’ll have to sacrifice the parts of academia I love. You can’t just stay on the peaks of life, but you can hope the plateaus keep climbing, which is what I have decided to do. I’m not afraid of the deep dark valleys right now, because they inevitably end. As the poet said, this too shall pass.
But most importantly of all, in a few months time I’ll be going to my high school class’s ten year reunion. I guess I could introduce myself as a pet psychiatrist.
I particularly love the comments that express amazement or defend the cats’ loyalty.
As you might have guessed by reading this blog, I’m a big fan of animals, but if you forced me to choose, I’d describe myself as a cat person.
Legend (or family lore at the least) tells that when I was a baby, our two cats were fascinated by the new arrival. They would sit on either side of the changing mat, and sneak into the cot whenever they could manage it. My mum clearly wasn’t a subscriber to the old myth that cats suffocate babies. (Unless she was and she was hoping they might . . . she’ll undoubtedly comment on this so check below for her thoughts).
John Bradshaw’s ‘Cat Sense’, one of my favourite popular science books, talks about how cats have always polarised people. More recently, I’ve been arguing with our MOOC cameraman about how cats are awesome (he disagrees – let us know in the MOOC forums if you note a distinct dog bias in our glamour shots). Lastly, even a climbing cat couldn’t convince my sister, climber extrordinaire, that cats are just as awesome as dogs, if not more so.
Buckle your seatbelt, kitten, we’re having a Caturday.
When I first started composing this post it devolved into a long series of memories about this little lady, Posie. Adopted from an SSPCA shelter when I was five she’s the kind of cat who might have stepped out of a Homeward Bound film (except her homeward journey took her four years to travel six miles, but never mind). She would walk with us to the shops, and was one of the most affectionate little animals I’ve ever met. Hers is a story I’ll save for a Fluffy Friday.
Instead let’s talk about the cat-human bond. I talk about dogs a lot and in fact they’re one of my favourite examples to use when I’m explaining why humans and animals have long histories. Despite this, dogs are pretty understudied in animal welfare and cats receive even less attention. So this post will be a very potted summary of what we know of the human-cat bond.
A 9,500 year old grave in Cyprus contains a man buried with a cat (Vigne et al, 2004), and there’s archaeological evidence in China dating around 5,300 years ago of cats living with humans, eating leftovers and eating the rodents around our grain (Hu et al 2014). Much like dogs, but considerably later, cats started exploiting humans by making use of our environment. Particularly when we started farming and lots of little rodents started preying on our grains.
Like dogs, cats true wild ancestor no longer exists. Instead, the cats which could tolerate humans became our domesticated cats, those who couldn’t stayed far from humans, and became something else. But cats are a few thousand years behind dogs in this domesticated tree. While dogs were a product of the hunter gather, cats are a product of the farmer.
One of the little titbits in John Bradshaw’s book absolutely fascinated me. A tenth century Welsh statue says
“The price of a cat is fourpence. Her qualities are to see, to hear, to kill mice, to have her claws whole, and to nurse and not devour her kittens. If she be deficient in any one of these qualities, one third of her price must be returned”
Good mothers, good mousers. This cat would fetch the same price as an untrained house-dog a sheep or a goat. Kittens were a penny, the same as a piglet or a lamb, and a young cat was two pence. And female cats were much more highly prized than toms (a strange quirk that I still buy into, I’ve always liked female cats more, for no real reason).
The good mother clause is interesting because cats are not, by nature, all good mothers. My old cat, Posie, had two litters of kittens. Her first litter she decided to have on my bed, in full view of the world, on a bedspread with a cat and kittens on it. I don’t think I was older than seven, and I remember being very touched that she chose to have her little little of black fluffballs in my bedroom. Looking back on it now, I still can’t decide if this was a demonstration of absolute trust and security, or simply a demonstration of her not quite having the right instincts during her pregnancy.
While she would feed them all, she was not particularly defensive of them. When they started to crawl, my mum and I experimented by taking one from her nest and taking it to the far side of the kitchen. Posie eventually came to get it after we called on her, evidently not greatly perturbed by the kitten’s plaintive mews.
Her second litter was born while we were temporarily living in a flat. We had only been in the flat for a few months and she seemed to need somewhere quieter to have her kittens. I opened my wardrobe not long before we were due to move back home and promptly informed my mother Posie had had kittens again, which was no small consternation considering it was a pet-free flat.
Being small and petite, Posie would drag her large fluffy kittens along the floor rather than pick them up. The only thing that ever seemed to arouse her mothering instincts was when they would get stuck under the bathroom sink and cry. Even years after she was spayed, the sounds of a crying kitten on the television would have her searching under the bathroom sink.
Related cats will happily share litters, and in a good environment, they’ll stay with their mothers for a long time. Girls are particularly social, staying with sisters for a long time. If this is reminding you of any other big cat structure there’s a reason – house cats and lions are the only felines which will typically naturally live in groups. Kittens which are socialised very early with humans, between 2 and 9 weeks, appear to give their owners more social support (Casey & Bradshaw, 2008).
So what is it about cats that makes them decide to pride-up with humans, in the same way dogs pack-up with us? I firmly believe that dog people are threatened by the cat’s ability to control. We understand that dogs get their way by being cute and adorable, but cats seem to be able to train us.
McComb et al (2009) did one of my favourite studies because it confirmed something I had long recognised in Posie’s relationship with me. She had a specific purr which incorporated a quiet, high pitched chirrup, a rolling r and a little uplift at the end. We used to call it ‘purring with excitement’ and it was given in anticipation of food, when she thought food might be included in Tesco shopping bags, when she was about to be let out of the door and when she was desperate for a cuddle (the ‘prrroing’ noise would escape as she leapt up onto the sofa or bed, soon giving way to a deep, rhythmic purring as she reached her goal).
McComb et al investigated how these solicitation purrs sounded to cat owners and non-cat owners. All identified these solicitation purrs as being more urgent and less pleasant than the same cat’s relaxed purr. But cat-owners were significantly better dentifying the same cat’s solicitation purr and relaxed purr than non-owners, suggesting that owners learn this. McComb et all went on to investigate the auditory properties of these solicitation purrs and the peak of the cry lies at around 300-600Hz, the same as a human baby’s hungry wail.
Yep, cats vocalise at the same pitch as our babies, a sound that we are incapable of habituating to, thanks to that pesky evolution.
Cats play their affection for us coolly. While we can use infant human attachment tests to measure a dog’s obsession with its owner, cats which are isolated from their owner do not respond to their owner’s voice with body language or vocalisation, but by a tiny ear swivel in the direction of their owner’s voice (Saito & Shinozuka, 2013). I haven’t found any evidence of people using separation tests in cats (let me know if you know of a study) but there is evidence of cats showing separation related behaviours when left alone, such as excessive grooming, vocalisation and defecation (Schwartz, 2002).
Dogs share a lot of traits with us, trained in ways we understand instinctively, motivated by affection and praise like we are, but cats have a different kind of intelligence, less comparable to ours.
Teach a dog and a cat to pull a string for a food reward. They both quickly take to pulling the string. Give them two strings and show them that food exists at the end of one string. Dogs are reasonably able to deduce that they want to pull the string attached to the food. Cats, not so much. Pull string, get food. Cats don’t understand they need to link the food to the string, whereas dogs seem to be able to grasp this at a rudimentary level. Finally, if you cross the strings, cats are still playing their little string games and the dog geniuses are entirely confused. Causal understanding is not a cat’s strong point (Whitt et al, 2009). Dogs and babies can do object permanance tests, cats struggle (and some cats don’t even bother).
So, emotionally manipulative, intelligence alien to our own, and only barely able to tolerate other cats and humans if given the right amount of socialisation as kittens. Why do we love them?
What I love about a cat is its ability to be selective in its affection. I like to feel important in a pet’s life. My mum’s new cat, adopted from a friend who could no longer look after her, greets me with raised tail and chirrups when I walk up the road with an overnight bag. She sniffs my face and then promptly investigates all the bags and treasures I have brought. While I’ve known her for four years now, her affection for me has only recently developed. Earning the trust of a cat I see infrequently feels more rewarding for me than the instant love of a dog I’ve just met.
In my opinion its this small personality difference that distinguishes dog and cat people. Dog people are more extraverted, socialising easily and freely. Introverts value that socialness no less, but like it a different, more concentrated source.
Bradshaw finishes his book with a surprising statement that doesn’t come naturally from most animal welfare scientisits. He suggests that we start breeding for a truly domesticated cat, teaching people how to train their cats, and stop neutering the excellent housecats we have indiscriminately. He points to his 1999 paper which found that an area with a high population of neutered cats was producing moggie kittens that didn’t have particularly sociable genes.
Bradshaw argues that if we want the domestic cat to survive as a pet, we must use our knowledge of animal welfare to produce an animal more suited for its new environment. He suggests that we can avoid making the mistakes we made with dogs and take a scientific approach to producing the animal we want, affectionate, relaxed, and with little hunting motivation.
I find that an interesting idea, and it has certainly affected my thinking about any future cats I will own.
Don’t you just hate when you’re forced to face up to the fact you’re not as virtuous as you think you are?
One of the courses I’m currently writing for the International Fund for Animal Welfare came back to me with some corrections. My reviewer had changed the following sentence, the change in capitals.
“Dogs WHO showed pessimistic behaviours were more depressed.”
And try as I might, my gaze kept tripping over that word. Dogs Who, Dogs Who, Dogs Who.
Let us momentarily leap backwards in time to our English classes. My education contained very little formal grammar training, which may be obvious to the casual reader, but even I know that personal pronouns (e.g. who, he, she, they) are reserved for people. Animal are referred to as objects (e.g. which, it, that).
“The dog which barked” is preferable to “The dog who barked”.
“It is lying in the cat basket” may be preferable to “she is lying in the cat basket”.
This can lead to the English language treating animals very strangely. For example, say you visit a new acquaintance. You know this acquaintance has two cats, Gin and Tonic (this friend might be a bit odd), but you see one cat on the windowsill. You want to know, is that cat Gin or is that cat Tonic? You may ask “What cat is that?” or “Which cat is that?” seeing as you know it is one of two. It would be wrong to say “Who is that?”
Is it problematic to refer to animals as objects? Well first we have to ask if grammar affects the way we think. (And before we go any further I want to tell you that journals on grammar and semantics are almost as impenetrable as journals on molecular genetics)
Boroditsky (2009) investigated the differences in how speakers of English and Mandarin thought about time. In English we speak of time as a horizontal construct (you look ahead to the good times and back on the bad times) whereas in Mandarin time is spoken of in a vertical manner (the paper gives the translated example “what is the year before the year of the tiger?”).
The experiment itself is a bit odd to get your head around, but first they primed English and Mandarin speakers with either vertical or horizontal concepts (i.e. the black worm is ahead of the white worm, the black ball is below the white ball) and then given ‘target’ statements about time ‘March is earlier than April’, ‘March is before April’.
English speakers answered these questions faster after hearing a horizontal prime (similar to how they think of time) and Mandarin speakers answered these questions faster after they had heard a vertical prime (similar to how they think of time). Boroditsky concludes that the way we speak frames the way we perceive the world.
But does this happen in animal welfare? Well I’m not the only one who wondered about this. Gilquin & Jacobs (2006) wrote a paper which is whimsically titled ‘Elephants Who Marry Mice’. They reviewed style standards in various publication manuals. For example, the Guardian’s, which you can find here, says:
pronoun “it” unless gender established
The Guardian also says:
Please do not say “anymore” any more
So I don’t dream of writing a Comment Is Free column anymore.
Unsurprisingly, Gilquin and Jacobs found that it was the familiar animals (horses, dogs, cats, etc.) which scored a ‘who’ more often than the non familiar animals. Furthermore, publications aimed at animal-related interest groups were more likely to use ‘who’, e.g. Dogs Today.
They noted that in general texts or interviews, the personal pronoun was used when the author wanted to garner sympathy for the animal in question. It is “the poor cat who was stuck in a tree” rather than “the cat which was stuck in the tree”.
More interestingly, given some of my other posts on anthropomorphism, 60% of the sentences they found which used the personal pronoun for the animals attributed human-like characteristics to the animals.
Gilquin and Jacobs conclude that ‘who’ is used in English to refer to animals, although inconsistently. They suggest a wider adoption of this grammatical structure might engender more empathy for animals from humans, something which I think reflects what Ganea et al found in their work.
Should animal welfare scientists be calling for the personal pronoun usage?
I really can’t decide. I’m not convinced that it will completely change the way we think about animals. But it’s a nudge you might want to be aware of if you’re talking animal welfare science.
And for what it’s worth, I changed the text on the course.