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This is what happens when I start thinking... [Apr. 19th, 2010|11:56 am]
I have been childless and surrounded by the child...ful? most of my life -- typically on vacation, which leads me to question my vacation decisions, now that I think about it...

I mean, there we were, five or six couple-ish, and not a kid in sight, enjoying our annual week on a lake in the woods...or more properly in a turn of the century hunting lodge on a lake in the woods. Because otherwise, it would have been a damp kind of week. In the lake.

And then suddenly, bam, all the women are pregnant but me (well, and one other one who did nothing but kvetch about how she was NOT pregnant, so...) and the next year, bam, babies...and it was all over. Suddenly, I was the only one in the herd without a calf. Of course, I had the dogs. But it's not the same, I know it's not the same -- if one of their kids and one of my dogs was in a burning building, and I could only save one, I'd save the kid.
(Unless the kid was an asshole already or budding sociopath, because I do believe that at a certain point, you need to start earning the right to be alive. Just human isn't good enough for me. I've spent way too much time in Wal-Mart to be too devoted to the sanctity of human life. I've known plenty of cows and chickens whose company I'd value more. And I ate THEM.)

Anyway...so those vacations surrounded by the newly spawned and their parents, some of them owning pets, others not, inspired many semi-drunken conversations about the nature of love -- especially that helpless, overwhelming love that just rolls over you when you look at your kid...or pet. And whether it's the same -- a parent may love their pet, but as much as their kid? No. But what about those of us who don't have kids...do we sublimate that pent up love, transfer it? Is what I feel when I look at my dog, the same...different? Can we ever tell? Let's face it, you and I can taste the same thing, look at the same thing, but while sweet is sweet from a chemical perspective, blue is blue...we can't be certain that each of us actually perceives them in exactly the same way.

Oh, and we used to brawl a bit, me flying the evolutionary sociobiology flag and pissing people off by insisting that they HAD to love their kids; it's hormonal. People who didn't love and care for their children...didn't have very many that survived, while those who really cared for their children had many more children that survived to have children of their own. And, ta-da, we are a species that responds postively to babies, baby anythings, even. Which is not to say it doesn't fail. (See recurring People of Wal-Mart theme) And it's not to say that there's not conscious thought happening as well. But still, oxytocin to the rescue.

And honestly, I haven't really thought about it a lot in recent years, except when I noticed that really, baby pictures do nothing for me. Even an actual baby. Still nothing. Okay, child of a friend...but that's because the baby is related to someone I know. And honestly, until they move out of larvae stage, my main concern is "this is something my friend treasures; a very important part of him/her". But omigod, a picture of a baby aardvark, mind-crushingly cute. (Except they're not, really. I mean, I think so...but the cynical part of my brain is thinking hmmm, and people with brand new babies think they're so adorable, too.) But it's a struggle for me to even feign attention to someone's baby pictures.

Don't even get me started with sonogram pictures. My friends, don't even show me your sonogram picture. Seriously. Tell me you're pregnant and I will be very happy for you, if you're happy. Show me your sonogram picture and pray I'm sober enough to NOT say "why the hell do you think I would want to see that? Seriously, I can't even do those Magic Eye pictures. You're going to say "see, there's her head" and I'm going to say "oh, okay" and inside my head, I'm thinking Jesus Christ, can't I even wait until it's BORN before I have to pretend?" Sonogram pictures are only good to show people who've seen sonogram pictures of their own. Or are sonogram technicians. Or for people who can see Mary in that piece of toast. The rest of us just see lines and splooge bits and we are LYING when we say "oh, yeah, there's the face". LYING.

Well, it all comes full circle with all sorts of research that's emerging/converging. The key factor being this: Some animals, especially domesticated, when they look at people experience higher levels of oxytocin than normal. Some people, when they look at animals, experience higher levels of oxytocin than normal.

(Oxytocin being a very, very complicated hormone in that it's implicated in all sorts of stuff -- nursing, maternal instinct, orgasm, pair-bonding, minimizing of social fear/agression, but in other cases arousing a mating/protective aggression -- so it's best to be cautious in assuming its role in anything, but still...generally speaking, it tends to make you feel better. We LIKE it when we get a hit of oxytocin)

So, they're thinking that this is sort of the root of domestication...the people who liked looking at animals and the animals that liked looking at people, tended to hang out together. Some types of animals had this oxytocin link – cats, dogs, horses, cattle, goats – and others didn’t – zebras, gnus, wolverines, deer. Of course, no doubt there were other contributing factors – rarely is there only one cause to an effect in a complex situation, right?

But still, this symbiotic relationship would contribute to the better survival of each, so we wound up with more of us -- those that found being with/looking at the other was pleasurable. Not that there weren’t exceptions – plenty of people have no bond or tie with animals. Don’t keep pets, don’t go to zoos, don’t stare open-jawed at nature documentaries. But as long as someone in the tribe had this affinity, a certain number of your group had the gene that generated those higher levels of oxytocin, you all benefited.
Obviously, the animals in question were selected for the gene – who are you going to eat in times of trouble, the horse that willingly works with you, or the one that is a pain in the butt and keeps kicking people? The chicken that stays close, stays protected and has lots of chicks that survive. The one that feels no need to stay close to the village and wanders far afield, gets eaten quicker by predators, before it can reproduce effectively.

It also helps to explain, possibly, how the horse (and cattle) moved from being just a food animal to being a working animal. Because after all, you have to have some kind of a relationship with an animal in order to put it to work. Animals that have a clear social hierarchy – horses, dogs – make easier partners than those with more individualistic, more fluid hierarchies, such as cats. Once the pack/herd order is set, it stays relatively stable, until someone gets sick or weak, or mature and strong.

If you as a human don’t f-it up, your dog pack will settle into order and there will be little to no fighting or discord because everyone knows who’s in charge. You, as a monkey, often screw it up, by insisting that your alpha dog “share” its toy/bone with a dog lower in status, because you feel sorry for low dog. Or you feed low dog first, because low dog gets picked on. Support the order, no matter how much it hurts your “fair” bone, and you’ll have a much mellower pack. Cats, on the other hand, negotiate constantly. There will be détente, of course, to a certain extent, especially if you introduce a new cat properly. But still, years into living together, if they haven’t bonded with each other, they’ll still be hissing and batting at each other, if they venture into each other’s “territory”.

But how do you get it started? Love at first sight, really. The person who gets hit with an oxycontin high whenever they look at a horse, well, looks at the horses a lot. And what happens when you look at horses? You notice how they behave. Really notice. Not on purpose, even. So, when one of the herd, who also gets hit with oxy when they look at humans, starts looking at you. And well, we monkeys are suckers for eye contact, aren’t we? And because we’ve been watching them, we likely subconsciously, already adopted ways of moving, ways of behaving that are less likely to spook/unnerve our companion animal. And our instinct is not to pat the horse on the forehead, as you might pat the head of a child (depending on your culture – but just ride with me here, or this thing is going to be forty pages long and when I had horses, and introduced them to non-horse people, I was always amazed by how many people would want to pat the horse right between the eyes. Bonk, bonk, bonk! Why the hell would anyone think that was the right thing to do? ) anyway, the oxy-animal junkie would have already targeted the neck and shoulders of the horse. And gone for more of a scritching than a petting. Or a solid, firm stroke. Because that’s what horses do to each other. Because we’d noticed that horses shy away from movement around their head.

And now I’ve moved away from responsible science – which found the higher levels of oxytocin and has theorized that this was related to animal domestication in some way. The rest of this is just my own theorizing and pondering. Me wondering why I derive such pleasure from just looking at animals.

(Which sounds creepy. Not THAT kind of pleasure. Ick. My head is making all sorts of connections with Playboy and the Discovery Channel and the intellectual part is thinking hormones and blood brain barriers and thinking well, really the difference is so small…ack! Stop! Gross! There is a difference. Completely. But is the inability to parse the difference, some additional chemical, some interceptor fault that leads to the inability to separate sexual pleasure from just plain old joy-pleasure that results in pedophilia? Okay, that’s a whole ‘nother post)

But seriously. In person is better, but even pictures make me happy. As an RA in college, I dealt with a lot of “stuff” from residents, plus my own stuff. And we had a very strong support program, with therapists at our disposal. But what really worked for me was wandering up the hill to the dairy barns and just going out into one of the fields to sit with the cows. Being with the cows just mellowed me out and made me happy. Yes, well, oxycontin helps that make sense, doesn’t it?

And why such ease with animals? I mean, sure, as with most things, there’s a gradient – lots of people love animals and are good with them – developing relationships, training, bonding. Some of it’s innate, some learned, but let’s call that a normal level. They are especially good with their own companion animals. Then there are those who just are a step beyond – the Temple Grandin’s, the Cesare Milan’s, the Horse Whisperers, the people who just seem to have an uncanny knack, a natural ease with animals that others need to actively learn or practice. Who can work their voodoo, their magic, their superpowers on animals they’ve never met or worked with. Am I including myself in that group?

Yes. As much as it breaks my Yankee/Lutheran-raised “you are no more special than anyone else and even if you are, you shouldn’t talk about it” heart, yes, I am. My neighborhood calls me the cat whisperer. (Which is so NOT what a middle-aged divorcee wants to be called, can I just tell you…not if she ever wants to get laid again.) I was the person at horse shows who‘d get called, at the end of the day when someone’s horse wouldn’t get back in the trailer.

I wrote a paper on chicken behavior in high school – without reading a book about chicken behavior (was there one? There wasn’t an internet to google, that’s for sure. Yes, children, back when there were pterodactyls and card catalogs) and it was years later, then were finally WAS a book on chicken behavior, that I found I was right about it all. Which is not to say that I’m brilliant. It IS to say that I watched the chickens way more than was normal for a teenager. Way more than normal for even a high school science project. Way more than is normal for anyone unless they’re supported by a research grant, or the CIA. Because I liked it. And while it’s been a while since I’ve provoked a submissive behavior display in a flock, I’m pretty sure I could still do it.

Which would be bragging – but me, like the “famous” animal whisperers I mentioned above, like some of you, I have no doubt, let’s face it, we’re just oxytocin junkies.

[User Picture]From: sestree
2010-04-19 04:11 pm (UTC)
That's what baffled me (and still does) going from dogs to cats. Once the dogs were settled they were settled. We fed them in separate rooms, they picked their favorite places, defended (or lost) their bid for it, and all was right in the world.

The cats? one moment one has claimed this area and another moment this one is eating out of that one's food bowl and don't even get me started on the 'I want the litterbox upstairs, no you can have it' that is currently happening.

I'm just happy there's no bloodshed. I'd be happier still if one of them would explain it to me, but I'm not high enough up on that particular pecking order for them to explain it to me.
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[User Picture]From: dawntreader90
2010-04-19 04:16 pm (UTC)
if anyone has any tips on how to help cats learn to tolerate each other (i don't even need them to be buds!) i'm alllll ears.

because we ARE having a bit of bloodshed. *sigh*
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[User Picture]From: sestree
2010-04-19 04:23 pm (UTC)
maybe when Gabby gets big enough to defend herself without too much fuss?

We had more issues with Jake. He hated EVERYONE (well except me) and eventually my 22 pound pain in the ass had enough and fought back.

Then the tides turned. Of course then I also had the issue of the 22 pound pain in the ass jerking Jake's chain just to make him spit and hiss.

It never resolved itself but at least the bloodshed was kept to a minimum.
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[User Picture]From: dawntreader90
2010-04-19 04:14 pm (UTC)
fascinating concept!! as one who bonds better with animals and animal babies than humans, this makes a ton of sense to me.

also, i'm right there with you on the sonogram pics. but i just think it's way more of people's insides than i need to see. i don't ask to see my friends' X-rays or upper GI scans, either. thanks! but no thanks. ;)
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[User Picture]From: sestree
2010-04-19 04:25 pm (UTC)
awwwww c'mon - didn't you ever wanna post a pic of your colonoscopy just to see what happened?


I've *had* babies and frankly I like them better when they're older and a bit more coherent. I loved mine, but you'll rarely see me holding a baby. Usually it's as a favor.

I understand birds better than babies......
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[User Picture]From: dawntreader90
2010-04-19 04:53 pm (UTC)
i don't mind (other people's) little kids once they start talking and playing and learning because they start becoming interesting. they can be a lot of fun.

but i still like best the part where i don't have to take them home with me. :)
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[User Picture]From: ferlonda
2010-04-19 06:58 pm (UTC)
Fascinating post. I definitely got hit with a MAJOR oxytocin dump the very first time I made eye contact with Ranzo, the little parrot we had. I went from zero to "he's coming home with us NOW" and when he pooped on my hand I thought, Aw, it's warm! :D By the time he died I was in uber-parent mode and would have defended him with my life, though I didn't know this until after he died. I knew I loved him and would do anything to protect him but I thought of him as a sibling or partner, not a child. Once he was dead... I realized I knew nothing about how I felt about him and I had to learn about it all without him there. I'm still sorting that out.

Strangely, I have a certain warm response to babies but not because they're babies. At least, I don't think it's because they're babies because not all of them give me the warm fuzzies. It's only the ones who can make eye contact or have a certain "something" about them. Otherwise, they're just little people who thankfully belong to other people. That's not to say I wouldn't go out of my way to help one out or even change its diaper but they generally peak pretty low on the "aw!" scale for me.

I find sonogram pictures, x-rays, all those inner workings pictures utterly fascinating but not because it might have a baby in it- and though I can do the fizzy pictures into unicorns thing just fine, I can rarely spot the fetus in the sonogram.

Turnip, I wish you'd write a book about your experiences with feral cats. I know I'd love to read it and there are a lot of feral cats out there who would be deeply appreciative of you sharing your knowledge. And if that paper on chickens is lying around somewhere I'd like to read that, too. It might have to be in another life, but someday I'm going to have chickens, ducks, a few cows and at least two horses and it would be handy to have your papers to refer to.
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