Can I Really Get My Arms Around This Animal?

Unknown-11

It’s time we talked about octopuses. I hear you saying: “Annie-the-English-major: Don’t you mean octopi?” That’s the first misconception we must clarify right away. All those years we’ve been talking about octopi? We’ve been wrong. Well, not everyone agrees, but here’s what the Oxford Dictionaries say:

“The standard plural in English of octopus is octopuses. However, the word octopus comes from the Greek, and the Greek plural octopodes is still occasionally used. The plural form octopi, formed according to rules for some Latin plurals, is incorrect.”

So I’m taking the strictly classical position; I dare not intermingle Greek and Latin grammar.

It’s possible, of course, that your more pressing question is: Why is it time we talked about octopuses? I shall explain.

A few months ago, I was at a dinner party where the host had made paella. I’d never eaten scungilli or squid—they simply didn’t appeal to me. But there I was, faced with a plate in which the tell-tale rings were abundant. I generously transferred them from my plate to that of a friend who was eager for this gift.

Shortly before that dinner party, I’d heard a discussion about octopuses—how incredibly intelligent and social they are—how those in aquariums form bonds with their trainers and wend their way to that side of the tank. Not squid, of course, but a relative thereof.

In fact, when a naturalist named Sy Montgomery, author of The Soul of an Octopus, was interviewed on WBGH Boston radio, her interviewer began his intro by saying:

“If you’re someone who likes to eat octopus, those days are over.”

He said he’d refrained from eating octopuses just since reading her book. You can disagree with that sentiment, and I’m sure many of you will, but it’s been attributed to enough people to make me think there’s a bit of mystery here.

Why all the fuss? Because these strange creatures—shape-shifting, color-changing invertebrates with 3 hearts and brains wrapped around their esophaguses—are highly intelligent beings that seem to form attractions with humans. Montgomery says her love for Athena, the octopus, began when Athena first sidled up to her in an aquarium. The intro to the interview with her described their first meeting:

“Athena, an octopus toddler living in the New England Aquarium, locked eyes with the New Hampshire native, and without hesitation, Sy plunged her hand into an ice cold marine tank to allow the curious cephalopod to taste her skin. Octopuses, it turns out, taste with their suckers, and as Athena carefully explored Montgomery’s outstretched arms with her own, the writer felt they were both seeking, and connecting, alien skin to alien skin. Or, as we discovered, brain to brain.”

Keep that last thought in mind, as we’ll return to it.

Let’s explore the intelligence aspect a little further. A 2015 article in Nature, reporting on the sequencing of the octopus genome, began:

“With its eight prehensile arms lined with suckers, camera-like eyes, elaborate repertoire of camouflage tricks and spooky intelligence, the octopus is like no other creature on Earth. Added to those distinctions is an unusually large genome…that helps to explain how a mere mollusk evolved into an otherworldly being.” 

We’re talking about real brain power here. The Nature article quotes Benny Hochner, an Israeli neurobiologist who’s been studying octopuses for decades. “It’s important for us to know the genome, because it gives us insights into how the sophisticated cognitive skills of octopuses evolved.” 

What have they learned? That the genome of an octopus is nearly as large as ours, and actually has more protein-coding genes than we do: about 33,000, while we have fewer than 25,000. And the gene groups include one (called the protocadherins) involved in the development of neurons and their interactions. 

Octopuses also have specific, highly expressed genes in certain tissues. The genes in their suckers, for example, appear comparable to those related to the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and apparently give those suckers their exquisite ability to taste.images-28

This intelligence is associated with the octopuses’ roughly 500,000 neurons, of which as many as two-thirds are located in their arms, particularly their upper arms. Talk about multi-tasking!  They can be doing one thing while an arm or two move around exploring their environment. And their neurons seem to act without being attached to anything via long-range fibers, Nature observes—such as the spinal cord we vertebrates have. And…

“The genome contains systems that can allow tissues to rapidly modify proteins to change their function. Electrophysiologists had predicted that this could explain how octopuses adapt their neural-network properties to enable such extraordinary learning and memory capabilities.”

How does this intelligence manifest itself? For one thing, octopuses are veritable Houdinis. Aquarium personnel know you never turn your back on an octopus in a pail because the next time you look, he’ll be quietly walking down the hall.

They are strong enough to push open the lids of their tanks, and one reportedly took off and made his way from the aquarium back to the sea he’d once called home.  And because of their shape-shifting and lack of bones, a 100-pound octopus can squeeze through a hole the size of an orange, says Montgomery.

They seem to welcome what can only be called mental stimulation. Montgomery speaks of an “Enrichment Manual” that advises aquarium personnel to give them Mr. Potato Heads, Legos, and the like. One inventor created a series of cubes made of plexiglass containing a crab. Each of the three cubes had a different lock; the third had 2 different locks. The octopus opened them all.

They appear to be playful. Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith became fascinated by them when he was scuba diving off the coast of Australia. He has written a book  describing how octopuses have led him to explore the nature of consciousness. 

In an interview, Tentacled Alien From Under the Sea, he discusses octopuses in captivity turning out the lights in the lab by squirting water on the fixtures. And they demonstrably behave differently to people who treat them kindly than to those who aren’t as nice, perhaps even forming likes and dislikes for reasons that aren’t evident. 

The interviewer asked Godfrey-Smith whether when an octopus grabs your hand and sucks on you, is it tasting you? Godfrey-Smith responded:

“That’s what they are doing…so octopuses will reach out an arm and their suckers  will attach and touch you. All of those suckers contain a variety of sensory organs but in particular they can taste everything they touch.”

“If you’re in an aquarium and you’ve used particular soaps or deodorants, those are extremely strong stimuli when an octopus touches you and will make a big difference as to how you come across to them. This is one of several ways in which their sensory world is just completely extraordinary.”

Montgomery reported about one octopus, Truman, that sprayed a young aquarium worker in the face with water whenever she came into view—the only one who got that treatment. And when she’d been gone for months, and then returned, Truman greeted her with the same tactic—clearly remembering who she was. images-30

Montgomery has reportedly expressed her “surprise that octopuses have personalities and even consciousness—and some of the same cognitive and emotional capacities that we do and maybe a whole bunch we don’t.”

An octopus in a New Zealand aquarium takes pictures of the people who come to see him. In only three tries, he figured out how to work the camera, and he springs to action when he sees people positioned against a white backdrop, placing one of his arms into a tube and  snapping the photo.

The octopus learns in the wild that it’s kill or be killed, and it has a panoply of options when faced with a potentially dangerous situation.  Montgomery mentioned its weaponry:  Eat the predator using its sharp beak? Envelop it?  Turn colors, either to confuse it or blend into the environment?  Pour its “baggy boneless body down a little crack?” Shoot out ink to give it time to escape? 

The octopus meets up with diverse animals with different brains, she says, and outwits them all.

For additional videos, see “Octopuses keep surprising us—here are eight examples how.”

Now we come to the somewhat hypothethetical and, to me, most fascinating part. Because they are so clever, so resourceful, and so very odd, more than one scientist studying octopuses has said some variation of the following:

“This is probably the closest we’ll come to meeting an intelligent alien.“

How did it all happen? No one knows for sure, of course, but one “big idea” (in Godfrey-Smith’s phrase) is that there was a common ancestor between the octopus and vertebrates about 600 million years ago, and two individual evolutionary experiments occurred involving large neuron systems and complex brains.

If octopuses are so intelligent and always eager to escape, the question then arises: is it fair for us to keep them in aquariums? Montgomery thinks it’s fair, because most octopus species in the wild spend the preponderance of their time in tight dens, but they need things to keep them interested and to stimulate their brains. She wouldn’t, she says, think such environment suitable to dolphins, for example.

In addition, octopuses are the subject of study for soft robotics, among other things.

But to our point today, octopuses and individual humans have definitely formed bonds. Montgomery says of her experience:

“I wanted to see if I could reach across the evolutionary chasm to touch an invertebrate from 1/2 billion years ago. It changed my way of thinking about thinking. Their brains evolved from an utterly different route. They’re each individuals.”

Did Athena trust you?, she was asked of her first encounter with an octopus. “There’s no telling–with people either. Maybe she could taste that I wasn’t afraid of her. Maybe she could taste emotions—through neurotransmitters or hormones.”

“Either way, we liked each other very much.”

What do you think? If you’re an octopus connoisseur, are you rethinking your position? How eager would you be to be “hugged and kissed” by an octopus? Do you agree with Montgomery that they’re OK in captivity–or not? Do you find octopuses as fascinating as I do?

As always, I welcome your thoughts, opinions, and stories in the comment box below—as well as your feedback in the form of stars (from the one on the left for “awful” to the one on the right for “excellent”) and the “likes” from WordPress folks.  Thanks so much.

Annie

How Do You Train a Butterfly? The Same Way You Train an Orthopedic Surgeon!

images-14
Photo courtesy of pixels.com

Ken Ramirez, a world-renowned animal trainer, was offered quite the challenge. In the midst of some tall buildings in London, a botanical specialty group had built a large garden—a garden that was home to thousands of butterflies of varying species, as well as many other types of flora and fauna. Its purpose: to show the “symbiotic relationship between plants and animals,” wrote Ramirez, describing the task ahead.

“The director of the project, Lucinda Bartholomew, had envisioned a fundraising gala presentation that would include an orchestra in the middle of the garden playing beautiful classical music while butterflies flew from one part of the garden to the other.”

They wouldn’t just fly willy-nilly, mind you. The idea was to design and implement a plan to train more than 10,000 butterflies to traverse the garden, on cue, in unison. Now if someone offered me an assignment that seemed like an impossibility, I’d at least think long and hard about it.

But the fact that Ramirez hadn’t ever worked with butterflies before and knew little about their sensory mechanisms didn’t deter him at all. Ensured help from the group’s butterfly experts, he enthusiastically agreed. ”What a unique training opportunity!,” he wrote.

Key to the plan’s success was knowing what and how the butterflies were fed—and how often. And who knew that butterflies could be bullies? Ramirez learned that they were highly territorial, and prone to inter-species warfare over their locales: they were already occupying three different spaces in the garden.

He determined that by using various types of food and different sounds for the three groups, he could enhance the original plan by training “different groups to fly at different times.”

For the details, please read Ramirez’s account.  He describes the breathtaking, successful dress rehearsal, as the symphonic music swelled—and first the red and orange butterflies took off and flew in unison, landing on one side of the garden.

“Then there was another swell of music and about 2,500 purple and blue butterflies fluttered in a similar manner from the far left to another location on the far right. Just as the second group settled, close to 5,000 butterflies of multiple colors…fluttered over my head, settling into their trees and bushes far behind me. There were tears in my eyes, and I was speechless…With the addition of the music, the butterflies appeared to undulate to the rhythm of the music—it was incredible!”

Though Ramirez found this an extraordinary experience, he says: “I always teach that training is the same, and works equally well, for all species, ‘whether training an earthworm or a Harvard graduate!’”

What’s the common methodology? Here I owe a debt of gratitude to my younger daughter, a highly regarded professional dog trainer who from the very start of her career has stressed that positive reinforcement—and avoiding coercion, intimidation, and physical punishment—are the most humane and most successful ways to train dogs and other living beings.

My daughter was recently telling me about the work of Karen Pryor, who revolutionized animal training, including training large animals. When I expressed interest in the topic, she graciously did a search that yielded the information in this post. (I realize the butterflies hardly qualify as large animals, but I found that story irresistible.)

I stress that both my daughter and I would rather see animals in the wild than in cages, but we also recognize that there are good zoos doing good works, including conservation education and prevention of species extinction.

We won’t be looking at earthworms here, but I’d like to introduce you to some fascinating work being done with marine mammals, nonhuman primates, tigers, river otters, and orthopedic surgeons.

You read that right: They may not all be Harvard graduates, but some orthopedic surgeons are being trained in accordance with Karen Pryor’s discoveries—the same principles that Ramirez uses.

In the 1960s, Pryor began working with those wonderful creatures, dolphins, in Sea Life Park in Hawaii, which her husband had developed. Her approach evolved from Pavlov’s work with dogs (classical conditioning), and B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning, based on rewards and punishment.

unknown-8
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

But importantly, Pryor found some of the training she observed abusive, so she went in a different direction.

She took the idea of food as a reward and added a sound to it: at first, a whistle. As she said in an interview on NPR’s Hidden Brain:

“The whistle is the signal that, at this very instant, you’re doing absolutely the right thing, so you’re going to get a prize…the identification for the learner…that acoustic message, whatever form it comes in, is actually a thrill.”

Pryor then employed the clicker that is now the cornerstone of a great deal of animal training. Between food rewards and clickers, the wonders take place.

We all know about the marine mammals that have been trained to perform. But thanks to Pryor, they, and their counterparts in other species, are being trained to participate in their medical care.

The positive reinforcement techniques she employed, Ken Ramirez has written,

“minimized or eliminated the use of coercion and punishment to gain the animal’s cooperation and created a trusting relationship between the keeper or trainer and the animal…As these relationships grew, the types of medical behaviors that could be trained also grew.”

So through patient and persistent training, killer whales (now verboten in marine shows), walruses, sea lions, and penguins have been taught to calmly present themselves and accept the needles necessary to take blood samples from them.

They learn to urinate on cue to provide urine samples, to exhale onto a plate to provide cultures from their airways, and even to ensure the effectiveness of eye drops and ear drops by keeping their heads above water long enough for the drugs to be absorbed.

Nonhuman primates have been similarly trained to accept such medical procedures, thereby reducing the incidence of injuries to handlers and stress on the animals by encouraging “a human-animal relationship that is based on trust rather than fear,” according to an article published by the Animal Welfare Institute.

This is, indeed, true of all animals so trained. Studies have actually shown a drop in the animals’ blood cortisol levels, indicating reduced anxiety.

Picture a baboon calmly offering his arm through a porthole in his cage to receive an injection. Or a female gorilla who has been providing urine samples for years while sitting on a potty. “She is so committed,” the author wrote,” that occasionally, she would go and get a drink of water when asked for a sample at a time when her bladder was empty.”

Now that’s commitment! Makes you question the phrase “dumb animals,” doesn’t it?

It’s clear that such techniques improve the animals’ welfare. And it should also be clear that they make the lives of the trainers and handlers much more interesting, safer, and less tense.

Here are links to several videos I really enjoyed; I think you will too.

River otter preps for ultrasounds. (Cincinnati Zoo.) “It may look like the trainer in this video is just having fun giving high fives and belly rubs, but there is a good reason that the otters have been taught these and other behaviors.” (You can skip the ad and go right to the starring cutie.)

unknown-7
Photo courtesy of en.wikipedia.org

Dental care for gorillas. “Dental care is just as important for gorillas as it is for humans!” (Santa Barbara Zoo.)

The tiger-turned-pussy cat, or what I imagine might be called: “Do you need this for some reason?” (Copenhagen Zoo) To learn what “this” is, you must watch the brief video to the end!

And now we turn to training the species known as homo sapiens, specifically, that subgroup called orthopedic surgeons. For years, Martin Levy, MD, who directs the residency program for orthopedic surgery at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, has successfully used clickers in agility training his border collies.

images-10

“Over time,” he told Scientific American writer Lindsey Konkel, “I started to realize that we had better tools for training our dogs than our residents.” So, Konkel writes, “Levy decided to use these tools to help new doctors learn the tricks of the trade.”

The “tricks’ were the basic skills that orthopedic surgeons needed: “tying knots, positioning surgical instruments, and handling power tools.”

Levy sought out Karen Pryor to help him develop a program leading to mastery of these techniques. As the residents accomplished tasks that had been broken down step by step, their performance was noted by the instructor’s marking the event with “a click, the flick of a flashlight, or simply the word ‘good’ spoken in a neutral tone,” Konkel observes.

Others have pointed out that this kind of training removes the emotional component, so the effort is strictly on task mastery, not worries about approval, failure, or other complicating factors. This has upended what Levy said was a traditional teaching method of criticizing residents for mistakes, rather than noting their success.

“It’s true that a clicker cannot inspire or play the role of a mentor,” says Shankar Vedantam, host of NPR’s Hidden Brain. “…And yet the clicker, when it is the right tool, can fix one of the most detrimental parts of the teacher-student relationship—when students start to care more about getting praise and avoiding criticism than learning.”

(This Hidden Brain episode, “When Everything Clicks: The Power of Judgment-Free Learning,” is accessible in both audio and transcript.)

From all the above—from butterflies to baboons to otters to tigers to orthopedic surgeons—it seems obvious that positive reinforcement and patient attention to marking tasks reap large benefits. Equally important, physical punishment and harsh treatment appear to be counterproductive.

To bring all of this closer to home, I’ll quote my daughter’s emphasis on the positive, as she describes “dog-friendly” training:

“‘Dog-Friendly'” is sometimes confused with permissive, but that is inaccurate. It means focusing on how to teach our dogs how to get it right, instead of focusing on how to punish them for making mistakes.

It also means being aware of our dogs’ limits, so that we can do our best to set them up for success. We often unwittingly put our dogs in situations they don’t have the skills or ability to handle, and then get angry and frustrated with them for acting out.

In my opinion, just as much–if not more–emphasis should be on adjusting what the human side of the equation is doing.”

And, notably,  positive reinforcement also works in training children, especially those with learning or behavioral difficulties.

*****

As always, I’m eager for your comments—your reactions, opinions, stories. (You can also let me know your opinion about this post by clicking on the stars below: from left to right, click star 1 for awful; star 5 for excellent. WordPress folks have the option to “like” this post further below.)

_________________

I dedicate this post to the memory of my sister, who died on December 29th, 2018—just 43 days after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her stoicism and bravery in the face of the devastating diagnosis, and her determination to live each day well, were extraordinary. She loved nature, reveled in identifying the birds in the vicinity of her Florida home, worried about the fate of the Manatees off the Florida coast, and cared gently and lovingly for her little Shih Tzu. She was very supportive of my blog, and I like to think she would have especially enjoyed this post. The loss is profound.
_________________

Annie

About Cats, Dogs, and Preconceived Notions

 

 

 

Thirteen years ago, a tiny white kitten slipped through our backyard fence and adopted Vick, our male collie/shepherd mix, as his “mom.” He’d trot after Vick wherever the dog went, struggling to keep up with him, and nuzzling him whenever possible. Vick, whose gentle nature belied his large size, was gracious and accepting of this feline interloper.

When torrential rains came, we moved the kitten into our garage while we pondered what to do with him. Keeping him was out of the question: we were unabashed dog lovers, but cats were different. I could tolerate them (and who can resist a kitten?), but my husband was emphatic: “I hate cats,” he said.

That was then. Now, having recently euthanized our beloved, very large cat, who’d become extremely ill and deteriorated quickly from a lymphoma, we are both slowly adjusting to his absence and to the void that absence created. But Monty has also left us with some fresh insights about reexamining preconceived notions, exploring the potential for human/animal communication, and opening our hearts and accepting a new source of wonder.

We had arranged for our dog walker, a veterinary assistant, to find a home for the kitten—if we promised to take him to the vet for his shots. We agreed. The tide changed one evening when we were out to dinner with friends who had two cats. They knew I’d been lobbying for another dog. We had our “main dog,” but I also wanted what the humorist Dave Barry has called “a small, emergency backup dog.” Our friends said, “Why don’t you just keep the kitten? Cats are great.” I assume the idea had been floating in my husband’s mind, because he turned to me and asked, “What’ll we name him?”

We named him “Monty,” after Monty Woolley, an actor who had played the title role in the play “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” Woolley’s character arrived, and stayed, and stayed. So did our Monty.IMG_0674

Fortunately for us, and perhaps because of Vick’s influence, he was a rather doglike cat—sweet, gentle, and affectionate, happy and purring, and in the years before Vick died at age 16-1/2, perfectly content to roll around and wrestle with his 80-pound companion. He was a well-adjusted indoor cat that seemed to lack any predatory instincts: on the few occasions a field mouse scampered across our kitchen floor, he remained uninterested.

And he became my cat-hating spouse’s cat: An early riser, he fed him, and it was he who cut Monty’s nails, stroking him gently between clips as he said, beaming, “I hate cats; I hate cats.” From my bed in the early morning, I could hear them having what sounded like conversations. Monty didn’t just “meow’: he vocalized, and he had a lot to say—often. Unlike with the companion animals that preceded him, Monty and we just seemed to understand each others’ vocalizations on a whole other level.

His ashes are now buried in our backyard, next to those of his buddy Vick. Though we miss our daily conversations with Monty and thought we’d have many more years together, we are grateful for the happy accident that led him, thirteen years ago, to wriggle his tiny body through our fence and awaken in us both a new capacity to love.

Note: I wrote this piece at the close of a course I’d taken in mindfulness: our final assignment was to bring in something we found meaningful. When several of my fellow participants came up to me afterward and said, “My husband also says he’d never have a cat in the house,” I began to wonder how widespread this sentiment is—and whether it’s gender-related. Many people love both cats and dogs, but other animal lovers choose sides, sometimes zealously, and perhaps stereotyping people whose animal choice differs from their own.

Our experience with Monty also led me to wonder whether it might be a little parable about how willing we are to challenge ourselves more broadly—not only about cats, dogs, and other animals, but also about the people we meet. In these woefully polarized times, can we/will we/do we ever reexamine our preconceived notions based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation, and the very sticky, difficult issue of political attitudes? If so, how do we do that? Your thoughts? Examples? Please leave a reply below. Note: If the “Leave a Reply” box isn’t visible, click on the title of the posting above (“About Cats, Dogs, and Preconceived Notions”), and it will appear–all the way down, below the previously posted comments.

And if you’d like to share stories about your own companion animals–their distinct natures and/or your bond with them–I’d love to hear those as well.

ADDENDUM: Since posting this blog a little over a week ago, I have set to work designing a Home page. (I’ve no idea how long it will take my non-techie self to pull that together.) As I went through Google images seeking appropriate selections, I noticed two very familiar photos: Vick and Monty, just as you see them above, have been reincarnated in the vast universe of cyberspace.

How did they get there? At first I thought it was done by WordPress, but I learned that the photos had, in fact, been swept up by Googlebot, which is using the Google search engine to index my site, with its images, and make it searchable for others. If I didn’t want the photos on Google images, I could either remove them from my blog or bar Google from my site. Neither option appealed to me, so Vick and Monty remain available to anyone who cares to adopt them photographically.

As I love the photos and our memories of our boys, I am actually quite pleased with this turn of events–and amused that while I’m slowly building a community with my blog, Vick and Monty probably now have a fan base in the thousands.

 

 

About Me

Welcome to Annie Asks You: Seeking Dialogue to Inform, Enlighten, and/or Amuse You and Me.

My interests are diverse: just about every aspect of what is sometimes called “current events”; health and wellness; the environment; animal behavior and the human/animal bond; and efforts to find common ground among people to lower the temperature of our national angst and strive for a more peaceful country and world.

I began writing decades ago, when The New York Times introduced a New Jersey Weekly section. Delighted by this publication giant’s neighborly interest, I sent off three letters to the editor in quick succession. To my amazement, The Times ran all three as Op-Eds and sent me payment for each.  The result: I started my career with the hugely erroneous assumption that life as a freelance writer was easy and potentially profitable.

Years of hard work, revisions, and rejections followed, but so did many essays and articles published in various newspapers and magazines, as well as two longer, coauthored documents: a book written with a plastic surgeon and a monograph published by the American Library Association.

There were also some interesting long-term projects: editing the Bulletin of the Association for Psychoanalytic Medicine (Columbia University); serving as Project Editor for a federally funded study of the ethical, legal, and social implications of the Human Genome Project; and acting as vice president of a nonprofit foundation that was an early effort to provide the public with access to public information via the Internet. I then served as a writer/editor for a magazine for physicians and as managing editor and subsequently vice president for a continuing medical education company.

It’s the emphasis on “common ground” that has led me to focus on seeking dialogue in this blog. I’ll sometimes express strong opinions, and I hope you’ll do the same with your comments. But I also hope our shared goal will be not necessarily to agree–but to politely and respectfully give serious consideration to one another’s views. I’d like us to be the Johnny Appleseeds of empathy, spreading good will as we learn from one another.

Think this will work? It will only if you collaborate with me. Your thoughts?

Here’s hopin’!

Annie