At the time of my first meeting with Maggie, Pilot was very ill and nearing the end of his life. Pilot had been in the home from the moment Maggie was brought into this family and had acted as her protector. As we continued to talk, Maggie began to understand Pilot would no longer be able to perform this function for her. Now that they realized Maggie would soon lose her protector, Maggie’s human parents now wanted to know what she might like to help her feel better. Without hesitation Maggie announced she wanted a dog. I pointed out to her that Ed was still around and he had a lot of energy left. Maggie explained to me that Ed and Pilot were brothers. From her perspective, they were all part of the family living inside the house with mom and dad. What Maggie wanted was a dog. She went on to tell me that a dog lives outside, and could be useful for keeping watch.
One of the most enjoyable parts of my job in talking with animals is understanding how they see themselves, their family, and their world. For Maggie there was a clear distinction between dogs, and she and her brothers. There was no need to add to her current family, since she didn’t want another brother to be brought into the household. She saw no need to share attention or food with an additional member of the family. However, getting a dog - that was completely different story.
Francis was an African Grey Parrot who squawked loudly the moment people left the room. When people were in the room with her, she was transfixed on watching their every movement. Her human family loved Francis but found the vocalizations loud and disturbing, and couldn’t figure out how to help her be quieter. They had tried giving her bird toys in her cage so she would have something to play with, but Francis never wanted to interact with any of these toys. Francis had come to her humans not well socialized and was afraid of anything new in her cage. While it is common for birds to need time to make sure a new object is safe before they interact with it, even after weeks had gone by Francis would cower in her cage as far away from the toy as she could get.
As I talked with Francis she explained that when people came into the room they did all sorts of interesting things, but they remained at a safe distance from her, on the other side of her cage. Francis had decided the most fun and safest toys in her world were the humans. When her toys (as she saw them) left the room, she got frustrated and made noise until they returned. For Francis, the only way she felt safe being entertained and having any new stimulation in her environment was when her human toys were in sight and were doing interesting things. She also got noisy when her toys decided to sit down for a rest. As far as she was concerned, her toys were there to make her world interesting and bearable from the solitude of her empty cage. By learning that Francis saw people as her toys, I was in a better position to help her understand that for her toys to work properly, they needed rest. This now made sense to her and she was able to be quiet when the humans around her stopped doing things in front of her.
Oden was a Maltese dog who wasn’t fond of children. While Oden was perfectly content to hang out with adult humans, he would bark and snap at any children. He explained to me that children were loud and rough and unnecessary, and he wasn’t the least bit interested in interacting with them. This was a concern for his humans, because his human mom was pregnant and was worried Oden would be aggressive towards the new baby. When I talked with Oden about the upcoming change in his family, he was really happy about. I was a little surprised by this, as I knew he didn’t like children. As I questioned him about his upbeat attitude on this particular new baby, he told me this baby was different. He saw this child as “our baby,” and much to everyone’s amazement thought this was a good thing to be happening. Indeed, when the baby was born Oden was gentle and careful around “our baby,” although he still didn’t want anything to do with other children.
Taking the opportunity to learn about how an animal sees itself or its life gives me a guide to the way I want to approach a topic of discussion with an animal. How do you think your animals view their world, and the people and animals who share it with them?