Feeding Kittens to Boa Constrictors

Yes, my title is shocking. It’s an attention-getter, but I didn’t use it as clickbait and I didn’t make it up. It was the working title for a book by psychology professor Hal Herzog. His publisher wasn’t a fan of that title and it was published as Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals

Herzog’s work examines the contradictions in our relationships with animals. He wanted to answer questions such as “Does living with animals really make us healthier?” and “Why do we eat some animals and keep others as pets?”

On that first question, research shows that pets make people happier and healthier. There is also research that shows that pets, by way of caring for them and losing them, make people unhappy and unhealthy.

There is also research that posits that it is happier and healthier people who are more likely to have pets.

Pets also limit us with their needs, cost us money and cause much grief when they die. Americans spend $80 billion a year on their pets.

Cats that are allowed outside contribute to the deaths of 1-5 billion birds per year (estimates vary widely). So then is it better to trap cats indoors for their entire lives? Is it right to trap any animal in a cage, tank or wandering a mostly empty house or apartment?

Herzog’s work is in the field of anthrozoology. I don’t think I knew that word before I read the book. It is the study of interactions between humans and other animals. I knew anthropomorphic, which is the way we attach human characteristics to animals. This is not just the way a monkey or ape appears human, but how we attach human qualities to our pet dogs and cats.

The book is a nice combination of personal anecdotes and scientific research. Of course, this line of inquiry also has to consider moral and ethical positions we have, often paradoxical, about our relationship with animals.

For example, vegans buy animal flesh for their cats to eat.

Herzog had boa constrictors in his lab and they needed to be fed. Typically, they would buy live mice for them to eat. But he realized that there were kittens being euthanized at a local shelter that he could get for the boa constrictors. Feeding dead kittens to the snakes seemed more moral than killing mice. Right?

We generally don’t think of mice in the same way that we think of kittens. To further muddy the moral waters, Herzog’s daughter had a pet mouse. When it died, they made the shoebox coffin and the backyard burial with the typical ceremony. Later, he caught a mouse that had been trying to break into their kitchen in a trap. It was disposed of unceremoniously in the trash.  Why the differences?

That vegan with the cat will need to buy about 50 pounds of meat a year. Why not own a snake that requires about 5 pounds of meat per year? Cat versus snake. Not much of a contest.

He tells the story of someone who decides that keeping a bird caged is wrong. So, he frees the bird. And then he realizes that the bird will very likely die out in the wild.

It is no surprise that the World Wildlife Fund chose the Chinese Giant Panda as its symbol instead of the Chinese Giant Salamander.

Another story to consider is on a trip to Africa when he asks a native a few questions about dogs. “Would you allow a dog in your home?” The native is shocked. “Never!”  Would he allow it to eat food from the family table, or sleep in his bed? Would he give it hugs and let it kiss him? Looks of shock and disgust. Cultural differences.  Some we love. Some we hate. Some we eat.

For an easy entry into this difficult topic and more on Herzog’s research and book, listen to Our Animal Instincts, an episode of Hidden Brain from NPR.

You might also like to read Hal Herzog’s blog for Psychology Today.  He addresses other animal-human issues like Should Self-Driving Cars Spare People Over Pets? and Why Do Kids Become Less Attached To Pets As They Get Older?

Welcome to the Dog Days


Summer is less than a month old, but today is the beginning of the Dog Days of summer.

Those days run for 40 days and are generally known as especially hot and humid weather with little rainfall. It’s the kind of weather that makes us feel a bit sluggish. It’s a time when we might want to have  bit of a dog’s life and just finding a nice shady spot to take a nap.

It was the ancient Greeks that gave it that tag because they believed that Sirius, the “dog star,” was making the sun hotter.  That quite visible star rises now with the sun and they assumed it was like a second sun.

The ancients also thought this was a period when dogs were more likely to go mad and have fits. Unfortunately, the Romans tried to appease Sirius by sacrificing a brown dog at the start of the Dog Days.

Nowadays, “Dog Days” is less of a weather term and more of a general term meaning any period of stagnation or inactivity. For example Wall Street marks this period as one that tends to be slow and sluggish.

Are Animals Stuck in Time?


I don’t own a dog now. I always had one when I was a kid. But my wife was raised in a pet-free zone and developed a fear of most dogs, so we never had one, though my sons always asked about getting one.  She actually had a good relationship with the dog I had when we were dating. Romper was a cutie and very smart (okay, so everyone says that) and at first she used to squeeze between us on the couch because she was jealous of my girlfriend.

As much as I love them, I know that dogs and other pets really tie you down, so I was not heartbroken about being dog-less. I figure somewhere in my retirement years I will want a dog again.

What got me thinking about dogs was listening to a podcast from the How Stuff Works guys about whether or not dogs perceive time. (You can download them all free in iTunes.)

It’s actually not that clear about whether or not dogs have a sense of time. From what I heard and then read, it seems divided between the scientists (No) and dog owners (Yes). Of course, we might have to adjust our thinking about time from our human perceptions a bit.

Time is a human construction to allow us to order our lives and all our time-keeping devices have changed how modern man perceives time. Animals don’t seem to care that much about it.

Albert Einstein once explained the principle of relativity by saying, “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute — and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”  He’s right that we all perceive time a bit differently and as individuals view the human construct of Time differently in different situations.

Because we remember events in a particular order, that structures our perception of time. Even the non-psychic amongst us can predict the future – the sun will rise in the morning, a TV program will be on at 8 PM, in 48 hours I will be back at work. That means that we have a sense of continuity, personal history and self-awareness.

Do dogs and other animals have any of out time and memory abilities?  Does Spot remember what he ate yesterday? Does Princess know when it will be time to eat again or are they “stuck in time.”

One of the researchers on animal cognition referenced in the podcast is William Roberts. He says that animals are “stuck in time” – meaning that without being able to form memories, animals only live in the present. In other words, they can’t go back to memories and can’t predict forward.

Those are theories that almost any dog owner will refute.

Owners would point to things like any training they have given their dog. as proof of a memory bank.  Roberts would say No and point to the way young children are trained to do things.

By age four, kids have learned to crawl, walk etc. but can’t recall where or how they learned them.

So, then you have to get into types of memory.  The four-year old doesn’t have episodic memory (the ability to remember particular events in the past).

Just because my Romper knew what “stay” meant, it doesn’t mean she had a memory of when she learned that command.

They also point to some research with pigeons. (Right away, I have a problem with the leap from pigeon to dog, but…) Pigeons have an “internal clock” that allows them to learn when and where food would be available and dogs might use circadian oscillators to do the same. Those are those daily fluctuations of hormones, body temperature and neural activity that we also have. The pooch might use those to “predict” when it’s time to be fed or when the kids are coming home from school.

So, they don’t really “remember” the “time” of those events, but it’s a biological state at a particular time of day that they are reacting to as a stimulus.

The researchers have tried to test animals’ “working memories” (those are the short-term memories) and their “reference memories” (long-term) to see how well the animals recall sequences of events. They found that pigeons and primates (where are the doggies?) did fairly well at these tasks, but their memory faded fast. They concluded that they were probably learning going from weakest memory to strongest memory, rather than actually “learning” or “remembering” a sequence.

Other researchers found that pigeons and monkeys performed well at reference memory tests in which they needed to remember a sequence after a delay between learning and testing [sources: Straub, D’Amato]. But, it took extensive training for the animals to learn these sequences, suggesting to Roberts that the ability did not come naturally to them. From these tests, it seems that animals would perceive time differently from humans, who have a relatively reliable and sophisticated memory of sequence of events.

While we might pack things for a trip, including dog food and bowls,  your dog will not be concerned.

Let me pause here to say that I find this Zen-like “living in the moment” world of dogs rather appealing.

How about Mr. Squirrel caching away food for winter? Isn’t that his 401K plan?  The researchers say they do it simply do it out of instinct. When your dog buries that bone or toy, is she saving it for the future or just having fun digging holes?

Feel free to post your dog tales as comments below because I’m sure all you dog (and cat and parrot and…) owners have evidence that contradicts the research.

I won’t even get into the theory that goldfish have only an 8 second memory storage.

Poop and Compass

Dogs: contemplative and seekers of True North

I grew up always having a dog, but it has been years since I had a dog in the house. So, I will have to ask you to confirm or disprove this piece of science I found recently.

We have all observed dogs doing their little circle dance before pooping. They do something similar before they settle down for a nap or sleep. I’m pretty sure I had read once that this was some ancient dog ritual for checking the safety of the spot before proceeding. Now, I read that dogs align themselves with the Earth’s magnetic field before pooping..

We have learned that other animals, particularly birds that migrate long distances, can sense the orientation of the Earth’s magnetic field. This is true of whales and bees. The new study seems to indicate that dogs also have magnetosensitivity.

Research being what it is, these scientists did two years of poop and pee observations. They ruled out other influences (wind, time of day, Sun’s angle, leashes, fire hydrants, fences etc.) and decided it was the Earth’s magnetic field. The dogs aligned themselves with the North-South axis and avoided the East-West axis.

Do they feel some magnetic pull? Well, they also found that when there were periods of instability in the Earth’s magnetic field (like when the sun’s magnetic field or solar winds kick up as they did recently)  the dogs did not prefer for the North-South axis.

Since many of us carry a compass on our smartphones or can at least identify the East-West axis by the morning and afternoon sun, I say we conduct our own research and report the results here as a comment.  I know that I am going to pay closer attention to the dogs I see on my rambles in the park. Hopefully, owners won’t call the police.


My Steinbeck Summer

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” – Travels with Charley: In Search of America

My Steinbeck summer was when I was 14 years old. In my teen years I was someone who latched onto authors and read a bunch of books by that person in great gulps. I had done that earlier with Beverly Cleary, the Hardy Boys, Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes and later with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and the big names of American literature.

The first two books I read by John Steinbeck were Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row which I really liked – especially Cannery Row with its bums and biology. After I read about Steinbeck and looked at some criticism, I went into The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and the more famous titles.

But the Steinbeck summer was the year I read his new book of 1962, Travels with Charley: In Search of America which is not a novel, but a travel book about a 1960 road trip with his French standard poodle, Charley, around the United States.

I think the idea of exploring the country in an on-the-road way appeals to many Americans, especially young ones.
Steinbeck wanted to see firsthand the country he was writing about it and to understand “what Americans are like today.”

John Steinbeck traveled across the country is a customized camper (which he dubbed “Rocinante” after the horse of Don Quixote). He drove from Long Island, New York, and roughly followed the outer border of the United States, from Maine to the Pacific Northwest, down into his native Salinas Valley in California, across to Texas, up through the Deep South, and then back to New York. It was a journey of about 10,000 miles.

Steinbeck knew he was dying and Steinbeck’s wife didn’t want him to attempt it because of his heart condition.

Steinbeck writes: “Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who people the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there.”

He was 58 years old in 1960 and was also nearing the end of his career. He had planned on leaving after Labor Day from his home in Sag Harbor along with Charley. Besides companionship, Charley serves as a literary device because he has “conversations” with the dog along the way. I remember that particular Labor Day because of Hurricane Donna which hit NY and my home in NJ.

Travels with Charley in Search of America was published several months before Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The book reached #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list in October. In the Steinbeck novel The Pastures of Heaven, one of the characters says that Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes as one of the single greatest works of English literature it inspired his own choice for a title.

There is some controversy about how much of the book actually occurred on the trip. Some critics assumed some of it was fiction from a writer of fiction. Steinbeck was not all that pleased with the America and Americans he found on the road. Add his bad health and his inability to recapture his youthful “spirit of the knight-errant,” and you could read the book as a downer. But, I like it. I really liked the idea of the trip and I bought into the whole thing.

I never got to do my own cross-country journey. I did make my way from Mexico to Northern California with my wife years ago and we included some Steinbeck stops like Salinas, Monterey, and Cannery Row. At 147 11th Street in Pacific Grove there is a cottage built by Steinbeck’s father as a summer home. Steinbeck returned repeatedly throughout his life there. We were told that one of the pine trees in the yard was planted when Steinbeck was a child, and he always felt a connection to it.


Steinbeck lived in this cottage periodically from 1930-1936 with his first wife, Carol, as he struggled to become a successful writer.

He returned again to the house to live at various times in the 1940s. He began work on Of Mice and Menat the cottage. That manuscript was nearly finished when Steinbeck’s dog, Toby, chewed up the only copy of the book.

Toby was an English setter and my dog that Steinbeck summer was an English setter named Lucky.

After Toby chewed up the longhand manuscript of Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck wrote to his agent, “The poor little fellow may have been acting critically.”

He also wrote about testing out his writing by reading to his dogs.

“I’ve always tried out my material on my dogs first. You know, with Angel, he sits there and listens and I get the feeling he understands everything. But with Charley, I always felt he was just waiting to get a word in edgewise. Years ago, when my setter chewed up the manuscript of Of Mice and Men, I said at the time that the dog must have been an excellent literary critic. Time is the only critic without ambition.

Steinbeck rewrote the book and claimed that it was a good exercise in harsh editing and that probably what remained was the best of what he had written. The book was published in 1937.

Steinbeck left me plenty to read for the next few years. There were ones I read but didn’t really like very much like Cup of Gold,  and The Pastures of Heaven (1932). I ended up teaching: The Red Pony, The Pearl and Of Mice and Men. And there were ones I read because I wanted to have read the whole canon: The Log from the Sea of Cortez, East of Eden, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) and much later, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976).