Thursday, April 18, 2013

Softly and Tenderly

Trust, and love are two of the beautiful gifts that our pets demonstrate to us time and again. Their ability to read us and interact with us betray an intellect that is far more sophisticated than many would believe and that science said was impossible for centuries. Despite the protests of many a pet owner, science insisted that animals (other than humans) were nothing more than machines of response and stimuli. The silly assertions of pet owners were nothing more than intellectually soft and irresponsible anthropomorphizations.
A tender moment between beaker and Jorge
Fortunately this mindset has been giving way to better research and many scientists are opening up to the idea that personality is something that we share with our animal compatriots. That they do indeed have an emotional life and are capable of more complex thought than was originally believed.

Having said that, I would like to relate an incident that occurred between my Blue & Gold Macaw (Ara ararauna), Beaker and myself.

 Beaker is a "rescue" bird, meaning that we did not purchase him but rather, took him in via a rescue (Spring Branch Animal and Bird Sanctuary, in Houston, Texas - SBABS).  When he came into the rescue he was around 25 years old and had spent most of his life living with a chain smoker, who eventually died of emphysema (one of the first sounds that beaker made for us was the sound of someone coughing a deep smokers cough).  After this person died, he was given to a relative that had no interest in birds and left him in the cage with little or no attention, feeding him nothing more than seeds.  The neglect and misfortune of his early life were visible in his badly plucked plumage, his "scissor-beak" which probably occurred as a result of bad husbandry when he was a chick, and the white patches on his face (which were stained brown with nicotine when he was finally brought into SBABS).  His state of deterioration was bad enough that the vets that checked him raised the possibility that euthanasia might be the most  humane solution for him.  In spite, of his condition, the director of the sanctuary wanted to work with him and see what she could do.  Slowly but surely Beaker recovered and I was introduced to him.  He took to Jorge and I well and came to live with us.

Since that time, beaker has made a full recovery for the most part, although he already has atherosclerosis, no doubt from many years of bad diet and second hand smoke.  He has however taken more of a liking to Jorge than me.  Which is fine.  I spend much of my time with my animals trying to allow them choices rather than take more away from them.  Empowerment is my game, so if beaker likes Jorge better then thats ok.  In general this means that beaker doesn't want to have that much to do with me unless Jorge is away, then I do just fine as an acceptable replacement for Beaker's favorite person.

It is in those times, when Jorge is away, that I get to have really substantive and positive interaction with Beaker in an intellectual way as well as physical.  He will talk with me, and step up, and ride around the house on my should with bliss (or at other times, just using me as a taxi to take him around the house looking for the person he'd really rather be with).

One thing a new bird owner quickly understands is that a bird's beak speaks loudly of its mood, openess to handling, and general state of mind.  It only takes one or two real good "hits" from an angry, insecure, or reluctant bird to get the idea that a gaping beak headed for one of your appendages means "back off, buddy!" and while even a tiny budgie or parrotlet can inflict a righteous dose of punishment with their little chompers, the bigger bird, the bigger the beak, the stronger and more "persuasive" they can be, indeed.  (In "bird-speak" this can also be a warning for your own good, if the bird perceives that you are in some kind of danger, sort of like a spanking for your own good.)

Beaker issuing a clear warning!

As an instrument, however, the beak is useful for so much more than warning and admonishing.  It is a very sensitive instrument, even though it, at first glance, looks as if it is nothing more than a hard keratinous outcrop.  It is full of nerve endings and is for the most part how birds explore the world (their legs are busy supporting them and their "arms" have become wings for locomotion and little else.  The beak can also be an instrument of great delicacy that tends to the tiny filaments in a birds own feathers as they preen, or that manipulates the individual hairs in a human eyebrow as a bird allopreens it's human companion.

A few weeks ago, I went into the study to check on Beaker and spend a few minutes with him. He was perched in his cage, "chilling" the afternoon quietly away.  I Opened the door and reached in to a very calm and welcoming beaker.  He seemed aware that his preferred anthropod was not available and that I was therefore acceptable as company.  I reached behind his head and ruffled his feathers a bit, searching for pin feathers that I could assist him with dispatching.  His eyes relaxed into an almond shape and he cooed softly with approval making a kind of soft "braaa-a-a-a-a-a--a-" sound that Blue and Gold Macaws make when they are "comfy and approving" of ones actions. Knowing that he sometimes like's his face patches stroked, I let my thumb slip around and rubbed his skin gently and was treated to more "braaa-a-a-a-a-a-a-."

I do my best to let my birds my birds chooose.  There is always room for them to move away and I try not to force them to step up.  I do my best to listen to their vocal and body language.  So to this point in the story, its all about what Beaker wants.  He turns his head to the side a little bit to give me a better angle to his cheek patches and there are more "braaa-a-a-a-a-aa-'s."  More ruffling and stroking goes on for a bit and then Beaker starts to puff up just a little bit and open his beak in a way that I interpret as him being less open to my continuing and that a nip might be in my future.  I start to pull away and sure enough, here comes the beak, but then Beaker does something that warmed my heart and fascninated me.  Rather than nip me, he gently and carefully held my thumb in in his beak with just enough pressure to hold my hand in plance and nothing more, as if to say, "Wait, Wait. Stay.  Don't Go."  I stayed right there, thumb in beak and continued to ruffle his feathers for another minute or two.  Not for one second did he bite down or chew on my thumb or touch it with his tongue.  He was just holding on.  After a couple of minutes, he released my thumb and cocked his head to the side a little to look straight at me and made a little more cooing as he moved away from my hand and we both relaxed.  He quitely added a "Ha, ha, haa, HAAAaaaa as I closed the door on his cage walked back into the kitchen.  I could hear him behind me climbing up to his favorite perch to preen and relax.

Afterwards, as I went about my household tasks, I couldn't help but reflect on what had happened at be just amazed at the exchange.  How amazing is it that two different species, separated by so much time and genetic difference, could share a tender exchange, an exchange which saw the use of a powerful and intimidating appendage to communicate such gentleness.  The exchange of trust between the two of us was amazing.  I'm usually bad cop, taking Beaker to have his monthly beak trim or taking him to the vet (one of his least favorite places).  I take the brunt of the nipping and bossing from this bird as a general rule, but in this instant, that was put aside and we both enjoyed each other in detent.  These birds we invite into our homes to live with us, our animals in general are each fascinating and amazing in their own way, from rodent to psittacine.  How lucky are we to share our world with them, to cooperate with them.  While we may never know exactly what goes on in their minds, our pets live complex emotional lives beyond what many would allow.  I definitely felt love rise from within myself during our exchange and if not love, there was certainly major trust demonstrated by Beaker as he let his guard down with his "B" person. I hope that each of you will spend a few thoughtful minutes with your animal companions and marvel at the relationship you enjoy with them.