Today’s blog post is about animal behavior, though not about a wild animal.
I am always fascinated by birds’ and mammals’ ability to communicate without complicated language. Gestures and eye contact are often so effective that the one who sees the look or gesture knows exactly what to do. I’ve noticed this on the webcams among nesting peregrines and eagles who don’t have language but certainly get the point across — often with just a pointed look in the youngster’s direction.
Can gestures and eye contact achieve communication between species? I think so.
Shown above is the animal I watch most closely. Her name is Emmalina (or Emmy or Emmaline). Though domesticated her heart is wild.
Emmalina makes a few sounds I understand but the rule in our house (my rule) is that meowing doesn’t get you anywhere. If you want a treat, “sit pretty” and silently in the Treat Zone (where she’s sitting right now) and you’ll get one. If I don’t notice her sitting there she makes a very faint “mewp” to get my attention and then sits silently. I congratulate myself that I’ve trained her to do this.
We’ve always fed our cats in the basement, just down the kitchen stairs. Emmalina is 8 years old and she knows the routine. She usually runs downstairs ahead of me to be in place when her dish arrives, but last week she started to run away when I went downstairs. She wouldn’t come down and she wouldn’t eat anything in the basement — not her canned food, not the dry food. I began to wonder if she was ill. (Nope! I could tell she was hungry.) Would I have to call the Cornell Animal Behavior Clinic to figure out what was going on?
Last Friday the problem was solved in such an amazing way that it generated this open letter to Cornell.
Dear Cornell Animal Behavior Clinic:
The training program was successful at last. After two weeks of non-verbal instruction the humans have figured out that I want to eat upstairs. It was worth refusing a week’s worth of dinners in the basement.
Relieved and vindicated,
Emmalina St. John
Notice her dish in the Treat Zone now! She says the basement floor is too cold in winter.
Non-verbal communication does work … eventually.
(photo by Kate St. John)
p.s. Cornell Animal Behavior Clinic is a great resource. As part of the Veterinary College they have extensive experience with companion animals and can tell you exactly what the behavior means and how to address it. Don’t hesitate to look them up if you have a behavior problem with a dog or cat.