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Subject: ‘Psychology’

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Animals look after their young

Posted in Animals, Nature, Psychology, Wildlife on Thursday, 16 June 2011

This edited article about animal behaviour originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 970 published on 11 October 1980.

elephant, picture, image, illustration

A bull elephant guarding female and young elephants, by Bob Hersey

When a human baby is born today, it is surrounded with all the trappings of modern science. Every form of assistance is available to give a helping hand both at the birth and afterwards. In the animal world, too, there are creatures which act as midwives, whose role is to assist at the actual birth, nursemaids or minders. In many species, help, during birth and after, is almost as efficient and caring as that found in the human world.

It is amongst the largest land animals, elephants, that we find some of the most advanced forms of caring. It is very unusual for a female elephant in the wild to give birth alone. Usually the cow elephant retires into the bush accompanied by one or two females, who give her constant support.

There are many examples. Twenty years ago, Commander Lefevre, in charge of an elephant training station in Zaire, watched as three elephants disappeared into the bush. He followed them and witnessed a remarkable scene. For two hours the accompanying elephants comforted the pregnant cow as she heaved back and forth. Finally the baby elephant began to emerge. The commander watched as one of the “midwives”, realising that the cow-elephant was tired, helped by placing her trunk around the baby elephant and pulled it into the world.

One of the most unusual observations of this kind relates how two men were travelling through Tanganyika during World War One when they came across a group of elephants some 40 metres ahead. A cow elephant was lying on the ground in the process of giving birth; around her stood four young bulls, as if protecting her.

The men sounded their horn and immediately one of the bulls came aggressively towards the car. The pair retreated to the safety of a small hill from which they watched as the bull elephant lifted the car in the air with his trunk and let it drop with a sickening thud. He then walked around the car and bashed his head against the bonnet. He rejoined the group just as the baby elephant was born. The mother eventually rose to her feet and walked away with the calf following; the four young bulls brought up the rear.

It is commonly thought that birth in the animal world is far less traumatic than among humans. This is far from true: animals need as much help and comfort when giving birth as human mothers do. If animals are left to deal with the situation alone, the results can often prove fatal.

It is the practice amongst domestic cows to help when one of their herd is giving birth. This may only be due to curiosity, but this curiosity inevitably leads to something more positive. When the baby calf is born, the other females help to lick it clean. The mother eventually rises and drives them away in a jealous rage. The attendant cows, however, have provided protection for the young until the mother was able to stand. She in turn was forced more rapidly to her feet, so reducing the chances of any neglect of the new born calf.

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Compassion in the animal kingdom

Posted in Animals, Nature, Psychology on Tuesday, 14 June 2011

This edited article about animal behaviour originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 968 published on 27 September 1980.

blind rats, picture, image, illustration

A blind rat is guided by a twig held out by its companion. Picture by Bob Hersey

During the course of a typical day, we all meet many healthy and spirited people, and we react to them in a perfectly normal fashion. If we meet someone feeling rather sad, or one who has experienced some injury, our reaction is quite different. Feelings of sympathy are aroused, and consequently our treatment of them is greatly changed.

This same compassion, so strongly felt within human beings, can be witnessed in the animal kingdom. Animals and birds are regularly observed helping other less fortunate creatures; but some of the most marked areas where compassion overrules all other emotions or instincts, are encounters with the blind.

A favourite story which can be heard in many different forms is that of a blind rat being led by a sighted rat, with the aid of a straw or twig. Eric Simms, an eminent naturalist, ornithologist and broadcaster, once recounted his own sighting of this phenomenon. For some time he and a companion watched two rats, one of which was holding on to the tail of the other. The men then discovered on examination that the second rat was totally blind in both eyes.

This example of compassion is as hard to believe of such an unpopular animal as it is to prove. Other tales are both easier to believe and simpler to verify.

In 1971 a letter appeared in the magazine The Countryman written by a keen New Zealand walker. He had heard an urgent cry coming from the other side of a hedge beside the lane where he was walking. There he found a lonely ewe. The sheep was standing right under the hedge, and was constantly calling and listening in turn.

The rest of the flock was some distance away, but after a short time one lifted her head, looked towards the call and answered. Then slowly she walked towards the solitary ewe, replying to each of her calls. As the sheep neared the hedge, the crying ewe stumbled towards her. When they met, the sighted sheep gently steered her blind companion back towards the rest of the flock.

The most puzzling examples of special treatment for blind animals appear in the stories of blind dogs. One tale is of a man out walking with his Labrador in County Antrim, Ireland. This big dog was described as a born fighter. The dog suddenly broke free and dashed across the road towards a terrier standing in the doorway of a house. As it neared the smaller dog, the Labrador came to a grinding halt, turned and ran back to its owner without attacking the smaller dog. The owner of the terrier explained, “No dog ever fights mine. It is blind.”

In the case of the blind sheep, she had constantly called out for assistance. It was apparent to the other members of her flock that something was wrong. In the story of the dog there was no warning or pleading cry, so how did the Labrador know that the terrier was blind, and why did it not attack?

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Animal etiquette at meal times

Posted in Animals, Psychology on Monday, 13 June 2011

This edited article about animal behaviour originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 967 published on 20 September 1980.

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Male lions feeding on a zebra carcass as their cubs watch and wait their turn

It is a significant fact that throughout the animal kingdom, where there is some shortage of food or water, it is always the young who are cared for first. The future of any species lies in the successful rearing of its offspring. Sometimes the crisis is so dire that it leads to acts of great herosim.

This can most clearly be seen in the life of the African lion. On many occasions, a severely injured lioness has been seen desperately trying to keep herself alive, often when she is responsible for a number of cubs. One such case involved a lioness who had had her teeth kicked out by a zebra. She had also subsequently suffered a great deal of damage to her front paws and this had left her with no claws.

She was seen painfully trying to rip apart a lump of dried hide. Her sore mouth and injured paws tore desperately at the food as she endeavoured to feed her cubs. They appeared well fed although the mother herself was terribly emaciated.

Strangely enough, the cubs are usually the last to be fed in a pride of lions. The lionesses make the kill, but the male lions eat first. When food is plentiful, the mortality rate amongst young cubs is about 50 per cent. It is not until the balance is threatened either by man or nature, that the cubs are given priority when feeding.

It is even common to see an adult of another species caring for a group of young. Maurice Burton, a famous zoologist, recalled the tale of a tame jackdaw that came into his possession. As jackdaws can be a remarkable nuisance, tapping on windows, entering houses and generally getting in the way, this one was placed in an aviary outside the kitchen door.

When the spring came, Mr. Burton noticed a pair of blackbirds bringing their fledglings to feed around the aviary. He usually placed the jackdaw’s food in a plate on the floor of the aviary. The bird was seen one day, taking food from his dish and pushing it through the wire mesh with his beak towards the young blackbirds. This happened every day.

On one occasion he even pushed the whole plate out of the aviary for the fledglings to take their fill. This meant that the jackdaw had to push the plate a full metre along the flagstones to a point where there was a gap under the wire. Apparently, several weeks after the blackbirds left, the mother blackbird again appeared with a new brood, and the same feeding system resumed.

“Black Jack”, a tame but blind jackdaw, played mother on one occasion to two orphaned jackdaws. They had been brought into his garden in a state of starvation. He took it upon himself to feed them. It was a pathetic sight to see Black Jack filling his beak from the food dish and fumbling his way towards their hunger call. He responded with the characteristic “I have food for you” call. He could not see their bright red throats or fluttering, wings which usually drew attention to their needs, but he managed to find them and fed them by sound alone.

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Animals do have feelings

Posted in Animals, Psychology on Monday, 13 June 2011

This edited article about animal behaviour originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 966 published on 13 September 1980.

Greyfriars Bobby, picture, image, illustration

Greyfriars Bobby and Auld Jock, by Bob Hersey

Man’s best friend is a dog. This is a saying familiar to everybody: few people have not experienced the overwhelming affection and loyalty felt by a pet dog for a beloved owner. Similarly, cats can become faithful companions, birds develop strong feelings of trust for their owners, and some people will even claim to have the affection of a pet snake, ferret or fish.

A strong relationship can often be found between two creatures of the same species or even between two of different species. Yet it is between man and dog that we see possibly the deepest friendship involving two different species. One of the most famous dogs which demonstrated its boundless affection for a man was known as “Greyfriars Bobby”.

Bobby was a Skye terrier who lived on the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh in the middle of the last century. He developed a strong attachment for his owner’s shepherd, Auld Jock. Together the pair roamed the hills and made weekly forays into the big city on market days.

Eventually Auld Jock retired, but Bobby was determined they should not be parted. He escaped from the farmhouse and sought out his old friend in the city. Before Jock could return the dog, he died. Bobby faithfully followed the funeral to the Greyfriars Churchyard, which he managed to enter after dark. From then on he spent every night of his remaining nine years sleeping on his old master’s grave.

Dogs are very demonstrative in their affection. Their usual greeting is a damp and sticky lick. This is the closest thing to a “kiss” that a dog can manage. Licking is important in all situations and relationships amongst vertebrates – animals with backbones. The mother animal licks her infant, at first to clean it and stimulate it to life. Later, a firm bond is established between parent and offspring through continued licking.

This affectionate process is also reciprocal: the infant soon learns to lick its mother, and eventually mutual grooming and stroking preserves this relationship. Animals at leisure spend many hours nuzzling, cleaning and generally petting each other. The bonds between pet and owner are strengthened by the owner stroking and, in return, being licked.

An experiment carried out many years ago on young rats showed that these animals attach even more importance to stroking and petting. Dividing them into two groups, scientists regularly stroked one group until they reached adulthood, the other being totally denied any human touch. The first group was found to be distinctly more intelligent, healthier and more capable of enduring adverse conditions than the second group.

Appreciation and trust are generally shown by actions of stroking and licking. For example, there is the tale of a ewe which was severely wounded and had its injuries dressed each morning. The young boy who performed this task did so conscientiously and with sympathy. The ewe apparently appreciated his care, for on the third day she turned her head with great difficulty and gently licked his hand.

Another example of affection and sympathy was seen in a dog and a cat who were close companions. They often lay together with the cat cuddled into the dog’s neck. One day the dog was given a rap for naughtiness. The cat walked over to the dog, turned and “glared” at the woman who administered the punishment, and proceeded to give the dog a comforting lick on his nose!

The one act which above all others symbolises human emotional behaviour is the kiss. This is not, however, the monopoly of the human race. Probably the best example of a kiss can be seen amongst the kissing gourami, a mere fish. Two individual fish of this species meet and with open mouths and fleshy lips pressed tightly together maintain a kiss for quite a reasonable time. Actually, the reason for this is thought to be aggression.

Lungless salamanders rub noses during the process of reproduction, and many rodents touch noses when they meet. Dogs on meeting touch muzzles, often with a tiny tip of their tongue protruding.

Amongst birds, a common feature of courtship is the touching of bill tips. Often this is accompanied by the male placing food in the female’s bill. Elephants are hampered by the length of their trunks and position of their mouths, but an elephant will caress the back of another with its trunk and then the two trunks are generally brought tip to tip.

It is only amongst chimpanzees that we find an exact replica of the human kiss with all the genuine affection that it entails. Grzimek, a famous naturalist, showed how a chimpanzee, when presented with a portrait of itself, took a close look at it and then firmly planted a kiss on the face.

However, let us end with a story of true and unique affection. A Labrador retriever had a long and very close companion, a terrier. The two dogs shared both food and kennel for several years, then disaster struck and the terrier died. For three days the lonely labrador refused to eat or to leave the kennel.

Then, on the evening of that third day, the dog was seen entering a neighbour’s chicken run, somewhere he had never ventured before. His owners watched as he emerged carrying a loudly protesting pullet which he took back to his kennel. He put the furious bird inside then he blocked the entrance with his body. The next morning he returned the pullet to the run.

From then on every evening and morning the pullet was subjected to the same routine. The pullet took only three days to settle to its new bed – and the dog ceased to mope!

Mary Shelley creates Frankenstein’s monster

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, Literature, Psychology, Science on Wednesday, 8 June 2011

This edited article about Mary Shelley originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 961 published on 9 August 1980.

Frankenstein, picture, image, illustration

In Mary Shelley’s dream, Baron Frankenstein is amazed to see his monster come to life. Picture by John Keay

On an evening in 1816, four people sat round the fireside in a house on the shores of Lake Geneva, in Switzerland, whiling away the time reading each other ghost stories. Two of the men, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, were poets, the third a doctor named Polidori. The fourth and only woman in the party was Shelley’s 18-year-old wife, Mary.

It had not been an easy holiday for her, because she could hardly help feeling the “odd man out” in such company. Byron in particular was such an overpowering character that it took an outstanding personality to stand up to him, and quite often Mary would take a book and retreat to another part of the house, leaving the men to argue among themselves. But on this occasion they were all getting on well together, reading aloud from the novels of the supernatural that were so popular at the time. Then someone suggested that they should make up horror stories of their own.

Byron and Shelley both started tales but were unable to finish them, although the doctor made up quite an ingenious plot about vampires. Mary Shelley, on the other hand, was unable to think of anything at all that might be built into a story, and eventually she gave up trying and went to bed.

For several days the friends teased her about her failure, but finally they turned to discussing the experiments of a doctor who had been trying to bring dead vegetable matter to life. They agreed that life might be started in some mechanical way.

That night Mary Shelley had an extraordinary dream. In it, she saw herself beside a scientist who was working on a human body that had been stitched together from the dismembered parts of a number of dead men. The scientist started what Mary later described as “a powerful engine” and the manufactured man stirred into life. The scientist was fascinated, yet horrified. Suddenly realising the folly of what he had done, he fled from his laboratory, with the terrible monster following him.

Mary Shelley woke feeling terrified, but greatly relieved that what she had witnessed was no more than a dream. If only, she thought, she could make up a story that would frighten readers as much as her dream had frightened her. And then it came to her that this was her story, and the classic tale of Frankenstein was born.

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Why do we dream?

Posted in Psychology on Monday, 30 May 2011

This edited article about Dreams originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 953 published on 26 April 1980.

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A boy dreaming of sailing on the high seas

During sleep the conscious mind, which controls our emotions and actions when we are awake, is at rest. This allows the subconscious mind to express some of our innermost desires, free of all inhibitions. But the conscious mind still exerts some controlling influence, so it is able to stop the thoughts being expressed in straightforward terms. Because of this, many dreams appear to be rather strange, for the various thoughts are being expressed in disguised form. It takes some skill to unravel all the symbols used in dreams. Dreaming fulfils a useful function in that it helps us to cope with the inevitable tensions of life.