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Learning from animals: communication and compassion

January 16, 2010

I had a post lining up about some of the things I have found very helpful lately for dealing with sensory issues and chronic pain (frequently connected, for me), but got onto another track for now.

Last night, I followed a disturbing ScienceDaily link: Do Fish Feel Pain? Norwegian Research Suggests They Can, which includes the stunning observation that “pain is a serious threat to animal welfare”.

Sometimes other humans scare me. As mentioned in a couple of recent posts, we’ve already seen more than enough of the sociopathic side of Descartes’ legacy (and the ways of thinking which influenced his conclusions). Taking seriously the idea that maybe other living beings cannot feel pain relies on certain low-empathy ways of thinking, even if you’re not actually saying the words “soulless automata” anymore.

Fish are frequently considered pretty low down the scale of living beings who have much in common with us, as has come up multiple times on one forum I frequent, The GAB. To a scary number of people, they don’t even qualify as Real Animals, whether as companions or as something vegetarians are assumed not to have a problem with eating. Because they live in a very different environment, a lot of people have trouble empathizing with them.

And, yes, I do think this has a lot to do with frequent human levels of indifference about water pollution, until the situation gets bad enough that they’re poisoning themselves and other “cute” furry animals. (Amphibians such as river dogs rank even lower in these bogus hierarchies, sensitive as they are to pollution.) Getting to know fish made me very hesitant indeed to put toxic cleaning products down the drain, and careful not to use more detergents than necessary. One drop of dishwashing detergent in a tank can suffocate fish, as the surfactants mess with their gill function. This kind of thing also brought home the idea of how “water conservation” can apply where there is abundant surface water; the less you filthy up and put down the drain to be treated and discharged back into waterways, the better.

As a kid, I was lucky enough to spend time with adults who taught me some good lessons in this, of the “Don’t poke at that river dog with a stick! How would you like it if a giant one cornered you and poked you with a stick?!” variety. Still, even having alway felt a connection with animals, and having kept fish (rather badly) before, I didn’t see fish in the same way as cats or dogs (much less humans) until a bit under six years ago. The first week after I moved here, I walked to the nearest Big Box pet store, and brought home a tiny comet shubunkin and a tiny tank. (I did at least know to get a filter!) Nigel named her Skate, because she didn’t resemble a skate. :)

It’s amazing the poor thing made it; in fact, she died of an illness I couldn’t treat effectively (not great vet or medication access for “just fish”, especially medications in the UK) last month. At least I was aware that the filter needed to cycle, and I needed to change water frequently and use ammonia neutralizers until it did. Still, she spent her first year in a 6L tank. I learned better, and she got a 60L tank and two tankmates then. After another year and a half or so, I learned much better from The GAB, and they moved into a 180L tank. Skate outlasted both of them–disease, again.

There is a lot of really bad information out there, especially regarding goldfish, which are actually one of the more challenging mostly herbivorous freshwater fish you can keep in a tank–at least foot-long, messy carp who have to poke their noses into everything, and who live 20+ years under good conditions. I loved one GAB thread, How to keep a goldfish in a bowl…. GRRR:

Drawtaru: It’s a well-known fact that humans only need a 4×3 foot space to sleep, so don’t worry about getting a queen- or king-sized bed, as it’s not neccessary. A hard floor is fine, so don’t go wasting a lot of money on an expensive mattress, box spring, or pillows. Just a blanket to keep them warm is plenty.

Louiedee83: … and then cram into that 4×3 foot space your dining room and toilet and you’re living the life.

Drawtaru: Exactly!

It’s easy to get diverted by the prevalence of unthinking cruelty, but my main point here is that I got to know Skate and, later, her buddies. I could not ignore the fact that they were people, a lot like me. I spent time observing them and figuring out their body language, tried to figure out what they needed and wanted, and tried to make sure those needs were met. I developed real respect for them–and was more than a little amazed and ashamed that I’d not had it before.

Skate ignores her fourth or fifth pea, and gets petted instead. She got bigger than in this video, but still about half her potential size.

This learning process went multiple ways, as the most valuable ones do. I can’t know what the fish learned from dealing with me–other than that food and attention might be forthcoming!–but I learned more about compassion in general from them. And the lessons kept changing and getting deeper.

One day I was giving Skate’s tank a thorough cleaning, after her tankmates were gone. She was particularly seeking attention that day, bumping her head up into my elbow and nibbling at my fingers until I stopped scraping at the algae and paid attention to her. No wonder, not having been alone in there for long; goldfish are very social creatures. Before long, I moved one of the small raised-from-eggs goldies in from the pond to live with her. After I gave her some affection, she was happy as a clam, Skating around the tank and nibbling at the plants. Tank cleaning and water changes were exciting; she got attention, clean water, and a good feeding afterward.

I’d already thought along similar lines, but that experience really brought some things home to me. Skate had certain needs: clean water with loads of filtration, plenty of swimming space, good food, lots of plants for an all-day salad bar and entertainment (and to keep the water quality better!), company, attention and affection. When those needs were met, she was happy. The main way in which they differ from basic human needs is obvious: the fish do live in water rather than air.

If Skate’s needs were not being met, I would not expect her to be happy. I would not blame her for not just bucking up, and ignoring that she had any basic needs at all. I would not rail about her being an ingrate and cause of many problems to other people, because her needs and my ideas of what her needs should be did not match up. I would not suggest that there must be something seriously wrong with her, that she express unhappiness under less than ideal conditions. Instead, I would (and did) look at how well I was understanding and trying to provide for her needs; she communicated them clearly, once I learned how to interpret what she was saying. I was very aware that I had a heavy responsible for making sure her basic needs were met, and would have expected some pretty odd behavior if they weren’t.

Then it really struck me: I had been treating myself in a completely different manner. Instead of applying the same kind of compassion and understanding to myself, against all reason, I’d continued the blaming–along with the deep perception that I must be wrong even to have needs which did not match other people’s expectations. That’s pretty screwed up.

It also struck me, on an even deeper level, how ridiculous and harmful an approach based on preconceived expectations of other peoples needs and wants, rather than on attention and communication, is when dealing with adult humans, much less young ones who are very dependent upon others. I would never blame a child for reacting to a bad situation in “strange” ways which are very obvious when you stop and think about it for even a minute. Why would I continue doing that to myself?

Particularly in this context, I found one bit of advice very helpful indeed when starting back more seriously into mindfulness meditation; I believe it was from Wildmind, but can’t find it right now to quote it. To paraphrase from memory, when your mind starts wandering, gently guide it back like you would a baby animal. That analogy works for a lot of things. Why would you treat your own self more harshly than you would a kitten? Not to mention that annoyingly misguided coworker?

Another excellent post from The Tao of Chaos applies very well here: Take My Ego… Please!, with discussion of anthropomorphization (closer to my take than the usual) and other forms of projection. Ego substitutes for compassion and understanding, and gets in the way of our attempts to understand other animals and humans. Some people get so caught up in that kind of shadow boxing that they don’t even try to get past their own projections.

Yes, this is very relevant to the Dread Autism Epidemic, “childhood bipolar” epidemic, the way “mental illness” is viewed in general, and the urge to find “cures” all around. (That “The Hunt for an Autism Drug” article just has so many things wrong with it, and reflects so much potential for real harm.) It also leads to a lot of abuse and neglect.

Near the extreme end, it can lead to this kind of attitude: Empathy: not your strong suit.

Another example along the same lines, on learning from animals? The Cats, and disability post I wrote a while back.

I keep coming back to one observation from Geswanouth Slahoot (Chief Dan George), of the Coastal Salish:

If you talk to animals, they will talk with you and you will know each other.

If you do not talk to them you will not know them, and what you do not know you will fear.

What one fears one destroys.

And, like Autism Speaks and the parents attracted to that organization, you might start thinking of certain small humans as “soulless automata” who cannot communicate meaningfully, much like those “lower” animals.

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