Feeling guilty about “smushing” an ant, and other musings about our relationship to animals

I have been following the regular postings on a new Opinionator blog at the New York Times called Menagerie, about our relationships with other animals.  Some of the essays are a little sentimental for my taste, and one was even a fictional short story.  But there have been some that offer interesting insights into our scientific understanding of animal behavior, such as a piece last month by David Rothenberg on whale songs.

I first started paying attention in August, with Tim Kreider’s essay about his unnamed, but nearly conjugal live-in pet cat.  As a former keeper of cats, I could relate to dealing with the eccentricities of feline behavior, though not to the extent of having provoked, as he did, the jealousy of family and friends.   As far as I can determine, the series started in June, with a piece by Jon Mooallem about wildlife cams that allow us to eavesdrop on the lives of nestling eagles and other critters.  His essay importantly explores when and how it is appropriate for us as humans to intervene in the lives of the wild animals that we monitor.

The current post is another by Tim Kreider, this time confessing his conflicted relationship with wild animals, like ants, fruit flies, and neighborhood raccoons.  Yes, they are pests, but they are also living beings, he demurs, thumb hovering over the ant invader.   He goes on to explore the moral landscape for relating to mosquitos, mice, and others, and gives a link to a hilarious (and perhaps not so funny) Rueben Bolling cartoon in the “Tom the Dancing Bug” series, on “Human Morality Made Simple.”   “Menagerie” mostly lives up to the series subtitle that this discussion is “Just between us species,” despite the reference in the mission statement to how “Menagerie explores the strange and diverse ways the human and animal worlds intersect.”  I hope the intent is closer to the former than to the latter.  Certainly, that would be more appropriate biologically, as we are animals, too.

My favorite piece so far was posted in August by Julie Metz, on “My Daughter, Her Rat.” I have worked with a variety of rodents in my research, and kept some as pets, either at home or in the lab, so I know how sociable and interesting rats can be.  Julie tells a delightful story about a pet rat named Eden, rescued from a pet store as future python food, who becomes her daughter’s “wingman” and close companion as she finishes high school and moves to the opposite coast for college.  One can imagine a live-in version of Remy, the rat chef from Ratatouille, making her an after-school snack.  In focusing on the challenge of transporting Eden out to her daughter’s college, Julie brings to light the misconception that rats are dangerous and difficult to handle, more like snakes and spiders than their brethren hamsters and guinea pigs.  It turns out that hamsters and guinea pigs are preferred by the airlines over rats, even though rats are far more interesting as pets, especially when raised in your care from a young age.   Hamsters may seem more cuddly, but they are persistent escape artists, whether from a cage or your lap, whereas rats can be given the run of the house and still come back to you for a game of tag.  Interesting in particular is one airline’s preference for guinea pigs over rats.  Can you imagine a 6-hr flight with a wailing guinea pig on board??



About Tom Schoenfeld

I am an olfactory neurobiologist who practices his science at Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, MA, in the Department of Biology and Chemistry. I have created "dissectingpublicscience.com" to help educate both my science students and the interested non-scientist about the process of science, by focusing discussions on how science is presented and misrepresented in the public media.
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