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Photo: <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/21585925@N07/3988403205/">Parry</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Photo: Parry, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

The way we understand animals is human-centric

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Martha Foley and Dr. Curt Stager talk about how we understand animal behavior and the natural world through the human perspective.

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Martha Foley: I want to talk about what we do in these conversations. I think anybody who actually notices the natural world at all, any human being, is always trying to understand in some way and most of us do this by projecting our own story on it, our own capabilities, our own sort of tools that we have. And we do this to our dog, our cat, then we do it to the birds outside, and then we do it to the chipmunk or whatever. But it seems to me in these conversations that we have--and people could do this with books or with their neighbors--we sort of turn the corner a little bit further than just those projections without losing what’s so special about that relationship.

Curt Stager: Well it’s kind of like going to the opera if you don’t speak Italian. You go to this opera and there’s just singing, which is nice, and the pageantry--but you don’t know what the story is. I think of that often when I think about watching things happening in nature. Even just driving down the road, giving it a little bit of depth can change totally what you can think is going on. For example, I was driving down the road the other day and there was a grouse standing in the middle of the road. You think, “Now isn’t that silly, you know, is it so dumb it doesn’t know it shouldn't be standing there?”

MF: Doesn’t it know I’m going to hit it with my car?

CS: I mean, I drove right by it and it barely moved. So at first glance you say "What a dummy." But then you think about it, that’s how grouse stay alive in the woods, which is what they’re adapted to, not having our roads around here. If you’re a camouflage bird like a grouse, it’s a really good strategy when there’s danger to freeze and not move because then you’re invisible.

MF: It’s like the chipmunks that run across the road. I mean, what are they doing out there?

CS: You think “Oh it’s running across the road so it can avoid the cars” but it doesn’t know what a car is. It’s doing what a chipmunk does when it runs across a clearing and just happens to have to be doing it because we put a road in its way. So often you’ll think there’s something in its head that might not necessarily be there but is actually an older behavior that fits their natural lifestyle.

MF: So in that case you sort of have to take the creature as it is and maybe subtract some of your projections to really get an understanding of what’s going on. That little chipmunk is trying to get out of the way of hawks or something. It doesn’t know that your car is bearing down on it.

CS: I have those same projections all of the time. I just had a really vivid one after I got home and was just coming near the house and there was a lawn with a bunch of crows on it--maybe a half dozen or a dozen--and they flapped off cawing and my first instinctive reaction was, “Oh there was an ominous murder of crows flapping off like a bad omen or something."

MF: They're just ganging up on something, yeah.

CS: A lot of people don’t like crows, probably because they only thought about them that far.  But if you learn more about them or even just watch them there’s a whole richness and depth of things going on. So, because this was by my home I started watching them and over time I realized that this ominous cawing was only coming from one individual in that group. And it didn’t really look that different from the others but then I realized it sounded like it was kind of begging. And then I realized it was following the other ones around begging for food. It wasn’t like an ominous Edgar Allen Poe creepy thing; it was actually just a pesky adolescent too lazy to get its own meal and bothering the adults, following it around. So it completely turned it into a humorous and much more complex and rewarding experience.

MF: It was just tagging along and being a real annoyance. So that brings me back to one of my first points, and that is taking that extra step, doing a little research, thinking about it more like you do as a scientist doesn’t diminish that moment with nature.

CS: No not at all, that’s why I’m a lifelong scientist. I can’t get enough of it. I think a lot of people are kind of worried that it’s going to take away from the wonder of the experience and the way you see the natural world. To me, just like going to the opera and learning the story of the opera and learning a little of the language very much amplifies the value of the experience.

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