Monday, December 17, 2007

Critter Trust

Hi Folks!

Thanks for joining me today!

I've been thinking a lot lately about critter trust. I started thinking about it last week when I was out feeding the ducks. As you know, Pretty Boy Duck spent a week in my bathroom healing from a serious eyelid injury. For that reason alone, it would make perfect sense if he spent the rest of his life studiously avoiding any more contact with me. At the very least, you'd think he'd be wary enough to keep a distance at the feeds, but he doesn't. More than once recently, I've watched as Pretty Boy shouldered his way through the throng of ducks until he was standing right in the middle of the pile of corn. Once there, he'd turn his back to me and start eating - even though he knew that I was well within grabbing range!

Having given the matter some thought, I don't think it's a question of Pretty Boy not being worried that I'll grab him again. I think it's more likely that he's learned that nothing really bad happens when I do grab him. There's a distinction between those two things, and an element of trust involved in knowing that ultimately, this Kelly person isn't going to hurt me, even if she does keep me in her bathroom for a while.

I don't take critter trust lightly. You have to pass a lot of tests and jump through a lot of hoops before some animals will honor you with their trust. My friend - and "Fowl Weather" author - Bob Tarte seems to use much the same approach as I do with the new critters that come his way: he tells me that he generally gives them a wide berth, allowing them the time they need to adjust to their new surroundings, and the new humans in their lives. Bob understands that you can't force yourself into an animal's life, that you have to do things at their pace, instead of your own. Anything else simply creates an environment of distrust.

While all this business about trust was percolating on the back burner of my brain, I went out to The Healing Barn on Saturday to do my usual horse poop scooping. I got to talking with Nancy, the owner, about the Belgian horses she used to have. She still has one of them, Old Molly, whose picture you can see on my website. If you look at that picture, you'll see how impossibly thin Old Molly is, and you'll think that she's been woefully mistreated. Well, she has been, just not by Nancy.

You see, there are people in the world who think of animals as nothing more than unfeeling chattel that they can do whatever they want with. And Old Molly's former owner was one of those people. He saw no need to buy proper feed for the Belgians because hey - there's all that free grass out in the pasture! This fellow also didn't see any need to have the horses wormed, even though, I'm told, their stomachs were bloated with worms. Nancy went on to tell me about some sheep that this same man owned, whose wool coats were so thick from lack of shearing that if they fell over, the poor creatures couldn't even right themselves again!

As Nancy told me these awful stories, I stood there picturing Old Molly standing in a field, not knowing that there were other people out there who could treat her much more lovingly and respectfully. It occurred to me then that even when animals don't know that they depend on us, they still do depend on us nonetheless. There's a certain implied trust, there, too: domesticated animals can't feed and water themselves. So, most of the time, they reach the conclusion that you're going to reliably do that for them. People like Bob and I attend faithfully to our critters' needs - no matter what the weather, or our state of health. But people like Old Molly's former owner clearly don't feel an obligation to provide even the basics.

It will interest you to know that Nancy ended up with the Belgians - Mr. and Mrs. Belgian, as I called them - because someone (rightfully) ratted that useless man out to the local Humane Society. In one of the unusual instances where the right thing actually happens, the man was relieved of the burden of caring for animals that he didn't care for anyway, and Nancy was called in to take temporary custody of Mr. and Mrs. Belgian.

Like so many other jerks in the world, the man took exception to being told what to do with his animals. He hired a lawyer and then turned around and sued the Humane Society for impugning his "sterling" reputation. Meanwhile, his lawyer appeared to have his own ax to grind against the judge in the cruelty case. Ultimately - and I'm told the case dragged on for over two years - the judge, in essence, told the creep and his lawyer to grow up and shut up, and that was the end of that. Nancy has maintained custody to this day. Mr. Belgian died a few years ago (his heart gave out due to old age), while Old Molly, who frequently appears to be on death's door, seems to keep going in spite of the past.

Old Molly has certainly earned the right to be suspicious of human beings, considering all she's been through, but after all this time with patient, gentle Nancy, it's clear that the old Belgian doesn't particularly want to hold a grudge. She understands now that she's going to be fed good food, that she's going to be well-cared-for (this time last year, I sprung for a new winter blanket for her), and that she's going to be safe. Those are big lessons to learn at any age, but Old Molly's managed it. Why? Perhaps because, deep down, she prefers trusting humans over not trusting them. Who can say?

As I sit in my chair watching t.v. at night, Junebug will wander in and, more often than not, lie down on her back. She's always liked lying flat on her back, her four paws splayed casually about. She's more than happy to fall asleep in that position. Some of my other cats will lie that way, too, but the minute I get near them, they will invariably roll over; they're just not sure what the situation calls for, so they always choose to play it safe. Not Junebug. She'll just turn her head for a better look at what I'm doing. If I reach down to pet her, that's o.k. - there's no reason for her to move when she's comfortable where she is.

Out of all my cats, Junebug is the only one whose kittenhood I'm familiar with. I don't know how Dr. Green's vet techs acquired the huge orange and white momcat and her kittens, but the family had already taken up residence in one of the hospital kennels by the time I heard about them. The staff - who go nutty over a critter at the drop of a hat, spent considerable time fussing over mom and kitties, giving them plenty of love and getting them used to being handled. "Socializing," it's called, and they did a wonderful job because when I took Junebug home, her trust in humans was already firmly in place. It was simply a matter of me reinforcing that trust by playing fun mouse games with her, by responding to her needs in a timely manner, and by being consistently not-scary.

Critter trust is valuable to me. I work hard every day to give all the animals a reason to trust me. I'll stand there getting soaked in the pouring rain, feeding the ducks and chattering my usual commentary - for no other reason than that I know umbrellas scare them. I'll dry off, and the rain isn't going to kill me. And believe it or not, duck trust is worth the risk of a bad hair day to me! I'll appologize to the cats if I've stepped on one of their tails - and the fact that they turn around, come back and let me pet them afterward tells me that they understand that I didn't mean to hurt them; they get that it was an accident. The fact that they're able to make that distinction means they understand a whole lot more than we generally give them credit for.

So while Pretty Boy surely didn't enjoy his time in my bathroom, I think that some part of him understood that I wasn't acting from a place of malice, just as Old Molly seems to understand that this new home, with its' new people, can be relied upon to be consistent in their care of her. By the same token, based on all of her experiences with humans in general, and me in particular, Junebug has clearly concluded that I'm a pretty good pal to have around: I play fun mouse games, I'm generous with the snack treats, and I'm always happy to see her. And seeing those trusting eyes looking at me - whether they belong to cats, or ducks, or horses - make all the hoop-jumping and test-passing worthwhile. I'm well and truly honored that they all seem to think that I'm trustworthy.

That's all for now, folks. But I want to leave you with this thought: at least once in our lives, we've all been in a position to see someone treating their animals badly. Whether it was outright cruelty, or hard-to-put-your-finger-on neglect, we knew in our gut that something wasn't right. But more often than not, we put blinders on because - well, what are we supposed to do? Rat out our friends, family, or neighbors? In a word, YES. That is exactly what you must do. You can do it anonymously, but you MUST do the right thing by the animal. You must be the voice for that voiceless, helpless creature. After all, how would you like to be in that animal's place? You may well risk losing a friend in the process, but from your moral high ground, ask yourself this question: do you really want to be friends with someone who treats animals with so little regard?

Until next time, please be kind to all the critters!

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