Our Dumb Friends and Us

It was an interesting TV documentary, showing some 30 unbelievable true stories.

There was even an air hostess who, in the 1970s, was the lone survivor of an air crash after her plane exploded some ten thousand feet above ground! It was a miracle.

However, the one story which had stolen the show was about the leopard in the savannah. Having scouted its prey, a lonely baboon, for a long time, it finally made its sudden kill. The baboon had no chance. And true to its ruse, the leopard carried its catch on top of a tree for a lonely feast. But at that very moment, when perhaps all the audience would be wondering what next, we were shown the dying female baboon giving birth to a young one. And the real wonder was when the predator gave up its prey and came to inspect the new comer; it suddenly took more liking to the fragile being than to the dying female baboon.

This sequence of events had been recorded by professionals who spent months studying and filming wild life; they showed us how the leopard became attached to the young baboon, licking and caring for it as if it was its own cub. We are not told how long this strange relationship went on but, unfortunately, the baby baboon died later. The hungry beast had suddenly turned into the caring mother. Nature has her own way of surprising us. Today we know about the social bonding hormone oxytocin – very active at time of delivery – to explain this sudden change of attitude.

All this reminds some of us of similar stories told by our medical colleagues returning from their Rodrigues tour of duty in the 1960s. Some women, after delivery in the hospital, would walk away leaving their progeny behind. But Nature took over to maintain the equilibrium: other women who had also come to deliver would take pity of the abandoned baby and would take it home, along with their own. Or some women who had stillbirths would steal their neighbours’ baby when the latter were are asleep. Is oxytocin at play again?

The deer

However, that leopard episode had a deeper impact; it reminded us of another one. An Indian story relates how, very long ago, there lived one of the worst criminals of the land, who was outlawed by the king of the realm and who had a price on his head. The hard-hearted ruffian had gone deep into the forest to survive, where he had to hunt for food. And that’s how one day he beheld a deer; he chased his quarry among the trees and valley and finally aimed his arrow and killed the poor panting animal. With a wide grin on his face, the crooked chap came to claim his prize so as to have a royal feast. But as he came near he froze in his steps and stared in disbelief: the dying deer was giving birth to a foe. The sight was so disturbing and emotionally loaded that the pathetic criminal knelt down and wept. What happened to the deer after that was not revealed, but at that very moment the man underwent a transformation, changed character and became a saint.

In fact this Indian legend was quoted in a discussion about free will and the possibility that the human mind is influenced by factors foreign to itself. As for free will, it seems it is not so free as we want it to be; long before our own actions emerged into our consciousness or volition, our neuronal circuits responsible for these actions have started firing well ahead by milliseconds. If our behaviour is the result of a series of action and reactions, then we should be behaving in a predictable manner. But the fact that people, like our deer hunter, do change suddenly, suggests that there are other factors that are involved in the fashioning of our mental faculties.

However, many dreamers would split hairs and hint that we were not told about the type of childhood experiences that our deer hunter had had. He may have had religious parents and very caring grandparents, but due to unexpected and conflicting influences he turned out to be the worst subject of his majesty. And later in the forest, the dying deer triggered dormant, deep-seated childhood feelings and sentiments which made him suddenly change for the better.

And the dog

What about that family dog which, everyday, went into the same ritual when fed; it would take a bite at its food, then would slowly turn round and look with a ferocious snarl at its own wagging tail. The information gathered was that one day as some morsel of food was thrown to it that morsel flew by it towards its hind – and as it looked back to snap at that food it saw its own tail wagging happily. And from that day on it had come to look upon its tail as a separate antagonistic entity and a serious foreign contender for its daily food!! It could not know that the tail and itself form a single entity, just like some of us who have come to dissociate our body and soul – not realizing that one cannot exist without the other.

If we think that we humans are the only ones who become ‘less sociable’ as we age, we would be mistaken. Julia Fischer at the Leibniz Institute for primate research in Gottingen, Germany, has reported that 25-year old Barbary macaques living in wildlife parks spent less time grooming their colleagues than the five-year old would do. Perhaps they become increasingly risk-averse; so they stand to gain if they could avoid unpredictable interactions. Similarly, is it possible that we seniors know that it is better to reinforce our old relationships than making new ones? Is it possible that our grey cells keep atrophying slowly, so most of us are not in the mood to strike new relationships? – a pity.

Soon there will be changes in the way we treat our dumb friends. Associations of animal well-wishers, especially in advanced countries, are fighting to have more legal rights for them – like ‘personhood’, their right to live free, to be exempted from painful experiments, to have chaperons who will protect them from harm just as we do for our under aged children. Those friends are, unconsciously, helping us to tap and explore a new cognitive, humane frontier which has been lying dormant within our psyche.

Dr Rajagopal Soondron

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