Comments without a thread: Animal communicators

12 03 2014

My comments are too long

I need to do a better job of tempering my contributions to Facebook comment threads. Oh, they’re perfectly civil, never mean, sometimes amusing, often on-topic. But they’re long. I have not mastered the art of finishing a rant in three or fewer sentences.

By the time I finish researching, crafting, and editing my comment… Well, enough said.  Who in his/her right mind researches/crafts/edits Facebook comments?

But I have a multitude of ADHD-driven terrier-like excuses for sometimes grabbing onto something and shaking it until its neck is broken.

A rant without a home

Just last week an otherwise reasonable friend posted a meme arguing that the US should never leave Afghanistan because we’ve almost won — I could just feel the words squeezed out of that meme with all patriotism and earnestness.  My friend leans libertarian, but she is otherwise a sensible and loving women.  Her post, I believed, deserved a thoughtful comment.  Hours later, my masterpiece of depth and wit, tempered with compassion for sad people who say dumb things was finished.  I went to her timeline to post it.  It was gone.  She had deleted it.  And I had a comment without a thread to post it to.

A video crying out for a thoughtful response

Today, two friends were arguing on Facebook regarding the merits of telepathic animal communicators.  It started with this video, in which South African animal communicator Anna Breytenbach transforms the life of jaguar Spirit, nee Diabolo/Diablo, by telling his keeper, Jurg Olsen, what the cat is so upset about:

Too many good people take this stuff at face value, get sucked in by its emotional power, and don’t use their heads about what’s going on here.

 ☞Before you read any further, please read this very important update.

Why this matters to me

I developed an interest in animal psychics when my last roommate had a cat with a dreadful disease called stomatitis, which she was “treating” with meditation and crystals and psychics and Braco and herbs instead of taking him to the veterinarian.  This poor cat was in excruciating pain, but while she was waiting for magic to “heal” him, she refused to give him any pain meds because it might change his personality, which, at the time, consisted of him hiding in a box at the back of her clothes closet waiting to die. This woman who believed herself to be an empath, was so absorbed in her own belief system that she could not see what was right in front of her: her cat was suffering.  If that cat had been a child instead of a cat, I would have had Child Welfare Services on her ass.

Anyway, I watched my Facebook friends arguing, and I discovered that I absolutely must know whether cats can use “language” as we know it and whether they have a corpus callosum, among other things.

Why I never get anything done

I spent half the day looking up:

  • How cats’ brains are structured
  • How language develops
  • How jaguars live in the wild
  • The history of the Jukani sanctuary

Don’t judge me for how I spend my days.  Have you never wasted two hours sitting on the toilet playing Words With Friends?

By the time I had finished writing my contribution for the comment thread, the sun was going down.  And Facebook wouldn’t let me post it.  It was too darned long for the land of Facebook conversations.  So I broke it into paragraphs and posted it on my friend’s thread.  I doubted that anyone would read it.  Who has time for paragraphs these days, especially on Facebook?  If anything, I probably annoyed my Facebook friend for appropriating his comment thread for my rant.  

How could I justify all that time spent on something nobody will read?  I know, I’ll put it on my blog. Nobody reads that, either, but it will clear my head and my desk a little.

Here was my comment/diatribe:

A not unrelated anecdote

I had a cat, Billy, whose behavior had me at my wit’s end.  Trying to deal with him was distracting me ‘way too much from my work, which is already a problem for me, as you have no doubt already figured out from the length of this post. I had had him checked out at the vet; he was fine. I gave him extra attention; it didn’t curb his behavior. I had Googled my ass off and read everything.  I checked out so many books that I accrued a $22 library fine.  I asked my vet about behavior therapy, but I didn’t want to go down that path because I didn’t want her prescribing him a lot of drugs.  She gave me a questionnaire to fill out, just in case I changed my mind.

I finally started asking around about animal communicators. Couldn’t hurt, might help, I thought.  Until I found out how expensive they are.  Because Billy  was preventing me from getting any work done, I wasn’t making any money, so I hesitated about spending more money on him, even if spending more money on him would free me up to make more money.  (My life is a virtual fairyland of Never Getting Anything Done.)

So I pulled out that behavioral questionnaire my vet had given me. It asked about my cat’s diet, play behavior, use of the litter box, behavior toward people. It asked about the recent changes in his life — and mine. As I went through it, it became clear to me what was causing his behavior, what I was doing to make it worse, and how I could change his environment in ways that would help him. It worked.

Billy is a house cat, not a jaguar, but my tentative opinion based solely on this anecdotal experience is this: Anything that you can do to help you get out of your own head, be more attentive, and honor how your animal brother is wired is a good thing.  If what it takes is to hire someone to do some research, sit quietly with you and him, be attentive to you both, and help you build the bridge you yearn for, maybe that’s okay.

But we should never draw conclusions based solely on our experience, unless our experience includes research.

Look stuff up a little, part one

I did some reading on cat brains versus human brains. I don’t know how much of it is relevant. Here’s what I learned.

Cats are very bright, and their brains are structurally similar to humans’. In both people and cats, the brain is composed of gray and white matter with temporal, occipital, frontal and parietal lobes of a very complex cerebral cortex; each region is connected in the same way. Humans and cats have practically identical sections in the brain that control emotion. Cats receive input from the basic five senses and process that data just as humans do, except that they hear better, we see contrast better, they see in the dark better, they have whiskers, we have fingertips, etc. Like us, cats have short- and long-term memory function, and they can remember stuff for ten years, but they don’t store a lot of memories because they have other things to do.

Cats seem to think in the same pattern as humans too, partly owing to the similarity of neurotransmitters, but the cat’s frontal lobe is less than 4% of the cat’s brain, compared to 30% of the human brain.  The frontal lobe is involved in several functions of the body including:

  • Motor Functions
  • Higher Order Functions
  • Planning
  • Abstract thought
  • Reasoning
  • Judgement
  • Impulse Control
  • Memory

How much frontal lobe does a mammal need in order to form “thoughts” and “language,” as we think of them?

For the record, it is very annoying to me that information about language development is so hard to find for free on a Tuesday via Google. Most of the stuff I found was about language as it related to speech.  I wanted to learn about language, not merely language communicated via speech.

Having said that, here are some issues my exploration raised for me:

  • Language is made up of complex socially shared rules — grammar, semantics, context — but jaguars aren’t social, especially male jaguars. Humans learn language through their relationships, it takes us years, and we still can’t understand each other half the time. How might male jaguars, who are only social for the first two years of their lives, learn language?  What need would they have to develop language if they live solitary lives?  What would they have to say?  And how might they learn the rules of inter-species language?

Interspecies language:
Armadillo to Jaguar: “Don’t eat me!”
Jaguar to Armadillo: “¿Que?”

  • Language is abstract.  With their relatively small frontal lobes, are cats’ brains are wired to create abstract combinations of symbols such as words, subject/predicate combinations, etc.?  If cats are neurologically capable of having language, what shape would it take?
  • How would a human communicate with a jaguar?  We know that we cannot share a spoken language.  But can we share an non-spoken language?  Scientists have been unable to produce anything other than very basic brain-to-brain communications in humans, who, ostensibly, speak the same language.  If humans can’t communicate non-verbally with one another, how can we communicate via non-spoken language with other species?
  • How do animals who don’t learn spoken language learn language?  Is it possible that animals that don’t use spoken language have a greater capacity for telepathy?  Deaf humans don’t learn “spoken” language; are deaf people therefore more telepathic than hearing people?  If not, why not?  I found this interesting.

Question your assumptions

I’m not going to touch the telepathy question.  It doesn’t matter to me whether telepathy exists or not.  I love the idea that the potential for communicating with our human and non-human brethren is much larger than we know.  I love, for example, knowing that elephants can communicate with one another through their feet.

Rather, the question for me is whether cats and (some) humans can communicate in a common language, using common words, in a grammar they can both understand. If Anna processes human language as an English speaker, how does the cat process human language, assuming that it was previously kept in a (possibly) non-English European zoo? A deeper question might be whether the cat, speaking in his own language, can be understood by the human, who can then translate his language into hers. How do we approach these questions thoughtfully?

Look stuff up a little, part two

  • Jukani was founded in 2005 by Jurg Olsen and his wife.  When Diabolo/Diablo arrived, they had been in the sanctuary business for five years, tops.
  • Olsen grew up on a ranch with “horses, cattle, and game.” It’s not clear what his experience/training with large cats was before he opened his sanctuary.
  • The film describes Olsen as an “ex-policeman turned conservationist.”  We don’t know if he came to his calling with any relevant formal education.
  • The first cats that came to their sanctuary were from a “cat farm” where lions were being bred for hunting. Later, cats were sent from “bad zoos” and “canned hunting farms.”  We do not know the temperament, history, or special needs of any of the cats he had worked with prior to Diabolo/Diablo’s arrival.
  • In addition to the abuse he suffered, prior to arriving at Jukani, Diabolo/Diablo had been forced to live in a pen with another jaguar and in close proximity to a hyena.
  • This was one pissed-off cat, and Olsen wasn’t used to pissed-off cats.
  • It is possible that, in six months, Olsen had only been in close contact with Diabolo/Diablo once, and that the event was frightening enough to keep him from approaching the cat again.
  • We don’t know if this was Olsen’s first experience with a jaguar. Jaguars are New World animals, not native to South Africa.  While there are tigers at Jukani, I don’t know whether the tigers arrived before the jaguar or what their backstories were. But, essentially, Olsen was a lion guy.
  • Some differences between lions and jaguars:
    • Jaguars live in dense forests. Lions live on open savannahs.
    • Lions are lazy.  They spend about 20 hours a day resting/sleeping and hunt mostly at night; they are active only 20% (≈4 hours) a day.  Jaguars are active 50-60% of the time (≈14 hours a day) and hunt both day and night, but mostly at night.
    • Jaguars go out of their way to avoid each other.  Male jaguars live with other jaguars only in the first two years of their lives, when they are cubs are living with their mothers; when they are able to hunt on their own, they leave.  Females live with other jaguars only when those other jaguars are their cubs; once her cubs have grown and left, the female returns to her solitary life.  Male and female adults get together only long enough to mate; they part as soon as the deed is done.  Lions, on the other hand are social.  They live in groups of up to 30 females with cubs and one or two males.  Females stay with their prides for life.  If a male lion doesn’t have a pride, he’ll roam around with another bachelor looking for one they can take over together.  If a male lion forms an association with another male lion in this way, they will remain affectionate with one another for life, even if they split up and form individual prides.  Males usually manage to stay with their prides for only about 2-3 years before they driven out by competitors.
    • Both jaguars and lions are territorial.  Female jaguars do not share their territory with other females.  A male jaguar’s territory (20-50 square miles) can encompass the territories of several females.  The lion’s territory is the territory of the pride, not of a single animal, which means that females and males share territory.  It covers about 100 square miles.  It is the male’s job to protect his pride’s territory.
    • Jaguars climb trees; they often hide in trees to leap upon their prey.  They swim, too, and enjoy the water; they often hunt in the water for fish, turtles, and crocodiles.  Some lions will climb trees, but they don’t hunt from trees; they nap or just hang out.
    • Both lions and jaguars roar.  Jaguars roar to scare off other animals, defend their territory, and attract a mate. A male’s roar sounds more like a bark, followed by a growl; a female produces a sound like a coughing roar.  Hear.  Male lions are responsible for guarding their territory, and they have gigantic menacing roars to help them do it.  Watch and hear
    • A female jaguar will not tolerate the presence of a male after the birth of her cubs and she does all of the parenting.  Male lions hang around with their prides to protect their progeny.
    • Female lions hunt together and do most of the hunting while the males guard the cubs; the males will hunt when the prey is too large for the females to take down. Male and female jaguars live alone and hunt alone.
    • Lions will eat meat that somebody else killed.  Sometimes a male lion will contribute to the kill if the prey is too big for the females to handle, but in general, the females hunt, and then the pride digs in.  The male goes first, and the females jockey with each other for the rest.  The cubs have to learn to compete for a share of the kill, just like everybody else, but sometimes the male will share with his cubs.  A jaguar kills for itself and does not share.  Male jaguars are not wired to be served by female jaguars or anybody else.
    • Male lions protect their cubs and will share their kill with cubs.  Male jaguars will kill cubs, even their own, and they don’t share with anybody.
    • Lions kill with their paws and teeth, biting the necks of their prey, which then die of suffocation.  Jaguars will kill by biting right through the other guy’s skull with their very scary teeth.
While the jaguar often employs the deep throat-bite and suffocation technique typical among Panthera, it sometimes uses a killing method unique amongst cats: it pierces directly through the temporal bones of the skull between the ears of prey with its canine teeth, piercing the brain. (Source: Wikipedia)

The jaguar is the only cat that will kill by crushing the temporal bones of the skull between the ears of prey with its canine teeth, piercing the brain.

Put two-and-two together

I surmise that Olsen had never before encountered a cat that…

  • Had such hatred of people.
  • Was so dynamic.
  • Was so resistant to sociable advances.
  • Was so angry.
  • Attacked teeth-first.
  • Made him so afraid.

What I deduce:

  • Diabolo was a pissed-off and anxious cat who had spent his life being made to live in a way completely opposed to his nature and being routinely punished for being who he was.
  • Olsen’s initial encounter with Diabolo shocked and frightened the man to the point where he was terrified to go near him.
  • Every stressful encounter between the two triggered the mutual production of testosterone, a stress response of the brain’s amygdala.  The release of testosterone produces a “fight or flight” response in male mammals.  When a male’s amygdala is giving the orders, the sensible part of his brain, the frontal lobe, is temporarily muted, which makes it virtually impossible for the male to be reasoned with until he calms down.  This is true whether the frontal lobe takes up less than 4% of the male’s brain (cat) or 30% of the male’s brain (human).  The more anxiety in the situation, the more testosterone is released and the more quickly feelings of fear, rage, and aggression escalate.  Olsen and Diabolo/Diablo were trapped in a testosterone feedback loop.

This event was therapy, not telepathy

Anna did not do anything more than what a savvy therapist does. Both man and cat needed a non-anxious presence to calm and quiet them.  Anna used her powers of observation and intuition to re-frame the situation for Olsen.

She told him, in essence:

“You must understand this cat and understand that he is not like the cats you have known. You must rename him, and with that renaming, he will become a different cat.”

By being renamed “Spirit,” the cat’s behavior changed, not because of his name but because of how the name change affected Olsen’s attitude and behavior.  Olsen changed the way he looked at the cat, the way he approached him, and the way he treated him.  The change in Spirit’s attitude and behavior were the cat’s response to the change in Olsen’s attitude and behavior.  It’s clear, at the end of this video, that this was a very healing moment for Olsen, because it released him from all of that fear and frustration and worry.

In a way, Anna was practicing “faith healing.”  “Faith” means “trust,” after all, and the biggest problem Diabolo/Diablo and Olsen had was that they didn’t trust each other. By providing information about Diabolo/Diablo that made Olsen feel more connected to the cat, and by encouraging Olsen to call and regard the cat by a different name, she made it possible for Olsen to take a step toward healing, which made it possible for Spirit to take a step toward healing, too.

Spirit actually has not “changed” at all.  He still hates people.  In an interview a couple of years after this event, Olsen said, “Spirit was once called Diablo. He was a problem animal in a zoo. Very aggressive. He was housed with a female whose paw had been chewed off by a hyena in the next pen. We bought him because the owners didn’t want to deal with his aggression…. Spirit still hates people. Who can blame him? But here we treat him with the respect he deserves and he is now a much calmer cat.”

Anna helped Olsen feel safe enough to change the jaguar’s emotional environment, just I did with my own little Billy; changing the environment “changed” the cat.

Do I believe that she and Diabolo/Diablo/Spirit communicated with each other? Yes. Do I believe that they spoke words and sentences to each other? No.

Jaguars don’t need language to communicate

Jaguars are apex predators that compete with each other — and sometimes kill each other — for territory. They live solitary lives.  Jaguars face their enemies with displays and aggression. The only thing they have to say to each other is:

Stay out. Back off. You’ll be sorry. I mean it. 

Male and female jaguars cooperate with each other only long enough to breed.  Cubs are born pre-wired with awe-inspiring instincts.  Jaguars live with their mothers long enough to sharpen their skills, a mere two years, then off they go to make their way in the world, alone.  Once they leave their mothers they do not work and play well with others.

Do jaguars “think”?  Do they think abstractly?  I don’t think they do.  Why should they?  They have no need for it.  My guess is that, while cats are good planners and problem-solvers, after they figure something out they don’t reflect upon it, tell the story over to themselves in their heads, or boast to their friends about whatever just happened.  They store whatever useful information they might need for the future,  and they move on.  What is there in their evolutionary history that would make the development of “language” — abstract reasoning, symbolism, and reflection upon ideas — a benefit for big cats?

If a jaguar’s brain isn’t even wired to build social connections with members of its own species, where would a jaguar find the interest and wherewithal to relate, subliminally or otherwise, with another species? How does that make sense, evolution-wise? Apex predators carry with them confidence and entitlement, and, even if a jaguar did want to communicate with another species, I believe the jaguar would say,

“Why should I learn your language? You learn my language, you flat-toothed moron. I’m the one at the top of the food chain here.”

This is not to say that jaguars don’t communicate.  A male jaguar needs to establish his dominance, stake out his territory, and attract ovulating females.  Communication skills at the ready include spraying, urinating, tree-scratching, snarling, hissing, staring, growling, body-checking, teeth-baring, hiding in the shadows, laying back his ears, flattening his whiskers, pupil dilation, posturing etc.  This is not “language” the way we think of language.  And it is not in anyway inferior to the way humans communicate.  (I, personally, cannot rotate my ears or flatten my whiskers or scare anybody with my teeth except my dentist.)

Humans don’t have great instincts.  So we need to think, and we spend a long time living in in relationship with other humans learning how.  We learn to think so that, among other things, we can communicate our desires and opinions via language with other humans.  Thinking is so important to human survival that it takes 23+ years for the cerebral cortex of our brains to fully develop.  Some sources say that it takes 10-20 years longer than that, even.  A jaguar’s brain is fully developed by age two.  Animals with powerful instincts don’t need to be thinkers.  They use their brain power to practice all of those instinctive skills that humans don’t have.

If a jaguar were reflective, it would think that it was communicating with everyone very clearly indeed and that anyone who can’t understand its obvious messages deserves to have gigantic scary fangs thrust through his/her temporal bones.

It is not to a jaguar’s advantage to broadcast his whereabouts telepathically or otherwise.  Jaguars spend much of their time moving through the forest unnoticed so that they can spring upon whatever armadillo or capybara needs springing upon.

jaguar hiding

This jaguar is not interested in communicating with you or anybody else.

But perhaps the point of this video is not about a jaguar using “language.”  Maybe instead of wondering whether a jaguar has any interest or capacity for “language,” we should just assume that he does.  Let’s do that.  Now we shall turn our attention the question of whether a human might possess the gift or skill of receiving and understanding “jaguar language.”

If spraying, urinating, tree-scratching, snarling, hissing, staring, growling, body-checking, teeth-baring, hiding in the shadows, laying back his ears,  flattening his whiskers, pupil dilation, posturing etc., are just too damned obscure for anyone at Jukani to understand, maybe they can benefit from the insights of an animal communicator like Anna Breytenbach who promotes her ability to understand the unexpressed language of a cat and translate it into something another human would understand.  What insight does she offer us in this video?

Diabolo/Diablo doesn’t like his name

Anna tells us that this jaguar is unhappy with the name humans have given him.

Now, if left to his own devices, this cat would disappear forever into an Amazonian rainforest and never associate with another living creature again except to conquer, kill, or eat it.  His species is not interested in any kind of relationships or society with other members of his species or members of any other species.  But, Anna tells us, there’s this one species that usea word to identify him and he doesn’t like it.  More significantly, he doesn’t like what that word means when it is translated from one human language into another human language.

I can’t even wrap my head around why an animal who has no need for words would care about the words another animal uses.  But let’s assume that this one does.

What word have humans assigned to this jaguar as his name? It could be Diabolo or Diablo.  I’m seeing it both ways around the web.  If the maker of this film, who was at the filming and presumably met him, calls him “Diabolo” and somebody else calls him “Diablo”, does the cat get miffed with both of them or only with the one who calls him the name he doesn’t like?  And how can we know which one he’s mad about?  Whichever it is, it makes him want to kill Jurg Olsen.  Let’s look at both of versions of his human-assigned name and see if we can figure out what his complaint might be…

Diabolo is a kind of soda.  Did you know that?  I didn’t.  And if you didn’t know the meaning of this word in a human language, how the heck would a jaguar know?  Even if he did know, what’s his problem with being called Soda?  Does he find it demeaning?

Diablo is a Spanish word, which translates as “devil” (an unkind name) or “chic” (a fun name).  When humans call him “Diablo” are they calling him “devil” or “chic”?  How does Diablo know which translation humans intend when they call him Diablo?  Perhaps the cat can speak to Anna in English and understand the Spanish translation of his name and interpret which translation the humans that call him Diablo are using when they apply the name to him.

Names matter to humans 

Is it that this cat believes that humans are calling him Diablo, and that when humans call him Diablo, they mean Devil?  Or might it be that it’s Anna who believes that, when humans call this cat Diablo, they are calling him Devil?

This jaguar’s behavior since arriving at Jukani has been the result of two factors: (1) his natural wiring as a jaguar and (2) his natural jaguar reaction to how his new environment is treating him.

Names have meaning for humans who use them.  When we think of someone as Monster and call him Monster, we are likely to treat him as if he were a monster.  Anna knows that if the humans at Jukani want Diablo’s behavior to change, they need to change their own behavior.  If they want him to react differently to them, they need to give him something different to react to.  In telling Olsen that Diablo wants to be called something other than Diablo, Anna is advising him to regard and treat the cat as if he were something other than a devil.  Although I do not agree with her method of achieving it, I believe that an attitude shift was something that Diablo definitely needed from Olsen.

The cubs he left behind

Anna also “reveals” that Diablo has been wondering about some cubs he used to know. Everyone in the video is shocked by this revelation because they had completely forgotten about those cubs and none of them had mentioned them to her.  Where could this information about cubs have possibly come from, except from Diablo himself?  Beats me.  They are so moved by Diablo’s expression of concern that it doesn’t occur to them that a male jaguar would never express concern about cubs, even if he could.

Male lions care about cubs. Lions have a vested interest in protecting their progeny from being murdered by roving bachelor male lions looking for prides to take over.  Male lions aren’t nurturing, and they don’t play with the cubs, but they’re there, hanging out, being big and strong and foreboding.

Cubs matter to humans

You know who else cares about cubs besides male lions?  Humans.  Humans care and worry about all kinds of babies.  It is reasonable to assume that Anna injected this information about cubs into her therapy session to make Diablo more relatable to the humans.  Here was something they had in common — their concern for cubs!  It softened the image Olsen carried of the cat.

Except that male jaguars couldn’t care less about cubs.  The information about Diablo’s concern for the cubs must have originated with Anna rather than Diablo.  In fact, female jaguars are vigilant in keeping males away from her cubs because male jaguars kill cubs.  Even their own.  They kill them.  They don’t wonder about them, and they don’t worry about them.

I doubt that apex predators worry, period.  Two reasons.  Reason #1: Worry requires abstract thought.  Reason #2: They don’t have to. They’re apex predators. 

But let’s imagine that jaguars do worry about things.  If a jaguar does worry about things, and even if he could communicate about the things that worry them, what would be at the top of Diablo’s list of stuff he wanted to communicate about to the man he wants to kill?  Would it be, “Whatever happened to those cubs I used to know?”   Or would it be,

“Where are the trees? I’m supposed to live in the jungle, goddammit!”

It’s about how he’s treated 

Spirit nee Diablo doesn’t think or communicate in English, Spanish, or any other human language.  He couldn’t give an armadillo’s ass what people call him.  He doesn’t wonder and worry about cubs he used to know.

He cares about the environment he is living in, which includes how his captors treat him.

Telepath or not, I don’t like her

Anna is healing the person in this video, not the cat.  Or the cat, through the person.  And her approach “works,” as far as it goes.  But I have two objections to her methodology.

First, I believe that she was dishonest about where her information came from and about how she was communicating with Diablo.  Her information about the cubs came from her prep work, not from the cat.  I believe that she did a good job of paying attention to what was going on between the cat and man and responded thoughtfully.  Everything she needed to know for the situation was right out there for any observer to comprehend, except that everyone was too freaked out to do any comprehending.  She read the situation, but she did not use telepathy, and it was dishonest of her to let people think that she did.

Second, I am angry that she used this event as an opportunity to promote her alleged telepathic skills rather than to help Olsen and Spirit in any lasting way.  She could have told Olsen what she was observing in cat and man, and she could have taught him how to become a non-anxious observer himself.  She could have shared her gift of insight and calm and used the event to empower Olsen. Instead, she let them believe that she was communicating with the cat telepathically, which I find exploitative of Olsen’s anguish and desperation. Yes, he found relief and release, but if something like this happens again, he won’t have developed the skills to handle it himself; he’ll have to hire her again to wave her magic wand.

How much more good she could have done if she had used her gift of observation to teach!


My Facebook friend, who was patient enough to read my entire comment, responds that I cannot understand animal communication with my “scientific” perspective.  S/he argues that the type of communication being acted out here is very specific and does not require language, but, rather, the exchange of images and impressions.  Likewise, it does not require physical proximity, because it is telepathic and operates over a distance.  It doesn’t always work, s/he says.  Success requires a clear, quiet mind.

My friend says that, as long as I “cannot imagine or believe that such a thing exists” then I will believe that “anyone claiming to have such abilities is a charlatan and a fraud.”  S/he predicts sadly that I will continue to hold these belief patterns until I am faced with personal experience that cannot be explained under my current worldview.  Alas, s/he says, s/he could present me with “several anecdotes,” but such anecdotes won’t convince me because animal communication is “not scientific.”

Jaguar priorities

I didn’t say that animal communication doesn’t exist.  I said that, if Diablo and Anna could communicate cross-species, the stuff that he allegedly said to her is not what he would say based on what we know about jaguars.  Jaguar brains are uniquely wired to help them thrive as jaguars.  If jaguars could communicate with other species, they would communicate about stuff that matters to jaguars.

I don’t care whether a jaguar’s objection to the name a human assigns to him in human language involves actual “language.” I don’t care how a jaguar might communicate his objection to his name using “images and impressions.”  I don’t even care about how a jaguar might communicate about language without using language.

What I do care about is that people might believe that a jaguar would object to his human-assigned name in the first place.  And I care about the fact that people might believe a male jaguar would worry about some cubs he used to know even though worrying about cubs would be not be natural for a male jaguar.

Male lions care about their cubs but male jaguars don’t.  A male jaguar is not going to say lion things to an animal communicator, no matter how telepathic she is because he cares about jaguar stuff, not lion stuff, and he’s not a lion.  It would be easier for me to believe that Anna has heard Diablo express concern about the welfare of those two cubs if there were one shred of evidence that male jaguars have any concern whatsoever about cubs (unless what he was asking was, “Has anybody killed those damned cubs yet?”)

There were two clever reasons, though, for Anna to tell everyone that Diablo was wondering and worrying about those two cubs.

  1. To demonstrate that she knew something that nobody knew she knew about Diablo’s history.  How could she possibly have known about these cubs, unless Diablo had telepathically told her?!  What a gift she has!  Telepathic communication with the jaguar is the only possible explanation!!!  Unless she had done a Google search, made a phone call or two, or communicated telepathically with any of humans all around her…
  2. To manipulate everyone’s heightened emotions by taking advantage of human anthrocentrism. One thing that drives me nuts about people that we project human priorities onto the intellectual, emotional, and social processes of other species. Knowing that humans care for babies and worry about babies, even babies that are not our own offspring, Anna told the group that this jaguar worried about babies too.  They were so willing to attribute human priorities to Diablo, that it didn’t occur to them to doubt that a male jaguar would worry about cubs.

She played everyone.

Let jaguars be jaguars

Too often, humans believe that the only kind of intelligence worth admiring is human intelligence.  To my Facebook friend’s credit, s/he is interested in participating in a world that is more expansive than the one most of us build around ourselves.  But s/he does a disservice to jaguars by attributing to them human qualities.  They don’t need human qualities.  They have jaguar qualities.

Every animal, including humans, communicates with friends and enemies based on the kind of society they are wired to live in. Whatever “language” they use, it’s going to be the language that works for them.

The language that lions use, for example, is going to be different from the language jaguars use because lion society is different from jaguar society.  Lions have different stuff to talk about than jaguars do.  Olsen is a lion person, not a jaguar person.  At the time Diablo arrived, Olsen was familiar with lion society but not with jaguar society.  Or, more specifically, he was familiar with the society that had been formed by the lions in his sanctuary.  That’s what created so much anxiety between them.  He approached Diablo the way he approached his lions, and Diablo replied like a jaguar:

Stay out. Back off. You’ll be sorry. I mean it.

Our job is not to attribute non-jaguar traits to jaguars.  Our job is to understand jaguars more deeply.  They are already perfect, for jaguars.  They are not lacking.  They don’t need us to wish upon them more or different traits than they already have.

Belief is immaterial

Anna brought calm and quiet to the situation and told the humans what they needed to hear to change their attitude and behavior.  But telepathic communication with Diablo played no role.  I am not saying this because of my rigid and close-minded adherence to science. Whether or not I believe that telepathy or inter-species telepathy exists is neither here nor there.  I don’t care.  I am perfectly open to the notion that the creatures of the earth (including humans) have the capacity to communicate in ways that are beyond our knowing.

It is merely that there is nothing in this video that suggests that this woman was communicating telepathically with this wretched, infuriated jaguar.  Openness to the possibility that non-humans can communicate with humans in mysterious and wonderful ways has nothing to do with my irritation about the fact that my otherwise very sensible Facebook friend buys into this particular event as a demonstration of telepathic inter-species communication.

And I am angry because, while everyone’s all distracted and aflutter about the telepathy versus no-telepathy debate, they are ignoring who this cat is, what jaguars need, and his very obvious attempts to directly communicate.

What can’t Diablo just behave more like a good lion?

This jaguar is an angry, indignant predator who belongs in a South American jungle, but, instead, has spent most of his life being misunderstood and mistreated by humans in a European zoo.  Now he has been transported to the savannah of South Africa to live in a metal box inside a dry, dusty pen.  He is a solitary apex predator forced to live in an environment teeming with other predators, and he can’t even get at them to put them in their place.  All he can do is smell their weird smells and be frustrated and pissed-off.  No jungle here.  Nothing verdant or green or shady.  No prey to stalk and keep his intelligence (and fangs) honed.  No shadows within which to conceal himself, except that box.  And he has to stay in that freaking box at night when every fiber of his being tells him that nighttime is when he should be patrolling his territory and hunting.  A human who brings him meat that somebody else killed wants to talk to him and hug him and shit, when all he wants is to be left alone.  What could possibly be upsetting him?

He doesn’t like his name.  Yeah, that’s it.  His name.  And he wonders about these cubs he used to know.

This poor cat’s distress is obvious. He has been communicating as clearly as he could:

Stay out. Back off. You’ll be sorry. I mean it.

You don’t need to be an “animal communicator” to put together some reasonable assumptions about what is fueling his aggressiveness. You just need to know something about jaguars.

In fairness to Olsen, I imagine that it’s kind of difficult to psych yourself up for relating to a fellow creature who has no interest in relating to anybody and clearly wants to destroy you. After that one encounter, everyone was avoiding Diablo because his communication style was so terrifying, which is not unreasonable from a self-preservation perspective.

My beef isn’t that they couldn’t figure out, after six months, what was bugging Diablo.  My beef isn’t that they were willing to give an animal communicator a try.  My beef is that they brought in an incompetent animal communicator and they believed that she demonstrated competence.

Anna did not communicate telepathically with this jaguar.  If she had, she would have talked about stuff a jaguar would care about.  Instead, she talked about stuff that humans care about in order to push their buttons.

If I were a fake animal communicator, I would talk about habitat at least a little, unless I didn’t know anything about jaguars because I was a fake animal communicator from South Africa where there are no jaguars.  Anna Breytenbach didn’t bother.  Hell,  I understand jaguars better than she does, and I hardly understand jaguars at all.

But perhaps Anna didn’t have time to study up on jaguars.  Nobody told her about the situation that awaited her, so she couldn’t have known what to study up on ahead of time, right?  Well, if that is the case, then she is an extra-incompetent telepath.  Shouldn’t a telepath know what the situation is without being told?


As things turned out, she didn’t need telepathy, and it didn’t matter what she didn’t know about jaguars.  All she needed was to know that Olsen and his people were freaked out by this dangerous cat.  For six months, Diablo had been saying loud and clear:

Stay out. Back off. You’ll be sorry. I mean it.

For six months, this cat had been telling them — trying to tell them — that he was a jaguar.  They wanted to hear something else.

And Anna told them something else.  Their desperation for Anna’s magic veiled their eyes to the truth that was right in front of them the whole time.

She told them that Diablo isn’t a devil.  What she should also have told them but didn’t — either because she didn’t know or because it wasn’t on her agenda — is that Spirit is still a jaguar.  He will never be a lion.  No one should expect him to behave like a lion.  Anyone who tries to build a relationship with him as if he were a lion should expect to land in the hospital, or worse.

Anthropomorphosis is a bad thing

Calling this a “telepathic” encounter when it wasn’t is ultimately harmful to man and beast.

Because everyone was so relieved to hear that all Spirit nee Diablo needed was a new name, an attitude of respect, and information about cubs of yesteryear, it might never occur to them that maybe the jaguar also could use a few trees, more distance from the other cats, some armadillos to chase, and a lot more space.

Focusing on Anna’s magic show instead of on what a captive leopard might really need means that Olsen might get hurt again because Spirit will always be angry.  Anna’s pretense of “animal communication” endangers Olsen and robs him of an opportunity to deepen his understanding of the jaguar in his care.  And it robs Spirit of the chance for a less miserable life.

Jaguars are amazing and perfect and magic, by their own right.  Sometimes we are so preoccupied with our yearning for magic that we don’t see the magic right before our eyes.

Very important update

Without calling me an idiot, although I deserve to be called an idiot for this blatant error, Angelbob points out in the comments below that Diablo/Spirit is a leopard not a jaguar.

Add me to the long list of people who can’t see what’s right in front of their own face.  I would like to blame my ADHD for unconsciously ignoring this fact, when Diablo/Spirit was clearly called a leopard in the titles and the narration.  But his leopard-ness wasn’t a “detail” I overlooked; it was obvious, and there is no excuse for my having made this error.  I apologize.

I’m leaving this blog up because I’m proud of all I learned about jaguars and lions while I was researching this topic.  And the question remains for me whether what we are witnessing in this encounter is an example of inter-species telepathic communication.

  • Would a leopard care what name* humans call him?  (I hope Spirit isn’t mad at me for calling him a jaguar.)
  • Would a male leopard wonder or worry about cubs he used to know?
  • If an angry captive leopard had been unsuccessfully communicating with humans about the source of his anger and found himself presented with the opportunity to communicate in a language humans could understand, what would he tell them?

I know that leopards are solitary, like jaguars, but they must have a different society than jaguars do because they have to share their habitats with lions in some places and tigers in others. I wonder what the male’s relationship with his offspring might be. There are records of human “domestication” of leopards, so there must be some history of people being able to communicate with them somehow. Stop me before I go on another two-research obsession! Back to rant


Gasping stars

14 08 2007


Around midnight, I drove out on old Hwy PB past Paoli and parked in the gravel driveway of a Christmas tree farm. I lay on my back on the hood of the car and waited for shooting stars.

The best time to catch the Perseid is around 3am, but it’s a school night, so I decided to come out early, expecting to catch no more than a glimmering. For awhile, there was nothing to do but lie there, easing my eyes into the night sky, feeling the heat of the car engine under the hood beneath my back. The air was filled with the songs of multitudes of crickets and a sole bull frog (who threw in the towel after fifteen minutes). One lonely mosquito buzzed briefly around my right temple, probably lost. (It’s been a tough summer for mosquitoes, what with the drought and all; I don’t think the poor thing had the energy to bite me.)

It’s been over 35 years since I last gazed into the night sky like this. I can remember lying on a picnic table in the middle of a KOA campground in Panguitch, Utah, in 1970, beside a boy from Eugene, Oregon, trying to locate the Little Dipper from among the millions of constellations in that cloudless desert sky. After an hour, we returned to our respective families’ campsites, without having so much as touched hands. A month later, when my family drove through Eugene on our way to Portland, I asked my parents whether Eugene was a small enough town that one would be able to find someone just by driving around for awhile.

Tonight, the shooting stars began to brush across the sky around 12:30am, some of them little white apostrophes, others long, sweeping strokes of green. There weren’t many — it was early — but there were enough to make me forget that I was supposed to be making wishes on them. A truck or two barreled past, shaking my car and leaving me with temporary headlight blindness. I wondered if, from far away, their trails of diesel fumes might look as beautiful as the burning meteors I had come out to watch.

I began to doze a little, when footsteps on the gravel shoulder — probably a rabbit — gave me a start. I climbed back into the car, wrapped my seat belt around me, and headed home.

In the company of clouds

30 07 2007

My B&B hosts have finished their cigarettes, and taken their little dog into the house. My mom has finished her glass of wine, and headed off to bed. I’m sitting on the front porch, catching someone’s WiFi in the breeze, listening to crickets and deeply breathing in the soft, damp, evening air.

We flew right through the clouds this afternoon. My fellow passengers on our little low-flying plane spent most of the flight in sheer terror, the ride was so bumpy. But I was transfixed by the clouds that enveloped us, with the blue blue sky above. They were brilliantly white, enormous, rising around us like canyons.

Every now and again one little wisp would break off — I saw one that reminded me of the Wicked Witch on her broomstick. Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of a larger plane flying high above us in the altitude. We seemed to be skirting around the billowed edges of the clouds, but every once in awhile, we just burrowed through. I expected them to part for us, as if they were made of something other than steam, but they just melted around the plane like fog. Then patches of blue would peak through the dim, and we would burst into the blue, riding in the laps of the clouds again.

I was talking with a friend the other evening about the yearning we all have for magic in our lives. We look for it in the i ching, in the tarot, in the bottle, in our prayers. He and I agreed that sometimes we should just look around us.

Saturday at Devil’s Lake

16 07 2007

I’ve been to Devil’s Lake in Baraboo exactly three times since I moved to Madison almost twenty years ago.

The first time was shortly after I moved here. I went camping with a couple of friends in the early autumn, right after Labor Day. One of those friends, who shall remain nameless, spent the entire weekend in his sleeping bag or hunkered down beside the fire, moaning, “It’s so coooold!” My other friend and hiked I all of the trails, checking into the campsite occasionally to see whether he had moved/expired/washed the breakfast dishes. When we saw that he had done none of the above, we headed back out again. We shared the park that weekend with the annual Boy Scout Jamboree and the trails were crowded with Webelos. That turned out to be fortuitous, because I blew my right knee out and there were plenty of ace bandages to be found. I bought my campsite-bound friend a t-shirt that said, “Just because I’m irritable doesn’t mean you’re not annoying,” and we agreed to never go camping together again.

The second time was about ten years ago when I took a bunch of teens from my church on a weekend campout. All I remember from that weekend was (1) wondering what the kids were going to wear for the rest of the weekend when the first thing they did upon our arrival was race into the lake in their clothes and (2) twelve kids all trying to sleep at once on one kid’s air mattress, which, quite reasonably, exploded.

The third time was yesterday. I don’t have a non-lame excuse for having let so much time pass between visits except that, of all of the things I’m happy to do by myself, walking through the woods isn’t one of them. To enjoy the wilder world, I want to have someone beside me to whom I can say, “Did you see that?” Happily, this weekend I walked alongside a friend who has made something of an avocation of studying the flora, fauna, and geology of the area, so that he was not only eager to share the sights with me, but also saw everything before I did and was able to tell me what we were looking at. His passion was infectious and inspiring. When other hikers passed us, they couldn’t help but slow down to listen in. He was undoubtedly the smartest person in the woods that day.

It was lovely, lovely. We strolled along effigy mounds, observed mud dauber wasps working their way around a delicate blossom, shared an orange while a pair of turkey vultures circled overhead, and spotted the handiwork of a pileated woodpecker — which Stan actually caught a glimpse of, but I missed because I was busy taking a photograph of a blade of bottlebrush grass. Four hours worth of my learning to look at rocks, trees, and plants in a new way — with just enough getting-lost to make it an adventure. Lovely, lovely.

We could use some rain.

July 4th in the Dayton Airport

7 07 2007

I am waiting for my plane to board. Wifi. Thank god.

I’ve been in cyber-silence for the past several days — my mother has dial-up internet access at about 48kps, and ohmygod is it slow. Plus, she has clogged up a third of her computer’s RAM with approximately 3,500 messages stored in the “sent” folder of her email application. Most of these messages are things that she’s forwarded to her friends — pictures of kittens and angels and commentary about what lunatics Democrats are.

My mother and I did not kill each other during my visit, although we gave each other plenty of motive. I got my hugs in with my nieces and nephews, and had a little private time with each of them.


  • Nephew Duncan, who is learning the trumpet, played several patriotic songs, while we all accompanied him on kazoos.
  • My sister Betsy and I kidnapped niece Karley for a “girl’s day out.” We had lunch beside the railroad tracks and talked about boys.
  • Niece Mya taught me a song about penguins, complete with interpretive dance movements, that she had learned at Girl Scout camp.
  • My brother Tom left me the funniest voicemail message ever.
  • I shuffled through the Otterbein Retirement Community Independence Day parade with my mother and her neighbors, a surreal experience.
  • We had a picnic afterwards, which was beyond surreal. My mother encouraged me to explain Unitarian Universalism to the Methodist minister who lives on her street, an invitation whose motive I didn’t understand at all, since she has informed me more than once that she thinks I belong to a cult. Maybe she hoped he would convert me back to the denomination of my youth. He was, fortunately, more interested in collecting everyone’s two dollars each for the picnic.
  • I ate fried chicken for seven straight meals in a row, including breakfast. I am now a fried chicken.
  • I spent five hours watching a two-hour movie with my friend Kathleen because we kept pausing the movie to tell each other stories and laugh hysterically about the ridiculousness of our lives and their worries.
  • I danced to “Purple People Eater” with nephew Aaron, who asked me about six times in a row, “Aunt Micky, you’re not married and you’re so old?” He had no idea such things were possible.
  • Mom’s neighbor invited us into his backyard to watch the evening primroses bloom. They actually bloom while you’re standing there looking at them. I had no idea that such things were possible.

Okay, gotta find something to drink before we fly. I can’t wait to get home. Every time I leave and return, I’m reminded of how very lucky I am to live in Madison, Wisconsin, where, even if I am considered a lunatic, I’m in good company.

I hope my cats had the good sense to not starve while I was gone.

Amazing Aunt Doris

23 06 2007


In two weeks, my great aunt Doris will be 97 years old. Here are some things I think are amazing about her life.

  • When she was about 30 years old and figured out that marriage was not in the cards for her, she pulled together all of the money she had earned as an art teacher and bought 14 acres of land at the edge of a cliff outside of Toronto. She built a house with her own two hands and called it “A Fool’s Paradise.” She still lives there. She has bequeathed the place to the Ontario Heritage Society, which will transform it into an artist’s retreat after she’s gone.
  • When she was in her 70s, she decided she wanted a college degree, so she enrolled at Scarborough University as a English major. For her senior project, she wrote an autobiography of the first 40 years of her life, and published it. Three years later, she published a book about the next 40 years of her life, and published it.
  • She has travelled around the world about a kazillion times, painting everything. (She wasn’t available to talk to me when I tried to call her on her 92nd birthday, because she was in Brazil at the time.) She has sat in the snow and painted pictures of icebergs. She has had a documentary made about her. She has been decorated by Queen Elizabeth.
  • She can kick anyone’s butt at Scrabble.
  • She used to come to the Stratford Festival (Stratford, Ontario) every year with a little gang of girlfriends. I recognized these women when I met them because I had read about them in her autobiographies. Some of them had been her friends for seventy years.

To me, that last point is the most amazing thing about her. More amazing than the fact that her paintings sell for tens of thousands of dollars, that she has had hospitals named after her, that she is buds with some of the best classical actors in North America. She forged friendships in her youth that she nurtured her whole life.

I would like to be that kind of friend.

Aunt Doris is spending her days now in her little cottage nestled in “the Keyhole” in Parry Sound on Georgian Bay in Ontario. Here are some pictures I took the last time I was there.

Visit Doris’s web site.