Pacifying Behavior—Origin, Function and Evolution

— by Roger Abrantes

Pacifying behavior (Latin pacificare, from pax = peace and facerefacio = to make) is all behavior with the function of decreasing or suppressing an opponent’s aggressive or dominant behavior or restoring a state of tranquility. There are two ways of classifying pacifying behavior: (1) to include all behaviors with the function of diffusing social conflict, and (2) to restrict it to a particular range within the broader spectrum of conflict decreasing behavior (see diagram below). This author prefers the latter because the broad use of the term in the first option makes it synonymous with conflict decreasing behavior in general, without reference to any particular sub-class of this behavior.

Roger Abrantes And Rottweiler.

This Rottweiler female shows me friendly behavior licking my face and ear. I show that I accept her friendly behavior by turning my face away from her, closing my eyes and mouth and making champing noises. Mostly, dogs show friendly and pacifying behavior to humans as they do to other dogs (photo by Lisa J. Bain).

Pacifying behavior is closely related to friendly behavior (including greeting behavior), insecure, submissive and fearful behavior. In general, the differences between these behavior displays are quantitatively small, but we can classify them separately and qualitatively according to their respective sub-functions. An animal pacifies another using a complex sequence of different behaviors as we can see in the diagram below. An animal very seldom shows a single behavior. Also, the same behavior may achieve different functions depending on its intensity, and the sum of all behaviors displayed at a given moment.

Pacifying behavior did not originate as a deliberate and well-thought strategy to manipulate an opponent. Initially, it was probably just a reflex. Like all phenotypes, it happened by chance and evolved thereafter.

Pacifying Behavior in Canids

Pacifying behavior in dogs: licking own lips, licking and pawing (images by Alanic05 and Colorado Great Pyrenee Rescue Community).

Natural selection favors behaviors that prolong the life of an animal and increase its chance of reproducing; over time pacifying behavior spread throughout the population. Evolution favors a systematic bias, which moves behavior away from the maximization of utility and towards the maximization of fitness.

pacifying behavior animals

Many species show pacifying displays in their behavior repertoire (photos by J. Frisch, AFP and Aleixa).

The origin of pacifying behavior—Animal A facing aggressive opponent B registers (sensory system) B’s behavior, processes it (neurological system) and responds with a behavior. The aggressive animal B registers this behavior (probably an infantile behavior); some behaviors tend to pacify it (probably eliciting parental behavior) while others do not. The pacified state of B benefits A and reinforces its behavior, i.e. it is likely it will repeat the same behavior in similar circumstances. Most importantly, animals that show appropriate pacifying behavior (such as A) survive conflicts and avoid injury more often than not and subsequently pass their genes onto the next generation.

Pacifying behavior also pacifies the pacifier, which is an important feature of this behavior. By displaying pacifying behavior, an insecure animal attempts to regain some security (homeostasis) by displaying a behavior it knows well and has previously served to reassure it.

Dog and Cat

Cat and dog use the pacifying behavior of their own species to communicate with one another successfully because of the common characteristics of the behavior (photo by Malau).

Some pacifying behavior has its origins in neonatal and infantile behavior and only becomes pacifying behavior through redirection and eventually ritualization. Other forms of pacifying behavior rely on concealing all signs of aggressive behavior. Sexual behavior can also function as pacifying. Young animals of social species learn pacifying behavior at a very early age; it is important for young animals to be able to pacify adults when they begin interacting with them. The disposition (genotype) to display the behavior is innate (otherwise the phenotype would not be subject to natural selection and evolution), although it requires reinforcement for the young animal to be able to apply it successfully. In canines, adults (initially the mother at the time of weaning) teach the cubs/pups the intricacies of pacifying behavior, a skill they will need to master in order to prevent or resolve hostilities that could cause serious injuries.

Even though pacifying behavior is more relevant and developed in social species, we also find pacifying displays in the behavior repertoire of less social species. Animals successfully use the pacifying behavior characteristic of their species with individuals belonging to other species (if possible) because of the common elements of pacifying behavior across species. It is not unusual to see our domestic animals, dogs, cats and horses interacting peacefully and exchanging pacifying signals. Dogs also show friendly, insecure, pacifying or submissive behavior to their owners and other humans with their species characteristic displays. Licking, nose poking, muzzle nudging, pawing and twisting are common behaviors that dogs offer us.

This diagram shows the placement of pacifying behavior in the spectrum of behavior in canids. The diagram does not include a complete list of behaviors. A conflict is any serious disagreement, a dispute over a resource, which may lead to one or both parts showing aggressive behavior. Resources are what an organism perceives as life necessities, e.g. food, mating partner or a patch of territory. What an animal perceives to be its resources depends on both the species and the individual; it is the result of evolutionary processes and the history of the individual.

Pacifying Spectrum

The spectrum of pacifying behavior in canids (by R. Abrantes). The colored background illustrates and emphasizes that behavior is a continuum with fading thresholds between the various behaviors. The vertical lines are our artificial borders, a product of definition and convention.

 

References

  • Abrantes, R. 1997. The Evolution of Canine Social Behavior. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
  • Abrantes, R. 1997. Dog Language. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
  • Abrantes, R. 2014. Canine Muzzle Grasp Behavior—Advanced Dog Language.
  • Abrantes, R. 2014. Canine Muzzle Nudge, Muzzle Grasp And Regurgitation Behavior.
  • Abrantes, R. 2014. Why Do Dogs Like To Lick Our Faces?
  • Coppinger, R. and Coppinger, L. 2001. Dogs: a Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution. Scribner.
  • Darwin, C. 1872. The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals. John Murray (the original edition).
  • Fox, M. 1972. Behaviour of Wolves, Dogs, and Related Canids. Harper and Row.
  • Lopez, Barry H. (1978). Of Wolves and Men. J. M. Dent and Sons Limited.
  • Mech, L. D. 1970. The wolf: the ecology and behavior of an endangered species. Doubleday Publishing Co., New York.
  • Mech, L. David (1981). The Wolf: The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Mech, L. D. 1988. The arctic wolf: living with the pack. Voyageur Press, Stillwater, Minn.
  • Mech. L. D. and Boitani, L. 2003. Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. University of Chicago Press.
  • Scott, J. P. and Fuller, J. L. 1998. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. University of Chicago Press.
  • Zimen, E. 1975. Social dynamics of the wolf pack. In The wild canids: their systematics, behavioral ecology and evolution. Edited by M. W. Fox. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York. pp. 336-368.
  • Zimen, E. 1982. A wolf pack sociogram. In Wolves of the world. Edited by F. H. Harrington, and P. C. Paquet. Noyes Publishers, Park Ridge, NJ.

Is it possible for all of us to become givers—no takers at all?

—by Roger Abrantes

 

Bird Mouse Alturism

 

Wouldn’t it be nice if we all gave without expecting anything in return? What a beautiful world we would have. At one time or another, most of us have embraced such thoughts. But is it possible at all? Is it possible for all of us to become givers—no takers at all?

An evolutionary biologist will tell you right away that it is not possible. Every behavioral strategy, when adopted by everyone in a group, is vulnerable to any variation or mutation that will carry a slight advantage. Were we all to become givers, we would be at the mercy of the first taker that would show up. More takers would follow for if it works for one, it works for others as well.

All relationships are a trade, a “give and take.” How much we give and how much we take depends on the benefits and costs involved. The goal is to come out of any trade with gain. Occasional deficits are acceptable as long as the overall balance stays on the plus side. That is the law of life. We spend energy to gain energy, to keep alive. Sometimes, we need to plan long-termed. There are both benefits and costs that we do not incur immediately. The law is still the same: the balance must end up on the positive side or life will end.

Apart from our dream of a better world full of unselfish givers, it looks at first sight like taking and not giving is the most profitable strategy. The problem is that we cannot all be takers. Takers can’t take from takers, they can only take from givers. Thus, it would appear that the givers would always be at a loss, but that is not the case. Givers receive from other givers, and they don’t spend energy fighting with takers. On the other side, takers spend energy when facing other takers without gaining anything. While giver/giver allows both to come out on the plus side of the balance, taker/taker always comes out with a deficit.

Givers and takers keep each other at bay. The ideal number for each, so that there is stability, depends solely on the value of benefits and costs.

To analyze how different strategies influence one another, the evolutionary biologist strips the strategies to their core and assigns some values to the variables, i.e. benefits and costs.

Let’s assume that when a taker meets a taker, they benefit nothing and spend much energy. When a giver meets another giver, they both give and take equally, and they spend some energy (they have both benefits and costs). When a taker meets a giver, the taker benefits 100%, and the giver spends energy (costs). We set the value of benefits and costs as follows:

  • benefit (b) 20 (conferred by the givers to anyone)
  • cost (c) -5 (the cost of giving)
  • taker/taker cost (e) -50 (this is the energy takers spend when fighting one another to take without giving).

Let’s now calculate the percentage of takers and givers necessary to achieve an equilibrium so that both strategies give the same profit.

The proportion of takers = t
The proportion of givers (g) = (1-t)
The average payoff for a giver (g) is G = ct + (b+c)(1-t)
The average payoff for a taker (t) is T = et + b(1-t)
There is an equilibrium (stability) when G=T.

 

Strategy Opponent’s strategy
Takers Givers
Takers e b
Givers c b+c

 

Example 1—With the above values for benefits and costs, 10% takers and 90% givers gives both a profit of 13 and there is stability. If the cost of takers fighting one another decreases, then it pays off (for more individuals) to become a taker.

Example 2—The figures in example 1 seem to suggest that takers should avoid one another as much as possible. Let’s say they do it in three out of four times. Then, and still with the same values, the number of takers can rise to 40%, and we still have an equilibrium, i.e. an ESS (Evolutionarily Stable Strategy). However, the profit will be less for both givers and takers, namely 7—more takers equals less profit for all.

That is a good example of what happens in our capitalistic human societies dominated by the idea of taking more and more. Takers take all they can but end up poorer than if they took less. The capitalistic instinct says, “take more,” but a more rational approach would clearly show that taking less would amount to profiting more. The strategy of taking maximally works only for a limited time. In the end, it backfires (depression, recession, etc.) because it upsets the balance between the available strategies, which, by then, have become evolutionarily unstable.

Example 3—Encounters between takers ar very expensive. What if takers would avoid takers all the time? In this case, the number of takers can rise up to 80%. Beyond that the strategies become evolutionarily unstable. The interesting is that even thought there would be stability with such a high number of takers, both takers and givers would come at a loss of -1. That is not at all a healthy strategy for any individual, let alone a group. It’s the sign of a society in decay. It’s what happens in a group, which is dominated by greed and selfishness.

Example 4—Since our wish is a world full of givers let us see how we can maximize the number of givers. We need to change the values for benefits and costs. Let’s decrease the cost of giving and increase the costs incurred by takers when fighting one another.

  • benefit (b) 20 (remains the same)
  • cost (c) -1 (lower cost than above)
  • taker/taker cost (e) -100 (much higher cost than above)

With these values, we can reach a maximum of 99% givers versus 1% takers. Both will have a profit equal to 18.80. Note that this the highest achieved profit in all our simulations.

The only variables that reduce the number of takers are the cost (e) and the probability of facing another taker. If we keep the values of benefits and costs the same as initially (b=20, c=-5) the costs of the struggle between two takers must rise to -500 for the strategies to be evolutionarily stable. The profit, then, would be 14.80 instead of 18.80.

These are artificial figures we use to analyze the necessary conditions for an Evolutionarily Stable Strategy to emerge. We may question the unlikeliness of the costs of an interaction to rise as high as we have set the taker/taker encounters. And yet, conflicts between male Northern elephant seals, Mirounga angustirostris, often end with a critical injury or the death of one of the parties. The costs are high, but so are the benefits: in Northern elephant seals, fewer than 5% of the males are responsible for 50% or more of the copulations. A red deer stag, Cervus elaphus, has about a 25% chance to be injured permanently from fighting (like in our example 2).

Also interesting is that the value of the benefits does not change the proportion of takers versus givers, only the profit. For example, with b=40, the profit is 34.60 (versus 18.80 and 14.80 for the other values for benefits in the examples). The values we used are all fictive, but it doesn’t matter. They show us the trends created by increasing or decreasing a variable. To evaluate real situations, we can use realistic figures inasmuch as we can get them. We can assign values to benefits and costs according to gain or loss of calories, body weight, number of progeny, available mating partners, fitness or even quality of life (if we find a reliable way to measure it).

The conclusion is that there will always be givers and takers—or that any strategy needs a counterpart to form an ESS. We can influence the trend of adopting one or the other strategy with the benefits and costs involved, but we can’t eliminate either one completely—and this is the universal law of life. In other words: every mountain has a sunny and a shady side.

 

The Mathematician Rat—An Evolutionary Explanation

— by Roger Abrantes

 

Giant Gambian Pouched By Xavier Rossi

Giant Gambian Pouched finds a landmine (photo by Xavier Rossi).

JG is a rat, a Cricetomys gambianus or Giant Gambian Pouched Rat; she is also a Hero Rat, a landmine detector at Apopo in Tanzania. In December 2009, she performed uncharacteristically badly and puzzled everybody as Hero Rats don’t make mistakes. What was the problem with JG? Had she lost it? Had the trainers made a crucial mistake?

Apopo in Morogoro, Tanzania, trains rats to detect landmines and tuberculosis and the little fellows are very good at what they do. In Mozambique, Apopo has so far cleared 2,063,701 square meters of Confirmed Hazardous Areas, with the destruction of 1866 landmines, 783 explosive remnants of war and 12,817 small arms and ammunitions. As for tuberculosis, up until now the rats have analyzed 97,859 samples, second-time screened 44,934 patients, correctly diagnosed 7,662 samples and discovered 2,299 additional cases that were previously missed by the DOTS centers (Direct Observation of Treatment, Short Course Centers in Tanzania). More than 2,500 patients have since been treated for tuberculosis after having been correctly diagnosed by the rats.

In December 2009, I was working full time at Apopo in Morogoro. I wrote their training manual, trained their rat trainers, supervised the training of the animals and analyzed standard operating procedures. At the time of writing, I still do consultancy work for Apopo and instruct new trainers from time to time. Back then, one of my jobs was to analyze and monitor the rats’ daily performance and that’s when I came across the peculiar and puzzling behavior of JG in the LC3 cage.

Problem

LC3 is a cage with 10 sniffing holes in a line and the rats run it 10 times. On average, 21 holes, randomly selected by computer, will contain TNT samples. We train rats in LC3 everyday, recording and statistically analyzing each session. We normally expect the rats to find and indicate the TNT samples with a success rate of 80-85%. Whenever the figures deviate from the expected results, we analyze them and try to pinpoint the problem.

On December 19, we came across a rat in LC3 that did not indicate any positive samples placed from Holes 1 to 6. She only indicated from Holes 7 to 10. In fact, from Hole 1 to 6, Jane Goodall (that’s the rat’s full name) only once bothered to make an indication (which was false, by the way). From Hole 7 to 10, JG indicated 10 times with 9 correct positives, only missing one, but also indicated 11 false positives. Her score was the lowest in LC3 that day and the lowest for any rat for a long time. What was the problem with JG? She seemed fine in all other aspects and seemed to know what she was doing. Why then did she perform so poorly?

Giant Gambian Pouched Rat By Silvain Piraux

Giant Gambian Pouched Rat searching TNT in a line cage (photo by Silvain Piraux).

Analysis of searching strategies

Whenever an animal shows such a behavior pattern, and it appears purposeful rather than emotional, I become suspicious and suspect that there is a rational explanation.

In order to analyze the problem, I constructed simulations of two searching strategies: (1) searching ALL HOLES, and (2) SKIPPING Holes 1 to 5 (I didn’t want to be as radical in my simulation as JG). In addition, I ran simulations with two different sample placement configurations: (1) evenly distributed between the two halves, i.e. two positives in Holes 1 to 5 and two positives in Holes 6 to 10; and (2) unevenly distributed — one positive in the first five holes and two positives in Holes 6 to 10.

In order to run the simulation, I needed to assign values to the different components of the rat’s behavior. I chose values based on averages measured with different rats.

  • Walking from feeding hole to first hole (back walk) = 3 seconds.
  • Walking from covered hole to covered hole = 1 second.
  • Walking from uncovered hole to uncovered hole = 2 seconds.
  • Analyzing a hole = 2 seconds.
  • Indicating a positive = 4 seconds.
  • Walking from last hole to feeding hole = 1 second.
  • Eating the treat = 4 seconds.

All time variables were converted into energy expenditure in the calculation of energy payoff for the two strategies and the different configurations. Also the distance covered was converted into energy expenditure. The reinforcers (treats) amounted to energy intake. In my simulation I used estimated values for both expenditure and intake. However, we could measure all values accurately and convert all energy figures into kJ. 

The results

RatTable1
In terms of energy,  (in this simulation I make several assumptions based on reasonable values, e.g. the total energy spent is a function of distance covered and time spent), the results show that when the value of each treat is high (E gain is close to the sum of all treats amounting to the sum of energy spent for searching all holes), it pays off to search all holes (the loss of -5.50 versus -7.88). The higher the energetic value of each treat, the higher the payoff of the ALL HOLES strategy.This is a configuration with four positives (x) and six negatives (0). The results show that neither strategy is significantly better than the other. On average, when sniffing all holes, the rat receives a treat every 31 seconds, while skipping the first five holes will produce a treat every 31.5 seconds. However, there is a notable difference in how quickly the rat gets to the treat depending on which strategy the rat adopts. ALL HOLES produces a treat on average 5.75 seconds after a positive indication. SKIPPING produces a treat 3.5 seconds after a positive indication. This could lead the rat to adopt the SKIPPING strategy, but it’s not an unequivocally convincing argument.

RatTable2

However, when the energetic value of each treat is low, skipping holes will reduce the total loss (damage control), making it a better strategy (-17.88 versus -25.50).

RatTable3
However, if we run a simulation based on an average of three positives per run, with one in the first half and two in the second half  (which is closest to what the rat JG was faced with on December 12), we obtain completely different results. This first analysis does not prove conclusively that the SKIPPING strategy is the best. On the contrary, it shows that, all things considered, ALL HOLES will confer more advantages.

RatTable4
The energy advantage is also detectable in this configuration, even when each treat has a high energetic value (a gain of 3.13 versus a loss of -0.75).With this configuration, the strategy of SKIPPING is undoubtedly the best. On average, it produces a reinforcer every 27.5 seconds (versus 28.7 for ALL HOLES) and 2.5 seconds after an indication (versus 5 seconds).

RatTable5
Conclusion

This second simulation proves that JG’s strategy was indeed the most profitable in principle. However, the actual results for JG are completely different from the ones shown above, as they also have to take into account the amount of energy spent indicating false positives (which are expensive).

It is now possible to conclude that the most advantageous strategy is as follows. Whenever the possibilities of producing a reinforcer are evenly distributed, search all holes. It takes more time, but on average you’ll get a reinforcer a bit quicker than if you skip holes. In addition, you either gain energy by searching all holes, or you limit your losses, depending on the energetic value of each reinforcer. Don’t be fooled by the fact you get a treat sooner after your indication when searching all holes then when skipping.

Whenever the possibilities of producing a reinforcer are not evenly distributed, with a bias towards the second half of the line, skip the first half. It doesn’t pay off to even bother searching the first half. By skipping it, you’ll get a lower total number of reinforcers, but you’ll get them quicker than searching all holes and, more importantly, you’ll end up gaining energy instead of losing it.

Finally, avoid making mistakes by indicating false positives. They cost as much as true positives in spent energy, but you don’t gain anything.          

An evolutionary explanation

Of course, no rat calculates energetic values and odds for certain behaviors that are reinforced, nor do they run simulations prior to entering a line cage. Rats do not do this in their natural environment either. They search for food using specific patterns of behavior, which have proven to be the most adequate throughout the history and evolution of the species. A certain behavior in certain conditions, depending on temperature, light, humidity, population density, as well as internal conditions such as blood sugar level etc., will produce a slightly better payoff than any other behavior. Behaviors with slightly better payoffs will tend to confer slight advantages in terms of survival and reproduction and they will accumulate and spread within a population; they will spread slowly, for the time factor is unimportant in the evolution of a trait. Eventually, we will come across a population of individuals with what seems an unrivalled ability to make the right decision in circumstances with an amazing number of variables, and it puzzles us because we forget the tremendous role of evolution by natural selection. Those individuals who took the ‘most wrong decisions’ or ‘slightly wrong’ decisions inevitably decreased their chances of survival and reproduction. Those who took ‘mostly right’ or ‘slightly righter’ decisions gained an advantage in the struggle for survival and reproduction and, by reproducing more often or more successfully, they passed their ‘mostly right’ or ‘slightly righter’ decisions genes to their offspring.

This is a process that the theory of behaviorism cannot explain, however useful it is for explaining practical learning in specific situations. In order to explain such seemingly uncharacteristic behaviors, we need to recur to the theory of evolution by natural selection. This behavior is not the result of trial and error with subsequent reinforcers or punishers. It is an innate ability to recognize parameters and behave in face of them. It is an ability that some individuals possess to recognize particular situations and particular elements within those situations, and correlate them with specific behavior. What these elements are, or what this ability exactly amounts to, we do not know; only that it has been perfected throughout centuries and millennia, and innumerable generations that accumulate ‘mostly right’ or ‘slightly righter’ decisions—and that is indeed evolution by means of natural selection.

 

Related articles

References

  • Catania, A. C. (1997) Learning. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall. 4th ed.
  • Chance, P. (2008) Learning and Behavior. Wadsworth-Thomson Learning, Belmont, CA, 6th, ed.

 

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My Last Love Letter—We Love Too Much and We Love Nothing

— by Roger Abrantes

 

Sunflower field

 

These days we seem to love a lot. We love food, clothes, iPhones, dogs, cats, horses, houses, cars, hairstyles, tunes, movies, apps, sushi, coca-cola and much, much more. We also love our spouses, partners, kids, family, and friends. Everything goes together in the same pot. In short, we love everything and nothing, too quickly and too easily—but what comes easily goes just as easily.

I still remember when we reserved the word “love” for only the very, very special. It appears that either we have devalued the meaning of “love,” (as swiftly as we do with a currency when it reflects our poor financial resolutions), or that we simply don’t know what love is.

We seem to be terribly confused about love. Maybe, it is this dark age of ideological decay and disillusion, in which we live, that compels us to beg for and crave love. It prompts us to see love everywhere and to mistake it for what it is not, namely passion, infatuation, obsession. Though, as far as I’m concerned (and, of course, you may disagree), love is none of the above. Love is, in its essence, incompatible with passion.

We regard the love between two lovers as the epitome of love itself. Our literature and movie industry give us plenty of examples thereof. We are flooded by thousands of love songs and romantic movies. And yet, despite the fact we depict this romanticized love as the pinnacle of our aspirations, it often turns sour and gives way to despair and tragedy. The “forever clause” love promises, often falls painfully short. The USA has a divorce rate of 53%, which equates to one divorce every six seconds (with 73% of third marriages ending the same way). Italy has the highest rate of unhappily married women: 52%. These figures alone beg the question: do we know what love is?

The problem, as is often the case, is how we define (or do not define) the concepts our mind uses to think. If feelings and emotions influence our thoughts, so do thoughts leave their mark on our feelings and emotions—and ultimately on who we are.

When we fall in love, we aim for completion: an escape route from the crushing feeling of loneliness entrapping us, from our deficiencies. Do we fall in love with the other person or with the enhanced image of ourselves in our lover? That is a pertinent question for, as I see it, to begin a deeper relationship simply to escape our shortcomings and satisfy our needs is extremely selfish and disrespectful to both parties. It will not bring us peace and harmony either, both inherent parts of love. We love best when our need to see our loved ones happy exceeds any need we may have of them.

Falling in love is not love. It is an infatuation, a passion, a very strong feeling of excitement and anticipation. It hurts so bad that it must be good, or so we think. Anger and sexual desire are equally strong feelings of excitement and anticipation, yet I doubt anyone would regard them as love. “Making love” is a misleading term used to describe sex. You don’t need to love the one you make love to, and you can love someone to whom you don’t make love. In other words, “making love” is just a romanticized way to describe sex or a subtle way to distinguish between casual sex and sex with someone for whom we care.

The confusion results from the fact that passion and love are similarly strong attractions to one person. The fire of passion gets its oxygen from our unsatisfied needs. It comes with many strings attached. It is highly conditional. “I love you, you make me feel a better person,” “You’re mine, I love you,” “I need you, I love you.” Passions rise and fall like a rollercoaster and often at the same speed. They depend on how the other person treats us and how we perceive ourselves in the relationship. Passions are full of doubt and questions: “Do you still love me?,” “What can I do so you keep loving me?” Passions are strong, often irrational attachments to the object, which generates them.

The essence of love, or at least as I understand it, is a far cry from the essence of passion. True love (not to be confused with falling in love or making love) is unconditional, no strings attached, no expectations. I scratch your back, and I don’t necessarily expect you to scratch mine. True love is to want the other person to be happy, irrespective of what it makes us. That does not imply that if we love someone, we must accept and endure disrespectful treatment. I can love someone and genuinely wish that person to be happy—and contribute to it, no strings attached—though not at the cost of being miserable. There is no contradiction in saying, “I love you, I want you unconditionally to be happy, but it’s not right for me to live the way you want.” True love can only grow and thrive in freedom. We cannot entrap love, for if we do, we kill it. True love is a free bird that we can’t cage. All we can do is to rejoice seeing it fly around freely, being fully aware that one day it may not come back, and contemplating that prospect with no trace of fear.

All relationships are a trade—a give and take. Passions survive if there’s a balance between the two. We keep (consciously or unconsciously) accurate accounts on what we give and what we take. Love also requires balance though not depending on particular give and takes. We give what we can, and we are grateful for what our loved one offers us.

Passions wane if we don’t get what we need. Love does not because it does not depend on our needs. Passions are selfish, calculated and manipulating. Love is not. In our times, what most resembles true love is probably our love for our children. We want them to be happy, and we give without expecting anything in return. Still, many parents sacrifice the happiness of their kids for what it makes them, compelling them to follow determined paths. That is not love, but merely a selfish projection of one’s ego and shortcomings. One thing is teaching to the best of our knowledge; another thing is to impose our norms and to project our ambitions onto our children’s lives.

“If I don’t get what I need, I walk away”—that’s passion. “You took away from me something I needed, and I didn’t walk away on you”—that’s love.

Passions are by nature unreliable. They ignite as easily as fuel, are as volatile as fire, and are dangerously unstable. Crimes of passion are, alas, too frequent. Passions are a poor foundation for true love, peace, and happiness. Being in love feels great as long as it lasts, and we can certainly enjoy it as long as we are well aware that it will end one day and that it may hurt. Being in love is an infatuation and, as with all obsessions, it is capricious and shallow.

We fall in love for many reasons, but mostly out of some degree of desperation, either because we feel lonely, we have an immense craving for affection or the need to be re-affirmed. We see ourselves through the eyes of the person with whom we fall in love. We identify ourselves with a picture, a fata morgana. To define ourselves by means of anything but who we are (that is, what we think, we feel and we do) is inviting suffering to bed. It is like having a beautiful dream, but all dreams come to an abrupt end for we will we wake up eventually. Deep inside, lovers know that. Clinched in a profound embrace, they look into each other’s eyes and whisper, “I want to stop time, to keep this moment frozen forever.” It is the realization that it will end one day that makes it hurt so badly. What makes us suffer is the inevitable loss of the illusion, to which we cling in vain, pinning on it all our hopes for happiness. When it’s over, we feel we have lost love, but we haven’t really lost it, for we never had it in the first place. What we had was an illusion, as we failed to realize that we can only find our peace and create our happiness from within and through our own thoughts and actions. Nobody, not even a lover, can give it to us.

True love is completely different in essence and manifestation. We cannot lose what is real, only what is an illusion. Therefore, true love does not leave scars when we lose it because we can never lose what is real. When the free bird flies away, we don’t lose it because it was never ours, and we never claimed it. What is ours forever and is true is the pleasure of seeing it fly freely and wish that it will fare well. Passions live in anticipation, love in what is real.

Love is fragile and, like a bonsai, we must nurse it and take good care of it. A bonsai requires a reliable measure of water, light, and temperature, not when we have the time for it or feel like doing it, but when the bonsai needs it. We need to take care of it every day no matter how busy we are with other chores. Love requires a reliable dose of dedication, unselfishness, and affection, not when we have the time or the need to give it, but when the other person misses it. A bonsai grows into a beautiful little tree we can rejoice in if we treat it correctly. Its strength and imperceptible growth fills our heart with joy for we have given without expecting anything in return—for what can a little bonsai give us but joy? Equally, love flourishes and enriches our lives if we take good care of it without keeping account of what we get back. The happiness of our loved one will fill our hearts with joy—and what can happiness give us but happiness?

Are you ready for love? Nurse a bonsai for five years. If you can, the chances are you are ready for love. “There’s no remedy for love than to love more,” Henry Thoreau wrote. I’d say, “There’s no remedy for love than to love right.”

Loving is not an apparition. It is the process of having the courage of facing our weakness and turn it into strength. The moment we expose our vulnerability to another person, we face our egos, desires, demons and illusions. If it is the right person, we may challenge ourselves toward creating an open-minded and genuinely honest relationship—one marked by a pure, unselfish, and unconditional love. Only then, an everlasting connection may emerge between two wholesome individuals who don’t depend on one another but willingly and lovingly give and take in mutual support.

You know true love when you gaze into the eyes of your loved one, and you catch a glimpse of a new world, an unconditional promise of freedom from the boundaries of your confined self, the ultimate journey into the timeless and the boundless—reasoning and being, giving and taking seamlessly merged—like tears in the rain.

 

_____

References
Thubten Chodron (2013) Don’t Believe Everything You Think: Living with Wisdom and Compassion. Snow Lion.
Dalai Lama XIV (1998) The Art Of Happiness: A Handbook For Living, Simon & Schuster Audio.
Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano (Leonard Price) (2013) “Nothing Higher to Live For: A Buddhist View of Romantic Love” Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 2 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/price/bl124.html .
Sunada Takagi (2009) Love, sex, and non-attachment http://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/love-sex-and-non-attachment).
Henry Thoreau, Journal, July 25, 1839.
Divorce rates around the world at https://v2lawblog.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/divorce-rates-around-the-world/.
Italy has the lowest percentage of happily married couples at https://v2lawblog.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/divorce-rates-around-the-world/.

The Final Walk

My walk home from the pier is one of life’s small pleasures. It’s normally a 20-minute stroll, but it can often take up to an hour or sometimes even two, as I have to stop and chat with everybody on the way, from merchants to people I know by sight, or even complete strangers. This is the Thai way and the way of my village in Southern Thailand where everybody smiles and talks to you.

Old dog

Bombom was old and tired, ready for his final walk to the temple.

The weather is nearly always hot and sunny, between 29º and 38ºC (85º and 100º F), Today it’s exactly 32º C according to my diving computer. Of course it rains during the rainy season, but only for an hour or two and everything soon dries off, leaving a sense of freshness and the smell of wet soil in the air. Sometimes it rains cats and dogs, turning the streets in the village into small rivers, but everyone takes it in their stride and, with shoes off and pants rolled up, life continues (literally) with a smile.
After having completed three dives, one of them in a strong surge, I’m starving as usual. These days, in my ageing youth, my job in Thailand is marine biology environmental management, which, basically, means I dive, sometimes with students, sometimes without, take pictures of the fish and corals I see, and then write a report—yes, I call that a job! I stop at one of those remarkable street vendors on the main street to grab something to eat. ‘Street food’ is so cheap and so good that it doesn’t make any sense to go home and cook.

Buddhist Monk and Dog.

Buddhist Monk and Dog (image by John Lander).

My favorite ‘restaurant’ (it looks more like an open garage) is a family business, like most small businesses in Thailand. The owners live there too. They have a TV and a bed for the kids in the back—that is, behind the four tables for the guests. It’s all on view for all to see. Of course, you don’t want to isolate the kids in a room by themselves. Children (and dogs) are an inherent part of Thai life; you see them everywhere. They are allowed to do whatever they want, are seldom scolded or yelled at and, amazingly enough, they are pretty well-behaved. It puzzles me how they manage it, especially when I think of some of our little brats in the West, both human, and canine. I am yet to discover their secret, but I guess it has something to do with the fact they are part of every aspect of daily life from the day they are born; they are perfectly integrated with no artificially constructed, designated kids-zones. The same goes for the dogs, they belong there like anyone else: no fuss, no extra attention, no special treatment one way or another.

“Sawasdee kha khoon Logel,” Phee Mali greets me with a big smile when she sees me.

Phee means big sister and Mali means Jasmine, which is her name. I’m Logel because Thais are always on first name terms. Last names are a relatively new invention imposed on them by the government in response to the growth of the nation and a more modern society. The telephone directory is ordered by first names. King Rama VI introduced the practice of surnames in 1920 and he personally invented names for about 500 families. All Thais have nicknames. You call your friends by their nicknames and sometimes you don’t even know their real name! I’m Logel because most Thais can’t pronounce the ‘r’ sound, not even in their own language and, surprisingly enough, they do have ‘r’ in Thai.

Dog in Temple

Thais often take the dogs to the local temple so they can die in peace, in the company of the monks, near Buddha.

“You OK, you see beautiful fish today?” Phee Mali asks me in ‘Tenglish’—or Thai English, which is a language in its own right, most charming and highly addictive. Before long and without even noticing it, you begin speaking Tenglish. I speak a mixture of Thai and Tenglish with the locals. As my Thai improves, I speak more Thai and less Tenglish, but Thai is difficult as it is a tone language. The tone with which you pronounce a word changes its meaning and sometimes dramatically so. There are words I consistently mispronounce which has the Thais in fits of laughter, either because I talk utter nonsense, or I say something naughty. They love it when it’s the latter. They even encourage me to say something they know I can’t pronounce just to amuse themselves. It’s all good-hearted and good fun, with no disrespect intended. On the contrary, I get preferential treatment because I speak Thai. I’ll transcribe below some of our conversations in English, directly translated from the Thai words, in order to give my readers a feel for it.

“Yes,” I answer, “I saw beautiful fish and corals. Thale (sea) Andaman very good.”

“Oh you so black!” she exclaims with furrowed brows and a smile. ‘Black’ actually means either tanned or sun burnt, as the case may be. Thai women don’t like to be sun tanned. They like white, as they say, and they become very worried when they see someone with what in the West we call a healthy, attractive tan.

“You hung’y ‘ight, gwai teeaw moo pet mak ‘ight?” Phee Mali asks me laughing. She knows just what’s on my mind—I love a hot, spicy gwai teeaw moo, especially after a hard day’s work. It’s a soup, containing noodles and pork, chicken or shrimp, with everything else imaginable thrown in. It even comes with a side plate of fresh vegetables that you tear into pieces with your fingers and add to the soup as you please. You season it all yourself with dry chili, fresh chili, chili sauce, fish sauce, soy, pepper, salt, and a bit of sugar (yes sugar, try it and you’ll see why I love it). It’s delicious I can assure you, and healthy too.

I eat my gwai teeaw moo and sip down my iced green tea, no sugar. The sun will set in about half an hour; it always goes down at the same time here, seven degrees north of the equator. No rain today. I relish life in Paradise!

“Tao thale sa baay dee mai.” The kids come running to ask me about the fish and especially the sea turtle, their favorite—which is a good opportunity for me to practice my Thai language. They call me Lung Logel (Uncle Roger), in deference to my age. Then, it’s the dogs’ turn to say hi—in Doggish, one language I do know, no accent and spoken the same on every continent.

Thai Child wai.

The wai is the Thai greeting when you raise both hands together to your chin. It still strikes me as the most beautiful greeting I’ve ever seen.

I see Ae on the other side of the street (Ae is a funny name deriving from the Thai peekaboo game). I know her and her family. Her father works on one of the boats I regularly sail with on my diving tours. I often help him dock the boat when we arrive at the pier in less than perfect weather and we sometimes have a beer together after having secured the boat, unloaded, etc. Ae is squatting beside her dog, one of those Thai dogs that looks the same as every other. Village dogs in Thailand all look alike, as if they were a particular breed, the product of random breeding throughout the years. I call them ‘default dogs.’

“Ae sad, right?’ I ask the kids.

“Oh, dog Ae old already, tomorrow father of Ae bring dog to go temple,” Chang Lek (Little Elephant is his name) replies.

I finish my meal and go over to talk to Ae, still squatting beside her dog and petting him. I can see Bombom is old and tired. He’s a good, friendly dog. He can often be seen strolling around the village, quietly surveying the neighborhood. He’s always incredibly dusty despite Ae and her mother painstakingly and frequently bathing him. When I approach them, he barely raises his head. He gives me that affable, resigned look of his.

“Sawasdee khrap, Ae.”

“Sawasdee kha,” she says to me and hastens to wai to me. The wai is the Thai greeting when you raise both hands together to your chin. It still strikes me as the most beautiful greeting I’ve ever seen.

“Bombom is old, right?” I ask her.

“Yessir.”

“Bombom already had happy life. You are good friend of Bombom.”

“Yessir,” she says gently.

“Bombom likes you very much,” I say, lost for words.

“Tomorrow Mom and Dad bring Bombom to go to temple,” she replies and I see a big tear roll down her left cheek.

“Yes. I know,” I tell her. Again lost for words, I add “Ae, I go across the street to buy ice cream for us to sit here eating ice cream and talking to Bombom. You like that?”

“Yessir, thank you so much sir,” she says and manages to give me a lovely smile. “Bombom likes ice cream so much,” she adds and her eyes are now full of thick, sorrowful, young tears.

In Thai culture and beliefs, all living beings under the sun deserve the same respect. Species is of no relevance. They love their pets and when they are old and dying, some Thais take them to the local temple so they can die in peace, in the company of the monks, near Buddha. That’s why there are always many dogs around the temples, which sometimes is a real problem. The temples are poor. A monk owns only seven articles. The villagers cook for them (and the dogs) in the morning before going to work.

Sawasdee khrap,

ชีวิตที่ดี

R~

19 Things You Can Do To Be Happy Today

— by Roger Abrantes

 

Sea-maldives

 

 

Happiness is for most people the ultimate state of well-being, characterized by emotions of intense joy. Being the globetrotter I am, I have witnessed happiness and unhappiness in many shapes and forms.

Trying to isolate the common factors that contribute to people being either happy or unhappy, I soon discovered that it had nothing to do with wealth or material goods. It strikes me every time I land in wealthy Europe or the USA directly from Africa or South-East Asia, to see so many cranky faces in an environment seemingly so rich in resources.

I’ve shared many happy moments with happy people, a thatched roof above our heads, poor cover from the monsoon rain, a handful of sticky rice, spicy chili sauce and fresh water as our only indulgences; and I’ve shared many unhappy moments with unhappy people in luxury penthouses with champagne and caviar ad libitum.

I realize I may have learned a thing or two about happiness. Then again, I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled far and wide—from the Tibetan heights and the rice paddies of the Mekong to the smoky soys of Bangkok and the razzmatazz of the streets of Manhattan; and most of all for having had such a great variety of excellent teachers, from the most reputable Nobel prize winner, to the most unlikely Nepalese tailor.

I am indeed immensely grateful to the great minds of my academic teachers, as well as to all the unlikely teachers with whom, by a twist of fortune, I have shared a moment in time and space: the monk in Ubonratchathani, the aged busker in Paris, the south-Andaman fisherman, the child in Chalong crying over her dying dog, the Morogoro thief who broke into my house, the bar-girl in Cha-Am who told me her life story, the Iranian taxi driver in downtown San Francisco, the bum in the West Village, the old man selling oranges on the road to Tomar, the villagers in the Uruguru, the Nepalese tailor in Bhubaneswar, the gardener in the Allgäu, and many more. I carry their wisdom in my mind and their kindness in my heart. As amazing as it might sound to you, the animals with which I have been privileged to share a moment of my life have also contributed a great deal to what I’ve learned about life and happiness: Petrine the dog, Katarina the cat, Indie the horse and Anders the duck.

And so, in my ageing youth, I break the sound principle I’ve adopted of never giving advice without being asked—because I think it would be too selfish not to share with you what I’ve learned. My reticence until now has not been because I don’t believe in my own medicine, but because mine is not necessarily yours, and yours will be your own and no one else’s—a point I’d like you to bear in mind.

The 19 points below give you the main factors I identified as crucial to finding happiness. They are good enough for me, but then again, I might be too unambitious—for less than happiness is enough to make me happy.

These 19 points are what life has taught me, and the teachings of the excellent teachers I have met—all of which I’ve put into words—words that cease to be mine as soon as I’ve written them. Once you have read them, they belong to you, do with them what you will.

 

  1. Make happiness your goal. You can only be happy if you want to be happy. It’s a choice you make. Start a great day with a great statement, “Good Morning World, here I come, and it’s a beautiful day!” Say it aloud, share it. Should you by misfortune find yourself in the company of a killjoy (party-pooper, wowser), re-affirm your intent with a smile: “I want, I can and I will make it a great day!” It doesn’t matter whether it is cold or hot, raining or snowing, sunny or windy, whether you’re living in a luxury suite or a tiny 40 m2 (430 sq. feet) hut, whether the breakfast waiting for you is a full buffet or simply a handful of sticky rice and chili sauce. You are alive, and you are going to be happy because you want to be happy.
  1. Focus on what matters. Nothing is perfect, but less than perfect is better than good in most situations. Save your perfectionism for the few occasions when it matters. You should have reasonable control over safety issues and not endanger yourself or those you’re responsible for, but for the rest, play it by ear. Shove petty concerns aside right away. Each new day provides you with the opportunity to create great experiences. If you didn’t experience anything particularly overwhelming today, be happy with less than that, or at least be happy that you didn’t get sick; and if you got sick, you didn’t die—so why be cranky? There are so many variables in life that you can’t expect to control them all. Get your priorities right. Don’t spend your whole life working too hard just to acquire futile commodities, whilst letting life and love pass you by without you even noticing.
  1. Seize the day. We spend one-third of our life sleeping, one-third complaining about what has happened and one-third worried about what will happen next. There’s beauty everywhere, day or night, no matter where you are: the mountain peak, the rushing of the sea’s tides, the wind in the corn fields, the buzz in the city, the shifting shadows in the backyard, the crickets chirping in the night. Grab the moment, enjoy your journey toward your goal and travel well, for the destinations are seldom what we dreamt of—but if the journey is good, who cares? Live, love and laugh now.
  1. Live without judging. We might be the only species with the tendency to classify everything as ‘like,’ ‘don’t like.’ The world is not out there for you to like or not like. Pleasant and upsetting go hand in hand. Be critical of what pleases you and tolerant of what upsets you: the former may be a pitfall and the latter an opportunity. Loosen up. Take it as it comes.
  1. Don’t worry, be happy. You only have a problem when there is a discrepancy between a situation and a realistic expectation of yours. All the rest is just whinging. If your expectation is realistic, do something about it. If it isn’t, stop complaining; it’s a waste of energy. There are two kinds of problems: those you can solve and those you cannot. If you can solve them, there’s no reason to worry, just do it; and if you cannot solve them, there’s nothing to worry about —just wait and see what happens.
  1. Don’t fall into false dichotomies. The single most damaging belief is that everything is one-sidedly good or bad, right or wrong. Situations are seldom either/or—you have more options. Think out of the box. If a situation exceeds your knowledge or experience, don’t hesitate in asking someone more knowledgeable or experienced for advice. It is always prudent to get a second and a third opinion.
  1. Forget blame and anger and be fair to yourself. Apportioning blame, be it to others or yourself, has no practical function. Your anger punishes you more than it will ever punish anyone else. Blaming and getting angry are time and energy wasters. Don’t allow negative thoughts to control you. You are what you do, and you do what you think. Keep smiling! Do you commit mistakes? So what, we all do! Some mistakes are pointless, not worth a thought, only a smile and an “oh, silly me!” Others are more important because they have more serious consequences; consider them as a learning opportunity. Some mistakes are inevitable, and there is no reason to feel bad about them. Sometimes, you have to take chances.
  1. Don’t try to change other people. Don’t try to save the world. You can’t change others.  Be happy with and thankful for what others can give you. You might not get if you ask and you might well get if you don’t. If your way is the best strategy, it will spread. If not, be grateful for variation. All you can do is do what you find right. Others will follow your example, or not, as they see fit. Do your piece, set an example and don’t worry anymore about it.
  1. Respect, and you shall be respected. From a tiny worm to a fellow human, respect all life independently of species, race, sex, beliefs and other accidental characteristics. Treat others as ends, not means. Don’t speak badly of others; you can criticize a point of view, but not a person. Don’t gossip: others’ lives are none of your concern. Spend your energy to focus on your own life. Disrespect and harshness will bite you back sooner or later. Respect and kindness will repay you with dividends.
  1. Be open-minded and critical. Mostly we see what we think and feel, seldom do we see what we are looking at. Open up. That which might appear incontrovertibly true to you is probably a product of cultural imprinting and social conditioning. Don’t fear change. Be versatile. Question everything and never take anything for granted. Chuckle at the serious and reflect on the amusing; both are amusingly serious and seriously amusing. Keep a good balance between being skeptical and open-minded.
  1. Believe in yourself. Open-mindedness and critical thinking are your map and compass on your journey to knowledge and happiness, but without desire, as without a canteen, you won’t get anywhere. If you’re set on a goal in which you truly believe, plan, revise and implement; then, do it again if necessary. Enjoy the little steps forward and don’t be knocked down by temporary setbacks. Make a plan of action for any goal you have, and for each step, set a realistic criterion for success. Then, go for it and believe that you can make it. Doubting is the first step to defeat. What then if you fail? Well, tough luck then, sometimes it doesn’t work, but that shouldn’t prevent you from going for it again next time around.
  1. Act now—don’t feel bad. The best way to deal with the past is to smile, the present to live it, the future to create it. If you’re unhappy with any particular aspect of your life, do something to change it. Feeling bad and guilty doesn’t help anyone—it doesn’t help you or your loved ones. To be happy, you must not like the person you think you should be, but the person you are. Be the person you want to be now, not tomorrow, for time is what you never have enough of when you realize how much you have wasted.
  1. Daydream. Your daydreams are your engine, your safety valve, your source of inspiration and your energy booster. It doesn’t matter if only a tiny percentage of your dreams become reality or are even realistic. As long as you distinguish between reality and daydreams, give yourself a break every once in a while and dream your wildest fantasies.
  1. Live your life. You spend very little time with most of the people you meet, significantly more with family and close friends, but you live your whole life with yourself. So, why care about what other people think about you, when you probably won’t see them again or will only ever see them sporadically? As long as you respect others and don’t bother them, you have the right to live your life any way you like, and you don’t need to excuse yourself. If they like you, fine. If they don’t, it’s not your problem.
  1. Keep your self-respect—no excuses. It’s OK to make mistakes, to fail, but it’s not OK to hide behind bad excuses and justifications and to blame others. Have the courage to admit to yourself when you fail and, if it upsets you too much, correct it, so you don’t fail next time. Your courage to admit your mistakes boosts your self-respect and the respect of others.
  1. Untie yourself—don’t depend on anyone. You are responsible for your life and happiness. You can’t rely on other people to give it to you. Your loved ones play an important part in your happiness, but they are not responsible for your happiness—you are.
  1. Take care of yourself. It’s so obvious and yet so many forget it: poor health can spoil all the best intentions for happiness. Do physical and mental exercise every day, eat the right diet. Take care of your body and your mind will brighten up.
  1. Love and live your passion. If you’re going to fall in love, do it properly. Half measures don’t work here. Either you do it fully or don’t do it at all. Most people love the idea of love but are too afraid of committing themselves fully to their passion. Yes, the magic might go away one day, but that shouldn’t prevent you from giving it your all. Yes, it may hurt when it’s over, but that shouldn’t hold you back while it lasts, for while it does, it gives you overwhelming courage and opens the gates of unimaginable worlds. Don’t fall in love with the first or the best, just because everyone seems to have someone, or because you feel lonely. Live your full passion only with someone who truly inspires you, who widens your horizons, who compels you to go beyond the confines of your own self. Don’t allow society, norms and pettiness to decide about your love passions. Ethnicity, language, age, social status and other such characteristics are all utterly irrelevant when it comes to love. Always be honest with yourself and your lover. The moment you are not, you have killed it. Just go for it fully and honestly, no fears, no regrets, and enjoy every single heartbeat.
  1. Follow your heart. No matter what you do, follow your heart. You might need to endure some temporary pain to reach a goal, but if life in general is constantly a pain, then it’s about time you stop and think about changing it. Don’t try to become someone, just be the one you want to be. Life is a countdown, every moment counts, don’t waste it.

Be happy!

R~

 

The Wolf Within—The Truth About Why We Fear the Wolf

— by Roger Abrantes

 

Our love-hate relationship with the wolf, the animal that shares 15 thousand years of common ancestry with man’s best friend, the dog, suggests a deep conflict, one that is well hidden and maybe closer to each of us than we dare to admit. Are we hiding a skeleton in the closet? Why do we take great pains to understand and be good to our dogs whilst we hunt the wolf mercilessly?

 

We never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us (photo by Monty Sloan).

We never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us (photo by Monty Sloan).

 

Back in time, there were no wolves or dogs, only Canis lupus perantiquus (my name), the common ancestor of Canis lupus lupus, Canis lupus familiars, and 37 other subspecies. Humans, by then Homo sapiens sapiens, developed, not surprisingly, a particularly healthy relationship with this Canis lupus perantiquus. Both shared common interests, and humans were still just one of many species. The relationship was mutually beneficial and resulted in some humans favoring certain perantiquus and certain perantiquus finding human company particularly rewarding.

Natural selection favored the fittest and, as usual, species changed over the years. These changes can be so extensive that some species turn into new ones; others only into new subspecies. The Canis lupus perantiquus changed under selective pressure from humans and their environment and became Canis lupus familiaris. In a sense, we created this subspecies and all its variations to serve and protect us.

Some species react strongly to stimuli they have not experienced for thousands of years, the scent of a predator, for example. These alarming and life-saving key stimuli remain in the species’ gene pool, a kind of genetic memory. It is very unlikely that our fear of wolves stems from this kind of genetic memory; if we were that afraid of the wolf, we would never have gotten as close to it as we did. Perhaps we were afraid of the wolf in primitive times, but thousands of years of living in close proximity and cooperating would have changed that, as the least fearful members of both species would have benefited from the other. In those days, we can presume that the wolves that were least afraid of humans and capable of cooperating had better chances of survival and propagation (and ultimately turned into dogs); and conversely, the humans that were least afraid of wolves and were better at cooperating were more successful hunters, therefore survived and propagated (and ultimately turned into dog owners). Our fear of the wolf makes no sense from an evolutionary perspective, but perhaps it does from a psychological one. After all, we seem to fear what most resembles us—the enemy within!

Our fear and hatred of the wolf began long after the domestication, when humans took the first steps to distance themselves from nature, to enslave and exploit it—it happened when we invented agriculture. In the beginning, there was no war, only small-scale feuds provoked by the occasional domestic animal being taken by a wolf. The large-scale extermination of the wolf is not due to a single factor, but to an intermingled combination of factors that include mythology, religious zeal, environmental changes, economic incentives, and a deep psychological scar, as we shall see.

Mythology, such as Grimm’s fairytales and Aesop’s fables, evoke the wolf as evil, untrustworthy, conniving and cowardly, a greedy thief that will go to great lengths to devour a poor, little lamb, child or old person. Tales of Werewolves also exacerbated our fear and hatred of the wolf.

Religious convictions support our hatred of the wolf. “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1:26-29). European farmers and American settlers were devout Christians, and they didn’t need a clearer incentive to declare war on all that crept upon the Earth. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-29)—and the wolf became the ultimate target and symbol of their mission.

There is a clear association between the wolf and the wild, the wilderness and the untamed. As Burbank puts it, “The New World wilderness, where the Pilgrims found themselves, was a sinister adversary, home of tribal savages who practiced evil. The Puritans regarded the wilderness itself as a howling beast, a wolf inspired by the Devil. In their desolation, they sojourned and their journey reminded them that believers wandered in a world of sin, a spiritual wilderness replete with Godless enemies and insane beasts that wanted only to consume the righteous.” (Burbank 1990:80)

Farming and the keeping of domestic animals in enclosures combined with the decimation of the wolf’s natural prey, forced the wolf to get closer to human settlements and to feed upon the occasional livestock. Today, most wolves avoid livestock when they have enough wild prey, but the wolves of the 1800s faced extreme food shortages and preyed upon cattle and sheep. That wasn’t a problem for rich farmers. Even the smaller family farms could have survived the subsequent economic loss. Nevertheless, governments attempted to solve the supposed problem by creating bounties in return for the head of a wolf. Besides shooting them, wolf hunters used traps, poison, denning (excavating a den and killing the cubs) and biological warfare (infecting captive wolves with sarcoptic mange and releasing them into the wild)—and so wolfing became a lucrative business.

Mythology, religious zeal, and the economy go a long way towards explaining the hatred but don’t explain everything. One thing is to control competition (it happens all the time in nature). Another is to embark on radical extermination and, what’s more, find pleasure in the practice of torture (such as setting wolves on fire, skinning them alive, hanging them, etc.). Such barbarism suggests the real reason for our hatred is well hidden and maybe closer to our hearts than we care to believe or dare to face.

As with all organisms, human evolution happens quietly and slowly unless some sudden, drastic environmental change prompts the selection of unusual traits. The human brain was the sudden, single, dramatic cause that prompted a huge leap in the evolution of the species—and it was not an external cause, it came indeed from deep within us. The human brain enabled man to devise farming, then science and technology, and ultimately an anthropocentric religion. Farming enabled us to multiply far beyond the average rate up until that time and to colonize the entire world. Advancements in science and technology gave us the tools to subdue all life on the planet. Religious convictions provided us with motive and momentum beyond all rationality.

There is a high price to pay when evolution equals revolution. The (relatively) quick adoption of dualism and a mechanistic view of the world forced us to part with holism and animism, and left us with deep scars. In order to obey God, conquer the world and subdue all that crept upon our planet, we had to sever our connection with the natural, unruly, uncivilized world. To live up to the moral laws of Christianity, we had to go against our nature, denying who we were and where we came from. We had to cover our tracks. All that reminded us of our holistic past had to be oppressed, suppressed, forgotten. The wilderness in general and the wolf in particular reminded us of our true nature, the very same nature we despised. It became them and us. They were symbols of the unruly, the untamed and we, the purveyors of God’s wishes and civilized order. They symbolized what we were, not what we wanted to be. We had to subdue our own wild side, a legacy from our ancestors from many millions of years ago, which had proved highly efficient for survival, yet was despised and denied by the Holy Church. We were imprinted with religious zeal, which elicited the need to stifle the symbolic wild wolf inside each one of us; and we denied our origins, a strategy that was always only going to work on a short-term basis. A conflict of identity was inevitable; the werewolf represents perhaps our struggle to switch from an organic to a mechanistic worldview.

While the dog represents what we aspire to be, the wolf stands for what we refuse to acknowledge as part of us. The dog represents control, reminds us of our power, and is testimony to our ability to tame the wild. The wolf is our guilty conscience, it reminds us of our humble origins, represents the freedom we gave up, the togetherness we abandoned.

Through his fables, Aesop contributed to the creation of many myths that were detrimental to the wolf by depicting it with all the characteristics we despise most. Unknowingly, hence most ironically, in one uncharacteristic fable, he epitomizes our age-old conflict. In “The Dog and the Wolf,” the dog invites the starving wolf to live with him and his master, but when the wolf discovers that it involves being chained, the wolf replies, “Then good-bye to you Master Dog. Better starve free than be a fat slave.”

We became fat slaves by our own choice; and the wolf poignantly reminds us that there was a time when we had other options—herein the dog (wolf) lies buried*.

“Looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy was in us,” says Private Chris Taylor in Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon from 1986. Echoing Taylor, I’d say: we never fought the wolf, never the enemy, we fought ourselves—and the enemy within us. As long as we will remain in denial of our inheritance, the scar won’t heal, and the enemy will remain well entrenched within us—and so will we keep fighting the wolf.

Keep howling!

 

* “That’s where the dog lies buried,” means “that’s what lies behind.” This idiomatic expression exists in many languages, e.g. “da liegt der Hund begraben” (German), “siinä on koira haudattuna,” (Finish), “där är en hund begraven” (Swedish), but not in English. Most interestingly, the Swedish expression “att ana ugglor i mossen” (to suspect owls in the bog) meaning almost the same, comes from the Danish expression “der er ugler i mosen.” Originally, it wasn’t “ugler,” but “ulver” (wolves), which makes more sense since an owl in the bog is nothing special. Since the two words in some spoken Danish dialects are difficult to distinguish from one another, it was translated incorrectly into Swedish, and the expression re-introduced in Denmark with owls substituting wolves. The expression and its history was too good for me not to use it in the context of this article. I hope the native English speakers will regard it as an enrichment of the language, rather than a nuisance.

 

The Thai Rikki-Tikki-Tavi

— by Roger Abrantes

 

We all know Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the brave mongoose from Kipling’s ‘The Jungle book.’ This is the story of Mah Noy, the brave dog from Koh Lanta Yai in Southern Thai.

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, the mongoose hero from Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.”

Koh Lanta Yai (เกาะลันตา) remains one of  Thailand’s well-kept secrets (I shouldn’t even reveal the name). It is relatively close to the better-known islands of Koh Phuket and Koh Phi Phi, but is practically inaccessible, requiring two flights, a long drive, and two ferry trips. Tourists are few and far between on this particular South Andaman island and it is virtually devoid of Western influence, except for a few resorts for those who want a taste of unspoiled paradise. Koh Lanta Yai is the biggest of 52 islands of which only 12 are inhabited.

Of course, it’s much easier for me to get to Koh Lanta, as I am resident on a neighboring island only 43.5 nautical miles away. The beaches of Koh Lanta are idyllic: the sand unsullied the water clear and warm (about 86-88º F) and the underwater world along the coral reef just breathtaking (although not literally, I’m happy to say). I always look forward to my diving assignments nearby, drifting above the Staghorn and the Anemone corals monitoring the various species’ fortunes. What a great job!

Thai Fisherman With Dog

Thai fisherman like to have their dogs with them for company and practical purposes.

When I’m working in Koh Lanta, I always go ashore in the evening and stay in modest accommodation right on the beach. On one of these occasions, just before sunset, I was sitting in front of my bungalow, cleaning my equipment, when two children came along to talk to me, as always, curious about foreigners.

I had seen them both before; they belong to the food booth where I often eat, just behind the bungalow. We talked about the sea and the fish and about my diving gear, which of course fascinates them.

After having washed my gear, I decided to walk the 30 yards up the cliff to grab something to eat, and the kids followed me. My Thai is not as good as I would like, but my inadequacies have their advantages. As it is so difficult to pronounce words correctly, I nearly always commit embarrassing mistakes that produce a great deal of giggling—and giggling is the best way I know to decrease distance between strangers.

Woman with her dog: Thai street food booth

Thai street food cooking and selling is a small family business and since dogs are part of the daily life in Thailand it is not unusual to see them with their owners at work.

“Khun cheu aria?” (What’s your name?), I asked the little boy who was giggling the most and who happened to have one of his front teeth missing.

He told me his name, which sounded funny to me. Thais have all sorts of interesting nicknames, and they are especially fond of animal names. Elephant, shrimp, crab, fish, bird, duck, rabbit, turtle, and even chicken are common names—but I’ve never heard a nickname like this little boy’s. It was then that his mother, Poo (Crab), the owner of the food booth, told me the story.

Five years earlier, two days after giving birth to the now gap-toothed boy, Poo was cooking dinner whilst the family dog catnapped behind the cradle where her newborn baby was happily babbling away to himself.

Thais usually cook outdoors. It’s always warm and they don’t like the smell of food indoors. The dog was typically Thai, of unknown origin, the size of a small spaniel, with an unruly black and white coat, and friendly, deep brown eyes. They had found him on the street a couple of years beforehand and had fed him. For want of a better name, they called him just (หมาน้อย), Mah Noy. He stayed around and finally moved in a couple of weeks later after conquering their hearts. The pressure of natural selection for dogs in Thailand is on kindness. The kindest dogs have a greater chance of survival and pass on their ‘kinder’ genes to their progeny.

On that particular day, Mah Noy gave Poo such a fright she almost lost hold of her hot pan, which could have resulted in serious burns. The dog had suddenly emitted a deep growl and then in two agile, determined jumps, just missing the baby’s cradle, he launched himself on top of a cobra, biting it firmly behind the head.

Thai boy and puppy

Mah Noy (หมาน้อย), the boy, got his unusual name for a good reason.

The Andaman Cobra (Naja sagittifera) is an impressive snake, measuring about three to four feet in length. The effects of its venom are devastating; it is capable of killing a human in 30 minutes.

Poo was terrified, rushed to pick up the baby, and ran out of the front gate into the street where she began shouting for her husband. Na (short for Chai Cha Na = victory) came running to the scene and charged into the backyard to grab a spade. The cobra was lying a few feet from the dog, apparently lifeless, but, just in case, Na cut it in two with a well-aimed strike with the spade. Mah Noy looked up at him, gasping for air, and barely able to wag the tip of his bushy tail. Na understood right away that the dog was dying, picked him up and, holding his dog firmly on his lap with one hand, he rode his motorbike as quickly as he could to the local vet.

On the way to the vet, Mah Noy peed and pooped on his lap. Na stopped to get a better grasp on the dog. Mah Noy looked at him, gasped for air for a last time and gave a final wag of his tail. Na understood it was too late for the vet and the strong fisherman from the South Andaman Sea began to weep like a child, right there on the side of the road to Klong Dao, in the fading light of the day on which he had come so close to losing his first-born baby boy.

When Na got home to Poo and their newborn, they buried Mah Noy in their backyard and placed a yellow marigold on top of the grave (yellow is the color of friendship for Thais). That evening, they decided to call their baby boy หมาน้อย, Mah Noy, which in Thai means ‘puppy.’

Sawasdee khrap,

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