The Reading List

Fortunately, work granted time off to the staff over the Easter weekend, so I suddenly had an unplanned 4-day weekend. It gave me more time to spend with Eli, time that allowed me to get him out of his stall more to walk and graze. I also shortened his mane and bathed him.

But I also had time to actually get back to reading for fun, which I rarely do — I try, but I tend to fall asleep while reading in bed. But since I have been almost constantly thinking about animal cognition and animal emotion, I thought I’d organize a reading list here for anyone interested in the same thing. Beware; it’s haphazard.

The first is one I don’t think I would have ever purchased, except that Eli is injured in such a way that he can’t do much under saddle for a while. I don’t have an ETA for saddle time yet. He actually gets some treatments today, but I can’t be there because of work. Maybe I’ll get some hopeful news from the vet? Anyway. I bought 101 Ground Training Exercises for Every Horse & Handler to get ideas for things Eli could do on the ground at the walk, in hopes of keeping his brain engaged at least a little bit every day. There’s this whole section on poll pressure I am interested in trying, mainly because I have never even thought about this from the perspective of working a horse from the ground. I probably should have.

The next is a book I highly recommend if you are at all interested in how domestication works. How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) chronicles a long-running experiment in Russia (started when it was the Soviet Union) aimed at domesticating foxes. The experiment wasn’t really about domesticating foxes: it was about understanding how dogs got domesticated from wolves in the first place. The experiment is still running today and of course now has technologies that didn’t exist when the experiment started. Domestication seems to rely more on gene expression instead of gene mutation, with the endocrine system playing a significant role. The book also provides little vignettes of familiar stories from animal science, such as the study of primates, the New Caledonian crows, and Clever Hans. It’s an easy, short read. Plus “domesticated” foxes are cute AF.

I haven’t even started Mama’s Last Hug yet, but I read about it in one of the periodicals I review for work and immediately knew I needed to read it. I think it seems obvious that at least some animals have complex emotional lives. But finding the underlying science to support this assertion interests me, and I think this book aims for that kind of thing. Maybe I’ll hit up page one this evening?

And of course finding one book leads to those Amazon recommendations that are pretty spot on for me at this point, and this is why I picked up The Genius of Birds. Is there something about being able to regulate one’s body temperature that allows one to develop intelligence and sentience? I have noticed that animal cognition and emotion are studied through mammals and birds mostly. Not exclusively, of course, but an adaptation such as warm-bloodedness seems to go along with deliberative thinking.

This next one is something I encountered shortly after getting my MFA and began undertaking library school, and it’s definitely on the academic side of things so it may not be a super accessible read for those with merely a passing interest. I never read When Species Meet cover to cover, but parsed out excerpts to contemplate whenever I had time. I am in the midst of reading it cover to cover now. If you are academically-oriented and interested in the interaction of human and dog, this will be a great book for you to read.

The next two books are by Gerd Heuschmann: Tug of War and Collection or Contortion? I have read the first, and hope to read the second soon. Tug of War explores how bad training negatively impacts a horse’s health. Is it directly about horse cognition or emotion? No, but training affects both directly, so considering the concepts within are worthwhile. Collection or Contortion? apparently builds on how training affects a horse’s health, focusing on flexion and bend. Yeah, I’m going to have to read this soon, too!

As what I see as a follow up to When Species Meet, the same author published Staying with the Trouble not too long ago, and I am interested in reading it. It seems WAY more way out there, but I generally enjoy such challenges. It dwells in of-the-moment-ness to a certain degree, trying to reconcile human existence with nonhuman existence and maybe it explores how we have messed up our shared home and the nonhuman are stuck with our folly. Sorry, animals and other things. But notice the subtitle? This gets me on a tangent related to the poles of our shared home. And H.P. Lovecraft fans out there? I don’t think the author is necessarily directly relying on Lovecraft, but it’s hard to see “Chthulucene” without going there. And since she brings up tentacles, maybe that’s exactly what she’s doing.

There is one Lovecraft book that stands independently of that whole tentacled thing: At the Mountains of Madness is a weird, quick read about an expedition to Antarctica, and if you are into weird sci-fi/fantasy/horror/Gothic stuff, you’ll love it. Really. It does get freaking weird. But it brings me to two other books grounded much more in reality, relating to polar expeditions. Not sure if Frankenstein got me hooked on polar adventures, but here I am.

Earnest Shackleton is my jam. His descriptions are so detailed! The problem with this book is that I know what happens so I keep starting it, then putting it down before it gets gruesome. South starts off magically, with glittering sea ice and charming penguins. I don’t really want to read the rest, but I suppose I will finish it eventually. It compels me to consider the idea of pushing the human constitution to the extreme and what that does to the human psyche. The Third Man Factor is no doubt about one of the craziest possible adaptations humans have developed. People get close to death and experience a rather fascinating phenomenon. And where do people get near death a lot? The polar regions. Also on mountains and in deserts.

This tangent brings me to a melancholy question. Do animals hallucinate when near death? Humans foolishly push themselves to these novel limits, but animals certainly don’t seem to seek out such limits. Is this the thing that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom? Not emotions, not cognition, not sentience … but our utter stubbornness about doing stupid things? Oh, wait, horses are kind of like that, too. Just maybe less purposefully so.

Yeah, I got to this question in a rather circuitous way, wondering how different are we really from our animal companions. My first thought is that we are really not that much different at all. We are, after all, also animals. My second, darker idea is that the difference is we are destroying our home, while other animals are just trying to live here. Some animals have cast their lots with us inextricably. Maybe we should try harder to keep our shared home livable? Maybe it’s too late.

 

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