Zoological Bromides: Right or Wrong?
Professor Johannes Smerk
|Abstract. Modern cultures are replete with expressions
purporting to relate certain
aspects of animal behavior and/or animal character to human activities or tendencies.
Throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries, these quaint and unverified sayings
were largely accepted without any serious effort to establish their truthfulness. In 1927,
Donald Moore and Jean-Jacques Chrétien produced the first work to directly address
this subject, and their research, although preliminary and not without systemic flaws,
nevertheless created the field that has come to be known as Zoological Attribution
Theory (ZAT). Approximately 1,650 hours of field work has now been subjected to
rigorous analysis, and this paper presents the results of six of these studies.
After Dr. Chrétien's unfortunate accident while trying to determine whether eels are in fact as slippery as they are portrayed as being, and his subsequent death, Donald Moore wrote several articles on the subject of gift horses. Although he spent several months looking at a variety of gift horses both in the mouth and in several other anatomical features such as the ear and the nose, he was never able to adequately determine why such scrutiny should be so zealously guarded against. When he retired, his student Lee van Cynder followed up on the work he had begun with large four-legged farm animals and was able to show conclusively that mules are indeed stubborn. From these modest beginnings, Zoological Attribution Theory became a significant field especially toward the latter part of the 20th century, when numerous mammalian, avian, piscatory and entomological platitudes were investigated. Professor Smerk and Dr. Popkin have made substantial progress on their own, rebutting several animal-related cliches, and now present a summary of the most recent unpublished work in the field by others.
Anger in Moistened Hens (2002)
There are not many people in the farm belt who have not encountered
the expression "mad as a wet hen," and biology student Lily
Franks Sternham set out to verify its veracity. Travelling around northern
Oklahoma, she performed a series of experiments designed to see just how
mad wet hens get. During her first week, a control group of Rhode Island
Reds at Henry Dootson's farm near Bluejacket was accidentally locked out
of their coop during a sudden mid-day thunderstorm. Sternham was able
to personally observe that the hens both looked and acted as though they
were quite annoyed, clucking irritably until Mr. Dootson discovered the
error. At Dick Mulcahy's chicken farm outside of Salt Fork, she used a
garden hose to simulate the same conditions, spraying Appenzell bearded
hens for approximately two hours. Farmer Mulcahy was later heard to say
that "he had never seen them like that before. Just plumb mad."
Sternham then visited the giant Agrichicken Industries where she spend
several days chasing Leghorn chickens into ponds and taking extensive
notes on their post-dousing behavior. After several more weeks, Sternham
concluded that 79% of the wet hens in her study were very mad, another
17% were somewhat mad, and only 4% failed to react noticeably to the liquid
Early and Late Birds Vis-à-Vis Worms (2003)
Two field studies were conducted in the
United Kingdom during 2003 to determine whether early birds actually enjoy
a significant advantage in procuring worms, one by the eminent British
ornithologist Sir Arthur Penny-Swopes Throckmorton, and the other by the
equally recognized Scottish ornithologist Dr. Harrison Dudley-Smith. Each
carefully selected a group of ground-feeding birds that seemed appropriate
for their particular study, with Throckmorton concentrating on robins,
wrens, chaffinches and dunnocks, and Dudley-Smith choosing thrushes, starlings,
pigeons and blackbirds. Throckmorton religiously arose at 4am, venturing
bravely out into the Kentish gloom of Marlboro Wilderness Reserve with
nothing but a well-thumbed notebook and a thermos of weak Earl Gray tea,
while Dudley-Smith followed a different strategy, sleeping until noon,
consuming a large breakfast of kippers and sausages, scrambled eggs, mushrooms,
tomatoes and haggis, then being carried to a nearby municipal park in
a litter by his four assistants who were also burdened with his 500mm
spotting scope, cameras and camera bags, GPS navigating device, laptop
computer, and several over-stuffed picnic baskets.
Fun Quotient of Monkeys in Barrels (2004)
Recently a unique experiment was conducted
at the Zurich Barrel Festival by Heinrich Eric Strasser, a researcher
at the Swiss Primatology Institute. The object was to attempt to quantify
the amount of fun provided by some number of monkeys placed in a barrel
as compared to that produced by a variety of other activities generally
considered by the Swiss to be fun, such as barrel rolling, beer barrel
racing, barrel tower building, and bobbing for kumquats in barrels. Just
getting the monkeys into barrels proved to be a daunting task, with spider
monkeys being the least cooperative and capuchins the most. The difficulty
of containing monkeys of all species in standard-sized barrels generally
increased by an average factor of from 76% to 87% with each additional
monkey depending upon size, and in no case was it possible to place more
than twenty-six monkeys in the same barrel at any one time. Strasser's
conclusion was that this initial phase of the experiment was definitely
not fun, either for the researcher or for the monkeys.
Correlation of Age in Dogs and Ability to Learn New Tricks (2002)
One of the most popular of the zoological
attributes is that "You can't teach an old dog new tricks,"
so Southern California canine therapist Raoul Pinderman set out to see
if it was so. He was well aware that it is typically the case that small
dogs find it easier to learn tricks than big dogs, so he divided his study
into three classes, small, medium and large, and then attempted to teach
the dogs tricks based on their ages. For the petite class he selected
pugs, papillons and poodles. The medium-size group was represented by
Rhodesian ridgebacks, Belgian water spaniels, and basset hounds, while
the chosen large dogs were giant schnauzers, great danes and Irish wolfhounds.
He immediately ran into problems with the basset hounds which refused
to learn tricks at any age and eventually had to be dropped from the study.
Overall Worth of Birds in Hands as Opposed to Bushes (2003)
Few people have actually had a bird "in
the hand" whereas birds in bushes are relatively common phenomena,
and therefore it has proven difficult over the years to assess the comparative
desirability, usefulness or value of birds in these disparate locations.
So veteran Audubon Society avian researcher Michelle LeGrange undertook
a long and arduous inquiry into this question utilizing the relatively
new science of QNA (Quantitative Numerology Analysis). Applying an arbitrary
value of 1 to birds in hands and 2 to birds in bushes, she worked for
weeks to factor in such variables as overall length of wing and tail,
intersecting angle of upper and lower beak, center of gravity, displacement
in various liquids, the absence or presence of uropygial glands, and biomass
of feather mites, and developed a formula which she then related to the
height, degree of branching, and density of certain selected bushes, and
then to the palm width and finger length of a number of average adult-sized
Playfulness of Mice While Cats Are On Vacation (2001)
Behavorial studies have often demonstrated
the frolicsome qualities of mice and other small gnawing mammals, but
these were always conducted under strictly controlled laboratory conditions.
To our knowledge, no one has ever attempted to record such play outside
of a laboratory prior to the ground-breaking work of Roger Cannister and
Sally Banning. For their purposes, a test house which was known to be
inhabited by a large family of mice was carefully selected in Binghamton,
Georgia. Utilizing state-of-the-art miniature fiber optic cameras, Cannister
and Banning were able to record baseline data including 229 hours of of
rodent rascality in mouse holes and other between-wall hideouts, and this
preliminary phase of the study demonstrated that there was no appreciable
change in the level of play whether the cat was away or not. The more
interesting part of the study employed several special Nikon wide-angle
Auto-Zoom Home Reconnaissance cameras to record the behavior of the mice
out in the open areas of the house, and it was these digital images which
Cannister and Banning used to conclusively report that the mice played
on average 67% more during periods when the cat was gone.
There seems little question that humans are inclined to make unverified statements regarding the abilities and characteristics of animals, but in a few cases such as the "mad hen" example and that of the mischievous mice there appears to be some truth to these oft-repeated bromides. It is our recommendation that further studies be immediately conducted to determine for instance such things as how quiet mice actually are, whether owls are any wiser than other birds with similar-sized brains, just how many times cats have been killed by curiosity or camels' backs broken by straws, whether it is advisable or not to substitute one horse for another in the middle of some body of water, and if in fact there are plenty more fish in the sea. These are questions the answers to which are urgently needed, and it is our fervent hope that the Institute of Zoological Attribution Theory (IZAT) will sponsor with both funding and researchers such investigations.
The authors wish to acknowledge the significant contributions to this work of their research assistants Rex Henersley, William T. Hogarth, Sandra Miller, David J. Abrams, Richard Hoover, Maude Lawson, Craig R.T. Hansen, Joseph Gander, Allan Hancock, Mildred Loefling, Hans Deyeux, Alexander Brumley, Carl Pease, Susan Kearney, Morris Scribner, LeRoy Bloom, Frank Antoine, Josef Seubert, Stafford Bailey, James Gray, Helen Lutke, Elford Conklin, Galen Bridges, Michael Draper, Daniel Harwood, Dennis Brickell, Adam Brannan Monroe, Liz Featherington, Amos Edmunds, Merle Copeland, Iso Asahari, Mark Worrington, George Gordon, John Leach, Mary Child-Stephens, Reginald Drude, Adele Gorman, Harvey Fry Willson, Clare Wills, Joseph J. Parker, and Hannah Devile. They further extend gratitude to the Chrétien Institute of Zoological Attribution Theory in Nice, the staff of the Library of the British Royal Museum, Air France and KLM, and the Sheraton Hotels.
Abbott, Cicely (1990). Busy Bees and Quick Bunnies. Kansas City,
Rushworth and Miller Publishing.