Monday, April 20, 2015

Animals Who Perform

(Reclaimed from Bubblews, where it appeared on February 25, 2014. Image credit: FidlerJan at

A commenter on this post:

claims that it's cruel to make an animal do tricks. 

There are certainly ways to make animals learn "tricks" that cause pain rather than pleasure to the animal. Even without physical harm, animals as well as humans may suffer emotional trauma when they're confined to cages, cut off from their ordinary animal lives, and nagged into doing things that make no sense to them, merely to entertain other creatures whose enjoyment of their tricks the animals can't understand.

But it's also possible for animals to create their own "tricks," for their own amusement, and enjoy performing their tricks for rewards. Anyone who doubts this has never lived with an animal who has repeated its "act" just to make its favorite humans smile, laugh, or say that it's good, cute, clever, etc. 

Some of our chickens were that kind of pets. For years they never really became pets. Then one day I sat down beside the chicken coop and sang a few Sunday School songs. The chickens gathered around. They liked to listen to humans singing. They started to demand that we sing a few songs every night before they would go into the coop. They became much friendlier and more confident around us. The younger birds who had grown up being serenaded would cuddle into our hands or pockets, perch on our shoulders, follow us around, come when we called. They learned words. Probably they learned to understand some words as meaning something different than humans mean by those words. They learned that responding to a certain point in a song the same way every time we sang it would hold our attention and keep us singing longer. I'm not altogether sure who trained whom, because the chickens would squawk in protest if I got carried away and started to sing "sharp." 

We worked out one of those little vaudeville sort of acts that were popular in times and places where people didn't have television. One hen's name happened to be a word that was part of one song, so when that song was sung that hen's trick was to look around as if to say "Who, me?" One song included the words "lift me up," and one young rooster would step out and chirp as if volunteering to act out this phrase. Different birds would perch on shoulders, on hands, or in pockets at different points. And so on. We had one hen who was so bemused by human speech that she would warble in imitation of the rhythm of words she'd heard spoken.

For reasons I never fully understood, my brother's classmates started using the word "freebie" to refer to a fake karate chop that really only tickled someone's chin. Naturally my brother demonstrated this trick at home. As you fake-chopped a friend you shouted "Freebie!" and ran, inviting your friend to chase you and pay back this little blow to his or her dignity. Naturally my sister and I picked it up. And one night that little hen, a bantam who never got much bigger than a fat Central Park pigeon, nipped at her brother's wattles, said quite distinctly "Freebie!", and hopped backward. She seemed delighted to have found a human word to imitate, all by herself! She was disappointed when, as she matured, her voice changed and she couldn't say "Freebie" properly any more.

I've seen dogs spontaneously invent cute little acts like walking on their hind legs or dropping things into their humans' hands, too. Most cats seem to take themselves seriously--but a former Queen of the Cat Sanctuary called Mogwai used to do completely silly things, like folding herself up in a take-out food carton, just to get me to chuckle and call her my Cute Clown Cat. And most of the tricks bigger animals learn, from a horse "kissing" your knee or elbow to a horse striking the poses and doing the dance steps the Viennese Riding School do, are ways they've modified their instinctive behavior to please their human friends. 
Do circus performers lead unnatural lives that are hard on the performing animals as well as the humans? Probably. But I can't quite believe that it's inherently cruel to teach animals tricks, or "make" them do tricks for an audience. As Vicki Hearne observed years ago, in what was rated one of the Best American Essays of the year, some animals actually like human attention.