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      Volume 10 |Issue 19 | May 20, 2011 |


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Food for Thought

Animal Attraction and other Human Follies

Farah Ghuznavi

I am definitely one of those people who believes that no matter which part of the world they originate from, human beings tend to have more in common than they sometimes realise - even if we all too often choose to obsess about the differences rather than similarities. But reading Angus Bell's travelogue recently, I have to admit that there are moments when travel reveals inexplicable differences in attitude and expression in different places. Of course, the optimist in me still argues that that just makes the world more interesting...

Take Bell's introduction to Užupis in Lithuania, which has somewhat mysteriously declared itself an independent state. Founded by artists, it now apparently boasts an embassy in Moscow and a 12-strong army, with a flag for each season and its own constitution. Next to the entry bridge, Bell came across a sign showing the Mona Lisa (somehow I suspect the Louvre would not be amused), a 40-kilometer per hour speed limit, a red warning triangle about driving in the river (yes, "driving" not "diving"!), and a happy face.

If that wasn't strange enough, the "constitution" of the place really takes the term ‘bizarre’ to a whole different level. Užupis’s laws, as encountered by Bell, were written on three shiny metal plates on a wall. It all started off sensibly enough - for example, number two was: ‘Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.’ After all, eastern European winters are not to be trifled with! Point number three was a little strange, though: ‘Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.’ Thereafter, in Bell's words "it descended into animal obsession". So in quick succession numbers 10 to 13 read as follows:

‘10. Everyone has the right to love and to take care of the cat.’

‘11. Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.’

‘12. A dog has the right to be a dog.’

‘13. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of nee (sic).’

One cannot help wonder what the dogs and cats might think of this list of rights and obligations - not to mention what the constitutional framers of Užupis had imbibed at the time when they were drawing up this, ahem, innovative set of ideas!

Užupis constitution wall.

However, if there are invariably unexpected findings to be encountered on one's travels, some things you come across are definitely way more unexpected than others, my friend Martin found out a few years ago. While on safari in Zambia, he had been impressed by the beautiful restaurant and bar set up in the wilderness, literally in the middle of nowhere. Since the location was a national park, with animals popping up all over the place, he was wary when venturing into the toilet stalls nearby for the first time - not least because his wife had returned from a visit to the facilities and warned him that there was a gigantic spider in one of the toilets.

Martin therefore approached the stalls with some trepidation, taking the time to check each in order to identify the one that had been invaded by the monstrous spider. He was not reassured by the fact that he couldn't find the beast, so he kept a careful eye out just in case it materialised while he was using the toilet. It didn't.

However, as he was scanning his selected stall for the fifth time, he suddenly noticed - just a couple of feet away - a large green snake slithering its way across the dividing wall of the neighbouring toilet stall. Martin ran out of there in such a panic that he forgot his trousers were still around his ankles! Luckily, his shouts brought some of the (male) camp staff running to help, and they were able to point out this omission to him. Not that he cared at that time, since he was already traumatised over going in expecting a spider, and ending up encountering a snake! To make matters worse, after he described the snake, the staff members at the camp would only say, somewhat noncommittally, that that variety was "not very poisonous”. Martin, on the other hand, would definitely have preferred to hear it resoundingly dismissed as “harmless or non-poisonous”.

Still, if Martin continues to have his doubts about whether braving wilderness toilets is ever safe - or indeed whether going on safari is at all such a good idea for him! - he will no doubt be happy to know that he shares the capacity for self doubt with another species in the animal kingdom; one with which he has more in common than the intruder in the toilet stall. U.S.-based scientists recently discovered that macaque monkeys share the human characteristic of being concerned about possible errors.

After training the macaques to use a joystick-based computer game, the monkeys were given a choice of three options with which to respond to each test. For a correct response, they were rewarded with an edible treat. There was no punishment for giving a wrong answer, except that the game briefly paused, taking away for a few seconds the opportunity for the animals to win the next treat. There was also a third option, which allowed the monkeys to choose a question mark rather than one of the two answers. Doing this allowed the monkeys to skip that question and move on to the next one. This meant that no treat was won, but it also meant that there was no pause in the game, and the animals could move on to the next test when they had a better chance of winning a treat.

Interestingly, the scientists observed that the macaques used the option of the question mark in exactly the same way as human participants who found a test question too tricky to answer. According to the scientists, the monkeys chose to ‘pass’ and move onto the next question, rather than give a wrong answer. "These results… could explain why our self-awareness is such an important part of our cognitive make up and from whence it came," said Dr Smith.

While I hesitate to disagree with an expert like Dr Smith, there have been many occasions when I’ve seriously questioned the human capacity for self awareness. Some people's behaviour inevitably makes one wonder if they think at all about the things that they say and do! While these peculiarities can sometimes be disturbingly subtle - and all too often inexplicable - there are other times when they just cannot be missed (or ignored)! Like the man who was attacked by a panda . Not a common occurrence, you might think, and you would be right. But then again, what else can you expect when you actually invade the panda's space?

A man scaled a 6.5 foot barrier and ignored warning signs, in order to get into the pen of a panda at a Chinese zoo. The panda, Yang Yang, was (not surprisingly) frightened by this. He bit the man's arms and legs, until keepers rushed in to rescue the man and calm the panda, after being alerted by two foreign visitors. And why did Liu do this? According to the 20 year old student of Guilin University in China, "Yang Yang was so cute and I just wanted to cuddle him… I didn't expect he would attack…I don't remember how many bites I got"! Liu is out of danger now, but we can only hope that someone undertakes a thorough psychological evaluation of this man soon. Next time, the keepers might not get there in time to rescue him, if he decides to make friends with the "cuddly" polar bears…


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