Saturday, February 04, 2012

Ruminations on Sociability in Animals While at the Aquarium

I felt like a human this past Monday at the aquarium watching beluga whales. They had trainers interacting with them and all, but I still felt touched. So touched, in fact, that I came close to tears.

I tend to feel that way when characters in fiction or on TV and movies let their guard down with each other or by themselves. Maybe it comes from some voyeuristic tendency, as I don’t have this reaction interacting with other people in the moment. Maybe it has something to with the privacy created by people focusing totally on something other than me.

The whales and trainers got me going when the explanation of how the trainers win trust of the whales. Giving them fish and scratching their tongues, that’s all I remember from the list of things that the belugas like humans doing for them.

Trust built through bribery, trainers move onto teaching the belugas tricks and simple communication. I jest about bribery. The trainers and belugas reminded me a bit of building a relationship with a cat. More like I remembered someone telling me that cats have strong social tendencies, even though I often thought of cats as loners. Feral cats form colonies, though.

Not to sound like a crazy cat lady, but the wife and I have a great relationship with our cats. It has improved a lot since we had to chase the girl cat around a basement to stuff her in a crate and take her home. Now she sits next to me on a chair when I’m using the computer at the kitchen table. Now, seven or so years later, we have a family of four that loves spending lots of time together.

Per Wikipedia, belugas have strong social tendencies, too. Doesn’t come as a surprise considering their show. I didn’t know it at the time, though.

The trainers and belugas showed their great relationship. Trainers showed tons of warmth, generosity and sincerity. Belugas displayed tons of energy doing tricks and swimming around, only overtaken by their desire for food and affection. Their connection felt authentic, sincere, reciprocal, enthusiastic and warm.

Their interaction brought heart to the idea of a contract. We generally think of contracts as cold, boring pieces of paper that suck life out of people relating to each other. People and non-human entities make contracts to protect themselves from possible abuses or to make sure that one party does what the other wants them to do. Contracts focus on taking from the relationship what each party can get.

The belugas and trainers focused more on giving than taking. Maybe the whales didn’t so much. They REALLY liked getting fish and having their tongues rubbed, but they looked grateful and humbled by all the attention. Even as they looked impatient doing tricks, their irritation seemed not so much about getting food or a tickle. They wanted to engage the trainer and connect.

At the same time, the trainers looked a little bored when the belugas went off to do their tricks. They must have felt proud by the whales wowing the audience, but they looked bored and impatient to get back to connecting and interacting with the belugas.

The show returned life to contracts by focusing more on connecting through giving and taking rather than taking benefit from one or the other. Being social is fundamental for many animals, from humans to whales to cats, even to plenty of fish that come together to form schools.

Social instincts play such a central role, at least for me, that seeing it in action chokes me up a wee little bit. But I could just be sensitive.

LINKS OF INTEREST: beluga whales, Feral cats

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