Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Know thyself, Thyme?

As I was searching for something else on the internet last night, I found an interesting article about self-recognition research in rhesus monkeys.

I know. You're thinking, "What? Rhesus monkeys? What?"

Bear with me, it's not really about monkeys. It's about self-awareness in animals and especially our feral pony Thyme.

Self-awareness is notoriously hard to demonstrate in creatures who can't talk. The list of species that scientists are willing to credit with self-awareness is extremely short. One of the most common tests used to determine if an animal is self-aware is the so-called 'mirror test'. The mirror test is like candid camera with animals. Unbeknownst to the animal, the researcher puts an odorless mark on the animal's body in a spot the animal can't see. For chimps it might be a red dot on the forehead. For elephants they placed the mark on the animal's back. Then they show the animal a mirror. If the animal touches the mark on their body rather than the mark in the mirror, voila, they are said to recognize themselves and thus have self-awareness. Only a few species have ever passed this test. Chimps, elephants, dolphins, 18-month-old humans. Maybe a few others, but not rhesus monkeys, and certainly not horses. Rhesus monkeys (and presumably horses) are like cats.  Put them in front of a mirror, they seem to think they are looking at another monkey, not themselves.

Personally, I've always found this way of defining self-awareness in animals pretty narrow. There are so many other ways in which we humans demonstrate our self-awareness, for instance self-agency. And so I come to Thyme.

The feral pony demonstrated spectacular recognition of her own agency yesterday. I have mentioned that I am (slowly) clicker training Thyme in hopes of being able to one day handle this completely untouchable pony. As of yesterday, we had progressed to the point of having her touch a target when offered. I use the end of a broken mop handle with a perfect round green circle at the tip. I hold the target out towards her, over the top of a gate or fence, and let her approach it. All she has to do is touch the tip lightly with her nose, without mouthing it, and she gets the reward (a click or sometimes a bite of grain.) She learned this easily and has done it repeatedly over a couple of sessions. She's generally calm, slow-moving, and thoughtful while she does this.

Yesterday, I decided to up the stakes a bit. In exactly this same context, with her on one side of the fence, me on the other, the target held out in front of her, everybody calm, nobody moving fast, and everything exactly as before...instead of letting her make the final two inches of approach and touch the target, I reached across those last two inches and touched her lightly myself. Same green mop handle, same small range of movements, same (general) point of contact, but I touched her, instead of letting her touch me.

The feral pony went through the roof. Jumped two feet straight up in the air, turned tail and fled. Her message could not have been clearer. You touched me! Get away from me! That was not the deal! I don't care if it's the same green stick I've been playing with all this time. I don't care if it's the same nose I've been using all along. I didn't do it. You did it. That. is. not. our. deal! Crazy woman! 

And that is what the article was about. A researcher taught rhesus macaques how to play a game on a computer and then showed that the monkeys could readily tell the difference between actions on the screen that they caused themselves and actions that they didn't cause. Since all the actions on the computer screen looked alike, the monkeys must have been able to use awareness of their own actions to tell the difference, and if they're aware of their own actions, they must have some sort of self-awareness. 

Totally cool demonstration.

And Thyme can do it too.

I wonder if I could teach her to play video games?

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Friday, February 22, 2013

Where ice goes to die

We had a thaw today.

The day started off with an ice storm, frozen roads and a snow day for the 11-year-old, but by afternoon it was 40 degrees.

I took the opportunity to free the buckets in the barn from all the ice. What a relief.

I'm putting the hammer away now. No more ice this year. I mean it. None.

Next year -- heated buckets.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The cat behind the sofa

I haven't said much about the cats here at Tyche's Run. I imagine this oversight is because their numbers have grown so large that they have become part of the furniture, practically the air we breathe. There are more than you can shake a stick at. You couldn't swing a cat, if you were so inclined, without hitting...well, a cat. It positively rains cats and...um... cats.... Yes, they have become as common as a bad cliche, and thus hardly worth remarking upon.

You get the idea. I suspect we have more cats than we should.

You may wonder if there is a story behind this large, but unremarkable collection of cats and the answer is, no, not just a story -- there are many stories. But today, I'd like only to remark on one little cat.  One little cat named Tortellini.


Because Tortellini has come out from behind the sofa.

Let me back up. When the 11-year-old was 10, we bought this farm. Along with the house, the falling down barns, the junk-filled sheds, and the overgrown fields came four equally neglected cats. After some discussion, the 11-year-old dubbed them the Pasta cats -- Ravioli, Risotto, Fettucini and Tortellini. Ravioli and Risotto had been family pets, but the other two were a young mother and son pair of feral cats that someone else had dumped on the previous owners. Tortellini, the mother, was the most feral of the two. Completely unapproachable.

The four cats came inside for the first time in their lives when we arrived, and there they have stayed. Ravioli, Risotto, and even Fettucini, have adapted well to being part of the Tyche's Run managery. It took some time, but they gradually mixed with the other animals and with us. Fettucini began playing with the other youngsters, Risotto began seeking out laps to snooze on, and even the elder Ravioli has never been above enjoying a good ear scratching.  But Tortellini, has always remained apart. The shyest and most feral of the bunch, she has adopted an out of sight, out of mind strategy. She has camped out behind the sofa in the back room. Apart from the occasional glimpse of her tail as it disappeared around corners and under furniture, we have seen little of her.

Until now.

Recently, I have begun catching her out in the open. In the kitchen for goodness sake, during the day for crying out loud, so God and everybody else can see her and remark, "Oh look, here's Tortellini."

Case in point, this morning as I passed through the kitchen in one direction, I spotted Risotto and Rosebud (one of the Groundhog kittens, but that's a different story) curled up together over a hot air vent. I couldn't help but pull out my iphone to snap a picture. (Risotto is the black and white in the back. Rosebud is the fluffy gray one in the front.) But then, two minutes later as I returned through the kitchen going the other way, I found this novel addition, gasp, in plain view, out in the open, in the full light of day:

Yes, Tortellini has definitely come out from behind the sofa.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Thursday, February 14, 2013

I've got mail

If you've been following the charming Maisie over at Punkin's Patch, you will know the key role that goat milk played in the bottle lamb's saga. To show her thanks and spread the goodness,

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Taxes, drought and raiding the international cookie jar

Tick tock. Is anyone else waiting for their tax refund?

Like everybody else I know, the drought last summer put the big kibosh on my hay budget.
I don't have the space to store more than 2 months of hay or I would have stocked up last summer when I had the cash. But I don't (have the space) and I didn't (stock up), so

Monday, February 11, 2013

Is it spring yet?

I still haven't gotten used to the topsy-turvey nature of winter in the Midwest, but I am happy to report that we are not facing THIS, this lovely February morning. This picture was taken almost exactly four

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Tree shearing

Our property is an old farmstead from the late 1800's. The house has been in continuous use since it was built, but the fields were taken out of active use about 30 years ago. The patriarch of the last farming family died and his children sold the fields off to developers. Except for ours, which, for the most part, were allowed to return to nature.    
Around here, nature favors the honey locust.

A bit of a stink

We're in a bit of a bind here at Tyche's Run.

A few days ago --3 to be exact, and it turns out to matter -- I stumbled on this creature wandering around the back field. A hawk flew away as I approached.

At first I thought it was a cat, but, um, obviously not. I had my new camera with me, so it seemed a good chance to take shots I wouldn't normally get, else I might have just steered clear and not thought any more about it. As it was, the more I watched, the more concerned I became. My first thought was that it suffered lingering shock from a hawk attack, and that if left unmolested, it would recover and run off into the brush. In fact, while I watched, its breathing slowed and it started to move around. But I watched for close to an hour and it never ran off, just wandered listlessly around in circles. Periodically it would stop, curl up in a ball and rest. Rabies? Distemper? Maybe starving to death?

Monday, February 4, 2013

A new toy

Back before Christmas, back before snow, back before frozen water buckets and constant stall cleaning, I bought myself a new camera. I was so impressed by the photos that folks were posting on their blogs, I thought, "I wanna do that!"   So, I read up on what people were saying about good digital cameras for beginners and bought a Canon (oops) Nikon 5100. (I thought about the Canon, but actually bought the Nikon.) Today, I took it out of the box.

I found myself with some free time (what's that?) after I turned all the ponies out this morning, so I dug out the camera and opened it up. Mountains of cords and plugs and batteries and lenses later, I glanced up to discover snow swirling around outside. "Eureka!" I dumped the instruction manual and raced outside. Well, race is a relative term right? I still had to put on 3 layers, top and bottom, my heavy muck boots, my gloves, etc.. Compared to the astronauts preparing for lift off, I was fast and I had my new camera in hand. I only had time for a few shots though, on auto focus, before commonsense kicked in and I realized how wet the snow was. I stopped then to bring the poor ponies in. In any case, here are the first few shots from my fancy camera! I'm super excited.

Meet Annie.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Tundra chickens...not

The jungle chickens looked out their coop door this morning and gave one big collective thumbs down. I kicked the snow away from their doorway, so they'd have a clear place to land. They said, "No. Thank you, but no."  I scraped a path for them from their coop clear over to their jungle tree. They said, "Don't bother. We're not coming." All day. Not so much as a cluck or a cackle or a crow outside. I think the jungle chickens are done with winter.

I'm done too. Bring on the spring please.

Fiber cat

Friday, February 1, 2013

Winter Olympics

I hate really dislike the cold.

Probably because I grew up in the South.

A few years ago, I was offered a job in Ontario. It was a lovely job, with lovely colleagues, but all I could think of was the weather.

I visited in the heart of winter. I remember watching saucer-sized snowflakes dust the evergreens in the late afternoon twilight. I remember the deep, narrow paths chiseled out of the snow between front doors and driveways, sidewalks and storefronts. Paths exactly one pencil-thin, snow-shovel width across. It was beautiful, but all I could think about was avoiding the knee-deep walls of snow.