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Swann

Swann looks like he was a greyhound. Painted in watercolour by Queen Victoria in the 1850s – the original can be seen in Kensington Palace. I would have taken better notes on its provenance but I was being hustled round the palace by a pre-teen who I thought would enjoy the fashion exhibition. How wrong can you be? Anyway, the watercolour of Swann was painted when Prince Albert was still alive. I found myself wondering if the Queen painted much, if at all, once she was sewn into her widow’s weeds in perpetuity.

I think she has done a good job – the anatomy and musculature of the hound work well and she has the head. It’s a shame if she gave up painting. I bet she could do a good pony as well.

I have taken some liberties with Her Majesty’s original work, adjusting the brightness and contrast levels, as the photo was poor, and the shot quickly taken in a very dark room. They keep all those rooms dark; dark and very, very hot. This was a pre-Christmas, pre-storm hitting the country the following day trip. It’s a shame when these things arrived at for the enjoyment of all miss the intended spot, but as well as learning Queen Victoria had a dog that looks awfully like mine, I also spotted some green parakeets on Bayswater Road. Sometimes you just have to enjoy the little things that come up unexpectedly, rather than the big ones you planned.

swann

Note to self: eldest daughter detesteth history…

My perfect life (not)

There’s a blog I visit and read often. It’s a good blog because it’s written by a professional writer and because although the exterior of the thing always looks glossy and fabulous (nature, dogs, horses) and peaceful, the interior landscape of the writer sounds more or less interchangeable with your human experience, or mine, or anyone’s really. Different events and people, but same pain, angst and suffering.

So, here’s a blog that is not about my interior landscape. It is a post that would never appear on this other blog because these things just don’t seem to happen to everyone. Or maybe they do and have the sense to keep bloody quiet about it. This post is also designed for a certain member of the Wray Barton Wrecking Crew who has been having a torrid time lately, but has been the usual stalwart in the face it all. Perhaps it will make her smile. In which case it would all have been worth it.

The dog, have I mentioned the bloody dog on here? Oh yes. Often. He’s appeared in photos here looking winsome and he’s appeared looking snarly and people have commented on his looks and it’s all rather jolly having a dog to put on the blog on a slow day, or when he’s done something entertaining. The trouble is that lately the dog has been, literally, driving me mad. Or if not driving me mad, holding up a mirror to my madness.

We went out the other day, for a walk and thence to a pet superstore, only because I dared not return home without cat food (we had run out) and the cat was looking for my head on a stick by late lunchtime; she had not eaten since early breakfast and requires five meals a day minimum to maintain her usual surly and superior demeanour towards me. So I had to stop at this gargantuan warehouse of a pet shop because I didn’t have any cash on me and it’s the only place you can buy a cheap box of cat food with your card without the assistant hating you to your face.

As soon as I parked, which I did badly, hitting a kerb in the process, the dog started up whining because he knows that in that shop there is a pick and mix for mammals and birds which he likes to peruse. I took him in. We walked round and round the central island of pick and mix and he stuck his nose in various binnacles. Pink biscuits, yellow bones, multi-coloured bird seed and hay bars for rabbits – they have them all. It’s additive heaven. The dog enjoys it though and so did I until I realised that I had been conversing with him throughout…

I had started the chatting to him on the earlier walk and it didn’t really matter so much then because no-one was around but once I clocked myself in a busy pet emporium I had enough self-preservation left to realise what I might look like: a bit crazy. So then I told the dog, I really had to stop chatting out loud to him and could he just select his chosen pick and mix biscuits for me to put in a bag and then we could leave. Which, after some further deliberation and more accidentally verbalising what should have remained in my head from me, he did.

This will have to be continued. In my perfect life (not) I have to finish another thing I haven’t started yet and quickly tell the cat something, before I forget. Don’t worry though, I’ll get back to this story and it will so totally be worth the wait…

NO PICTURES OF ME IN A SHOP, WITH THE DOG, TALKING TO HIM, IN PUBLIC, BECAUSE THAT WOULD BE EMBARRASSING.

The Consciousness of Cats

Look, it’s Sunday morning, and I am not about to attempt a definition of consciousness of my own because that would be like… hard work. So, lazy like Sunday morning, let’s just use this one below as the working one, for the purposes of this morning’s post at least. I’ve lifted it directly from Wikipedia, obviously.

Consciousness is the quality or state of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. It has been defined as: subjectivity, awareness, sentience, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind. Despite the difficulty in definition, many philosophers believe that there is a broadly shared underlying intuition about what consciousness is. As Max Velmans and Susan Schneider wrote in The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness: “Anything that we are aware of at a given moment forms part of our consciousness, making conscious experience at once the most familiar and most mysterious aspect of our lives.”

I was lying in bed thinking that, in the current fuss about horse meat in the food chain, do we in the West have a problem with eating animals that we commonly keep as pets – I include horses in this because as anyone has kept a horse can tell you there is plenty of time spent in that mode with them. Then I thought about the animals we have invited into our homes, or at least our lives, and I suppose the driver for the most common of these species was that they served some useful function for man. Cats catch vermin (in theory, some can be most indolent as we know), dogs can protect us, horses used to act as transport and still do in certain cultural rituals (weddings, funerals) and for recreational purposes. So then I was thinking, do we shy away from eating cats, dogs and horses not just because they are pets, but because as we have lived in close proximity with these animals that we have observed aspects of these animals’ consciousness? How much harder it is to eat an animal that you strongly suspect thinks about things. An animal that might, at some cognitive level, have an opinion if you were to entertain the notion of setting about it with a knife and fork…

So, having thought all that, I had to attempt to test the concept of animal consciousness. I can only do that through the observation of my own pets, which to me is preferable to a bunch of animals in a lab and perhaps equally empirically useful on a micro scale. All scientists have to start somewhere – Jean Piaget’s studies of his own children informed his hugely influential theory of child development, Darwin kept chickens or pigeons or something whilst writing the Origin of the Species and there will be many, many more. The first pet that sprang to mind this morning was not the dog, with whom I have the closer relationship, it was in fact the cat. The cat and I are not particularly close; mutual respect might be as far as it goes – after all I mainly buy her food. It is however the children’s father who feeds her the most important meal of the day: breakfast and based on that function I have had a chance to observe her behaviour which is as follows.

The cat likes to break her fast somewhere between 5 and 5.30 a.m. She’s greedy, what can I say? The alarm goes off about 5.30 but often he is up and about before then. The cat has developed a number of behaviours based on what I can only imagine are based on some internal concepts – probably hunger more than being able to tell the time. A hungry cat might miaow, or wait by the bowl, that would be instinct not consciousness. This cat, comes upstairs, walks into the room, walks round the bed ignoring the nearest human which is me, sits round the other side of the bed and miaows. When this does not get an immediate response she starts clawing at the sheet that covers the side of the bed. This more assertive claw-based approach normally gets her breakfast order sorted, pronto.

There are a few aspects of this behaviour that make me think she is actually not merely conditioned as per a Pavlovian dog.

1. She doesn’t always do it (fair enough maybe she’s not always hungry)

2. If the alarm does go off before she’s been in the room, she then acts as an extra get-out-of-bed alarm, miaowing away

3. That she doesn’t go straight to clawing the sheet – she tries the miaow first

None of this is conclusive though, that this particular cat has consciousness, that she is thinking about how to get the same person out of bed to feed her. It could be reasonably argued that she is simply hungry and her behaviour is driven by instinct. However, what utterly confounds this theory is what she does at weekends, when there is no alarm and no-one gets out of bed at 5.30 a.m.

On weekends she does not come in the bedroom at all. Her breakfast is served at the human’s convenience. Sometimes as late as 7.30 a.m.

Never.

For me, this knocks the behaviour based on a hunger instinct out of the water.

Whilst writing this I have been thinking too. Do we only notice a form of consciousness in animals that we closely share our lives with? If I was to share my house with a few cows would I notice some form of consciousness in them? I suspect, yes. Certainly cows that are ready to return from the field to the farm to be milked might congregate by the gate. Instinct and classical conditioning – certainly, but if we lived in closer proximity to all manner of beasts I am sure we would notice a deeper consciousness of some kind. The outstanding question for me is whether the cat’s consciousness is developed by living in close contact with humans, or whether it just gives us a better opportunity to notice it?

What lies behind those eyes

What lies behind those eyes

I love my pets but… (title shamelessly plagiarised from Old Stokie)

I have spent the night with the dog pinning my legs down and the cat perched on me as if I were the shed roof on a sunny day.

Then there is my one wish about pets: to be free of their hair. Actually, that’s my one wish. If a fairy ever visited me and offered me wishes I wouldn’t want money or endless wishes, I would just want to be an anti-magnetic device for animal hair. When I had dogs to begin with in my mid 20s I went through rolls of sticky tape weekly. I could not tolerate a single hair on my clothes. My mother is the same now. She has two dogs, but you wouldn’t catch a stray pet hair on her. Not in a million years. I think she does a lot of hoovering.

Now my “standards” have slipped terribly. My two measures are to tell the girls not to roll round on the floor (hairs in their hair) and I usually give the settees a quick bash with a hair-covered cushion before I sit down. Then the dog comes and leans all over me anyway, leaving my left arm covered in cream hairs. The cat hair is worse, it can sort of float around in the ether before coming to rest where you don’t want it.

Once I bought some magic US scraping device in New York that was meant to easily get hairs off upholstery and so forth. It did not. So this is my mother’s top tip for pet hair removal: scrape affected areas whilst wearing a rubber glove. I have modified that slightly and find that a quick scrape with a Havaianas flip-flop does an excellent job too and you don’t even have to bend down. Except I can’t use the method on the cashmere cardies.

Microcosmic

My eldest has been begging for an aquarium for about four years.  I gave her a kitten a few years ago hoping to stave off the fish scenario.  The cat, the same Bibi Snowball that graces these pages from time to time, went down very well, but the fish obsession has endured.

I can do dogs, cats, horses, goats, chickens, ducks and maybe even pigs (but not all in this house) with equanimity, but tanks with fish in are most worrisome.  It’s the environment you see.  With the aforemention animals you just stick them in your existing environment whether it be inside or out and let them fit in with it.  In the Rudi dog’s case this involved provided him with a whole settee and a kingsize bed.  Simple enough.  With these fish things you have to, and I think this where my anxiety stems from, create a whole new world.

Too cold, they will die.  Too boiling, they will fry.  Too toxic, death ensues.  Wrong types of fish in the same tank, they will eat each other, or fight to the death.  If the pump malfunctions they suffocate.  In fact, whatever way you look at it, fish die and they die a lot.  So even with the best will in the world, we will be bringing pretty little  fish home to die in the front room.  Slowly if we are successful, but as inexpert fish-keepers it could be quite quickly too.

Oh My God.

Anyway, the tank is full of water, the pump is finally working, we have de-chlorinated the water and fitted the filter.  We have one plant and one topical volcanic rock and some gravel.  D-Day will be next weekend. 

Cross your fingers for the little fellas.

I would rather keep a couple of shells like these I found earlier.