Bird brains

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“This guy is a real bird brain.”

How many times have we heard some variation of that line? Maybe, like me, you’ve used it yourself. 

Of course, we now know that birds can be very intelligent creatures. The putdown really isn’t accurate.

Furthermore, and more relevant to this blog, bird characteristics have fueled our insights on mobbing behaviors. During the 1980s, the late Swedish psychologist Heinz Leymann used the term “mobbing” to describe the kinds of abusive, hostile behaviors that were being directed at employees by their co-workers. This pioneering anti-mobbing expert’s theories were originally informed by observing the mobbing behaviors of birds.

Recently I got a, umm, bird’s eye view of bird behavior when I was visiting friends — a retired couple in northern Virginia — who happen to be animal lovers and bird keepers.

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The bird on my shoulder is Huey. She’s been with my friends for some 30 years. She quickly hopped on my shoulder and allowed me to pet and feed her. We became fast pals.

However, Huey doesn’t like females — of the human variety. She pecks aggressively at women! Put Huey in the workplace and she might be the classic female-to-female bully.

The bird not on my shoulder is Gussie. He’s been with my friends for some 20 years. Unfortunately, his two previous owners abused him. He will allow my friends to come close enough to feed him, but he has never allowed them to touch him. That’s what traumatic abuse has done to the poor little guy.

Gussie is blessed to be with people who care about him and treat him kindly, but he’s still a very wounded bird.

So, a little first-hand lesson for me in bird behavior. Bird brains, indeed.

Recycling: Five years of January

Each month I’m reaching into the archives to highlight a piece from that month of each past year. Especially for those of you who missed them the first time around, I hope they provide interesting and useful reading. For each piece I’m including a short excerpt; you may click on the title for the full article.

January 2014: Mental health in the academic workplace — Because mental health issues remain a neglected aspect of the academic workplace, I thought I’d do a quick roundup of websites and blog posts that may be helpful resources for those interested in learning more.

January 2013: A mediator writes about workplace bullying and mediation — Currently in the U.S., applying any [alternative dispute resolution] mechanism to a workplace bullying scenario often would occur under the assumption that the abusive behavior is legal. This automatically tags the situation as one of conflict rather than one of abuse. . . .By comparison, crime victims agreeing to participate in restorative justice practices typically have the power of the criminal codes and the criminal justice system behind them, thus significantly changing the presumptions and power dynamics between them and the offenders.

January 2012: Rats as role models? — The next time you deal with a less-than-wonderful co-worker, think twice before you call him a “dirty rat.” You see, it turns out that rats can be pretty decent creatures. . . . Not that I’m eager to have them over to my place, but I guess this shows that rats can be, umm, stand-up animals. After all, empathy and resilience make for a good combo, at work or anywhere else.

January 2011: The costs of suffering in silence about bad work situations — Let’s say you’re being bullied or harassed or otherwise mistreated at work. . . . Anger and resentment are natural responses to these situations, but is there any outlet to express your emotions at work? Many people — dare I say most people — will keep it bottled up inside them. After all, self-censorship has long been a staple of behavior for the rank-and-file worker. . . . Repressing these emotions can have grave health consequences, however.

January 2010: A brief history of the emergence of the U.S. workplace bullying movement — As more people become aware of workplace bullying and efforts to respond to it, I thought it might be useful to offer a brief summary of how the American movement got started a decade ago . . . .

 

A metaphor for our times: Death and maiming at the racetrack

As if we needed more images of a society putting all at risk for more money: A team of New York Times reporters has documented rising levels of death and catastrophic injuries among jockeys and horses at America’s racetracks (link here). They open with a typical account:

At 2:11 p.m., as two ambulances waited with motors running, 10 horses burst from the starting gate at Ruidoso Downs Race Track 6,900 feet up in New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains.

Nineteen seconds later, under a brilliant blue sky, a national champion jockey named Jacky Martin lay sprawled in the furrowed dirt just past the finish line, paralyzed, his neck broken in three places. On the ground next to him, his frightened horse, leg broken and chest heaving, was minutes away from being euthanized on the track.

The injury rates are spiking upwards amidst economic pressures facing the racing industry:

…(A)n investigation by The New York Times has found that industry practices continue to put animal and rider at risk. A computer analysis of data from more than 150,000 races, along with injury reports, drug test results and interviews, shows an industry still mired in a culture of drugs and lax regulation and a fatal breakdown rate that remains far worse than in most of the world.

If anything, the new economics of racing are making an always-dangerous game even more so. Faced with a steep loss of customers, racetracks have increasingly added casino gambling to their operations, resulting in higher purses but also providing an incentive for trainers to race unfit horses.

A metaphor for our times

Although the morality of the horse racing comes up from time to time in the media, to me there are much more compelling ethical issues concerning animals. Furthermore, I don’t know much about the world of the sport, and I don’t feel qualified to judge it.

Nevertheless, when the sport becomes unduly hazardous to riders and horses, it’s time to take a hard look at what’s going on. And what we have here is a metaphor for our times: To stoke the betting fires of those chasing a big pay day at the racetrack, man and horse alike are put in harm’s way, speed fueling speed, circling the track over and again, only to end up where they started.

As a result, the jockeys are facing greater than normal risks, and their choices boil down to staying vs. walking away. As for the horses, they don’t decide whether to be juiced up with drugs, and if they are badly injured as a result, they have no role in determining their fates.

Rats as role models?

Worthy of emulation

The next time you deal with a less-than-wonderful co-worker, think twice before you call him a “dirty rat.” You see, it turns out that rats can be pretty decent creatures.

Those empathetic rats

David Brown reports for the Washington Post on an experiment by University of Chicago researchers Peggy Mason, Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, and Jean Decety (link here):

In a simple experiment, researchers at the University of Chicago sought to find out whether a rat would release a fellow rat from an unpleasantly restrictive cage if it could. The answer was yes.

The free rat, occasionally hearing distress calls from its compatriot, learned to open the cage and did so with greater efficiency over time. It would release the other animal even if there wasn’t the payoff of a reunion with it. Astonishingly, if given access to a small hoard of chocolate chips, the free rat would usually save at least one treat for the captive — which is a lot to expect of a rat.

The researchers came to the unavoidable conclusion that what they were seeing was empathy — and apparently selfless behavior driven by that mental state.

Resilient, too

This isn’t the first time that I’ve mentioned rats of the four-legged variety. In 2009, I wrote about a study that showed how rats experience, and later recover from, chronic stress:

…the researchers exposed rats to stressful environments, including “moderate electric shocks, being encaged with dominant rats, [and] prolonged dunks in water.”  These “chronically stressed rats lost their elastic rat cunning and instead fell back on familiar routines and rote responses, like compulsively pressing a bar for food pellets they had no intention of eating.”

…Fortunately, once removed from the stressful environment and given a bit of vacation, the rats showed signs of recovery:  “But with only four weeks’ vacation in a supportive setting free of bullies and Tasers, the formerly stressed rats looked just like the controls, able to innovate, discriminate and lay off the [food pellet] bar.”

Yes, role models!

Not that I’m eager to have them over to my place, but I guess this shows that rats can be, umm, stand-up animals. After all, empathy and resilience make for a good combo, at work or anywhere else.

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Photo credit: Wikipedia

Prof says “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” promotes bullying

Credit: CBS.com

Santa may need a mediator to sort out this brouhaha, but there’s a professor at Long Island University who claims that the CBS holiday television classic “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” promotes bullying.

Reindeer games

As reported by Pittsburgh’s CBS affiliate KDKA (link here), Long Island University special education professor George Giuliani “says ‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’ promotes bullying.” He’s even written “a book about it called ‘No More Bullies on the North Pole.'”

According to the professor, “the message that Rudolph’s uniqueness must have a useful purpose for Rudolph to be accepted is the wrong message for our children.”

Psychologist Paul Friday, interviewed by KDKA, takes a different view:

I think the idea that you can take something as innocent and as nice as “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and pull some kind of psychological or sociological pathology and place it on there – I think this guy has too much time on his hands.

Maybe I need a life

Okay, I’m actually going to dig deeper into this one.

To me, “Rudolph” is a great ANTI-bullying tale. The story makes us feel sorry for Rudolph, Hermey the Elf/Dentist, and all the denizens of the Island of Misfit Toys, and it teaches us that everyone brings something worthwhile to this world.

If you’re a little kid soaking it in, it teaches you about empathy and being accepting of differences and individual choices. Rudolph is ridiculed and ostracized because of a physical difference. Hermey is bullied by the senior elf because he’d rather be a dentist. The Misfit Toys are forgotten by Santa every year. But ultimately, the story ends in their acceptance.

And with that said, I’ll return to watching DVDs of “The Wire.” Have a holly jolly holiday, everyone!

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Hat tip to John Smurda of Ohio Healthy Workplace Advocates for the KDKA piece!

On animal labor: Chicken cages as sweatshops

Readers, I’m going to ask you to give me a little room on this one. I’m not quite sure this will sound right, but it’s been on my mind for a couple of weeks…

Battery cages

Two Sundays ago, the New York Times devoted a nearly a full page to a photo story about changing factory farm conditions for egg-laying hens.   The piece, “A Hen’s Space to Roost” by Bill Marsh, broke my heart a little.  It included a big color photograph of a “battery cage,” the tiny cages in which the hens live out their lives in spaces of about 7 by 7 inches per bird. Some 97% percent of the eggs produced in the U.S. are from birds confined in these cages.

They go insane

Not mentioned in the Times article is the fact that these caged hens often go insane.  Many of us who enjoy eggs and poultry have rationalized our habits by assuming that chickens are next to brainless.  But that’s not the case.  As animal researchers, animal rights advocates, and folks who simply observe animals will attest, chickens have personalities and form bonds with one another.  When they are warehoused in cages that allow them hardly any movement, they can lose their minds.

Slightly better

As the Times reports, even the hens housed in “cage-free” conditions (representing 2 percent of eggs produced in the U.S.) aren’t exactly living it up. They are kept in huge barns that allot them an average of 12 by 12 inches per bird.

Only the “free-range” hens enjoy anything resembling the kind of idyllic farm life we might imagine.

It’s about the money

According to the Times article, here are average store prices for a dozen eggs: Hens in battery cages, less than a dollar, white or brown; cage-free hens, $2.37 (white) and $3.33 (brown); free-range hens, $3.66 brown organic.

Public health impacts

In his column today, Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff added public health to the list of concerns associated with battery cages:

Inspections of Iowa poultry farms linked to the salmonella outbreak have prompted headlines about infestations with maggots and rodents. But the larger truth is: industrial agriculture is itself unhealthy.

Repeated studies have found that cramming hens into small cages results in more eggs with salmonella than in cage-free operations. As a trade journal, World Poultry, acknowledged in May: “salmonella thrives in cage housing.”

At the store, choices and dilemmas

So..are battery cages the equivalent of sweatshops for animals, or even worse? Are the public health concerns associated with them the animal equivalent of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle at the turn of the last century?

Sweatshops, after all, are about the exploitation of labor to make money. And these animals are being horribly exploited for our benefit.

I’m not claiming that chickens should be elevated to human status in terms of how we treat them. (While I’ve managed to cut down on my consumption of meat and poultry considerably, I have been unable to make the full transition to vegetarianism.) Also, I get the virtues of thrift, especially now, with millions struggling to put food on their tables.

That said, we should not forget that animals live and labor in harsh, at times intolerable conditions so that we can pay less money at the cash register. As we strive to create a more humane and sustainable society, we should keep these concerns in mind.

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