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Self Awareness in Animals

The internet is a wonderful tool at times. You can find almost anything by typing in a few keywords. Something that continually finds my feed is stories where one species seemingly "adopts" another species and cares for them like their own. I love those stories because it shows a level of empathy and also an acknowledgment of survival needs. It also, in some cases, subtly points out that humans created stigmas of certain species not liking another, i.e. dogs and cats. This rivalry is completely man-made. More on that later.

The one thing about these feel-good stories that really gets my goat is the narration of "the dog thinks the kittens are her puppies", or some such foolishness. No, the dog does not think that. Animals are not idiots. Animals do have self-awareness and instincts far greater than most humans. Animals know by scent and sense who is like them and who is not. While we may think of our animal companions as our babies, and they react to us as their parents, they KNOW they are not human and we are not dogs (or cats or whatever species you have as a companion animal). The animals accept our differences and adjust to the relationship accordingly. The dog, in the above example, knows the kittens are not hers. She just doesn't care and decides to take care of them and protect them, because she is a good soul.

Athena was a springer spaniel who was my animal companion when I was in my early twenties. I also had a cat who was quite the escape artist and who was enamored with the neighborhood feral tomcat, who I named Big Red. My cat found herself in the family way. She had 3 kittens. The smallest was a runt and I had to bottle feed her and care for her eyes. She was teeny and very needy. The other kittens pushed her away from mamma cat and poor Little Bit cried for attention. Enter Athena. Without hesitation, Athena gently picked up Little Bit and began to nurse her. I was shocked that she was able to produce milk, and checked with the vet immediately. The vet confirmed that animals will sometimes produce milk, even without a pregnancy involved, in response to a need. I distinctly remember the vet saying "If it doesn't bother you, let them do their thing". Bother me? Not at all. I thought it was a miracle and a beautiful act of love and compassion. From that moment, Athena cared for Little Bit in every way. She thrived. The little runt grew up and was healthy and playful. Athena was a great foster mom! She did not think the cat was a dog or think the cat was hers. She simply reacted to a situation where she was able to help.

Animals communicate with each other, even outside their own species. I noticed how Athena and the mamma cat developed their relationship into a sort of sisterhood. Mamma cat was very grateful for Athena's help and they could be found snuggling together watching the kittens play. Humans seem to be the ones hesitant to embrace things outside of themselves. Humans create ideas and generalizations based on a single experience. If someone had a dog that fought with a cat, that became "dogs and cats hate each other". The reality is 1) it was one argument or 2) that particular dog and cat dislike each other.

I also want to interject something here. So many people question if a dog's milk is safe for a kitten, or if one animal's milk is suitable for another when the animals choose to intermingle as did Athena and Little Bit. However, humans drink cow's milk or goat's milk in absurd quantities and for much longer than what an animal would naturally wean the young. Speciesism. If humans don't do it or think of it, it is considered weird or unnatural. I'm forever shaking my head at the human ego.

In conclusion, stop saying that animals think they are something else, just because they are showing kindness. They know who they are and have a better sense of their place in nature than most human beings. Enjoy the moments of kindness and empathy the animals are showing us. It is a lesson and an example we can all learn from.

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