4/5/2020 0 Comments
On animals, culture and trauma
Recovery programmes releasing animals into the wild are discovering the importance of culture. The habitat can be as ideal as it was when it supported the species originally and yet the fledglings let loose into it fail to thrive as their ancestors did, having the nature but not the culture they need to adapt. I was reading about a programme releasing macaw parrots: “Some rescue programmes declare success if a released animal survives one year,” but Sam Williams of the Costa Rica Macaw Recovery Service says, “a year is meaningless for a bird like a macaw that doesn’t mature until it’s eight years old.” Those eight years are spent learning macaw culture, which cannot be taught to them, but can only be picked up by them, the way the child psychologist D W Winnicott believed children should best pick up their own culture, or, rather, should enter into and transform their culture. So, for instance, morality, he argues, should not be taught to a child, but, rather, moral codes and moral beliefs should be left available to a child in the same way objects, such as teddy bears, dolls or toy engines, should simply be left available to a child to pick up and play with as it will, rather than as the child is instructed to. Adam Phillips follows this thinking a step further: “If trauma is untransformable experience, then any moral belief that is simply abided by rather than personally transformed is akin to a trauma.” It is a strange and compelling idea, though not very applicable to thinking about animals and culture and in fact might call into question whether it is culture, exactly, we are talking about when we talk about the transmission of learned behaviours between animals, if this doesn’t involve transformability. Like the traumatised child, the animal can’t put the trauma they have experienced into words or give the trauma the perspective of narrative, any more than they can put any of their experiences into words and turn them into stories. If all experience is, in this sense, traumatic for an animal, can an animal experience trauma? But perhaps the transmission of learned behaviours between animals does involve transformability, and perhaps there is more to animal culture than the transmission of learned behaviours. When Sam Williams is assessing parrots ready for release, he assesses them not in terms of the survival skills they have been taught, but in terms of their social abilities. Those scoring lowest on sociability rarely survive in the wild, and if they score too low they will be difficult even to catch and return to captivity if they fail to thrive. Almost always impossible to release are the ex-pets, who remain oriented towards people rather than the other parrots. For them, a release into the wild is truly traumatic, a blow on top of the original blow when their owners abandoned them to the shelter. The birds who will survive in the wild are the birds who get on best with the other parrots, who have the social agility that will allow them to pick up the moral codes and social politics of parrots in the wild they will need to integrate successfully, or even to develop moral codes and social politics in habitats where only the rescue parrots now belong. This is, perhaps, what belonging will mean, and will transform not only the culture of the flock but the personalities of the individual birds.
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