I have shared my life with companion animals for more than four decades.
While I realize that my own species, homo sapiens, has evolved to naturally crave and seek out the company of our own kind, my flocking preferences extend a bit further still.
What I mean is, if the only species I’m spending quality time with is my own, I feel like I am missing out.
Oddly, I personally have never had any particular drive to reproduce (my brother, to my parents’ endless relief, felt differently and has produced, to date, four stunning miniatures who give me tremendous hope for the next generation).
But my drive to cohabitate has always taken me towards interspecies company, and particularly the good company of parrots and turtles.
Perhaps this is because I find animals easier to learn from and, frankly, to be with.
Humans, with our enormous capacity for nuance and tone, have often confounded me. Whether it is figuring out if someone likes me, hates me, or something else entirely, it can (and often does) take me anywhere from a few minutes to a few years to figure this out.
It is not at all uncommon for me to look back on a memory from years ago, only to experience a sudden random “aha” moment and realize – oh. that’s what they meant. This is exactly the sort of information that would have been useful to have when the interaction was actually taking place but just feels frustrating when received months or decades later.
But animals don’t mess around. If they want it, they want it. If they don’t want it, they don’t want it. If they like you, you know it. If they don’t like you, you know it.
Not only do I not mind this – I find it refreshing. I also find it remarkably instructive.
Changing my own behavior, my thoughts, my assumptions, becomes much easier when I get what I perceive to be clear, consistent, trustworthy feedback.
(NOTE: I realize animals can be nuanced as well, and this is not to simplify the extraordinary range of animal expressiveness. It is just to say that for whatever reason I find animal communications easier to read for me personally.)
One very intriguing thing I am starting to learn about animals in general and my own animals in particular is that each one has what I would call a “love language.”
A love language, simply put, is how a particular being prefers to and/or most easily expresses love. This could be a whole blog post topic in itself (which frankly has already been done remarkable numbers of times by others who are much better equipped to tackle it – here is one good example if you want to learn more).
But for our purposes here, when I say “animal love language,” what I mean is how my animal best receives love from me and most readily shows me in return that they recognize our bond.
For instance, let’s take Pearl, my 21-year-old cockatiel.
Pearl and I have been together since he was a five-week-old chick. I knew right off we were meant to be together when he saw my outstretched hand, jumped on and ran all the way up my arm to hide under my hair for a full 45 minutes.
We’ve been joined at the neck ever since, and I write much more about that in our memoir of life together, “Love & Feathers: what a palm-sized parrot has taught me about life, love, and healthy self-esteem.”
Cockatiels in general, and Pearl in particular, form incredibly close bonds with their flock mates. Cockatiels mate for life and reinforce their bond with daily allo-preening (grooming each others’ feathers), calling and feeding behaviors. They are rarely out of contact with one another unless one is sitting on the nest and the other is out foraging.
Pearl was born and bred for life as a companion cockatiel. As well, he is missing his left wing tip and three claws and so life in captivity was always his only option. But his wild instincts are alive and well and he bonded to me right away at age five weeks.
To this day, he calls for me whenever I am out of direct line-of-sight for more than a minute or two. He wants (demands) allo-preening several times per day (where I pat his neck feathers – this is really cute), hand-feeding and near-constant attention.
Thankfully I work from home, and he spends most of the day sitting right next me or right on me, which is pretty much exactly what his life with a mate would have been like had he been a wild cockatiel. His bond with me is more along the lines of a mom but it crosses over and I am aware of that.
For instance, five and a half years ago my “only bird” suddenly got a flock mate – Malti, a hatchling redfooted tortoise.
Malti also came to me at five weeks of age. She was the size of a silver dollar, quiet and mysterious. Pearl was NOT pleased. In fact, just this past week we were at my folks’ and I was giving Malti attention while Pearl was sitting on my leg. We were on the floor. All of a sudden, Pearl jumped off my leg, ran across the floor to Malti and pecked the back of her shell.
He was jealous!
Malti’s love language is very, very, very different than Pearl’s. One of the main reasons for this is because redfoot tortoises, like all tortoises, are mostly solitary in a wild setting. They hatch and are immediately fully independent. Often a tortoise won’t even see another tortoise until mating season, and even then only if they are lucky enough to visually cross paths.
(I say this because tortoises do not scent out potential mates using pheromones like many animals do. Rather, they rely on sight. So if a mature tortoise does not visually see another mature tortoise to mate with, they will not mate.)
Suffice it to say Malti was pretty indrawn for the first couple of years we were together. Since I had no prior experience keeping land tortoises, it took me a long time to understand that this is normal for hatchling tortoises and wasn’t because she didn’t like me or because I was doing something wrong.
Now that Malti is a young lady tortoise, her personality is really starting to show. I am finally seeing the intelligence and unique charm her species is known for. She is naturally curious and mostly eager to interact – if she perceives there is something in it for her.
Unlike with Pearl, who hails from a highly gregarious and interdependent species, Malti’s only motivation to interact is if she wants something. To date, her main wants include a desire to eat, a desire to have her shell scratched and a desire to satisfy her curiosity.
While I might try to convince myself that she seeks me out because she perceives that I need comfort or that I take joy in her company, the more likely explanation is that she has figured out exactly what makes me tick (i.e. what makes me produce the desired treats and/or shell scratches) and is working me for all she’s worth to get what she wants.
I am fine with this, by the way. Whatever way she wants to interact with me, I’ll take it!
So there we were, Pearl and Malti and me, and I was sure our flock was complete. But then, about four and a half years ago, along came Bruce, a rescued adult box turtle.
After Bruce joined us, I got a lot of questions about whether the two shells got along. But truthfully, Bruce’s arrival didn’t impact Malti one bit. And when it quickly became clear Bruce would never be able to adapt to life indoors (which necessitated a couple of moves until we found the right outdoor situation), Pearl lost interest as well.
Interestingly, Bruce’s love language is quite different than either Pearl’s or Malti’s.
Bruce’s primary motivation for interacting with me has never been food. In fact, it took him some time to put two and two together in regards to what his food rock actually was and what it contained! (Malti mastered this immediately.)
As an adult who has been in and out of varying types of captive environments, but never with much positive human contact, Bruce seems largely driven by curiosity to approach me and connect, and that curiosity is primarily fueled by the presentation of foreign objects – what I might ordinarily call “toys.”
My iPhone is a favorite, I suspect because it is about the same size he is and is reflective, which from his perspective makes it look an awful lot like an adult box turtle! Another favorite toy is a small, light brown, orange-footed, google-eyed puffball I’ve named Mrs. Mini-Bruce. He comes running whenever either of these toys shows up.
So in actuality, I can guess that his real love language is the desire to mate….as you can see for yourself. 😉
Our family’s standard wire-haired dachshund, Flash Gordon, has yet another love language from Pearl, Malti or Bruce.
Flash is four and a half years old and has been intensely rambunctious from puppyhood. He came to live with my parents when he was nine weeks old and immediately presented them with the kinds of challenges none of their previous dachshunds had ever exhibited.
Part of the problem was that, just after his second birthday, hurricane Harvey hit and they were flooded out of their home for more than seven months. Flash became very anxious and clingy after they were so suddenly displaced like that. Even now that they are back in their home once more, he still doesn’t like to let either one of my folks out of his sight for very long.
I blogged here earlier about how Flash detected my dad’s low heart rate right after the hurricane displaced them into a long-term hotel. Unbeknownst to any of us, Dad’s heart rate would slow to a dangerously low rate in the middle of the night. Flash would wake up, cross the hotel room to Dad’s side of the bed and start literally hurling himself at the solid bed frame. He would do it again and again until they were both awake.
This happened night after night until a doctor finally detected the heart problem and prescribed treatment. It has not happened one single time since.
So a big part of Flash’s love language is service. Don’t get me wrong – he loves food as much as any dachshund ever could. But that love of food happened later. His first love language was definitely service. A dachshund to his core, he now also loves play time and cuddle time every bit as much as he loves food.
Like Flash’s, my own love language is definitely service. I live to serve these amazing beings who are my life companions. But I also live to serve my parents, my partner (when I had one up until this past year), my friends and the world. I have a ton more trouble receiving than I do giving and so I am working a lot on that right now.
My animals, who are all such naturals at receiving, each in their own unique ways, are my primary teachers and mentors in this learning process. Although in fact, they are also teaching me a tremendous amount about giving, because what is given is only a gift if it is wanted by the receiver.
What Pearl wants from me is not the same as what Malti, Bruce or Flash want from me. They are each every bit as unique in their preferences and responses as any homo sapiens I have ever met. And they give me so much every day just by being willing to share their company with me.
With great respect and love,