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Teaching animal pets to read: too much evolution?

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By Nury Vittachi

New Delhi: Who thought pets could read? No one. But this dog has learned to read. Fernie, a two-year-old labrador from the UK, can read four words and is working on another 20, says his owner, a teacher.

I was impressed, as I well remember the difficulty I once had trying to teach a two-year-old human not to throw herself off a balcony.

All parents know that children get furiously angry if we stop them doing things like climbing into lion enclosures, drinking poison, eating mystery brown objects off the forest floor and the like. The basic toddler philosophy is: “I wonder what (insert lethal activity here) feels like? Let’s find out.”

(I suspect there’s also a subconscious undercurrent of “Time for a quick round of Make Dad Panic.”)

Parenting books say “they grow out of it”. They don’t say that they grow right back into it as teenagers, who have the exact same philosophy, but with more expensive dangers. (“I wonder what would happen if we mixed every chemical in the school lab?”)

The obvious solution is to teach children the way we teach dogs. “Sit.” (Child sits.) “Who’s a good boy?” (Adult pats head and presents tiny morsel of food.) “Study! Pass exams! (Child studies and passes exams.) “Who’s a good boy?” (Adult pats head and presents another tiny morsel of food.) and so on and so forth.

What if your child can’t talk yet? You can still teach it, thanks to scientists in Taiwan who have just invented an Infant Cries Translator app. You download the app and stick your phone near your baby’s mouth. Wah wah waahhhhh is translated on the screen into clear, adult-readable terms such as: “I wish to have an additional beverage, carer.”

This reminded me of my first daughter, who had advanced verbal skills and actually spoke like that from about 18 months old: “Convey me to the potty immediately, carer, or you and your so-called Persian rug will live to regret it.”

Happy memories. But I was brought back on topic by a colleague from the US who says TV shows in her home country feature a dog called Willow who can read. Clearly this is the trend.

I’m sorry, but I’m not convinced that teaching animals to read is a good thing. Life is grim enough without coming home to be greeted by my dog saying things like: “What do you think of Schopenhauer’s second volume of essays? Good grief, you haven’t read it, have you?”

The fact is reading gives humans an evolutionary advantage that we should not share with less-evolved creatures such as dogs, cats, amoeba, Donald Trump fans and the like.

But I must admit I was curious. So I handed my newspaper to my dog. She stared at the front page picture (a politician of course) and then tilted her head to one side, apparently having the same gyroscopic thing in her brain that smartphones have. Then she took a step forwards and peed on it. That was probably a rather insightful thing to do. I wish I’d thought of it.

If dogs do learn to read, let’s limit them to books about their kind: White Fang, 101 Dalmatians, and Marley and Me are probably the three most famous. Do NOT give them Cujo. (IANS)

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Yellowstone National Park: A magnificent place to explore

America’s first national park – Yellowstone. It's also the first national park in the world, established by Congress in 1872, even before the National Park Service was set up.

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Yellowstone National Park: A magnificent place to explore
More than half the world's geysers are in Yellowstone National Park. VOA

January 2, 2018: When you think about America’s national parks, what probably comes to mind first is America’s first national park – Yellowstone. It’s also the first national park in the world, established by Congress in 1872, even before the National Park Service was set up.

Yellowstone sits on an active volcano, the source of the more than 10,000 geothermal features in the park, including more than half the world’s geysers. National Parks traveler Mikah Meyer made sure he caught the eruption of the best-known of its 500 geysers – Old Faithful, which shoots a column of superheated water up to 42 meters into the air, every 60 to 110 minutes.

“They have geysers that range from Old Faithful to these geysers that are basically holes in the ground that give a glimpse into what the bubbling boiling earth underneath is like.”

And some of what bubbles up is mud. Mikah describes these ‘mudpots’ as a witch’s cauldron. “They look like some sort of witch’s concoction because you’re just walking along this boardwalk and suddenly to your left and your right you’ve got these giant mud pools that are bubbling up in random spots, and so it really is a place where you can see the earth’s underbelly.”

The thousands of steam vents in Yellowstone give off a powerful sulfur odor.
The thousands of steam vents in Yellowstone give off a powerful sulfur odor. VOA

He noted a constant feature of the park — steam. “Anywhere you are in the park it always seems like somewhere in your 360° view you’ll see some steam rising out of the ground.” These fumaroles, or steam vents, are the hottest hydrothermal features in the park, with temperatures as high as 138°Celsius.

Yellowstone is also home to thermophile microbes, which thrive in the hot springs. Trillions of these microorganisms are grouped together, so they appear as masses of color. Since different types of thermophiles live at different temperatures within a hot spring, they produce what looks like a rainbow in the water.

Grand Prismatic Spring is Yellowstone's largest hot spring. It's about 112.8 meters across and more than 37 meters deep.
Grand Prismatic Spring is Yellowstone’s largest hot spring. It’s about 112.8 meters across and more than 37 meters deep. VOA

And it’s not just hot water shooting up… Yellowstone also has 350 identified waterfalls that tumble down more than 4 1/2 meters. The Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River is the tallest cascade in the park. At 94 meters, it’s twice as high as Niagara Falls.

An abundance of wildlife

Many of the more than 4 million visitors to Yellowstone each year come to see one of the symbols of the American West. Yellowstone is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times, and the park’s herd of 4,000 to 5,000 animals represents the last-known wild bison population in the world.

Grand Prismatic Spring is Yellowstone's largest hot spring. It's about 112.8 meters across and more than 37 meters deep.
Grand Prismatic Spring is Yellowstone’s largest hot spring. It’s about 112.8 meters across and more than 37 meters deep. VOA

Mikah said they really catch visitors’ eyes. “I have this video of what I call a Yellowstone traffic jam which is basically anytime there’s any sort of animal on the side of the road, everyone seems to stop their car and take pictures or pull over and it’s an instant traffic jam!”

But bison aren’t the only iconic animals in the park. Yellowstone is home to the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states, including predators like grey wolves and bears, and large herbivores, like big horn sheep, elk and moose.

Two decades ago, 41 wild gray wolves from Canada and northwest Montana were released in Yellowstone National Park to start a recovery effort. Today, the park is home to more than 100 animals in eleven packs. (NPS/Jim Peaco)
Two decades ago, 41 wild gray wolves from Canada and northwest Montana were released in Yellowstone National Park to start a recovery effort. Today, the park is home to more than 100 animals in eleven packs. (NPS/Jim Peaco). VOA

There are nearly 300 species of birds, 16 species of fish, five species of amphibians, and six species of reptiles.

But the main draw remains the regular eruption of Old Faithful. “If you’re on the hunt for geysers,” Mikah concludes, “you really can’t do much better than Yellowstone National Park.” (VOA)