Nonsensically, With Purpose

Last week, I went to the farm amidst a snowy sort of wonderland. Every time I get out of my car there, a calm washes over me. There are so many different species of creatures who live there and each animal has a different personality. I think that some would argue that the 5 white sheep who look exactly the same are basically that but I see their little idiosyncrasies. There are cranky ones like the loudly honking geese who rush at you until you (I) say something like “HI GEESE!!!” and then they veer off in the other direction honking “just kidding!” the whole way back. I love those geese. There are animals who can’t wait to greet me like Lunar and Napoleon; ones who are a bit apprehensive (I’m thinking mostly of the beautiful swan that you’ll see a picture of a bit later. He likes to shake his tail feathers if I get to close but I get closer each time!) and others that nod from afar (many of the sheep are like this until you have food in your hand. And then, watch out!). When I walk around greeting the happy folks at the farm, my excitement builds until it’s spilling over. It’s an interesting (and very real) challenge for me to contain my enthusiasm when I’m around the more apprehensive, standoffish or shy ones. My frenzied energy bubbles out of my mouth, my pitch climbs higher up the scale (an almost impossible feat), my volume gets louder and I start to flail around a bit. It’s hard to stop myself when all I want to do is give them giant hugs and squeal on the top of my lungs. Learning to control this is an important lesson that I am currently mastering.

The subject of how one talks to animals reminds me of a lesson I learned many years ago. Back in another life, I became certified as a preschool teacher. Because my bachelor’s degree was not in early education, I needed to take a few classes directly relating to the subject and although I don’t remember much of those hours, one concept has stood out over time. The word “motherese”, according to dictionary.com, means “the simplified and repetitive type of speech, with exaggerated intonation and rhythm, often used by adults when speaking to babies”. Essentially, it’s when you see an infant, your pitch goes up and you talk like a baby. According to the psychology behind it, it’s an instinctual reaction that mothers have to their babies. Among other benefits, it actually helps the baby learn language because the baby pays attention to the tone and therefore starts picking up words. It should be no stretch of the imagination then that animals respond to this voice. In fact, many animals nurture their young in a similar way. Cats are a one example of animals who use motherese n their young. And just to throw something weird out there to mull over, one of my cats, Tabitha, has become more vocal over the years and it’s in response to the way that I talk to her. When she “talks” back to me, she often matches my pitch and intensity like she’s mimicking my words. This was not something that she did as a kitten or a young cat.

So, while many people might come out with this voice sporadically, it’s probably pretty obvious that I have a tough time speaking in a normal voice when I see any animal, be it a mouse or an elephant. I can often be found loudly sing-songing to a random dog on the street while its owner looks on in disbelief. Don’t worry, it never stops me. And I say all sorts of weird things to animals that often make no sense. What fascinates me is how they gravitate toward my voice. If it’s a boisterous animal who has few inhibitions, this is no surprise. What excites me is when someone like Athena, the beautiful sheep I’ve been talking about, goes from a ready-to-bolt position to cocking her head and staying close by. In the past couple of weeks, she’s gone from skirting away from me to allowing me to put a food bowl down without running away to sniffing my hand multiple times. And the entire time I’m around her, I’m essentially chirping words of encouragement and letting whatever comes out flow free. like to think I’m comforting her and her behavior toward me seems to prove it. She stays close by and eats her food without looking scared. If I walk around to do my chores and cross her path, she’ll spook but as I continue to talk to her, she returns quickly to her activity. My hope is that our relationship will progress to the point that she will allow me to pet her but if that goal is never reached, I still know that we’re friends and I am happy with that.

Here are some photos that I love (I wasn’t using a flash so there are a couple of fuzzy spots):
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The swan shaking his tail feathers.

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Hanging out!

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I wish I had these prints in my back yard!

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Lunar on the left and Moonie on the right

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Beautiful, beautiful Athena

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Squee! Napoleon!!

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The Cat House (notice the goat?!)

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This is Lunar stealing hay that she discovered. Later she snuck into the pen when I left the door open. :)

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WATERFORD!!!

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Gulliver, in possibly the greatest photo ever!

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Moonie, all bundled up, eating from his special bucket. I lead his face to it and resist overwhelming him with hugs (especially at dinner time!).

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What the barn looks like at night without flash. So wonderful.

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Not sure it gets happier than this!

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Filed under behavior, dogs, ducks, geese, goats, horses, photography, piggies, sheep, swan, winslow farm

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