How To Have the Best Relationship with Animals

My experiences with horses and capybaras.

The events of this summer set me thinking about my own approach to animals and the negative effect on some animal species when people try to control and manipulate them emotionally.

This year’s chief capybara keeper’s interaction with the capybaras was all about controlling them beyond the usual norms. This had a negative effect on the capybaras, particularly the most senior capybaras in the hierarchy who expected to be in control of their lives and already resented the restrictions on their behaviour as a result of living in captivity. They were particularly stressed at not being able to eat when they were hungry, and not being able to mate. Almost every interaction this chief capybara keeper had with a capybara involved an attempt to make him/her do some completely unnecessary action. Some of the methods she used to try to get the capybaras to bond with her come from dog training methodology; rodents are not dogs! Capybaras are very sensitive emotionally and they knew they were being manipulated. The result of her efforts to control them was that the capybaras did not trust the chief capybara keeper and often became nervous if she approached them.

Every behaviour an animal exhibits is meaningful; this is how animals communicate with humans, but not everyone understands or is sensitive to animals’ behaviour. I come from a family who seem to get on very well with animals and whom animals seem to like. From the youngest age I have always seen things from the animals’ perspective. I have never had any desire to control animals but I have formed the impression that some people who say they love animals, love animals because they enjoy controlling them. For some of these people I have sensed that they felt they had no control over other areas of their own life, or control over people in their lives, so controlling animals made up for this lack of control in other areas of their life.

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Many years ago I spent a few months working at a riding school grooming and mucking out horses. This riding school specialised in training students for the British Horse Society Assistant Instructor rating. I had two notable experiences during this time.

On one of our rides through the woods I was given a young pony called Kestrel to ride. Kestrel had a reputation for being naughty and a difficult ride and it seemed he sometimes enjoyed depositing his rider in the mud! We were supposed to ride on a tight rein but every time I tried to pull Kestrel’s head up he would shake his head and pull against my hands. It was obvious to me that he felt more comfortable on a loose rein and I felt a greater need to let him be comfortable and happy than to control him against his will, so we trotted along with Kestrel choosing how he wanted to hold his head. The track through the woods was occasionally crossed by fallen tree trunks over which the horses would jump. However I had not yet learnt to jump and Kestrel quickly sensed I was in danger of falling off if he jumped over these tree trunks. So every time we came to a tree trunk he would slow down and walk over it. Much to my relief! I couldn’t help feeling that he was repaying my kindness towards him in keeping the rein loose, by not jumping over the tree trunks to ensure that I did not fall off.

One of my duties at the riding stable was to take the horse I groomed to the blacksmith once a month early in morning. The horse I was looking after was in fact the chief instructor’s horse with all that that implies. His name was Darcy. We would go to the blacksmith in pairs and on my first trip to the blacksmith I was accompanied by an American girl doing a British Horse Society assistant instructor course who was a far more experienced rider than me. On our return as we trotted down the tarmac road Darcy suddenly veered off to the right up a narrow path leading into the woods. It immediately struck me that Darcy seemed to know exactly what he was doing and where he was going. Unlike me, he had been to the blacksmith many times before. I was very happy to let him canter through the woods and sure enough the path led directly to the stables.

What really surprised me was the reaction of my American companion. She was extremely upset and angry. Since her horse had not bolted but had simply followed Darcy I could see no reason for her extreme reaction other than she must have had a completely different mindset in her relationship with animals. Presumably, she had felt out of control as her horse cantered along the path and unlike me she was not prepared to trust her horse and enjoy the ride.

One other experience from my time at the stables still upsets me. When I first started working there I looked after a horse called Selworthy. He was a very sweet, gentle, calm horse. Earlier in his life he had suffered a back injury, a slipped disc, and had spent a year recovering in a field of sheep. Selworthy soon took to guarding these sheep as if he was responsible for their well-being and happiness. One day the instructor decided to show the students how to inject a horse and chose Selworthy as the unfortunate guinea pig. Poor Selworthy became more and more upset as inexperienced students tried to inject him. I pleaded with her to leave Selworthy alone and find another horse but instead she put a twitch on poor Selworthy’s mouth. A twitch is an extremely unpleasant way of controlling a horse by tying a rope around the horse’s upper lip and twisting it; the idea is that if the horse struggles the lip becomes more and more painful so the horse will stop struggling against whatever the person is doing to him. In the end the instructor had to abandon this exercise. After everyone else had gone I spent a long time with Selworthy stroking him and calming him down, and telling him how sorry I was about the behaviour of these people.

Research has shown that rodents, perhaps more than any other Order of Mammals, want to be in control of their own lives. The research is quite amusing. For example, in an environment where rats are able to control the light levels the rats prefer a low-level of lighting. However, if the research scientists set the light to this preferred level the rats immediately turn the light up to a right level. It is just so important to these rodents to be in control that they will choose the opposite of what they really like in order to exercise control of their environment.

Capybaras are exceptionally sensitive and emotionally sophisticated. They know when someone is trying to control them and this makes them deeply suspicious.

I will come back to the damaging effects of trying to control capybaras in my next blog: “What Happened to Aoba Capybara?”.

I have absolutely no doubt that the best relationship a person can have with an animal is based on mutual trust and the person’s ability to understand life from the animal’s perspective. There are far more productive and rewarding ways of achieving a desired behaviour in an animal then by using force or by attempting to control.

“Danger! Humans!” The Elephants Cried. Elephant Communication Is Highly Sophisticated.

Elephants.  Photograph by Peter Knights For

Elephants. Photograph by Peter Knights For


“Danger! Humans!” The Elephants Cried.

Elephants Have a Very Sophisticated Vocabulary.

Elephant alarm calls are so sophisticated that they can communicate who or what the threat is. In this study the researchers analysed the acoustic properties of each type of alarm call and discovered that the elephants were able to tell their herd whether the threat was from humans or bees. A human would not be able to detect this difference because the calls include distinctive features at a low frequency inaudible to the human ear.

An earlier study had shown that when elephants hear the sound of disturbed bees they make a distinct alarm call to warn other elephants of this threat.

The research was conducted on wild elephants in Kenya by Oxford University, Save the Elephants and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The elephant species was Loxodonta africana.

The purpose of this research was to discover whether elephant alarm calls:

• identify the specific type of threat, in this case humans or bees;

• indicate the level of urgency the threat poses;

• result in behaviour based on the type of threat and the level of urgency.

A recording of the voices of male Samburu tribesmen was played to resting elephants and their behaviour and vocal responses were recorded. The vocalisations were played to another group of resting elephants to see if their reaction would be the same. It was. Both groups became vigilant and ran away making a low rumbling call.

Humans pose the greatest threat to elephants. This threat includes poaching for ivory, destruction of their habitat and conflict over water and other resources. In the wild elephants have few predators, although lions will attack elephant calves.

Amazingly elephants have learnt which tribes of humans in Kenya pose the greatest threat. They can distinguish between Samburu herdsmen, Masaai herdsmen and Kamba farmers, as earlier studies have shown. The Masaai will kill elephants. The elephants know this and their alarm calls warn of greater danger when they smell or see Masaai, than when they smell or see the Kamba, who pose less of a threat. They recognise the voices of Samburu herdsmen and, impressively, were also able to decide how great the threat was from the Samburu tribesman in different situations. Their alarm calls reflected this: mostly they would just rumble, but when they perceived a greater threat from the Samburu they would roar and trumpet as well.

The Samburu are pastoralists in northern Kenya. Their cultural beliefs mean that traditionally they have not hunted elephants for ivory or meat. However, as human populations grow the Samburu come into conflict with elephants over resources such as the watering hole. Chance encounters in the bush can also be deadly for elephants. So these days the Samburu do pose a threat to the elephants.

Elephants produce a number of alarm calls in response to threats from predators, including rumbles, roars and trumpets. The most frequent type of call is the rumble. At the highest level of perceived threat the rumble includes roars and trumpets.

The response of the elephants to the bees was compared with their response to the Samburu male voices. In both cases the elephants showed heightened vigilance, made warning calls and ran from the threat.

One behaviour that was specific to the alarm call signifying bees, and which did not take place when the elephants heard the alarm call for humans, was an increase in headshaking. The elephants shook their heads to ward off the bees, dislodge any that were already on their heads and prevent bee stings.

To find out if the level of threat was communicated by the alarm calls the rumbles, roars and trumpets were acoustically modified to reflect three levels of threat:

• Low rumble with roars and trumpets reflecting the highest level of alarm. This resulted in the most extreme reaction from the elephants.

• The same low rumble but with the roars and trumpets removed. This was the most typical response to the sound of Samburu voices, and elicited a similar response to that of the threat of bees.

• Rumble which sounded like the non-alarm rumbles elephants make. The elephants’ response was to move half the distance compared with the level 2 alarm. As a control, the recordings included a section of “white noise” which elicited the lowest level of response from the elephants.

On hearing the calls the elephants became vigilant. They did this by: “smelling” , when an elephant raises his trunk into the air or stretches it out in front of his face, horizontally; “scanning” for danger, with their ears held out; “head-up” when the elephant lifts its head with its ears held out and holds this position for more than 2 seconds. When these are all displayed at the same time they are known as “vigilance” behaviours.

Elephants have remarkable vocal abilities. They can manipulate their mouth, tongue and trunk to shape and alter the sounds of their rumbles and thus make different alarm calls which identify the type of threat and also the level of threat. The difference between the alarm rumble warning of humans and alarm rumble warning of bees can be compared to the effect of a person changing a vowel in a word, for example “poo” and “pee”. This is similar to the way humans vocalise. Elephants can produce rumbles through both their mouth and their trunk. The alarm rumbles are produced through their trunk.

Impressively, elephants can learn to imitate the sounds of the environment and the calls of other species, including humans and other elephant species. They have also worked out in which places they are most at danger, and they avoid these.

Elephant communication is complex and sophisticated; further research is being done in this exciting field.

The ultimate purpose of this study is to safeguard the elephant population by learning how to avoid conflict between humans and elephants, while at the same time protecting the livelihoods of the local population.