Saturday, April 5, 2014

Max Cryer busts some myths about animals

Fish have memories, people!

In general we're a pretty intelligent species, but some of our beliefs are completely unfounded - yet we hold onto them out of habit or simply because our experience fails to challenge them. Some are harmless - but some - like the old "goldfish have a three second memory" have profound welfare implications for the subject of that myth. 

For this reason we leapt at the opportunity to interview Max Cryer, author of Is it True? The Facts Behind the Things We Have Been Told. It isn't just about animals - in fact Cryer is something of a polymath, looking at myths around social history, language, politics, music and the natural world.

Cryer has had an interesting career. He's been a TV presenter, school teacher, performed opera in London and caberet in Vegas, and written numerous books, so we leapt at the opportunity to ask him about animal-related myths.

Max Cryer, also author of Who Said That First?
Aside from being an author and entertainer you've had a varied career. Is there a common thread?

I discovered that moving from being an entertainer into being an author has a link : both are concerned with engaging and interesting an audience.  In my case I spent ten years in between the one thing and the other, as a television producer of academic shows – so I learned a great deal about research and tight organisation. And a writer needs both those.

What are some common myths about animals?

Bears don’t lick their newborn into shape, crocodiles do sometimes have moisture coming from their  eyes - but is isn’t weeping and certainly has nothing to do with sorrow.  Swans do not sing before they die. Shakespeare and Keats got one thing wrong – they both wrote about  female nightingales singing,  but the females don’t sing, only  the males do.  St Bernard dogs did not carry barrels of brandy – that’s a myth invented by an eccentric British painter (Edwin  Landseer) who painted a St. Bernard in the snow – and by a whim,  added a little barrel of brandy round the dog’s neck. Which wasn’t true, but the myth took hold and became a legend which thousands of people believed. And ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand and never  have.

Myths are everywhere and often we accept them as truth. How do they come about and how come we all accept them so blindly?

In general, myths are spread by people telling each other what someone else told them...without anybody checking back to see if what they’re told was true. It seems to be a quirk of human nature that we believe what we were told first – and are often unwilling to have that corrected later.

Many folk tales and ‘beliefs’ come from people’s grandmothers – who are often repeating what their grandmother said. 

Alas, granny was often on shaky ground – but even so the myth spreads, eventually gets into print, and nowadays can spread round the world in half an hour on Internet.

Sometimes a myth dates back to just one person writing one line in an ancient  book. For instance ‘crocodile tears’ – meaning weeping insincerely in falsified sorrow, was first mentioned in English by Sir John Mandeville in the year 1400. He wrote about ‘cockadrilles’ : “These serpents slay men, and then weeping, eat them.” The image has stayed in use for over 600 years.

And in 79AD the Roman writer known as Pliny the Elder wrote that if ostriches  see a predator  they bury their head and then “imagine that the whole of their body is concealed.” Belief in that one line has lasted nearly two thousand years into the present day. But while ostriches do lie low when they need to feel safe, they do not ‘bury their heads.’

Crocodile basking.
Can some myths about animals be dangerous or harmful?

Many myths about animals are harmless – because the animals are largely  unaware of beliefs which people have about them, and they just get on doing their own thing.  So myths about bears and crocodiles and swans are relatively unimportant and not really harmful to those creatures.

Whereas the practice of docking animal tails – often for vanity ‘cosmetic’ reasons – is cruel.  

And sometimes a belief can be limiting. For instance, because cats are perceived as ‘solitary’ creatures, owners of a 10th floor apartment believe that their pet cat is happy there living by itself, and it’s OK that it never gets out and about. But cats like to roam, and they also like  to ‘socialise’ in their own mysterious ways. So committing cat to solitary confinement is not kind...

Thank you Max. The book is certainly full of interesting myths, many of which we admit to previously subscribing to.

Max's last point provides plenty of food for thought. At SAT we think cats can be kept in apartments but appropriate environmental enrichment is essential in keeping them sane - consistent and abundant interaction with humans, an indoor garden or safe balconey access etc. There's not much point in having any pet if you simply isolate it in a tower without paying any attention to his or her quality of life.