Richard G. Petty, MD

Labor Day Trivia With a Twist

The English language must be one of the oddest. Well actually I know that it is. Except perhaps for those few languages that have managed to get by with hardly any words for emotion. Or the ones that have hundreds of ways of describing snow.

In English there are more than one thousand words describing groups of things, usually animals. Many of these words go back to the Middle Ages: fun to look up on a wet English afternoon. And many have been taking up some of my precious neural storage space for a very long time.

In today’s trivia corner, the question came up as to what name is given to a group of cats? I knew that one, it’s a clowder, and if they’re kittens, it’s a kyndyll, also spelt kindle.

Then I started putting together a few others that I remembered, and looked up a couple more. If you type “Collective nouns” into Google you’ll get hundreds, but I’m not sure about some of them!

Here are a few fun ones:
Army of frogs or ants

Bale of turtles 

Band of gorillas 

Baren of mules
Bed of clams or oysters 

Bevy of quail or swans 

Brace of ducks 

Brood of chicks
Business of ferrets
Cast of hawks 

Cete of badgers 

Charm of goldfinches or hummingbirds
Chine of polecats
Cloud of gnats
Clutch of chicks
Colony of rabbits, ants, gulls and bats
Company of wigeons (they’re dabbling ducks found all over North America)

Congregation of plovers
Convocation of eagles 

Covert of coots 

Covey of quail or partridge
Cry of hounds
Down of hares 

Draft of fish (That one’s rarely used these days)
Dryft (drift) of tame swine 

Drove of cattle, sheep, pigs 
(In the Middle Ages, cows were also called kine or kyne)
Exaltation of larks 

Fall of woodcocks
Flange of baboons
Flight of birds 

Flock of sheep, geese, ducks 

Gaggle of geese 

Gam of whales 

Gang of elk 

Grist of bees
Harras of horses 

Herd of cattle, deer, elephants, horses, and sheep
Hive of bees
Horde of gnats 

Hover of trout 

Husk of hares 

Kettle of hawks
Labor of moles
Lepe or leap of leopards 

Leash of foxes 

Litter of pigs, cats, dogs 

Murder of crows 

Murmuration of starlings 

Muster of peacocks 

Mute of hounds 

Nest of rabbits, vipers, turtles and hornets
Nide, or nye of pheasants 

Pack of dogs, hounds, wolves, and mules
Parliament of rooks or owls 

Pod of dolphins, whales or seals
Pride of lions
Raft of ducks (paddling around on water) 

Rafter of turkeys 

Rag of colts
Route of wolves
School of fish (At one time they were called shoals of fish)
Scold of jays
Sculk of foxes
Sedge of cranes, bitterns, herons 
shoal of bass
Singular of boars
Shrewdness of apes 

Skein of geese (In flight)
Skulk (sculk) of foxes 

Sloth or sleuth of bears 

Sounder of wild swine or boars  

Span of mules 

Spring of teal 

Stud of mares 

Swarm of bees
Team of ducks, horses, pigs, oxen 

Tribe of goats 

Troop of kangaroos or monkeys
Unkindness of ravens

Volary of birds 

Walk of snipe 

Watch of nightingales 

Wedge of swans 

Wing of plovers 

Yoke of oxen
Zeal of zebras

There are some very funny ones that can’t be genuine. Try these:
An addition of mathematicians
A brace of orthodontists
A bunch of florists
A clutch of car mechanics
A concert of yes-men
An expense of consultants
A flash of paparazzi
An intrigue of politicians
A prickle of hedgehogs
A rash of dermatologists
A tedium of golfers

This is all harmless fun. But there’s also a slightly more serious side to it. Developing your vocabulary, even for odd words like these, appears to reduce your risk of developing age-related cognitive decline and should help keep you mentally sharp.

And I’ve got the brain scans to prove it!

English Cows Have "Regional Accents"

I once knew a man from the county of Yorkshire who could identify whereabouts in the county a fellow Yorkshireman came from: he was usually able to pinpoint people within eight miles of the place where they were raised.

I’ve never had quite that facility, but it still surprises American friends that I can tell them almost exactly which part of England someone has come from. And I’m not bad with most European accents.

Now if a report from the BBC is to be believed, English cows have regional accents. Picked up, perhaps, by spending a great deal of time with their humans. Listen to the audio and see what you think.

Birds pick up local variations in their songs, and our two Irish horses certainly seem to have different "accents" from their American-born bretheren.

Is this human projection or animal learning?

I’m pretty sure that it’s the latter.

What more do we need to learn about the abilities of animals before we realize that they are very far from being "dumb???"

The Canine Gandhi: Cats, Dogs and Interspecies Communication

“Thousands of years ago, cats were worshipped as gods. 
Cats have never forgotten this.”
–Unknown Author

I need to tell you about something remarkable, that, if you think about it, has amazing implications.

We have a new little kitten. An eight-week-old little girl, and already a brave explorer who wants to play with everyone. Interestingly, she is already strongly right-handed. (Yes there is clear evidence of handedness in most mammals, and even some fish. But in cats, dogs and horses it’s not always clear until they are a little older than this.)

The other cats are not best pleased by this turn of events. After all this is their house, even if they do have to put up with the occasional human and a large mobile rug called Shannon. Shannon is an enormous dog of questionable pedigree but extremely calm disposition, who just hates any kind of noise or commotion: she is the original gentle giant.

The humans in the house are tolerated only because they are the suppliers of food, treats and comfy laps.

After all, as an unknown author once pointed out,
“Dogs have owners. Cats have staff.”

Little kitten thought that with Shannon fast asleep on the floor, it would be fun to play with another cat called Hannah. Now Hannah’s an older and very dominant cat who survived in the wild for a year. She didn’t take kindly to the small ball of fluff skipping toward her. Little kitten did not have the wit to understand that Hannah’s taut, crouched posture and narrowed eyes were not an invitation to a game, but preparation for the pounce that would quickly generate a kitten-shaped snack. We were about to intervene when something remarkable happened.

Shannon, who had been busily stacking ZZZZZs, got up shambled forward and put her enormous head between cat and kitten. No sound was made. She didn’t look at either of the protagonists. She was just like a great big bouncer getting between a couple of drunks in a bar.

She just stood there, unmoving and implacable. Like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, "You shall not pass!"

After a few moments the kitten realized that there’d be no way through, and went off in search of one of her toys. And Hannah cat saw that kitten tartar was off the menu. She slunk off to go and groom herself.

With which Shannon went back to her spot, lay down and promptly fell asleep again. She was soon back to a dream that involved a lot of running.

There can be absolutely no doubt about Shannon’s intent. She wanted to keep the peace, and she woke from sleep to do so. It’s not the first time that she’s protected the cats from harm.

Late at night a couple of weeks ago, we couldn’t get her to come in the house. She kept running back outside and growling. Very odd for a sweet natured creature who normally always comes running when called. It was only when I went outside for a third time that I realized that I’d been a bit slow. A few feet away was a large feral cat that we’d not seen before. He had Hannah cornered against a pillar and Shannon was trying to protect Hannah and chase the away the interloper.

As soon as the dumb humans got out of the way, Shannon saw the gatecrasher off the premises and escorted Hannah back into the house.

These can’t be unique examples of inter-species communication. Do you have either anecdotes or research to share?

“Always remember, a cat looks down on man, a dog looks up to man, but a pig will look man right in the eye and see his equal.”
–Sir Winston Churchill (English Statesman, British Prime Minister, 1940-1945 and 1951-1955, and, in 1953, Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1874-1965)

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Dolphins Have Names

It seems that not a day goes by without new research breaking down the barriers between humans and many of the other species that share our planet. I have reported on the burgeoning research into emotional expression in animals. No surprise to anyone who spends much time interacting with them, but a shock to some of my more conservative colleagues. Within the last ten years I have spoken to countless psychologists clinging to the notion that animals are just bundles of reflexes designed to protect them and allow them to reproduce.

The evidence for complex communication patterns in dolphin has long fascinated me. This was triggered in part by the work of the late John Lilly. One of my mentors in neurology was firmly of the opinion that it was impossible because they did not have the right neurological machinery. It seems that he was wrong. There is an extraordinary new report picked up by the BBC and the National Geographic  from a team of scientists based at St Andrews University in Scotland: the same place that Prince William attended for four years. In a three-year-study  of wild dolphins, conducted in Sarasota Bay off Florida’s west coast and funded by the Royal Society of London, they found that dolphins communicate like humans by calling each other by "name.” Using whistles, these mammals are able to recognize themselves and other members of the same species as individuals with separate identities. They have labels for each other just as we do.

This is important not just because of the implication that they have evolved some of the same abilities that we have, but because it likely means that they have a sense of self and of identity and that they able to differentiate each other as individuals.

I was talking about these findings with She Who Must Be Obeyed, and she pointed out that our horses appear to be able to do the same thing: if you watch them closely they have different calls for attracting each other’s attention, and these calls are different when they are at home or when they are in competition. Two of the horses are constantly going to competitions together, and after they have done well, they have a new repertoire of sounds with which they communicate with each other, and yet others with which they communicate with other horses. For people not used to being around these animals, they always assume that we are simply anthropomorphizing. But I don’t think so: it really seems that they call to each other in a precise and predictable way after they have done their jobs well. We have often said that they are bragging: perhaps we’re not so far from the truth.

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Mr. Black

I have previously talked about working with animals for therapy. There is ever increasing evidence that animals experience emotion: no surprise at all to anyone who has ever spent any time with one.

Someone heard that I was in the market for a new horse, and since I’m six foot four, he or she needed to be big. So I was asked if I would be interested in meeting a horse called Blackie. At the time he was 22 years old, and until six months earlier had enjoyed a happy life, which had included being a calendar horse – he was once Mr. September in the Quarter Horse calendar! – a part in a movie, and competitions all over the country. Then tragedy had struck. His owner died under tragic circumstances and the horse was left in a field and forgotten. Soon the daughters of the owner came on the scene are were keen to find a good home for the horse. When I was asked if I would like to see him, my first question, was “Has anybody explained to the horse what happened to his human friend?”

So he was brought over for me to have a look at. What a sorry sight. He was quite obviously clinically depressed. He would not lift his head, his ears drooped, he walked as if he no longer had any will to move, his eyes were anguished and physically he was a mess. More than one hundred pounds overweight, his hoofs looked like old cracked ivory and he was covered in nasty looking skin lesions. So I climbed on him and took him out to a quiet place where I could talk to him. Once out of sight, I dismounted and started chatting with him. I told him what had happened to his last owner, who I was, and asked him if he would like to come and live with me for a while.

After a few minutes he lifted his head and started nuzzling me, which I took as a “Yes.” When we rode back together an hour later everyone asked what had happened? For now he had a spring in his step, his head was up, his ears forward and his eyes looked bright and shiny. Even his coat looked better. Over the next few weeks everyone at the stables talked to him, we gave him a new name, enthusiastic volunteers exercised him every day, he received Reiki, acupuncture and massages, and his skin lesions were treated with a homeopathic remedy called Thuja. He became everyone’s favorite horse and the new chief of the herd.

Now several years later he continues to get regular TLC and has the energy of a much younger horse. And now he is returning the favor. He has agreed to help provide therapy for the handicapped. “Agreed?” you may ask. Why yes: I wouldn’t dream of having him do anything without first asking him.

Equine assisted therapy is becoming popular and there is some good scientific research indicating its effectiveness. In the United States, the non-profit North American Riding for the Handicapped Association is a central coordinator of these programs, and their website contains a great deal of interesting and useful information. On January 29th, they will be launching a partnership with Animal Planet to produce two horse-themed programs.

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We Need Our Pets

In this week’s British Medical Journal there is a report on the effectivenesss of swimming with dolphins on alleviating mild to moderate depression.

This is just the latest, but perhaps best executed of reports of the beneficial effects of interacting with animals. Humans need touch and connection. We are the only higher mammal that does not routinely engage in mutual grooming. And we miss it.

There is more and more research evidence of something that every pet owner knows: that animals can experience emotion. They seem well able to experience happiness and pleasure. Though science hasn’t proven it, they can almost certainly also feel sadness and unhappiness. I have a horse whose original human friend passed away. I was told that he was not well, and my first question was, "Has anyone told him what happened?" This may seem an odd thing to say. But when I met the horse, he showed all the signs of clinical depression. And yes, I did talk to him, and explain what had happened to his human companion. He nuzzled me as he grieved. And today he is the happiest horse you could ever hope to meet.

The Chalice and the Blade is the title of an extraordinarily fine book by Riane Eisler, in which she shows that beliefs about society, nature and the world about us were very different just a few years ago, and utterly different a few thousand years ago. We have all been raised in educational and social systems that stress an unhealthy "dominator" model of society, in which one person dominates another, or we dominate and control nature. It should not be this way, and Eisler stresses a "partnership model" in which all relationships should be expressions of partnership, containing respect, harmony and love.

One of the most helpful and yet neglected things that we can do for ourselves and for others is to explore our relationships with other living things. Do you have any relationships with animals? Are they dominator or partnership? Do you talk about owning an animal or of sharing your life with one? Do you make time to be with animals? Do you notice any differences in the animals after they have spent time with you? Do you notice any difference in yourself?

We have just mentioned the new study and there here has been a lot of work on using horses in therapy, and there is good evidence that they can bring a wonderful new dimension to treatment. Some therapists have introduced visualization exercises based on horse riding to help people cope with anxiety, and have found that not only did it help with anxiety, it also deepened peoples’ sense of connection with themselves and with nature. And don’t neglect other creatures: how would you characterize your relationships with insects? Do you have a dominator relationship with them? Do you squish something you don’t like?

Think about it.

(As an aside to this story, I was musing about researchers based in the notoriously cold and wet English Midlands having the wisdom and perspicacity to do their research in Honduras. I’ll have to remember that the next time that I’m writing a grant proposal…)

Addendum:  MSNBC has written a story "Into the Wild: A Scientific Approach" about the dolphin study published in the BMJ.

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