Sunday, December 1, 2013

Elspeth and September Learn to Love

People love animals. And one of the reasons is because the animals love them back. One reason I think pets are interesting is because I believe that they, like games, wonderfully illustrate how so much of the time people are their own best therapists. People are drawn to things that make them feel whole. Sometimes this instinct can go awry, as in the case of drugs or too much of even good things, but I believe that people are usually pulled in the direction of healing and growth.

A professor told me once that everyone has a drug of choice, you just might not know what it is. It’s based on your own needs and tastes and neurobiological quirks. I suspect animals might be the same way—people certainly have their pets of choice. Each species is so different, and each species has the power to speak to a certain subset of people intensely.

I once asked a classmate why she studied horse therapy, when horses are so expensive to maintain compared to cats or dogs. She explained that horses are prey animals, and as such they are uniquely sensitive to danger. A person who comes in with angry energy will struggle to connect with the horse until they find a way to calm themselves—but if they do they will be richly rewarded.

Recently I adopted a pair of rats. I had two before, and I loved them. Intelligent, curious, resilient—there’s a lot for me to admire about rats. In college I had Hugh and Pierre, who were adopted as babies from a breeder. This meant that they had a warm, secure upbringing and positive expectations for how they’d be treated. They bonded with me right away, and loved being handled or cuddling up on my shoulder. My new pair of girls is rather different. They don’t have rat breeders in Wyoming, so rather than drive to Denver I conceded and went to Petco.

I didn’t actively go to the store with the plan to get rats. I just went to look at the rats. (I know, I know.) When I looked in the tank, instead of all the rats being huddled fearfully in their house, one black and white girl was perched on top of the water bottle watching people go by. She was even bruxing, which is something that rats do when they’re relaxed.

I was rather charmed by this rat who could just chill out in a less than desirable situation. My husband made the mistake of encouraging me to hold her—the minute she was in my hands, she was my rat. I named my new rat September, after the adventurous heroine from Cat Valente’s Fairyland series, and her shyer cagemate became Elspeth.

Elspeth and September have proven to be very different from Hugh and Pierre. The girls likely grew up on a farm for feeder rats, with minimal handling and insecure living conditions, and you can see it in their behavior. September is still adventurous—she was running around the bedroom on Day 1. Elspeth stayed in her cage, well away from the doors. Mostly she stayed in her wooden rat house.

The inquisitive September
When studying development, there is a concept called attachment theory. While my reading is generally human-centric, this is something that (to my understanding) applies across mammals—for example Harry Harlow’s famous experiments demonstrated that babymonkeys were more drawn to a cuddly cloth “mother” than to the metal one thatgave them milk, and thrived more if their milk machine was cuddly. The same attachment test used with babies can be used with dogs.

In brief, to be securely attached is to trust that someone will be available and give you nurturance and support as needed. Securely attached babies use their parents (or other attachment figures) as a “secure base” from which to explore the world, quickly scooting back if things get too threatening. While attachment develops in relation to one or a few people, it typically generalizes to give an overall sense of worthiness and trust.

In adulthood, your attachment figures might be the first people you call up when things start to get rough. This is an important concept in therapy, where clients often do not have a secure attachment figure. By being consistent and nurturing, therapists can provide the stable base for their client to start connecting with the world.

This topic has been of interest to me because I have historically not attached easily. I tended to be independent to the point of standoffishness and reluctant to give or receive affection unless a long history was established. Up through my college years I spent a lot of time alone in my room, relying only on myself for security when things went sour. I had people I cared about and who cared about me, but the instinct to reach out in times of trouble just wasn’t there.

In time I came around, especially after getting married—spouses are one of the more common later attachment figures, along with therapists, mentors, and friends. I am fortunate to have a number of mentors and friends who provide the nurturing and stability that we are all wired to respond to. And I have also been very fortunate to serve as an attachment figure, both professionally and personally, which I consider to be one of the most profound experiences life holds.

Pierre and Hugh were very attached to me. They trusted me to handle them any which way, they ran to me when I opened the cage, they used me as home base. They’d had a very good breeder (Hilloah at Ratz Realm, for those of you in Seattle), which paradoxically made it easy for them to separate and attach to someone new. They’d been loved before and they knew they’d be loved again. (This is probably for the best—at that age I don’t know that I would have had the empathy or patience to win them over had they been more skittish.)

Elspeth and September, on the other hand, see to have no such expectation. September is adventurous and treats humans like inanimate objects. Just this afternoon she ran up my back to sit on my shoulder while I was leaning against the bed, but this was more of a lookout than affection—I reached my hand up to pet her and she immediately ran back down. Elspeth is highly motivated by food and I have coaxed her onto my arm or lap with bits of trail mix.

Ellie, keeping three paws firmly rooted in the cage
But make a sudden move, try to initiate affection, or—God forbid—try to pick them up—and it’s obvious where their base is. They run to their cage and often hide in their house, where I have insisted that nobody ever bother them. Taming a rat, like taming a person, starts with boundaries and a sense of safety.
The girls are getting braver every day. Even September isn’t actually fearless—for the first several days, she slept only in the rat house. But now they’ve taken the nesting cotton and made themselves a new bed upstairs in the corner. Why? Is it more comfortable there? Do they want to be part of the family? I don’t know. But I’m glad they are out of their rat house. And I’m glad I am out of my bedroom. And I’m glad for all my friends and clients who have ventured out from wherever they were hiding to give human connection another try.

Still alert
 Many people mistakenly think that attachment is set in infancy, or at least childhood, but the research shows that this isn’t the case.  Insecurely attached children can grow up to be securely attached adults, if the conditions are right. Dogs in a shelter, after only brief interaction with a new handler,will often prefer to stick near him or her instead of trying to escape from theroom. Elspeth and September want to be loved, it’s clear from the way they approach before becoming overwhelmed and retreating again. Let's see if I can help them let themselves be

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