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What our eyes can teach us

There’s a lot we can learn by watching animals, be it their acute sense of focus or ability to lie low and hunt prey

fawnA fawn poised to flee as it senses danger. (Photo: Ranjit Lal)

Scientists and field biologists learn a lot about the behaviour of the animals they are studying – a process that can take decades. (Jane Goodall spent 40 years studying chimpanzees). For you and me, there’s no need to dedicate a lifetime to this work – unless you are obsessed. And yet, by just casually watching animals, be they wild or domesticated, there’s a lot we can pick up that could prove beneficial to us in our ordinary humdrum lives.

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Take, focus for one. How many of us, who have been told to “pay attention” in class, suffer from attention-deficit syndrome? Our thoughts bounce from here to there like marbles in a mixie, and go from one thought to the next in a millisecond. Well, if you have a puppy, hold a ball in your hand and swing it back and forth. Watch the pup’s big eyes, especially if he’s a Retriever, they will be fixated on the ball, his muscles will be taut and for him, at that moment, nothing else exists. Throw the ball and he’s after it in a flash. Watch the intense focus with which carnivores hunt – their eyes are riveted to their quarry, they move with deathly stealth until they are within range and then explode into action. Yes, you may say but their success rate is rarely over 50 per cent, and that’s precisely because their prey is equally focused on not getting caught. Their ears and noses twitch, like semaphores, their eyes swivel and if they sense the slightest threat, a leg goes up and they bark a warning and spring off, sometimes vertically. Also, many of them have spotters in place – monkeys in the trees above them – who will grimace and bark the moment they see trouble. In Indian jungles, the peacock provides exemplary security and will give tongue the moment it senses danger.

Pack animals, like wolves and wild dogs, hunt in teams and may not appear fixated on a single victim, but they work to a well-coordinated plan, which usually means they single out the weak or vulnerable, separate it from the herd, tire it out and go in for the kill. Lionesses, hunting in prides, lay ambushes, three or four will drive the victim towards the killer waiting, hidden low below in the grass. But they, too, are opportunistic and will change target at the right moment if need be.

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From focus to fun now: How many of us have been delighted watching a fawn spring up and down in the grass as if on a pogo stick and then gallop away, dodging deftly between irritated adults? Young animals – be they deer, antelope, gazelle, impalas, wildebeest, chital, cubs (all kinds) elephants, rhinos, monkeys, domesticated animals like horses and cows – instinctively seem to know the meaning of joie-de-vivre and have no qualms demonstrating it. Of course, it drives their moms nuts, as it does human moms who alas these days always seem to have bottles of sanitizer at hand and look terrified as their children hang upside down on the parallel bars, grinning from ear to ear.

We’ve already picked up a lot from watching animals and birds court. We’ve plagiarised many a folk dance from the crazy courting dances of cranes; we admire the sarus crane for its steadfast fidelity, we know how male birds deck themselves up to the hilt in bells and whistles and rainbow hues to impress the ladies and will sing and dance and build them palatial mansions if necessary. And importantly it’s usually the ladies that chose their partners.

Of course, rival males fight for their sweethearts (making National Geographic’s day!), but most have better sense than to engage in actual combat and are satisfied by posturing and snorting and pawing the ground around each other, assessing each other for strength and stamina, without having to let fur or feathers fly. An injury to one or usually both in actual combat will render him weak and vulnerable and useless to his sweetheart and any others. Also, if combat does break out there’s sometimes a hanger-on watching the proceedings who will quietly escort the bride-to-be away, without suffering a scratch on her behalf!

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Fights, sometimes to death, do occur and can be terrifying, not the sort of thing you would like to engage in. Usually, they are over control of harems and territories but again most times physical combat is avoided. Only ants and chimpanzees (and us) have been known to go to “war” and take “prisoners”. Even when physical combat breaks out, there is no premeditated cruelty. Animals do not kill each other by slow, deliberate torture or think up ingenious and devious ways of imparting pain. Wild dogs bringing down a wildebeest by disemboweling it while it flees might seem exceedingly cruel to us, but the dogs are simply trying to bring down their quarry as quickly as possible. A cheetah mom, who hamstrings a fawn and brings it to her cubs, has no intention of being cruel to the little thing, all she is doing is teaching her young how to hunt and fend for themselves. Spider moms and praying mantises may dine off their lovers during their honeymoon – not because they hate the opposite sex, but because the protein so added ensures healthier babies! There is no malice or vindictiveness involved, though yes, in some of the higher mammals – elephants and some primates for example, the concept of “revenge” may well exist. And all too often, it is humans who trigger it: Elephants don’t easily forget the cruelties inflicted upon them by puny two-legged creatures, who must really only watch and learn!

First published on: 26-05-2022 at 13:57 IST
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