While you shouldn’t count on your cat to help you pass calculus, science shows us that many species are more adept mathematically than we might have thought – particularly in the ability to count. Perhaps the most commonly known animal counters are crows (Adam Duritz may have been onto something, aside from this karaoke favorite), but it turns out that salamanders, honeybees, lions, frogs, chimps, newborn chicks, and others can also count to varying degrees. Frogs searching for mates count the pulses in the croaks they hear to make sure they’re checking out the right species, lions only attack if their pride outnumbers the other, and chimps have shown they’ll both count and add in return for chocolate. Dogs, on the other hand, can’t count beyond 1 (bless their hearts), while wolves are able to discriminate between larger numbers, suggesting the dumb-down is due to our own history of dog domestication. Should these smarts really surprise us, though? Studies have shown that with other animals (especially primates) exhibiting signs of emotions, morality, and altruism, we haughty humans shouldn’t think we’re so special.
Snowball the cockatoo was left at an Indiana animal rescue center with a note from his owner. “Snowball likes to dance to this,” it said, referring to what was also left: a Backstreet Boys CD.
In 2007, Neurobiologist Aniruddh Patel stumbled upon a YouTube video of the bird, who appeared to be getting down to the boy band’s “Everybody.” If this bird were actually grooving to the beat, he wondered, it might have circuits in the brain for processing rhythm similar to ours.
So Patel paid a visit to Snowball and created an experiment to determine whether he was truly dancing—characterized by synchronized movements—or just looked like he was. Patel remixed the song at 11 different tempos, then recorded what Snowball did when his jam came on. For nine out of the 11 variations, he bobbed enthusiastically in sync (no pun intended)—well enough to consider him the first-ever nonhuman “dancer.”
Inspired by Snowball’s fancy footwork, Adena Schachner, then a psychology grad student at Harvard, went back to YouTube and narrowed thousands of clips of animals purportedly dancing to just 39 who seemed to genuinely synchronize. Twenty-nine were parrots, like Snowball, and the rest were Asian elephants, deeming a recreation of Dirty Dancing’s “the lift” highly unlikely.
Boogie Monster Dance Kit | $40
So romantic. Welcome to the Valentine’s Day edition of Uncommon Knowledge—a place where we can talk about all the romantic things animals do for each other. For one, sea otters hold hands when they sleep. They do this mostly so they don’t drift away from their pals while they snooze on their backs in the water, but the result is true intimacy.
Another romantic gesture? Penguins will propose to new mates with a pebble. Many penguins assemble their nests out of pebbles, so really, it’s a way of offering their beloved a promise to build a home with them. Maybe we can follow suit and start replacing engagement rings with a nice adjustable rate mortgage?
Brolgas cranes, like most cranes, are monogamous and will mate with the same partner every year, typically at the same nesting spot. However, the brolgas know a thing or two about keeping the romance alive—no matter how many years they’ve been together, the brolgas will still court their mate with an intricate mating dance. Ooh la la!
Okay, let’s do some rapid-fire romance: Ready for a puppy fact? Male puppies will intentionally let female puppies win when they play-fight so they can get to know them better. Like seahorses? They’re monogamous and will hold each other’s tails when traveling.
Ain’t love grand?
The Happy Elephant | $68.00 – 150.00
Santa’s sleigh-pulling deer have long been the topic of scientific speculation. The advantages of being airborne when trying to cover the globe with holiday cheer in just one night are self evident, but the question remains: how does this terrestrial team take flight? Over the years, many theories have been put forth, from the hoof-lifting benefits of fruitcake, to the propulsive properties of magic corn. But Oregon Zoo Director Tony Vecchio offers two words that get to the heart of the matter: extended leaping.* He admits the extreme difficulty inherent to flying reindeer research, and adds that reindeer relatives like elk can only hope to leap about eight feet in the air (never mind having a sleigh filled with billions of toys attached). Contacted for comment, S. Claus was reticent, but a wink of his eye and a twist of his head soon gave us to know we had nothing to dread.
*Note that Mr. Vecchio’s findings are from 2006, and may not represent the latest in soaring Cervidae research.
Megan Stickel, UncommonGoods Associate Buyer, Children & Desktop, Merchandising
Phillipsburg, NJ – known for having one of the oldest football rivalries in the country with neighboring Easton, PA. I never went to a single game but apparently it’s a big deal.
An uncommon fact about me…
I enjoy doing chores. Mowing the lawn has always been a favorite and I find weed whacking to be especially satisfying and fun.
My guilty pleasure is…
Having too many cats.
I’m passionate about…
My favorite place to eat in New York City is…
Too many places! I really love this Korean place called Hangawi where you have to take your shoes off. Other favorites are Candle Café, Champs Diner, and Angelica Kitchen.
When I’m not working, I’m probably…
Obsessively cleaning my apartment. Once I finish with that, I usually like to hang out on this random stoop with my friends – sounds lame but it’s actually perfect because none of us live there, so people just come and go as they please. No commitment!
My relationship with Mother Nature is…
I love the outdoors. I grew up in a very rural area and spent a lot of time hiking in the woods, playing in streams, and riding bikes up very steep hills. I love animals and have very strong feelings on how humans use them. I think that a lot of people are beginning to open their eyes to the truths of this as well as how we treat the environment – and that’s a great thing.
If I won the lottery, I’d…
Open a massive animal sanctuary! Also, buy a bunch soft-serve ice cream machines and open a fully vegan/non-dairy mini version of something like 16 Handles.
My style is…
Mmmm, I don’t know. I’m pretty simple and just want to be comfortable and boring. Whenever I buy something that’s not basic, I end up having no clue how to wear it and it just sits in my closet. I wish I could pull more things off!
My cat Eddie thinking about cats who lack a nice warm bed like his
If you love cats–as we do–it’s painful to think of them having to brave the elements on their own during a freezing northern winter, especially this year. But here in New York City, tens if not hundreds of thousands of cats have no shelter. So, if you also love creative design, and believe in its potential as a force for good–as we do–it’s nice to learn about Architects for Animals’ “Giving Shelter,” a yearly funds-and awareness-raising initiative founded by animal lover Leslie Farrell.
“CatHaus” by Francis Cauffman Architects was voted the favorite of the 2014 attendees
Since 2010, every year, Farrell, Director of Client Development at architecture firm Francis Cauffman, has convinced a handful of top-notch architectural design firms to design, build and donate innovative outdoor winter shelters for homeless cats. Their creations are put on public display as a one-night benefit event for the Mayor’s Alliance for NewYork City’s Animals. Attendees vote for their favorite, then all the shelters are donated to caregivers who work with needy animals.
“Cat Hive” by Incorporated Architecture & Design
“Time Machine for Kittens,” by Two One Two Design
“Hairball,” by M Moser Associates
The creative designs of these shelters help the cause architecturally (they generate good ideas for future shelters) and in other ways, too, as Michael Phillips, Community Outreach Coordinator of the New York City Feral Cat Initiative, a program of the Mayor’s Alliance, points out. “The media coverage with pictures of the flashy shelters is an eye-catcher that many people examine with interest, whereas they will skip over an article about the plight of cats abandoned to the streets through no fault of their own.”
Homeless cat in Brooklyn (rescued and adopted a few days after this photo was taken)
Nobody knows how many homeless cats there are in NYC, but estimates range from tens of thousands up to a million. Most of them are scared of us, so they keep out of sight, which makes counting them difficult. While people often think of cats as natural loners, they actually tend to form colonies near food sources such as garbage bins near apartment buildings. Some feral moms could very well be teaching their kittens to scrounge your leftovers as you sleep. (I’ve witnessed this, a sight both adorable and sad.)
African Wild Cat at the Johannesburg Zoo, South Africa. Photo: Sonelle
These felines are all trying to survive in what, for them, is an unnatural habitat. It’s not just that it’s so urban and industrial, but also that they’re not native to this part of the world. All of the world’s domestic cats are descended from a type of wildcat that lives in the deserts of the Near East. These cats are not designed to live in the NYC climate; those pretty fur coats are not enough protection during the winter, no matter how thick they get.
They need our help, especially as it’s humans’ fault that they’re out there in the first place. This population is made up of of strays, who are lost or abandoned tame pet cats (some of whom have regressed to a not-so-tame state), and ferals, the essentially wild (that is, not socialized to humans) offspring and descendants of non-neutered strays and pets who were allowed to roam. They have neither a consistent and healthy food source, nor shelter from the elements, nor protection from urban dangers such as cars, rat and other poisons, and cruel humans.
Fortunately, there are many (though never enough) animal-lovers all over NYC who work hard to rescue tame, adoptable cats and kittens, and feed and protect the ferals. The New York City Feral Cat Initiative is a coalition of more than 150 animal rescue groups and shelters whose joint mission is “to raise awareness about the thousands of… community cats living outdoors throughout NYC’s five boroughs, to offer solutions to prevent the number of homeless cats from increasing, and to successfully manage existing colonies.”
Standard outdoor cat winter shelter design by Ashot Karamian
Building shelters that enable these critters to avoid freezing misery or death during inclement weather is part of the last part, managing colonies. (To read about solutions to prevent increases in the number of homeless cats, start here.) Of course, it’s not really necessary to build shelters that are more than just functional. As far as we know, cats aren’t offended by a styrofoam-and-duct-tape aesthetic. Phillips described the minimal structural guidelines as follows: “No heavier than two people can lift easily. Inner space should be no higher than 16 inches to retain the body heat of the cats with room for straw bedding.Waterproof. Constructed with weatherproof construction materials.” He added, “Water is the most destructive force. Snow does not normally damage shelters or enter shelters in comparison to driving rain or flooding.”
Rubbermaid container cat shelter by by Ashot Karamian (photo by Ashot Karmanian used with permission)
“You could use a basic Rubbermaid container for a cat shelter, which is quite common and perfectly fine because it works,” says architect Sofia Zimmerman, who, along with her husband and business partner, Adam, has participated in Architects for Animals: Giving Shelter three years in a row. “But as designers,”she continues, “we love the idea of someone walking down the street and coming across something that is artful, unusual, or even beautiful. Cat shelters are often found in alleyways, parking lots, and other places where finding something delightful is rare. But here’s a chance to do something nice looking–for the cats, their caregivers, and the people that might catch a glimpse.”
“This third one, that we did this year, is perhaps the simplest, but in many ways our favorite. It was all about upcycling. We re-used a cardboard box and sealed it with duct tape. Inside, we lined it with styrofoam that came as packaging material for a lamp. And then we had to add another layer of insulation. This was the chance to do something delightful! We collected nine pairs of old jeans, cut them into long strips, and created a very very long braid. We wrapped it around and around the box, using as inspiration braided rag rugs–the ones you see in storybooks all the time with cats curled up on them!”
She adds that “During that process, we actually learned about the environmental impact associated with creating a pair of jeans….don’t get us started!”
“Fiberglass Pod,” by Elham Valipay and Haleh Atabaki, co-founders of MishMish, an example of a structure built with camouflage in mind
Different situations may call for specific architectural strategies. Phillips describes varying and “colony needs,” such as “camouflage; difficult specific dimensions to fit an exact spot; or fitting in visually with the design of a building nearby to please a particular property owner willing but not thrilled to have shelters placed on his property.”
If you want to help feral cats where you live, Phillips says, “Offering of your time to assist a local caretaker in your neighborhood is the best way to contribute to the long-term welfare of a community cat colony. The more widespread the support in a neighborhood the more likely the cats will accepted. Volunteering to feed the colony one or more days a week is a great help, when so often only one or two people shoulder the care for an entire colony.“
Or, if you’re crafty and love the idea of experimenting with small-scale architectural design that will actually be used, here’s your chance to do it, fur real! (sorry…)
Above three photos: “Feral Vernacular” by deSoto studio architecture + design
All photos copyright Marisa Bowe, unless otherwise indicated.
Through her exuberant illustrations, Adrienne Vita celebrates life, family, and friendship. “Coexisting” reminds us that, like giant polar bears and tiny birds, we all share the same planet, while the colorful family of cuddling wolves in “Close Knit” reminds us to hold on to those we love.
Feeling energized (and maybe a little mushy–in a good way) by Adrienne’s vibrant work, I couldn’t help but wonder where she brings her alluring animals to life. From across the country, the artist sent some positive vibes to Brooklyn in the form of her virtual studio tour. Although Adrienne mentioned that the sun was hidden behind clouds over Portland, Oregon when she held her photo shoot, this look inside her home-based workspace definitely brightened my day.
What are your most essential tools?
Brushes, pencils, pens, paper, an Exacto blade and music.
Where do you find inspiration within this space?
Well, my “space” includes a couple parts of my house. It started off as a logistical thing such as size of the rooms, hooking computers together with one router, etc. That became how and where I could set up my “spaces” to do my work. But I’ve grown to really like it this way over the years. Mainly, I share a computer “think tank” room with my husband (when he’s home) and have a drawing part in another small room. I like how when I draw; I don’t have the distraction of the computer or the business part of what I do because it’s in another room. Also, I use the basement for the really messy stuff, and sometimes move my work outside on the deck in the summer. It’s really nice to be able to switch it up.
Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
Meditation time on my couch in the drawing part of my studio is a perfect way to recharge and get some moments of down time in between working.
How do you set goals for yourself?
I have a book where I write my goals but often refer to lots of colorful post-it notes and iCal for daily intricacies.
How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
Lot’s of dance parties! Coconut ice cream and treats are always a nice way too.
What quote keeps you motivated?
What does that quote mean to you? I have never read this book but I always liked the title so much – “Feel the Fear and do it Anyway”.
How do you recharge your creativity?
Traveling, visiting with nature, riding my bike, baking and of course dancing and singing! Basically, just doing things I enjoy that allow me to be creative and free in a different way.
What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?
Five years ago, I struck out on my own after working for various design companies for about 10 years. When I first started, I was worried about how I would make enough money and how I would stand out in a sea of talented artists. Basically losing sight of the big picture of the work I am here on this earth to do. Knowing what I know now, I would have told myself, “What you put out in the world is more than what you make or create. It’s about the connection with people, about the helping and healing that you give through your work that is important. That is why you make art. Do it in your own way and celebrate it.”
At UncommonGoods, we’re big proponents of “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle.” Nothing goes to waste, if we can help it. Last week, our Creative team did something super-top secret with 24 flats of wheat grass. Afterward, rather than throw it away, Adam, our staff photographer, walked among our desks offering some to any takers. He left the rest on a shelf in one of our break rooms.
I happened to be tortoise-sitting last week for some neighbors who were out of town. Since Roberta – that’s her name – eats only greens, and the occasional flower when she gets lucky, I wondered if she could eat wheat grass, too.
A quick web search turned up both the type of tortoise she is (sulcata, or African spurred tortoise–a desert type) and the answer to my question: Grass is great. I learned that desert tortoises evolved to make the most of high-fiber, low-protein greens like grasses, and that lower-fiber, higher-protein supermarket greens that people eat are bad for their health.
This is what one of the flats looked like after she had had her way with it for a couple of days.
Cats, too, enjoy the occasional blade of grass, so I gave a couple of flats to a friend who has five; three in the office and two at home; and to another friend who has two. All seven are rescues, saved from heartbreaking lives by the kindness and cat-craziness of my pals.
It doesn’t get much greener than taking something already green and re-using it–and finally, via the magical mystery of a tortoise’s digestive system, turning it into garden fertilizer. I decided to spare you photos of that.