EST. May 2000 (AD)


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Editor's Note: We are thrilled to welcome Emma Rowley to the fold as our new Science Editor! Emma's column will appear monthly in this spot. Be sure to subscribe!

The 'Science' Behind Pets And Other Animals - What You Need To Know

Welcome to Part III of what the staff here at HW have started to call "The Science Behind" series. Though I don't think they need to point at me when they say it.

Most of the time, science is kept safely inside research laboratories in hollowed-out volcanoes and ocean-floor domes. And this is how we like it. But sometimes it can get into your life - even into your home. Maybe you have a pet. Maybe you are a pet. Maybe when you came home from work today, your partner was missing and there were prints and drag marks by your front door. Was it a rogue bear? Or just a large, angry owl? In these situations, you need fast, reliable answers. Sci-answers!

What is a pet?

A pet is a creature who lives in your house and is no help to you whatsoever. It eats your food and looks sad when you go out. It is often hairy or scaly and will urinate on the floor and sniff your shoes.

Okay then, what is that on the couch?

That is your husband. Although he is similar to a pet in many ways, it is essential that you do not confuse the two. Forcibly administering worming medication is grounds for divorce in many states.

Why do people keep pets?

There is a simple psychological reason which you can probably guess! Take a long look at your pet, with his trusting little face and quizzical, gentle eyes. How does he make you feel?

That's right. You feel superior. Human beings enjoy the companionship of weaker, less intelligent creatures to bolster their fragile but Zeppelin-like egos.

What is less well-known is that animals stay with their human companions for the same reason.

What were the earliest pets?

In cartoons like The Flintstones, you may have seen humans and dinosaurs interacting, and people keeping dinosaurs as pets. Disappointingly, it appears that this is not historically accurate. It just goes to show that you should not use a children's cartoon as the basis of a grant application. I was going to go on to discuss Jurassic Park but that would probably also count as "speculative science" from the "lunatic fringe" of "academic wannabes". Luckily for the rest of this series, I am pretty sure we are all agreed that Star Trek is a legitimate primary source of scientific information.

How can I tell the difference between a pet and a plant?

This is a question about taxonomy. The scientific approach is to create an experiment or series of experiments whose outcome will determine what it is you're looking at. Is it a plant or an animal? A vertebrate or invertebrate? Mammal, reptile or amphibian? This is a great way to teach children about the classification of species.

Experiment one: Get a carrot. Offer it to your pet/plant. If it does not respond, it is a plant. Or a cat.

Experiment two: Run into the room. Yell: Fire! Fire! If your pet/plant does not try to escape, it is a plant. Or it is deaf.

Experiment three: Walk nonchalantly into the room. Say: Hmm...I wonder why the sports package isn't working any more? If your pet/plant runs screaming towards the TV, drops to its knees, sobbing and licking the screen, then that's your husband again.

It's worrying that you're experiencing this kind of confusion. I'd suggest a nice collar with a nametag.

Uh-oh. When you said 'taxonomy' earlier, I heard 'taxidermy' and then 'experiment' and well, I may have done something rash.

You didn't. You dug up your - oh gross, was that a guinea pig? What's wrong with you?

Yes, you should bury him again, right now.

There will be no taxidermy here today. Please bury anything that has been mistakenly disinterred and let's make sure we all leave the live pets alone.

Can I breed my pet?

Yes! Yes! and Yes! Genetics is an important area of scientific endeavour - as well as one which doesn't need test tubes or Bunsen Burners or even any kind of rational thinking. In fact, as long as you have two compatible pets, you too can wade into this complex field and blunder around to your heart's content.

First, work out what kind of small animal you would like the breeding activity to produce. If, for example, the answer is 'cat', then breed two cats; if the answer is 'dog', breed two dogs; if the answer is 'otter', then one cat and one duck, and so on.

Remember that mammals produce large, glossy eggs which will need to be incubated for several months before the hatchlings emerge. If you don't have an incubator, you can place the eggs in your microwave for two minutes a day or keep them under your pillow at night. If, however, you start dreaming that you are eating an undercooked omelette, stay asleep. Things might be unpleasant when you wake up.

Are dogs really man's best friend?

In a word, no. There's a lot of history there, and I don't really want to get into it, but what I will say is: watch your back.

I think my partner was dragged away by a rogue bear or large, angry owl. What should I do?

That is just typical. Hands up - I should have done more research. I had no idea that would actually happen. Off the top of my head, I'd say: if there are feathers on the floor, you'll want to use a large, dead rodent as bait. If not, find some honey and a shotgun and start making amorous bear noises.

Fun animal facts

© 2007 Emma Rowley



Emma Rowley is a Londoner. Maybe that's why she loves London Town.