Sylvie features in class today …

3 10 2017

… in a section on behaviour and the senses that looks at eye widening. Here are two photos, taken within a second. In which one am I holding up a pipecleaner?

Grass as enrichment

2 10 2017

Just looking at this old photo from Misha earlier this year of one of his hens and Mr Black enjoying some grass given as an enrichment. Now I have hens, I can say that this grass will last about 30 seconds….maybe less….

And in The Times today…

28 09 2017

… from old friend Tim:



“If these don’t work, we’re getting new cats”

14 09 2017

Part of the giant hen project has involved extending our outdoor cat enclosure to give the hens access (a process that’s still unfinished; luckily the hens don’t know what they are missing).

We had a tunnel (made by Habitat Haven) that for years has taken the cats from a cat door to the enclosure (left), and we now had new custom towers made by the same company so that we could elevate this tunnel to create room for later building. The smaller of the two towers is shown here in its new place (right), while the larger at the far end is about 7 foot high.

But the moment we opened these off the truck I knew they wouldn’t work: the towers were too narrow and their platforms too small  — fine for nimble kittens, but not our overweight cats with their various developmental issues (mild dwarfism and cerebellar hypoplasia). I spent a good couple of days modifying them: expanding the platforms in both, and for the taller one, cutting holes in the sides and adding shelves sticking out laterally to give the whole thing more width.

FullSizeRenderBut 10 days after installation, both cats still showed no understanding at all (despite cunning treat and catnip placement) that the shelves could be jumped between, nor that the towers led up to their much-loved tunnel (because this couldn’t actually be seen from within either tower; and trying to show the cats it from the outside didn’t work because cats simply do not follow pointing …).

Here is Sylvie, wondering where her tunnel has gone, and refusing to look up.

After nearly two weeks of the cats effectively being trapped in the house, or, if we put them outside, being trapped there (stressful and hard work for everyone), we caved in and added yet more holes along with giant home-made ramps.


This work took yet another weekend, and meant that the fancy new towers are now basically just $900 ramp supports… but at least it worked! Within 5 minutes of installation, the cats were freely moving about again. Stoopid cats. Just as well we love them.


Hens kill blog

14 09 2017

Been very quiet on the blogging front as absolutely all my spare time has been spent getting ready to adopt hens. Part of this work (the ‘indoor part’) has involved turning a room off the garage that was full of rubbish, stored junk, mouse turds and two mummified rats into this (left)….and then insulating it and slowly turning it into this…(right). I’m hoping the yolky yellow feels cosy and womb-like to the birds.

Then last week I picked up six hens! They’re from the 48 who made up the first batch in Misha‘s giant enrichment experiment (investigating resilience and indicators of positive affect in chickens), and like last time he managed to rehome them all.

So far I can identify three of them, including Red (left, named after her leg ring, her plumage colour, and her general feisty resemblance to Red in Orange is the New Black); Rose (right), who’s pale, pretty, picked on by Red, and has a pink leg ring; and the only one who arrived with a name – Misha’s favourite hen “Mud”, not shown here, but mysteriously named after the film starring Matthew McConaughey (even though she’s very sweet).

And after being daunted for the first day, we’ve got into a groove and I now really, really like them (though the cats are not so sure).  I’ve also learned not to give them treats while some of them are egg-laying (really not fair). There are no treats ’til noon – that’s the rule.

Patrick Bateson

11 08 2017

Screenshot 2017-08-11 11.15.27My former PhD supervisor Pat died last week. He was 79, and had had a heart condition for a while. But he had remained so incredibly intellectually active (writing books and papers, and being involved in Royal Society activities), that I always assumed I’d see him again at some meeting or other. So, it hit me hard.

As an actual PhD advisor, he was frankly over-stretched: Paul Martin had just left Madingley to become a spy (or so the legend went), leaving Pat with 14 students to look after. And with me doing my own project (on, guess what? – stereotypic behaviours of course, first aspiring to work on zoo animals, then using mink as a model), I was basically left feral: quite alarming (although ultimately good for me). My scattered memories of him from that time include that, absurdly, it took me well over a year to call him “Pat” like everyone else (I’d been in his undergrad classes the year before, and in that context he was most definitely “Professor Bateson”); how supportive and kind he was (e.g. coming out to visit the mink farm when I first contacted the farmer, and bowling them over with charm); his great advice when I was (ridiculously) worried about sharing ideas (“If you work with your office door open, more comes in that goes out”); and getting introduced to his wonderful daughter Melissa.

But it was really in the years since then that he became more important as a friend and colleague. It’s not just that he was an intelligent, left-wing, atheist cat-lover (what’s not to love about that?), nor that he was always supportive and enthusiastic. We shared interests in play and the effects of early experience (I just had a flashback to the IEC in Rennes, where he was appalled to discover that outdoor-reared piglets often end up in indoor intensive systems, and another to the IEC in Newcastle where he was enthusiastic and lovely with my student Jamie). He also became really interested in the scientific study of animal welfare. He did great work, for example, on the hunting of deer, on cost benefit assessments for research animals, and on pedigree dogs’ health issues.  And I always loved watching him in action as Chair of the ZSL Animal Welfare Committee: he was so adept.  I really am very, very lucky to have had him as a mentor, and still can’t quite believe he has gone.

The Hen Whisperer

10 08 2017

Summer student Anna Garland has done a great job these last couple of months training 12 hens (half from control environments, half from enriched) to learn that a white lidded dish meant mealworms (so, they should flip it for a treat), but a black-lidded dish would, if touched, trigger a nasty airpuff.  The hens were trained in a box, and monitored by video, with the dishes being slid in via a slot, all designed to avoid Clever Hans effects. Most hens reached criterion in under 5 days (with around 20 trials a day), making our previous failures with mice and mink look even more pathetic. Some also developed fascinating superstitious responses to the black dish, retreating to a corner, facing away from it or even freezing stock still, as if to avoid being even tempted to touch it.

Once trained, the real aim of the work could start: to present them with intermediate dishes — Shades of Grey (couldn’t resist it) — to see whether they’d be “optimistic” and flip them or “pessimistic” (avoiding them), and in turn whether this judgement bias would be affected by housing. Because we already know our enriched hens are in positive states thanks to the resources they have, a housing effect in the expected direction would validate this novel judgment bias task for poultry (Misha’s Bristol attempts being another noble failure).

Though a bit too early to peek, as Misha another 12 hens to go, Anna had a to make a poster for her summer research course, which forced us to analyse the data. And so far there is a trend, with enriched birds tending to positive-skewed biases….

1Garland Final Presentation