Imprinting leads to confused animals

Glenda Price

Animals don’t understand mirrors, so they think they are just like whoever feeds and protects them when they’re young. Psychologist types call this “imprinting.”

We had a pet chicken when I was a kid that we kept in a little pen of her own. Her name was — ready for something imaginative? Sorry. It was “Peep.” My brother and I dug worms and caught grasshoppers for Peep. We even found little pieces of gravel for her to swallow to make her craw work well. I learned to peck the ground with a finger while clucking excitedly just like a mother hen does when I found a bug I figured she’d like. She’d run get it and I wouldn’t have to actually touch the bug.

When it came time for Peep to act like a grownup chicken … she didn’t. She thought she was a person, and wouldn’t have a thing to do with those creatures that hung around the chicken house. She never laid an egg, and ended up leading a totally useless life.

We had a dogie lamb that stayed with the milk pen calf. When she was about grown we put her in the pasture where both sheep and cattle grazed. She stayed with the cattle, and never in her life gave birth to a baby lamb like she was supposed to, because she thought she was a cow. The cows, of course, barely tolerated her so her life was strange to say the least.

I’ve given this “imprinting” some thought. (You’re saying, “Uh-oh — she’s doing the ‘t’ thing again — ‘thinking.’ We’re in trouble.” Hang on a minute.)

My daughter has a couple of little poodles. They think they’re just as big as the neighbor’s cow dog.

So here’s the plan. We sneak some baby poodles in a wolf den soon after the female gives birth, making sure the poodles have the correct smell about them. The city folks say they yearn to be able to go in the woods and hear the wolves howling, so evidently it’s important the wolves teach the poodles how to howl.

The grownup wolves also will teach the poodles how to work together in a pack and attack unsuspecting cows, deer, family pets, whatever. The baby poodles will develop a taste for fresh-killed meat, but when it comes right down to it, and their mentor wolves aren’t around, they won’t be able to inflict any actual damage.

So here’s the scene after a couple of years: Willie and Maude, from a big city in the eastern U.S., come west to get “back to nature.” They park their RV (recreational vehicle with all the comforts of home, even a chemical bathroom) beside a stream in the mountains. They set up their lawn chairs under the RV’s awning and “listen to nature.”

Later, they show up at the local village’s doctor’s office. Willie’s knees are bleeding. “Those animals were really little, but they sounded and acted like wolves,” Willie tells the doctor. “And they’re mean. And to think — I sent money to protect the little boogers.”