Turkey – Animal Allies

A lot of my turkey knowledge was informed by The Turkey, An American Story by Andrew F. Smith. If you are interested in learning more about the history of turkeys and how they came to be so important in America, do check it out. 

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For this card, I think we need to acknowledge different cultural meanings, I mean we do for all cards but this one in particular given how Americans associate them with thanksgiving and in the UK it’s Christmas instead.

Turkeys have come to have social, historical, cultural and culinary significant in America and without them (and deer), settlers would have had a very different time and thus the world today could have looked very different.

“No other American bird has received the lavish amount of attention bestowed upon the turkey.  It is not hard to understand this fascination.  The wild turkey is not America’s biggest bird – the swan and crane are larger – but turkeys do not migrate and are abundant throughout the eastern United States… They are also handsome birds that command the attention of anyone who sees them.  A wild turkey’s habits are unusual, it’s behaviour extraordinary and its vocalisations quite singular in the avian world.”
– Andrew F. Smith

Way back, many, many years ago, wild turkeys lived in Mexico and throughout North America.  They inhabited woodlands and were nearly hunted to extinction – by the same colonists that owed their success to them…  Habitat destruction was another cause of the population collapse, again down to the colonies…  The timing echoes that of the population crash of bison and many other north American creatures.  With conservation efforts, numbers have now increased to over 7 million.

But stepping back in time again, very little seems to be known about early domestication but the Spanish did encounter domestic turkeys in Mexico in 1518 and went on to introduce them to Spain, shortly after they moved through Europe and had arrived in England by 1541.  Initially eaten by upper classes, by 1577 they had become the cheapest bird on the English market.  Come 1573, it has been noted, turkeys were a staple of the English Christmas dinner, taking a reprieve for a while but being back in vogue by 1792 when John Gay wrote:

“From the low peasant to the lord
The Turkey smokes on every board”

This tradition would travel to New England and become established by the early 19th century.  Today, turkey is more associated with thanksgiving, but why?  Well, first I want to note that Thanksgiving stories are almost all lies and I was going to explain why but it’s incredibly complicated.  What I will say is that whilst thanksgiving feasts were a thing, it was probably down to the great efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale (she also wrote Mary Had a Little Lamb) that America has a Thanksgiving holiday in November.  She strongly felt that there should be a third holiday in the year (in addition to Washington’s birthday in February and Independence Day in July).  She campaigned for many years, writing to government and prominent people to try and declare the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.  She nearly succeeded in 1859 but it wasn’t until 1863 that it was officially declared by Lincoln.  In terms of why the turkey, well, as non migratory birds, turkeys were in supply and of a reasonable size in autumn and so were an obvious choice for a celebratory feast.

“The turkey was just a big bird to raise, hunt and consume until the American War for Independence, when it began to acquire symbolic value.  The new nation needed to differentiate itself from its English roots, and “American” foods began to take on nationalistic values.”
– Smith

The increasing demand for turkey would go on to change the beast itself.  Breast meat was particularly important to consumers and so turkey breeds were crossbred to increase the amount per bird.  The result was turkeys that had such wide breasts and short legs that they couldn’t mate… This means that artificial insemination was the way forward… Nothing all that natural about the centrepiece of your Christmas table…

Whilst it is an aside, it’s interesting to find out where the phrase cold turkey came from.  First, we need to know that the turkey has been a symbol of honesty for about 200 years and led to the saying to “talk turkey”, meaning to speak frankly.  Then, over time, “talking cold turkey” came to mean speaking frankly, but with cold, harsh, unpleasant facts.  This eventually evolved into “cold turkey” and was first recorded to mean the abrupt stopping of drugs in 1921.

Another turkey related fact from America 200 years ago is the pulling of the merrythought, a custom we know today as pulling the wishbone.  As we’ll see, the turkey is a creature of abundance, so before you make a wish, consider what you already have.

There are many interesting tangents I could go off on but perhaps the most relevant when it comes to the oracle card is the idea of turkeys as stupid.  As the turkey was valued for breast meat and not intellect, we have domesticated and refined a bird which is cumbersome and not necessarily bright (although recent research suggests that chickens are cleverer than we thought so maybe the same will prove true for turkeys).  Anyway, the alleged stupidity of turkeys led to the phrase gobbledygook, meaning “language that is meaningless or is made unintelligible by excessive use of technical terms”.  Are you communicating clearly and simply or are you over complicating things and convoluting the message?  Perhaps you’re being underestimated or even underestimating yourself.

The reality is that wild turkeys are inquisitive, curious creatures which are interested in things that don’t benefit their survival, showing us an appreciation of things just for the joy of it.  They are playful and despite their reputation as stupid, they have a profound vocabulary which includes specific vocalisations for individual predators.

Turkeys are natural foragers and eat almost anything they can find (again we have the theme of abundance popping up), what are you overlooking or missing in your hunt for something that matches the image in your head?  Have you fallen into the rom-com trope of ignoring the best friend because they don’t look like your idea of love?

Whilst most birds are associated with air, I feel the turkey is more of an earth card – whilst they have wingspans of up to 6 feet, they are not especially aerodynamic or graceful when they do fly.  Instead they use their wings to help them jump into trees for safety.  Perhaps you could bring a dose of reality to your lofty ideas?  Bring yourself back down to earth.

Like the bison, the turkey is a symbol of fertility, gratitude and abundance.  They were used in ritual to ensure a good crop and the various parts of the turkey were used in many ways.  Obviously they were eaten as poultry, but they also provided eggs and feathers which were used to make coats, blankets and umbrellas.  They were also turned into hearth brushes, quills, dusters and used to stuff mattresses and pillows.  The bones were carved into spoons and beads.

They are also about sacrifice, giving yourself so that others can live and harvests which puts me in mind of the six of pentacles in tarot.  Reversed, this reminds me more of the 4 of pentacles and holding on so tightly to what you have out of fear of losing it that you can’t get anything more.

“In present day urban life, we are taught to acquire and get ahead.  The person with the most toys wins the game.  In some cultures, no one can win the game unless the whole of the People’s needs are met.”
– Medicine Cards

Giving and receiving, sharing and enjoying are important here.  To give something away can be a gift to yourself.  What is it that you have to offer the world?  What is it you are abundant in?

Questions to think about when the turkey shows up include what are you sacrificing, is it deserving of your sacrifice is it the right thing to be sacrificing yourself for?  What I have in mind as I type this is a job that’s draining the life out of you, demanding all your time and energy and ideas but which gives you nothing in return; no sense of satisfaction, no acknowledgement etc.  On the other hand, giving all your time and effort to a career you love is a sacrifice that might be worth making.

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The Moon

I’ve somehow managed to misplace the photos I took of the moon cards… When I find them again, I’ll add it in.  In the meantime, you can find most of them on google images if you’re interested.

RWS and Pagan Cats

Both of these cards depict two creatures looking up at the moon, standing between two pillars with water in the foreground and a crayfish.  The moon is looking down on the scene and in the distance are hills.

This moon is glowing brightly but remember that the moon doesn’t shine her own light, she reflects that of the sun, which is currently hidden. Even in the dark, the sun is still there.  Like the moon reflects the sun, the subconscious reflects the world around us – inner experiences reach the outer mind through imagination, dreams and creative practices.

The moon casts shadows and distorts what we see, there is a strangeness to the world when the moon is out, nothing is quite what it seems.  Magic and mystery slides in the space between dark and light.

On the rws card, the two moon gazers are a dog and a wolf, representing the tamed and wild sides of ourselves.

“A werewolf howling under a full moon is a vivid metaphor of the power of the unconscious to bring out something primitive and non-human in the most respectable people.”
– Rachel Pollack

In the pagan cats, we have a cat and a dog instead, perhaps also representing the tamed and untamed but in a more subtle way – it has long been said that humans tamed dogs and cats tamed humans.

According to Pollack, the crawfish (I thought it was a lobster but I defer to her wisdom) at the bottom of the image is emerging from the water but will never completely come onto land, instead falling back again.  This feels a bit like the ebb and flow of the tide, a phenomenon which is itself a lunar process.  It also echoes the just out of reach-ness, just beyond seeing-ness that can permeate the moonlit night.

“The deepest terrors are the ones that never fully take shape.  We feel something inside, but we never see just what it is.”
– Pollack

Interestingly, the cat in the pagan cats appears to be lifting the crawfish out of the water suggesting an attempt or desire to pull that elusive thing out of the unconscious and into the conscious realm.  If you’ve ever tried to remember a dream, you’ll know how futile this is!

In tarot, we see two pillars as a gateway, such as that in the high priestess card.  Here we are standing on one side, on the side of the known, with the unknown or unknowable on the other side.

Wild Unknown

Where the RWS and pagan cats depict animals between pillars, the wild unknown is animal free but does feature two tall trees reaching skywards towards the crescent moon.  The sky is dark, the trees white and the moon golden and I find the simplicity of this card interesting for such a complicated meaning.

The image is a silhouette and this reiterates some of the ideas of not seeing clearly, not seeing all that is in front of you and things being distorted in some way.  The two trees are illuminated by the moon, they are depicted in white, and it suggests to me that we are being welcomed through the gate I mentioned in relation to the RWS card.  This gateway is encouraging you in, inviting you to explore your subconscious and dream world.  Make friends with the darkness, with what scares you, with your inner self.

Carrie Mallon makes an interesting observation about the wild unknown moon;

The ground is not visible in this card. The Moon is a energy that can make it hard to catch your bearings. Up might be down or down might be left might be right. This can lead to wildly imaginative adventures…or it can lead to confusion and anxiety. In the faint light of the moon, you question what is real and what is imagined, what is beautiful fantasy and what is pure madness.”

Lumina Tarot

A moon goddess looks to the reader, an amethyst circle behind her and the symbol of pisces etched in with the other details.  The book tells us:

“This is a card of intuitive and psychic strength – strong messages and insights are coming to you through your subconscious.”

Things aren’t always as they seem; deception, confusion and distortion rule here.  Fears are ever present, but in the shadows, you can find gold.  Through shadow work you can explore the darker parts of yourself consciously.  The moon can illuminate your subconscious self and if you embrace and work with it, you can harness your innate power and work towards an illuminated self.  Going through the moon realm, you can bring light to your unconscious self and grow.  It has a different power to the sun.  The sun directly feeds and nourishes our bodies, the moon gently encourages and invites us to feed and nourish our souls, ourselves.  The moon is no helicopter mom, the moon is the mother that gives you the resources, skills and knowledge and steps aside for you to discover things for yourself.

The moon encourages us to dive deep, to dream deep and to transform.

“This card is ruled by Pisces, who is, in a sense, afraid of nothing, being one with the Universe and the Universe contains all.  Remember that when pondering your fears by moonlight: this thing that so frightens you – is it inside you as well?”
– Michelle Tea

Animal Totem Tarot

Once again, we have two trees as pillars, with an owl flying in front of a full moon, over a body of water where the moon is reflected in ripples.  The great grey owl has a message for us:

“The light of the moon makes everything look different.  The trees seem to become bigger and everything around them looms like an unknown landscape… But the truth is that nothing has changed at all – merely the way you see it has changed.”

We see the world though our own unique lenses, through our experiences and emotions and this changes what we see.  We see what we expect to see, we see ourselves reflected in what surrounds us.  What each person sees will be different, will be slightly distorted by where we see it from and which pool we see it reflected in.

“How you see the Moon is deeply connected to how you see yourself.”

Further, each night we see the same thing differently.  Each night has a different amount of light which transforms what we thought was static, the trees, the water, these things change with the cycle of the moon.

As the owl swoops across the moon, she seems to grow.  Things in the dark can seem larger than they are.  What is it that you are escalating?  What do you think is bigger that it is?  Are you making mountains out of molehills?  On the flip side, what are you refusing to pay attention to?  What are you ignoring?  What is having to make itself bigger for you to notice?

Brady Tarot

The Brady Tarot moon is very similar to the animal totem tarot – two trees frame the image, an owl is in flight in front of a full moon and a body of water is underneath.  This card however also features the crawfish.  In addition, there are two coyotes in the background, one looking out of the card and the other howling to the moon.  Looking more closely and into the darkness we also find two opossoms in the trees.

Pollack describes the crawfish as symbolising the primitive, instinctual part of our self, the deep unconsciousness, a place where fears and wildness live:

“The owl and the crawfish show us the power of wild nature.  The coyotes react to this energy, but the opossoms remind us to simply accept without fear or judgement.”

This card, more so than the others I’ve looked at, illustrates the night as a realm of it’s own.  It has its own inhabitants and it’s own way of being and it’s own way of seeing.  To understand the moon realm, we must immerse ourselves in this world, become one of the characters and feel our way into the part, intuitively.

“Imagination in action.  Instinctive energy, dreams, the unconscious rising up to affect our lives.  Deep instincts that may disturb our daily life.  Animal energy, wildness.  The part of us governed by the phases of the Moon.”
– Rachel Pollack

It would be impossible to talk about the moon without also looking to some of the common lunar associations.  The moon is also about the feminine, about fertility, creation, mystery and power.  It is about the daily tides, the monthly menstruation cycles, the seasons and all of nature’s rhythms.  The moon asks us to embrace the circularity of life, the ebbs and flows, the ups and downs and to trust in the darkness and have faith that light will return.

Our Tarot

Mary Shelley is centered in the card, a full moon in front of her and what look like two horns behind her, perhaps an echo of the antennae of the crawfish?

Of course, Shelley is famous for Frankenstein, an amazing tale of the things that can happen in the night, in the imagination and what can occur when man made monsters are released onto the world.  With this we have themes of death and rebirth, of resurrection and transformations.  We lean into what can happen in the shadows, in strange dreams and fantasy worlds.

“Her chief childhood pastime was writing – “as a child, I scribbled” – and she found her own dreams and imaginings to be far more interesting than her daily life.”

I feel like Shelley is asking us to pay attention to our dreams, both night journeying as well as hopes and goals.  She is asking us to express those ideas we find in the moon light, whether that is in writing like her or in art or science or whatever it is that makes you feel most alive.

How can you draw inspiration from the world around you?  What transformations are currently taking place in your life?  What visions are you bringing to life?

“I stand to face my shadows, I learn from them and incorporate them to give myself greater power and agency”
Jessi Huntenburg

The holly and the ivy (part two)

So, I sat down to write a post about holly and ivy… And then realised I did that last year… In my defence, I was very ill and very starved so my memories of that period are a bit vague…

That being said, I have got new books and new sources and so on since so I thought I would revisit this seasonal topic anyway, possibly focusing more on the mistletoe instead.

Holly

Holly is a plant of lightening, eternal life and the White Goddess (before it was co-opted by Christianity).  The berries, being scarlet, could be used to repel witches and Pliny the Elder went a step further and said that holly trees around the house prevent sorcery.  Self seeded holly plants would bring good luck as well as protection from storms and fires.

There are two kinds of holly, the male prickly version and the female smoother type, and according to a Derbyshire tradition, they should be brought into the home at the same time.  This would ensure that the year ahead would be prosperous.  If you accidentally brought the male holly in first, the master of the house would have absolute rule in the year ahead and if you brought the female holly in first then the mistress would be in charge.  Despite this, there is also a tradition that says that holly shouldn’t be brought indoors at all.

Whether you decorate your house with holly or not, you shouldn’t harm a holly tree.  One explanation is that holly was the tree on which Jesus was crucified and so hurting the tree would lead to his blood and tears flowing out of the wound.  Another is that holly sprang from Christ’s footsteps.  Holly is also said to be representative of his crown of thorns, the red berries his blood and the white flowers a reminder of purity and his virgin birth.

Ivy

Like holly, ivy has a mixed reputation.  During the 19th and 20th century, some people considered it unlucky and wouldn’t bring it into the house at any point in the year, possibly because ivy is associated with graveyards.

“Anyone who wishes to dream of the devil; should pin four ivy-leaves to the corners of his pillow”
– Cornish Folklore, The Penguin Guide to Superstitions of Britain and Ireland

Other uses for ivy in divination include popping a leaf in your pocket before you leave the home and the first male you see will be your future husband.  Ivy can also be used to foretell death.

Ivy leaves have been recommended as a cure for various ills including corns which could be treated by wrapping the leaf around the corn.  Cups made out of ivy wood were thought to cure whooping cough.

Ivy was said to be sacred to Dionysus and Bacchus, gods of wine, and thus was hung outside inns to show that good wine could be found there.

“In ancient Greece it was called cissos because, according to a mythological legend it was named after the nymph Cissos, who, at a feast of the gods, danced with such joy and abandon before Dionysus that she fell dead from exhaustion at his feet.  Dionysus was so moved by her performance and untimely death, that he turned her body into ivy, a plant which graciously and joyfully entwines and embraces everything near it.”
– Folklore and Symbolism of flowers, Plants and Trees

Ivy growing on a home would protect the inhabitants from witchcraft although if it starts to wither, watch out for disaster, infertility, infidelity or financial problems.

Ivy has become associated with love and fertility, possibly as it clings to all it touches…

Mistletoe

And talking of love… I don’t mean to put you off kissing under the mistletoe but…

The toe of mistletoe meant twig and mistel may be connected to the Germanic word for dung… Possibly because a common belief was that mistletoe didn’t grow from seeds but instead was the result of bird droppings, because it only grows high in trees and never on the ground.

In Scandinavia, we have stories of the gods and the much loved Balder began to have nightmares.  In order to try and ease his fears, his mum, Frigg, stepped in:

“Goddess Frigg made all swear never to harm Balder the god of light, but she overlooked the insignificant mistletoe plant, deeming it too young to swear the oath.  Loki, spirit of evil, gave a mistletoe dart to Hod, the blind god, who, unseeing, threw it and killed Balder.”
– Discovering the Folklore of Plants

The idea of kissing under mistletoe in Britain at Christmas was first reported in 1813 and may well be the result of misunderstanding that dates back to Pliny the Elder in AD77…  With this in mind I’m not going to look at the idea that it has links with paganism and druidy, this is covered in detail elsewhere and may be part of convoluted information initiated by Pliny…  That said, one article I read (I accidentally deleted the link) suggested the shape of mistletoe was reflective of a certain piece of anatomy and thus might be the reason for the link with sexuality and love…

In terms of superstitions and traditions, there are limited associations beyond kissing, however:

“It is considered very unlucky for a house unless some mistletoe is brought in at Christmas.”
– Derbyshire tradition recorded 1871

“If you want to have extra good luck to your dairy, give your bunch of mistletoe to the first cow that calves after New Year’s Day.”
– Yorkshire tradition recorded 1866

“If you hang up mistletoe at Christmas, your house will never be struck by lightening.”
– Staffordshire tradition recorded 1891

In Herefordshire, mistletoe was thought to be associated with dark magic and wouldn’t have been taken into the home lightly or used to encourage kissing.  So think carefully the next time you find yourself under a sprig with someone else…

Resources:

  • The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland
  • Discovering the Folklore of Plants, Margaret Baker
  • Folklore and Symbolism of flowers, Plants and Trees, Ernst and Johanna Lehner
  • Folklore Thursday

Let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel…

Whilst my last post focused on sex primarily in a reproductive context, animals have sex for many reasons, just like humans do.  However, “for decades, biologists, anthropologists and psychologists have suppressed inconvenient evidence of homosexual behaviour among the human and nonhuman animals they observed” (Julien Dugnoille).

I’m going to start by looking at same sex activity as it’s one clear thread of evidence that not all animal sex is for reproduction.

There are many more bisexual animals than we tend to think and note I’m saying bisexual because often the animals aren’t solely engaging in same sex activity (which I’m going to say because same sex sex is a mouthful!).  Often, they are also having sex with the opposite sex when the opportunities arise.  The BBC also discusses whether we can claim some animals are homosexual as opposed to bisexual.

Ultimately, these are human enforced labels and as Eric Anderson says:

“Animals don’t do sexual identity.  They just do sex.”

You’ve quite possibly heard about the ‘gay’ penguins in a zoo.  They coupled up and started building their nest and sitting on rocks.  When the zoo realised what was going on, they placed an egg from a female penguin who was struggling to care for it in the nest.  The male penguins successfully incubated and raised the chick.

Same sex dolphins can become partners for life engaging in sexual behaviour, for example males can have a temporary female relationship but will return to the initial male partner afterwards.  Further, two male couples can join up to become a foursome.  One theory is that it helps to have a companion when feeding and resting because they can look out for danger.

Some male greylag geese pair up and when it’s time to raise children, they find a female and raise them together as a trio.  Some don’t but research shows the advantage of a trio; there is better defence against predators, the female has a higher social rank and better chance of survival and the female has more time to devote to her chicks because two males are helping.  After the chicks are raised, the males stay together whilst the female leaves.

In a reverse make up, roughly 2% of oystercatcher breeding groups are made up of two females and one male.  Additionally, up to a quarter of black swan families include parents of the same sex (Scientific American) and in some bird species, males steal eggs from females and raise them in same-sex unions.

Whilst these examples might feel like the exception to the rule, observers have witnessed as many as 1500 species of wild and captive animals engaging in same sex activity.

“Homosexual behaviours is surprisingly common in their animal kingdom.  It may be adaptive- helping animals to get along, maintain fecundity and protect their young.”
– Emily Driscoll, ScientificAmerican.com

Moving on from same sex activity to other non reproductive sexual activity, we find types of fruit bats who engage in oral sex, both female on male and male on female.  There is also masturbation and attempts to mate with the dead…

But what is all this sexual activity about?  Obviously, some sex is about reproduction, but pleasure, bonding and keeping the peace are all reasons for engaging in sex.

Bonding can be important for group species and strong bonds can be very helpful when facing off rivals or seeking protection from other group members.  This bond is also important in maintaining a strong group dynamic and sexual activities can diffuse social tensions.  Another type of bond is that of a parenting couple who may engage in sexual activity to maintain their bond whilst raising their young.

It’s interesting to look at an example, the bonobo.  Bonobos use sex to greet each other, to resolve conflict and for pleasure.  They engage in mutual masturbation, oral sex and penis fencing and are in general a very peaceful species.  Perhaps humans would be more chilled out if we had more sex?

But lets take a second to focus back on masturbation.  As well as humans, many other primates engage in masturbation and this can range from simple stimulation with their hands through to using twigs and leaves and other inanimate objects.  Females have been observed inserting objects into their vaginas and one male orangutan created his own sex toy:

“In one display of sexual ingenuity, a male orangutan created his own ‘sex toy’ using a large leaf, through which he poked a hole with his finger.  He then proceeded to thrust his erect penis through the hole for additional stimulation.”
– Carin Bondar

Sexual activity may also help some animals to reiterate their social hierarchy and may allow individuals to climb the ranks.

In some cases, animals may engage in non reproductive sexual activities such as same sex sex in order to gain sexual experience.  It’s interesting to note that it seems that same sex activity appears to be more common in captivity (although that could just be because its easier to observe), possibly because of a lack of alternative options and greater need for stress release.  In a similar way, you tend to find higher than ‘natural’ rates of same sex activity in prisons.

Time for another example!  Most penguins are not monogamous but it is by turning to Adelie penguins that we really get our eyes opened.  A scientific paper from 1915 had been hidden away for years, labelled not for publication and when it was rediscovered in 2009, it became clear why scientists of the time were reluctant to publicise the observations.

“They were ‘gangs of hooligan cocks’ whose ‘passions seem to have passed beyond their control’ and whose ‘constant acts of depravity’ run the gamut of masturbation, recreational sex and homosexual behaviour to gang rape, necrophilia and paedophilia.  Chicks were ‘sexually misused by these hooligans’, including one who ‘misused it before the very eyes of its parent’.  Strayed chicks were crushed and ‘very often suffer indignity and death at the hands of these hooligan cocks’.”
– Lucy Cooke quoting Dr George Murray Levick

Whilst this all sounds incredibly shocking, there is an explanation.  Adelies get together in October, flooded with hormones and only a few weeks to mate.  Young males are inexperienced and don’t really know what to do or how to act and this can lead to some questionable activity…  In their hormonal eyes, a frozen penguin in the right position can look a lot like an interested female… Apparently necrophilia isn’t just restricted to penguins…  Lucy Cooke references pigeons mounting dead house martins, male house sparrows attempting to mate with dead females and the same going on with a couple of pheasants…

In addition to all of this wonderfully interesting and fun goings on, we have those animals which change sex.

Suggested reading:

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it…

Sex in the animal kingdom is vastly more exciting than much of human sex.  Just look at the praying mantis – she literally eats her mate!

The sex lives of animals are just as diverse as the different species are and, despite what some people might have you think, sex in the animal kingdom isn’t just for reproduction.  We can be sure of this because some animals have sex when they aren’t in season and so reproduction is not an option, and others engage in masturbation and same sex sexual activity.  That being said, in this post, I’m going to look at the sex itself and consider other sexual activity in another post.  To start with, let’s take a quick look at how you might attract a mate.

If you’re a male hippo, you might try spraying urine and faeces over the female that’s caught your eye.  A male bowerbird will build an elaborate bower to entice a female.  Other creatures might identify an appropriate male through song or scent or via chemical signals in urine markers.  For sea slugs, it’s a poke between the eyes that gets your partner in the mood…  Violence is also a hallmark for elephant seals, with the male being much bigger than the females.  A male will fight for a beach and then mate with all the females on it.  Whether they want to or not.  Some creatures will even use electricity to try and attract a suitable mate.

In different species, what makes an attractive mate differs.  For female zebra finches, it’s the level of exploratory behaviour that matters whereas for orangutans, it’s all about the males ability to share.  In the orangutan world, a male who shares is important because males can be coercive and sexually violent towards females.

If none of this convinces you of the complex nature of animal sex, perhaps you should check out the leopard slugs mating process, of which there is a handy youtube video.

Lets also take a quick look at pandas; pandas are well known for being terrible at sex but this isn’t the case.  A big issue with breeding in captivity has been trying to pair up same sex pandas and expecting baby pandas…

“The wild panda is a secret stud, fond of threesomes and rough sex… Female pandas prefer the males that can leave their sexy scent marks the highest up a tree.  Scientists have described males adopting a selection of athletic poses – ‘squat’, ‘leg-cock’ and, most remarkably, ‘handstand’ – in order to squirt their pee as high as possible.”
– Lucy Cook

We often assume in the animal kingdom that if monogamy is not the norm for a species, that it’s the male who has multiple partners whilst females have one.  This is not the case.  And biologically it makes sense.  If a female mates with a male and then realises there’s a better male, she’s going to want her babies to come from the second male so they are of the best genetic quality.  Additionally, there is a lot of sexual violence and coercion so the female may have been forced into mating with a male she doesn’t want to reproduce with.  For some males, a gift can entice the female and, in those species, it makes a lot of sense for the female to play the field!

“Female fallow deer deliver only a single offspring per year and therefore have limited chances to get it right.  They often seek the most dominant eligible bachelors for sperm deposits: however if too many females have ‘come-a-calling’ he’s liable to be sperm-depleted or may provide ejaculates with a more limited supply.  With only one offspring per year, it’s vital for females to ensure successful fertilisation, so they often engage in polyandry as a form of insurance.”
– Carin Bondar

When it comes to sex organs, the animal world is also pretty diverse.  Opossoms have bifurcated penises and vaginas which can accommodate these.  Hyena’s clitoris very closely resembles a penis and extends to an impressive 20cm!  The female spotted hyena is the only known mammal with no external vaginal opening, instead they have to urinate, copulate and give birth through the pseudo-penis… Painful!

Looking to the males of the world, we find a beetle with a spiny penis and ducks with corkscrew penises (and females with corkscrew vaginas of course).  Slugs also have corckscrew penises and if they happen to be reluctant to come out again after sex, the partner will just, er, nibble it off…  For the tuberous bush cricket, it’s the testes that cause the problem, taking up most of their abdomen:

“At nearly 14% of their body weight, they are disproportionately large when compared to other species. Just think, a 100kg human would be walking around with 14kg of testicles, which would be mighty uncomfortable.”
Susan Lawler

But if you thought that was mind blowing, wait till you hear about the Drosophila bifurca, or to you and me, a kind of fly.  The male produces 6cm sperm, more than 20 times the length of the male!

We tend to assume that orgasms are strictly a human affair but this isn’t the case at all.  scientists have detected orgasm in many different species including macaques, orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees, although it should be noted these are generally the males of the species.  Perhaps because most human research about orgasms is about men and so the markers of an orgasm are male centric…  But that’s just this feminist’s ponderings about why…

There are also those animals that never have penis in vagina sex.  For example, African mouthbrooder cichlids reproduce orally.  Males will approach a female who then opens her mouth, which is where she carries her eggs, the male then sprays the eggs with sperm and fertilises them. Females will carry the eggs in her mouth until they hatch…

The argonaut octopus also doesn’t need to have ‘traditional’ sex.  Despite being very sexual, they engage in something called tele-sex where sperm is produced in a specially adapted penis which then detaches from the body and swims off to find a female. This penis then impregnants her and eventually the male regrows a new penis.

In another post I will consider animal sexuality but as a taster of what is to come, consider the whiptail lizards – a species made up entirely of females.  Instead of mating in the conventional way, or as a result of having both sets of organs, they make clones of themselves!  That said, they still need to engage in a mating ritual to stimulate egg production…  As only females are available, they take it in turns to act of the roles of males and females.

All of these weird and wonderful sounding sex lives just scratch the surface of how animals reproduce.  And as sex isn’t confined to reproduction, in another blog post, I’ll be looking more into the types of activity animals engage in without expecting babies to come along.

Suggested reading:

Opioid addiction and chronic pain: How to tell when someone is addicted

Because of the legitimate pain and need for pain relief, identifying when a chronic pain patient is addicted is a very difficult area.  It is common for someone taking opioids to become physically dependant and tolerant of them over time but this isn’t the same as an addiction.  For addiction to be present, you’d expect behavioural changes in addition to the dependence.

The behavioural changes in a person addicted to necessary prescription medication tend to be harder to spot than those in a person addicted to unprescribed substances.  As they have a legitimate need, it’s easier to cover up or explain away possible signs of addiction and some of the sings of addiction are also explained by the chronic pain itself.  However, a cluster of signs can indicate the need for concern and to explore the possibility of someone being addicted.  These signs include:

  • Frequent contact with doctors, whether that’s visits or phone calls
  • Having appointments about a different issue and asking for a prescription at the end of the appointment
  • Doctor shopping – contacting or visiting different doctors so there is less continuity and the person can play the doctors off each other a bit to try and get more opiates.
  • Manipulating care providers
  • Frequently complaining about medical conditions which justify the need for the drug use and which also justify the need for increasing dosages.
  • Complaining about new medical conditions and pain.
  • Reporting certain drug allergies and lack of therapeutic effect of alternative drugs which mean that the opioid is the only option for pain relief.
  • Frequent reports of losing medication and prescriptions.
  • Declining work or school performance
  • Relationship dysfunction
  • Decreased interest in other pain relieving options such as regular physiotherapy and other ‘health’ work needed to improve quality of life
  • Defensiveness when talking about prescriptions.
  • Increased irritability and anxiousness especially about the availability of the drug, when the next dose is etc
  • Overwhelming concern about the amount of medication etc
  • Mood swings, irritability, anxiety etc
  • Concern from friends, family and other observers
  • Insisting on managing own medication, especially in hospital settings
  • Increasing side effects and lack on concern about them
  • Signs of withdrawal

The physical side effects of opiates can also be a warning sign, especially if they seem to be getting worse.  When it comes to opiates, there is a sedative effect which can be seen in confusion, poor judgement, poor memory, drowsiness and unsteadiness.

If the person is open to a discussion, it can be much easier to get an idea about addiction however the caginess that comes with addiction can make this very difficult.  Unless a person is very open with you, these are probably questions best asked by medical professional, or dropped into conversation more as thinking points.  Avoid making it seem like an attack as anyone attacked about any part of themselves is likely to just get defensive.

  • Quantity: Does the person take more medication than needed? Are they taking more than they used to? Are they taking it more frequently?
  • Attitude: Do they want to cut down or stop taking the medication? Are they using the meds despite knowing they are having dangerous effects on their body?
  • Time: Do they spend a lot of time thinking about the drugs and when the next dose can be taken? Do they spend a lot of time getting and using the drug?
  • Social effects: Are they able to manage their responsibilities? Is drug use affecting any of their relationships?  Are they socialising as much as they used to?  Are they withdrawing from activities?  Has their circle of friends changed?
  • Do they get cravings and urges to use the drug?

Again, I want to reiterate that this is a grey area and it’s hard to identify when legitimate use for chronic pain turns into and problem.  It happens slowly and insidiously.

If you or someone you know is addicted to any kind of drug, please seek help and advice.  If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, ring the emergency services.

Opioid addiction and chronic pain: Long term effects

There are a number of common side effects of opiate use including feelings of euphoria, feeling spaced out and ‘high’, and drowsiness.  According to the RCOA, between 50% and 80% of patients in clinical trials experience at least one side effect from opioid therapy.

“Evidence shows that chronic opioid therapy is associated with constipation, sleep-disordered breathing, fractures, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal dysregulation, and overdose… Opioid-related adverse effects can cause significant declines in health-related quality of life and increased health care costs.”
A Review of Potential Adverse Effects of Long-Term Opioid Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide

To understand the effects of long term use, you need to know that opiates work by depressing everything, including the pain, but also natural bodily functions such as breathing, blood pressure, heart rate and alertness.

Breathing

In terms of breathing, there are a number of ways that opiates affect this vital function.  They slow down your breathing, they are associated with central sleep apnea, atiaxic breathing hypoxemia and carbon dioxide retention.

Let’s bring in some definitions to help explain what these terms actually mean for the patient:

  • Central Sleep Apnea: pauses in breathing while asleep during which the body does not attempt to breathe. A certain number of pauses in sleep are normal but with CSA, the pauses are longer and more frequent and are the result of the brain not sending the right signals to the muscles related to breathing.
  • Ataxic Breathing: an irregular, uncoordinated breathing pattern.
  • Hypoxemia: Low blood oxygen which can cause low oxygen levels in your tissues.
  • Carbon Dioxide Retention: abnormally high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood.

Essentially, breathing is no longer an automatic reflex.  All of these can lead to additional health issues, for example if you aren’t getting enough oxygen there is a risk of brain damage as well as damage to other vital organs.  Deprived of oxygen over a period of time can result in organs shutting down and for some patients, their breathing is so depressed that they fail to wake when they don’t breathe.  It is this, and organ failure, that is behind many opioid overdoses and deaths.

For patients on around the clock opiates for at least six months, sleep disordered breathing issues were found to be as high as 75%, as opposed to 3-20% in the general population.  These effects appear to be related to the dose strength, with ataxic breathing observed in 92% of people taking a morphine equivalent dose of 200mg, 61% of people taking under 200mg and 5% of people not taking opioids.

We will see the effects on the brains performance when we consider the mental effects of long term use.

Gastrointestinal

Just as the breathing system is slowed down, so too is the gastrointestinal system.  The urge to pass stools reduces causing constipation and even impacted bowels.  Opiate use can also cause vomiting, cramping and bloating.

Hormones

One of the things that shocked me when I was looking into the effects of opiates was the impact on the hormonal system.

When you think hormones you tend to think sex so I’m going to start there.  Opiate use can decrease your sex drive, can cause infertility, can cause erectile dysfunction and can cause issues with menstruation.  Fatigue and hot flashes, inappropriate milk production can also occur.

Hormones are also involved in other bodily functions and can affect bone density causing osteoporosis and impaired healing.  Growth hormones, thyroid stimulating hormones and many others are also affected.

Mental

As an organ, your brain is affected and thus your mental wellbeing and functions are impaired.  Opiate use can cause confusion, lack of concentration, drowsiness, depressed alertness, depression and other mental illness.

As the person’s judgement is affected, they can make decisions that they wouldn’t otherwise.  There are impulse control issues as well as impaired insight and issues with reasoning.  Demotivation and apathy can lead to social withdrawal and the persons world can become smaller and smaller.  Moodswings, hostility, increased secrecy and a change in personality can all come about because of opioid use.

Due to the reduced oxygen levels, the brain struggles to perform even basic tasks (such as breathing) and the person can experience agitation and disorientation. Impaired memory is another common effect.

Muscular skeletal

The combination of the confusion and the bone density issues, muscular skeletal issues are common.  Impaired coordination can lead to an increased fall risk, as can dizziness and a sedative effect.  When falls occur, fractures are more likely.

Hyperalgesia

Possibly one of the most counterintuitive effects of long term opioid use is hyperalgesia, that is a heightened sensitivity to pain.  This feels like the most insidious of the effects as it likely leads to more opiate use and makes the whole situation worse…

Pain associated with hyperalgesia tends to be more diffuse than the pre-existing pain and less defined.

Other

Other effects include a reduced immune system responsive, slurred and slow speech, falling asleep mid conversation and not realising it, blackouts and forgetfulness.  Increased sensitivity to sights, sounds and emotions may also be present.  Dry mouth that can cause tooth decay is yet another possible effect as is a suppressed cough reflex.

Whilst one person is unlikely to experience all of these effects, in general the risk increases as the dose increases. Please do not let this put you off taking pain medication that you need, but monitor your use and your mental state and discuss any concerns you have with your doctor.

If you or someone you know is addicted to any kind of drug, please seek help and advice.  If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, ring the emergency services.

Part one: Opioid addiction and chronic pain: Statistics