Spooking the pooches

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Oct 11, 2014 in Rat News | Subscribe

Charlie Hudson walks her dog along Heberden Ave in Sumner. Assoc Prof Annie Potts, co-director of the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies at the University of Canterbury, is writing a book looking at the impact the Christchurch earthquakes had on pets. Photo by NZ Herald

A new book looks at the shape of human-animal
relationships after the Christchurch quakes, writes Andrew
Stone, of The New Zealand Herald.

Three worlds collided when the 7.1 earthquake shook
Christchurch in September 2010.

Massive forces bent faults below the Canterbury Plains,
jolting a sleeping city awake at 4.35am. The other world –
that occupied by animals – got an almighty fright, too.

Now, nearly three years since the first fearful tremor
changed lives and landscapes, the impact on animals and their
owners is being revealed.

It is emerging from accounts collected by Assoc Prof Annie
Potts, co-director of the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal
Studies at the University of Canterbury, for her new book
Animal Earthquake Stories.

Potts – who shares a quake-damaged house in Lyttelton with a
collection of animals – says for many animals and their
owners the earthquakes have been a terrifying but also quite
profound experience.

Animals behaved differently. Cats often disappeared for a day
or so. Rabbits thumped the ground, pet rats tended to bite
each other and some dogs bolted in panic.

An avian nurse told Potts that cockatiels got quite
disturbed, flapping wildly in their cages and pulling out
feathers. Free-range hens on the property Potts shares with
her partner and centre co-director, Philip Armstrong, emerged
from the biggest two quakes none the worse for wear.

As an example of the impact of the quakes Potts tells the
story of Louis, a miniature poodle who went blind after the
6.3 magnitude shake in February 2011, which claimed 185

”The vet felt this sudden blindness was directly caused by
shock and fear and did not anticipate this condition would
improve, so Louis and his human friend were having to adjust
to a new life without sight,” Potts said.

Pickle, another small dog, became anxious and miserable after
the February quake.

”No measure of behavioural therapy or medicine or emotional
support was able to console him,” his owner told Potts. He
went from being a happy-go-lucky dog to an animal in
perpetual terror. Pickle was put down, but the decision to
euthanise him left his owner deeply affected.

Potts offers another account from the quakes that she says
illustrates the depth and importance of human-animal
relationships. The dog in question was a fox terrier called
Shelter, best mate of Jamie, a teenager from Sumner.

The family lived opposite the Sumner RSA where a large
boulder smashed through the building and left a man dead.
Shelter, whose home was so damaged it was deemed unsafe for
habitation, was found hiding under collapsed furniture.

Gina, Jamie’s mother, told Potts: ”He wasn’t injured but he
was in shock. I guess they go by your reaction too:
afterwards whenever there were shakes I’m yelling at Jamie to
get under a doorway and Shelter is jumping up and looking
round anxiously.”

Eventually Shelter adjusted to aftershocks, but other
problems surfaced. Dust created by cliff collapses around
Sumner caused an allergic reaction in his skin.

Miserable and irritable, the dog reacted by biting and
gnawing at his skin, which in turn caused infections.

A vet put Shelter on antihistamines and steroids, but as he
had a pre-existing heart condition, he couldn’t stick with
his medications and last year succumbed to heart failure
brought on by the steroids prescribed to control his skin

Having already lost their home, Gina and her son Jamie had to
cope with the loss of their dog.

Says Potts: ”It’s hard enough losing a special member of
your family, but it’s even worse to know that this wee dog
died prematurely due to the environmental hazards facing
humans and animals post-quakes.”

A psychologist, Potts says the story of Shelter and Jamie
shows ”how absolutely important the bond between boy and dog
was for the recovery and resilience of both post-quakes”.

The teenager lost his dog months after the big quakes, a
reminder of their lingering repercussions for humans and

”It’s very hard to be coping with the loss of your home, the
damage and disruption to your community and city, and also
having to face the loss of a beloved animal.”

Animal owners Potts interviewed told her that their
post-quake relationships with pets were extremely precious.

The animals provided affection, stability, security and
reassurance during tough times. Equally, owners who had lost
animals or relinquished them because they could not stay in
their new home, created stress and upheaval.

She was critical of the response of some Christchurch
landlords in turning away companion animals, saying healthy
cats and dogs were euthanised because owners of rental
properties refused to house ”all members of a family”.

Potts has been studying human-animal relationships for a
decade. She is the author of Chicken, a critically
acclaimed illustrated natural and cultural history of the
domestic fowl.

The book is ”dedicated to all chickens born to and killed
for agribusiness, scientific research and entertainment, and
to those special humans who educate, advocate and provide
refuge for these birds”.

With co-authors Deidre Brown and Philip Armstrong, Potts has
also written A New Zealand Book of Beasts. Out later this
year, the book looks deeply at interactions between humans
and animals in our arts, literature, culture, media and
everyday life.

In Potts’ assessment, New Zealanders have an inconsistent
approach to animals.

On the one hand, people who broke through cordons after the
quakes to rescue animals or find lost companion pets showed a
compassion that had emerged strongly in Christchurch.

But a darker side was evident from the number of healthy
animals put down after the quakes, some because people didn’t
want them to go to new homes.

Beyond the earthquake stories, Potts believes that everyday
Kiwi culture is contradictory when it comes to animals – she
cites well-documented cases of animal cruelty and the
popularity of games for country children involving throwing
dead possums.

”I think that New Zealand sees itself as a nation of animal
lovers but it stops a lot of the time with pets and cherished
native birds,” remarks Potts.

As for possum-throwing, ”goodness knows what that teaches
children. I think kids have a natural capacity to bond with
animals but in my view that teaches them that to become
adults you’ve got to realise that these animals – possums –
are bad but these – cats and dogs and pet lambs – are good.”

She enjoyed challenging accepted cultural beliefs about
animals and mentioned the persistent view of chickens as

In fact, studies have shown chickens have the ability to
recognise the faces of 100 other chickens, and to avert their
gaze from humans they didn’t like.

Potts says her new book about animals and the earthquakes
will show how the human-animal relationship cuts both ways.

”There are stories of happy and secure companion cats and
dogs becoming physically closer to their traumatised humans.

These animals do not appear to have been adversely affected
but their human companions have been – and the animals then
spend more time with these people, they might curl next to
them in bed and they didn’t do this before.

”There’s something accepting and comforting in our special
nurturing relationships with animals;

“I’m not saying animals don’t communicate to us, they
certainly do, but they do this in non-linguistic ways which
are every bit as vital and fascinating as ‘talk’.

“Sometimes I think we humans talk too much – instead of
sensing, feeling and living the world around us.”

Read it
Animal Earthquake Stories, published by Canterbury University
Press, comes out next year.


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