vigil [ˈvɪdʒɪl] n. 1. a purposeful watch maintained, esp at night, to guard, observe, pray, etc. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/vigil
One afternoon many years ago I observed a robin in the garden behaving strangely, having what seemed to be seizures. Since he seemed so close to his last moment, I thought he would be better off in his own element than my taking him in. I looked on from a window to make sure that he would stay safe from predators. As I stood watching, a small flock of sparrows flew into the garden and formed a ring around the robin. A few other bird species joined the circle. The birds pecked at the ground and flitted about, tweeting. When the robin finally laid still, the birds of the circle flew away.
My sense of this phenomenon was that I was sure I had witnessed s a vigil of some kind. Yet, because I tend to think scientifically, I questioned whether this occurrence was either coincidence or was I anthropomorphizing.
In September 2012, an article in BBC Nature that reported that scientists had observed that birds hold “funerals.” If the western scrub jay encounters a dead bird, the jay will call out to the other birds. The jays will fly down and gather around the departed one. Another scientist noted that magpies placed pieces of grass by one of their fallen comrades. Now, I could rule out that my observation years ago was not a coincidental occurrence, but was it a vigil?
It seems that some have concluded, as published the findings in the journal Animal Behaviour, that “all organisms must contend with the risk of injury or death; many animals reduce this danger by assessing environmental cues to avoid areas of elevated risk.” If a bird was sick or subject to predation, why would other birds fly down to one that is dying? This made me wonder whether we can we in any way attribute this particular “funeral” behavior to any evaluation?
The sparrows’ vigil still holds an element of mystery. Maybe we have to admit we just don’t understand, and that recognition leaves space for openness and discovery.
What Cats Tell Us about our Behavior
Transference is a phenomenon in psychoanalysis characterized by unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another, according to Wikipedia. David W. Bernstein formulated one theory of transference identified as, Abusive Multiple Transference, “in which abusers not only transfer negative feelings directed towards their former abusers to their own victims, but also transfer the power and dominance of the former abusers to themselves.”
I always understood transference as being a human emotion until I observed my cat’s behavior in response to a neighborhood feline who visits our house regularly. This friendly, cute kitty immediately causes an upheaval within our peaceful two-cat home. Sylvia is the mother cat to Sweetie Bumpkins, and they usually get along quite well, although Sylvia is dominant. So when “Bad Kitty,” the nickname we’ve given the outside cat, stops by, Sylvia begins hissing and meowing and races from window to window to follow Bad Kitty’s movements around the outside of the house. Sometimes Bad Kitty just lays down on the patio, tail swishing back and forth as if to taunt Sylvia. The whole experience comes to a crisis when Sweetie Bumpkins walks into the altercation. Sylvia goes after her with a vengeance with the accompanying yeowls and growls and fur flying. Sweetie Bumpkins runs for her life finding a hiding place safely upstairs under a bed.
Sanctuary Under the Mattress
What occurred to me is that we share some very basic behavior with our cats. Cats and humans are very much separated on their evolutionary lines, and yet in this way, we share the same behavior pattern of taking out our negative emotions on some innocent party, even one who is close to us. Of course, we as humans can become aware of this behavior and change it. But is transference so basic, so ingrained, so part of the wiring in our brain that most of the time, are we unaware of this mind set–say, road rage, corporal punishment, the Tea Party? Perhaps transference occurs at almost every level of our interactions with others.
The kitties have demonstrated that this response is an evolutionary device. My personal theory is that transference is a scapegoat mechanism that has evolved to create a release. Neither the kitties nor us can sustain the tension and emotional upheaval within, and nature has provided this release. The question remains whether humans can access these traumas and then change our behavior to relieve the pressures in a socially and ethnically responsible way. The answer is neither black nor white.