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 Animal Semiotics

by Camille Mojica

      The happiest moments of my childhood I spent on the Gulf Coast of Texas. When I close my eyes I can still hear the sounds. First I hear the quiet, the stillness that penetrated the hot days of summer. It begged all life not to move, not to add the heat of an active body to the already stifling air. Mesquite trees obeyed and stood motionless, their crevices no doubt hiding insects. The resting sea-blue sky beckoned to swimmers. The green summer waters of the Gulf, lukewarm as a baby's bath, offered little relief. It offered, instead, itself to the air. A humidity and skin-burning heat rivaled only by a sauna greeted those willing to venture out from beneath ceiling fans and air conditioners.

      Now, in my mind as back then, the silence is broken by a seagull's high-pitched call. It's the first of many -- more gulls announce their imminent arrival by echoing this call from a distance. Sea gulls were a source of endless fascination for me in my youth. They would come from miles around, one at a time, to feast on my grandfather's leftover crab parts. My grandfather and I would toss the cleanings of the crabs he'd spent all day gathering. The crabs themselves hadn't made a sound as we gathered them from the traps tethered to the pilings of the bulkhead. They did, however, produce sodden thuds as they climbed over one another, then slipped off the slick sides to the floor of their ice-chest prison.

      I grabbed one end of the chest, and my grandfather the other, and he led us all inside to the kitchen. There I would listen to the thuds grow quiet as one by one my grandfather lowered the crabs into a pot of boiling water.

      The green and brown-shelled crabs went in kicking and squirming. I watched with morbid fascination as my grandfather pulled them -- now orange and pink -- out of the steaming water with long tongs. They were still. Grandpa lined up the lifeless crabs on a cookie sheet and carried them to his chair at the head of a round dinner table. There the cleaning would keep his hands, a nut cracker and a pick busy for hours. I heard the low murmur of the crab-killing boiling water over the cracking carapaces.

      The sounds of crab-death were later drowned out by the excited calls of hungry sea gulls. The birds would hover above my head, waiting for a high toss. I, in turn, would try to make them come as close as possible to me without risking a finger. Finally, I'd tire of our game and pretend to be a baseball pitcher, winding up and sending crab parts flailing into the sky.

      Exhausted from carcass-throwing, I would retire to the cool shade of tangled mesquite trees where the sound of departing gulls and trilling cicadas would lull me to sleep. The sound of a motorboat passing through the channel in front of my grandparents' house would awaken me. Then the water lapping against the concrete boat-slip in a gentle, constant whisper beckoned sleep once again.

      One day, under those mesquite trees, I heard a different sound. I knew the sound, but only because I'd heard it in countless old western movies. Now I heard it over the music from my grandmother's little red transistor radio. My seven-year-old sister and I were playing a heated match of croquet, whacking each other's balls across the yard at every opportunity. My grandmother sat under a tree, wiping her forehead and neck with a washcloth and drinking iced tea.

      She was the first to hear the unmistakable buzz of the rattle. She quickly tucked her towel into her bra strap and was holding her arms out wide, palms down. It was her signal for "stop, don't move." We froze.

      In quick, noiseless steps, she dashed ten feet and grabbed a hoe leaning against the neighbors' trailer home. "Move back very slowly," she commanded. As we did, she moved forward cautiously, raising the hoe over her head. Sweat glistened on her forehead as it escaped the red and white floral bandanna she wore. Her flabby arms came down with a deliberate, lethal strength. The hoe found its mark just behind the snake's head.

      The only sound was the hoe hitting the ground. The snake didn't let out a cry, but its tail danced and made a swishing sound through the grass, while its detached head lay still. The front end had yet to tell the back end what had happened. The rattle shook, but not with the familiar force.

      Years later, as an official student of animal behavior, I learned scientists believe the rattle to be a highly evolved signal. The vibrating tail sends the receiver, or predator, a clear identifying signal. I imagine the translation of the rattlesnakes' reverberating "bizz" to be: "It would be much better for both of us if you knew who I was, that I can kill you with my deadly bite, and, just maybe, you should back off." So efficient is the warning message of this animal that it is understood by almost the entire animal kingdom, predator and prey alike.

      The elegance of signals has intrigued me since the days of snakes in the grass and hungry gulls. Even the cicadas had something to say in proclaiming their seven-year itch to one another in a sometimes deafening cadence. At night, male Gulf toads called to females for the same reason. These calls, unlike the rattlesnake's signal, are presumably intended for members of the same species. The information carried by these signals is meant to be exclusive, not inclusive as that of the rattler.

      As a child, I sometimes wished for such inclusive, consistent signals from the adults around me. I never knew how to interpret their behavior. One problem was that the behavior, as my animal behavior instructor would say, was plastic. Plasticity, in this case, meant the signals varied depending on the state of the animal. There was the I'm-tired state, the get-me-another-beer state, and the didn't-I-tell-you-not-to-do-that state. The wait-until-your-father-gets-home state sometimes turned into the I-don't-think-your-father's-coming-home-tonight state.

      All the while, an otherwise widely known human signal, the smile, would grace my mother's face. Depending on her state, though, the eyes and eyebrows said it all. They were lifted above a mocking smile when she rhetorically asked if I remembered the rules she had plainly put forth. They slanted over tearful eyes as she explained how daddies don't always come home, sometimes they move away. It wasn't a Joan Cleaver smile that hid emotion. My mother's smile was really sometimes a grimace.

      My mother didn't smile much in the mornings. She worked the three p.m. to 11 p.m. shift at the county hospital. She hated her work, but hated my father more, so she worked when he would not be around. She came home from work tired but wound-up. To unwind she read books and washed them down with Michelob Light. She'd sit at the kitchen table until the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes she'd finish a six-pack and a 300 page book in one sitting.

      "Hurry up," she said one morning as my sister and I ran around trying to gather unnecessary items to take with us to school. She was obviously more impatient than usual to be done with the morning shuttle. Just before I reached the door, she seemed to notice me for the first time that morning. "You're not going to wear THAT are you?" I knew, despite fifteen minutes of trying, my clothes either didn't match or were wrinkled. "Go change and HURRY up!" She leaned against the hallway wall and waited while I ran upstairs, dejected, not knowing whether to look for a different-colored shirt or iron the one I was wearing.

      Finally, we made it out the front door. My sister and I ran to the little red pick-up. My mother, overweight and bleary-eyed, lagged behind. She must have picked up a Danielle Steele on the way home, I thought. My sister and I climbed in the door she silently unlocked for us. I sat in the middle. My sister, although two and a half years my junior, was bigger and taller than I. So, my knees were the ones offered up for bruising by the cruel God of the stick-shift.

      My mother climbed into the driver's seat and pulled the seat belt over her beer belly. The pressure of the belt was too much for her abused stomach. She quickly let the belt return to its starting point with a whir, fumbled for the lock on the door and threw her head out over the gutter. She vomited as my sister and I listed and looked at each other in horror. When she was finished, we all sat in shock for a few minutes. She brushed her hair back, started the engine and flashed us the toothless I-feel-like-shit-so-don't-say-a-word smile.

      Then there were the entirely different sets of signals from my father, forceful and clear. A loud whistle audible two blocks away meant "Get home, now." No misinterpretation there. A clearing of the throat was the preamble to a lecture that usually began, "Basically, ... ." A long, deep breath inward and closed eyes told me just how much trouble I was in and to expect to endure wrath. There was little plasticity in my father's signals.

      But my father's words were the real source of confusion. Words do not stand alone as signals. As with my mother's smile, you have to look at the other parts of the signal to truly understand. In what tone are the words spoken? Does the speaker look you in the eye? Are the words precise, logical, emotional, or vague?

      "Women are vicious," he'd say. He sounded authoritative. He had a college degree and used long words. But I was a woman, or would be. It hurt to think he included me in this generalization. So, I stood for nearly an hour once next to the washing machine in our kitchen arguing the point with him. I was 14 and I knew I was not vicious and never would be. But he had the upper hand and the education. I was soundly defeated, standing in tears as he walked away.

      Three years later, I drove through our neighborhood as he announced, "I never wanted to have children. I'd be in the Peace Corps now if I didn't have a family." I couldn't argue with that. But I wanted to argue because I couldn't hear the pain in his voice through my own confusion, rejected hurt and anger.

      If only my father had a rattle, I would have known him to be a threat. I might have expected the poison. I would have backed away slowly. Instead, I was bitten by the sin of his desire for his own daughter. The bite was only a surface wound compared to the ones delivered by more lethal fathers. I was not raped. But I had already been fondled by his brother at the age of 10. I was now 17 and old enough to protect myself when he struck.

      It was the 4th of July and I was getting ready to go to work. My job as a hostess at a gourmet pizza restaurant waited. I was going to miss the picnics, fireworks and parties. A small sound interrupted these bitter thoughts as I sat in the claw-foot tub. I heard something barely tap the closed door over the running water of my bath. I turned to see my father's curly hair as it disappeared from behind the window pane above the door. Whatever he was standing on had shifted beneath his weight and hit the door as he made his getaway. "Daddy," I said in disbelief. But, all I heard in return were his drunk footsteps as he descended the stairs.

      I shook, but I didn't cry. I finished getting dressed, my imagination wondering what might have happened to me if I hadn't seen him. Would I again be awakened in the middle of the night by adult hands invading my child's body? For years afterward my father had made me attend family functions with my lecherous uncle. I knew my feelings were of no importance to him. I was not going to spend another night under the same roof with him. "God only knows what he'll do next," I thought as I packed a duffel bag with trembling hands. I left his house, vowing never to see, hear, or speak to him again.

      I was nearly 18 when I caught my father in his alcohol- and marijuana-induced voyeurs' act. In less than a month I would be a legal runaway. Surely, no one would make me go back. I ran, thanks to previously made plans, to college. The campus of the University of Texas in Austin is actually only a few miles from the house I fled. I threw myself into study, deep in denial of any feelings of love I ever had for my father.

      After surviving years of 'weed-out' courses, I felt I was back under the mesquite trees. A class in animal behavior returned me to the days of studying how animals communicate and the world seemed to make sense again -- until, of course, we got to humans. Human sociobiology, the textbook called it -- the application of the principles of animal behavior to people. For example, inbreeding is something all animals take great pains to avoid. Inbreeding is taboo among most human cultures, including our own Western one. We know that both lethal mutations and the likelihood of a disease wiping out an entire population increase with the level of relatedness. Where we have social codes and laws, non-human animals have evolved social systems in which males leave their natal groups to mate and raise families elsewhere, away from sisters and daughters. This practice has been found in a diversity of animals, from lions to birds.

      Lions are also a model for another human social no-no, homicide. Adult male lions are known to commit infanticide after they take over a pride by killing the dominant male. The theory says this relieves the lion of having to defend and share resources with an unrelated cub. Infanticide has the added benefit of causing the mothers of the dead cubs to resume reproductive status. Human sociobiologists Daly and Wilson say this same logic explains the fact that step-parents commit twelve to fifteen percent more child abuse than do biological parents.

      The choosing of mates, sociobiologists might argue, is modeled by the bower bird. The male bower bird decorates a structure called a bower with twigs, shiny objects, anything he can find. The male with the biggest, most ornate bower gets the most mates. According to Borgia, the same is true for human males with the most material possessions.

      These scientists may be taking their animal-logic a bit far. Other evolutionary scenarios can be proposed that are equally likely, but none can ever be experimentally tested. Just the same, I found great comfort in knowing the odd behavior of my fellow college students was predictable given the theories of animal behavior. The swaggering and jostling of fraternity males at parties in front of groups of snickering, big-haired sorority girls was reminiscent of female elk watching the dueling of their suitors.

      But what about my family? Yes, I and they, too, benefited from this new outlook. I could understand their destructive behavior, hear more clearly their earlier cries for help and see the wounds they themselves carried from childhood. I could imagine my mother as an injured bird, dragging a wing while snapping at the hand reaching out to help it. I see now that my father did have a rattle, and I did protect myself as only a juvenile mammal dependent on her parents could.

      Humans are the most complex of animals. Their signals sometimes are distorted by the noise of reasoning. But, if we begin to understand the signals of animals with whom we share the planet, and the Darwinian motivations behind them, we may begin to comprehend ourselves.

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