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Another Myth of Man’s Superiority Bites The Dust

By Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

We humans have always considered ourselves different from every other species on Earth. But, as time goes on, scientists repeatedly show that the traits we consider unique and based on a superior intelligence are found in most animals as well. Tool using, for instance, is done by insects, fish, crows and apes.

One of these is the trait of laterality. The term laterality refers to the primary use of the left or right hemispheres of the brain. The two halves of the animal brain are not exactly alike, and each hemisphere differs in function. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body and the right hemisphere controls the left side.

Most people are right handed / right sided because it is thought that the left hemisphere makes the right side stronger. Also, in 90-92% of all humans, the left hemisphere controls language.

Are animals any different?

Despite the varied structures of animal brains, many mammals, birds, fish and invertebrates have the same trait of laterality. Many animals use their left eye and left ear (indicating right brain activation) more often than the right ones when investigating objects that are potentially frightening.

Left-handed people are more vulnerable to stress, as are left pawed dogs and many other animals.

Right-handed animals have better immunity.

A 1987 study by leading animal behaviour scientists, MacNeilage, Studdert-Kennedy and Lindblom, showed that macaque monkeys have a left-hand preference. For primates in general, a left-hand preference was observed for visually guided reaching movements and a right-hand preference for manipulating objects, acts that required dexterity.

In prosimians (non-ape primates like bush-babies, lemurs, etc), the right hand is used for major tasks, like grasping a branch after a leap, and the left is used for quick small movements, like catching insects.

Young horses prefer breathing with their right nostrils. Horses with a higher emotional content prefer looking with their left eye! Recent research in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, though, showed that about 53% of horses prefer to lead with the right leg, 40% with the left and 7% showed no preference. Racehorses use the same leg in their stride unless they are forced to change it while turning, injured, or fatigued.

Dogs prefer one paw to another – except when they are frightened by noise (Bransonn and Rogers, 2006). Trainers of guide dogs, in fact, test them for laterality, as the dog may be better at walking to the left, or the right, of their blind owner.

Cattle prefer viewing new things with their left eye (as do magpies, chicks, toads and fish) and familiar things with their right eye.

Bats show a left-hand bias for climbing or grasping.

Kangaroos use their left hand for things that require fine manipulation, but the right hand for behaviour that requires physical strength.

Most parrots favour one foot when grasping objects, usually the left. 

Rainbow fish were  made to examine their reflection in a mirror. Fish which looked with their right eye swam on the left side of the group. Conversely, fish that looked with their left eye swam on the right. 

The Zebra finch male views the female with his right eye when courting her (Workman & Andrew, 1986).

Emei Music frogs listen to positive signals (like a mating call) with their right ear, and with their left  to negative signals such as predatory attacks.

Humpback whales exhibit a 75% predilection for slapping their right flukes on the water surface.

Chickens show a right foot preference in scratching the ground in their search for food. This is coupled with a dominance of the right eye in tasks requiring them to perform visual discrimination learning, such as a search for food. Studies in the 1980s, by scientists Andrew, Mench, Rainey, Zappia and Rogers, have indicated that the right eye of a chicken learns to tell the difference between food grains and small pebbles faster than the left eye. On the other hand, the left eye is used for control of attack and copulation responses. Pigeons have similar right eye dominance, but since they do not use their feet to scratch the ground for food, they have not developed a complementary right footedness.

Even invertebrates, like snails, show laterality. Their shells spiral in either a clockwise or anticlockwise direction. This asymmetry, called ‘chirality’, means that snails can only mate with matching snails.

The presence of laterality in the brains of birds is particularly interesting, as humans had always believed that it could only be possible if there was a corpus callosum in the brain. Avian brains do not have a corpus callosum at all, but still display laterality.

In fact, there is similarity between the avian and human brain when it comes to laterality. The songs of  the song-bird species is also controlled by the left hemisphere. There is also similarity in the syntax of bird songs and human languages. Birds go one better, however, as the brains of birds have both hemispheres working to control singing/language, while humans only possess this ability in one hemisphere.

In the same way, as we humans can open a door with either hand equally, yet struggle to write legibly with our non-dominant hand, complexity of the task appears to be an important factor in the handedness of animals. Animals that do activities requiring significant levels of dexterity, show evidence of a preferred “handedness” .

Italian researchers, Quaranta, Siniscalchi and Vallortigara,  found that dogs wag their tails to the right when they see positive stimuli which they want to approach, and they wag to the left when confronted with something they would like to avoid. This suggests that, just as for people, the right and left halves of the brain do different jobs in controlling emotions.

There is some evidence to suggest that dogs and cats can be right- or left-pawed, although the ratio seems to be more evenly split than in humans. In one study 46% cats used only the right paw in reaching for food, 44% the left, and 10% were ambilateral. One study indicates that laterality in this species is strongly related to temperament. Individuals with stronger paw preferences are rated as more confident, affectionate, active, and friendly. A study at Queen's University Belfast went further, showing that preferences of left/right are based on gender, with 95% of female cats favouring the right paw and 95% of male cats favouring the left. "There is some suggestion that limb preference might be a useful indicator of vulnerability to stress. Ambilateral animals with no preference for one side or the other, and those that are more inclined to left-limb dominance, for example, seem more flighty and susceptible to poor welfare than those who lean more heavily towards right limb use," says Dr Wells of QU, Belfast. She adds: "We have discovered that left-limbed dogs, for example, are more pessimistic in their outlook than right-limbed dogs. From a pet owner's perspective, it might be useful to know if an animal is left or right limb dominant, as it may help them gauge how vulnerable that individual is to stressful situations."

Determining which side of the brain dominates the other could change the way domestic animals are bred, raised, and used, including predicting which puppies will make the best service dogs, and which racehorses will  race better on left or right curving tracks.

So, another myth of man’s superiority bites the dust. 

To join the animal welfare movement contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

  • Written by Denis Giles
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The Heart is a Door

Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

Vegans choose not to eat any animal products - no meat, fish, dairy, eggs, honey or other animal derived ingredients. They avoid fur, leather and wool products, and products that have been tested on animals, such as body care, cosmetics and house hold cleaning goods, or products containing animal ingredients.

The Swedish Ambassador told me that when he gave dinners at his home in Stockholm, if the diners were for people above sixty, he would probably just get meat eaters, but if they were for people under forty, he would, in any gathering of six people, get two vegetarians/vegans.

My Ministry just concluded the fourth national organic mela. 450 stalls. It attracted many thousand people every day. This time we had a vegan section and a vegan food court. It did extremely well – specially the vegan pizzas where the basic cheese was made of cashew. I took my office staff there for lunch and we loved the food.

Someone I know has started an online vegan shopping mall and it has 800 items on it already. He told me that he has no dearth of offers from people who would like to invest in his start up. The problem he has is with finding staff who will promote this properly.

Since more and more people are turning vegan and vegetarian for health reasons, it makes sense to start a vegan business. I just met two entrepreneurs in Nagpur, young boys who have created delicious milk made from almonds, and are now looking for someone to help them bring it to the market.

All over the world vegan businesses are starting up. From Linda McCartney, who is one of the world’s top designers and only does vegan clothes, to Sonal in Gurgaon, who runs a flourishing ice cream business that doesn’t use milk.

For some years I was on the board of an English monthly called The Vegan. It is a very chatty magazine, interviews with stars who have become vegan, vegan events that take place daily in the UK, vegan recipes, and lots of ads from vegan companies. It is over 25 years old and is still making a profit.

Michael Ofei has, on a site called The Minimalist Vegan, listed 38 business ideas that, he believes, will do well and change the appetite of the buyer towards ethical living. I too believe that if the choices were available , people would gravitate towards more ethical ones : garments that were ethically sourced and made, for instance, or delicious vegan sweets and icecreams. I bought a packet of freshly made vegan marshmallows last week and finished them in less than ten minutes!

While the demand for vegan products is now mainstream and rising, the problem is with the supply. We need to help shift the demand by increasing the supply. Here are some of Ofei’s ideas:

Food & Beverages: the obvious one is a vegan restaurant /cafe.

Vegan pizzerias with home delivery options.

Gelato Bar with dairy free ice cream.

Nut Cheese Deli.

A food truck specialising in vegan burgers.

A vegan alcoholic beverage retailer.

Vegan bakery (few people know that breads have egg and milk in them, and are sometimes meat)


Freelance illustrator who services vegan friendly small businesses.

Company accountant or bookkeeper for online vegan entrepreneurs.

Specialist in project managing organic and vegan shop fit-outs.

A social media manager for vegan businesses.

Offer copywriting services to help build the profile of vegan entrepreneurs.

An all vegan childcare centre with community veggie garden.

Vegan wedding blog producing amazing content and advertising ethical wedding brands and services.

A series of online courses teaching people how to cook different vegan cuisines at home. You can become a vegan party chef. Host vegan cooking workshops.

Develop a dating app that accurately connects vegan soulmates together.

Create a concierge service in the form of a mobile app that connects all of the local ethical trades people with vegan customers.


Online vegan shoe retailer.

Organic clothing line specialising in everyday garments like underwear, sweaters, socks.

Tailored vegan suits for men.

Create a makeup line that is vegan, fair trade, organic and eco friendly.

Build a vegan friendly and chemical free nail polish company.


Start an investment fund specifically for ethical businesses.

Become an angel investor for vegan businesses.

Here are some more  ideas of things to make :

Vegan pet food, vegan wine, body care, cosmetics,

Or go big and just open one vegan grocery store with everything in it.

Having a vegan business is great activism. It makes it easier for others to live vegan. So many carnivorous people I know say that they would change their ways partially if they could get vegan products easily and effortlessly. Make the market evolve. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, "Animals are my friends and I don't eat my friends."

It is not difficult to run a vegan business online. All over the world there are thousands of shops offering non leather shoes, boots, bags, belts wallets accessories. Food goodies includes mock meat and dairy products, along with home cleaners, toiletries, cosmetics, skin care, food such as chocolate, jams, chutney, pet care, general grocery items and household items.  When I say vegan stores, I mean those with earth sustaining products: no animal testing, no harsh chemicals, no palm oil (India is the largest importer of palm oil and, not only is it dangerous for health, it is grown by destroying millions of acres of forest and turning it into plantations. The Orangutan is one of the many species that now face extinction because of it ), and mostly locally sourced products so that fuel is not wasted in transport. Even the packaging is ethical and non plastic.

What are the items that should not be in vegan shops: T-Shirts that are made of BT Cotton (they should say ‘organic cotton”), vitamins and sweets that contain gelatine, palm oil as I said earlier, white sugar which is refined using bone, bone china, white paper or any white coloured product (bleach kills everything in the sea), chemical dyes of any kind (Rajasthan has lost most of its rivers due to these dyes. I went to see a river, near Udaipur, on my way to Sojat village which grows all the mehndi in India . The river was blood red and carcasses and the bones of animals and birds, who had drunk from it, littered its banks.) I certainly don’t agree with vegan shops that sell silver, gold and semi precious or precious stones, even if they make them into cute little animals. All these are mined on forest land, and millions of animals lose their lives in the process. Why not have amazing glass jewellery instead. Silk, wool, leather, fur, suede, feathers, coral, beewax, pearls, anything made of bone; definite no-nos

To run a credible vegan shop, one has to be very discerning and look at every ingredient of every item. It is difficult to find biscuits that do not have palm oil in them, for instance. But they do exist.

I have often said that the heart is a door. When it opens, it opens for all. Most vegan shops go out of their way to see that that not only are the products made of sustainable material, but also that they use less water and are not made in sweatshops (paying low wages for long hours of work to poor people). Some go even further and source products from democratic countries only (where do they find these ??) 

To join the animal welfare movement contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

  • Written by Denis Giles
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The Siddhi I Wish I Had

By Maneka Sanjay Gandhi

A friend of mine feeds the crows in Mumbai. He calls them by name and they come to feed. But while the birds listen to him, he, of course, can’t understand a single word they say.

That is the siddhi I wish I had.

In mythology and medieval literature the language of the birds is considered divine, a language used by the birds to communicate with only the initiated.

Birds communicate with animals – ravens lead wolves to prey and then feed off the remains. The Greater Honeyguide bird leads bears to forest beehives and eats the leftovers.

In Norse mythology the power to understand bird language was considered the ultimate wisdom. The god Odin had two ravens, called Huginn and Muninn, who flew around the world and told Odin what happened among mortal men. The legendary king of Sweden, Dag the Wise, had a sparrow which flew around and brought back news to him. According to the Poetic Edda and the Völsunga saga, the 9th century Viking hero Sigurd was given this gift of understanding, and his life was saved as he listened to  birds discussing an enemy’s plans to kill him.

Jason was an ancient Greek mythological hero, a descendent of the messenger god Hermes. His quest for the Golden Fleece features in Greek literature. He assembled a band of heroes whose tales have been recounted for 3000 years now. They sailed in the ship Argo and were collectively called the Argonauts. The figurehead of Argo, Jason’s ship, was built of oak from the sacred grove at Dodona and could speak the language of birds.

In the Talmud of the Jews, King Solomon’s proverbial wisdom was due to his being granted the understanding of the language of birds by God. This carries over into the Quran where Suleiman (Solomon) and David both knew the language of birds.

The Conference of the Birds is a beautiful Sufi poem written by the 12th Century Persian poet Attar of Nishapur. The story begins with a meeting of all of the world’s birds to decide who will be their sovereign. The hoopoe, the wisest of all, proposes finding the simurgh (a mythical, benevolent bird related to the Phoenix) to resolve the dilemma. The poem describes their journey and the moral learning they encounter along their way.

The concept of the hero being given the gift of understanding bird language. either by some magical transformation, or as a reward for a good deed in folk tales, extends across the world - including Welsh, Russian, German, Estonian, Greek and Romany.

In the Jewish Kabbalah astrology and alchemy, the language of the birds, also called the Green Language, is considered a secret and perfect language and the key to perfect knowledge. The language was supposed to have been scripted by the Egyptian bird headed god Thoth. The Egyptians considered hieroglyphic writing "the alphabet of the birds.”

The Raven in Native American Indian lore is the bearer of magic, and a harbinger of messages from the cosmos. Messages that are beyond space and time are nestled in the black wings of the raven and come to only those in the tribe who are worthy of the knowledge.

This ability to use grammar is the essence of language. It is not enough to know the meanings of words, the structures and rules by which words are put together have to be understood. The view has been that humans are unique in this ability. Now scientists have found that songbirds have the same ability. Like us they learn the language by imitating their elders. But as they practice to develop their ability, they  improvise and string together new songs and, over generations, these modified songs turn into new dialects. And, like us, they come hard-wired with ‘speech-centers’ in their brain that are dedicated to language processing.

An experiment from 2009, by Fehér and colleagues, took newly hatched songbirds of the zebra finch species and raised them in sound proof chambers. They did this during their critical period of language development. These birds were raised in a world without song. But when they got together these isolated birds began to develop their own songs. These songs were less musical than typical songbird song - they had irregular rhythms, the notes stuttered and sounded noisier. But, in time, the songs became more like the songs of the wild songbirds, even though none of these birds had ever heard wild songs. Which means they had an innate understanding of the structures/grammar of their language. That is that finches who have never head the birdsong of their elders still absorb many of these grammatical rules.

A study by Kentaro Abe and Dai Watanabe, published in Nature magazine, focused on a species of songbird called Bengalese finches. A song bird responds to a song with its own song (we call it song but it is normal conversation).

The researchers kept playing the same song and the bird lost interest after a while and did not respond. Then they altered it slightly and got a response ('who are you' became 'why are you', for instance.)

The researchers taught grammar to the birds  by inventing a set of grammatical rules, and generating 50 songs that obeyed these rules. They repeated these songs to the birds for an hour, like a schoolteacher drilling 50 sentences into a new pupil. They then waited 5 minutes, and played the birds a new song that either fit this grammatical rule or broke the rule. The birds responded to the correct grammatical sentences, whereas the ungrammatical sentences ruffled their feathers. The birds were able to assimilate the rules of this new grammar!

What is the biological driving force behind this talent for grammar? Our brains have specific regions that 'light up' when we listen to a grammatically invalid construction. A specific area of the brain known as Broca's region has the ability to understand and produce grammatical speech. Scientists claim to have identified regions in the finches' brains that do the same.

So, birds have a proper language. Alas, I have not received the gift of being able to understand it. 

To join the animal welfare movement contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

  • Written by Denis Giles
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