I have fainted only once in my life – half way through a normal conversation with friends. My husband was so frightened he called my mother and I woke to find my head on her lap. No one has ever figured out why it happened. I have had one panic attack – in which I simply could not breathe – related to losing my passport abroad just before a flight home !
A faint is caused when the brain is abruptly deprived of oxygen and blood. One reason is physical: when we stand up too fast, for instance. The cause of the emotionally triggered faint has yet to be discovered – men who faint when their wives are delivering a baby, people who received news of death.
Are humans the only species that suffer from such terror that the brain shuts down? No. Animals faint as well. When animals perceive a mortal threat, they are supposed to do two things: fight or run. But they do a third as well: they faint. You know how terror feels: the pounding of the heart, the tightening of the head, the nausea and then the heart suddenly slows down and the blood pressure goes down. The brain shuts the system down by fainting. The same thing happens to the animal.
The slowing of the heart induced by fears has been recorded in hundreds of species: rabbits, fawns, guinea pigs, pigs, monkeys, squirrels, mice, alligators and many kinds of fish. Dogs and cats faint when they are restrained against their will, which is a terrifying situation for many animals. Believe it or not, some pets faint when they see injection needles. Wild animals from chimpanzees to owls faint when they see their blood being drawn. Little birds like canaries, quails and robins faint when held. There is a little goat who, when startled, feels such strong panic that its muscles freeze and it collapses on one side. While young goats keel over, older ones learn to spread their legs or lean against something when startled. This species is now known as the fainting goat. They are raised as pets as they are friendly, intelligent, easy to keep, and amusing. They are also raised for meat and faint all the way to the slaughterhouse. Unfortunately while their fainting causes their muscles to freeze up they remain fully conscious. Every year there is a festival in Tennessee, USA, built around the Fainting Goat , in which they are constantly made to faint to amuse the tourists.
Scientists have said there are two types of fainting: Tonic immobility which is an involuntary reflex action when the muscles freeze up. And Thanatosis in which the animal pretends to play dead. Thanatosis is known as “playing dead” or “playing possum “ - animals take on the appearance of being dead to an observer as a form of defence. The most famous is the Virginia Opossum who will curl up and let the tongue hang out to play dead.
But there is no doubt that both are caused by terror.
The shark may have been painted unfairly to be a threatening creature. In fact it suffers from fainting spells which last upto fifteen minutes. Scientists have experimented that in Tiger sharks, tonic immobility may be achieved by placing one’s hands lightly on the sides of the animal's snout near its eyes. Some fish faint when turned upside down. Predatory fish like Orcas purposely induce tonic immobility in stingrays. They turn themselves upside down before attacking, trap the stingrays in their mouths, then quickly right themselves, flipping the stingray over, inducing tonic immobility and getting an easy meal.
Millipedes and lizards also enter this state of immobilizing paralysis when faced with predators. Stress can occur in the lobster by stroking a particular area of a lobster's shell or holding a hen's head to a line drawn in the dirt. One method of fishing is called 'trout tickling' whereby the fish is rubbed on the underbelly until it faints and can be easily thrown onto the bank.
Hens in cages rather than pens, hens on the top tier of tiered battery cages, hens carried by hand and hens undergoing longer transportation times faint many times in a day. So would you in similar conditions.
The Oscar is an energetic aquarium fish always on the go. But when an oscar gets stressed – for instance from the aquarium being cleaned- they faint . They lose colour, lie on their sides and breathe very slowly. Their fins stop moving. For all intents and purposes they look dead. They come to only when the danger is past.
When fire ants are under attack from neighbouring colonies , experience shows. Days-old workers react to aggression by fainting, weeks-old workers responded by fleeing, and months-old workers responded by fighting back.
What scientists call death feigning or thanatosis could well be a temporary faint.
The opossum may have chosen to faint but it actually is unconscious. The Hog–Nosed Snake rolls onto its back and appears to be dead when threatened by a predator, while a foul-smelling, volatile fluid oozes from its body. Predators, such as cats lose interest in the snake, which looks and smells dead. Newly-hatched young show this behaviour when rats try to eat them. Europe's grass snake goes limp when it is picked up and stays in character even when it is put down. The wasp and the cricket do the same. And so does the Ragdoll cat. Why do some animals act dead when threatened by a predator? The commonly held belief is that many animals, including snakes, bison, chickens, rabbits, and, of course, opossum, act dead to discourage those who would eat them.
Sometimes a faint helps the animal. A duck pursued by baby foxes faints and is avoided by them. Most animals defecate and urinate when fainting and this smell repulses the predator. A slow heart beat in a terrified fawn prevents it from skittering about and alerting the predator and its stillness sometimes saves it. Female robber-flies, who are sometimes seized by a male with the intent of rape, faint. The male loses interest in a lifeless partner and lets go.
Building a strong intelligent defence is a trait that is fundamental to all species.
Puffing yourself to look bigger, hiding, screaming, running, fighting with every weapon you have are some standard defences. The body has evolved fainting as another.
Pl. add: To join the animal welfare movement contact email@example.com, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org
*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*