What do owls and Martin Luther King have in common?

The answer: They both dream.

This year, Elmwood Park Zoo wanted to honor Martin Luther King Day by offering free admission and an educational program.  Education Manager Sam Navarino brought out some furry and feathered friends to illustrate the human-to-animal dreaming connection.

Until animals develop the ability to talk, we'll never know if they have "dreams" as we understand them -- metaphorical scenarios that in some way replicate life.  But Navarino said studies have shown that animals do experience brain activity similar to ours when they sleep, and that interfering with those "dream" periods will throw off the animal's survival instincts.

In one experiment, rats were let loose in an open field. A normal rat would immediately run to find cover or get up against the fence.  "Rats need to have something touching them in order to feel comfortable," Navarino said.  But rats that had been kept from dreaming before the experiment just sat in the open field. 

The same thing happened when the researchers gave rats a pile of food.  Normal rats would nibble slowly, to make sure the food was safe to eat.  But the dream-deprived rats gobbled it all up with no regard for their safety. After the rats were allowed to dream again, they started acting normally. 

Admittedly, the connection sounds tenuous.  I doubt MLK was talking about REM sleep and survival instincts when he wrote "I have a dream."  But as Navarino told the group of about 50 parents and children: "Dreams help us survive.  They help us rehearse, or practice for real life."  In that sense, King's dream was both metaphorical and primal; he imagined a world that didn't exist and, by sharing his dream, helped prepare society for its eventual realization.

Chew on that, rats.

Here are some more interesting facts and theories from Navarino's talk:

  • Human dreams are 5 to 15 minutes long, and we usually have about four nightmares per night.
  •  Animals might have significance in our own dreams.  Rats mean you're feeling nervous.  Skunks mean you're pushing someone away.  Opossums mean you're not responding well to a difficult situation.  Owls mean that a change is coming. 

  • A rat can open a refrigerator door with its mouth.

  • Skunks can spray up to 12 feet away. And they have great aim and control -- they can make a stream or a spray, depending on their target.
  • Tomato juice DOES NOT get rid of skunk smell.  Instead, make a shampoo of dishwasher detergent, peroxide and citrus (use in a well-ventilated area).
  • Opossums and possums are not the same.  The ones native to North America are opossums. 
  • When opossums play dead, they poop themselves.
  • Opossum babies are so small that 13 of them will fit into 1 tablespoon.

  • Owls' ears are not located symmetrically.  The offset helps them triangulate their prey.

Happy MLK Day everyone!