Tuesday, May 31, 2011

More Dogs of War

From Rebecca Frankel, War Dog, Foreign Policy
Memorial Day, a time to honor the nation's soldiers, has just passed. The debate over U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq continues. For many, the killing of Osama Bin Laden by the U.S. military Seal Team 6 is a heroic success and a highpoint of the War on Terror. It shares something with one of the lowpoints of that war--the abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib--and that's the use of dogs. A dog was also dropped by helicopter at Abbottabad because a dog's nose still outdoes high tech devices in the quickness and accuracy of its detections.
Dogs, like people, can be happy and placid. Also like people, they've evolved to be socialized predators who can call up or fall into aggressive tendencies. Canines were domesticated not just for fuzzy warmth but for their ability to guard and attack. (Most everyone has heard that domesticated dogs bark far more than wild canids, presumably because the bark was useful to owners with poorer hearing abilities.) The deployment of dogs against an enemy has a long, complex history. Among the most horrendous examples was the use of dogs to catch, control, and intimidate slaves. During the early 1800s in Haiti, the colonizing French used starved dogs to attack, kill, and even eat rebelling slaves. Historian Sara Johnson has written about the use and training of these dogs and quotes a contemporary indictment of the slave managers for “not merely returning to the barbarism of the earliest periods, but descending to the characters of assassins and executions; and removing the boundaries which civilization had prescribed even to war, rendering it a wild conflict of brutes and a midnight massacre.” (Sara E. Johnson,  "'You Should Give them Blacks to Eat': Waging Inter-American Wars of Torture and Terror" American Quarterly 61.1 March 2009: 65-92).  For a number of animal rights adherents, people should never force an animal to do anything that would not be in the animal's own best interest. Nor should unwitting dogs be put in harm's way.
However, if someone you know is deployed to a military zone, you might hope that he or she has the best bomb-detecting device known. And that device probably has four legs. The U. S. Military has become increasing aware of dogs' value and of the imperative to treat them well during and after active service. Rebecca Frankel of Foreign Policy has been documenting the roles of dogs in combat, and one of her photos shows a Lab lolling blissfully with handlers,
Rebecca Frankel, War Dogs

For her running commentary on dogs in and after service, see the Foreign Policy site.
While Frankel focuses on the amazing talents of these dogs, some other commentaries point to more dubious issues. Gardiner Harris, writing for The New York Times, notes that "dogs can be used to pacify an unruly group of people — particularly in the Middle East. 'There is a cultural aversion to dogs in some of these countries, where few of them are used as pets,” Major Roberts said. “Dogs can be very intimidating in that situation.' Sergeant Mylott said that dogs got people’s attention in ways that weapons sometimes did not. 'Dogs can be an amazing psychological deterrent,' she said."
Like the soldiers, the dogs follow orders, so the orders had better be good. Also like soldiers they shouldn't be completely docile and reactive. I've heard a dog-trainer, who used to train dogs for the army and now trains them for airport duty, say that they dog has to have an independent will to find something. The dog can't just look at the handler for the answer, after all.
Putting dogs in harm's way--that remains a big issue. But they are hardly seen as disposable by their handlers or by the people who invest significant time and money in training them. Rebecca Frankel's photo essay makes that point repeatedly.

Other war dog links:
See this blog, for April 10, 2011, on Lt. Col. Jay Kopelman's book, From Baghdad, With Love;
NPR Bomb-Sniffing Dogs;
CBC news on a run-away dog;
The Wall Street Journal on a shell-shocked dog;
Not every handler and dog return: fromThe Guardian earlier this spring.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Updates on Severe Storm Damage

Mom, Where am I?

A sandhill crane glided over the highway today, her stylus head pointing home. At least I assumed she had a home. In North Minneapolis, her cousins the crook-necked herons lost homes to a sudden and severe tornado over the weekend--some lost lives and chicks. And some were rescued, according to a report in the StarTribune.  
The great blue heron is not an endangered species--though there is concern their wetlands may be lost. After last weekend's tornado that ruined a rookery, they might not nest again in this area. Just as it's difficult for people who had homes flattened by unforgiving winds and huge falling trees, it's difficult for wildlife to recover in a blasted place.
The needs of devastated people are so intense following natural disasters that it's hard to consider animal needs. But there will never be a day when all  human needs are met and then it's animals' turn. We are all part of what philosopher Mary Midgley calls a mixed community--we grow up with animals and we can't imagine our earthly life without them.
When the Army Corps of Engineers warned that the flood gates must be opened north of New Orleans to protect large populations, a camouflage-attired officer stressed that the water must rise gradually, to give residents like birds, deer, and bear time to evacuate safely. Not all make it, especially when storms keep piling up the water.

The image above from the Global Animal website shows a frightened yearling on a submerged roof. We feel for the deer, but we may be terrified of the snakes that also flee their homes and not just water but cottonmouths show up in basements. Tennessee wildlife manager Jereme Odom, as quoted by that website, noted that turkey nests and young are being lost to the waters and displaced predators, though he also saw unusual truces:
"We’ve seen photos of herds of deer on levees trying to get away from the waters and heard from the Army Corps of Engineers that they’ve seen deer drowned during the flood . . . One of our wildlife managers even spotted deer and coyotes standing on the same levee together.”
For more coverage of fleeing wildlife, see the National Wildlife Federation's dramatic reports and images. For a theory on why 500 year floods now happen within a few years of each other, see Miles Grant's views on climate change, in a blog linked to the NWF website: not everyone agrees with the explanations he's gathered, but the other views also acknowledge the problems caused by human alterations--specifically the complex levee and dam systems. The now seeming impossible task of controlling on of the earth's most significant river systems was outlined decades ago by John McPhee in The New Yorker.
In many communities, local humane organizations are trying coordinate their efforts with community and national groups to address the needs of people and of their pets and neighboring wildlife during a crisis. Global Animal Foundation claims its mission is to be like a Red Cross for animals, but I do not know anything about the group's track record and would be glad to hear more about its track record.
Meanwhile, don't pray for rain.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Golden Spring

The sun has been reluctant to boldly show a face this spring, as if guided by a Shakespearean sonnet in letting "the basest clouds to ride / With ugly rack on his celestial face." Not that the clouds are really ugly, but they do make the spring feel more Brit than Midwest with moist air and shaded landscapes.
When the sun does appear through leaves still unfurling, another poet comes to mind, another master of verse and transience:

                          Nothing Gold Can Stay
                        Nature's first green is gold,
                        Her hardest hue to hold.
                        Her early leaf's a flower;
                        But only so an hour.
                        Then leaf subsides to leaf.
                        So Eden sank to grief,
                        So dawn goes down to day.
                        Nothing gold can stay.
                                         Robert Frost

As the North's brief spring yields rosy blossoms and the territorial claims of birds, The Random Animal is reading Lord of Misrule and researching dogs in the military. More on those topics to come. . .


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Enough Orioles to Make A Team

Who gets the girl?

Even in rain, spring has a sweetness. Put out jam, and the orioles will come. A flock was making its way up the Mississippi to even cooler North. A few, though, had to drop nest makings to imbibe the sugar. Arriving with them, another indigo bunting who came to a feeder but quickly fled, a hermit thrush hopping along on the ground for some time, a kinglet who could be heard much better than seen, the very audible and very visible red-bellied woodpecker, and high in the canopy the unmistakeable scarlet tanager winged in black. Already present for several weeks--swifts over the water and goldfinches by the feeders--and hummingbirds seeking the first blossoms.
In the brush, a male jay courted a female with cries, clicks, and head-bobbing. She seemed unimpressed yet lingered. Then they disappeared for a private moment.
Who you lookin' at?

Coming soon: the serious side of rain on the Southern Mississippi and the potential impact of floods on animals; and the seedy side of horse racing. . .

Saturday, May 14, 2011

In the Realm of the Senses

Feeling New and Blue
Older, but Blue at Heart
Realize that you're not just a mind, but an embodied presence. Realize that who you are, what you sense, what you feel, are interwoven with the active environment that swirls about and through you. Realize that your health and that of your world depends on those half-realized connections. These are the insights, the Emersonian-transparent-eyeball-I-See-You moments of a) some Hollywood Sci-Fi Blockbuster in 3-D with hypothyroid Smurf-Cat-People on Pandora;  b) a poetic reflection on self and nature by a phenomenologist, a Shellyean sensitive plant, to be devoured by those who have heard of a place long ago and faraway called "Walden."
It was pure coincidence that I finally saw James Cameron's film Avatar as I was reading David Abram's Becoming Animal.  Both Cameron and Abram have magical powers: one using technology to create a paradise and the other practicing sleight-of-hand tricks to support himself as he traveled the world.  The title of Abrams' book intrigued me, but it is not about specific parallels between species like dogs and humans. (For that, seek out crazy-for-neolgisms Donna Haraway, or Watcher of Ape Sex Frans de Waal.) Rather, it rejects the remnants of mind-body dualism to immerse the embodied self in "the inherent dynamism of the present moment." "This is a book," Abram writes, "about becoming a two-legged animal, entirely a part of the animate world whose life swells within and unfolds all around us. It seeks a new way of speaking, one that enacts our interbeing with the earth rather than blinding us to it."
Well said for any Na'vi, and not a new realization for Abrams, whose previous work, The Spell of the Sensuous, draws upon the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961). Calling the latter a French "thinker" seems problematic because it sounds so--heady, and Merleau-Ponty stressed the role of physical sensation in human cognition and human awareness as embedded in a physical environment. The phenomenologist understands how the mind experiences a green thought in a green shade.  The Spell of the Sensuous takes a more theoretical approach to these issues, while Becoming Animal opens with lovely evocations of the writer moving through and in landscapes as he imagines animals must. He is his own Avatar. Later in the book, Abrams invokes like-minded figures who eschew Rene Descartes' emphasis on abstract reason for a "turn toward the body": besides Merleau-Ponty, the list includes Spinoza, biologist Francisco Varela, cognitive linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, and Antonio Pamasio.
In one chapter, "The Real in Its Wonder," Abram begins with a quotation from a "Carrier Indian, from British Columbia," a passage that could pass as advice from a Na'vi to former Marine Jake Sully embodied in Blue: "The white man writes everything down in a book so that it will not be forgotten; but our ancestors married animals, learned all their ways, and passed on this knowledge from one generation to another." Abrams, by expressing and gently analyzing his own entanglement with earthly energies and materials, tries to move from romanticized nostalgia to potential experience. He does not, however, seem to have sensors at the end of a braid that interweave with other beings of the planet.
A planet where there seems to be no need for plumbing or dieting, no winter or rough weather. The question posed by Cameron's Avatar is, can technology recover what technology destroyed? Sully, with useless legs, recovers bodily life through extremely high tech movie-science in which (what would Descartes say) his mind seems to detach from the body that limits his spirit, to soar in a new blue form that is a wonder of genetic engineering.  Now a Na'vi blueblood, he can use sensors at the end of a warrior braid to connect with sacred ground and flying dino-dragons. And, on the meta-level, can a film that lives and breathes the artifice of special effects connect people to an earth, where to paraphrase another sensitive soul, Nature is oft without her diadem? The film was wildly popular, but as Na'vi-tale escapism or as influence on mundane habits?
The premises of David Abram's book are valid, but not new. He breathes the spirit of Wordsworth, Thoreau, John Muir, Terry Tempest Williams. It is an extended prose poem employing the abstractions of words to enliven the flesh, and may be a thoughtful companion to read chapters at leisure. (It seemed to have much sameness for a steady read-through.) Abram is not exactly preaching to the choir, but more broadly to those who think they might like to hear this choir.
As for James Cameron, can he continue to use Hollywood tech and marketing to return our embodied essences to sustainable bliss?