Sunday, July 31, 2011

Prostitution, TV, the Saving Animal, and, Surprise Surprise, Good News From D.C.

Alex, the Gray Parrot trained by Irene Pepperberg, choosing an activity other than TV watching.

"Prostitutes to Parrots" is the title of a new program that features Heidi Fleiss. Back in the old days of the 1990s, she became infamous for running a Hollywood Brothel and for landing in prison for tax evasion. Her reform over the interim has been supported by what the New York Times calls "the greasy runoff of reality television." The next phases of her career begins Sunday night on Animal Planet. The cameras will follow her life with 20 brilliantly colored macaws. In a preview, Heidi explains how she used to have millions, but then the Federal Government got to her. (The fed. gov. isn't getting any good publicity lately--having once gotten Heidi's ill-gotten gains is not enough cushion against default.) Now Heidi is looking for ways to support the macaws. Animals have given her a new lease on life, and now she needs ways to keep that lease solvent.
Another "celebrity" whose life is taking a new turn is Rosanne Barr, famous for being Rosanne Barr. Her eponymous show equated working class and honest with crude and blunt and funny. She's still uninhibited, busy in Hawaii growing macadamias in the company of goats--goats she claims are judgmental. Apparently there's a running battle with wild pigs. All profiled on the Lifetime channel as "Rosanne's Nuts." The New York Times again sums up the impact of macaws, goats, nuts, and pigs: "Animals bring out a glimmer of humanity in even the most synthetic narcissists.

It's wonderful to have some distraction during the debt-ceiling crisis which is actually a faux crisis according to some sources like The Economist--in that you only have to say/vote--let's have a higher limit!  But organizations like Audubon Society are tracking legislation and while dream programs may not be possible in an economy that still trying to find a fresh way out of old and new dilemmas, there is actually "Good News from Washington, DC." A bipartisan effort kept the Endangered Species act from being gutted. Mike Daulton of Audubon explains:
"This historic vote demonstrates the strong support that exists for protecting our nation’s most imperiled wildlife.  We applaud the 224 members of Congress who supported the amendment sponsored by Representatives Norm Dicks (D-WA), Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Mike Thompson (D-CA), and Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) striking language from the Interior and Environment bill that would have dismantled endangered species protections. Without the amendment, this bill would have crippled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and driven imperiled plants and animals to extinction. Passage of the amendment brings hope that both parties ultimately will reject extremist assaults on America’s great natural heritage.”For more, see the Audubon website.
On a side note, some unendangered species appeared in my neighborhood this hot weekend: wide-winged eagles over the boat-busy river and the long-limbed sandhill cranes slow-marching through new-mown fields.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Ecstatic Animal

Photo from, credit Amanda

Can a pig smile? Is the dog really happy you walked through the door? Is the cat smug that she swallowed the canary? (The canary is, at this point, not happy.)
Talking of animal emotion sounds like the stuff of fairy tales and myths, with their addiction to anthropomorphism and creatures that talk. In an over-correction to humanized animals, modern science avoided attributing emotion to animals and focused on behavior responses and adaptations. Defenders of animals often focused on mistreatment and observable physical harm, though they certainly entertained the idea that animals could be miserable. On this topic,  Eighteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham is often quoted on animal feeling: "the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?" (Bentham's ideas are often overshadowed by the bizarre example of his mummified body in London. For this treat, watch a mini-lecture on "Bentham's Corpse and Corpus".)
If animals can suffer, can't they also experience its opposite? Dr. Jonathan Balcombe, who has been researching animal awareness for some time, documents the possibilities with a new book that presents photographs from many sources that appear to document tangible animal emotions.  The book, The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure, was recently reviewed by Katherine Bouton for The New York Times. In evolutionary terms, pain serves some useful purposes, discouraging a being from pursuing destructive activities, and the same could be said of pleasure--it encourages life-sustaining activities, like eating, sex, let's see, sex, and other stuff too.
Sometimes with animals (including the human one) the pleasure principle can get out of hand. You've experienced this if you've ever played fetch with a retriever that won't stop or had a cat be very insistent about curling up in your lap whenever your lap appears. Balcombe shares this interesting lab rat tale: "Rats will enter a deadly cold room and navigate a maze to retrieve highly palatable food (e.g., shortbread, pate or Coca-Cola.)" If the goodies have been replaced with high-fiber, low-sugar chow, "they quickly return to their cozy nests, where they stay for the remainder of the experiment."
The Exultant Ark is a picture book to an extent, and explanations are probably more detailed in Balcombe's earlier book, Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good.
Bolcombe's cover photo in the above book and an image in the NY Times review feature pigs, animals that in many farm situations do not have opportunities for play or contact that might be construed as affectionate. Current hog production for the food market is often faulted for its use of "farrowing crates." The theory: the sow is confined to a crate with bars that keep her from standing or rolling, to prevent her from crushing her piglets or eating them. (From what I gather, the eating is not common and tends to happen with a piglet that is sickly or already dead.) What I don't know at this point is how much of her year a sow spends in such a crate--one week or many months? For pro-crate views on hogs and hog babies, see ThePigSite: Pig Health. The same web source also mentions alternatives, with an emphasis on the outside pressures on pork producers to provide better animal welfare. See Alternative Farrowing Accomodation.  Jonathan Balcombe, a self-described animal activist on his website, is not focused on high pork output but on the implications that an understanding of animal feeling will have on ethics. Animal life in his view is not or should not be mere grim survival. He intends to "debunk the popular perception that life for most is a continuous, grim struggle for survival and the avoidance of pain. Instead he suggests that creatures from birds to baboons feel good thanks to play, sex, touch, food, anticipation, comfort, aesthetics, and more."

Two parting thoughts:
Are animals happy because they don't have politicians?
Rats will endure a freezing maze for Coke, but would they do the same for Diet Pepsi?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sympathies to Norway

Book reviews and commentary will return in a few days. In the land of Norwegian-American immigrants, the thoughts of the people are directed toward their ancestral homeland after the bombing in Oslo and shooting at a youth camp. For more on that story, see The New York Times.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Designer Dogs

The presidential Labradoodle

Ah, the neologisms and compound fractured labels of dog breeding: labradoodle, cockapoo, puggle, Maltipom, "Frankendog." The last is imagined in a Bloomberg Businessweek article. The focus is the tension between "designer dog" breeders and established organizations, like the AKC (American Kennel Club), which support traditional "purebred" practices. Not surprisingly, money is involved. As the article explains, "while purebred puppies generally run $500 to $1000, designer dogs often cost 25 percent to 50 percent more." On the other hand, the AKC receives revenue for the cost of purebred registration, and at this point designer dogs cannot be registered as a proper breed. The Bloomberg piece outlines well the conflict between old breed groups and new designer groups like America's Pet Registry (APRI). While there are some warnings about combos gone wrong, like a German shepherd head on a dachsund chassis, the article does not address the serious genetic issues on both sides of the breeding fence.
If you have a purebred dog--Golden retriever, Labrador retriever, Cocker spaniel--you may have already learned the expensive or painful way that many of these dogs come with genetic predispositions to cancer, hip dysplasia, or blindness.  These problems occur, according to groups like the AKC, when breeders get sloppy and greedy. But critics of strict "breed standards" and the culture of purebred dog development see a broader problem.  London veterinarian Bruce Fogle, who has written several books on dogs, sees the human pursuit of extreme breed standards as endangering dog health. In a TV documentary "A Man and His Dogs" hosted by British actor Martin Clunes, Fogle talks of breeds (like the English bulldog) that must be delivered by Caesarean section because the puppies' heads are too big, and he shows one of the surgeries dogs endure for musculoskeletal disorders that have a genetic root. A counter argument is that responsible breeders pay attention to the health of a pedigree and the danger is in breeding for a mass market and ready profit. However, James Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School is very dubious about dog-show culture and the quest for breed standards. In his research, Serpell has drawn attention to the emphasis on idealized appearance in dog breeding, with the Collie as case in point. The breed's early specimens generally had stockier heads and legs and looked more like an all-round working animal. Now Collies have slender and seemingly refined limbs and noses. The Barbi-fication of Lassie.
When Labradoodles first arrived on the scene, I heard a vet speculate that such crossing could freshen the genetic pool. But there were caveats. If you had two healthy dogs of each species, the cross might escape some of the inherited problems. However, if dog breeders keep crossing labradoodle with labradoodle, in-breeding problems would re-occur.
A fictional resolution is imagined in the novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. The central family of the story breeds dogs for character and temperament in a quest for a transcendent human/canine bond. Even with a relative disregard to breed purity, there's still concern about potentially bad pairings. (Of course, the worst pairings in the Hamlet-influenced story are human.) While the novel suggests indirectly that the same genetic material can lead to very different outcomes with the Good Brother and the Bad Brother, it also refers to breeders' need to know what they're getting. This is particularly the case in the breeding of service dogs for military-police duties and for assistance to people who are highly dependent on the dog's skills and temperament.
Letting dogs mate willy-nilly may sound like Nature's solution to breeding problems. Except in the past that led to unwanted dogs and an overpopulation of animals--and high rates of neglect and euthanasia.
While the magazine article focuses more on the economic rivalries of purebred and designer groups, the scientific and ethical debate about  breeding practices will loom large for some time to come. You can get a "Morkie" (Maltese and Yorkshire terrier) that's teacup size--but why?

Is Coke my Mom?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Animals in the Economic Downturn

This week, the Random Animal has been shuttling back and forth between a state with no functioning government (Minnesota-The Great Shut Down) and a state with a government some want to recall (Wisconsin-Walker Vs. Unions ).  For "functioning" government, maybe we have to go national. Wait--there's the debt ceiling crisis and politicians being as cooperative as alley cats in heat. Go international? Hmm, Greece, Italy, Ireland.... ?
All right, that was a low blow against alley cats, which like many animals suffer more when human institutions and economies go into a frenzy.  The July 4-10 edition Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine  has an article on the "Collateral Damage" of state budget cuts, complete of a photo of scary, invasive, Giant Carp (no bad jokes, please, about Giant Carp in DC). It lists a number of programs cut or reduced, several which impact animal life. Bedbugs might benefit and have a greater chance to thrive, because of a "50 percent cut in funding for the Integrated Pest Management program, a division of the state-funded Cornell Cooperative Extension research center." Carp may also get an assist upriver. In Minnesota  there's a proposed cut to a dam project meant to keep Asian carp from moving into northern rivers and lakes, where they displace native species. Animal control services have also been cut back in many areas, including one near Tampa. In some cases, this means that there are no sponsored programs for handling stray or feral cats. Individuals, on their own initiatives, might harass or harm the cats; others may put humane effort into trapping them and neutering them. With or without government shutdowns, high foreclosure and high unemployment has meant more dogs, cats, and other pets surrendered to shelters or abandoned. And many humane organizations have seen a drop-off in donations.
You could google gov't programs in your area to see how the economy is affecting wild and domestic species, but the chances are no one is budgeted to update the website. One active site talks of federal coordination of carp-control programs.  IF there is not resolution of the federal budget crisis, it's not just hot-air homo sapiens who will suffer.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Water for Elephants, Execution, and Sanctuary

Rather behind the many readers who made Sara Gruen's book a bestseller, I finished Water for Elephants. It is an exciting story about a man who ran away to join the circus, twice in a sense, and yes, there is an elephant, along with a very attractive woman, a mystery, and liberty horses. Questing man, alluring girl, suspense, the largest land mammal, and horses--what more could one want?
The book does not attempt to be a literary tour de force, like Franzen's Freedom, or an imaginatively distinctive interpretation of human and animal connections, like Gordon's Lord of Misrule (books previously reviewed on this blog). It is NOT an anti-circus or anti-captivity, though it certainly details cruelties and abuses to circus animals and circus humans. But the novel is lively and well told and grants some animals "agency"--the ability to act on their own will and behalf.
Agency intersects with morality and justice: if you can choose your actions, you can decide to be ethical--or unethical. Evolutionary psychologists and animal behaviorists have been studying how large human abstractions like "moral" and "just" relate to behavior that is not just human. Many primates have a sense of reciprocity and fair play; if Capuchin monkey A sees that he only gets 3 grapes for performing the same task as monkey B who gets 10 (!), monkey number 1 stops trying to even get those 3 grapes. (Frans de Waal writes about primate ethics and empathy.) Does this mean the same laws should be applied to animals as to humans? In notes to her novel, Gruen tells of elephant "executions" that occurred after an elephant had killed a person. In 1916, the elephant Mary was hanged in Tennessee. The hanging seemed motivated not by any clear understanding of justice, but human, or "inhuman," desires for control, publicity, and horrifying spectacle. Gruen also refers to the electrocution of Topsy, who had killed 3 handlers.  It turned into a bizarre science experiment involving Thomas Edison. A Wikipedia entry, "Execution by Elephant," also claims that some rulers had elephants trained to kill and torture humans.
All these events sound absolutely unthinkable now. Nonetheless, humans are often at a loss when a captive animal poses a threat or is killed. A red wolf that escaped his confines at the Minnesota Zoo was quickly killed, considered by staff the safer response that a tranquilizing attempt. When a "killer" whale killed a trainer at Sea World, he--Tilikum--remained alive and after a year returned to performing (without a nearby human). The orca Tilikum is considered responsible for 3 human deaths and his case raises all kinds of questions about predators in captivity, about what is "just" with an animal, and about what is tolerated when an animal is valuable as a breeder and crowd-catcher. Is Tilikum's behavior an aberration and reaction to stress in captivity, as some a spokesperson for Animal Legal Defense Fund suggests?
I have found no account of orcas in the wild killing people, though they certainly kill other marine mammals and cousin whales for food.
Back to elephants, I once heard that increasing numbers of people in the zoo world, proponents of zoos, who coming to believe more and more that certain species should not be in zoos. These included highly social animals adapted to a very different space and range--such as dolphins and elephants. If a facility did want such animals, it should seek to have more than one to alleviate isolation. A lone elephant is, well, lonely.
 A touching example of loneliness ended is the story of the elephant Shirley, who at the age of 52 was "retired" and sent to a sanctuary. Shirley, as her story is narrated in a PBS Nature documentary, brings life to the cliche, an elephant never forgets. Have a handkerchief ready: here is the story of Shirley and Jenny:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Trap-and-release those who help cats?

Kitten season has begun
The cat of fairy tale and fiction has the power to cross between realms, between the mundane and the magical, the domestic and the wild. See Neil Gaiman's Coraline for an example of a free and empowered feline. For many who fancy cats, the feline appeal is their independence and their resistance to being "owned."  Real cats, however, suffer for being a domesticated animal that can survive without direct human ownership, in feral colonies. The colonies can be a nuisance and even a threat. Besides caterwauling and cat fights, along with the undeniable odor of cat whiz and random attacks on helpless geraniums, there's disease and infestations that can run through a colony and be picked up by pets. Then there's the threat posed to native rodents and songbirds. Outdoor cats (ferals and free-roaming pets) are often cited in Audubon Society notes as contributing to wild species decline. Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom, a sweeping book on so many of civilization's ills, ends with a rant against cats. At animal shelter conferences, I've also heard shelter staff and volunteers recall the number of cats, including litters of kittens, euthanized because it had been considered "unnatural" or "too expensive" to sterilize a house cat or feral one.

But should the presence of  feral cats in the U.S. lead to a final solution (of questionable morality and dubious practicality) of eradication?
Some believe the humane answer is TNR (trap/neuter/return). The concept: cats are trapped; those that seem tame or domesticated are turned over to animal control or shelters to find or re-find owners; the "wild" ones are sterilized and returned to their colony to breed no more; over time the problem ceases. That is, if no new cats appear--left behind when owners move, released because no longer wanted,  lost while wandering freely, or born to those cats that escaped trapping and the knife.
A North St. Paul man, Doug Edge, was doing his part, he believed, by trapping and having neutered at his own expense "unowned" neighborhood cats. However, he was fined for not having the proper licensing or procedure for having all these cats. Edge's response: "I'll go to jail before I pay the fine." His story was picked up by a local TV station, and you're welcome to watch the coverage. (The story is preceded by a commercial. I saw one for penguins at the Minnesota Zoo--the zoo squirmed out of the shut-down of Minnesota state offices because of that ancient cat/dog fight, Republicans vs Democrats.)   A local humane society with a "Neuter Commuter" van came to his defense, while the city authorities explained that Edge might be trapping others' cats. Also, in some areas, you feed a cat long enough and you "own" it; ergo, Edge was supporting "his" unlicensed cats. Not all individual TNR attempts are discouraged. Neighboring St. Paul seems to support residents' spay-neuter initiatives.
Yes, the problem of feral cats is a fur ball difficult to digest (sorry.)  You can read an explanation of TNR at many websites, including one for AdvocatsHawaii. Hawaii has long had a problem with feral colonies (cats came with Euro-American settlers), to the point of endangering and even extinguishing several rare bird species. Nearly every Audubon Society listing of Hawaiian birds mentions cats and rats (also introduced) as contributing causes to their near extinction. If you think this means TNR people and bird people are happy with each other because both want to stop feral cat breeding, but not so. . . . More on this topic later.
Meanwhile, the fate of Doug Edge and his own TNR mission hangs by its claws.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Deer and Fishers

One morning in Maine

The Random Animal fell off the grid for a while, but will return with fuller reviews in July. Coming soon: more on Water for Elephants and water mammals.
Traveling through Maine, I came across an article about an animal rescue with an interesting twist. Hikers in a nature preserve heard "a blood-curdling scream": a fisher (which looks like a cross between a mink and a badger) was attacking a fawn.
Not as sweet as she looks

The hikers threatened the fisher with sticks, and the predator slunk into the woods but lurked about for some time, so a rescuer called a relative who was a game warden. The fawn, with bites and scratches to the neck, was soon treated at an animal emergency clinic. The hikers felt pleased that they had saved her from suffering. The game warden was more ambivalent. Hearing a childlike scream and seeing an attack is upsetting, and it's wonderful to rescue a vulnerable life. However, as a species, the fisher probably needs more protection than abundant white-tails. "I'd never suggest that people interfere with nature," the game warden noted, though he thought with so many people about stopping the attack was the best tactic--except "that fisher was probably trying to feed her young back at her den. That fawn deer would feed a lot of mouths." Predators from fishers to wolves and cougars are fascinating, but we are conflicted about their taste for the old and sick or young and vulnerable.
The fawn, however, is probably relieved with the outcome. Let's hope she doesn't grow up to encounter the most common predator--the automobile.
courtesy of Tina Crowley