Monday, October 24, 2011

Tiger Woes and Dolphin Joys

Pondering Extinction

The Random Animal is back on grid and through the media has been exposed recently to two real-life animals stories that follow a familiar plot line.
The first is the now infamous shootings near Zanesville, Ohio.  It started with a 911 call, according to The New York Times, in which a woman claimed a bear and lion were right behind her. Terry Thompson, the owner of a private menagerie, had released 56 animals including large predators and then shot himself. The plot of what came next was unfortunately predictable. Animals considered dangerous are mishandled by human caretaker, and though a human may be at fault for the predicament, the animals are almost inevitably killed. Nearly all the animals that Thompson freed for whatever reason were killed in the name of safety. That includes 17 lions and 18 Bengal tigers. The number of Bengals in the wild is just over 2,000, and their habitat is shrinking. Whether the Ohio killing was the right or wrong call will be much debated, but attention has turned to the keeping of exotic animals, legally and not, by private owners.  Danny Groner collected surveys and opinions for The Huffington Post. Not surprising, a number of editorials and individuals call for an outright ban on from owning wild animals; such a ban exists in 21 states. He also cites a defense of keeping exotic pets USA Today

     "'What Thompson did was selfish and insane; we cannot regulate insanity," says Zuzana Kukol at    USA Today. . .'If we have the freedom to choose what car to buy, where to live, or what domestic      animal to have, why shouldn't we have the same freedom to choose what species of wild or exotic     animal to own and to love?' Cutting down on exotic animals because of 'a few deranged individuals' would be like trying to 'ban kids' in hopes of curbing child abuse."

Maybe this comment is meant to wake people up in hopes of seeing a fight. The analogy between outlawing tigers and outlawing children or pet dogs doesn't quite work. First, there's the whole issue of captivity of undomesticated animals. Second, children and pet dogs are part of the normal fabric of "domesticated" American society, if one--kid or dog--is let out of the house, people on the street generally know how to cope. A pat on the head for either often suffices.  A Bengal male can be well over 500 lbs of hungry predator. That's a difference.
The emerging consensus is that the animals shouldn't have been in a big electoral college state to begin with. Now to another state with a large role to play in presidential elections and a particular connection to wildlife, Florida.
I'm in the Navy now.

Swim with Dolphin and Dolphin-Assisted Therapy programs dot the Florida coastline. That coastline at Clearwater is the setting for a true story, which has "inspired" a new 3-D motion picture, Dolphin Tale. The star is the nonfictional Winter, a tail-less dolphin who swims with a prosthetic attached to her peduncle (yes, that's what I said). You can watch Winter in real time through the Clearwater Marine Aquarium webcam.
The "inspired" part of the film, which I just saw, is probably the added story of a lonely boy who connects with life and the world by rescuing Winter. That plot line is typical of child-animal romances: boy/girl rescues dog/orca/seal/dolphin, and in turn the animal "rescues" the child from a miserable ostracism while the surrounding community expands its perspective and sympathies to finally welcome child and redeeming animal. By the way, this plot rarely includes big predators: the exceptions might be the Kevin Costner character and the implausibly friendly wolf in Dances with Wolves and also from several years back the film Two Brothers which features an English boy in India who deserves far better parents and tiger cubs who grow up to be enormous. Plot spoiler: the grown tigers are not kept as pets. 
Dolphin Tale follows this formula in a pleasing enough way, though it segues into a tale about disability, not just an animal's but that of children and adults. This film's statement about disability may be more sentimental than profound, but it does make the point that coping with disability involves financial, scientific, social, and emotional resources in a community setting. Toward the end of the film, humans with physical disabilities make a pilgrimage to see Winter, the little dolphin who could.
That brings up another topic: the rise of Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) and its variant Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT). I've yet to hear of Tiger therapy, but you could recommend it to your enemies. U.S. sites for DAT stress that dolphins are not mystical healers, but they provide joy and motivation. (The scientific evidence for DAT is not conclusive at this point.) O.K., there's the enormous issue of keeping any healthy dolphin in captivity. Dolphin researcher Lori Marino (one of the scientists who demonstrated that dolphins have mirror recognition and therefore self-awareness) and philosopher Thomas White are among those who believe that dolphins are too smart and social, and in need of too big an ocean home, to be held captive.
Meanwhile, more and more seek dolphin therapy, which I once observed, and the demand for it grows. For accounts and images of therapy, see Island Dolphin Care.
Back to the movie, Winter may be the rare animal suited for captivity: she could not survive in the wild and apparently has the social skills to thrive in an extended "family" of humans and dolphins. For me, the most touching parts of the movie came at the end, after the fictionalized child/animal plot, with documentary footage of Winter's rescue in 2006. The real rescue showed a dolphin bloody and traumatized by a crab trap and fishing ropes strangling her tail (there's another story here about habitat).  It's reassuring to know that at least one animal was saved from human folly.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Out to Lunch

The Random Animal has been preoccupied lately, but will return in a few days with new posts.