Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Canine Defense

Happy Boy On Duty
A few years ago I walked--or was pulled by--a highly energetic lab-mix dog at a local humane society. He'd come in as an injured stray, but in recovery displayed an intense drive and energy that might be difficult to contain in an average household. He needed education, and he got it in a bomb-sniffing program. He now patrols airports, doing his patriotic duty in hopes of being rewarded with a bouncing tennis ball.
"Passive-responder" dogs like Happy Boy scurry about to find bombs, drugs, weapons and then freeze at attention by a discovery. (Actually, the drug and bomb dogs are separate: you want to know if a dog has found a drug or a bomb before digging deeper.) They are considered friendly protectors, though there is debate about the ethics of putting dogs in harm's way in combat zones. It's a different matter with the canines used as "patrol animals," the sort misused at Abu Ghraib in Iraq to terrify prisoners. When used "appropriately," these dogs are a preventative measure or first line of defense against crime and terrorism. That's the topic of a recent New Yorker article by Burkhard Bilger,  "Beware of the Dogs".
Bilger starts with the New York City subway system, with its "four hundred stations, eight hundred miles of track, six thousand cars, and, on any given weekday, five million passengers. It's an anti-terrorism unit's nightmare." Since 9/11, the number of patrol dogs in NYC has doubled to about 100 dogs. They are often called out for crimes in progress. As a police officer explains, "The suspects are armed. They're known to be violent. So, by the mere nature of that call, it's going to be more dangerous." In other words, you need a dog who can pull a man down quickly.
The dogs trained for this duty generally come from European breeders because American breeders have focused more on show ring looks than on highly trainable behavior and the keenest scent. So German shepherds and Belgian Malinois are imported. Judging dogs' behavior solely by breed is erroneous, but these dogs have breeding and training directed toward dangerous work, so they live up to their scary reputations. A New York training cop explains to Bilger that "Malinois just really love bite work. They have a giant prey drive. Some people call them Maligators."
 For two sides of the Malinois, see the following links. In one, a Malinois is a gentle service animal for Sara, an animal trainer with a hip deformity. In the other (I could not verify the source), dogs in France are apparently being trained for dangerous policing work by men in "bite suits." What's impressive is not only the determined bite but the speed and leaping ability as these dogs go right over cars to latch onto their suspect. One dog seems to bite a handler, which leads to questions about the training.

Past dog training of pets and police dogs was a harsh business with "no's," hits from rolled-up newspapers, and choke collars. Now the emphasis is on positive reinforcement, borrowing techniques from marine mammal training--difficult putting a choke collar on an orca. Used with skill, patience, and continual small rewards, positive training can nearly orchestrate a dog's every move. Zoo animals can be trained to be still for shots and medical exams, making restraints unnecessary. A very different video from the one above shows Michele Pouliot (director or research and development at Guide Dogs for the Blind, Oregon) in an elaborate dance with Listo, her Australian shepherd.
It may be that one of the best places to raise police dogs, as the article suggests, is in prisons with positive reinforcement: prisoners have a purpose and the dogs are cared for in a chaotic environment, a good exposure for the mean streets outside.
In theory, American patrol dogs would only bite--and release--on command. They also urinate on command. At Police Dog Field Trials in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, Bilger saw a dog dropped from the competition when he did not immediately respond to his handler's command to back off from an attack run. I remember reading in one of Temple Grandin's books that positive reinforcement is the first choice, but training an animal to go against instinct, like stopping mid-attack, can require harsher tactics. Training a dog is an expensive proposition, costing tens of thousands of dollars, and not every dog passes. Some of them, however, are recycled into other programs. Auburn University, which trains detector dogs, has diverted a number to be Eco-heroes sniffing out tree killing fungus.

In the end, what these dogs want after finding the bomb, catching the suspect, or pointing to a mold is a chance to chase a ball.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Luck and Death of Horses

Secretariat, alive and well

A few days ago, HBO cancelled its series Luck about conniving humans and racing horses. I never watched the series, but saw the notice that the series was cancelled after the third horse death connected to filming. For a full account, see the Los Angeles Times article. The article also notes that no horses died in the filming of Secretariat or the filming of what looked like a hazardous film, War Horse.
The Random Animal bows to an excellent blog on this topic. Hal Herzog, a social psychologist who studies human/animal interactions, writes on the bad luck of Luck, horse racing, and animal cruelty for Psychology Today. Herzog notes that animal sports linked with lower income groups, like dog fighting, are more apt to be scorned and regulated than high-end hunting or horse racing. Herzog refers to ethologist/animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff, who commented on the ethical issues of horse racing in an ABC News article. As the ABC article discloses, horses generally fare better in entertainment than in real horse races: in the U.S. there's a horse fatality for every 500 race "starts."
So, more significant than a requiem for a TV series is a requiem for the horses.

Coming soon: Militant dogs and the challenges of security in an era of terrorism.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Relative Value of Murder

Are you sure this will make me a star?

A murder of crows. It’s one of those terms of amplitude that harken back to medieval bestiaries: a gaggle of geese, a pride of lions, a leash of greyhounds, a shrewdness of apes. But a murder of crows is literally desired by some in Rochester, Minnesota.  Over $8000 has been spent to discourage Hitchcockian hordes of black birds with their multitudinous droppings from dominating the landscape. Meanwhile, in the same state, there is agony over the death of one baby dolphin. And a farmer has been fined $12,500 for destroying thousands of white pelican eggs and chicks on his land.
We may aspire to the ideal that all life is cherished, but in practice algorithms of value come into play with human and animal lives. As philosopher Mary Midgley argues in Animals and Why They Matter, “nearness and kinship” account for much human attachment and responsibility—we favor family, friends, household pets, those like us in cultural ways. However, “we are subject to other claims” of compassion, justice, sustainability, and biological diversity. There is no shortage of crows. Corvus brachyrhynchos is a species much like ourselves: intelligent, adaptable, tricky, persistent, and often rude and loud. (I’ve heard it suggested that we don’t care much for species like crows and coyotes who rival human skills for dominance and survival. (For more on the capability of the crow, see the wonderful book by naturalist Candace Savage, Bird Brains, and  the Smithsonian/National Zoo article, Consummate Opportunist .)

            Rochester, as home to the Mayo Clinic, is a destination of hope for many, but the past few years metaphorical rainbows of healing have been replaced by literal black-flecked skies. For whatever reasons, the crows have found Rochester an, umm, "hospitable" place. Crows, along with pigeons and rats, thrive near human activity and detritus.  Local news programs emphasize the noise and the mess and the solutions that range from killing to netting birds and moving them over a hundred miles away. WHAM News (what's in a name) reports on the attack of the crows and the attack against crows. Some crow enemies are not human.
Team Falcon of U.S. Bird Abatement Services (a private company)

A crow invasion does not warrant the actions of Navy Seals, but the avian equivalent of a SWAT team--raptors--are being deployed. But according to the Bird Abatement team, it may several years of policing by Peregrine Falcons, who can swoop at speeds of 200 mph, to convince crows they would be happier elsewhere.
    Familiarity and large numbers can breed contempt, the case with crow, but rarity can add value. Few of us have encountered a baby dolphin, although dolphin swim programs are becoming widespread and commercialized. A zoo dolphin, Taijah, died a few weeks ago, presumably from an ulcer, but how the dolphin's health became impaired remains mysterious. We like dolphins and like to think that they like us. The argument can be made, repeatedly, that dolphins are not native to the Midwest interior or to artificial tanks (there's great expense in keeping and caring for marine mammals.) Arguments for not keeping captive dolphins are based on dolphin intelligence, social need to be with a group of dolphins, and adaptation to habitats that range several hundred miles. While a deep philosophical gap exists between pro and anti-captivity advocates, zoo attendants don't want premature deaths either, for business and research reasons, but they also become attached to charismatic "megafauna"--those big endearing animals like elephants, seals, and dolphins. (Some books on dolphins and captivity issues are listed at the end of the blog.)
From Minnesota DNR files
        An abstract defense of animal lives and an immediate, volatile reaction collide in the case of a farmer who destroyed the nesting grounds of white pelicans. The species is not listed as "endangered," but for most of the 20th century the numbers were low and the population is still recovering. According to the Minnesota DNR website,"In the 1980s, only five colonies were found in an area that previously supported twenty-three." Numbers of colonies and hence offspring have been on the rise, but the DNR page adds a warning note based on a 1993 study: "Destruction of breeding and foraging habitat, as well as human disturbance, are considered the most important limiting factors for American white pelican populations." There is no direct mention of what happens when the birds themselves seem destructive.
As a StarTribune explains, a farmer concluded that nesting pelicans had caused $20,000 worth of damage when they abandoned a now-submerged island in a bordering lake to move onto his property. As the article reports, "Within the space of a few hours last May, Staloch smashed thousands of American White pelican chicks and eggs -- all of the offspring in one of the state's largest colonies -- even though a state wildlife officer had told him the previous day that they were protected by federal law." Because of the extent of the damage, the man has to pay a $12K fine (which might be less than a dollar a bird) and perform 100 hours of community service for a wildlife program. Many of his neighbors were shocked by the punishment, as a warning about disobeying federal wildlife statutes as species' numbers increase: "Another [resident] said all the farmers around the lake have lost crops to pelicans and geese, and suggested that if the state would compensate them 'there would not be such negative feelings' toward wildlife agencies that enforce protection laws.'" There are limited funds available through a Wildlife Damage Management Program
though as earlier coverage noted, nothing compensated for this sort of situation. Reducing human/animal conflict requires innovation, long-term planning, and often funding. Animal welfare depends on the acts of individuals and the resources of a community. Meanwhile, it will soon be time for the white pelicans to fly up the Mississippi to their Northern nesting grounds. May birds and humans have better fortune this spring.

Notes: The top illustration is indeed a "Birds Barbie" dressed like Hitchcock's Tippi Hedren.
Books I've read on dolphins include
Thomas I. White, In Defense of Dolphins: this draws on scientific evidence and philosophic reasoning to claim that dolphins should be designated "nonhuman persons." (Would this give them the same rights as corporations?)
Rachel Smolker, To Touch a Wild Dolphin: this is an account of interactions with dolphins at Monkey Mia Bay, Australia, who are "wild" but habituated to human presence.
Toni Frohoff and Brenda Peterson, Celebrating the Dolphin/Human Bond: Frohoff studies wild dolphins and inspects worldwide captive dolphin facilities, at times recommending that they be closed.
Ken Ramirez, Animal Training: Animal Management through Positive Reinforcement: Ramirez works with dolphins and other mammals at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.