Whatever you may think of PETA, this is a genius move IMHO. By honoring Naruto, the crested black macaque with a famously goofy grin, as “Person of the Year” the organisation is emphasising that “he is someone, not something”. And what a person he is! I only wish he were able to revel in this accolade – though as long as he is safe and happy…. Go Naruto!
These were the words naturalist Joseph Banks wrote in his journal, his response to the exuberant rhapsody of birdsong filling the air as Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour dropped anchor in the paradise that was Discovery Bay in 1770.
If Banks and Cook were to make that same landing in 2017, they would hear – silence. Little did either realise that their own expedition, the first to map the coastline of New Zealand and study its wildlife, bears in large part the blame for today’s uncanny hush. For the Endeavour was carrying more than its crew. It also brought stowaways, in the shape of Rattus norvegicus, the brown rat. And it’s rats that have brought that music to a stop.
New Zealand’s native birds were/are endemic, ie. unique to that country, occurring nowhere else in the world. And, having no natural ground predators and therefore no need to take to the sky, they’d evolved over millennia flightless. So, easy pickings for the voracious invaders inadvertently brought to their shores.
Since that time, more than 70 species of birds native to NZ have been lost to the world, with more likely headed in the same direction, including the world’s heaviest parrot, the kakapo, and possibly the cheekiest, the alpine kea.
A shocking 26 million of the nation’s birds are killed by invasive predators every year.
Of course this is not a problem exclusive to New Zealand. The pattern is repeated all over. On Hawaii for example, the most isolated land mass in the world, native plants and animals evolved, as in New Zealand, without aggressively competitive or predatory species. The native species, not having had to compete themselves, are “more gentle than others, leaving them vulnerable to the ‘meaner’ species … being introduced to the islands.”
This is one of the ‘meanies’, who indiscriminately demolishes Hawaiian birds, insects, plants and flowers. He doesn’t belong there, but he sure has made himself at home.
Islands that once were regular Gardens of Eden where all lived in harmony, are today red in tooth and claw. And most often, the teeth and claws belong to Rattus norvegicus, or Rattus rattus, the black rat. Rats have found their way, courtesy of humans, on to more than 90% of the world’s archipelagoes, and embody everything that characterises an invasive species:
High dispersal ability
Ability to live off a wide range of foods
Ability to adapt to different environments
Association with humans
Mammals like the rat are not native to oceanic islands, which are predominantly the domain of birds. Two-thirds of extinctions over the last 500 years have occurred on islands, largely at the paws of invasive mammals. Islands make up only 5.5% of the Earth’s land mass, but are home to 15% of all land species. They are hotspots of biodiversity. And that makes islands in particular, critically important for conservation.
So, how to stem the alarming losses in biodiversity?
Money for conservation is always at a premium. So much to be done, and never enough funding to do it. $21.5 billion is being spent annually, yet in places it’s hard to see much impact on biodiversity. It’s vital to direct funds to projects that will yield good results. And conservationists have found, especially on islands, the only effective method of stemming biodiversity loss is eradication of the invasive species that are pushing the natives to extinction. When the invaders are removed, the beneficial effect on native species is dramatic.
Different lands, different species demand different eradication methods. What works in one locale, fails in another. Our own ‘meanie’ here on the island of Britain is the American mink brought across the Atlantic to be farmed for its fur. Now escaped into the wild, these invaders have eaten their way through the water vole population, pushing the little rodents to the cliff edge of extinction. Mink are being trapped with the help of volunteers, and then shot in the head.
“It’s not something I get any satisfaction out of, but I am trained to do this, and we dispatch them as quickly and humanely as possible to cause minimal distress to the animal,” says river biologist Jamie Urquhart.
( I once saw a mink in the river at a National Trust property. I began an email to notify the Trust, but then couldn’t bear the thought of being responsible for the animal’s death, and deleted the email.)
In the Galapagos Islands, feral goats spread like wildfire, munching their way through forests and native fauna until nothing was left but bare grass. Native birds, invertebrates and the famous Galapagos tortoise were all endangered. Rangers hunted the goats down on land and by air, and shot them, 55,000 of them just on one island. The now goat-less islands reforested and recovered with gratifying rapidity.
In the Seychelles, where the invading Indian red-whiskered bulbul was ousting its native cousin, nets were used, and “rifles to get the last remaining few.”
In New Zealand, lethal traps and poisoned bait have been ‘successful’ on small islands, but as they are labour-intensive (requiring constant checking and resetting) they’re not practical over larger areas. Zero Invasive Predators (ZIP) is developing more effective ‘tools’, from “more attractive lures to electronically monitored traps.”The traps being used kill the rats instantly. “You don’t get those kills where it just breaks the back; we don’t want prolonged suffering,” says Aitken, one of the government-employed eradicators.
This is ZIP’s latest prototype: “Nailed to the tree a few feet off the ground is a shiny orange-and-black contraption called the GoodNature A24. Powered by a gas-fired piston, it delivers a quick, fatal blow to an animal’s head as it tries to snatch the bait inside. The device can kill 24 rats or stoats with a single canister of gas, requiring fewer of these strenuous, time-consuming trap line tromps, thereby saving on labor costs.”
Whatever method is used, eradication means no more nor less than the killing of every possible individual animal of the unwanted species in that territory. ” Most critics point to the ethics of the matter. Killing animals whether they are invasive or not is wrong, they argue, and uncompassionate.Killing wildlife for conservation seems counterintuitive. Isn’t conservation supposed to be about conserving wildlife?”
Some critics even see eradication as another manifestation of racism – prejudice against the non-native. “Certainly the Nazi drive to eliminate non-indigenous plants was related to the campaign to eliminate non-Aryan people.”
But an argument for eradication is that often, the native wildlife needing protection is found nowhere else on the planet, whereas the invaders such as the rats, are generally very widespread. Reading that sentence back and substituting the word ‘Aryans’ for ‘native wildlife’, and ‘Jews’ for ‘rats’, it does sound horribly like the Nazi justification for the Holocaust, doesn’t it? And labelling a group (Jews or rats) ‘vermin’, makes them so much easier to eliminate – it transforms eradication from a murderous crime into a public good.
Even if we accept that the uniqueness-of-the-endangered-native-wildlife argument makes sense at species level, does it justify killing thousands of sentient animals who are just getting on with their lives best they can?
Suppose eradication is a necessity, aren’t there non-lethal methods that could be used?
Yes, there are. Some are not always a practical option, some are just bizarre, and some pose unknown risks.
The obvious solution would be to trap the invaders and transport them back to where they came from. And on occasions this has been done. But imagine the politics, the logistics, and of course the cost involved of say, catching, keeping alive and shipping every veiled chameleon from Hawaii back to Yemen. And where on earth would you take the tens of thousands of feral goats from the Galapagos? Multiply that by thousands of conservation projects and it’s clear that can rarely be an answer.
Researchers in Australia have a novel approach. Remember the native species are invariably ‘gentler’ than the invading ‘meanies’ whose successful proliferation at the expense of the natives is down to their adaptability and aggressive competitiveness? Since there is little to no hope of ridding the whole of Australia of its mercilessly predatory feral cats, researchers there are trying to “force natural selection’s hand”.
They’ve placed hundreds of small endangered endemic marsupials in a pen with a couple of the cats. The hope is that the smartest marsupials will learn to survive, and pass on their cleverness genes to their offspring. But such human-contrived evolution of the marsupial could take 100 years or more. And if it seems like a big gamble, that’s because it is. No need for me to list possible objections, practical and ethical. They are all too obvious.
Genetic technology already available to us would be by far the most effective nonlethal tool for dealing with invasive species. Scientists have now found a way to not only alter the genes of a species – in this case a gene for producing male offspring only – but make that alteration inheritable. It’s called a “self-propagating gene drive system [which] promotes the inheritance of a particular genetic variant to increase its frequency in a population.” This would obviously require “fewer invasive organisms to be released in order to spread infertility and ultimately eliminate the pest population.” The animal basically would be programmed to (re)produce its own extinction.
New Zealand is one country taking a good hard look at this technology as a much easier, and definitely more humane way to rid the land of the invasive rats, mice, stoats and possums that are so destructive of its native wildlife. There is no question the gene technology would work. The invaders would die out, allowing the native species to flourish once more.
But, and it’s a big but, what it would also do, is create in effect a new species still retaining all the characteristics that made it such a successful invader in the first place. In other words, it would be impossible to contain these modified animals in the target location. Invasion is what they do best – they would spread far and wide with unknowable, and most likely catastrophic results.
The self-propagating gene drive is the perfect example of technology moving ahead at such a pace, it is way in advance of any ethical agreements surrounding its use. The international community needs to catch up fast, formulate, and sign up to a binding accord. New Zealand is by no mean the only country looking at the self-propagating gene drive as a conservation tool. And if something can be done, you can guarantee it willsooner or later.
To kill to save, or not?
“Not doing anything to prevent these extinctions is, in and of itself, an action—which is not compassionate to native species. We can sit there and watch animals go extinct, or we can do something about it,” says conservation biologist Holly Jones. “Killing things sucks. But when you realize the gravity of not acting, which in many cases equates to watching extinction happen in front of your eyes, I think there is no other choice,”
“We do have the ability to fix our damages. Which is why many conservationists believe we have an obligation to right the wrong when it comes to invasives since humans are, more often than not, solely responsible for introducing species into places they shouldn’t be.” Peter Haverson, another conservation biologist.“No other species has this capability, unfortunately.”
We’ve carried invasive species to every corner of the world, either deliberately – sheep, goats, dogs, cats and so on, then escaped and gone feral – or inadvertently, as with the rats. The cats, who are particularly pernicious predators of endangered wildlife, fall into both categories.
As we have caused the problem, should we be taking action to fix it? We can refrain from eradicating invasive species. That means standing by, letting individual endangered animals be killed by invaders, and allowing entire species to go extinct. Or, we can opt to kill the invaders – bearing in mind that rats, stoats and possums are people too. In conservation there is no fence to sit on. By not doing one, we are of necessity doing the other.
This is a cowardly cop out I know, but I’m so glad it’s not me having to make the decisions. What is your take on this most troubling of questions?
The most invasive species of all
We don’t just transport invaders around the globe. We ourselves are by far the worst invaders of the lot:
“From Africa, we’ve spread out onto every continent on Earth settling into jungles, plains, forests, deserts, mountains and more. All environments we touch experience extinctions and suffer from varying degrees of degradation. Many scientists even believe we are currently causing a mass extinction event of global wildlife, like the one that ultimately claimed the dinosaurs.”
“Believe”? The 6th mass extinction is no more a matter of belief than climate change. Strangely, I don’t hear anyone suggesting as a solution to the catastrophic loss of the planet’s precious biodiversity, the eradication of this, the most deadly of invasive species, Homo sapiens. Why is that?
“In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods. They have not forgotten this”
Calling all cat-worshippers! I have to ask: are you 100% satisfied in your own mind that the Pets-At-Home igloo bed you selected for your feline is up to scratch? Or did you go straight for the cat’s whiskers and lavish £50 on the deluxe Mr Snugs KatDen, only to find kitty curled up in the closet on your sweaters?
For a crashpad truly befitting your furry god or goddess, maybe, just maybe, you should have called upon the services of an ar-cat-ect. Yes, really. I’m serious. There is a wonderful organisation called Architects for Animals
which every October invites architects and designers to make, submit for display, and donate their creative catnap-eries at their annual “Giving Shelter” exhibition and auction. All proceeds go to animals in need. This year, Architects for Animals’ 10th, the recipient is FixNation, an L.A. charity that spays/neuters stray, abandoned, and feral cats. Isn’t that purrfect?
Take your pick from these fabulous puss palaces.
There’s no doubting who’s the star of that show!
Now, a quick flip of the coin, from the money-givers to the money-makers – from the compassionate donors to the fat cats of re-tail.
(Apologies for all the corny cat puns. But you’d better brace yourself for more to come – I can’t resist😄)
A certain business better known for its vegan meatballs and Scandi style has also been getting creative for cats. Available for purr-chase is the ‘Lurvig cat cube’, designed to mix and match with the human furnishings. Infinitely adaptable to cat-er for every possible puss preference.
Even so, I can imagine Felis Catus looking on with cool disdain as we wrestle with the flatpack – a disdain that despite our best efforts, may well extend to the finally completed cat-ready creation.
Oh well, it can always double up as a bedside cabinet.
So that takes care of the cat crashpads. Now how about the fur-niture?
“Cats are connoisseurs of comfort”
Recent pet industry consumer research shows –
80% of millennial companion-animal ‘parents’ regard their pets as family members. (What is wrong with the other 20%, one has to ask)
Americans spend more on cat food in a year than on baby food
And, music to the industry’s ears, 76% of millennial pet parents are willing to splurge on cool stuff for their pet before buying something for themselves.
Discovering just how much millennials are in thrall to their felines, the pet industry is naturally keen to create new product opportunities for the splurging. Would you splash out on these miniature marvels from Japan for your fur baby?
This is fur-niture for felines of the highest craftsmanship. Nothing but the best.
So, now that’s all the kitty comforts sewn up, what does Santa Claws plan on bringing this Christmas?
“Cats seem to go on the principle that it never does any harm to ask for what you want”
I’m sorry, but I have it on the best authority, the standard supermarket pet stocking is not going to cut it this year. Don’t you know, a cat needs some a-mews-ment? A chance to show off her cat-leticism? So how about one of these?
Catastrophic Creations make these ‘Indiana Jones Bridges’ to order. If you are cat-crazy enough to measure up your home for one, expect to get ambushed from on high, that’s all I can say.
From the pampered puss who has everything, back where we started – to the cat who has nothing. We too can help give a cat a home.
If you’d like to help feral cats near you, click here for simple instructions, using materials that would probably otherwise be thrown away, to make a cosy shelter. It may not be as zany or stylish as the ones above, but it will keep them snug from the winter cold and wet.
And/or sponsor a cat pod with the RSPCA. The charity took in 6,390 cats to its shelters last year. “With the current cat overpopulation crisis facing the UK and our centres housing hundreds of cats – more than the number of dogs and rabbits combined – [the cats] need our support more than ever.”
And if you are considering bringing a new companion animal into the family, don’t forget #AdoptDontShop!
For more stylish designs from Architects for Animals, take a look here
Is the human race divided into two tribes, those who love animals and those who don’t? Yes, it seems so. But what makes us this way? If only we could open a window into the human brain and see what is going on in there, what it is that makes one ‘tribe’ so different from the other.
Oh, hang on – we can. Exactly what was revealed when neuroscientist Massimo Filippi and his team did just that, opened that window, we will come to very shortly.
We’ve already seen in his fascinating book The Animals Among Us, John Bradshaw delving deep into the past to unravel the threads of our relationship with domesticated animals. He uncovers an evolutionary forking of the path – one group of humanity opting to settle, begin domesticating and living with animals, while the other remained hunting, marauding nomads.
Through the generations, passing those tameness genes down, the domesticated cats and dogs, cattle and sheep gradually got tamer. And at the same time the humans who lived with animals passed down their own evolving animal-loving genes to their descendants.
Meanwhile, the nomads found themselves an easy living without the trouble of making animals a part of their daily lives, by raiding the others’ settlements and stealing theirs. Animal-lover of animal-unlover, whichever group we fall into, that is very likely how we came to be. With apologies to John Bradshaw for squeezing what takes a book to explain into an ever-so-slightly oversimplified couple of paragraphs!
Now back to Massimo & co and their window into the brain
Their project set out to measure and compare the levels of empathy towards other humans and towards nonhuman animals in 3 different groups: omnivores, ethical vegetarians, and ethical vegans. By ethical we mean those who are veg*n for the animals rather than say, simply for their own health.
All the participants were first given an ‘Empathy Quotient’ survey to complete. Social cognitive neuroscientist Claus Lamm’s definition of empathy might be useful at this point:
“When we are confronted with another person [human or nonhuman] – say, someone in pain – our brains respond not just by observing, but by copying the experience. Empathy results in emotion sharing. I don’t just know what you are feeling, I create an emotion in myself.“
Next, using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) they showed the different groups images of human suffering and animal suffering, and monitored their brain activity to establish exactly what was happening inside these people’s heads.
The results of the fMRI:
The veggies and vegans showed more activity in empathy-related areas of the brain to images of both human and nonhuman suffering than the omnis
The veggies and vegans responded more strongly to the animal suffering than the human suffering
The vegans responded more strongly than the veggies to animal suffering
The veggies reacted more strongly than the vegans to human suffering
The omnis reacted more to the human suffering than the animal suffering
Both vegans and veggies showed reduced activity in the amygdala, which means that they were trying hard to control their emotions. Especially the vegans
All of which corresponded with the results from that preliminary EQ survey.
The study does leave some questions unanswered. For example, wouldn’t it be important to know which nonhuman animals appeared in the images? Were they dogs, cats, rats or hens? If they weren’t companion animals, might not cognitive dissonance have come into play for the omnis? After all, veg*ns don’t hold exclusive rights on loving animals, do they?
Cognitive dissonance – a brief excursion into the secret that enables our crazy species to both love animals and eat them. This is how it works:
In our Western culture we are socially conditioned to see animals as falling into specific groups defined entirely by how we humans relate to them, and how useful they are to us. We absorb this way of thinking completely unconsciously from our mother’s knee, and everything we encounter throughout our childhood, books, movies, games, toys, advertising, reinforces the construct.
So we have:
Wild Animals with whom we have little contact
Utility Animals who ‘work’ for us – horses, donkeys, farm and police dogs and so on
Food Animals – cows, pigs, sheep, hens
Animals for entertainment– racehorses, greyhounds, circus animals, animals in zoos and aquaria
Animals for ‘education’ – animals in labs, zoos and aquaria, in schools and universities
Companion Animals – pet dogs, cats, hamsters, budgies etc
And let us not forget
Vermin – this category can be made to emcompass any species from buzzards to badgers that humans discover reasons for finding ‘a nuisance’
What makes veg*ns different, is that they have broken down and demolished this construct. To them it matters not whether it is a woodlouse or a wolf, a chicken or a cheetah. A life is a life, and each and every one matters and has a right to live free from harm and exploitation. But might it not make a difference which animals’ pics were shown to the omnivorous participants? As they remain captive to that social conditioning which compels them to allot a category to different animals, some animals might matter to them more than others.
That aside, it’s no surprise that omnis responded more to human suffering than animal, or that for the veg*ns it was the reverse. The interesting finding was that the veg*ns were more responsive to suffering overall than the omnis. Yet most veg*ns including me, started life omnivorous.
So do the study’s results mean we were born with an innate empathy that turned us into vegans, or did becoming vegan make us more empathetic? Who knows.
If we fail to imagine what animals might be feeling, ” we could do a great deal of harm, and put suffering in the world that doesn’t need to be there”
Philosopher Janet Stemwedel
One thing the findings do, is cast doubt on how effective it is for animal advocates to try ‘converting’ omnivores by showing them images of the misery endured by so many animals at human hands. The response might fall disappointingly short of a ‘road to Damascus’ experience. The research shows that for some, seeing is not necessarily feeling.
But it isn’t only written in the genes. The brain has plasticity – it is capable of being moulded. So let’s take the hopeful view and assume that becoming vegan helped make us more empathetic. And that omnivores may have more of those nomadic raiders’ genes with an animal-disconnect. But they are also profoundly conditioned, as we all are or have been, in their attitudes to nonhuman animals by the prevailing norms of our society.
Do you love animals but still eat them? Here is one eloquent, passionate man who may be able to change your mind. Philip Wollen, tearing down those malignant social norms – so inhumane towards nonhuman animals, and indeed, so disastrously damaging for humankind and the planet itself.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has a brand new emoji app for animal champions everywhere. Senior Advocacy Strategist Michelle Feinberg invites us to download the peta2 sticker app available now from both the App Store and the iMessage-specific App Store. All the stickers are 100% vegan and cruelty-free!
To give you a flavour –
Let’s get downloading. This app is going to clock up some serious mileage! Fun with an important – themost important – message…
ANIMALS ARE NOT OURS
TO EAT, WEAR, EXPERIMENT ON, USE FOR ENTERTAINMENT, OR ABUSE IN ANY OTHER WAY
Whatever I do, it will never be enough. Is that how you sometimes/often feel, in the face of the gargantuan environmental problems confronting the planet? That you may as well be the tiniest little ant holding up the tiniest little Stop sign before the climate-change juggernaut that just keeps rolling inexorably on to the point of no return, dragging us all along with it?
Well then this is the app for you. This app puts the power right back in our hands. It tells us in real time “the impact of our actions on our health and on the planet” every time we eat without meat. Awesome or what? Created by Chris Darwin, the great-great-grandson of the great naturalist Charles Darwin himself, it’s The Darwin Challenge app.
Wildlife enthusiast Chris was busy setting up nature reserves – his way of trying to fend off the 6th mass extinction. Trouble was, wildlife was not the only thing he was enthusiastic about – he was also an enthusiastic eater of meat. One day he calculated his carbon footprint, and was horrified to realise he himself was part of the problem, not the solution. From then on he went plant-based for the planet, encouraged others to do the same, and developed his amazing app to help us on our way.
This is Chris’s own description of the app on iTunes:
The Darwin Challenge App tracks the days you don’t eat meat, and shows you the difference you make. From improvements to your health and wellbeing, to animal welfare, human rights, and the world, you’ll be amazed by the benefits of going meat free, just one or more days a week. Vegetarian or Vegan? Download the app to see the difference you’re already making, connect with people just like you, and spread the word.
Use the app to set yourself targets and reminders, see the difference you are making, invite family, friends and colleagues to join in, see how other groups are doing and check your collective efforts on the leaderboards
Did I mention it’s FREE?
The app couldn’t arrive on the scene at a better time. We’ve just been served with the second “Warning to Humanity” by more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries. It’s an update of the first “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” exactly 25 years ago. No-one listened in 1992, and things have got so much worse for the planet. If you want the bad news it’s here. This is their list of “measures that would help halt environmental degradation”:
Creating more parks and nature reserves
Curbing wildlife trade
Shifting to plant-based diets
Expanding family planning and educational programs for women
Massively expanding renewable energy and other green techs
Brian Valente’s photo of a laughing seal is a finalist for the 2017 Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards. (Photo: Brian Valente/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)
The 2017 Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards finalists have been announced, and this year’s crop doesn’t disappoint in the humor department with hilarious expressions, amusing antics and even a little fun with perspective.
While you may laugh out loud (or at least crack a grin), keep in mind the contest has a serious goal: highlighting wildlife conservation efforts.
‘Let Me Clear My Vision’ is one of 40 finalists in this year’s contest. (Photo: Arkaprava Ghosh /Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)
This year, more than 3,500 entries from 86 countries were submitted to the contest, which was started by photographers Paul Joynson-Hicks and Tom Sullam.
From 40 finalists, the category and overall winners will be announced Dec. 14. The overall winner gets a week-long, all-expense-paid, photographer-led safari in Kenya.
‘Hitching a ride’ is a 2017 finalist. (Photo: Daisy Gilardini/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)
“Conservation was always at the heart of the competition, along with the fact that people seemed to enjoy images of animals doing entertaining things,” said Sullam in a statement. “But essentially living in a country that has some of the best wildlife in the world — Tanzania — and seeing how destructive human actions can be to this wildlife, made us want to do our little bit to help.”
A terrifyingly big grin in ‘Smile.’ (Photo: Eugene Kitsios/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)
Joynson-Hicks and Sullam recently released a new book of some of the funniest photos (the “best of the best,” they say) to come through the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards. Some of the proceeds go to the Born Free Foundation, a wildlife conservation charity.
Any mom will immediately understand why this photo is called ‘MOM MOM MOM MOM.’ (Photo: Barb D’Arpino/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)
Take a look at more of our favorite finalists, including the fed-up mother owl above who has had it with her little ones.
‘Animal encounters’ is a 2017 finalist. (Photo: jean-Jacques Alcalay /Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)
He needed to get a better view — or maybe he really likes crowd-surfing.
‘WTF’ is a thing even in the animal kingdom. (Photo: George Cathcart/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)
Redditors would have a field day with this elephant seal photo as a meme.
Fun with perspective in ‘Outsourcing seatbelt checks.’ (Photo: Graeme Guy/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)
It looks like this giraffe is peering into the plane as it comes in for a landing. Maybe this airport employs wildlife as part of the security team.
All aboard the ‘Foster Monkey Escape’! (Photo: Katy Leveck/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)
These two monkeys in Indonesia are making a getaway on a borrowed motorcycle.
What a cutie in ‘Cheering sea otter.’ (Photo: Penny Palmer/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)
This sea otter is living his best life and loving it. We should all be so lucky.
How in heaven’s name did that wildebeest get up there – insane!
“For nearly 30 years, reptile enthusiast and punk musician Steve Ludwin has been injecting snake venom—a practice that almost killed him.”
Steve was only 10 years old when his strange obsession with reptilians first took hold. He was on a visit with his dad to Bill Haast’s Serpentarium in Florida. “Bill Haast* came out and draped an indigo snake around my neck. I was aware that he had been injecting himself with snake venom and I just thought it was the wildest thing I had ever heard.”
A decade or so later and Ludwin was heading up the American band “Carrie”, part of the early ’90s grunge scene (he claims to have dated Courtney Love before her relationship with Kurt Cobain). Between tours he began gargling snake venom, a preventative against throat infections – the singer’s curse. And it worked.
Nowadays Steve shares his London flat with 18 snakes, a number of rare lizards, a cat – oh yes, and his presumably very understanding girlfriend. While a journalist watches, Ludwin extracts the venom from a green Pope’s tree viper by making it bite down on a film-covered glass. He then takes a syringe and injects the fluid into his arm.
The first time Ludwin injected himself with snake venom, he described it as feeling like, “battery acid”. His heart started to race uncontrollably and his arm swelled up and turned a strange shade of green.
“It’s extreme pain”
This is very much a case of ‘Do not try this at home dear readers’. “It’s a very very dangerous thing to do, I don’t encourage people to do it”, he toldAFP. Steve has found himself in hospital more than once, including a 3-day stay in ICU “following an overdose” – a cocktail of 3 different snake venoms. The doctors told him he would probably die. After 3 days and still swollen he discharged himself, and a week later was fully recovered. This is one seriously tough guy!
For Steve, a wide variety is definitely the spice of life. He has given himself doses of venom from the most dangerous snakes to be found around the world, including cobras and the black mamba.
So far, it’s not sounding fun. So why has Ludwin put himself through this for the best part of his adult life? It’s definitely not for the trip: “The sensation of injecting snake venom is not pleasant at all…it’s not like a Jim Morrison trip. You don’t trip—it’s extreme pain.”
Bizarre as this activity seems, there’s a long history of people like Steve deliberately exposing themselves to poisons. All with the same intention – building up immunity to the substance. Cruel King Mithridates (120-63 BC) was so paranoid about being assassinated by poisoning, he fed poisons to ducks, and drank the blood of those who survived. So there is actually a name for Ludwin’s strange habit – it’s called mithridatism. Happily in his case, without the intermediary ducks.
Steve is enthusiastic about the benefits of his strange habit. For one thing, he reckons the fact that he hasn’t had a cold in 15 years is proof of how much it has boosted his immune system against infections. (Hmm, which would I prefer, I wonder, a sniffle or a poisonous snake bite?) And, he says, for 6-8 hours after injecting he gets a huge energy boost.
He also claims it slows the ageing process. He’s taken to adding venom to a moisturiser for his own anti-ageing cream. His girlfriend uses it, gets lots of compliments and swears by it. Maybe it’s true, because Ludwin at 51 years certainly looks a lot more like 30. John Lewis must believe it. They sell their own ‘anti-ageing’ snake oil – a mere £70 for 30ml. Or perhaps they simply have no scruples about creaming off surplus cash from the credulous rich?
Snake oil has a long history. But in America’s Wild West for instance, the peddler of ‘snake oil’ (made of camphor and turpentine, and remarkable only for the absence in it of anything remotely snake-related) assured gullible townsfolk of its potency to cure all ills. Then scarpered with the ill-gotten proceeds before he was found out. That’s how snake oil became synonymous with quackery.
But what Steve Ludwin has flowing around his veins and arteries is the real deal. And this is where the animals – other than the snakes** of course – come into it. For the last 3 years, Steve has been helping Danish scientists and a startup company VenomAb with a view to creating a new venom antidote from his self-immunised blood.
The normal method of creating anti-snake venom serum (ASVS) involves injecting dilute venom into an animal, usually a horse, and 8-10 weeks later ‘harvesting’ his/her blood. Of course, for every different species of snake, a separate antidote has to be extracted from animals. And the lengthy and expensive process has to be repeated over and over to maintain a supply.
One would hope Vahini’s story (below) is not typical. Even so, what goes on behind closed doors is so often found to fall disturbingly short of best practice.
“Vahini couldn’t tell them she was pregnant when they injected potent snake venom into her. Barely a month later, the mare gave birth to a young one with a suspected limb disorder. Soon after the delivery, Vahini went blind in the right eye and her left eye was partially damaged.
“At least 60 other horses have died at the state-run King Institute in Chennai in the past seven months due to improper treatment during the manufacture of anti-snake venom serum.
“Most of the animals at the Institute are ailing – horses and mules housed there for experiments and production of serum. It seems that ‘good clinical practices’ and ‘ethical conduct’ are unknown phrases at King Institute. ‘The potency of the venom, the frequency of shots and duration of bleeding are all beyond the permitted limits,’ says an insider.” India Today
Around 5.4 million people across the world get bitten by snakes every year, and roughly 100,000 of them die. Effective treatment relies not only on identifying which snake did the biting, but on the availability, and affordability, of the correct serum. Typical cost in hospital around £2000, but can be as much as £11,700.
The ASVS collected from Ludwin will be unique. No other serum in the world will contain antibodies to such a wide-ranging variety of different snake poisons. Who knows how many animals he will liberate from the cruel ASVS harvesting process.
VenomAb expects the research to be completed a year from now. Their intention, with the support of governments or NGOs, is to distribute the new all-purpose anti-venom in the countries where it is needed, free of charge.
Many human lives will be saved. And so hopefully will many nonhumans’.
In Steve Ludwin’s words:
“If I’m the person that makes it so that those horses get put out to pasture, I will die with the biggest f—— smile on my face.”
If you’re in London in the next 6 months, you can see a short film about Steve at the Natural History Museum’s newly opened exhibition Venom: Killer & Cure
It features some of the 200,000 venomous creatures in the world. And it seems Ludwin has an almost equally foolhardy comrade-in-venom: For exhibition purposes, Justin O Schmidt allowed himself to be bitten or stung by more than 80 different species of ‘Nature’s nastiest’, “to establish a scale of pain.” What can I say?
*Bill Haast incidentally, who ‘milked’ the venom from 100 snakes a day, lived to the ripe old age of 100, having survived 172 bites from some of the world’s deadliest snakes. He flew around the world donating his blood for direct transfusion to bite victims, in this way saving 21 lives.
**Whether Ludwin should be keeping snakes captive and ‘milking’ them for their venom is another matter. But snakes are already kept captive for the production of ASVS. And since he has been doing this for 30 years or more anyway, isn’t it a good thing that he chooses to use himself – not horses and mules forced to have their bodies turned into ASVS factories?
To see photos of Ludwin and his snakes, click on one of the first two sources below
Don’t panic. No-one is suggesting when we die our bodies should be scooped up and fed to hungry polar bears. Nothing quite that ghoulish. Though come to think of it, it’s not actually such a bad idea. I’d happily donate mine, if mama bear and her cubs could find enough meat on my skinny bones. But we’ll come to the what-to-do–with-our-dead-body bit shortly.
First the good news. Last week Professor Chris Thomas told us we should be cool about climate change and every other way humans are messing up the planet. Kick back and go with the flow. It’s just evolution taking its natural course. He also suggested we could be wasting good money trying to save endangered species that with the best will in the world, are headed inexorably for extinction. Well Prof Chris, maybe you should cast your eye over this –
“This paper sends a clear, positive message: Conservation fundingworks!”
So says John Gittleman, senior author of a new report about the effects on biodiversity of funding put into conservation projects around the world since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. The results from the global study are in, and it’s looking good:
The $14.4 billion spent on conservation 1992-2003 reduced expected declines in global biodiversity by 29%
109 countries signatory to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity saw a significantly reduced biodiversity loss
7 countries – Mauritius, Seychelles, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Poland and Ukraine saw their biodiversity improve between 1992-2008
7 other countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, China, India, Australia, and Hawaii in the US are the locations where 60% of the world’s loss of biodiversity occurs
That last statistic doesn’t sound like good news, but it sort of is. If there are only 7 countries where most biodiversity loss is concentrated, then a little money in the right places goes a long way. Or, asProf Gittleman puts it, “The good news is that a lot of biodiversity would be protected for relatively little cost by investments in countries with high numbers of species.”
“From this study, we know approximately how much a conservation dollar buys and where in the world it is best spent.”
Now, the study’s method of data analysis will provide policy-makers in every country of the world a fantastic new tool for setting accurate conservation budgets. And that in turn will help them achieve internationally-agreed conservation goals.
Study’, ‘findings’, ‘statistics’, ‘report’ – those words have a pretty dull and clunky sound to them. But in fact, it would be hard to overplay the importance of this research work – it’s a godsend for the entire international community in our attempts “to balance human development with maintaining biodiversity….[and achieving] true sustainability.” All of whichequals more animals saved.
Now that’s what I call good news – and who’d have thought data analysis could be so exciting!
Where to put to rest our mortal remains
Now we have the proof that conservation funding delivers results, where to find those funds?
We don’t like to think too much about the end of our days, but wouldn’t it be brilliant if there was a way to continue helping animals from beyond the grave? Well now there is, with Dr Matthew Holden’s genius idea. We could call it ‘Green Burial Plus‘.
Green burials are gaining in popularity, I’m glad to say. No pollutants like the formaldehyde and non-biodegradable materials used in traditional burials. And no trees cut down to create the traditional coffin – no waste of Earth’s precious resources reduced to ashes and releasing greenhouse gases. Instead we get to help provide a natural habitat for wildlife, with the satisfaction of knowing all the stardust in our bodies is returning to the earth. For once, a human life and death can nourish the planet rather than deplete it. This has to be the be-all and end-all, literally, of recycling.
So what could be better than a green burial?
Dr Holden’s idea, that’s what: Use burial fees to buy and manage new land specifically for wildlife habitat. Is that it? Yes, that’s it. It’s that simple. “The nature reserve [where our bodies would be buried]could be placed in an area that specifically maximises benefits for endangered wildlife.”
Isn’t that the best?
How would this work? Well, take the US as an example. With 2.7 million folk reaching the end of their days each year, roughly $19 billion is being spent annually on funerals. Compare that huge sum with the mere $3-$5 billion the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) reckons are required to protect every threatened species on their lists.
And in the US conservation burial reserves are already a thing. There aren’t enough though. We need many many more in the US, in the UK – in every country if this way of conserving wildlife is to have any impact.
If we could get the powers that be to actually care enough about conservation, national registers on the model of organ donor registers could be set up for those of us who wish to donate our bodies and our funeral expenses to wildlife reserves. What a difference it would make. If we could…
Sadly, nothing is ever that plain sailing, is it? These are black times and conservation has serious opposition.
The Backlash – the Deadly Rise of Populism
“The recent trend toward populist politics has occurred, in part, as a result of a cultural backlash, where select segments of society have rallied against progressive social changes of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. This trend includes the Brexit vote in England, [and the] election of Donald Trump as U.S. President.”
Q. What has this got to do with conservation and wildlife? A. Everything.
Are you a populist? More likely a mutualist, I imagine. Mutualists see wildlife as “fellow beings in a common social community”– as opposed to populists who still cling to traditional ideas of human dominion over nonhuman animals, and view wildlife as either vermin to be exterminated, or quarry for their so-called sport.
Millennials swept forward on a tide of progressive ideas, mutualism for one. Just look at the incredible rise of veganism over the last couple of decades, matched by an ever-expanding interest in conservation and green issues. A survey in the millennial year 2000, found that 20 million Americans were registered members of the top 30 environmental organisations.²
But – and there’s always a but, isn’t there – Newton’s 3rd Law, “For every action force there is an equal and opposite reaction force”, is as true in society as it is in physics. Backlash was inevitable. In the US, the explosion between 2000 and 2016 of ballot initiatives to protect hunting rights is one sign of the pushback. This War on Wolves infographic exemplifies America’s populist backlash against conservation.
‘America First’ puts wildlife last
Donald Trump, the epitome of populism. To say he is an enemy of wildlife is an understatement. More like the grim reaper.
“With President Trump at the helm of our nation’s wildlife ark, we are setting an irreversible collision course toward an environmental catastrophe of epic proportions.”¹
Here are some of his proposals for the 2018 federal budget:-
Funding for the agencies involved in combating wildlife poaching and trafficking, cut by more than half from $90.7 million to $40.9 million
Funding for USAID’s biodiversity program which in 2017 aided conservation projects in 50 countries, cut from $265 million to $69.9 million
USFWS’s International Species program for African and Asian elephants, great apes, migratory birds, tigers, rhinos and sea turtles, cut from $9.15 million to zero
Funding to protect new species under the Endangered Species Act cut by 17%
Funding for the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund, cut $34 million, a 64% reduction
Funding for the State Department’s International Conservation Program giving financial support to the most important wildlife organisations including the IUCN, cut to zero
The savings made are less than a flea bite in a total federal budget of $1.15 trillion, but will spell the death sentence to thousands of animals all over the world.
Who will benefit?
Poachers and criminal trafficking cartels
Who will suffer?
Poor communities in Africa and Asia. Elephants, pangolins, lions, giraffes, snow leopards, great apes, migratory birds, tigers, rhinos, sea turtles and many many more.
That’s just abroad. At home, the Environmental Protection Agency has become the Environmental Pulverisation Agency under Trump’s appointee Scott Pruitt.
And as for That Wall at a cost of $1.6 billion – what a long way $1.6 billion would go protecting wildlife! Trump’s border wall will imperil at least 93 endangered and threatened species, including jaguars and ocelots, and cut its malignant swathe through several important wildlife refuges.
The POTUS’s war on wildlife will decimate many of America’s iconic species, and could see wolves for just one, after 20 years of tireless conservation efforts to save them from the brink, pushed once again to the cliff edge of extinction.
Wonderful as Matthew Holden’s vision is of reserves paid for by our burial fees, the clock is ticking for precious wildlife. The animals can’t wait for our demise. They need us now.
Congress has yet to sign off on Trump’s life-butchering budget. So if you are a US citizen, now is the time to let Congress hear your voice for wildlife.
Join the Center for Biological Diversity Join Defenders of Wildlife
Animal rights and art have not always been easy bedfellows. Belgian artist Jan Fabre got into hot water for a performance in which he threw several cats up a flight of stairs, who let out pained meows in response. Damien Hirst, meanwhile, is famed for works featuring a formaldehyde-soaked shark, a pig’s head, and even a piece that required the killing of 9000 butterflies. The most recent example, however, was at Colorado’s Aspen Art Museum, where – as part of the show – turtles were made to amble around an art exhibit with iPads attached to their shells.
But there are also plenty of examples of animal rights being championed by the arts. Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney are well-known for their anti-fur and anti-leather stances, whereas Morrissey is outspokenly meat-free, once writing the memorable lyrics: “It’s not “natural”, “normal” or kind/ the flesh you so fancifully fry/ the meat in your mouth/ as you savour the flavour, of murder”. Then, of course, Rembrandt, one of the greatest painters of all time, was a pioneering vegetarian. Here, we look at some of the most compelling animal rights artivists.
Performance artist Jacqueline Traide, sickened by cosmetics testing on animals, wanted to convey the cruelty of it to the public by having the procedure done to herself. She was tortured for 10 hours in the performance, which was done in a vitrine in the Oxford Circus branch of Lush, as shocked pedestrians looked on. Amongst a number of activities, Traide had her mouth held open with a vice, was force-fed, had a strip of her hair shaved off, and was given two injections.
(Further info about the EU ban on animal testing for cosmetics here
Email your MP to support global fight against cruel cosmetics here)
Portuguese artist Zoe Birrell once made an art installation consisting of 420 dairy cows, each made from vegan fair-trade chocolate, and each equalling her body weight of 53kg. The life of a modern dairy cow is marked by the emotional stress of the loss of her baby calf, combined with the hormonal effect of being kept perpetually pregnant. It inspired Birrell to respond to these psychological and physiological issues, considering the ethical alternatives, as well as, how it related to her own femininity.
Jonathan Horowitz stopped eating meat at the age of 12, after his parents took him to a bullfight when on holiday in Mexico. The artist’s heavyweight Go Vegan! exhibition at a former New York meat-packing plant, LaFrieda Meats, aimed to normalise the idea of meat-free living. Horowitz compiled a portrait gallery of more than 200 celebrity vegetarians, as well as a video installation featuring Paul and Linda McCartney, arguing for veganism through the medium of modern living: commodity culture.
Banksy, the king of street art, made a return to the road with his puntastic project Sirens of the Lambs. Making appearances around the world, such as New York City and Glastonbury, the piece was a “moving sculpture”, in which a truck full of shrieking cuddly animals being taken to slaughter, drove around. The work is designed to highlight the issue of animals being farmed for their meat, but without the usual, depressing consequences.
Sue Coe grew up hearing the rattling of chains and screaming from the local abattoir at her home in Hersham, England. The normalisation of mass slaughter, which she also saw at abattoirs from Liverpool to Los Angeles, became the inspiration for her graphic paintings and drawings. These works are imbued with a mind-warping darkness and death, that the viewer can hardly ignore.
Artist and animal rights activists Alice Newstead once painted herself silver and suspended herself from hooks to protest the fishing of sharks, who are threatened with extinction (around 100 million sharks are caught in commercial and sports fishing every year. Piercing the skin of her shoulder blades, she was hung for 15 minutes, as blood streamed down her back.
Asher Jay uses her digital graphic skills innovatively to inform the world about animal abuse. In Africa, Jay made screensavers of a poached rhino horn dripping with blood. In China, she integrated elephant tusks into Chinese language characters to encourage a halt in ivory buying while her enormous images of elephants killed for their tusks were projected in New York’s Times Square. “I wanted to visualize the scale and brutality of the crisis and use art to tell the blood ivory story,” she says. “Each year, 35,000 elephants are slaughtered; that’s one every 15 minutes.”
Rocky Lewycky’s project Is It Necessary? addressed the problem of factory farming in a violent new way. The work was comprised of hundreds of ceramic animals – pigs, cows, turkeys, fish – neatly positioned together. Each day Lewycky would enter the gallery space, elect an animal, and brutally smash it to pieces, leaving the white sculptures to reveal their blood-red interiors.
New York artist Dan Witz came over to east London to create his project Empty The Cages. For it, he placed chicken claws and pigs heads in 30 different locations around the streets of Shoreditch, in order to subtly raise the issue of animal consumption, and its dire consequences. Witz explained: “Climate change, deforestation, wildlife extinction, water waste, air pollution and ocean dead zones (among other things) are all directly attributable to meat, dairy and egg production.”
(I urge you to check out what Dan has to say about some other work he did with PETA, and how it made him feel)
Different societies and cultures always tend to draw the line of what sort of animal is okay to eat differently. Elephants, dogs, and silk worms are all consumed in places around the globe. Sacramento-based multimedia artist Gale Hart tackled this issue with her project Why Not Eat Your Pet? It juxtaposed images of devastating animal cruelty with pets that have sinister, child-like innocence.