A Troubling Dilemma – Should We Kill to Save?

“The most melodious wild music I have ever heard”

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.

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The endangered 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.

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The veiled chameleon, invader in Hawaii, all the way from Yemen

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:

  • Rapid reproduction
  • Fast growth
  • 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.

Eradication methods

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.

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Galapagos lava heron

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.” 

The ethics

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 impractical

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.

The bizarre

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”.

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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.

The risky

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.

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One of the invaders, an Australian possum

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 will sooner or later.

The dilemma

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?

RDLS_logo-copy

 

Update 6th December 2017

Genetic tool that can doom a species under UN review

Gene experts set to tackle pest control

Sources

Eradication nation

Hawaii’s Invasive Species Might Be Cute, But They’re A Huge Island Threat

Invasive Species – Wiki

Alien invaders: American mink removed from Scotland

Confronting introduced species: a form of xenophobia?

When killing off a species is the best solution

Gene-drive technologies for ecosystem conservation: use with care

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You Love Animals Right? Your Brain IS Different from Those Who Don’t

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.

Help to go vegan here

 

Sources

Veg*n Brains & Animal Suffering

Empathy for Animals is all about us

The Conceptual Separation of Food and Animals in Childhood

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Animal Rights Stickers – Yay!

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 – the most important – message…

ANIMALS ARE NOT OURS

TO EAT, WEAR, EXPERIMENT ON, USE FOR ENTERTAINMENT, OR ABUSE IN ANY OTHER WAY


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The Punk Rocker with a Snake Venom Habit – An Unexpected Hero for Animals?

“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 told AFPSteve 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.

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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

Sources

Snake man’s venom habit holds hope for new antidote by Pauline Froissart

Why this former punk rocker injects himself with snake venom

Venomous Nightmare

Antivenom: how it’s made & why it’s so precious

Nature’s nastiest beasts on show in London

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How Our Mortal Remains Could Save Every Endangered Species on the Planet – But Wildlife Can’t Wait

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 funding works!”

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, as Prof 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 which equals more animals saved.

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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.”

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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Join the Center for Biological Diversity    Join Defenders of Wildlife

A petition for everyone

Stop Federal Budget Cuts that Endanger African Wildlife

Petitions for US citizens:

Stop drastic budget cuts that devastate wildlife habitat

Protect the Endangered Species Act

Protect the Environment – Tell President Trump We Won’t Back Down

Stop Federal Budget Cuts that Endanger Africa’s Wildlife

More petitions

Sources

¹It will take a nation to combat Trump’s war on wildlife – Jeff Corwin in The Hill

²Environmental Movement – Encyclopedia.com

Investing in conservation pays off, study finds

We now have proof that conservation funding works

Spooky conservation: saving species over our dead bodies

Rise of populism affects wildlife management in US

Trump Budget Undercuts U.S. Commitment to Global Wildlife Conservation

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Scared of Spiders? You May Be Hard-Wired That Way

Ask kids what they are most scared of, and with one voice they’ll shriek “SPIDERS!”  Hardly surprising then that of all the phobias UK people suffer, nearly half involve creepy crawlies, spiders taking the crown. And no less than three quarters of undergrads canvassed admitted to some level of arachnophobia.

Arachnophobes have always been a puzzle to me. Despite having once been on the receiving end of a startling nip, I love spiders. The cobwebs in the corners of my house are designated conservation zones where no duster is permitted. Tell me, what’s not to love? Any creature that can draw silk like magic out of its own body, and spin the thing of beauty that is the spider’s web, deserves better PR – IMHO.
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Just look at that cute little face!

My personal favourite has to be Bagheera Kiplingi, who out of 40,000 named species, is the only known vegan spider in existence! It’s name alone is endearing. This is what the BBC has to say about our little veggie friend: “Like other species of jumping spider, Bagheera kiplingi has keen eyesight, is especially fast and agile and is thought to have good cognitive skills, which allows it to “hunt” down this plant food.”  See, these little guys are clever too. (Apologies if the  ‘jumping’, ‘fast’ and ‘agile’ have triggered a phobic meltdown)

But come on guys, we don’t have any real monsters in the British Isles. The house spider we’re likely to find in the bath at this time of the year, or glimpse out of the corner of an eye hurtling across the floor of an evening in the flickering light from the TV, deserves to be a welcome guest. It’s estimated that one will chow down and clear your home of 2,000 unwelcome bugs and flies a year. OK, so it can be a decent-ish span from one hairy little foot across to another, especially 2,000 bugs further down the line, but it’s not exactly in dinner-plate-size tarantula league.

If you live in Central America, India, Australia or such, you’d be insane – and quite possibly on the way to meet your maker – if you weren’t anxious about spiders. But we have no spiders of evil intent here, no deadly wolf, no sinister black widow. So why the fear? If it can’t be the size, or the poison factor here in the UK, how come this irrational abhorrence of arachnids?

Arachnophobia does run in families. The question is, inherited or learned? Nature or Nurture? It seems plain commonsense that if mum or dad are scared of these beasties (and it’s more often than not mum) the kids will not be slow to pick up on it. So nurture then.

Well, yes, but not entirely. As with so many aspects of the human animal’s behaviour, unpicking the tangled web of the two Ns isn’t simple. In a 2008 study, 5 month old babies who were shown a variety of images, looked longer at the spiders than at any of the other pics. These babes were unlikely to have been ‘turned’ at such an early age. The finding indicated, the co-authors said, that “humans, like other species, may possess a cognitive mechanism for detecting specific animals that were potentially harmful throughout evolutionary history.” Arachnophobia could well be innate – evolution made us this way. Not irrational at all, but an aid to survival.

A more recent and wonderfully titled study, Spiders at the Cocktail Party, confirms the baby test finding: human evolution has passed down undiminished the ancient fear of the arachnid. This time students were shown a range of different images to identify, including several fear- or revulsion-inducing objects like needles and flies, as well as spiders. Nearly all the participants recognised the spiders more quickly than any of the other images, and also gave them more attention. The spiders were rapidly spotted, even when they appeared out on the display’s periphery, and while the central image was drawing the subjects’ focus and conscious attention.

“Spiders,” say the authors, ‘may be one of a very few evolutionarily-persistent threats that are inherently specified for visual detection and uniquely ‘prepared’ to capture attention and awareness irrespective of any foreknowledge, personal importance, or task-relevance.”

Or, in plain English: Try to complete any requisite task, and we’re beset with constant distractions. We may pride ourselves on exceptional concentration and ability to focus. But, it doesn’t matter how engrossed we may be, the one thing that is certain to grab our attention however peripheral or fleeting its appearance, and spark in us that instant phobic response –  is the scary eight-legged creeping and quivering, scurrying, scuttling, spider.

It really is all in the genes. You, my arachnophobic friend, are hard-wired this way. It’s normal.

Happy Halloween – and please don’t stamp on the spiders!

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(What’s wrong with me then? Why can’t I be in the arachnophobe gang? What’s gone awry with my hard-wiring? Am I missing a gene or two? Maybe I’m a Neanderthal throwback or something. Any other dis-arachnophobes out there…. )

Sources

Frightened of spiders? It could be in your DNA

Why Are We So Afraid of Spiders? – The Independent

Eight Reasons to Love Spiders (Or At Least Spare Them)

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The Parrot who Cried “Don’t Shoot” – & Other Feathery Feats

The African Grey Parrot, prince of prattle, pre-eminent among a small bevy of birds with the ability to speak the language of humans.

Occasionally when one of these awesome birds is thrown into the human mix, strange things happen. And so it was that in one utterly bizarre murder case that involved a crossbow, psychics, and mysterious death threats between members of the victim’s family, the bizarrest element of all was the key witness to the crime – an African grey by the name of Bud. What began as a domestic dispute in the home Bud shared with his humans, ended with a 48 year old woman shooting her husband.

After the calamitous incident, Bud was heard saying in a deep man’s voice,”Get out,” followed by the woman’s voice saying, “Where will I go?” The man’s voice answered, “Don’t f—ing shoot.” Extraordinarily, Bud appeared to be repeating the couple’s final argument.

Damning evidence in the case? “The case’s prosecuting attorney said he wasn’t aware of a precedent allowing a parrot into a trial, but would look into whether Bud could serve as admissible evidence.” In the event, Bud wasn’t called to take the stand. After all, who’s to know if he was giving testimony to that tragic event, or simply imitating a TV show he’d once seen? Despite the lack of testimony from the crime’s only witness, the woman was convicted.

Experts, acknowledging the incredible brain power of these birds, admit it is possible Bud could verbally re-enact an incident observed just once – but unlikely. The fact remains though, these birds are truly remarkable mimics. Not only can they produce the sounds of human words, but they can even imitate to near perfection different voices and tones of voice, a feat that is pretty exceptional among their fellow avians.

How do they do it?

Physically:

  • Like most other birds, parrots have a syrinx above the lungs for producing sound. But what’s unique to them is the complicated set of muscles controlling the syrinx that give them enormous versatility in sound production
  • Like human use of tongue and mouth, parrots use their tongues and beaks to speak
  • What they can’t use like us, are lips and teeth, so they use the esophagus to ‘burp’ their Ps and Bs, and press their tongues against their beaks to make L (with us it’s tongue and teeth)

Cognitively? An extra layer, literally, of grey matter inside the little psittacine skull.

Why do they do it?

In the wild, a lone parrot is a dead parrot. Learning new songs and sounds helps them bond with their mate and fit into the flock. In captivity, by learning to speak like us, the parrot is saying to its humans “Please let me be in your flock”.

More

Now to another member of the clever parrot family showing off its talents

cockatoo-1129586__340The Goffin’s cockatoo. A study reveals that these cockatoos who are not tool-users in the wild, can learn to create tools to solve a problem reaching food. If that doesn’t seem surprising, we should take into account that these birds had never experienced this kind of test before, and yet actually performed in it better than many 8 year old children.

In one test the cockatoos were shown a tiny basket with a handle containing food inside a vertical tube, and a straight pipe cleaner. To get the food the birds needed to bend the pipe cleaner into a hook that could lift the basket by the handle out of the tube. The second test involved a piece of food lying in horizontal tube, with a bent pipe cleaner. This time the birds needed to straighten the pipe cleaner to poke out the food. Many of the birds managed one of the tasks, and one little genius managed both!

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Their beauty is their downfall

Of course it’s not just the parrots’ cheeky personality, startling ability to mimic us, and sheer brainpower that make these animals so appealing. Their plumage makes a vivid splash of colour in their forest habitat, and sadly it’s that very plumage that puts them in jeopardy. It seems humans suffer from feather envy and covet that finery for themselves. In the 19th century, thousands upon thousands of these dazzling creatures were killed so their gorgeous feathers could decorate fashionable ladies’ hats.

Today in spite of CITES they are still – illegally – being plucked from forests and jungles, with the result that 66 parrot species out of 375 have been put on the Endangered Red List. The South American Blue-throated Macaw is one of the rarest – there are only about 250 birds left.

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And the beauty of this parrot creates a particular problem. On the Moxeño plains of Bolivia ‘macheteros’ (meaning anything from ‘cane-cutters’ to ‘revolutionaries’ – take your pick) hold fiestas where they dance to the music of bongos and flutes in celebration of the colours of nature – the colour that ironically by this very celebration they are causing to disappear. Because macheteros traditionally wear brilliantly coloured headdresses made from the feathers of 4 types of macaw, including the Blue-throated.

But there is good news. The Asociación Armonía (BirdLife Partner in Bolivia) has come up with the ‘Alternative Feather Programme’. It involves workshops held in local schools to teach the macheteros to create their own ‘feathers’ out of organic materials found locally. Since each headdress is made of approximately 30 central tail feathers, “one headdress of artificial feathers saves at least 15 macaws,” explains Gustavo Sánchez Avila, Armonía’s Conservation Programme coordinator for the Blue-throated Macaw.

In 6 years this program has saved 6000 individual birds of the 4 macaw species, involved thousands of local people in the conservation of Bolivian nature, and provided work and income for locals selling their vivid headdresses of hand made ‘feathers’ to tourists.

And more good news for Blue-throated Macaws: conservationists from Asociación Armonía discovered an entirely new roosting site of this rare bird. Hopefully a sign that these gorgeous creatures are making a comeback.

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So how do birds get their colours?

We already know why all the colours and patterns in birds’ feathers. They serve one of two purposes: camouflage as protection from predators; or finery to attract a mate. No-one knew where the colours came from until a recent study undertaken by Dr Ismael Galván and his team.

Their findings?

  • melanins provide the range of blacks, greys and browns in birds’ plumage
  • carotenoids taken up by specialised feather structures create the brighter shades

Interestingly, birds cannot themselves produce carotenoids. So if they want bright feathers, they have to eat foods rich in the stuff. The carotenoids are carried in the bloodstream to the feather follicles. Melanins on the other hand are synthesised in birds’ bodies by cells called melanocytes.

One third of the 9,000 species of bird studied had complex plumage patterns, most of which are produced by melanins. So the rule is, patches of bright colour – carotenoids. Subtle and complex patterns – melanins.

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But that’s not the whole story

Some Canadian woodpeckers are seeing red – that is if they’re looking at each other, because their feathers have taken on an inexplicable rosy hue. It’s like this: the Northern Flicker woodpecker has two populations, the “yellow-shafted” in the east and the “red-shafted” in the west. The shaft is of course, the feather’s central ‘spine’.

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Where the two different populations cross paths in the middle of the country, you get a blend of both colours. But for years ornithologists have puzzled over the ‘yellows’ that are too far east of the hybridization zone to have picked up the genes of the ‘reds’, yet also sport a blend of both colours.

Well, now the puzzle is solved. In the autumn the eastern birds feast on a bounty of bright red honeysuckle berries. It turns out that the red of the western birds does indeed come from carotenoids, but the red in the eastern birds comes courtesy of the berries, from another compound altogether – rhodoxanthin. That to me has a toxic ring to it, but clearly the Flickers are not getting poisoned.

There is a downside. The berries in question are the fruits of two invasive species of honeysuckle. And because the new red hues they are creating in the birds come from rhodoxanthin not the usual carotenoids, other Flickers could be bamboozled into picking the wrong mate. Normally, bright colours equals plenty of carotenoids. equals a well-fed bird, equals a fit and healthy prospective partner. It “could have major implications for mate selection if plumage coloration no longer signaled a bird’s body condition.” Who knows how that could affect the population long term.

And it’s not just the Flickers. Cedar Waxwings’ feathers are turning orange too. Dr Hudon of the Royal Alberta Museum is afraid this is not the last we will see of birds displaying unexpected colours.

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From colour to camouflage

We all know that animals’ fur or feathers is often the perfect camouflage ‘design’ for concealing them in their own habitat. Some are hiding from predators, and others are concealing themselves from their prey. And as we also know, though all tigers have stripes, no two tigers’ stripes are quite the same.

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Ground-nesting nightjar

But what scientists from Exeter and Cambridge Universities discovered about animal camouflage is mind-blowing. In this instance they were looking at not a predator like the tiger, but 9 species of birds who, as ground-nesters, have a particular need to mitigate their chances of being prey. And they found that not only are those species wonderfully camouflaged for their habitats, but individuals within a bird species choose a place to nest that best matches their own individual colours and markings.

“This is not a species level choice.” Prof Martin Stevens tells us. “Individual birds consistently sit in places that enhance their own unique markings, both within a habitat, and at a fine scale with regards to specific background sites.”

And even more amazing, the individuals are tailoring their choice of nesting sites to the visual systems of their main predators! Like seeing themselves through the predator’s eyes. Isn’t it remarkable? How do they do it? How do they even know what they look like? As yet no-one knows, so exciting as this is, there could be more to come.

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Looking back, it seems we have travelled quite a distance from Bud the African grey, witness to murder. But from each little piece of this post (for me, and I hope, for you) emerge two common take-aways  – the ever-amazing genius of birds, and the wonder of Nature. The mysteries and marvels of Nature we will never fully fathom. Nature is an irreplaceable treasure, and to lose even the smallest scrap of it is tragic beyond measure.


If we want to help stem the loss, here are 50 Easy Ways to Save the Planet Although this list dates from 2002, it’s still entirely relevant. We can all make a difference.

The single biggest adjustment we can make to our lifestyles though, is missing from that list – cutting back on meat and dairy. “Human carnivory—and its impact on land use—is the single biggest threat to much of the world’s flora and fauna.” Science

So here are 6 Easy Ways to Cut Back On Meat If You’re Not Ready to Give it Up Just Yet

Come on ecowarriors, let’s go make a difference!


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You Love Animals, Right? Ever Wondered Why Others Couldn’t Care Less?

It’s mystifying, isn’t it? We find ourselves suffused with joy watching the sparrows bathing in the bird bath, spotting bees, butterflies and dragonflies on a walk, discovering a small crab in a rock pool, watching swallows gathering on a wire in autumn, hearing the geese migrating south for winter, or stroking a donkey over the fence. We can’t let a dog or a cat walk by without moving in for a cuddle or a stroke, and telling them how beautiful they are. But most of all we love our own fur babies, sometimes (often!) more than other humans. So how can it be that there are actually people who couldn’t care less? It’s incomprehensible.

But it’s a fact. If the presence of companion animals in the family is the measure of this phenomenon, it’s a 50/50 split, half of us love’em, the other half doesn’t. Here in the UK anyway.

(Canines or felines? Another 50/50 split, 10 million of each. But let’s leave the dog v cat debate for another day.)

If you’re in the weird 50% – the animal un-lovers – you probably wonder what we get out of caring for our dogs – they bark, need constant walking and a steady supply of poop bags. Or our cats, who have no sense of loyalty or gratitude, scratch the furniture, and are alternately aloof or needy and demanding.

We could tell you companion animals are therapeutic for us. Studies show they lower their human’s blood pressure, alleviate loneliness and depression, boost the immune system, and increase our lifespan. Apparently though, there are just as many studies that show our beloved furry friends confer no health benefits. And we who live with them live no longer than those who don’t. Health and longevity is more to do with where you fall demographically than if you live with a fur baby – which incidentally, you’re more likely to do if you’re married, white, a woman, wealthy and own your own home. All of which happen to be predictors for better health and longer life as well – nothing to do with beloved Fido or Felix. Well, whatever the studies say, we on the animal-loving side couldn’t imagine life without them.

So why the split? Nature or nurture?

We all assume that if you grow up with animals, in a family that loves animals, your fate is sealed – in a good way. The best. It’s as simple as that. I grew up with 3 cats, a dog, rabbits and a goat, and a mum who loved animals, so that works for me. I’ve never lived without a nonhuman animal by my side. How about you?

But there’s a little more to it than you might have thought. First let me ask, have you heard of anthrozoology? It is, it seems, a new science “dedicated to discovering the true nature and depth of the human-animal bond” – news to me too, but I like it! (NB though all you anthrozoologists out there – humans are animals too).

In his book “The Animals Among Us”, leading expert in animal behaviour and anthrozoology, John Bradshaw traces the thread back to our ancient ancestors to unravel how living with other animals shaped our own evolution as well as theirs.

How did some animals become domesticated in the first place?

Dogs became distinct from wolves, cats from wildcats, cattle from wild oxen, sheep from wild mouflon and so on, between 15,000 and 5,000 years ago, their DNA tells us. But how did those genes for tameness evolve? Because at any stage, if the semi-tame animals got to mate with their wild cousins, the tameness genes would be diluted, and there would be no domestication. To prevent that, we humans had to keep ‘our’ animals apart, inaccessible, by physically containing them in our own habitations. And so we developed an emotional attachment to the creatures who lived among us.

Through the generations, passing those tameness genes down, the cats and dogs, cattle and sheep gradually got tamer. And at the same time humans with empathy for the animals and with skills in animal husbandry thrived, and passed down their own evolving animal-loving genes to their descendants. Meanwhile, those who didn’t go to the trouble of keeping domesticated animals but continued to rely on hunting, were fading out.

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The creature-carers were winning the evolutionary war.

In that case, how did we arrive at the 50/50 split? Where did the animal un-lovers come from?

John Bradshaw conjectures that at some point in history, those guys who were not living with domesticated animals came up with the brilliant idea of letting those who were (our half of the equation), do all the work, and then raiding us, stealing the animals and taking us slaves. Let’s call it the Genghis Khan M.O. And so the animal un-lover population made a comeback. (We must assume their raids weren’t always successful, or else it would have been our half dying out!)

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The fearsome Genghis Khan as depicted on a Mongolian banknote

Genghis Khan makes a good metaphor for ruthless raids and pillage, but since he made his entrance on the world stage a mere thousand or so years ago, he can’t be held personally responsible for the tribe that were evolving into animal un-loving raiders several thousand years before that. But you never know, it’s perfectly possible he was a descendant of them. Whatever, it’s a fascinating fact that 1 in every 200 men in the world alive today is a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Crazy, but true. It would be even more fascinating to know if all those 16 million guys are genetically predisposed to be indifferent to animals!

But back to serious science. When it comes to engagement with companion animals, a 2015 study designed to disentangle nature and nurture, found that “genetic factors accounted for as much as 37%” of the difference in middle-aged men. Why not women? Who knows. But anyway, animal loving is in the genes!

At least in part, you really are genetically predisposed to love, or be indifferent to other animals. It’s a trait you have inherited – as well as learned – from your parents, and your parents’ parents before them. And so on, back to the time when your ancestors chose one of two different paths, to domesticate or to hunt and raid.

Love animals, Love Nature

Now we come full circle.  Other recent studies show that we really are two entirely different tribes. If you love animals, you will love Nature too. Or if indifferent to the one, you’ll be indifferent to the other. “It seems that people can be roughly divided into those that feel little affinity for animals or the environment, and those who are predisposed to delight in both.” 

Why are we not surprised?


If you love animals and care about the environment, and even if you don’t but care about your own health, cut back on the meat and dairy. Find out why that’s a good idea here. 10 top tips for doing it here


If you are thinking of bringing a companion animal into your home, please #AdoptDontShop  Just look at these sad statistics:

  • The Daily Mail reported that the number of stray or abandoned dogs in the UK reached 110,000 in 2013, and that 21 are put down every single day.
  • The RSPCA rescued and collected 118,994 animals of all kinds in 2015 in the UK, and were only able to rehome 47,651 of those.
  • The ASPCA tells us that in the USA approximately 7.6 million companion animals enter animal shelters nationwide every year. Of those, approximately 3.9 million are dogs and 3.4 million are cats.
  • And that each year, approximately 2.7 million animals are euthanized (1.2 million dogs and 1.4 million cats)

And they are not just numbers. Each one an individual longing for a loving home.


Postscript If you struggle to make sense of my exposition of human and non-human animals’ evolution in pre-history, you may need to read John Bradshaw’s book, where he does it at greater length, and so much better.


Source

The science behind why some people love animals and others couldn’t care less – PhysOrg

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Apes Much Cleverer than We’ve Been Told – And Other Monkey Business

I doubt I’m alone in thinking that when it comes to scientific studies, researchers do have a tendency to find what they’re looking for. And if you believe as a human that you sit astride the topmost rung of the evolutionary ladder, your ‘scientific’ view of other animals’ abilities is already skewed out of true.

This is exactly what has happened over two decades’ worth of studies into apes. Yes, the scientists did say apes are clever – just not as clever as us. But conducting a new analysis of all those studies, Dr Leaven¹ discovered that “what we think we know about apes’ social intelligence is based on wishful thinking and flawed science.”

“The fault underlying decades of research and our understanding of apes’ abilities is due to such a strongly-held belief in our own superiority, that scientists have come to believe that human babies are more socially capable than ape adults. As humans, we see ourselves as top of the evolutionary tree. This has led to a systematic exaltation of the reasoning abilities of human infants, on the one hand, and biased research designs that discriminate against apes, on the other hand.” 

Staggeringly, even when apes clearly outperformed young human children in tests, researchers interpreted this as a result of apes’ inferior mental abilities!

How did the scientists get it so wrong? Basically, all these years their inbuilt bias meant they weren’t comparing like with like. But if you’d like to find out more, click here

A few of the ways science has misled us into thinking apes are dumber than we are:-

1. Apes can’t ‘ape’

Not true! ‘Aping’ is one of the many words and sayings taken from the animal kingdom, presumably for good reason. Yet current theories hold that apes – in spite of having given us the word – aren’t actually much good at aping at all. In fact, we’re told they are worse at imitating actions they see than children are. Hmm, I wonder if the studies that established that ‘fact’ were included in Dr Leaven’s review. Because it does appear that studies up till now have ignored an important area of imitation – social interaction.

A new study from Lund University, published in the journal Primates, found that in social interaction, chimps and humans playing the imitation game scored an even draw. The research team “systematically observed the spontaneous interactions between zoo visitors and chimpanzees at Furuvik Zoo in Sweden”, and discovered that humans and chimps imitated the other exactly the same proportion of times.

So in fact, apes are pretty good at aping. (Interestingly, some of the Furuvik chimps at least must have been having fun because “several times we observed prolonged interactions that took on a game-like back-and-forth character”) Want to know more? Click here

2. Chimps have to imitate others to learn new things

Not true! Once again scientists have been maintaining for who knows how long another wrongful idea about apes – that chimpanzees learn how to use tools not by working it out for themselves, but only by watching their elders and betters. Which is kinda strange considering they also thought that apes weren’t much good at aping. Researchers noted that in the wild, chimps use sticks to scoop edible algae from the surface of water. So in a new study they provided chimps at Twycross Zoo – who’ve never had the chance to watch this being done – with some sticks and pieces of food floating on the surface of water in a container. The zoo chimps had no trouble retrieving the food with the sticks, and spontaneously used the same scooping action employed by their wild cousins.

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I’m guessing the real test was a little more challenging than this!

“Given these results, the long-held assumption that apes must observe one another in order to show these behaviours may have been due to an illusion of cultural transmission – created by the apes arriving at the same independently”, concluded Dr Claudio Tennie. More here

“Increasingly, we see their inner lives as very similar to that of humans”

3. Chimpanzees can’t reflect on their own state of knowledge & work out how to fill the gaps, like humans do

Not true! Yet one more way science has underestimated apes’ abilities for years. Another new study discovered that apes are able to assess in their minds if they don’t have all the facts they need to make a decision, and try to get that missing information, so they can make that decision.

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Study co-author Christoph Völter says: “Our study indicates that great apes seek information particularly when they miss a critical piece of information such as the location of a required tool. The results suggest that great apes monitor their own knowledge states and that they use this ability flexibly to fill gaps in their knowledge.”

Find out more about the test here

4. Apes can’t tell what others are thinking like humans can

Not true!“Understanding when someone else has a false belief [eg about where an object is hidden] is a mark of advanced social cognition in people” but yet again, “researchers had believed that great apes lacked this capacity.” Now it looks like “great apes, like people, may have the capacity to “read” the minds of others in social interactions.” 

Find out the fun way they discovered this by watching the video especially made for the apes to watch. “By using eye-tracking technology, the scientists showed that 17 out of 22 apes tested switched their gaze to show they had correctly anticipated when the man [believing he knew where his assailant in the ape suit was hiding] would target the wrong haystack.” The red dots I think represent the eye-tracking.

“This cognitive ability is at the heart of so many human social skills,” said Christopher Krupenye of Duke University. “I think our findings start to suggest that maybe apes have a deeper understanding of each other than we previously thought.”
Prof Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who was not involved in the study, said that the findings confirm that theory of mind is not an exclusively human ability. “Increasingly, we see their inner lives as very similar to that of humans,” he said. Report from The Guardian. Jeez, science has been underselling our nearest relatives for so long.
But there is one surprising difference. The dating game – opposites attract

True! But only for chimps. This is one way our primate cousins, our closest living relatives, are quite unlike us, because in spite of our frequent assertion that opposites attract, it’s just not true – not for us. We humans it seems, make a point of assortative mating – choosing a partner with a similar genome to ourselves, maybe to give us a better chance of passing on to our offspring the good stuff – brains and beauty etc.

Chimps are not averse to a bit of monkeying around with a variety of partners. But when it comes to making little chimps, the female is more picky in her choice – it’s what is known in the scientific world as negative assortative mating. Never heard of it? I certainly hadn’t, and I doubt the chimps have either. But the female does it anyway. And she’s good at it. She seems to know not just how to avoid males she grew up with who might be related to her, but how to discriminate between outside males, to get herself the most dissimilar daddy for her chimplings.

How does she do it? Researchers just don’t know, but“a best guess [would be] based on appearance, smell, or sound”, says senior author of the paper Professor Anne Pusey. More on chimp dating and mating here

Ponso’s Tragic Story

A new appreciation from these various studies of just how very little apes differ from us (apart from in the way they choose a mate of course), somehow makes Ponso’s story even more heartwrenching. Ponso is one of 20 chimps – many of them captured from the wild – used for research in the 80’s by the New York Blood Center in Liberia. The Center infected the chimps with viruses, performed biopsies on them, and kept them chained up by their necks.

When NYBC had finished with the chimps, they left them, then aged 7-10 years, on an island off the Ivory Coast. Eleven died within months, and the remaining nine were moved again to another island.

Soon after, a further five chimps died of disease and hunger, leaving only Ponso, his mate and their two children. There is no natural source of food on their island, and the little family hung on to life only through the remarkable kindness of Germain, a retired farmer from a nearby village. Every day Germain pushed his makeshift boat through the shallow water the short distance to the island, with bananas, bread and water. His was the only kindness they had ever experienced.

But in spite of that, at the end of 2013 Ponso’s mate and children all died within days of each other. Germain says Ponso helped him bury them. And ever since, Ponso has been completely alone. The rapturous welcome, enormous hug and showers of kisses he gave a new visitor Estelle Raballand, director of the Chimpanzee Conservation Center² when she visited is a measure of his grief and loneliness.

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Ponso’s dedicated carer Germain Djenemaya Koidja says the ape is “like my child” Image Phys.Org

What next for Ponso? Germain who loves Ponso like his own child, would like him to stay on his island, but with a new mate so he need be lonely no more.³ Others wish to see a sanctuary created in Ivory Coast, for Ponso, and for the rapidly dwindling population of chimpanzees still remaining in the wild. But it’s looking like he will be transferred to Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage in Zambia where he will have company at last, of it is said, at least two females.

Ponso’s story reminds us that it’s not just in mental abilities that apes so closely resemble us, but in the love, grief, loneliness and suffering they experience too. So my hope is that Ponso will find chimp paradise at Chimfunshi, and he will relish the new companionship awaiting him there. God knows, he has suffered enough in his 40+ years of life. Doesn’t he deserve some happiness at last?

If you would like to donate to help Ponso and the Wildlife Orphanage, you will find the SOS Ponso gofundme page here


PS Despite conflating apes and monkeys in the title, I now know, rather belatedly, that apes are not monkeys and monkeys are not apes. Easiest way to tell which is which? Apes, like us, have no tail. Monkeys do. Apes and humans have 95% DNA in common.


 

¹Dr Leaven of Sussex University, lead writer of report “The mismeasure of ape social cognition”

²The Loneliest Chimp in the World – Mail Online

³Helping Ponso, sole survivor of ‘Chimpanzee Island’ – PhysOrg

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English Village Enlists Nature’s Own Water Engineers

How lucky are the villagers of Lydbrook, living as they do in the stunningly beautiful Wye valley with the wildlife-rich Forest of Dean right on their doorstep. But by definition being in a valley means being near a river, and this particular village nestles between the River Wye and the flood-prone Greathough Brook. And that has proved not so lucky on more than one occasion.

But the good folk of Lydbrook received welcome news in 2015 with the promise of a £290,000 flood defence overhaul. And the good luck kept on coming in the form of, courtesy of the Forestry Commission, a family of beavers.

Derek Gow, a beaver expert who has worked on reintroductions in Scotland and England, said: “This is a tremendous opportunity. The science suggests these animals will hold back 6,000 cubic metres of water.

“This has the potential to prevent a once-in-30-years flood event. These animals will also open the forest canopy to light, and create a biodiversity jewel in this forest.”

 

Read more: Meet the latest recruit to the UK flood defence team: the beaver – The Guardian

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