3 months ago Wisdom, the world’s oldest known living wild bird laid an egg, to add to her tally of 36 she has notched up over her nearly 7 decades.
3 months is a lot of sitting on an egg, but Wisdom’s diligence has been rewarded – now the great day has come, and she is proud mum once again to a fluffy little Laysan albatross chick.
What perfect timing – Happy Mother’s Day Wisdom!
Wisdom was believed to be just five-years-old when she was first banded back in 1956 by biologist Chandler Robbins when Midway Atoll was an active U.S. Naval Air Station. In 2002 Robbins encountered her again by chance and her story took off.
Wisdom flies thousands of miles every year to return to Midway Atoll, the breeding site for millions of birds. It is the largest population of albatross on earth: 73 percent of all Laysan albatross, 36 percent of all Black-footed albatross and endangered Short-tailed albatross.
“Midway Atoll’s habitat doesn’t just contain millions of birds, it contains countless generations and families of albatrosses” said Kelly Goodale, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge Biologist. “If you can imagine when Wisdom returns home she is likely surrounded by what were once her chicks and potentially their chicks. What a family reunion!”
Credit: B. Peyton/USFWS Pacific Region
The main threats to these birds – on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species – are entanglement in fishing tackle, and swallowing plastic.
It will be another 4 months before Wisdom’s newest baby will fledge. Until then she and her mate Mr Goo have their work cut out avoiding those dangers and providing all the food that a growing chick requires.
Long may you flourish Wisdom and Mr Goo, and continue gracing the world with your beautiful offspring.
Please help Wisdom and all life in the oceans by signing and sharing these petitions – thank you!
Think wildlife, what instantly leaps to my mind are elephants, tigers, lions. The big and spectacular. And this year the theme for World Wildlife Day is indeed the majestic big cats.
But wildlife also means of course, garden birds, mice, foxes, badgers, stoats and weasels, and here in the UK, the endangered hedgehog, to name a few. They may be less exotic and rare, but their lives are just as important to them – as they should be to us. We’re not all able to actively help our native animals today – heartfelt thanks to those who do, the rescuers, badger patrols, hunt monitors, all the wonderful folk who give up their time to protect wildlife and help it thrive. For those of us who can’t, at the very least there are ways we can take care not to cause harm.
Life as a wild animal is challenging: you have to run after your own dinner, find your own shelter from the elements, and learn to avoid any predators that might be interested in making a meal out of you. And then, of course, there’s us. Sometime we make life easier for our furred and feathery neighbours by providing them with food (whether deliberately or not).
And sometimes we cause them a lot of suffering: usually unintentionally, by carelessly discarding hazardous objects in their environment. In other words, by littering.
Every day the RSPCA receives an average of 14 calls about unfortunate encounters between wildlife and items of litter. Summer is the worst time and birds are especially vulnerable.
A great deal of pain and suffering could be avoided if we all at least remembered to put out discarded items into the nearest bin. Even better would be taking our litter home with us and recycling it responsibly.
Examples of the items which most routinely ensure vulnerable wildlife include:
Discarded and empty cans may still be filled with enticing aromas, leading hungry wildlife to get stuck in the empty cans or injure themselves on the sharp edges. Clean your used cans and dispose fo them properly in recycling facilities.
This is made to be sharp and potentially lethal so it should come as no surprise to hear that discarded tackle injures thousands of birds every year. They become ensnared or impale themselves on the hooks. If you are a fisherman, dispose of your tackle sensibly.
What goes up must come down. Once balloons have finished soaring through the clouds they pop and fall to earth, where luckless creatures may find, swallow and choke on them.
This notorious urban nuisance can suffocate or choke wild animals, so please dispose of your used plastic bags sensibly and responsibly.
Broken glass is another frequent source of serious injury to our wild neighbours – and unbroken glass jars can entomb smaller animals. Please dispose of your jars properly and recycle your glass.
Discarded plastic bands are both a choking and strangulation hazard for birds. Cut them before throwing them away: or better still recycle them.
These increasingly popular paper and bamboo halloween entertainments can travel for miles on the wind after being released, before like balloons, falling to the ground and trapping, entangling or choking passing birds or other wildlife. Think twice before choosing Chinese lanterns for your party.
I would add another one to the list – those plastic ties from 4- and 6-packs of beer, cider and soft drinks. Cut them up before throwing them in the recycle bin.
Want to go one small step further?
Keep a paper bag in your pocket and pick up potential hazards others have discarded as you’re walking along. (Important – obviously it goes without saying, but I’ll say it nevertheless, NEVER pick up needles, or any other thing that might endanger your own health. )
Surprisingly, our neighbourhood posties pose a special danger to our local beasties. Some drop the rubber bands that bind together the bundles of mail, leaving a trail all along the footpaths of their delivery routes. I’ve seen a blackbird trying to eat one. I’ve also seen distressing photos of a hedgehog’s injuries after getting entangled in a rubber band. If it is a hoglet, as he or she grows, the band gets embedded in its flesh. Rubber bands can and do even kill them.
You will not have far to look to find the bands – they’re strewn on pavements everywhere, and probably on your front path from time to time. Why not phone your local sorting office and ask them if they have a policy for instructing their posties to save not drop the rubber bands. And if not, why not!
Discarded fishing tackle is one of the worst dangers to wildlife. You will be saving lives if you remove and dispose of any you come across – and any other stringy stuff.
Once you become aware, you will be surprised at how much potentially harmful stuff there is around.
So if you can, do the beasties one more little favour, and pick up and recycle discarded cans and carrier bags.
Focusing on Wildlife says:
What’s the biggest single thing you can you do to help? Recycle and reuse. Keep your discarded items(and I would add, other people’s whenever possible) out of the ecosystem altogether. The birds and the butterflies will thank you for it. As will other wild and native critters.
PS Discarded crisp packets and plastic bags can be hazardous for dogs and cats too.
If you never had the Japanese down as a nation of animal-lovers, get this – on the Japanese rail network Animals Rule.
Monkeys, dogs, goats, lobsters (lobsters?!) and a tortoise proudly hold the official title of stationmaster at rail depots around the country. The most famous to occupy the post in recent years was a cat called Tama, who died in 2015 at the good old age of 16. Her funeral ‘was attended by thousands of local commuters and admirers hailing from near and far. Following a period of mourning, the newly minted Honorable Eternal Stationmaster was replaced by Nitama, a former apprentice of Tama who beat out other candidates for the job partially based on her “willingness to wear a hat.”‘
The only thing vaguely similar of which we can boast here in the UK, is the day last April when a large herd of cows took it upon themselves to congregate on Hever station platform in Kent. Strangely, in spite of having a wealth of applicants to choose from, Network Rail declined to appoint any of them to their staff.
But Network Rail does have one heartening animal trick up its sleeve. Paradoxical, startling, but nonetheless true – the rail network and surrounding land managed by NR is possibly the most biodiverse wildlife haven in the UK. An unseen Shangri-la for rare and endangered species such as the large blue butterfly, the dormouse, the osprey, the natterjack toad and the great crested newt. If we were permitted access, which of course we are not, we might also find an abundance of lizards, grass snakes, slow worms, water voles, deer, foxes, badgers, and bats.
But – and it’s a very big but – the network is both haven and hazard. Between 2003/4 and 2013/14 the number of animals struck by trains tripled, and the unfortunate animals logging up the highest death count are deer.
“Deer have excellent peripheral vision, but most deer incidents take place while the beasts are traversing the railway as part of their natural movement pattern between habitats at dawn/dusk – a time when more trains are running as part of the morning and evening peaks.”¹
What is Network Rail doing to prevent animals getting on the tracks?
Not an awful lot it seems. They “educate land owners about the dangers and disruption caused by animal incursions, emphasising the need to keep gates securely closed and encouraging them to use additional measures such as electric fencing.”
And that’s it. Good as far as it goes, and fine for domestic animals: horses, sheep and cattle – but if we look for NR’s ideas on keeping deer and other wildlife off the tracks, we draw a blank. This in spite of their desire to minimise collisions and costly disruptions to the rail timetable.
Over in Japan, they do things differently
Yes, certainly there is the same imperative not to let collisions with animals mess up the schedule. (Magnify that sixty-fold. The Japanese don’t have a name for super-efficiency for nothing, and Japanese trains are precise to the second. Last November a rail company felt compelled to issue a public apology for one of its trains departing 20 seconds early, at 9.44.20, instead of 9.44.40 – can you imagine it!)
And yes, as in the UK, the most frequent victims of death by train are deer. The deer are “reportedly attracted to the lines due to a need for iron in their diets, licking up small iron filings left behind by the grinding of train wheels on the tracks.”
But in Japan it’s not just about the timetable. As their unlikely choice of stationmasters/mistresses attest, in the world of the locomotive the Japanese have a care for animals. And that extends to the wild kind, whose interaction with trains is too often fatal.
Creatures as small as turtles can come a cropper, as well as cause delays, so one rail company has worked with wildlife experts to create safe crossings in the form of special turtle trenches running underneath the tracks. Rail workers even carry out regular inspections to see if the little guys need an extra helping hand.
For the bigger animals the usual ropes, fences, and flashing lights have all been tried – without success. Now, displaying a creativity sadly lacking in Network Rail, the Japanese are coming up with all kinds of imaginative ways to prevent costly timetable disruptions and animal deaths.
One of the most out there was someone’s brainwave of mixing water with lion dung garnered from a safari park, and spraying the solution along the track. Hey presto, it worked! Not one deer was run over. Even though Japanese deer have never seen a lion, it seems they recognise the smell of an apex predator when they come across it.
The dung spray though 100% effective, did have several drawbacks:
The spraying was very labour-intensive, impractical on a larger scale
It got washed away in the rain
And finally, it REEKED! Railway staff, passengers, and folk living near the line alike, all complained
Based on the observation that the deer are drawn to the iron from the lines, one company developed another effective method to divert the deer – definitely less off-the-wall and decidedly less offensive than the lion poop – ‘yukuru’, simple salt-lick blocks containing the vital ingredient iron.
When it really hit home
One night in 2015 a family of deer were crossing the tracks when a young fawn at the rear of the group was struck by a train and killed. Yuji Hikita, an employee of Kintetsu Railway Co. saw it happening. And continued to watch while a parent deer stood motionless, staring down at the fallen fawn for a full 40 minutes. After witnessing the whole heart-wrenching scene, he determined to find a way to stop such a sorrowful event happening again.
Hikita’s focus was on finding a way to help the deer cross the tracks in safety, rather than simply blocking them out.
He made an on-the-ground study of the deers’ movements. Finding hoof prints and dung (deer droppings, not lion!) helped him establish which spots the animals used as crossing points. The line was enclosed with 2 metre-high netting, but crossing places were left open. In the crossing gaps, ultrasonic waves formed temporary barriers at the riskiest times, dawn and dusk, but were switched off overnight when the trains stopped running.
The ultrasonic waves, inaudible to us, have the advantage of not being a terribleassault on human senses like the lion poop.
Hikita’s ingenious plan won him a 2017 Good Design Award.“This is an excellent example of how railway companies can tackle the deer-train collision problem from the deer’s perspective,” a judge for the Good Design Award said in 2017, “and it owes to the countless number sacrificed in the accidents.”
Meanwhile researchers at the RTRI (Railway Technical Research Institute) have been testing trains that snort like a deer and bark like a dog. With the usual Japanese precision and attention to detail, the formula is thus: a three-second burst of deer-snort noises, followed by 20 seconds of dog-barking.
The deer-snorting noises replicate deer’s alarm warnings to each other, which would alert any real deer getting too close to the tracks. The dogs’ barking finishes the job by scaring them away. And the snort-bark formula works. In fact, it’s proving so successful the Institute is considering setting up stationary snort-bark devices along the tracks near crossing places favoured by the deer.
Last week my heart broke. It was the story of poor Nigel the New Zealand gannet that did it. Nigel arrived on the remote island of Mana in 2013, and there he lived entirely alone for 4 long years. Years he spent earnestly courting an unresponsive concrete replica gannet and making her a nest.
“Nigel was observed caring for the concrete replica. He would groom the statue and chat with it; Nigel even constructed a nest made of twigs, seaweed and mud for it.
2 weeks ago he died, his love and faithfulness never requited.
How did this happen? A concrete replica gannet?
New Zealand has a major conservation problem with invasive species. Rats and possums, not native to the country, kill 26 million of the nation’s birds every year. NZ is pulling out all the stops to eradicate the invasive predators, and the easiest places to start are the many small islands dotted around the mainland coast – like Nigel’s Mana Island.
Well-meaning conservationists in their wisdom went one step further. What better way to lure gannets to the now predator-free island than by duping them into think other gannets had already discovered it as a great place to nest. For Nigel, the well-intentioned ruse tragically backfired.
Fate threw one last cruel twist into Nigel’s sad story. Weeks before he passed away, 3 new gannets did arrive on the island. There was hope. But Nigel showed no interest in them or they in him. Is it too fanciful to suggest the lonely gannet died of a broken heart?
Romeo – a super-rare Sehuencas water frog – was discovered in the depths of Bolivia 10 years ago, and consequently found himself transported to what I sincerely hope is a deluxe frog tank at Cochabamba Natural History Museum, as befits an amphibian of his importance. Ever since the move, he’s been calling plaintively for a mate. But although all that time conservationists have been scouring streams and rivers far and wide, not so much as a tadpole of his species have they found.
Sehuencas frogs are reckoned to live about 15 years – Romeo could well be reaching the end of his days. The matter is urgent. Arturo Munoz, a scientist with Global Wildlife Conservation says, “We don’t want him to lose hope.”
So they came up with the genius idea of creating a profile for him on the dating site Match. He has an unusually musical mating call, and ‘describes himself’ as “a pretty simple guy. I tend to keep to myself and love spending nights at home. I also love eating. Then again, who doesn’t?”
Of course, it’s unlikely Romeo will find his Valentine on Match, but GWC hope the profile will generate funds on the lonely frog’s behalf, to expedite the search for that special one – any one – in the waters of his native land. Read more about the charismatic amphibian here and help find him his perfect Valentine here.
Yes, It’s Hard to Find a Mate When You’re One-of-a-Kind
Then there is Jeremy the ‘Shellebrity’ Snail – another lonely heart. Though just a humble garden snail, he had a certain something that set him apart from the rest. He became a super-star with his own Twitter account, but failed (almost) entirely to find love.
Discover what made Jeremy so special, and read about his life and loves here
Though we all long to feel the warm glow of basking in our Valentine’s love, there are times one might be better off alone! Watch the peacock spider pulling his best moves to woo his very irritable-looking beloved.
Oh dear. Well that didn’t quite go to plan, did it? Looks like she’s not the romantic kind.
Happily Not All Animal Courtships End in a Fatality
But some can seem pretty bizarre from a human perspective. Take the Golden Shower of the male porcupine for example. The Golden Shower is not as it sounds, some priceless treasure Mr P bestows upon his porc-y princess. Or may be it is. You be the judge. The ‘Golden Shower’, a vital part of porcupine courtship, is an explosive jet of urine with which he drenches his lady. Apparently it encourages her to ovulate. There have to be kinder ways!
Hippos go one better. To attract a mate a male will pee and defecate at the same time. Ever wondered why hippos have those funny little tails? Well, in case the lassie didn’t quite get the message, the male with his mind on mating uses his to waft the smelly concoction around, and even spray it in the female’s face. Smooth moves.
“Over 90 percent of mammals have multiple mates and even those who form socially monogamous partnerships are often observed “cheating” on their partners.”
Of those, bonobos are universally considered the most promiscuous in terms of both frequency and number of partners. And they are not fussy. Hetero, homo, mothers with sons – it’s all the same to them.
Walruses are not far behind. Like many other animals, the male walrus likes to keep a harem of females. One by one they join him underwater for mating. The male walrus has the distinction of being equipped with a penis bone called a baculum up to 30″ long – the longest of any living mammal.
Gorillas, dolphins, deer, tigers, lions, lizards, chimps, baboons, hyenas, elk and so many more are multiple maters.
True Valentine Love Is Rare among the Animals
But there are animal couples who do weather the trials of courtship and the storms of life, remaining together till death do them part.
Some of the faithful ones are perhaps a little unexpected –
Termites, black vultures, skink, and French angelfish
And Others Are Not Quite What They Seem
Who’d have thought of shrimp as an image of fidelity, yet a pair will live out their entire wedded life alone together inside a Venus’ flower-basket – a hollow glass sponge.
In Japan, it is common to give one of these sponges – complete with two dead shrimp inside – as a wedding present, a symbol of lifelong devotion. Let’s hope the bride and groom don’t rumble the true reason for the shrimpy couple’s seemingly virtuous fidelity. The sponge cavity is so tiny there is only room for two shrimp inside, and once in they can’t get out. Like it or lump it, they are effectively imprisoned together, their ‘faithfulness’ physically enforced on them. Maybe not the most felicitous symbol of perfect married bliss!
Probably the most famous and endearing of monogamous mates
Wisdom the Laysan albatross – at 67 years the oldest known wild bird on the planet – and her life partner Akeakamai, otherwise known as Mr Goo. Together this devoted couple have successfully raised 30 chicks, and are still going strong.
Faithful-for-life prairie voles merit a mention too, just for their downright adorableness
Testyour knowledge of animal love with this fun quiz –
For Valentine’s Day this year, Brits will spend £200 MILLION on gifts for their pets. And 50% of pet owners polled admitted they would rather –
“splash their cash on their furry friends than on their lovers.”
Nothing wrong with that, say I. Much much preferable to spending our money on a ticket for two to the Valentine Day’s event-with-a-difference at the plush Malmaison Hotel in the Scottish city of Dundee. In Dundee, it seems romance is dead. The Valentine tickets entitle loved-up couples to watch… a live dissection of an animal’s heart.
Who the heart belongs to, and how it will be obtained are not specified. Strangely, this event is advertised as part of a nationwide series of ‘Anatomy Nights’, intended to give members of the public a chance to “learn all about the human body.” Am I missing something here?
(It doesn’t make the night any more appealing to see that all proceeds will be donated to the British Heart Foundation, a charity that funds testing on animals.)
But let’s not end our animal Valentine celebration on such a disturbing note
Here are animal hearts as we would much rather see them, warm and beating with life. I hope you enjoy these sweet snapshots of animal love as much as I did.
“Scientists are experimenting with artificial intelligence in order to decode and interpret animal vocalizations such as barks, growls or howls into a language which humans can understand.”*
“So many people would dearly love to talk to their dog or cat or at least find out what they are trying to communicate. A lot of people talk to their dogs and share their innermost secrets. With cats I’m not sure what they’d have to say. A lot of times it might just be “you idiot, just feed me and leave me alone”
Professor Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University speaking to The Guardian.
Rapunzel the Conversational Cat
My brother has proper conversations with his cat Rapunzel. Not unusual among those of us who have companion animals, you might think. When I say ‘conversations’ though, I mean proper two-way, back and forth discussions on matters of serious import, along the lines of “What do you think of Theresa May’s handling of Brexit, Punzel?”
Punzel: “The woman doesn’t know what she’s doing. Please don’t talk to me about Brexit. I’m depressed enough as it is by the state of the world.” And so on.
Of course Rapunzel doesn’t actually say that. She’s a real cat, not one in a fairytale, in spite of her name. My brother helpfully speaks her lines for her. He thinks she’s a socialist, but maybe he’s got her all wrong. When she does meow for herself, what is she saying? It could well be, “you idiot, just feed me and leave me alone.” She may even be a closet Tory. Without the key to unlock cat-speak, no-one will know.
Dr Dolittle & Zoolingua
For those of us who couldn’t live without animals somewhere in our lives, the tale of animal-loving Dr Dolittle is particularly captivating. The story goes that Dr Dolittle’s parrot Polynesia teaches him the language of the animals. The good doctor opens his home to an ever-growing menagerie of animals whose speech only he can understand, until – the final straw for his long-suffering sister who keeps house for him – the arrival of a crocodile. A creature too far. She gives her brother an ultimatum – me or the animals. I love it that he chooses the animals!
Don’t we all want to be Dr Dolittle? What if we really could understand every word our cats, dogs, guinea pigs and rabbits utter? Well now maybe we will be able to do just that, thanks to something called Zoolingua, a project born from Professor Siobodchikoff’s work with other furry little creatures.
Meet the Prof & the ‘Villagers’
It’s true to say Con Siobodchikoff is the world expert on North American prairie dogs, having studied them closely for 30 years. Prairie dogs are not dogs at all of course. They are rodents, but every bit as fascinating as the canines in our homes. What Prof Con discovered over three decades is that the animals use “a sophisticated communication system that has all the aspects of language”.
These engaging little creatures live in ‘villages’ of underground burrows, and take it in turns to stand guard, watching out for predators. With hundreds of hours of recordings of prairie dog chatter, the Prof and his team discovered that whoever is on lookout uses particular calls for different predators, and the other ‘villagers’ respond according to the type of call.
Deciphering Prairie Dog-ese with AI
Using advanced artificial intelligence to analyse the recordings, they found that the little rodents have specific ‘words’ for ‘human’, ‘hawk’, and ‘coyote’, and their language is sophisticated enough to distinguish between coyotes and domestic dogs.
Professor Con noticed that there were interesting individual variations in calls about specific dangers. So although there was a distinct call for ‘coyote’, for instance, there were also varying elements around the call. He began to wonder if the calls might be doing more than specifying the threat as a coyote. Could they actually be describing the coyote?
The Prof had four human volunteers walk through the prairie dog village in identical clothing except for the colour of their shirts: one wore blue, the next yellow, then green, and finally grey. Analysis of the rodents’ calls revealed they were indeed describing each individual human, and not just in terms of shirt colour:
“Essentially they were saying, ‘Here comes the tall human in the blue,’ versus, ‘Here comes the short human in the yellow,’”says Slobodchikoff.
The prairie dogs’ linguistic ability turns out to be astonishing. When the team placed a picture of a large black oval near the village, the animals created an entirely new alarm call for it. The team took the picture away, and later brought it back. The little rodents all voiced exactly the same alarm call in response to it. It appears the components of the new call are describing the size, shape and colour of the oval in ‘words’ already part of their rich vocabulary. If that is not language, I’d like to know what is.
Prairie dog villages in different locations have their own dialects. The Professor says that the animals he has studied for so long in Gunnison AZ are unlikely to understand Mexican prairie dogs, and vice versa. But then, it’s pretty unlikely they will ever need to!
Prairie Dogs Love to Chat
Most fascinating of all, it seems they love a good gossip. “Prairie dogs also have what I call social chatters, where one prairie dog will produce a string of vocalizations, and another prairie dog across the colony will respond with a different string of vocalizations.
“If animals seemingly as simple as rodents have a language replete with nouns, adjectives, syntax and dialects, think what higher-order animals might be saying”
But thankfully we are now beginning to grasp that, in the words of evolutionary biologist Seeder El-Showk:
“Like every other kind of life on Earth, we may be unique but we are not special”
– even when it comes to language. All nonhuman animals that live in social groups exhibit complex behaviours. And complex behaviours require complex communication. Thankfully we are starting to take, can I say, a more respectful approach, attempting to unlock the secrets of the nonhumans’ own languages, their conversations with each other. And, being fascinated, and humbled, by what we are finding out about their complexity and sophistication, thanks to the work of dedicated zoologists like Prof Siobodchikoff.
Not Quite There Yet
“We know a lot more than we knew a few decades ago, but we’re still a long way from two-way communication,” says Stan Kuczaj, director of the Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory in Mississippi.
So best not get too excited just yet at the prospect of understanding your enigmatic feline as well as he/she gets you. Perhaps a read of Professor Slobodchikoff’s book, “Chasing Dr Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals” can give us a few pointers. As yet we don’t have access to the kind of sophisticated AI that is helping him unravel the secrets of the prairie dog. Wait till the Prof has succeeded in converting his system into a handy pocket-size translator of dog-, cat-, or guinea pig-ese. Won’t that be a wonderful thing – a bestseller for sure.
It has to be said though, his Zoolingua is still very much a work in progress. Even the Prof thinks it might take 10 years. But watch this space!
“A key reason animals are still used so widely is money. Vivisection is very big business. The pharmaceutical industry is the most profitable industry in the world and its interests are strongly protected by governments. Animal experiments are in the industry’s interests because they can be used to market their products more quickly and – most importantly – they provide a legal defence for the company when people are injured or killed by ADRs [adverse drug reactions]. They will argue that, having carried out the animal tests, no blame can be laid at their door.”– Animal Aid
Animal advocates – up against “the most profitable industry in the world”– that is some formidable foe. Faunalytics Fundamentals aims to arm us for the fight with the best and latest data from the USA on what people think about the issue of animal research; and on the millions of animals that suffer distress, harm and death in labs every year, and the millions more lined up to replace them. (It’s safe to read on – there are no graphic images or descriptions here. They are important, but I leave that to others.)
MEET THE ANIMALS
With their complex thoughts and intricate social structures, primates are the nonhuman animals most like humans. Good reasons not to use them in labs one would think, but unfortunately the very reasons they are used
Docile, friendly, cooperative, eager to please. Makes them ‘perfect’ lab subjects
Easily handled gentle animals that ‘purr’ when they are happy
Mice and Rats
Empathetic and altruistic – they’ve been seen to risk themselves to save cage-mates in captivity
While these are the most commonly used in labs, cats, birds, fish, frogs, rabbits, pigs, horses, cows, sheep, goats are unhappy lab residents too.
“Animals live rich and complex lives” and the animals used in labs are each “unique, sentient, and deserving of their rights to life and freedom.”
Over time (between 2008 – 2016) there has been a welcome decline in the US in the percentage of people agreeing to the statement, “Animal research is necessary for medical advancement” – a drop from 55% to 45%.
In general, people don’t want to see animal testing for cosmetics and personal care products, but many are still ready to believe it is necessary if it is said to be for the purpose of improving or saving human lives. There’s clearly much room here for raising awareness.
Changing public perceptions is vital – just think, for example of good-hearted people donating to medical charities that fund animal research, completely unaware of what is happening in the labs.
BREEDING & TRANSPORT
This is where the tragic story begins. Most are born in large breeding facilities and then shipped to the labs. While some ‘suppliers’ are relatively well-regulated, many are not. The graphic below shows the picture in Southeast Asia. Macaques and humans share 93% of their genes. Substitute ‘humans’ in the infographic below for ‘macaques’ to sense the true horror of what is happening.
IN THE LABORATORY
While it is impossible to know exact numbers of animals bred for the labs and used in experiments, best estimates put it at 115 – 127 million worldwide.
As the rats and mice, fishes, birds, insects and invertebrates are not covered by the US’s Animal Welfare Act, not only are researchers not required to keep statistics for them, there are also next to no protections for them, or official controls, or oversight governing their use. There are no witnesses to their suffering but the perpetrators themselves.
The HSUS has put together an interactive map of testing facilities in the US – you will be shocked to see how many there are. And these are ONLY those covered by the Animal Welfare Act, so there are many many more not identified. You will not readily happen across one when you’re out and about. They are invariably well-concealed. (The same here in the UK. There used to be one only a mile from my home. I never knew it was there until after it ceased to function. It was literally underground – entirely invisible to passers-by.)
IN THE CLASSROOM
Dissection in schools may not have a direct connection with the powerful pharmaceutical industry, but it’s certainly a channel for insidious conditioning to the supposed necessity of using animals in research. So in that sense, schools are doing the pharmaceuticals’ dirty work for them.
Luckily many students, rightly revolted at being made to cut up animals, are demanding alternatives. Some schools have responded by creating “student choice policies” which allow students to opt out of dissection for ethical reasons. So far 18 states and the District of Columbia have such policies in place – a small minority. Unfortunately, even where the option is in place, 53% of teachers aren’t aware of it, neither are 38% of students. Interesting that students are more clued up than their teachers – clearly a great opportunity here too for advocacy and raising awareness.
As if ethical arguments were not enough, there is an overwhelming practical argument against testing on animals – and that is, its ineffectiveness.
Of about 100 vaccines that worked against HIV-like animal viruses – NONE prevented HIV in humans
Of approx, 1000 drugs effective for neuroprotection in animals – NONE worked in humans
9 OUT OF 10 DRUGS FAIL because they cannot predict how they will affect humans
ONLY between 0% and 5% of drugs tested on animals are considered fit for human use
A meta-study found the researchers OVERESTIMATE BY 30% the probability that treatments work, because negative results are often not published
“Animal studies are done for legal reasons and not for scientific reasons. The predictive value of such studies for man is often meaningless.” – Dr James Gallagher, Director of Medical Research Lederle Laboratories
Even if you were one of those people who believed testing on nonhuman animals was justified for human benefit, would you not grieve for all those millions of animals that suffered and died for NOTHING?
There are many alternatives to animal research, and many more being developed.
The infographic shows just a few. FRAME, INTERNICHE, and Animalearn are some of the organisations pioneering and promoting alternatives in research and education.
WHAT WE CAN DRAW FROM THIS TO BETTER ADVOCATE FOR ANIMALS
It has to be about raising awareness – arming ourselves with the facts and getting them out there. As we’ve seen from AnimalTest Info and the Lab Animal Tour, those invested in testing on animals are expert at presenting the public with a highly-sanitised picture of their work. They also have no conscience about employing emotional blackmail – “What if it was your son/daughter with leukaemia/cerebral palsy/kidney disease?” Neatly sidestepping all other objections to research conducted on animals such as its ineffectiveness and the availability of better alternatives.
WHERE WE CAN LOOK FOR MORE INFORMATION & SUPPORT
In the UK
Animal Aid comprehensively covers abuse of animals in the name of science. We can find out everything we need to know here. We can order an End Animal Experiments action pack here
In the US
NEAVS has a brilliant page of FAQs. We can arm ourselves with all the answers we need in our advocacy for the millions of animals suffering in labs. There is also a useful list of other practical ways we can help end vivisection.
Sign petition to tell Congress to Reintroduce The Humane Cosmetics Act 2017
and petition to stop US Fish & Wildlife Service from Making Another Mistake
and petition to stop Air France Transporting Monkeys to Their Deaths
Support SAEN, (Stop Animal Exploitation Now) founded to “force an end to animal abuse in laboratories”
It seems like things are about to get a whole lot worse for the millions of unfortunate animals being tested on in US labs. The Trump administration has a passion for deregulation, unaware (if we’re feeling generous) or not caring (if we’re brutally honest) that regulations were put in place to begin with to provide important legal protections – protections for the environment, for drinking water, for clean air, for safe food, for national parks, for indigenous sacred places etc. And for animals.
The 21st Century Cures Act
To say the first year of the new presidency has kept the newsmen and women busy is an understatement. Trump and the GOP have attempted, and sometimes succeeded, in getting through Congress some very controversial and retrograde bills. But the 21st Century Cures Act Congress passed last month appears to have attracted little press attention.
The Act “is designed to help accelerate medical product development and bring new innovations and advances to patients who need them faster and more efficiently.” So far so good. What’s not to like? But the devil is in the detail. One provision of the Act calls on the USDA, the NIH and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to work together to reduce the “administrative burden” on the researchers and institutions that use animals. Under those two innocuous words lie a worrying threat to lab animals in the USA.
The mishmash that is the current US animal-testing legislation
Admitted, the rules around animal testing are at present quite the mishmash. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees tests on rabbits and larger mammals (800,000 animals in 2016). The National Institutes of Health (NIH) oversees testing on rats, mice and birds – these animals are considered so unimportant that no statistics about them are required to be recorded. Then there are privately-funded animal studies, already pretty much under the regulation-radar.
What’s bugging the scientists
Animal-testing scientists and their universities have grumbled for years about what they see as tedious and time-wasting red tape, the paperwork they are required to complete, and the regulations they are required to adhere to. Now the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and three other groups have joined forces in a new report to demand –
“Moving all oversight to a single agency, conducting less frequent lab inspections, and giving researchers greater say in crafting new rules”
Can you hear the alarm bells ringing? Well, you are not alone. Kathleen Conlee of the Humane Society (HSUS) says, “It’s clear this would negatively impact animal welfare.”
These are the present legal requirements scientists find so irksome:-
Animal facilities must be inspected by university committees every 6 months
Test protocols must be reviewed by the universities every year
Researchers must submit their protocols long before they get grants, and need to complete and resubmit more paperwork if the protocols change
Worst of all as far as the scientists are concerned, they are required to check the literature for “less invasive alternatives” before opting to test on animals
What the scientists want
So this is what the scientists are calling for:-
Animal facility inspections once a year instead of every 6 months
Protocol reviews reduced to every 3 years
Doing away with annual site inspections by government officials. Instead focusing only on facilities with a poor track record
Exempting certain types of experiments from full review by the university committees
“The goal”, says Sally Thompson-Iritani, overseer of animal research at the University of Washington, “is getting scientists back to the bench doing their research, and animal care specialists getting back to their animals.” (It’s unclear what she means by “animal care specialists.” Animal care and animal testing are two concepts troublesome to reconcile.)
And there’s worse
I haven’t yet mentioned the two most disquieting of the animal-testing scientists’ proposals:-
Abolishing the requirement to trawl the literature for alternatives to animal testing
Calling on the White House “to create a new advisory panel made up of animal researchers”
Less than a year ago, the company Emulate was proud to announce its new partnership with the FDA to test its organ-chips, a great breakthrough. These organs-on-a-chip have the potential to “eliminate the need to test drugs or cosmetics on animals.” Empty the labs, in other words. How perfect would that be. Apparently the FDA is still committed to this venture. On its website: “FDA has research and development efforts underway to reduce the need for animal testing and to work toward replacement of animal testing.”
How this endeavour will fare going forward if the end-users, the researchers, get their way, who knows. Proposal No.1 is as perverse as it is retrograde and horrifying.
And as for No.2, who will there be to speak for the animals?
Until December 2018
The Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare has received the animal-testers’ proposals, and has until the December 2018 deadline to present recommendations that comply with Congress’s call to cut the red tape.
Which means we who care about the plight of those millions suffering in US labs have until then to support every possible campaign that is speaking up for the animals.
Update from PETA
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is considering a move that would let the agency shirk its responsibility to ensure that laboratories are complying with the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA). If this happens, laboratories and other animal-abusing industries—including puppy mills, circuses, and roadside zoos—could be allowed to use private, industry-friendly groups to inspect their facilities, leading to even more suffering for animals imprisoned in them and even less transparency.”
If you are a US citizen, have your say in the USDA’s consultation process about the lowering of inspection standards for animals in labs here You have until March 21st to speak up for animals.
“The most beautiful thing is to fly in the heavens with the angels that are the birds”
says Frenchman Christian Moullec, and he should know. For the last 20 years he has dedicated his life to helping those angels with their migration.
It all began in 1995 when Moullec heard that lesser white-fronted geese were struggling with their migration from Germany to Sweden. He made it his mission to reintroduce the geese to the area of northern Sweden we know as Lapland. So he made himself parent to orphaned chicks, and acquired a microlight aircraft – like you do – to guide the youngsters safely to their destination.
One of his favourite memories is the 5-week trip leading the geese to Lapland with his wife – then 5 months pregnant with their first son – in the passenger seat of the microlight.
This delightful video show him teaching his ‘offspring’ a few vital goosey tricks.
You’ll be delighted to learn that his reintroduction plan for the geese was a success. He continues with his conservation work, taking to the air almost every day. For the last few years he has taken paying passengers with him, which helps fund his work for birds.
He explains, “A third of wild birds have disappeared from Europe during the last 30 years, because of man. It’s a disaster. My beautiful images with flying birds should be used to tell this story. The famous French writer Victor Hugo said that the beautiful is more useful than the useful, so I hope that the beautiful images of my birds in flight will be useful to migratory birds and to humans.”
For him, and he believes for his passengers who he hopes will mirror his deep respect for the natural world, flying with birds is “an overwhelming spiritual experience.”
The words of a gentle soul, true friend to, and lover of Nature.
If you want to fly with the birds, and who wouldn’t, check out Christian Moullec’s website. Or take a virtual flight and check out some of his mesmerising videos
If I said to you, “You are invited inside an animal research lab, free to venture where you will on an open access, 360-degree, street-view-style virtual tour,” what would you think?
Would you even want to – even in the interests of arming yourself with the facts? What if I added, “Don’t worry, there is absolutely nothing here to upset you”? Would you be ready to believe me and give it a go?
Well, it’s for real – times 4. Four animal testing facilities in the UK opened up their doors and welcomed in the film crew of the Lab Animal Tour. And so with this groundbreaking initiative, you and I, anyone and his aunt can now nosey around inside the labs to our heart’s content. Just click on the link.
I promise you will be impressed and reassured. It’s all gleaming and spotless and the animals are so well looked after – not that you will see that much of them. But when you do, they are looking healthy and well-fed, with clean dry bedding and constant access to water. Their pens or cages for the most part are of a ‘decent’ size, you might think. And they are not being kept in isolation. The very worst I saw was an apparently willing and calm rhesus macaque monkey placed in some contraption designed to keep him/her immobilised while being slid into an MRI machine. Not too terrible, one might consider.
What’s more, there are little videos embedded in the tour, with researchers or animal-carers explaining what they are doing and why. And it’s all very nice, clean and reasonable, and entirely devoid of anything remotely cruel or bloody.
Notably and significantly, certain rooms on our virtual tour such as the operating theatre, the post-mortem suite and the intensive care unit are displayed with no animal presence. We onlyget to view these roomsempty,in all their nice, shiny, glass and steel clinical cleanliness. But just the names of those rooms must surely sound alarm bells.
The Lab Animal Tour, a commendable project in open access and transparency? Open access yes. Transparency no. As you may have worked out by now, my take on the Lab Animal Tour is more than a little sceptical. The Lab Animal Tour is no better than a PR exercise, a carefully sanitised piece of propaganda on behalf of those who have no interest in animal testing coming to an end.
So who created the tour? And how is it funded?
It’s all the work of an organisation called Understanding Animal Research (UAR), a misleadingly innocuous title. Who are they? “A not-for-profit organisation that explains why animals are used in medical and scientific research. We aim to achieve a broad understanding of the humane use of animals in medical, veterinary, scientific and environmental research in the UK. We are funded by our members who include universities, professional societies, industry and charities.”
In other words, the force behind the Lab Animal Tour is none other than the designated spokesbody for the researchers themselves. Faultless PR is UAR’s remit, not impartiality.
Understanding Animal Research’s website purports to tell you everything you need to know about animal research in the UK. This is a flavour of their list of ‘Myths’ we the public have ‘erroneously’ swallowed about the use of animals in medical research – which they are at pains to debunk:
Research on animals is not relevant to people because animals are different from people
Systematic reviews demonstrate that animal studies are meaningless for human health
There is an endless list of drugs that have to be withdrawn because of side effects, and these side effects are a major cause of hospital deaths
Many pointless, unnecessary experiments are carried out
Researchers do not care about the wellbeing of laboratory animals
Laboratory animals suffer great pain and distress
How could we be so stupid as to believe such nonsense! There are lots more supposed ‘myths’ listed on this page. If you want to look at them and see the ‘facts’ with which the organisation puts us straight on our delusions, click here
Animal Aid though, paints a very different picture
The difference is that Animal Aid (with assistance from PETA) is courageously uncovering the truth animal researchers are at such pains to conceal. UAR’s carefully-edited version of life in the lab is designed to reassure a public only too happy to believe that testing on animals is both necessary and humane. After all, which would you prefer to be true: that animals suffer, or that everything is fine?
According to Animal Aid,“Each year inside British laboratories, around 4 million animals are experimented on. Every 8 seconds, one animal dies.” No mention of that in the Lab Animal Tour. And these are just some of the unhappy animals making up that number, everyone a person not a statistic
There’s a short video on Animal Aid’s website, “This will make you rethink animal experiments”, which I chose not to watch. So just to warn you, I can’t vouch for how graphic it is. Their Animal Experiments section is packed with impeccably resourced information. And another important fact you won’t discover on the Lab Animal Tour is that animals are being abused daily, not just for ‘vital’ medical research, but also for testing:-
Product safety – agricultural and industrial chemicals, food additives, paints, and household cleaning products
Warfare – effects of injury, shooting, radiation, chemical poisoning and gases
Pain analysis I won’t list the tortures animals are subjected to for this purpose. Refer to the Animal Aid website if you really want to know
Psychology – sounds innocent enough, but ditto the above
Animal Aid also tells us that hundreds of thousands of genetically modified animals are specially bred every year, mostly mice. “And for every GM mouse used in an experiment, hundreds more die or are killed, either because they are surplus to requirements, because they fail to exhibit the desired genetic alteration or because they are born with other, unintended malformations.” Another unpalatable fact that the Lab Animal Tour and UAR avoid mentioning.
UAR and their Lab Animal Tour/Animal Aid – diametrically apposed to one another
‘Have no truck with Animal Aid; it is the same lunatic animal rights brigade in a new package. Society must leave these dangerous fools behind’
That strongly worded statement appears on UAR’s website, on a page called Life Stories – ordinary people bearing witness to how animal testing “has changed their lives for the better.”
It’s unlikely any of us have ever heard of David Dade, the man who made that statement, and one whose ‘Life Story’ is featured. This unfortunate man has both parents suffering from cancer, and his son from diabetes. Understandable then that he’s willing to provide a testimonial for a website promoting the use of nonhuman animals in medical research.
He’s possibly unaware of what a glance at Animal Aid’s website would tell him: the large and growing number of reliable alternative methods – such as organs on a chip, and the use of human tissue – that can make animal testing a bad dream of the past.
The moral of the story?
It has to be, looking out for what we are not shown, not told. People who have something to gain by using animals, in whatever way, are always expert at putting a gloss on their activities. Think McDonald’s and their ads with kids and animals frolicking happily together on a picture-perfect farm.
Compared with other users of nonhuman animals though, the Lab Animal Tour, UAR and lab animal researchers in general have an additional and potent weapon up their sleeve. They claim to have moral right on their side. No-one is morally obliged to eat meat, or take a trip to the zoo. But who, they say, could be so callous as to deny those suffering from crippling diseases the hope of a cure? That is the way subjecting unwilling victims to horrific, and sometimes fatal procedures is justified.
What we can do
Click here for Animal Aid’s useful pdf document about human tissue donation (to donate your tissue you don’t have to die first!)
To ensure your charitable giving does not help fund research on animals click here for a comprehensive list of testing and non-testing charities.
“Biomedical research using animals is a largely secretive process and the public knows little about what goes on in research labs.”
In my recent web meanderings, I stumbled across a site called AnimalTestInfo.
Apparently – I wasn’t aware of this, but maybe you were – in 2010 the EU issued one of its famous/infamous directives requiring every member state to publish open access summaries of animal research taking place in their country.
AnimalTestInfo is Germany’s response to that directive. It takes the form of an online repository for those research summaries. As yet I haven’t been able to discover if and how other member nations have responded to the directive with their own open access websites. Maybe you have? (If this all sounds very academic, dry and dusty, please bear with it a little longer – it could possibly be a matter of life and death to millions of animals.)
What is Open Access?
“Open access is about making the products of research freely accessible to all. It allows research to be disseminated quickly and widely, the research process to operate more efficiently, and increased use and understanding of research by business, government, charities and the wider public.” ¹
AnimalTestInfo’s emphasis is on the public. It describes its purpose as publishing “generally understandable, non-technical project summaries of approved animal experiments in Germany.”
That has to be a blessing, right?
No more concealment behind closed doors. Anyone and everyone can access the information and see which animals are involved, what is happening inside those formerly secretive labs. The hope has to be that with free and open access to animal testing information, the public will be moved to rethink their support for it, and start demanding alternative cruelty-free methods of research.
And the gains for the animals may not be confined to a hoped-for shift in public perception. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), which authorises the animal tests in the first place, has done a pilot study of the summaries researchers have uploaded to the AnimalTestInfo site. The study matched the test summaries against the International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems – the ICD system. This gives the BfR “a fine-grained overview of the use of animal testing”, which they claim will be an aid in minimising the harm to the animals in accord with the 3Rs:
Replacement – methods which avoid or replace the use of animals
Reduction – methods which minimise the number of animals used per experiment
Refinement – methods which minimise animal suffering and improve welfare
So that’s got to be good too. Hasn’t it?
Trouble is, national bodies that authorise the tests in the first place (like the BfR in Germany and the Home Office in the UK) are only too ready to trot out the 3Rs mantra – if you doubt my word, just write to your MP about animal testing and see what comes back. I’ll put on a white rat costume and lock myself in a cage in front of the Palace of Westminster on the day of 2018’s State Opening of Parliament if you get a response that doesn’t mention how hard the government is working to implement the 3Rs. (Maybe I should do that anyway.)
In reality do they pay the 3Rs anything more than lip service? Both in the UK and in the US the numbers of animals on which lab tests are performed continue to rise. And between 2011 – 2016 the rise in Germany was a huge 35%. So much for replacement and reduction.
The down side
AnimalTestInfo is of course in German, so maybe not that that easy for non-German speakers like me to navigate. It’s “Search” though clicks open to invite you to pick the particular lab animal you are interested in – and it’s a big and unhappy list:
Mice, rats, guinea pigs, hamsters, Mongolian gerbils, other rodents, cats, dogs, rabbits, ferrets, other carnivores, horses, donkeys and crossbreeds, pigs, goats, sheep cows, lemurs, marmoset and tamarin monkeys, macaques, rhesus monkeys, meerkats, baboons, squirrel monkeys, other species of nonhuman primates, apes, other mammals, domestic fowl, other birds, reptiles, frogs, other amphibians, zebrafish, other fish, and cephalopods.
That’s the first shock.
The second is that German scientists have been adding their summaries to the site at the rate of 3,000 per year. That has to be 3,000 too many.
And the third lies in this statement: that BfR believes its analysis of the summaries on the website will reveal
“new insights about animal testing ….[which] could enable the public to easily pinpoint who might benefit from controversial studies involving non-human primates.”
In other words, the belief is that if the great German public can see that this or that animal test is conducted in the cause of finding cures for horrible conditions like cancer, stroke or heart disease, it will strengthen public support for what might otherwise be seen as abhorrent abuse of nonhuman primates. It will be accepted as a necessity that no reasonable person could deny.
And will simply offer up on a plate to scientists a publicly-sanctioned justification for their continued abuse of sentient animals in nightmarish research – animals who experience psychological trauma, and feel pain, fear and loneliness as much as we do – to get test results that in all likelihood will never be replicated in humans.
Only time will tell which way the open access scales will tilt for our nonhuman fellow animals. Will the blessing outweigh the curse? I’d like to think so, but somehow I doubt it.
For facts and figures on animal testing click here An overview of testing in the US here And to look behind the numbers and see how to help click here
On BBC iPlayer you can see the #ChimpSanctuary in Louisiana where more than 200 chimps used for medical testing in US labs have been retired to, and another 200 are due to arrive. Be warned though – there is horrifying undercover lab footage filmed by PETA, 33 minutes in.
But an absolute must-see (48 minutes into the program) is the first meeting of the female chimps with the males, who together will form a new family troop. Once they have bonded they will be released into a forested area of the sanctuary, to live out the rest of their lives in a way that is as near as possible to what would have been their natural life in the wild.
Disappointingly, in spite of the program revealing something of the trauma suffered by the chimps, and though the US National Institutes of Health have now drawn a line under the use of these primates, the assumption remains in the program’s narrative that it is ethically acceptable to use nonhuman animals in lab tests in the interest of improving human health. An assumption with which I cannot agree.