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?

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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

Related posts

Futurology Offers More Hopes than Fears for the Animals & the Planet

Should We Wipe Mosquitos off the Face of the Earth?

Planet at the Crossroads

The Stripey Dog, CRISPR & the Chimaera

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

Related posts

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

The Animal Conspiracy Blown Apart

The Animal Conspiracy Part 2

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Are You Really Helping the Planet Eating Plant-Based? Yes! & This Awesome App Shows You Just How Much

Whatever I do, it will never be enough. Is that how you sometimes/often feel, in the face of the gargantuan environmental problems confronting the planet? That you may as well be the tiniest little ant holding up the tiniest little Stop sign before the climate-change juggernaut that just keeps rolling inexorably on to the point of no return, dragging us all along with it?

Well then this is the app for you. This app puts the power right back in our hands. It tells us in real time “the impact of our actions on our health and on the planet” every time we eat without meat. Awesome or what? Created by Chris Darwin, the great-great-grandson of the great naturalist Charles Darwin himself, it’s The Darwin Challenge app.

Wildlife enthusiast Chris was busy setting up nature reserves – his way of trying to fend off the 6th mass extinction. Trouble was, wildlife was not the only thing he was enthusiastic about – he was also an enthusiastic eater of meat. One day he calculated his carbon footprint, and was horrified to realise he himself was part of the problem, not the solution. From then on he went plant-based for the planet, encouraged others to do the same, and developed his amazing app to help us on our way.

This is Chris’s own description of the app on iTunes:

The Darwin Challenge App tracks the days you don’t eat meat, and shows you the difference you make. From improvements to your health and wellbeing, to animal welfare, human rights, and the world, you’ll be amazed by the benefits of going meat free, just one or more days a week.
Vegetarian or Vegan? Download the app to see the difference you’re already making, connect with people just like you, and spread the word.

Use the app to set yourself targets and reminders, see the difference you are making, invite family, friends and colleagues to join in, see how other groups are doing and check your collective efforts on the leaderboards

Did I mention it’s FREE?

The app couldn’t arrive on the scene at a better time. We’ve just been served with the second “Warning to Humanity” by more than 15,000 scientists from 184 countries. It’s an update of the first “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” exactly 25 years ago. No-one listened in 1992, and things have got so much worse for the planet. If you want the bad news it’s here. This is their list of “measures that would help halt environmental degradation”:

  • Creating more parks and nature reserves
  • Curbing wildlife trade
  • Shifting to plant-based diets
  • Expanding family planning and educational programs for women
  • Massively expanding renewable energy and other green techs

Last week, GRAIN, a non-profit, working with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Heinrich Böll Foundation published a report of the estimated greenhouse emissions produced by meat and dairy. Their finding?

‘In stark terms the study warns that if unchecked, the world’s top meat and dairy producers’ greenhouse emissions “could lead us to a point of no return.”‘

So let’s get using Chris’s amazing app – download here and share with friends, family, colleagues, neighbours, everyone you know. Don’t forget, it’s FOC!

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“Soon, meatless diet may no longer be a matter of choice, but a necessity for humanity’s survival”


Get the #EatForThePlanet podcasts here

5 Easy Steps to Wean off Meat here

Go vegan here


Sources

This Awesome App Shows You How Much Good You’re Doing by Eating Plant-Based | One Green Planet

The Human Impact on the Biosphere

Meat & Dairy Greenhouse Emissions ‘Could Lead Us to a Point of No Return”

Humanity gets its second warning: We’re crippling the planet

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If everyone on Earth ate a Western diet, we would need two Planet Earths to feed us. We’ve only got one and she’s dying

The Living Planet Report: Our Dinner Plates are Destroying Life on Earth

Are Meat & Dairy Really Bad for the Planet?

The App that Wakes You to a Sweet Dawn Chorus Any Time of the Day

 

 

 

 

 

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

Related posts

What Trump’s Triumph Means for Wildlife

Good job Mr President – Your Action Plan for the Environment is the Best

Half for Us Half for the Animals

 

 

 

 

 

Should We Look on the Bright Side of the 6th Mass Extinction?

One man thinks we should. Stop worrying about what is happening to the planet – just kick back and enjoy the ride. That is the message of ecologist Chris Thomas’s new book ‘Inheritors of the Earth, How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction”. It is time” he writes, “for the ecological, conservation and environmental movement to throw off the shackles of a pessimism-laden, loss-only view of the world.”

We’ve now become all too unhappily familiar with the ‘Anthropocene’, the word coined by Dutch Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen to describe this new age, the age in which Man has played havoc with the entire functioning of the planet. We’ve altered the make-up of the atmosphere, the chemistry of the oceans, changed the climate itself. Glaciers are melting, sea levels rising. We’ve depleted biodiversity, plants and animals, and messed up their distribution. We’ve rerouted rivers, drained lakes, razed forests and covered the Earth in highways and cities. And all the while our own population has exploded, 7.4 billion today and an expected 9.7 billion by 2050.
What is there not to be alarmed about?

Anthropocenists (by that I mean the vast majority of ecologists who are concerned about the repercussions of human activity) propose that if we have the technology to so damage the planet, why can’t we turn technology to its healing? Hi-tech geo-engineering such as air cleaning plants, altering ocean chemistry to absorb more carbon, or capturing carbon emissions from power stations and factories. Maybe we could even modify the weather. A luxury travel company that promises perfect wedding weather for the big day thinks we can. Expert opinion says otherwise: “The scale of the Earth’s atmosphere is far too great to tamper with—at least for now.” according to meteorologist Bruce Broe.

But Professor Chris Thomas’s thinking runs on altogether different lines, and he’s nothing if not a glass-half-full man. In this age of mass extinction, he says, nature will do what it always does – fight back.
A quick summary of his thinking –
  • Man is an animal and just as much a part of Nature as a bird or a fish
  • Contrary to what we are constantly being told, Nature is thriving. There are biodiversity gains as well as losses, and “the number of species is increasing in most regions of the world”
  • The essence of life is eternal change  – everything lives, evolves, dies. There is no stasis in Nature. We need to embrace the change and forget about trying to hold back the hands of the clock

Taking each of those points in turn:-

Man is part of, not outside Nature

All life forms on Earth including humans, Chris says, are the result of natural physical, chemical and then biological processes. “I take it as a given that humans have evolved and everything we do is directly or indirectly a product of human evolution. We are part of nature, and in that sense we are part of the force of nature, rather than altering it.” 

The Earth is estimated to be 4.54 billion years old, with Homo sapiens a relative newcomer emerging approximately 200,000 years ago. But our planet has never known another species like ours in terms of our exponentially developing technological abilities, which have enabled us to colonise all corners of the globe, and make momentous changes to the environment.

The biggest dead zone ever in the Gulf of Mexico courtesy of toxic waste from America’s industrial meat production, pesticides and herbicides poisoning the land, plastics polluting the oceans, failed nuclear power plants irradiating entire continents* – I see all these as the unforeseen and unwelcome backwash from acclaimed-at-the-time ‘advances’ intended to improve our efficiency, and make our lives easier and better. Yet for Prof Chris all the damage and pollution is ‘natural’, because all result from innovations emanating from the evolved human brain. And evolution is the law of Nature.

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Furthermore, the Prof argues, “most of the ways we are changing the world are not completely unprecedented.” They are already present in some form, apart from human activity. To back up his point, he cites background radiation; beavers building houses; and leaf-cutter ants farming fungi. “Most of the things we are doing are kind of comparable to normal ecological processes.”

At first glance this idea seems preposterous. How can you compare Fukushima and Chernobyl with natural background radiation, a few beavers’ lodges with our megacities, or ants’ fungi with factory farms? But a new article in Chemical & Engineering News gives a measure of credence to Chris’s point. Apparently certain living organisms can and do make their own versions of as many as 6,000 chemical pollutants, some the exact equivalent of man-made chemicals now banned because of their toxicity. “You could call them naturally produced persistent organic pollutants,” says Reddy, a marine chemist at WHOI. There’s a public perception that humans have produced more halogenated compounds than nature has, he says. “That’s not necessarily true.”

Nature is thriving

It takes a brave man to make a statement like that when the world is on track to lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020But the Prof maintains that while it cannot be denied the overall number of species is declining, there are actually a greater number of species in many parts of the world. Take the UK for instance, he says. In addition to our native species, we are host to nearly 2,000 non-natives, like the house sparrow and the poppy.

(I’m not sure how wisely he’s picked his examples, since the house sparrow, with a population declining since the 1970s – by 50% in the country and by 60% in towns and cities – is on the red list of ‘species of high conservation concern’. The poppy isn’t threatened, but we’ve yet to see fields of golden wheat lavishly stippled with the poppy’s vivid red as we once did pre 1950s and the advent of industrial farming)

But, in support of the Prof’s ‘Nature thriving’ contention, there is the so-called ‘cocaine hippo effect’. By that is meant the flourishing colonies of animals in unexpected places – animals that may well be endangered or even extinct in their native habitats. Why ‘cocaine hippos’? Because there’s a small population of wild hippos in South America, offspring of animals who escaped the abandoned hacienda of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Every cloud has a silver hippo lining.

“In fact, thanks to introduced populations, regional megafauna species richness is substantially higher today than at any other time during the past 10,000 years’, according to a new study.

“Worldwide introductions have increased the number of megafauna by 11% in Africa and Asia, by 33% in Europe, by 57% in North America, by 62% in South America, and by 100% in Australia.

“Australia lost all of its native megafauna tens of thousands of years ago, but today has eight introduced megafauna species, including the world’s only wild population of dromedary camels.”

And in their new environments, these translocated species are often creating new beneficial trophic cascades. Take burros for example:

“In North America, we have found that introduced wild donkeys, locally known as “burros”, dig wells more than a metre deep to reach groundwater. At least 31 species use these wells, and in certain conditions they become nurseries for germinating trees”, say the lead authors of the study.

“Everywhere you look, there are species that are doing very well in the human-modified world. That is what I mean by nature is thriving,” says the Prof.

But though every cloud has a silver lining, every silver lining also brings with it its cloud. The cocaine hippos, though thriving thousands of miles from their native habitat, are creating a little havoc of their own. With the damage to the environs they have decided to call home, and disturbance to native wildlife, they’re giving Colombian conservationists a few nasty headaches. Not to mention the threat to people – the hippos seem quite at home in town, as you will see from the video.

The thriving colony may thrive for this generation only, if Cornare‘s neutering program is successful.

The moral of the tale is surely, that though pockets of threatened species may flourish far from their native habitat, will we be able to say the same in 50 or 100 years time? We’d better not be relying on the cocaine hippos for the survival of their species. And there’s a reason why megafauna fit so well in their native habitats.

The essence of Nature is change. Embrace the change. We can’t hold back the tide

I can’t put the Prof’s point better than he does himself:

“We must become accustomed to thinking that the world will continue to change, rather than hankering after some rose-tinted past that it is no longer possible to return to.

“The idea that we are somehow keeping the world in a pristine natural state is a kind of mirage because the entire planet has already been transformed by humans. The reality is that the world is dynamic and the distributions of species are changing. You can try to intervene and keep things as they are, but this is not how the biological world works. With climate change set in motion, it will be impossible to keep things just as they are. What I’m saying is, go with the flow a bit more and choose carefully which fights you are going to fight because otherwise you are going to throw good money at losing battles.

“The rate at which we are moving other animals and plants around the world is the greatest it has been for at least the half-billion years. It’s like we have reunited all the continents into a new version of Pangea. We are connecting up the world. This is an unprecedented experiment. But the outcome will be that the most successful animals, plants, fungi and microbes will rise to the top. And with more robust species, you can expect future ecological systems to end up being more robust as well.”

It’s certainly true that many species are adapting themselves to a human-dominated world. Foxes, raccoons, coyotes and Canada geese are among the many species moving into cities. Coyotes too – one has even made a Chicago graveyard his home. There are wild boar in Berlin, peregrine falcons in the centre of London. Many of these animals are seeking refuge from hunting and persecution. Cities have become a safer place for them. And they are adapting to city life fast. Pavement ants appear to be thriving on discarded junk food. And in Britain, birds’ beaks have lengthened noticeably in the last 40 years, a true genetic, evolutionary adaptation to the prevalence of urban and suburban garden bird feeders. “That’s a really short time period in which to see this sort of difference emerging,” says Professor Jon Slate.

Wrapping up

Professor Chris’s message is beguiling – he’s like a kind uncle patting us on the head and telling us not to worry, everything is going to be just fine. But I’m not ready to be that easily placated. I have profound misgivings. He may have hit the nail on the head with his prognostications for the future of the planet, but is that the planet we want to see? Three thoughts:

1  Am I wrong to think there’s a danger the professor’s contentions could do a lot of harm? If the message we’re receiving is you can’t hold back the tide, why should we bother doing anything? Let Nature and Fate take their course. After all, Nature is thriving, Nature will keep adapting and Nature will survive. So why trouble trying to check carbon emissions, why trouble banning plastic bags, why bother saving the tiger? Let’s just kick back and “go with the flow.” Life would be so much easier, wouldn’t it?

2  The Prof dubs life on Earth “an unprecedented experiment”, which he watches unfolding before him as if from on high. But it is an experiment in which animals, human and nonhuman, are getting hurt. Is sitting back and watching with fascinated scientific detachment an appropriate response to the sight of a slaughtered elephant with flies crawling over the congealing pools of blood where his tusks should be? Or a polar bear on shrinking ice, starving and unable to feed her cubs. Or the terror in the eyes of an orangutan infant, orphaned by human cruelty and greed. Creatures are suffering – now, today, and will keep on suffering if we don’t make every effort to put the brakes on this cruel ‘experiment’.

I’ve said this before, and no doubt I’ll be saying it again because I believe it to be true: “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.”

So I’m afraid I cannot echo the Professor’s optimism. The future of the Earth he foresees where only the toughest few survive is a planet desperately diminished in richness and complexity. Species at threat right now have their own unique and vital roles within the complex web of life. We do not know all the ways their loss will impair our own survival. But we do know we will lose our delight, our constant surprise at their dazzling beauty, their awesome abilities, from the humblest woodlouse to the blue whale, king of the oceans. Every day we discover more wondrous beings we never knew shared our planet with us. And we’ve barely even begun to uncover the complexity of their thoughts and feelings, the secrets of their lives.

Above all, they too have a right to their life and a place to live it, untrammelled and free.

The good Prof says, “Appreciate the world for what it is, rather than spending time being sad that the world isn’t how you think it was supposed to be…”
But I’m with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh: “What we most need to do is to hear within us the sound of the Earth crying.”  

How about you?


Further reading

How do you stop the next mass extinction? Look to the past

The Geoengineering Fallacy 

Artificially cooling planet ‘risky strategy,’ new research shows

Sources

*Radioactive contamination from Chernobyl detected all over the world – Global Radiation Patterns

Why we should accept our ecological state for what it is, not what we want it to be – MNN

From feral camels to ‘cocaine hippos’, large animals are rewilding the world

The Anthropocene: Has human impact changed Earth forever?

How Wild Animals Are Hacking Life in the City

Related posts

Half for Us Half for the Animals

When Everyone Is Telling You Meat Is The bad Guy

Hope for the Animals & the Planet

The Living Planet Report – Our Dinner Plates Are Destroying Life on Earth

Extinction Is Forever – Why We Need To Change To Save Animals

 

 

 

 

 

 

Infinite Monkeys & the White Bear Problem

5 fun instances of animals illuminating scientific theories

Beginning with one that’s entirely new to me. But maybe you know it?
The White Bear Problem

Russian writer Dostoevsky summed it up neatly:Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Oh yes.

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No-one thought any more of Dostoevsky’s intrusive polar bear until 30 years ago when pyschologist Daniel Wegner decided to put the writer’s saying to the test. He did indeed prove that the more people were asked to suppress a thought (like the white bear), the more it cropped up in their minds. He called it the Ironic Process Theory.

Why does this happen? Apparently because two different parts of the brain are at work – against each other. While one dutifully ignores the thought as instructed, another part intermittently calls it to mind in an attempt to ensure the thought is being successfully forgotten.” Humans not so clever after all?

From bears to butterflies-

The Butterfly Effect

The idea, as everyone knows, is that something as infinitesimal as a butterfly fluttering its wings sends reverberations across the world. Or to be more precise, a butterfly fluttering in the rainforest could result a few weeks later in a tornado thousands of miles away. That was the original concept of mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz.

The butterfly was a nice metaphor for his startling discovery that by simply rounding numbers to slightly fewer decimal places than he normally did in meteorological computer calculations, the tiniest of changes, he ended up with a wildly different weather forecast.

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But with real butterflies, is the Butterfly Effect true? Scientifically speaking, no. Scientists say the actual impact of a butterfly flapping its wings would be so tiny as to be quickly absorbed by the surrounding air pressure.”

Scientists don’t know everything though, do they? This is one I’d still like to believe – but maybe without the tornado. Now for the toughie

Schrödinger’s Cat

Schrödinger’s Cat has me nodding sagely at any mention of it, “Ah yes, of course, Schrödinger’s Cat”. When truth be told, and much to my frustration, it has me completely baffled. I’ve never been able to get my head around it – until now. I think I may have got it at last – or have I? See if it makes sense to you.

It’s all about quantum physics. (Mind going blank already.) Quantum physics is about subatomic particles, which behave in very odd and unpredictable ways – apparently. So it’s absurd to try to apply quantum theory to predict how a radioactive atom will behave – apparently.

To illustrate this, your friend and mine, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger tells us to imagine some radioactive matter in a locked box with a cat. Inside there is also a Geiger counter which as soon as it detects radioactivity, will smash open a vial of poison. And over the period of one hour there is a 50% chance of the radioactive matter starting to decay and the poor old theoretical cat being poisoned.

“Quantum theory states that subatomic particles can be in two states at once until they’re observed. Similarly, since the cat’s life depends on what’s happening inside the radioactive atom, until we look in the box the cat is theoretically both alive and dead.

For Schrödinger, this thought experiment highlighted a paradox at the heart of quantum mechanics: while a particle may be able to exist in two states, the cat must be either alive or dead regardless of whether it’s being observed – it can’t be both.”

Mmm, still not sure I get it. But at least no cat was harmed in the making of this theory.

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This isn’t Schrödinger’s cat. This is Barry. Barry is a little sad he hasn’t had a theory named after him yet. Maybe next year, Barry.
The Hedgehog’s Dilemma

Otherwise know as the Porcupine Problem, for obvious reasons. This one is not the brainchild of a scientist, but a philosopher – Arthur Schopenhauer. But psychologists adopted it as a useful analogy, comparing the difficulties of human intimacy with two hedgehogs huddling together for winter warmth.

The closer each one in a pair of hedgehogs or porcupines (or humans) gets to the other, the more likely they are to get hurt. On the other hand, if they, and we, keep a safe distance, we all end up cold and alone.

There has to be a happy medium somewhere. Looks like these little guys may have found it.

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The Infinite Monkey Theorem

Who dreamed this one up remains a mystery, but it’s all about probability. We all know the wonderful but mildly insane idea that given an infinite number of monkeys banging away on an infinite number of keyboards the complete works of Shakespeare will eventually be reproduced.

“While this is a theoretical near-certainty, the odds on it happening in reality are infinitesimally tiny. Many trillions of monkeys typing from the dawn of time to the end of the universe would be highly unlikely to manage even a Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Sadly, Plymouth Uni arts students and lecturers – not scientists – were not content with leaving this as a fun theory. They decided to put it to the test. They installed a computer in a compound with 6 macaques. A month later they went to check what the monkeys had written: 5 pages of gobbledygook text, showing for some strange reason a marked preference for the letter ‘s’.

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Good on the monkeys though – they well and truly showed what they thought of their wrongful incarceration, and indeed the entire procedure. They bashed the keyboard with a stone, and used it for a toilet.


Footnote

This is all pretty frivolous stuff, I know. But with all the appalling news bombarding us daily about climate change, extinctions, destroyed habitats, hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts, floods, forest fires, a tidal wave of human and nonhuman animal suffering, the possibility of nuclear war, and acts and statements emanating from the White House which I can only call evil, sometimes we do just need a little lighthearted distraction.

Source: BBC Radio 4 – Radio 4 in Four – Six theories that use animals to explain their meanings (Stealing the cat caption is my compliment to the uncredited writer of this article)

Images Pixabay

Related posts

8 Kinds of Animal Craziness

8 More Kinds of Animal Craziness

15 Animal Myths That Are Absolutely False!

We Owe It To The Earth

Even if you’re not the praying kind, and even if the message is still somewhat anthropocentric, I’m sure you’ll agree it is very heartening that these words are flying out across the world to 1.2 billion catholics and 300 million Orthodox christians – and particularly those of any faith or none we hope may be listening in presidential homes and palaces – urging us to protect, preserve, respect. And cease to exploit.

Joint message of Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on the World Day of Prayer for Creation

“The story of creation presents us with a panoramic view of the world. Scripture reveals that, “in the beginning”, God intended humanity to cooperate in the preservation and protection of the natural environment. At first, as we read in Genesis, “no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up – for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground” (2:5). The earth was entrusted to us as a sublime gift and legacy, for which all of us share responsibility until, “in the end”, all things in heaven and on earth will be restored in Christ (cf. Eph 1:10). Our human dignity and welfare are deeply connected to our care for the whole of creation.

“However, in the meantime, the history of the world presents a very different context. It reveals a morally decaying scenario where our attitude and behaviour towards creation obscures our calling as God’s co-operators. Our propensity to interrupt the world’s delicate and balanced ecosystems, our insatiable desire to manipulate and control the planet’s limited resources, and our greed for limitless profit in markets – all these have alienated us from the original purpose of creation. We no longer respect nature as a shared gift; instead, we regard it as a private possession. We no longer associate with nature in order to sustain it; instead, we lord over it to support our own constructs.

“The consequences of this alternative worldview are tragic and lasting. The human environment and the natural environment are deteriorating together, and this deterioration of the planet weighs upon the most vulnerable of its people. The impact of climate change affects, first and foremost, those who live in poverty in every corner of the globe. Our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly implies the recognition of and respect for all people and all living creatures. The urgent call and challenge to care for creation are an invitation for all of humanity to work towards sustainable and integral development.

“Therefore, united by the same concern for God’s creation and acknowledging the earth as a shared good, we fervently invite all people of goodwill to dedicate a time of prayer for the environment on 1 September.  On this occasion, we wish to offer thanks to the loving Creator for the noble gift of creation and to pledge commitment to its care and preservation for the sake of future generations. After all, we know that we labour in vain if the Lord is not by our side (cf. Ps 126-127), if prayer is not at the centre of our reflection and celebration. Indeed, an objective of our prayer is to change the way we perceive the world in order to change the way we relate to the world. The goal of our promise is to be courageous in embracing greater simplicity and solidarity in our lives.

“We urgently appeal to those in positions of social and economic, as well as political and cultural, responsibility to hear the cry of the earth and to attend to the needs of the marginalized, but above all to respond to the plea of millions and support the consensus of the world for the healing of our wounded creation. We are convinced that there can be no sincere and enduring resolution to the challenge of the ecological crisis and climate change unless the response is concerted and collective, unless the responsibility is shared and accountable, unless we give priority to solidarity and service.”

This is a message not just for the 1st of September, but for every day of every year.

Update

6th October 2017 Catholic institutions announce largest ever faith-based fossil fuel divestment – EcoWatch

Source: The Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation – Vatican Radio

A page of environment petitions

Related posts

A Very Quick Critique of the Pope’s Message on Climate Change

Walking Hand in Hand with Nature

Busting the Myths of Human Superiority

When Everyone is Telling You Meat is the Bad Guy

Cool Cats & Dandy Dogs Get Ready for Clear the Shelters Day

Have you been thinking about adding to your family with a new furry? Well, tomorrow, Saturday August 19th is The Day to find yourself that one special pooch or moggie who’s sure to steal your heart away. It’s Clear the Shelters Day, when right across the USA shelters offer free or greatly reduced fees for all would-be adopters. It’s a once-a-year event to find loving homes for every fur baby in the participating shelters. Want to know more about this marvellous scheme? Click here and here

And to prod you in the right direction, here is a selection box of cat and dog trivia, facts and fun to dip into, that I hope will yield up one or two surprises.

Those of us already sharing our homes and lives with a BFF or three are pretty sure we can read them like a book, aren’t we. Every twitch of the ear, wag of the tail, arch of the back, squint of the eyes. We live with them for goodness sake. We know them so well that every time some new piece of scientific research on Felix or Fido reveals its (unsurprising) findings, we just go “Dah. Like we didn’t know that already”.

Except this time. Because I’m willing to bet these researchers have turned up an oddity that will have you eyeing your pooch anew.

The tell-tale tail

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“It now appears that when dogs feel generally positive about something or someone, their tails wag more to the right side of their rear ends, and when they have negative feelings, their tail wagging is biased to the left.

In spite of having lived with dogs all my life, I can’t claim ever to have noticed. But apparently, that left/right business isn’t as surprising as it seems at first glance. Many animal brains including humans, have a left hemisphere (which controls the right side of the body) that is activated by love, happiness, serenity. And the right hemisphere (controlling the left of the body) by withdrawal, fear, depression.

And, it’s not just, “Was that a left wag, or a right?” The language of doggy wag is a bit more complicated than we might have thought. Apart from the left/right business, the researchers noted 4 different kinds of rear end motion, and surprisingly they don’t all mean ‘I’m-so-happy-to-see-you’. Find the full wag guide here

action-2483689__340-1Cats on the other hand, just wag their tails when they are angry, don’t they? As befits the cat’s enigmatic aura, the feline wag is even more subtly nuanced than the canine. So we have:

  • The Vertical Tail and Tail Quiver
  • The Wrapped Tail
  • The Tail Flick (Or, the Straight Out and Back Tail)
  • The Swish
  • The Fluffy, Arched Tail
  • And the Twitch

What does it all mean? To whet your appetite for more, I’ll let you in on the meaning of the first, the VT & TQ: “An upright (or vertical) tail and tail quiver (or rattle tail) are often signs of a friendly greeting from your feline. An upright tail is usually a sign of a happy, confident cat” You knew that already of course! More on the cat wag guide here


It’s not fair

From a piece of research in Vienna, scientists found that dogs are right on the button when it comes to what is fair and what is not.

They put two dogs in separate cages, but where they could see each other. Each had a buzzer they could press with their paw. Sometimes when they pressed it they would both get a reward, but sometimes neither would. Sometimes one got a reward and the other didn’t. Sometimes one got a better treat than the other. What happened? The one consistently coming off worse would just give up pressing the buzzer. No-one wants to be the underdog.

But he or she would happily keep pressing the buzzer and not getting a reward, as long as the other dog didn’t get one either. Or, if there wasn’t another dog to compare themselves with – proof that it wasn’t just boredom that made them stop. The pooches were aggrieved. They stopped because it just wasn’t fair.

Is this something dogs have learned from living with us humans? It seems not. The researchers also tried the experiment on wolves – and got the same result. In fact the wolves stopped pressing even quicker, the alpha male quickest of all.

Dogs have been among us for maybe 40,000 years, but it seems their view of fairness learned long ago from dwelling as a member of a pack lives on.

Afterthought: wouldn’t it be fascinating to know how cats would respond? Would you like to venture a guess?


This dog stays wild!

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We’re talking Australian dingo here. In traditional aboriginal society, dingo pups were taken from the wild and draped around women’s waists like garments of clothing. Like you do. The women even breastfed them. In return, they kept the women warm, were an invaluable help in the hunt, a source of protection – and sometimes of food.

But before the pups reached the age of two, they were returned to the wild to breed. And in spite of thousands of years of semi-involvement in human lives, the adult dingo still to this day fails “to respond to any amount of discipline, kindness, bribery or coercion.” A dingo pup taken from the wild can not be trained up as a family pet. “Affectionate and tractable when young, eventually their carnivorous nature gets the better of them.”

The dingo’s most astounding gift though, is its ability to divine water. These wild dogs can detect water both above and below ground, and humans throughout history have put its remarkable skill to good use. Records reveal many accounts of “wild/semi-wild dingoes leading Europeans to lifesaving water springs.” And Australian place names still bear witness to this talent: Dingo Soak, Dingo Springs, Dingo Rock, Dingo Gap.

In aboriginal culture, dreaming tracks or songlines trace the dingo’s paths across the continent, from one water source to another. To one well-versed in them, the songs of the dreaming tracks serve as maps, since the words describe landmarks and waterholes. So by singing them they can navigate their way even over the vast Australian desertland. The dingo has shown them the way.

You can find out more about these fascinating wild dogs, and see an extraordinary image of Aboriginal women with dingoes wrapped around their waists here


But enough of dogs. Now for a bit of quality time with the cats.

Cuddles & Cat Flu

This research aimed to find out what effect if any positive interaction with humans has on shelter cats’ health and wellbeing. So, on arriving at a Vancouver cat shelter, each cat was divided into one of two groups. The ‘treated’ group got quality interaction with a human 4 times a day, 10 minutes each time, for 10 days. The control group had someone stand outside the cats’ cage with averted eyes for the same amount of time.

Surprise, surprise, these are the findings:

  • Human interaction by petting, playing and grooming improved shelter cats’ welfare
  • ‘Treated’ cats were more content and less anxious and frustrated
  • ‘Treated’ cats had increased levels of immumoglobulin [meaning healthier immune systems]
  • ‘Treated’ cats had less respiratory disease

cat-714358_960_720Even if that falls into the cat-egory (ahem) of research results stating the obvious, it does prove one thing: much as they pretend they don’t – putting on every appearance of just about tolerating us and condescending to live with us on their terms only – they do actually need us after all!


But before we get carried away with that good news, I regretfully have to confirm what we all always suspected –

Dogs really do love us more than cats

Five times as much in fact, so the scientists tell us. Who knew you could measure love? Find out how they do it here

Cat lovers take heart though – they do love us a bit😊


Now for something altogether more serious

Are Felix and Fido driving climate change?

American Professor Gregory Okin decided to find out. And these are his sobering findings:

  • Meat-eating US dogs and cats create 64 million tons of carbon dioxide a year – equivalent to a year’s worth of driving from 13.6 million cars
  • That tonnage of carbon dioxide makes up 25 – 30% of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the States overall
  • If the 163 million American dogs and cats were a separate country of their own, “their fluffy nation would rank fifth in global meat consumption behind only Russia, Brazil, the United States and China”. Now that is scary.
  • And don’t forget the ‘waste’ – they produce 5.1 million tons of feces, as much as 90 million Americans

So what’s the answer? Our dogs and cats are family. No way are we going to give them up, even for the best environmental reasons in the world. Prof Okin doesn’t offer solutions, other than his half-joking suggestion that we transfer our affections to naturally vegetarian pets like hamsters or birds – or little ponies that can mow our lawns. Well, I have a couple of suggestions:

  1. Feed your furry friend veggie/vegan dog and cat foods, like Ami, Benevo, and Yarrah. Taurine and arachidonic acid are vital for cats, but these brands do contain them, so don’t listen to those who like to tell you a cat can’t live on a vegetarian diet
  2. DON’T give up the chance to save the life of a rescue pet – a lovable little critter that might well end up euthanized – by getting your BFF from a pet store or breeder. You would simply be lining the pockets of people who exploit dogs and cats just for money.
  3. ALWAYS go to your nearest animal shelter – TOMORROW! – and give a loving home to a pet who’s been abandoned through no fault of their own. They will reward you a thousand times over.

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#adoptdontshop


And finally, just for fun!

 

Actions to take for dogs and cats

Sign up to Cruelty Free International’s campaign to put an end to cruel experiments on dogs here

Speak out for the dogs and cats suffering at Liberty research here

Sign to end the killing in US animal shelters here

(All images Pixabay)

Related posts

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An Enchantment of Birds

Chances are, when you wake up in the morning the first thing you hear is the joyful chirruping of birds. And does a day ever go by without at some hour being graced by their presence, even in the middle of the busiest metropolis?

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Of all wild animals, birds have to be the most familiar to us all, the least secretive, the easiest for us to spot. They usually – but sadly far from always – have little need to conceal themselves from dangerous humans, for it is they, not we, who possess the kingdom of the air.
With their dazzling colours, extravagant variety, and incredible abilities – the sheer magic they impart to our lives – isn’t An Enchantment of Birds exactly the right umbrella-term for the avian life of Planet Earth?

Here I’ve pieced together a crazily random patchwork of the new and not-so new, the bright interspersed with patches of a darker hue. And a few small ways we can give a helping hand to these animals that so enrich our lives.


It doesn’t get darker than murder. ‘A murder’ is the collective name bestowed – surely undeservedly – upon the common crow

What a slur on these sociable and clever birds. A murder of crows. Possibly acquired because where there were corpses there were crows. In times gone by, they cleaned up the human detritus from the gallows and the battlefield, and superstitions sprang up like a thicket around them. Nor has it done anything for their sadly besmirched reputation that their feathery finery is entirely black, the colour of night and dark deeds.

And that these remarkable animals actually hold funerals for their own deceased, serves only, in human eyes, to put the seal on their association with death.

The raven, another member of the the clever corvid family, is likewise cloaked in mystery and superstition
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Legend has it for example, that if ever the ravens abandon the Tower of London, the Tower and the kingdom will fall.

(Legends are engaging, but there is a sadness behind this one. By the time of King Charles 2nd in the 17th century, these magnificent birds had been nigh on exterminated throughout their natural range, including in the city of London. They were only able to find refuge at the Tower under the king’s protection. Then and ever since, 6 ravens have been kept at the Tower – with one wing clipped to prevent their flying away. Read why this is harmful to the birds and sign the petition here or below)

The Guardian in its report on some recent raven research incidentally cites other examples in myth and fiction of the bird’s supposed prescient powers:

  • Ravens have long been associated with powers of foresight
  • Their collective name is ‘a conspiracy’
  • In Greek mythology, they are associated with the god of prophecy
  • In the TV hit Game of Thrones a three-eyed raven appears in a prince’s prophetic visions
  • Edgar Allan Poe’s haunting 1845 narrative poem The Raven, a cornerstone of American literature, features a raven as an uncanny harbinger of doom.

Enchantment indeed.

Who knows whether ravens can truly see into the future – nonhuman animals have such a variety of astonishing abilities that nothing would surprise me. Whatever, it did come as a surprise to the pair of Swedish scientists featured in the Guardian report, that ravens show great ability in planning for the future.

It’s little more than a decade since we humans were forced to concede, with the discovery that other Hominidae/Great Apes have the mental capacity to plan ahead, that our species is not, as was previously assumed, unique in this respect. Now it seems that in this exclusive but expanding club, ravens too can claim their rightful place. And indeed completely outshine species much closer to homo sapiens, like monkeys. No doubt many of us humans as well!

Researchers Mathias Osvath and Can Kabadayi reveal their discoveries

Is this perhaps another example of science finding ‘proof’ of something we’ve intuitively known for millennia?


There’s recycling, and then there’s recycling

What are nests but beautiful and ingenious examples of natural recycling? A new usefulness is found for dead twigs and leaves, moss, straw, feathers and sheep’s wool snagged on fences. But also man-made litter: string, twine, ribbon, lace, cotton, jute, yarn. Even the odd rubber tyre.

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And plastic. But it must be white. Transparent or green plastic will not do. Black kites have taken to adorning their nests with the stuff. Why? Not to dazzle a mate with their artistry, like the male bower bird. In the kite nest-building enterprise the male and female are equal partners. These embellishments of trash seem to serve pretty much the same purpose in the kite world as screwing an alarm box to the front of our house does in ours: sending a message to would-be intruders and thieves – Keep Out! This fascinating article in Science magazine will tell you more.

Recycling just got quirkier
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Image BBC News

In Mexican and Latin American cities today, house finches and sparrows are also busy recycling the waste humans leave behind. They are collecting discarded cigarette stubs from the streets to weave into their nests. This strange behaviour doesn’t arise from any shortage of nest-building materials. Or from dubious taste in architectural ornamentation. These little birds have discovered that the nicotine in the stubs works as an effective anti-parasitic, keeping their chicks free from infestations. Birds have long been known to line their nests with vegetation rich in compounds that drive away parasites, says Nature magazine. In the city, such vegetation may not come so readily to bird’s beak. But stubs there are a-plenty.

So, more feathered creatures putting human waste to good use – what’s not to like? Sadly, there is a dark side to this quirky story too. Cigarettes may possibly be as injurious to bird health as they are to ours. If the concentration of the tobacco parasiticides from the stubs in the nest becomes too great, it can harm the chromosomal development of unhatched chicks, with who knows what long term results. Read more – I promise this too is interesting stuff.


Meanwhile, members of the parrot family (collective name ‘a prattle’) – those Einsteins of the flying squad – have a different but equally remarkable trick up their feathered sleeves

The males have a nice line in rhythmic drumming to woo prospective mates. And they all create their own drum solos. As Science Advances rather stuffily puts it, Over 131 drumming sequences produced by 18 males, the beats occurred at non-random, regular intervals. Yet individual males differed significantly in the shape parameters describing the distribution of their beat patterns, indicating individual drumming styles.

What’s more, they’re very picky about their choice of drumsticks. Here is a male palm cockatoo showing us how it’s done.

(Thanks to AwarenessHelps for this little gem)

Enchanting as all members of the parrot family are, here’s Why We Should Think Twice Before Getting a Parrot for a Pet


And finally to a bird that endears itself to everyone, the penguin (collective name ‘a huddle’)

Is it because they remind us of comical waiters we have an especially soft spot for these cute and snappily-suited birds? Their precarious existence though is far from ‘cute’. Theirs is a harsh world full of dangers, many of them man-made – commercial fishing depleting the penguins’ available food source, entanglement in fishing nets, pollution, habitat disturbance, and of course climate change. 10 out of 18 of the world’s penguin species are sliding towards extinction.

As part of their “Protect a Penguin” campaign, BirdLife International joined forces with virtual reality producer, Visualise to bring us an amazing 5 minute immersive experience,”Walk with Penguins”, a 3D 360 nature film, the first of its kind.

Using 3D 360 film, we can get people closer to penguins and give people that magical feeling of being with them—and ultimately that can lead to a greater support for their conservation. 

As the sun sets on the penguin colony within which you stand, and you learn of their plight through the voice over, you can’t help but feel an emotional connection. Director of Conservation BirdLife International Richard Grimmett

To get the very best from the immersive experience check info here

Click on image if you would like to #ProtectaPenguin

Petitions

Free the Tower of London ravens

Stop Unregulated Domestic Breeding of Parrots in Canada

Save Newly Discovered Australian Parrot Species From Extinction

We’re well passed World Penguin Day (April 25th) but you can still sign this petition to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources asking them to establish what would be the world’s two largest marine sanctuaries around Antarctica

7 Penguins Drowned at Calgary Zoo: Shut Down the Exhibit!

 

Other sources

Ravens of the Tower of London – Wiki

Collective nouns for birds

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Save

Walking the Talk – Danish Politicians Go Vegan

To save the planet no less, last year the UN’s International Research Panel expressed its wish to see every meat animal removed from the face of it, and along with them agri industry’s monstrous environmental footprint.

These are the damning facts
  • 45% of Earth’s land is occupied by livestock
  • 33% of arable land is devoted to growing feed for that livestock
  • 23% of the world’s fresh water supplies goes to livestock farming
  • 14.5% (a conservative estimate – some estimate as much as 51%) of GHGs are emitted by the sector.
  • And Florida’s International University didn’t even try to sugar the pill when their 2015 study published in the Science of Total Environment Journal revealed meat-eaters as the number one cause of worldwide species extinction.
With a growing world population and the increasing demand for meat and dairy in developing countries, as well as in the US, we have to change our ways – and fast –  if we want a planet left to live on.

The Danish Council of Ethics agrees, and recommends Denmark adopt the UN proposal of levying a tax on meat. It’s “an ethical obligation” to “send a clear signal” to the Danish public that their eating habits have to change – urgently.

Now politicians in Denmark from both the Alternative and the Red-Green Alliance parties are giving up animal products for 22 days to highlight how much damage intensive animal farming does to our planet.

Uffe Elbæk, leader of the Alternative party told the Metro“Western food production has an enormous climate footprint. Political action is needed, and I find it important that we, as politicians, take the first steps and begin to ‘walk the talk’.”

Maria Gjerding, the Red-Green Alliance’s environmental secretary, agrees, “We need to take action on both a personal and political level in order to address the serious issues of climate change.”

The Danes are following in the footsteps of Barbara Hendricks, Germany’s Federal Minister for the Environment, who recently banned meat at official functions.


Meanwhile, Bill Clinton is not the only ex-POTUS to stamp his seal of approval on plant-based eating: at the Global Food Innovation Summit held in Milan last week Barack Obama spoke of the need for societies worldwide to reduce meat consumption and find more efficient ways of producing protein, which are good for the health both of the planet and individuals. The former president though, might do well to follow the Danes example and walk the talk, because he ended on something of a a downer, “What is true is I am not a vegetarian. I respect vegetarians, but I am not one of them.”

Pretty hard to understand why two environmentally and socially conscious people like Barack and Michelle have yet to align their lives with their visions. What a blessing they could be to our planet. We live in hope.


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This political leader may not be quite as high profile (even reproduced here 21 times!) as America’s ex-Commander in Chief, but he is vegetarian and has been so all his adult life. Here in the UK we are in full campaign mode for a June 8th general election. And on Tuesday Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party tweeted, “We are announcing plans to aid plant-based food manufacturers later this week.” Can’t wait to hear that announcement!


Check out here some of the other countries, organisations, multinationals and investors who’ve figured out meat is the bad guy and are already busy shaping a more plant-based future.

So. Ready to start eating green for the planet? Follow these 3 simple steps and you’ll be well on your way to giving Earth and all the amazing life on it real hope for the future.

#EatForThePlanet

1. Replace: Try to swap animal-based products in your daily diet with vegan alternatives (milk, butter, mayo, cheese, grilled chicken, beef crumbles, sausages, cold cuts, etc.)
2. Embrace: Add plant-based whole foods (local and organic when possible) to your diet like greens, fresh fruits, and vegetables, whole grains, plant proteins like lentils, nuts/seeds, beans, tofu, etc.
3. Moderate: Limit consumption of your favorite meats like beef, lamb, pork, etc.

There, that was easy wasn’t it? Now go vegan for the animals, for your health, for the environment and most of all for this jewel of the known universe, planet Earth.


Sources

Politicians in Denmark are Going Vegan to Help the Environment – One Green Planet

Politicians in Denmark are dropping animal products and going vegan to tackle climate change – the Metro

Barack Obama Urges World to Eat Less Meat – PETA

You Won’t Believe What This UK Politician Said – One Green Planet

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