Fukushima – when the people flee en masse from the apocalyptic scene of devastation, the animals are left behind. Then up steps Naoto Matsumura. What he does and what he is as a human being leaves me awestruck and humbled. This is Network for Animals‘story of one heroic, compassionate man who puts his own life on the line to save his fellow creatures from abandonment, starvation and death.
First came the 9.0 magnitude earthquake. Then a towering tsunami that raged inland for miles, sweeping to their death more than 15,000 people and countless animals.
But then it got worse, much worse.
In what would become a more catastrophic nuclear meltdown than Chernobyl, three nuclear reactors began to leak radiation at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan. People fled. Untold numbers of animals were left behind.
But one man would NOT turn his back…
Naoto Matsumura believed the lives of animals were worth more than his and to this day, every day, he is still there helping some of the most forsaken animals on earth!
We deeply believe Naoto shouldn’t face the fight to keep his friends alive, alone.
As a friend to Network for Animals, you know you can count on us to help animals in the world’s most desolate places. It took us nearly two years to arrange to enter Fukushima’s no-go radioactive zone…
Finally, we visited Naoto and the animals, less than six miles (10 kilometers) from Ground Zero.
Clad in hazmat suits, with the tick-tick-tick-tick of our ever-present Geiger counters as a constant and unnerving background warning, our team listened as Naoto told the saddest story…
When Fukushima melted down the Japanese government immediately declared an a mandatory, and near instantaneous evacuation of nearly 200,000 people. The tsunami-sodden ground was soaked with radiation.
And as Naoto told of how he defied government orders to stay and care for the animals on his family’s small rice farm and as we travelled with him deep into the radioactive restricted zone, we saw the eerie apocalyptic aftermath of the disaster.
Cigarette packs, left on café counters. High-end cars, abandoned by the roadside. Vending machines, still fully stocked. Overnight, thriving communities were frozen in time. They became ghost towns.
Naoto laughs when he tells us that he’s been called the “most radioactive man in Japan.” But he turns sombre as he describes how he soon realized his neighbors’ animals needed help too.
He found one dog near death, just skin and bones, locked inside a barn for 18 months after the disaster! The poor thing had survived on the rotting, dead flesh of the cattle trapped inside.
As Naoto nursed the little dog called Kiseki, “miracle,” back to health, the media spotlight moved on.
He went on making his daily missions of mercy alone, traffic lights signaling to empty streets and overgrown train stations.
Please. Rush your donation to NFA today and you will ensure that Naoto will receive the first of what we hope will be regular shipments of everything from dog and cat food to radioactive-free hay for these forgotten animals, so they can survive and thrive.
If we do nothing, if we leave him to do this work alone, more animals could suffer the fate of nearly 1,000 abandoned cattle, who died in Naoto’s town of Tomioka alone after the disaster.
Please, if you possibly can, be generous today so we can ensure Naoto can continue to come to the aid of the forgotten animals of the Fukushima nuclear fallout zone.
We’ll update you again the moment we get shipment through to Naoto, with your kind support. Thank you for reading and responding with whatever help you can send.
For the animals,
Brian and Gloria Davies (and Max and Flora!)
Founder and CEO
P.S. We want to leave you with one last story about Naoto and Kiseki. After the poor pup had survived locked in a barn for 18 long months eating the rotting flesh of dead cattle, Naoto nurtured him back to health. Thanks to a wonderful friend of animals outside the fallout zone, Kiseki was adopted and has a loving forever family in Tokyo!
“Children and animals are the big losers in the Syrian war. It’s the adults who so often behave badly.”
The cat man of Aleppo, Mohammad Aljaleel, touched the hearts of millions when his sanctuary featured in a BBC video in 2016. He had to leave the city when it fell to Syrian government forces, but he’s now back – in an area nearby – and helping children as well as animals, reports Diana Darke.
(There is nothing I can possibly add to this amazing story, except to say that if you want to see what true humanity looks like, look no further than Diana’s account below of this exceptional man.)
Just weeks after the video was filmed, Mohammad Aljaleel (known to everyone as Alaa) watched helplessly as his cat sanctuary was first bombed, then chlorine-gassed, during the intense final stages of the siege of Aleppo.
Most of his 180 cats were lost or killed. Like thousands of other civilians he was trapped in the eastern half of the city under continuous bombardment from Russian and Syrian fighter jets.
As the siege tightened, he was forced from one Aleppo district to another, witnessing unimaginable scenes of devastation. Yet throughout, he continued to look after the few surviving cats and to rescue people injured in the bombing, driving them to underground hospitals.
When the city fell in December 2016, he left in a convoy, his van crammed full of injured people and the last six cats from the sanctuary.
“I’ve always felt it’s my duty and my pleasure to help people and animals whenever they need help,” Alaa says. “I believe that whoever does this will be the happiest person in the world, besides being lucky in his life.”
After a brief recuperation in Turkey, he smuggled himself back into Syria – bringing a Turkish cat with him for company – and established a new cat sanctuary, bigger and better than the first one, in Kafr Naha, a village in opposition-held countryside west of Aleppo.
Using the same crowdfunding model employed successfully in east Aleppo, funds were sent in by cat-lovers from all over the world via Facebook and Twitter.
But Alaa has always worked for the benefit of the community, as well as the cats themselves.
In Aleppo, he and his team of helpers bought generators, dug wells and stockpiled food. Even at the height of the bombing, they ran animal welfare courses for children, to develop their empathy. They also set up a playground next to the sanctuary where children could briefly escape from the apocalyptic events taking place all around them.
The new sanctuary has expanded to include an orphanage, a kindergarten and a veterinary clinic. Alaa and his team resemble a small development agency, providing services that government and international charities cannot or will not. He strongly believes that helping children to look after vulnerable animals teaches them the importance of kindness to all living creatures, and helps to heal their own war traumas.
“Children and animals are the big losers in the Syrian war,” he says. “It’s the adults who so often behave badly.”
As a boy growing up in Aleppo, Alaa had always looked after cats, spurring his friends to do likewise, even though keeping cats and dogs as pets is not customary in Syria or the rest of the Arab world.
He started working aged 13, as an electrician, but also turned his hand to many other jobs – painter, decorator, IT expert, satellite-dish installer… he even traded toys between Lebanon and Syria.
He worked hard and he learned how to get things done. “May the dust turn to gold in your hands, Alaa,” his mother used to say.
His dream was to become a fireman like his father and work in search and rescue, but such jobs were handed out only to those with connections, and the connection through his father was not enough. So for years his applications were rejected.
“Of course I would never have wished for a war in order to make my dream come true. I wish I could have achieved these things without the suffering I have seen,” he says.
“God blessed me by putting me in a position where I could help people by being a rescue man, but in my worst nightmares I never imagined a war like this for my people or for my country, or even for a single animal.”
During the siege in Aleppo he used to visit both Christian and Muslim old people’s homes, distributing food. Extremist groups such as al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra regularly chided him, calling him a kaafir, an unbeliever, but he continued regardless.
“Our Prophet Muhammad was good to everybody. He spoke with all Christians and Jews. I believe in Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, because all of them had a noble aim. I’m a Muslim, but I am not a fanatic. I just take from religion everything that’s good and that I can learn things from,” Alaa says.
Despite the difficulties he has endured, Alaa has always maintained a wicked sense of humour. At the new sanctuary, a tabby called Maxi the Marketing King is chief fundraiser, soliciting “green kisses” in the form of dollar bills via social media accounts.
Alaa wears a T-shirt with “Maxi’s Slave” written on it, and gets ticked off for smoking too much or for not cooking gourmet meals. He admits his shortcomings. “We submit to Maxi’s authority as the ruler of his kingdom. But even with Maxi’s leadership it wasn’t easy to launch the new sanctuary,” he says.
This is an understatement. The rebel-held area where Alaa now lives is semi-lawless and when powerful gangs realised he was receiving funds for the sanctuary, they attempted to kidnap him. He was no longer being bombed, but his life was still at risk.
As well as cats, the new sanctuary has dogs, monkeys, rabbits, a chicken that thinks it’s a cat, and an Arabian thoroughbred horse.
“There are so few thoroughbred horses left inside Syria now that I worry about finding him a mare to breed with. I plan to perform the role of a traditional Syrian mother and try to find him a wife, so that he can have children and start building up the population of thoroughbred horses in Syria again,” Alaa says.
All the animals have names, generally awarded by Alaa. An aggressive black-and-white cat who came to the sanctuary, stole food and terrified all the other cats was nicknamed al-Baghdadi, after the Iraqi leader of Islamic State (IS).
“Of course, this cat was a million times better than that evil murderer al-Baghdadi, but this name came to mind because his presence in the sanctuary coincided with the arrival of IS gangs in Aleppo,” Alaa says.
Territorio de Zaguates – Land of the Mutts, a sanctuary where every stray is greeted with hearts full of love.
Saved from abuse, abandonment and starvation on the street, given veterinary care, nourishing food, and a multitude of friends to run and play with in freedom and safety, it’s a new life these dogs had never imagined could be theirs.
Awesome Costa Ricans Álvaro and Lya have dedicated their lives to giving these strays the kind of life they deserve. With 1,300 dogs currently in their care, they have a mammoth task.
Take a look at this uplifting little video
In a dark world blackened by the unspeakable acts humans too often perpetrate on other animals, stories such as this shine a light of hope.
For anyone with Netflix, click here for the episode of ‘Dogs’ devoted to Territorio – a riveting and moving closeup view of life at the sanctuary. And the true cost, emotional, physical, mental, as well as financial to those who work there, in particular Álvaro and Lya.
When your holiday zest for sightseeing bazaars and palaces begins to flag, and you turn into the nearest cafe for a much-needed sit down and restorative coffee, chances are several street dogs and cats will have got there before you and nabbed the best seats.
As you settle at a vacant table, a furry feline will in all likelihood settle on you. And in this city no-one is going to turn them out. Because you are in Istanbul, the ‘four-legged city’, where the free-roaming dogs and cats get cared for as well as the pampered pets inside the home.
The cafe owner emerges from the kitchen with dishes of food for his four-legged guests. The fishmonger next door is slicing up pieces of fish for the hopeful, patiently waiting outside.
Local residents are putting out bowls of water and food next to the little shelters they’ve knocked together for the furries out on their own streets. And of course, there are rich pickings to be had for the enterprising in the bags of rubbish thrown on to the street.
Reinvigorated by your coffee? Then head for Nişantaşı Sanat Parkı, otherwise known as ‘the Cat Park’. There are cats, cats and more cats everywhere you look. Hundreds, yes hundreds, of them. Unlike feral cats in the UK, these are completely habituated to people, and will return your attentions with happy purrs and affectionate nuzzles.
You may be puzzled by strange white boxes dotted about the city. These are ‘smart’ recycling boxes. Recycling with an unusual twist: the box rewards you for recycling your empty water bottle by dispensing cat and dog food to give to the animals.
Canines beyond the city limits where food opportunities are thin on the ground are not forgotten either. A van is sent out daily to Belgrade Forest with 1,000 kg of dry dog food. The driver honks the horn, the signal that breakfast has arrived. The dogs come running out of the trees.
That’s hunger dealt with. What about thirst? The city has installed fresh water stations especially for the 130,000 thirsty dogs and 165,000 thirsty cats free-roaming the city – that’s about as many street-dwelling felines and canines combined as there are human residents of Nottingham or Belfast.
If any of these free-spirited furries get sick, no problem – if they can’t get to one of the 6 health clinics (with a little help from the always willing humans), the VetBus will come to them.
There’s no doubt about it: Istanbul’s four-legged residents are done proud. You could say they own the city.
A paradise present and past
What a paradise for these lucky animals, a paradise present and past. Dogs and cats have been documented on the streets of Istanbul for hundreds of years. “The dogs sleep in the streets, all over the city,”Mark Twain wrote after a visit in 1867. “They would not move, though the Sultan himself passed by.”
Why is it that in this city they are not just tolerated, but actively cared for? “They are the neighbourhood’s dogs [and cats]. They protect us and everyone loves them,” says resident Hamit Yilmaz Ozcan.
Sadly the same cannot be said of many other cities in the world. In the last few years alone we have heard of cities like Sochi, Beijing, and Rio de Janeiro’s horrific mass killings of street animals ahead of big sporting events. Other places like Cyprus and Bali also view the street animals as pests, and regularly cull them. ‘Cull’ of course is just officialese for ‘kill’. But killing it is nonetheless. In 2013, Romania’s capital Bucharest ordered euthanasia (another euphemism) of its 50,000 strays.
“The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there are 200 million stray dogs worldwide. Countries such as Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Mexico have in the past, taken reduction measures [yet another euphemism to cloak the unpalatable truth] to control their large populations of stray dogs.”
So what makes Istanbul so different, possibly unique?
The answer is, centuries of Islamic tradition in the Ottoman Empire, of which Istanbul was the capital and seat of power. The Ottomans took to heart the Qu’ran’s teaching that all animals were made by Allah. All animals are loved by Allah. All animals must be treated with kindness and compassion.
“According to Islamic culture, people should avoid being unjust to others, and it places animals’ rights above human rights since it is possible to compensate for the wrongdoing to people by asking for their forgiveness; however, it is not possible with animals as they lack reason.”
(Personally, I think it’s not that they lack reason, but that we don’t understand their language.)
“Prophet Muhammad told the story of two different women who lived long before his time. As he recounted, an evil women went to heaven because she gave water to a dog, while a good woman went to hell because she starved a cat to death.”
(Define ‘good woman’, I’d say. Starving a cat to death sounds pretty evil to me. But anyway, you get the drift.)
“Fearing this story, people in the past fed their animals before they sat down for meals and did not go to bed before they cleaned the animals in their barns and checked if they had water and feed. Moreover, the government punished those who carried barnyard fowls upside down or overloaded horses or donkeys, and people who harmed animals were alienated from their community in the Ottoman Empire.
“The Ottomans established foundations to feed street dogs, and wolves in the mountains, provide water for birds on hot summer days and treat storks with broken wings or injured horses. They also built birdhouses in the courtyards of buildings such as mosques, madrasahs and palaces and placed water pans on gravestones for birds.”
Even ‘worn out’ donkeys and horses, no longer fit to work, were not shot or abandoned as would have been, and often still is their fate elsewhere, but cared for until the end of their days.
Sad change in the 19th century
The people of Istanbul have always loved having the animals around – and who wouldn’t. The state though is a different matter. In the 19th century, the Ottomans, realising the image they were projecting to European powers was one of backwardness, decided to push beggars, orphans and the unemployed into forced labour or deportation. And at the same time made “systemic efforts to annihilate stray dogs within the wider picture of Ottoman modernizing reforms.”
In 1909, “although old Istanbul’s street dogs were very famous, the municipality collected all of them, ferried them to an island in the Marmara Sea and abandoned them. They were left with no food or clean water, and their cries were heard throughout the city.
“The people who pitied them threw them food, but when all of these dogs died on the island, the residents of the city were disturbed by the smell of their corpses. The wars that broke out and the defeats of the empire following this incident were seen as a punishment for what was done to those animals.”
That sudden ruthless disregard for the centuries-old traditions of care and respect for the street dogs and cats continued right through the 20th century. Right up to the 1990s, officials were strewing poison around the city, consigning the animals to a cruel death.
In 2004 Turkey passed an Animal Protection Law
Everything changed again. The municipalities were forced to take a more humane approach. Instead of slaughter, an extensive neutering program was implemented by the VetBus and the clinics.
With rabies still endemic in Turkey, the thought of rabid animals roaming the busy streets of this ancient city is not one the municipality was prepared to countenance for a second, so the other important part of the program is vaccination. Under the Capture Neuter Vaccinate & Release program, CNVR, the dogs and cats are also chipped and given an ear tag so they can easily be identified as having been ‘done’ before they are returned to the street or square where they were found.
It’s a secret
The tons of food, the water stations, the recycle boxes, the clinics, the VetBus, the CNVR program – surely none of this can come cheap? The municipality refuses to say how much is being spent on the street dogs and cats of Istanbul. “If people knew how much money was spent on these services, maybe people would be more upset, but these figures are not disclosed,” says Yildirim, coordinator of the collective “Dort Ayakli Sehir” (Four-legged City).
But Turkey’s Agriculture and Forests Minister Bekir Pakdemirli did recently admit that between 2009 and 2018 his ministry expended 31 million Turkish lira (around $6 million) just contributing towards the budgets of local authorities across the country for their care of street animals.
Maybe still not quite such a paradise for the street dogs and cats after all?
The best efforts of the CNVR program has only succeeded in keeping the stray feline and canine populations at a fairly constant level. Their numbers have not fallen over time as the municipality might have hoped and expected. Of course, there will always be some wily characters that escape the net and keep breeding.
But much sadder than that, according to animal welfare organisations on the ground:
“There is a high incidence of dog abandonment in Turkey. Pets are often bought on impulse, and frequently as gifts. But when cute little puppies grow into large dogs that need space, exercise and long-term care, many families simply abandon their pets to the streets or forests. Many abandoned dogs are pure breeds, like golden retrievers, that are temperamentally unfit to survive on the streets or in the wild.”
The self-same fate awaits cats:
“In Turkey everyday, thousands of puppies and kittens are sold in the pet-shops just like stuffed animals and most of them find themselves abandoned on the streets within a couple of months… Abandoned cats and dogs are everywhere. Sometimes people simply kick them out from their home right on the streets, sometimes they take a dog into a forest and leave him there so he can’t find his way back home, or even abandon him by the side of a motorway so he gets killed quickly.”
This little guy is one such victim. Only 40 days old, found all alone and whimpering in a ditch at the side of the road. Luckily he was rescued and put up for adoption. But there’s still a chance he could end up back on the street further down the line.
Love for the street animals/casual, callous abandonment. How to reconcile the two?
Is it that the good people of Istanbul enjoy the pleasure the animals bring into their daily lives, and feel good giving food and some outdoor shelter, but don’t want the full responsibility of caring for them in their own home?
Or could it be that in today’s cosmopolitan city, while some still hold fast to the old traditions, others have discarded them as belonging to the past? That would be sad indeed.
From the centuries-old Ottoman Islamic ethic of respect and compassion, I believe there is much we and the world could learn in our attitudes towards all animals, great and small. Don’t you agree?
Please sign and share:
Petition to stop the poisoning of strays in Turkey’s capital, Ankara
Petition to end this tragedy in Turkey: dog starvation on a colossal scale.
Petition to stop neighbouring Jordan killing every street dog in the country
Petition to stop authorities in Benalmadena, Spain ruthlessly culling homeless cats
Petition to enforce ban on dog culling in Bangladesh
It cannot be denied that the human world is often a place of nightmare, rife with hatred and war: nation against nation, race against race, tribe against tribe, sect against sect, political systems pitted one against the other, hostile factions splintering their own countries to the point of destruction. In the many wars of the last century 108 million humans diedat the hands of other humans.
But human conflict doesn’t just kill humans. Bombs and bullets rain down on human and nonhuman animals alike.
And wars cause famine. Animals starve, and animals are eaten by starving humans. Animals are forced to suffer everything we like to inflict on our own kind, and more.
Animals are even slaughtered simply so they don’t have to be fed. On the outbreak of World War II, the British government persuaded the population it was their patriotic duty to have their beloved pets put down. The first week of the war witnessed a mass euthanasia of three quarters of a million “non-essential animals”. Cat owners were prosecuted for giving their pet a saucer of milk.
At London Zoo, fruit bats, crocodiles, alligators, snakes, spiders, and lion cubs were also euthanised..
And then there were those animals we forced into the thick of it, conscripted into a war that wasn’t theirs: “elephants, dogs, cats and pigeons, even chickens, were all recruited to help in the war effort, and many of them died.”
Turning to a different arena of war, in the 80 years since WWII, “70 percent of Africa’s protected nature reserves have been turned into battlegrounds”taking down animal populations with them. In one decade, in Mozambique alone, 90% of hippos, zebras, elephants, antelope, and other herbivores perished. Happily, the wildlife has since bounced back, almost to its pre-conflict levels.
Ironically, this very belligerence that in our kind seems so deeply rooted, sometimes has the opposite, unexpectedly happy effect not of destroying animals and Nature, but creating space for her and respite for wildlife.
How does this happen?
Mostly, all that is needed is for us to be removed from the scene. Healing Nature does the rest. This happens by chance when we create a No Man’s Land between the territories of two hostile parties. In No Man’s Land there are no humans to hunt, trap or poison the animals (human hunters kill 4 times as many smaller carnivores as do the large wild predators). No farming to plough up and fence off potential habitat, or blitz the land with pesticides. And just as importantly, there is silence.
Because even when we are not fighting each other, or persecuting the animals, not doing anything at all directly harmful, our mere presence, the mere sound of the human voice – this may come as a surprise – terrifies the creatures and drastically inhibits the natural behaviours they need for survival such as foraging or hunting. Researchers from Western University found that we humans are far scarier to badgers, for instance, than are any of the apex predators like wolves and big cats. In fact, simply the sound of people talking filled badgers with “a paralysing terror“
They concluded that we could be messing up wild animals’ lives “even more than previously imagined” – not by doing anything in particular, just by being around.
And it gets worse. If we are doing more than just being there, there are at least four wayswe could actually be causing wildlife to develop cancer. We humans are it seems “an oncogenic species“. (‘Oncogenic’: tending to cause tumours) Some accolade!
So, time to remove the humans
The No Man’s Lands
1. The Iron Curtain
The Communist Soviet Bloc’s Iron Curtain stretching from “the Barents Sea at the Russian-Norwegian border, along the Baltic Coast, through Central Europe and the Balkans to the Black and the Adriatic Seas,”all 12,500 kilometres of it, holds the record as the longest ever No Man’s Land in the world. This several hundred metres-wide scar of barbed wire, land mines, watchtowers and Kalashnikov-bearing border guards, dividing the whole of Europe and splitting Germany into two opposing camps, forcibly confined its citizens, and kept them from the ‘contamination’ of Western democracy.
The Curtain remained in place for forty years until it finally came down in 1989. And in that time Nature turned what was a fearful zone of death for humans, into a line of life for wild animals, an ecological corridor for wolves, bears, lynx and eagles. Along the 1,400 km strip dividing Germany alone, more than 600 threatened animal and plant species flourished.
Fortunately, conservationists in both the East and the West of the reunited Germany, were themselves united in their desire to keep that space for Nature, to protect this wildlife paradise from the inevitable human tendency to appropriate the land for human ends.
From what had been a symbol of human hostilities was born the European Green Belt, stretching along the borders of 24 states, and proudly owning a sweeter record, the record of being the longest and largest ecological network of its kind in the world.
2. The Korean DMZ
The present day DMZ, the de-militarised zone forcibly separating the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, and the Republic of Korea in the south, is pint-size in comparison. Stretching 250 kilometres from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan, and 4 kilometres wide, it can be seen from space as a green ribbon dividing the Korean peninsula roughly in half.
In all other respects though, with all its layers of razor wire, thousands of land mines and military guards, it bears a grisly resemblance to the former Iron Curtain. And yet, in spite of the DMZ being “steeped in violence” and “one of the most dangerous places on earth”, Nature has reclaimed this symbol of enmity too, and transformed its 1000 sq kilometres into a haven buzzing with biodiversity, with thousands of species, many of which are either already extinct or endangered in both countries.
There are “Manchurian or red crowned cranes and white naped cranes, nearly 100 species of fish, perhaps 45 types of amphibians and reptiles and over 1,000 different insect species. Scientists estimate that over 1,600 types of vascular plants, and more than 300 species of mushroom, fungi and lichen are thriving in the DMZ. Mammals such as the rare Amur goral, Asiatic black bear, musk deer and spotted seal inhabit the DMZ’s land and marine ecosystems. There are even reports of tigers, believed extinct on the peninsula since before Japanese occupation, roaming the DMZ’s mountains.
Right now, North and South are making reconciliatory noises. If the two Koreas decide to reunify, there would be no more need for the deadly DMZ. But the DMZ has become the “ecological treasury” of the two Koreas. And even more completely priceless, since over the last 100 years of almost ceaseless conflict, industrial scale mining, deforestation, and soil pollution, ecosystems are in dire straits on both sides of the divide.
Luckily, as with the former Iron Curtain, scientists and citizens in both the ROK and the DPRK, and elsewhere in the world, recognise the richness of Nature in the DMZ, and have been for some time working hard to safeguard the future of its unique ecology. Moves are afoot to get the DMZ recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. Various NGOs are involved, foremost the DMZ Forumwhose mission is “To support conservation of the unique biological and cultural resources of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone,
“Transforming it from a symbol of war and separation to a place of peace among humans and between humans and nature.”
What better mission could there be.
No Man’s Lands aren’t always borders
1. Take the compound of brutal dictator Idi Amin
The “Butcher of Uganda” was responsible for murdering some 300,000 of his own people. His failed invasion of Tanzania proved to be the last throw of the dice for this unspeakable man, and in 1979 he was forced to flee the country. In the video below we can see for the first time how 40 years of Nature’s handiwork has turned the place where this monster plotted his atrocities into a peaceful wildlife paradise.
And this is not the only place once scarred by his dreadful presence. The beautiful island of Mukusu, a spectacular 23-acre paradise in Lake Victoria was the despot’s combined holiday home and torture camp.
“Henry Kabwgo, a fisherman living in a wooden shack on the island’s main beach, recalled how during fishing trips he would often see bodies bobbing in the lake, dumped from the shore by Amin’s henchmen. Then the crocodiles would eat them.”Unsurprisingly he described Amin as “a terrible man, a savage”.
I have not been able to discover how the island looks in 2019, but photos dated 2005 show Nature’s living cloak of greenery softening the ruins that were once the site of bloody horror.
2. No solid borders divide the ocean
While humans are busy killing each other at sea, they can’t be troubling the fish. Back to WWII once again. Fishing boats were requisitioned and fishermen drafted. And any that were not, would have been foolhardy in the extreme to risk venturing out on to the menacing waters of war. The fish got left in peace. Nature is never slow to seize an opportunity, and fish populations burgeoned.
Not only that, but when warships sank, as many did, they made perfect artificial reefs, rapidly colonised by an abundance of marine life. 52 German warships abandoned on the seabed off the north coast of Scotland for example, “are now thriving marine habitats”. Nature once again creating life from the detritus human hostilities leave behind them.
But to every rule, there has to be an exception. Sometimes Nature can prevail even when there are too many humans
In 1945, a certain school of hungry oceanic whitetips, known to be the most aggressive of all sharks, found themselves a new and plentiful supply of food. No encounter with these animals could be worse surely, than the feeding frenzy that followed the Japanese sinking of the USS Indianapolis near the Philippines. In the 12 minutes it took the warship to founder, 900 sailors made it into the Pacific ocean, but the blood from injured men and the thrashing in the water soon attracted the whitetips.
To begin with they satisfied their hunger only with the dead. But when rescue finally arrived, the survivors had been in the water four whole days, and only 317 remained alive. No-one knows exactly how many men the whitetips devoured, but estimates reckon at least 150. If you have an appetite for reading the gruesome story in full, you can do so here.
The event, though undeniably horrific for those seamen, was spawned by humans’ own enmities, one people against another. But Nature finds a way to transcend the deadly worst we can do to each other, and to her.
“Even out of the trail of destruction we leave behind, Nature – which is so much bigger than the human race – takes over, nurturing life.”
And the answer is ……… (Clue: don’t be fooled by the picture above)
🐾🐾DOGS!🐾🐾 But of course you knew that already, didn’t you?
Well, it’s true for women at least. It’s unclear why a college in New York state opted to research women’s sleep in particular, but research it they did. Their study has the serious and meaningful title “An Examination of Adult Women’s Sleep Quality and Sleep Routines in Relation to Pet Ownership and Bedsharing”
“Compared with human bed partners, dogs who slept in the owner’s bed were perceived to disturb sleep less and were associated with stronger feelings of comfort and security.”
Conversely, cats who slept in their owner’s bed were reported to be equally as disruptive as human partners, and were associated with weaker feelings of comfort and security than both human and dog bed partners.”
So it turns out cats are the worst. Do you think cats care? Course not. They know who really rules the roost. Besides, it’s totally beneath them to compete against lesser beings.
And in any case, it seems women who sleep with their canine friends go to bed earlier and get up earlier. Boring…
With Christmas coming up and another new year about to begin, we may think about adding a fur baby to our family. Here are 8 great reasons to adopt a dog (or a cat, depending on how much sleep we want!)
Who wants to support puppy mills or breeders who are just in it for the money?
Rescue buddies come in all shapes, shades, sizes and personalities – there’s a perfect fit out there for the pooch-shaped hole in our lives
Most ‘pre-owned’ mutts are already house-trained – phew!
Our new bff will already have the vet’s seal approval, and be microchipped, vaccinated, often spayed or neutered
Pure gold as he/she is, our rescue canine will cost a lot less than buying from a store or breeder
We will save a life. In the UK 5,000, in the U.S. 670,000 shelter dogs are euthanised each year. Those are not statistics. Those are doggy individuals with hearts full of love and hope
We can never be lonely with that pup by our side
We will reap all the unquestioning love and devotion brimming from those big brown eyes
And now we have a 9th – they are THE best snuggle-monsters! After all, hasn’t science just proved it?
PS The researchers didn’t question me, but it makes no difference to the results. My little rescue dog – who by day would bite the postman’s ankles if he got half a chance – is by night under the covers snuggled up close, his head on my shoulder – bliss!
“The government’s wish for the UK to become a global leader in free trade is not necessarily compatible with its desire to maintain high animal welfare standards,”The House of Lords subcommittee on EU Energy and Environment
“A coalition of leading environmental groups says there is a ‘significant risk’ that British environmental protections will be reduced after Brexit, despite the government’s positive rhetoric.”
Well, somehow she (and by ‘she’ I mean the woman who wrote into the 2017 Tory manifesto her intention to repeal the ban on fox hunting. Yes, that ‘she’) She somehow got her Brexit through the Cabinet, and the 27 EU states have ceremonially signed it off. The next step is a Parliamentary vote. Who knows what will happen there? And as for after the vote, it’s anyone’s guess.
As the Brexit juggernaut rolls inexorably towards the edge of the cliff, what will it mean for our UK animals and nature?
Here are some disturbing reasons why all animal – and nature-lovers will want to do their damnedest to stop the juggernaut in its tracks, because Brexit is bad news for UK nature and its animals, wherever they are: in labs, in the wild or on farms.
What the EU meant for animal welfare before Brexit
The EU is renowned in the world for its pro-animal stance and high standards of animal welfare. Article 13 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty recognises nonhuman animals as ‘sentient beings’ for whom suffering and distress should be diminished as much as possible. Last year the UK Tory government rejected Article 13 – a foretaste of things to come?
Of our current legislation regulating animal welfare and the environment, 80% comes from our membership of the EU.
Under the Repeal Bill, “All existing EU legislation will be copied across into domestic UK law to ensure a smooth transition on the day after Brexit.The UK Parliament can then ‘amend, repeal and improve’ individual laws as necessary.”
It’s increasingly unlikely that all these laws can be adequately translated into UK law without the access we previously had to EU organisations, and against the ticking Brexit clock. “Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Andrea Leadsom admitted that about a third of environmental laws … could not initially be brought into UK legislation.”
And “MPs fear ministers may use the process of adapting those laws to chip away environmental protections.” This is a government that favours deregulation to give greater freedom to business. In this respect Theresa May and Donald Trump do indeed hold hands. Nature and animals will be the losers.
Additionally, the Commons Environmental Audit Committee fears EU legislation that does get adopted into UK law could become ‘zombie legislation’, no longer subject to EU updates and with no regulatory bodies to see it enforced.
The Birds and Habitats Directives which protect wild birds and Britain’s most important wildlife and plant habitats will not be adopted into UK law, even if the UK remains in the Single Market. A report on the directives “warns that this could have potentially far-reaching negative consequences for the UK’s biodiversity.”
Bowing under pressure from farmers, the Tories have already expressed opposition to the EU’s strict regulation of GM crops, chemicals and neonicotinoid pesticides – all of which can devastate insect life and the animals that feed on them. At present the European courts and the European Commission enforce these laws. After Brexit there will be nothing to stop deregulation.
The Common Agricultural Policy
No-one denies the CAP needs reforming. Farmers hate it and its complex regulations. But, the CAP provides 60% of farmers’ income. And under the 2013 EU “Greening” initiative, farmers are financially incentivised to use their land sustainably, and care for natural resources.
“Under the new [2013 Greening] rules, farmers receiving payments help conserve the environment and contribute to addressing greenhouse emissions by:
making soil & ecosystems more resilient by growing a greater variety of crops
conserving soil carbon & grassland habitats associated with permanent grassland
protecting water & habitats by establishing ecological focus areas.”
MPs are calling for a new UK Environmental Protection Act as part of Brexit. The Tory manifesto last year promised to make the UK environment greener after Brexit than EU regulations left it. But it’s hard to see that happening. In view of this government’s continual capitulation to pressure from the farming community, most notably by rolling out again this year (the 6th) an horrendous cull of a much-loved and protected species, the badger, in 32 areas across 10 counties, ignoring the science, the data, much expert advice, and public opinion … Well, I can’t even finish the sentence.
“When a government dares to call its concrete-grey Autumn Budget environmentally “green” because of its initiative to plant a few trees alongside its billion pounds worth of road infrastructures, and when that government can barely agree on whether the cruel practice of fox hunting should be allowed, all hope is lost for the safety and welfare of animals.”
Our new trading partners
Failing a decent trade agreement with Brussels, the UK is looking to the USA as a major trading partner. The US his already dictated its terms – no trade unless we eliminate our “unjustified sanitary restrictions”.
Not wanting to jeopardise our chances of a deal with America, a possible future lifeline in the event of a bad Brexit, the Home Office “have failed to write-up any legally bindingcommitments that uphold food hygiene and humane animal treatment post-Brexit. Horror stories of chlorine washed chicken, ractopamine riddled pigs and hormone enhanced beef hitting British shores may be closer than we think.”
The infographic below reveals some of the barbarity of the treatment of animals on American factory farms
If you’re not already acquainted with US farming methods, let me tell you I doubt you can imagine a worse hell. Check for yourself here.
From the Brexit referendum’s results day, the pound declined in value. If we get as far as actual Brexit Day, March 29th 2019, we will see the pound plummet, sucking into the country a flood of products from unethically, inhumanely-reared animals . (Not that I will ever concede there is such a thing as humane farming of animals. Apart from anything that happens to them in the short time they are allowed to live, those lives all end in the bloody horror of the slaughterhouse. There are though, degrees of suffering.)
UK farmers will be unable to compete without a significant lowering of their own animal welfare standards, the standards at present required of them by the EU.
Farms in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire – PETA
If this is what it’s like now, how much lower can they go?
In addition, in the face of ever-decreasing profit margins farmers will strongly resist legislative attempts to protect the welfare of farmed animals post-Brexit. The animals will be “collateral damage”.
Levels of poverty in the UK are already “staggering” according to UN rapporteur Philip Alston. He found 1.5 million of our citizens destitute and 14 million living in poverty. Food bank use reached its highest rate on record this year. Our own Treasury has predicted that under all possible Brexit scenarios we will be worse off in 15 years time. All of which means that people will be looking for the cheapest possible food, however dodgily produced. Concerns for animal welfare will be a luxury many can no longer afford.
On many farms between 40 – 58% of the workforce are EU nationals. The labour shortage created by their disappearance will push agricultural workers’ wages up, putting further financial pressure on farmers. They will look for any way possible to cut costs, and may well resort to cutting welfare corners to the detriment of the animals.
A staggering 90% of vets working in the UK are EU nationals. The British Veterinary Association warns of a severe shortage of qualified vets post-Brexit. That is not good news for any UK animal.
After Brexit, because of the change in regulations for trading with Europe, more not fewer Official Vets will be needed to supervise imports and exports and sign health certificates for live animals. Doesn’t this acute shortage of properly qualified personnel mean that whatever animal protections there are supposedly in place, are going to pass by unchecked and unenforced?
“Deregulating trade while curbing immigration would lead to a sharp decline in animal welfare. When immigration is curbed and access to dedicated workers is stifled, the situation for the UK’s voiceless and defenceless creatures is bleak.”
Last year Michael Gove claimed that the EU was holding us back from banning live exports.
Would a Tory government fly in the face of its supporters in the farming community to enforce such a ban? Even if they did, which seems highly unlikely, now ‘free’ of EU regulations the UK would be subject to World Trade Organisation rules instead. And they do not allow for such a ban. If you voted for Brexit hoping to see an end to this cruel trade, I’m sorry to disappoint.
Cruelty Free International are worried that “a no-deal Brexit could mean that the UK would need to carry out the same animal tests for chemical registration as the EU. This would mean twice as many animals would suffer. If existing EU animal-test data is not shared with the UK, then the same animal tests would have to be carried out again by the UK for the same information.”
At a time when without Brexit the number of laboratory procedures continues to rise, that just does not bear thinking about. NatureWatch echoes CFI’s concerns and urges the government “to ensure that re-testing does not take place and that existing testing data can be used in the UK.”
The present EU pet passport system is being extensively abused by criminal gangs smuggling puppies with fake passports into the UK and other countries. The government has pledged to stamp out this cruel trade. Perhaps the only good news to come out of Brexit. Although…
In all the years we have been an EU member state, the government could have eliminated this problem anyway with better UK border checks. Plus, it’s hard to imagine this will be a high priority for the Tories in a post-Brexit Britain.
One final reason to reject May’s Brexit on behalf of our animals
Many animal advocacy organisations are either already working on a Europe-wide basis, or are starting to join forces with their european counterparts.
“There are always, due to their popularity and short life spans, many beloved dogs dying — and many families grieving.”
– John Woestendiek, author of ‘Dog Inc, The Uncanny Inside Story of Cloning Man’s Best Friend’
The worst thing that can befall a mother or father is losing a child, of whatever age. Even worse is losing a child to suicide. But that is what happened to photographer Monni Must. When Monni’s 28-year-old daughter Miya took her own life, left behind was Billy Bean, Miya’s young and lively black Labrador.
Naturally, Monni took Billy Bean into her care. The connection with Miya and the love of the dog provided comfort for her in her grief. But as the 10th anniversary of Miya’s death approached, and Billy by now 13, was getting increasingly frail –
“I knew that I was falling apart,” said Must. “The thought of Billy dying was just more than I could handle.”
So she took the radical step of having Billy cloned. It cost upwards of $50,000, and her family thought she’d lost her mind. For her money she got Gunni, essentially an identical twin of Billy, but a puppy version. It would be a hard-hearted person indeed who could sit in judgement.
Cloning dogs seems to be flavour of the month. It’s only a week or so since Barbra Streisand was roasted in the media after her public appearance with Miss Violet and Miss Scarlet, two clones from her beloved but now deceased Coton de Tulear Samantha.
The Guardian newspaper for one made no bones about its disapprobation. It even used the ‘t-word’, overused currency in the tabloids, but as a rule carefully avoided by the broadsheets – “AModern Tragedy” its headline read. It went on, “To own an animal is to learn about the inevitability of dying – not that loved ones can be replicated if we cough up the cash.”
Streisand’s celebrity status may have turned the spotlight on this relatively new business enterprise, but cloning other animals has been a thing for years – since 1996 in fact when the creation of Dolly the sheep made waves. It took another decade for South Korean scientists to bring to birth Snuppy, the first cloned dog.
Of course cloning is not the only form of bioengineering current. There is also CRISPR. In the simplest of terms that I can understand, it means cutting out a section of the DNA double helix (see below) with something called Cas9 – biological scissors, in effect – and replacing the removed section with a new piece of DNA- which can be just about anything the scientists want it to be.
A US company called AgGenetics using gene-editing has produced mice with coats in different colours, and unbelievably, in a variety of patterns: squares, stripes and spots. Next stop – choose your preferred colourway and pattern for your own customised dog?
China, “where genetic engineers benefit from massive facilities and little oversight,” is ‘leading’ the CRISPR field for producing customised animals.Chineselabs “are full of cats, rabbits, monkeys, and other animals engineered with this, that and the other traits.” Already on sale are micropigs, gene-edited to grow only to “the apartment-appropriate size of a corgi”, if you have $1,600 dollars to spare. A bargain compared with the cost of a cloned dog though. Also up for grabs are fluorescent jellyfish and sea anemones, gene-edited to light up your aquarium.
“How much more would owners pay for the ultimate luxury: an animal designed to specification? A zebra-striped hamster, say, or a teacup elephant? ” Anything is possible, but does that make it right?
CRISPR sits along a different branch of bioengineering from cloning. If anything, its potential applications are even more disturbing, but a discussion for another day.
So back to cloning. What are the rights and wrongs of cloning, cloning our pets in particular? Is this yet another instance of science racing ahead at such speed it’s leaving the ethics trailing in the dust?
Some of the problems, practical and ethical
If your beloved Fido or Felix is growing grey around the muzzle and a little stiff in the joints, and you have the spare cash to go down the cloning route, you may end up disappointed with the result. Yes, cloning does produce an identical twin, a newborn one of course, but some things are not infallibly reproduced. The personality for a start, but isn’t that what we most love about our pets? You will not actually be getting, as you had hoped, your fur baby reborn in a new incarnation. Even the coat may be different. Worse, there is also the likelihood of reproducing genetic flaws.
Vicki Katrinak, program manager for animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States has something to say on the matter:
Companies that clone animals are “preying on grieving pet owners, giving them a false promise that they are going to replicate their beloved pet,” she told AFP. “Pet cloning doesn’t replicate a pet’s personality.” Incidentally adding “There is no justification for the practice.”
That you cannot count on getting the exact replica of your pet is actually the least of the concerns around pet cloning.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) president Ingrid Newkirk said she would “love to have talked her [Barbra Streisand] out of cloning,” noting that “millions of wonderful adoptable dogs are languishing in animal shelters every year or dying in terrifying ways when abandoned.”
To visit a dog or cat shelter is a heartbreaking experience. All those fur babies waiting for a loving home, and ready to love a new family right back with unquestioning devotion. Isn’t it cruelty by default to artificially create more, when there are thousands, if not millions of beautiful animals, desperate for our love and care – many of which will be euthanised because no-one came forward for them in time?
All the other problematic aspects of cloning pets become apparent when we take a look at how the process works:-
You start by harvesting cells from the dog you want to clone. You can do this before or after the pet’s death, up to 5 days after provided the corpse is kept cool. (If you’re starting to feel a little squeamish already, brace yourself. It gets worse.)
Extract egg cells from as many donor dogs as you can get hold of. (To create Snuppy the world’s first cloned dog, Korean scientists surgically removed eggs from 115 female dogs.)
Merge your original dog cells and the egg and subject the new merged entity to chemicals and an electric shock to trigger cell division. You will have to do this multiple times to ensure success – hence the requirement for all those ‘donated’ eggs.
Implant the resulting embryos into surrogate female dogs. You will need lots of them. For Snuppy, it took 120. The bitches won’t be able to object of course. You will be using all those bodies for the pregnancies and births.
Oh, and I forgot to mention, you will probably have to abort a lot of the 120 foetuses along the way. Still keen to continue?
It can still go wrong. An American cloning company’s president cited a clone who was supposed to be black and white being born “greenish-yellow,” dogs born with skeletal malformations and one clone of a male dog who was born with both male and female sex organs. If that should happen while cloning your pet, what should we do with the less than perfect?
Even after eliminating the ‘failures’, there are still a massive number of ‘surplus’ clones from which you have chosen the one or two who truly resemble your original pet. What shall we do with the rest?
The cloning industry is staying mute on what are surely two huge ethical issues.
Maybe even grieving Monni Must may have thought better of cloning Billy Bean if she’d realised what went on behind the scenes. As with every instance without exception where humans make money from exploiting animals (and often other humans at the same time) the profiteers take great pains to keep their activities under wraps. They are fully aware of what would be an absolutelynormal reaction to their exploitation/abuse – public outrage. Out of sight is indeed out of mind.
“I’m Matteo and I’m a professional photographer. I’ve always been fascinated by the beauty of birds. In 2013 I decided to go in search of a Concincina as a pet for my studio garden in Milan.
“That very same day, hen Jessicah stole my heart.
“My friend and work partner Moreno joined me in this passion/madness and we started to take pictures of literally hundreds of chickens and roosters.
“Just look at them. They are beautiful. And they know it.” Matteo Tranchellini, photographer
Don’t they just! Enjoy more of their gorgeousness as depicted by Matteo below, interspersed with (hopefully) interesting insights into the person that is the hen
If these stunning photos were not a good enough reason in themselves to throw the spotlight on to hens and roosters, one more could be that these sweet and fascinating birds, especially those of less exotic breeds than those captured by Matteo’s lens, are sadly overlooked and underrated. So that’s two. Another reason I’ll come to shortly.
Each of my own feathery girls, Rosa, Juliet and Tiddlo, had a definite and distinct personality – which would come as no surprise to anyone who has had the pleasure of sharing companionship with hens. Tiddlo was ring leader and bold as brass. She led the charge of the troops into the house whenever the back door was open. Back in the garden, collie dog Jim would put his jaws around her neck and shake her gently from side to side. She was quite unfazed. Back on terra firma and with barely a ruffled feather she’d carry on where she left off, scratching at the grass for tasty bugs and worms. All three have long since moved on to contented clucking in hen heaven.
You’ll notice I’m choosing not to call hens ‘chickens.’ This is how the dictionary defines ‘chicken’:
See that? They define this living, breathing, thinking, feeling creature only in terms of a commodity. But we know better.
So what doesn’t the dictionary know about hens?
1 As I mentioned, hens have personalities
Some are a little nervy and jumpy like Rosa, others curious and bold like Tiddlo. We may find one hen gregarious, and another aggressive. Some love human company, some are more standoffish. Like dogs or cats and (unlike children!) many will answer to their names and come when they’re called.
2 Hens are brainy
Far from being birdbrained or featherbrained (where did that notion come from?) hens can outperform dogs, cats and 4 year old kids in some intelligence tests. As Dr Christine Nicol says, “Studies over the past 20 years have… revealed their finely-honed sensory capacities, their ability to think, draw inferences, apply logic and plan ahead.” (Delighted to see that Christine, author of review paper ‘The Intelligent Hen’, agrees with me on the preferred name for the animal!)
In one test, hens were taught that if they refuse a food reward in the present, they will receive more food later on. Remarkably, or maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at their good sense and patience, ninety-three percent of the birds chose to hold out for the later but better option.
In this sweet short video, watch Little Miss Sunshine show off her talents
Hens are curious and like to investigate new things. Hens learn from observing the successes and failures of each other, and pass cultural knowledge down through the generations. They ‘get’ cause and effect. They realise that objects still exist even when hidden from sight.
3. Hens talk
Don’t you just love that clucking! It’s the most soothing sound. But it’s a lot more than just a comforting, homely noise in the background. Researchers have identified at least 30 different kinds of vocalisations hens make. Amazingly hens have one cluck for a threat coming their way over land and a different cluck for danger approaching by water. A mother hen even talks to the developing chick inside her egg, and the unhatched chick talks right back to mum. Wouldn’t it be lovely to know what they are saying to each other.
4. They have their own complex society
– that is if humans allow them the kind of life that Nature intended – the well-known pecking order in which each hen knows its own rung on the social ladder. Hens can know the faces of more than a hundred other hens and remember where each one’s place is on that ladder.
“The social and emotional lives of chickens are no less impressive than their plumage”
5. Just like us, they have deep feelings
They love their families. Nigh on 2000 years ago Plutarch remarked,“What of the hens whom we observe each day at home, with what care and assiduity they govern and guard their chicks? Some let down their wings for the chicks to come under; others arch their backs for them to climb upon; there is no part of their bodies with which they do not wish to cherish their chicks if they can, nor do they do this without a joy and alacrity which they seem to exhibit by the sound of their voices.”Mother Hens par excellence!
They sometimes find true love. While it’s more usual for a rooster to mate with several hens, it has been known for a rooster and a hen to form a profound and unshakeable bond of love. Read the deeply moving story of Libby and Louie, one such pair for whom existence without the other would have been but as the dust they scratched in .
As well as caring for their families, they also look out for the other hens in their group. They can forge lasting friendships, and like to hang out with their best buddies. And sometimes the buddies are not other hens! Thousands have already seen this beautiful 14 second video, but a second, third or fourth viewing still melts the heart.
6Hens’ calming influence has not gone unnoticed.
Now we have ‘therapy hens’.Inmates of Scotland’s Saughton and England’s Holloway Prisons enjoy their soothing presence. “[The birds] have got such a therapeutical effect on you so it’s brilliant,”said one of the inmates working on the Saughton project. “It puts more light into every day.” The Holloway hens are rescues, restored to good health by the prisoners.
These wonderful animals are also working their magic among children, the elderly and the mentally ill. We hope the interaction is mutually beneficial.
7 Sleeping with a hen next to your bed helps prevent malaria, dengue fever and zika
Yes, truly. A study was conducted in Ethiopian villages and found that Anopheles arabiensis, one of the main mosquito species spreading malaria in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization, was repelled by chicken odour. Although it’s early days, the research could pave the way for a chicken-scent repellent being introduced on the market – Take Part
Now we come to number 8 – and this tragic fact is my other reason for putting hens in the spotlight today – though this is less about them and more about we humans:
Many billions of farmed animals are killed for food each year, virtually all having been bred for that sole purpose. Chickens account for the largest number of these animals, with an estimated 20 billion slaughtered annually.There are almost triple the number of chickens as there are humans in the world – Faunalytics
The photo below is a far cry from Matteo’s wonderful portraits, but this is the terrible fate of billions of these wonderful animals across the globe each and every year.
Notice no roosters. This article in the Independent explains why.
What Professor of Veterinary Science John Webster has to say about modern chicken production can scarcely be denied:
“In magnitude and severity [it is] the single most severe systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient being.”
Remember Little Miss Sunshine? She was one of the lucky few saved from just such a place as that, and went from spent battery hen to TV star. How awesome it would have been to see Matteo’s pictorial take on this little lady, but she’s moved on now to sprinkle her sunshine in the green fields of hen heaven.
For everyone who would like to see the world a kinder, friendlier place – if you haven’t already, take the first step and leave these incredible underrated animals, and their eggs, off your plate.
“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!