“For 10 long years, a bachelor lived out his days alone, calling out for a mate, but hearing only the clicks of cameras and clacks of human shoes at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny in Bolivia.”
Credit: Matias Careaga, Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny
But two years ago, the forlorn fellow gave up all hope of finding his perfect match and fell silent. This is Romeo pictured above (sorry, cover photo is not him – it’s a cheat!) He’s a very special guy, a sehuencas water frog, and like George the Hawaiian snail who sadly crossed the rainbow bridge this week, the last of his kind.
That is until now. Last year, with a little help from his friends, Romeo posted his profile on Match.com in search of a mate. He describes himself’ as “a pretty simple guy. I tend to keep to myself and love spending nights at home. I also love eating. Then again, who doesn’t?” Scientists with the Global Wildlife Conservation and the museum where our hero resides used his alluring profile to generate funds for a new expedition into the Bolivian cloud forest in search of that special someone for this solitary little guy. They scoured an area suggested by locals, searching in the water and under rocks, and very nearly gave up.
Finally, their persistence paid off, and they found Romeo not one, but five new buddies, including two females, and one of those just the right age for our Romeo.
But the lonesome bachelor has yet to be introduced to his date, and must wait a little longer. Juliet and the other sehuencas are in quarantine for a while. His profile claims he’s “not picky”, but who knows, there’s still a chance he may not fall for her.
Just in case there’s no chemistry between the pair, the scientists have contingency plans. One way or another, the hope is to breed enough sehuencas babies to reintroduce them to the wild.
Watch this space for the next episode in the life and times of Romeo, the Bolivian sehuencas water frog.
“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.
3 months ago Wisdom, the world’s oldest known living wild bird laid an egg, to add to her tally of 36 she has notched up over her nearly 7 decades.
3 months is a lot of sitting on an egg, but Wisdom’s diligence has been rewarded – now the great day has come, and she is proud mum once again to a fluffy little Laysan albatross chick.
What perfect timing – Happy Mother’s Day Wisdom!
Wisdom was believed to be just five-years-old when she was first banded back in 1956 by biologist Chandler Robbins when Midway Atoll was an active U.S. Naval Air Station. In 2002 Robbins encountered her again by chance and her story took off.
Wisdom flies thousands of miles every year to return to Midway Atoll, the breeding site for millions of birds. It is the largest population of albatross on earth: 73 percent of all Laysan albatross, 36 percent of all Black-footed albatross and endangered Short-tailed albatross.
“Midway Atoll’s habitat doesn’t just contain millions of birds, it contains countless generations and families of albatrosses” said Kelly Goodale, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge Biologist. “If you can imagine when Wisdom returns home she is likely surrounded by what were once her chicks and potentially their chicks. What a family reunion!”
Credit: B. Peyton/USFWS Pacific Region
The main threats to these birds – on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species – are entanglement in fishing tackle, and swallowing plastic.
It will be another 4 months before Wisdom’s newest baby will fledge. Until then she and her mate Mr Goo have their work cut out avoiding those dangers and providing all the food that a growing chick requires.
Long may you flourish Wisdom and Mr Goo, and continue gracing the world with your beautiful offspring.
Please help Wisdom and all life in the oceans by signing and sharing these petitions – thank you!
If ever a story was compelling us humans to acknowledge as persons not property the other animals with which we share the planet, this one in yesterday’s email from Wildlife SOS is it
Several days ago we lost our dear, dear elephant friend, Lakhi. We cannot express the heaviness of our hearts this week. But we want to celebrate and remember Lakhi’s life, and perhaps the best person to do that is our Elephant Campaign Manager, Rhea Lopez. She was one of the many people who knew and loved Lakhi, and was lucky enough to spend time with her regularly. These are her words:
In February 2015 when Lakhi arrived at the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre, she was more than 60 years old, a blind, former-begging elephant rescued from the streets of the city of Pune. She seemed timid and nervous – blindness is an added burden for captive elephants that can never really tell where the next blow will come from. The touch of human hands caused her to recoil fearfully, too scared even to investigate new smells or people.
Then Lakhi met Asha. “I’ve never seen two elephants get along so spontaneously”, her mahout Babulai recalls. “They were complete strangers, but from the first day itself, they knew – and we knew – this friendship was going to be something unlike we’d ever seen before.”
With Lakhi under her care, Asha blossomed into the matriarchal role she seemed destined for, standing protectively over Lakhi when she lay down and using an astonishing array of sound cues to call her and comfort her.
We called Lakhi “the Banana Thief” because she made her adoration for the fruit obvious from the day we first met her, sneaking her trunk out toward the smell and gingerly plucking her favourite treats from the bundle and swiftly putting them in her mouth. Her keeper was always happy to oblige, and would call out to her when he approached with a bunch of bananas, breaking them off as he fed her each piece and talked quietly to her. Between her keeper and Asha, Lakhi’s world came alive through conversations, in human voices and elephant rumbles, and through the myriad of new smells and sensations she experienced over her time at the Care Centre.
She discovered the soothing effect of cool water against her skin and the weightlessness of being in the water, the delightful roughness of tree bark against itchy skin, the warm sun on her back, and the coziness of her winter blankets when the temperature dipped. Slowly she learned what kinder hands felt like, allowing her keepers and the vets to run their palms along her trunk as they spoke to her, or guide her gently as they went on long walks. But I think the sensation that gave her the most joy was always that of Asha’s trunk running along her face, touching her lightly our on walks, just to reassure Lakhi that she was there and keeping a watchful eye on her.
When Coco came, Lakhi’s world grew even brighter. Timid and fearful little Coco had been deprived a mother for her entire life., but Lakhi stepped into the role with absolute ease. She never hesitated to seek Coco out when the younger elephant cried, or to stay close by her side out on walks, occasionally enveloping the smaller elephant with her trunk in a safe embrace. As if taking a cue from Asha, Lakhi made sure that Coco always felt safe and loved, and stood protectively over her whenever she lay down for a nap.
Lakhi was an incredible elephant – she was already tall but she held her head up high, which added to the effect. Despite her gaunt frame, she seemed to take over the space she was in with an aura that engulfed you and instantly put you at ease. She was calm, and enjoyed her walks and baths so much that it was incredibly easy to work with her.. New mahouts that joined Wildlife SOS would always start off working with her and the herd, so in a way, she initiated everyone into their lives at the Care Centre. She was the starting point to all of their journeys here, touching and easing us in.
The thing about caring for older elephants is that it is that much harder to treat them: their bodies have been ravaged by cruelty for decades, and they just don’t heal as easily. And somewhere deep inside, you know you don’t have as much time to heal them fully, and need to focus on making sure the few years they have left are the most incredible, peaceful ones they could ever dream of.
With time, Lakhi’s age caught up with her, and she showed signs of slowing down; old injuries got inflamed, and she seemed to prefer resting against the mud beds in her enclosure. Late Saturday evening on the 3rd March, she seemed more weary than usual, and even as her knees buckled under her, Asha and Coco rushed to her side to support her. Asha appeared calm and strong, as if she knew in her own way that this was it – Coco panicked initially, rushing about and running circles around her fallen friend. The team rushed in and the crane was called in to lift Lakhi back to her feet, and even the young elephants seemed uncharacteristically calm. Maybe they knew, maybe they realised it was time to let go and had their chance to say their goodbyes, and wanted to let her pass in peace. Lakhi resisted being lifted, as if she too knew her time had come. She let out her final breath and slumped down against the mud bed, eyes shut, looking completely at peace. As the team moved away, heartbroken, Asha rumbled loudly from where she was standing, but none of the elephants moved. Coco let out a small wail, and from every enclosure elephants responded softly with rumbles, trumpets and huffs – all the way from the bulls to the closer-by females like Phoolkali – in what seemed like an orchestra of calm, reassuring solidarity for their fallen friend.
Lakhi’s burial was simple but poignant. Her keepers adorned her with flowers and lit incense and earthen lamps around her, each taking a moment to touch her one last time, paying their respects through silent prayers and whispered words. Her burial stood testament to how many lives she had touched during her three years at the Rescue Centre. So many journeys had started with this wonderful elephant, and now her journey had come to an end, leaving a huge gap in all our lives.
Lakhi’s post-mortem report revealed her cause of death to be organ deterioration and joint degradation due to her advanced age and her 60 years in captivity. These are things we could never have completely undone, and although her passing was sudden, it must have ben time for her gentle soul to leave the tortured body that had housed it all those years.
Lakhi leaves behind broken hearts around the world, starting here. Asha refused to eat the entire day, refused to budge from the spot on which she last lay. She’s been listless and mournful, albeit quiet – running her trunk through the mud and letting out the most heartbreaking guttural rumbling sounds every few minutes. Every so often, Coco, Peanut, or Suzy will respond to her. Once in a while another elephant will rumble back. Asha’s keeper stands beside her, talking to her and trying in his own way to comfort her. He hand-fed her a bucket of greens last night, which she ate slowly and sadly. He talks to her awhile about Lakhi – about ow beautiful and calm she was, how incredible their friendship was, and how much he missed her too. He tried calling her into the shade, but Asha remained rooted to the spot her friend had passed.
In the evening an incredible storm hit the centre with strong gusts of wind and pouring rain- completely uncharacteristic of this time of the year. Someone said that Lakhi sent the rain to us and all the elephants for a little respite from the incoming summer, to settle the dust and clean the air. The weather is cooler today, and Asha and the other elephants seem calmer, though Asha still lets out the intermittent sigh or rumble.
It will take time for the sadness to lift, and for any semblance of normalcy to return to our lives here. We mourn Lakhi, the kind soul that defined so many of our lives. Coco mourns the mother she was to her. The other elephants mourn their fellow elephant. And Asha, mourns everything that made her life at the Rescue Centre complete – her touch, her smell, her joy and sadness and fear, her very presence, and her unwavering friendship that has so defined Asha’s life here.
We know you are all mourning her too, and we ask that you keeep Lakhi in your thoughts always – but remember her free and happy, surrounded by elephants that were her family.
If you can hug, ride, touch or take a photo with an elephant, the chances are that it has gone through some kind of cruel training.
Baby elephants taken from their mothers, beaten, chained, deprived of sleep and denied food and water in a horrific ordeal known as “the crush” – and then face a lifetime of suffering, just to entertain tourists.
If you never had the Japanese down as a nation of animal-lovers, get this – on the Japanese rail network Animals Rule.
Monkeys, dogs, goats, lobsters (lobsters?!) and a tortoise proudly hold the official title of stationmaster at rail depots around the country. The most famous to occupy the post in recent years was a cat called Tama, who died in 2015 at the good old age of 16. Her funeral ‘was attended by thousands of local commuters and admirers hailing from near and far. Following a period of mourning, the newly minted Honorable Eternal Stationmaster was replaced by Nitama, a former apprentice of Tama who beat out other candidates for the job partially based on her “willingness to wear a hat.”‘
The only thing vaguely similar of which we can boast here in the UK, is the day last April when a large herd of cows took it upon themselves to congregate on Hever station platform in Kent. Strangely, in spite of having a wealth of applicants to choose from, Network Rail declined to appoint any of them to their staff.
But Network Rail does have one heartening animal trick up its sleeve. Paradoxical, startling, but nonetheless true – the rail network and surrounding land managed by NR is possibly the most biodiverse wildlife haven in the UK. An unseen Shangri-la for rare and endangered species such as the large blue butterfly, the dormouse, the osprey, the natterjack toad and the great crested newt. If we were permitted access, which of course we are not, we might also find an abundance of lizards, grass snakes, slow worms, water voles, deer, foxes, badgers, and bats.
But – and it’s a very big but – the network is both haven and hazard. Between 2003/4 and 2013/14 the number of animals struck by trains tripled, and the unfortunate animals logging up the highest death count are deer.
“Deer have excellent peripheral vision, but most deer incidents take place while the beasts are traversing the railway as part of their natural movement pattern between habitats at dawn/dusk – a time when more trains are running as part of the morning and evening peaks.”¹
What is Network Rail doing to prevent animals getting on the tracks?
Not an awful lot it seems. They “educate land owners about the dangers and disruption caused by animal incursions, emphasising the need to keep gates securely closed and encouraging them to use additional measures such as electric fencing.”
And that’s it. Good as far as it goes, and fine for domestic animals: horses, sheep and cattle – but if we look for NR’s ideas on keeping deer and other wildlife off the tracks, we draw a blank. This in spite of their desire to minimise collisions and costly disruptions to the rail timetable.
Over in Japan, they do things differently
Yes, certainly there is the same imperative not to let collisions with animals mess up the schedule. (Magnify that sixty-fold. The Japanese don’t have a name for super-efficiency for nothing, and Japanese trains are precise to the second. Last November a rail company felt compelled to issue a public apology for one of its trains departing 20 seconds early, at 9.44.20, instead of 9.44.40 – can you imagine it!)
And yes, as in the UK, the most frequent victims of death by train are deer. The deer are “reportedly attracted to the lines due to a need for iron in their diets, licking up small iron filings left behind by the grinding of train wheels on the tracks.”
But in Japan it’s not just about the timetable. As their unlikely choice of stationmasters/mistresses attest, in the world of the locomotive the Japanese have a care for animals. And that extends to the wild kind, whose interaction with trains is too often fatal.
Creatures as small as turtles can come a cropper, as well as cause delays, so one rail company has worked with wildlife experts to create safe crossings in the form of special turtle trenches running underneath the tracks. Rail workers even carry out regular inspections to see if the little guys need an extra helping hand.
For the bigger animals the usual ropes, fences, and flashing lights have all been tried – without success. Now, displaying a creativity sadly lacking in Network Rail, the Japanese are coming up with all kinds of imaginative ways to prevent costly timetable disruptions and animal deaths.
One of the most out there was someone’s brainwave of mixing water with lion dung garnered from a safari park, and spraying the solution along the track. Hey presto, it worked! Not one deer was run over. Even though Japanese deer have never seen a lion, it seems they recognise the smell of an apex predator when they come across it.
The dung spray though 100% effective, did have several drawbacks:
The spraying was very labour-intensive, impractical on a larger scale
It got washed away in the rain
And finally, it REEKED! Railway staff, passengers, and folk living near the line alike, all complained
Based on the observation that the deer are drawn to the iron from the lines, one company developed another effective method to divert the deer – definitely less off-the-wall and decidedly less offensive than the lion poop – ‘yukuru’, simple salt-lick blocks containing the vital ingredient iron.
When it really hit home
One night in 2015 a family of deer were crossing the tracks when a young fawn at the rear of the group was struck by a train and killed. Yuji Hikita, an employee of Kintetsu Railway Co. saw it happening. And continued to watch while a parent deer stood motionless, staring down at the fallen fawn for a full 40 minutes. After witnessing the whole heart-wrenching scene, he determined to find a way to stop such a sorrowful event happening again.
Hikita’s focus was on finding a way to help the deer cross the tracks in safety, rather than simply blocking them out.
He made an on-the-ground study of the deers’ movements. Finding hoof prints and dung (deer droppings, not lion!) helped him establish which spots the animals used as crossing points. The line was enclosed with 2 metre-high netting, but crossing places were left open. In the crossing gaps, ultrasonic waves formed temporary barriers at the riskiest times, dawn and dusk, but were switched off overnight when the trains stopped running.
The ultrasonic waves, inaudible to us, have the advantage of not being a terribleassault on human senses like the lion poop.
Hikita’s ingenious plan won him a 2017 Good Design Award.“This is an excellent example of how railway companies can tackle the deer-train collision problem from the deer’s perspective,” a judge for the Good Design Award said in 2017, “and it owes to the countless number sacrificed in the accidents.”
Meanwhile researchers at the RTRI (Railway Technical Research Institute) have been testing trains that snort like a deer and bark like a dog. With the usual Japanese precision and attention to detail, the formula is thus: a three-second burst of deer-snort noises, followed by 20 seconds of dog-barking.
The deer-snorting noises replicate deer’s alarm warnings to each other, which would alert any real deer getting too close to the tracks. The dogs’ barking finishes the job by scaring them away. And the snort-bark formula works. In fact, it’s proving so successful the Institute is considering setting up stationary snort-bark devices along the tracks near crossing places favoured by the deer.
Last week my heart broke. It was the story of poor Nigel the New Zealand gannet that did it. Nigel arrived on the remote island of Mana in 2013, and there he lived entirely alone for 4 long years. Years he spent earnestly courting an unresponsive concrete replica gannet and making her a nest.
“Nigel was observed caring for the concrete replica. He would groom the statue and chat with it; Nigel even constructed a nest made of twigs, seaweed and mud for it.
2 weeks ago he died, his love and faithfulness never requited.
How did this happen? A concrete replica gannet?
New Zealand has a major conservation problem with invasive species. Rats and possums, not native to the country, kill 26 million of the nation’s birds every year. NZ is pulling out all the stops to eradicate the invasive predators, and the easiest places to start are the many small islands dotted around the mainland coast – like Nigel’s Mana Island.
Well-meaning conservationists in their wisdom went one step further. What better way to lure gannets to the now predator-free island than by duping them into think other gannets had already discovered it as a great place to nest. For Nigel, the well-intentioned ruse tragically backfired.
Fate threw one last cruel twist into Nigel’s sad story. Weeks before he passed away, 3 new gannets did arrive on the island. There was hope. But Nigel showed no interest in them or they in him. Is it too fanciful to suggest the lonely gannet died of a broken heart?
Romeo – a super-rare Sehuencas water frog – was discovered in the depths of Bolivia 10 years ago, and consequently found himself transported to what I sincerely hope is a deluxe frog tank at Cochabamba Natural History Museum, as befits an amphibian of his importance. Ever since the move, he’s been calling plaintively for a mate. But although all that time conservationists have been scouring streams and rivers far and wide, not so much as a tadpole of his species have they found.
Sehuencas frogs are reckoned to live about 15 years – Romeo could well be reaching the end of his days. The matter is urgent. Arturo Munoz, a scientist with Global Wildlife Conservation says, “We don’t want him to lose hope.”
So they came up with the genius idea of creating a profile for him on the dating site Match. He has an unusually musical mating call, and ‘describes himself’ as “a pretty simple guy. I tend to keep to myself and love spending nights at home. I also love eating. Then again, who doesn’t?”
Of course, it’s unlikely Romeo will find his Valentine on Match, but GWC hope the profile will generate funds on the lonely frog’s behalf, to expedite the search for that special one – any one – in the waters of his native land. Read more about the charismatic amphibian here and help find him his perfect Valentine here.
Yes, It’s Hard to Find a Mate When You’re One-of-a-Kind
Then there is Jeremy the ‘Shellebrity’ Snail – another lonely heart. Though just a humble garden snail, he had a certain something that set him apart from the rest. He became a super-star with his own Twitter account, but failed (almost) entirely to find love.
Discover what made Jeremy so special, and read about his life and loves here
Though we all long to feel the warm glow of basking in our Valentine’s love, there are times one might be better off alone! Watch the peacock spider pulling his best moves to woo his very irritable-looking beloved.
Oh dear. Well that didn’t quite go to plan, did it? Looks like she’s not the romantic kind.
Happily Not All Animal Courtships End in a Fatality
But some can seem pretty bizarre from a human perspective. Take the Golden Shower of the male porcupine for example. The Golden Shower is not as it sounds, some priceless treasure Mr P bestows upon his porc-y princess. Or may be it is. You be the judge. The ‘Golden Shower’, a vital part of porcupine courtship, is an explosive jet of urine with which he drenches his lady. Apparently it encourages her to ovulate. There have to be kinder ways!
Hippos go one better. To attract a mate a male will pee and defecate at the same time. Ever wondered why hippos have those funny little tails? Well, in case the lassie didn’t quite get the message, the male with his mind on mating uses his to waft the smelly concoction around, and even spray it in the female’s face. Smooth moves.
“Over 90 percent of mammals have multiple mates and even those who form socially monogamous partnerships are often observed “cheating” on their partners.”
Of those, bonobos are universally considered the most promiscuous in terms of both frequency and number of partners. And they are not fussy. Hetero, homo, mothers with sons – it’s all the same to them.
Walruses are not far behind. Like many other animals, the male walrus likes to keep a harem of females. One by one they join him underwater for mating. The male walrus has the distinction of being equipped with a penis bone called a baculum up to 30″ long – the longest of any living mammal.
Gorillas, dolphins, deer, tigers, lions, lizards, chimps, baboons, hyenas, elk and so many more are multiple maters.
True Valentine Love Is Rare among the Animals
But there are animal couples who do weather the trials of courtship and the storms of life, remaining together till death do them part.
Some of the faithful ones are perhaps a little unexpected –
Termites, black vultures, skink, and French angelfish
And Others Are Not Quite What They Seem
Who’d have thought of shrimp as an image of fidelity, yet a pair will live out their entire wedded life alone together inside a Venus’ flower-basket – a hollow glass sponge.
In Japan, it is common to give one of these sponges – complete with two dead shrimp inside – as a wedding present, a symbol of lifelong devotion. Let’s hope the bride and groom don’t rumble the true reason for the shrimpy couple’s seemingly virtuous fidelity. The sponge cavity is so tiny there is only room for two shrimp inside, and once in they can’t get out. Like it or lump it, they are effectively imprisoned together, their ‘faithfulness’ physically enforced on them. Maybe not the most felicitous symbol of perfect married bliss!
Probably the most famous and endearing of monogamous mates
Wisdom the Laysan albatross – at 67 years the oldest known wild bird on the planet – and her life partner Akeakamai, otherwise known as Mr Goo. Together this devoted couple have successfully raised 30 chicks, and are still going strong.
Faithful-for-life prairie voles merit a mention too, just for their downright adorableness
Testyour knowledge of animal love with this fun quiz –
For Valentine’s Day this year, Brits will spend £200 MILLION on gifts for their pets. And 50% of pet owners polled admitted they would rather –
“splash their cash on their furry friends than on their lovers.”
Nothing wrong with that, say I. Much much preferable to spending our money on a ticket for two to the Valentine Day’s event-with-a-difference at the plush Malmaison Hotel in the Scottish city of Dundee. In Dundee, it seems romance is dead. The Valentine tickets entitle loved-up couples to watch… a live dissection of an animal’s heart.
Who the heart belongs to, and how it will be obtained are not specified. Strangely, this event is advertised as part of a nationwide series of ‘Anatomy Nights’, intended to give members of the public a chance to “learn all about the human body.” Am I missing something here?
(It doesn’t make the night any more appealing to see that all proceeds will be donated to the British Heart Foundation, a charity that funds testing on animals.)
But let’s not end our animal Valentine celebration on such a disturbing note
Here are animal hearts as we would much rather see them, warm and beating with life. I hope you enjoy these sweet snapshots of animal love as much as I did.
That title I shamelessly borrowed¹. The story itself is so insane, I could not come up with a better. But crazy as it sounds, it is for real. Maybe we don’t know too much about King Abdulaziz Camel Festival taking place right now in Saudi Arabia. It is after all only in its second year. But it is BIG. There are 30,000 camels at the festival and one third of a million visitors.
The festival comprises 2 main events:- the King Abdulaziz Award for Camel Racing, and the King Abdulaziz Award for Camel Beauty.
The Camel Beautiful
If you are going to take part in something as nuts as a camel beauty pageant, you need your camel to shape up to the ideal of camel beauty. What the judges are looking for –
the perfect height, shape and placement of the hump
full, droopy lips
a big head
But going back to that screwball title, it contains one significant inaccuracy – the camels are the innocent, injured parties here. It’s not the camels who were caught out “using Botox”. As if. The needle was being wielded by a corrupt Saudi vet at the request of corrupt camel owners. Days before the festival the man was caught red-handed performing plastic surgery on the animals. Ear-reduction surgery to be precise. Yes, we are still talking about camels. Remember what makes for the camel beautiful? ‘Delicate ears’. The same clinic was also found to have treated the 12 unfortunates with the Botox that got them expelled from the beauty pageant. As far as is known, neither the vet nor the camels’ owners were sanctioned. Just the camels.
“They use Botox for the lips, the nose, the upper lips, the lower lips and even the jaw,” says Ali Al Mazrouei, 31, son of a top Emirati breeder. Collagen fillers too. “It makes the head more inflated so when the camel comes it’s like, ‘Oh look at how big is that head is. It has big lips, a big nose’.”
Besides using Botox and collagen, some owners physically pull on the camel’s lips everyday in an attempt to lengthen them. What patient and long-suffering creatures these dromedaries must be.
Other competitors darken their camels’ coats with oil, and fluff them up with a fine comb and lots of hairspray. But as the glamorised contenders are held in a special holding pen the night before the pageant to prevent last minute tampering, the morning mists of the Saudi desert soon put paid to any fancy styling. The idea is that “by the time of the judging, prospective champions will only have their God-given beauty.” Hmm.
But why? Why go to such extreme lengths as even Botox and plastic surgery to enhance the camel body beautiful? The answer is not far to seek. As with most human interactions with other animals, so with the camel beauty pageant. The driving force behind every human activity using other animals for human ends is…. Money. In this case lots and lots of it – a pot of gold worth a staggering US$57 million, with the added incentive of raising the sale price of the winning camels by millions more.
With such riches at stake, the temptation to cheat is no surprise. Dirty tricks, as the organisers see it. For the animals, it’s abuse.
At first glance, the idea of a camel beauty pageant seems to us absurd. But if you think about it, it’s no more off the wall than the dog shows held in the West. While with dog shows, the prize money and increased value of breeding stock may be in the thousands rather than the millions, it’s still clearly enough to tempt participants into cheating.
We have dog-doping. We have dogs’ fur dyed, and chalk used to whiten fur that’s not-quite-white-enough. We even have prosthetics to alter the tilt of the ears, and muscles clipped to get the perfect set of the tail. Every dirty trick right down to murder – poor Jagger, a prize-winning red setter fatally poisoned at our own Crufts in 2015.
Dogs here, camels there. When humans sniff money, other animals get abused.
Camels in Demand
In the Gulf States camels are not wildlife. They are our equivalent of race horses and cows rolled into one. Bloodstock (if they’re racing camels/beauty pageant camels) or livestock, traditionally used for their milk, and increasingly for their meat. The Economist describes the poor creatures as being “speedy and tasty”. Unfortunate attributes to have.
The explosion in demand for camels is creating a huge boom in camel breeding on the other side of the Gulf, in East Africa. In the Sudan, the Rashaidi tribe that migrated from Saudi Arabia in the mid 19th century, are enjoying a new-found affluence raising camels for the Gulf States. Around 200 baby camels are sold each month to Saudi Arabia, and many more to the United Arab Emirates.
Egypt is already a big market for camel sales from East Africa. ‘“Thousands of camels come to Birqesh [in Egypt] each week… trucked in from as far as Sudan and Somalia,” said camel-seller Mohamed Fawzi Fahmi. Most of the camels that survive the sometimes arduous journey to Birqesh will end up meeting the food demands of Cairo’s nine million residents, while the rest can be used for farm work or tourism. Upon their arrival, the animals are sometimes emaciated or have open wounds from being packed into trucks in a long journey that does not necessarily have the best interests of the animals at heart – camels here are a commodity.’
Camels for Racing
The Rashaidi are renowned for breeding some of the world’s fastest racing camels. The camels are trained at dawn and dusk each day, racing around a track in the desert while wealthy visiting Emiratis look on. They are on the lookout for potential champions to enter in the multimillion-dollar races in Dubai, and no doubt in Saudi’s King Abdulaziz Festival Race also.
Where there is animal-racing, be it greyhounds, camels or horses, the animals suffer. They are raced too young, there is selective breeding detrimental to the animal’s health, doping and illegal betting. Criminal activity surrounds these so-called sports.
Those camels, greyhounds and horses that fail to make the grade as racers, and those ‘retired’ from racing are sent to slaughter.
Children and Robots
Just to add another touch of the surreal, since (under pressure from UNICEF) the UAE banned the use of child jockeys in 1993, the camels in training are “whipped along by miniature robots dressed in jockey silks and given orders remotely from white Toyota pickup trucks.” You could not make it up.
There is a deadly side to this though, because the ban is widely ignored. This is a passage from Death in Dubai by Ron Gluckman
ONE OF THE WORLD’S TOP JOCKEYS poses for a photo by the track. His smile says it all. Two front teeth are missing. Raji Shubir [at 6 years old] ranks with the youngest champions of the race course.
The races Raji runs are dangerous brushes with death in the camel pits of Dubai. No riches await young riders like Raji, who are stolen or bought from beggar parents in the slave markets of India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. And fame is a foolish notion. Fans will never see Raji’s name in magazines, not even if he is trampled to death during a race or murdered afterwards by jealous child jockeys.
But die they do, kicked to death by camels or killed by rival baby riders. Such is the sad, short life in the fast lane for untold slave children shipped to the camel pits of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Raji, whose name was changed for this article, arrived in Dubai like hundreds of other children from the Asian subcontinent. He was sold by his pauper family to a servant of an Arab lord. Raji slipped through immigration, posing as the child of the Indian servant.
This is typical, according to authorities in India, who smashed several child-selling gangs during the early 1990s. The kids are sold for as little as US$3. Hundreds more are kidnapped, often toddlers as young as two.
UAE immigration and police turn a blind eye to the baby trade that serves the sordid sports of sheiks and sultans of the oil-rich emirates. Even tales of vicious brutality are brushed aside.
A five-year-old rider was beaten to death by other child jockeys last year. But neither he, nor his six-year-old assailants, were mentioned in media or police reports. “This happens often, too often,” says a local reporter, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Seven Asian and African countries, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sudan, Mauritania, Eritrea, Somalia and India were named as the main culprits exporting child camel jockeys to the UAE. Shocking child abuse as well as animal abuse. And underlying it all – money.
Gulf States Sucking up Camels from Across the World
Meanwhile several thousand miles away in South Australia, the future of 300,000 feral camels is starting to look very shaky. The camels which originally arrived in Australia with Afghan and Arab immigrants in the late 1800s, are now being “cultivated” for a local abattoir. 25,000 so far have met their ends this way, chopped up and sent to the Middle East to satisfy the growing demand for camel meat. But the Australian Ngaanyatjarra Camel Company has not been slow to recognise the potential for supplying not only camel meat, but live animals to the Gulf States for the much more lucrative racing and beauty pageant camel breeding industry.
The Botox and Beauty Pageant is No Joke
The “sexy” camels kicked out for using Botox makes for an amusing title, but there is nothing funny about the exploitation of these innocent creatures. If there is a way to exploit them, you can be sure humans have left no stone unturned to find it.
The well-known verse from the Bible is often wrongly quoted as, “Money is the root of all evil.”
The actual quote is, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” The love of money is at the root of all the evils perpetrated on the defenceless, children and nonhuman animals the world over, camels no exception.
“The most beautiful thing is to fly in the heavens with the angels that are the birds”
says Frenchman Christian Moullec, and he should know. For the last 20 years he has dedicated his life to helping those angels with their migration.
It all began in 1995 when Moullec heard that lesser white-fronted geese were struggling with their migration from Germany to Sweden. He made it his mission to reintroduce the geese to the area of northern Sweden we know as Lapland. So he made himself parent to orphaned chicks, and acquired a microlight aircraft – like you do – to guide the youngsters safely to their destination.
One of his favourite memories is the 5-week trip leading the geese to Lapland with his wife – then 5 months pregnant with their first son – in the passenger seat of the microlight.
This delightful video show him teaching his ‘offspring’ a few vital goosey tricks.
You’ll be delighted to learn that his reintroduction plan for the geese was a success. He continues with his conservation work, taking to the air almost every day. For the last few years he has taken paying passengers with him, which helps fund his work for birds.
He explains, “A third of wild birds have disappeared from Europe during the last 30 years, because of man. It’s a disaster. My beautiful images with flying birds should be used to tell this story. The famous French writer Victor Hugo said that the beautiful is more useful than the useful, so I hope that the beautiful images of my birds in flight will be useful to migratory birds and to humans.”
For him, and he believes for his passengers who he hopes will mirror his deep respect for the natural world, flying with birds is “an overwhelming spiritual experience.”
The words of a gentle soul, true friend to, and lover of Nature.
If you want to fly with the birds, and who wouldn’t, check out Christian Moullec’s website. Or take a virtual flight and check out some of his mesmerising videos
Pictured is Wisdom, the world’s oldest known living wild bird, incubating her newest egg in December 2017. Behind her you can see her life partner Akeakamai – otherwise known as Mr Goo – who is dutifully taking his fair share of egg-sitting with his venerable spouse.
Every year for over 6 decades this amazing lady has flown thousands of miles to return to the same nesting site in Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, and has successfully raised more than 30 chicks.
“Because Laysan albatross don’t lay eggs every year and when they do, they raise only one chick at a time, the contribution of even one bird to the population makes a difference,”says Bob Peyton of the USFWS.
This matters because although Midway hosts 400,000 breeding pairs which sounds like a lot, and despite an expanding population, “they are still susceptible to entanglement in fishing lines and plastic ingestion, which killed an estimated 15,000 birds in 1990. The species is listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List.”
It takes nigh on 7 months incubating and caring for the chick until he/she fledges, and those long months hold many challenges, dangers and uncertainties. It needs 100% care from both parents. That means both need to be lucky enough not to get tangled in fishing lines and nets. And even if both mum and dad survive, many chicks die when parents mistake plastic objects like cigarette lighters, toothbrushes and fishing floats, for food, and bring them back to the nest along with the flying fish eggs that are the chick’s staple diet. Yes, even in this Pacific paradise our plastic habit is killing animals.
That, and considering also the millions of flying miles Wisdom has clocked up over her long and illustrious life, make her maternal achievements all the more remarkable. Very probably unique. Could it be Wisdom the Laysan albatross that has given us the expression, “she’s a wise old bird”?😄
Long may you flourish Wisdom and Mr Goo, and continue gracing the world with your beautiful offspring.
The BBC’s comprehensive overview of the plastic pollution problem
Whatever you may think of PETA, this is a genius move IMHO. By honoring Naruto, the crested black macaque with a famously goofy grin, as “Person of the Year” the organisation is emphasising that “he is someone, not something”. And what a person he is! I only wish he were able to revel in this accolade – though as long as he is safe and happy…. Go Naruto!