Scientists said, “It chose freedom”. I say, “She chose freedom.”The story of the cow who prized freedom above the safety of home.
The story is set in Poland. So, as the heroine of this tale remains nameless as yet, I shall call her Swoboda, Polish for ‘Freedom’.
Ornithologist Adam Zbyryt was the first to spot her near the wild primeval forest of Bialowieza.“It’s not unusual to see bison near the Bialowieza Forest, but one animal caught my eye. It was a completely different shade from the rest of the herd, light-brown”he told a Polish news channel.
On closer inspection Swoboda turned out to be a Limousin cow, a French breed common in Poland. In spite of living on the hoof, so to speak, and exposed to the Polish winter, she was looking good – apparently healthy and unfazed by the snow and the giant bovines with horns of her adopted herd.
Another sighting of Swoboda took place this week, this time by biologist Rafal Kowalczyk. She is still keeping up with the bison, and happily still in fine fettle. At night wolves patrol the edges of the Bialowiez wilderness. A lone cow would be no match against such fearsome predators. For Swoboda to be surviving there, the bison must be protecting her.
All the same, Swoboda remains a bit of an outsider, not fully integrated in the herd. And while that is a cause for concern, if she can survive the winter, not getting too close to her shaggy friends could be a blessing in disguise. What if a big male bison were to take a fancy to her? End result – a hybrid calf. Diluting the bison genes would threaten the survival of the bison population, as of now standing at a precarious 520. What the herd needs is healthy bison babies with 100% bison genes.
And worse for Swoboda, a half-bison calf would likely be too big for her to carry and safely deliver. It could endanger her life.
All in all, come Spring someone may have to guide Swoboda back to the safety of confinement with her own kind. (Temporary safety. Safe that is, until humans are done with her.)
Meanwhile, stay close to your woolly friends Swoboda, and keep on relishing that sweet taste of freedom!
Canis Lupus, the grey wolf, “a fundamental element of our natural European heritage.”
So says the Bern Convention of 1979. The wolf was not always seen this way. Its image among the human population used to be more in line with the cunning and terrifying vulpine of Little Red Riding Hood: a danger and a scourge. Add industrialisation and urban sprawl to ruthless hunting, and by the beginning of the 20th century, the animal had all but disappeared from Western Europe.
Thanks to the work of environmental groups like Euronatur wolves are now recognised as an important apex predator; strategies are in place to encourage their recolonisation of Western Europe; and they have been granted the highest protected status in many European countries.
The animal is the keystone of a ‘trophic cascade effect’. To find out how astounding is the presence of wolves in bringing about an explosion of life, both plant and animal, watch this beautiful short video about wolves in Yellowstone. It will gladden your heart.
Belgium is the last country in mainland Europe a wolf has honoured with its presence. The environmental group Landschap announced the first sighting on Saturday. Can you imagine how excited the person or people who spotted it must have been?
The wolf, wearing an electronic tracker, made its Belgian debut in the northern province of Flanders. The tracker identified the beast as having come from Germany, via a tour of the Netherlands, travelling 300 miles in the last 10 days. Have tracker will travel!
Welcome news to lovers of Nature, but not everyone is so thrilled. Livestock farmers in particular are unhappy. In France for instance, 8,000 farmed animals were lost to wolves last year. In Spain, Italy and Switzerland, there are also tensions between the farming community and wolf protectors.
Interestingly, in countries that have always had wolves and learned over millennia to rub along with them, like Romania and Poland, loss of livestock to the predator is shrugged off as a natural misfortune, “like an accident, like a flock that falls into a ravine”, says Farid Benhammou, a specialist on predators.
If reintroduction/recolonisation plans are to be successful, getting that balance right between wolf protection and the interests of farmers has to be top priority. Schemes to compensate farmers for losses to predation are usual in countries blessed with a population of wolves. The Belgian government is now being urged to implement a similar scheme.
I hope 2018 will bring more good news about this intrepid traveller and his kind.
Is the human race divided into two tribes, those who love animals and those who don’t? Yes, it seems so. But what makes us this way? If only we could open a window into the human brain and see what is going on in there, what it is that makes one ‘tribe’ so different from the other.
Oh, hang on – we can. Exactly what was revealed when neuroscientist Massimo Filippi and his team did just that, opened that window, we will come to very shortly.
We’ve already seen in his fascinating book The Animals Among Us, John Bradshaw delving deep into the past to unravel the threads of our relationship with domesticated animals. He uncovers an evolutionary forking of the path – one group of humanity opting to settle, begin domesticating and living with animals, while the other remained hunting, marauding nomads.
Through the generations, passing those tameness genes down, the domesticated cats and dogs, cattle and sheep gradually got tamer. And at the same time the humans who lived with animals passed down their own evolving animal-loving genes to their descendants.
Meanwhile, the nomads found themselves an easy living without the trouble of making animals a part of their daily lives, by raiding the others’ settlements and stealing theirs. Animal-lover of animal-unlover, whichever group we fall into, that is very likely how we came to be. With apologies to John Bradshaw for squeezing what takes a book to explain into an ever-so-slightly oversimplified couple of paragraphs!
Now back to Massimo & co and their window into the brain
Their project set out to measure and compare the levels of empathy towards other humans and towards nonhuman animals in 3 different groups: omnivores, ethical vegetarians, and ethical vegans. By ethical we mean those who are veg*n for the animals rather than say, simply for their own health.
All the participants were first given an ‘Empathy Quotient’ survey to complete. Social cognitive neuroscientist Claus Lamm’s definition of empathy might be useful at this point:
“When we are confronted with another person [human or nonhuman] – say, someone in pain – our brains respond not just by observing, but by copying the experience. Empathy results in emotion sharing. I don’t just know what you are feeling, I create an emotion in myself.“
Next, using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) they showed the different groups images of human suffering and animal suffering, and monitored their brain activity to establish exactly what was happening inside these people’s heads.
The results of the fMRI:
The veggies and vegans showed more activity in empathy-related areas of the brain to images of both human and nonhuman suffering than the omnis
The veggies and vegans responded more strongly to the animal suffering than the human suffering
The vegans responded more strongly than the veggies to animal suffering
The veggies reacted more strongly than the vegans to human suffering
The omnis reacted more to the human suffering than the animal suffering
Both vegans and veggies showed reduced activity in the amygdala, which means that they were trying hard to control their emotions. Especially the vegans
All of which corresponded with the results from that preliminary EQ survey.
The study does leave some questions unanswered. For example, wouldn’t it be important to know which nonhuman animals appeared in the images? Were they dogs, cats, rats or hens? If they weren’t companion animals, might not cognitive dissonance have come into play for the omnis? After all, veg*ns don’t hold exclusive rights on loving animals, do they?
Cognitive dissonance – a brief excursion into the secret that enables our crazy species to both love animals and eat them. This is how it works:
In our Western culture we are socially conditioned to see animals as falling into specific groups defined entirely by how we humans relate to them, and how useful they are to us. We absorb this way of thinking completely unconsciously from our mother’s knee, and everything we encounter throughout our childhood, books, movies, games, toys, advertising, reinforces the construct.
So we have:
Wild Animals with whom we have little contact
Utility Animals who ‘work’ for us – horses, donkeys, farm and police dogs and so on
Food Animals – cows, pigs, sheep, hens
Animals for entertainment– racehorses, greyhounds, circus animals, animals in zoos and aquaria
Animals for ‘education’ – animals in labs, zoos and aquaria, in schools and universities
Companion Animals – pet dogs, cats, hamsters, budgies etc
And let us not forget
Vermin – this category can be made to emcompass any species from buzzards to badgers that humans discover reasons for finding ‘a nuisance’
What makes veg*ns different, is that they have broken down and demolished this construct. To them it matters not whether it is a woodlouse or a wolf, a chicken or a cheetah. A life is a life, and each and every one matters and has a right to live free from harm and exploitation. But might it not make a difference which animals’ pics were shown to the omnivorous participants? As they remain captive to that social conditioning which compels them to allot a category to different animals, some animals might matter to them more than others.
That aside, it’s no surprise that omnis responded more to human suffering than animal, or that for the veg*ns it was the reverse. The interesting finding was that the veg*ns were more responsive to suffering overall than the omnis. Yet most veg*ns including me, started life omnivorous.
So do the study’s results mean we were born with an innate empathy that turned us into vegans, or did becoming vegan make us more empathetic? Who knows.
If we fail to imagine what animals might be feeling, ” we could do a great deal of harm, and put suffering in the world that doesn’t need to be there”
Philosopher Janet Stemwedel
One thing the findings do, is cast doubt on how effective it is for animal advocates to try ‘converting’ omnivores by showing them images of the misery endured by so many animals at human hands. The response might fall disappointingly short of a ‘road to Damascus’ experience. The research shows that for some, seeing is not necessarily feeling.
But it isn’t only written in the genes. The brain has plasticity – it is capable of being moulded. So let’s take the hopeful view and assume that becoming vegan helped make us more empathetic. And that omnivores may have more of those nomadic raiders’ genes with an animal-disconnect. But they are also profoundly conditioned, as we all are or have been, in their attitudes to nonhuman animals by the prevailing norms of our society.
Do you love animals but still eat them? Here is one eloquent, passionate man who may be able to change your mind. Philip Wollen, tearing down those malignant social norms – so inhumane towards nonhuman animals, and indeed, so disastrously damaging for humankind and the planet itself.
Have you been thinking about adding to your family with a new furry? Well, tomorrow, Saturday August 19th is The Day to find yourself that one special pooch or moggie who’s sure to steal your heart away. It’s Clear the Shelters Day, when right across the USA shelters offer free or greatly reduced fees for all would-be adopters. It’s a once-a-year event to find loving homes for every fur baby in the participating shelters. Want to know more about this marvellous scheme? Click here and here
And to prod you in the right direction, here is a selection box of cat and dog trivia, facts and fun to dip into, that I hope will yield up one or two surprises.
Those of us already sharing our homes and lives with a BFF or three are pretty sure we can read them like a book, aren’t we. Every twitch of the ear, wag of the tail, arch of the back, squint of the eyes. We live with them for goodness sake. We know them so well that every time some new piece of scientific research on Felix or Fido reveals its (unsurprising) findings, we just go “Dah. Like we didn’t know that already”.
Except this time. Because I’m willing to bet these researchers have turned up an oddity that will have you eyeing your pooch anew.
The tell-tale tail
“It now appears that when dogs feel generally positive about something or someone, their tails wag moreto the right side of their rear ends, and when they have negative feelings, their tail wagging is biasedto the left.“
In spite of having lived with dogs all my life, I can’t claim ever to have noticed. But apparently, that left/right business isn’t as surprising as it seems at first glance. Many animal brains including humans, have a left hemisphere (which controls the right side of the body) that is activated by love, happiness, serenity. And the right hemisphere (controlling the left of the body) by withdrawal, fear, depression.
And, it’s not just, “Was that a left wag, or a right?” The language of doggy wag is a bit more complicated than we might have thought. Apart from the left/right business, the researchers noted 4 different kinds of rear end motion, and surprisingly they don’t all mean ‘I’m-so-happy-to-see-you’. Find the full wag guide here
Cats on the other hand, just wag their tails when they are angry, don’t they? As befits the cat’s enigmatic aura, the feline wag is even more subtly nuanced than the canine. So we have:
The Vertical Tail and Tail Quiver
The Wrapped Tail
The Tail Flick (Or, the Straight Out and Back Tail)
The Fluffy, Arched Tail
And the Twitch
What does it all mean? To whet your appetite for more, I’ll let you in on the meaning of the first, the VT & TQ: “An upright (or vertical) tail and tail quiver (or rattle tail) are often signs of a friendly greeting from your feline. An upright tail is usually a sign of a happy, confident cat” You knew that already of course! More on the cat wag guide here
It’s not fair
From a piece of research in Vienna, scientists found that dogs are right on the button when it comes to what is fair and what is not.
They put two dogs in separate cages, but where they could see each other. Each had a buzzer they could press with their paw. Sometimes when they pressed it they would both get a reward, but sometimes neither would. Sometimes one got a reward and the other didn’t. Sometimes one got a better treat than the other. What happened? The one consistently coming off worse would just give up pressing the buzzer. No-one wants to be the underdog.
But he or she would happily keep pressing the buzzer and not getting a reward, as long as the other dog didn’t get one either. Or, if there wasn’t another dog to compare themselves with – proof that it wasn’t just boredom that made them stop. The pooches were aggrieved. They stopped because it just wasn’t fair.
Is this something dogs have learned from living with us humans? It seems not. The researchers also tried the experiment on wolves – and got the same result. In fact the wolves stopped pressing even quicker, the alpha male quickest of all.
Dogs have been among us for maybe 40,000 years, but it seems their view of fairness learned long ago from dwelling as a member of a pack lives on.
Afterthought: wouldn’t it be fascinating to know how cats would respond? Would you like to venture a guess?
This dog stays wild!
We’re talking Australian dingo here. In traditional aboriginal society, dingo pups were taken from the wild and draped around women’s waists like garments of clothing. Like you do. The women even breastfed them. In return, they kept the women warm, were an invaluable help in the hunt, a source of protection – and sometimes of food.
But before the pups reached the age of two, they were returned to the wild to breed. And in spite of thousands of years of semi-involvement in human lives, the adult dingo still to this day fails “to respond to any amount of discipline, kindness, bribery or coercion.” A dingo pup taken from the wild can not be trained up as a family pet. “Affectionate and tractable when young, eventually their carnivorous nature gets the better of them.”
The dingo’s most astounding gift though, is its ability to divine water. These wild dogs can detect water both above and below ground, and humans throughout history have put its remarkable skill to good use. Records reveal many accounts of “wild/semi-wild dingoes leading Europeans to lifesaving water springs.” And Australian place names still bear witness to this talent: Dingo Soak, Dingo Springs, Dingo Rock, Dingo Gap.
In aboriginal culture, dreaming tracks or songlines trace the dingo’s paths across the continent, from one water source to another. To one well-versed in them, the songs of the dreaming tracks serve as maps, since the words describe landmarks and waterholes. So by singing them they can navigate their way even over the vast Australian desertland. The dingo has shown them the way.
You can find out more about these fascinating wild dogs, and see an extraordinary image of Aboriginal women with dingoes wrapped around their waists here
But enough of dogs. Now for a bit of quality time with the cats.
Cuddles & Cat Flu
This research aimed to find out what effect if any positive interaction with humans has on shelter cats’ health and wellbeing. So, on arriving at a Vancouver cat shelter, each cat was divided into one of two groups. The ‘treated’ group got quality interaction with a human 4 times a day, 10 minutes each time, for 10 days. The control group had someone stand outside the cats’ cage with averted eyes for the same amount of time.
Surprise, surprise, these are the findings:
Human interaction by petting, playing and grooming improved shelter cats’ welfare
‘Treated’ cats were more content and less anxious and frustrated
‘Treated’ cats had increased levels of immumoglobulin [meaning healthier immune systems]
‘Treated’ cats had less respiratory disease
Even if that falls into the cat-egory (ahem) of research results stating the obvious, it does prove one thing: much as they pretend they don’t – putting on every appearance of just about tolerating us and condescending to live with us on their terms only – they do actually need us after all!
But before we get carried away with that good news, I regretfully have to confirm what we all always suspected –
Dogs really do love us more than cats
Five times as much in fact, so the scientists tell us. Who knew you could measure love? Find out how they do it here
Cat lovers take heart though – they do love us a bit😊
Meat-eating US dogs and cats create 64 million tons of carbon dioxide a year – equivalent to a year’s worth of driving from 13.6 million cars
That tonnage of carbon dioxide makes up 25 – 30% of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the States overall
If the 163 million American dogs and cats were a separate country of their own, “their fluffy nation would rank fifth in global meat consumption behind only Russia, Brazil, the United States and China”. Now that is scary.
And don’t forget the ‘waste’ – they produce 5.1 million tons of feces, as much as 90 million Americans
So what’s the answer? Our dogs and cats are family. No way are we going to give them up, even for the best environmental reasons in the world. Prof Okin doesn’t offer solutions, other than his half-joking suggestion that we transfer our affections to naturally vegetarian pets like hamsters or birds – or little ponies that can mow our lawns. Well, I have a couple of suggestions:
Feed your furry friend veggie/vegan dog and cat foods, like Ami, Benevo, and Yarrah. Taurine and arachidonic acid are vital for cats, but these brands do contain them, so don’t listen to those who like to tell you a cat can’t live on a vegetarian diet
DON’T give up the chance to save the life of a rescue pet – a lovable little critter that might well end up euthanized – by getting your BFF from a pet store or breeder. You would simply be lining the pockets of people who exploit dogs and cats just for money.
ALWAYS go to your nearest animal shelter – TOMORROW! – and give a loving home to a pet who’s been abandoned through no fault of their own. They will reward you a thousand times over.
And finally, just for fun!
Actions to take for dogs and cats
Sign up to Cruelty Free International’s campaign to put an end to cruel experiments on dogs here
Speak out for the dogs and cats suffering at Liberty research here
Sign to end the killing in US animal shelters here
We’ve done our best to trash the planet. We’ve plundered the earth of precious stones, covered it in concrete to sell people things they don’t need, contaminated it with deadly radiation, declared a piece of it a DMZ to keep apart the heavily armed guards of two nations that hate each other, covered it in land mines, built factories on it for poison gas and chemical weapons so we can better kill each other, and even managed to dry out the 4th largest lake in the world by exploiting its water for our own questionable ends.
For me, two telling themes emerge from the wildlife stories below: the ruthless devil-take-the-hindmost greed of the capitalist system we humans have created; and our unbridled propensity for violence and war.
Yet even out of the trail of destruction we leave behind, Nature – which is so much bigger than the human race – takes over, nurturing life.
Given less than half a chance, just look what Nature does.
Abandoned in 1954, Kolmanskop, Namibia was once a flourishing diamond mining town until the mines were eventually exhausted of their riches. The human inhabitants of the town moved on and left what had been their homes, schools and shops to be taken back by the desert and the rare Namib Horse.
Their origin is unknown as these horses are not indigenous to the region but by limiting human intervention, only offering water support during extreme drought, these horses have been able to adapt incredibly well to the unforgiving terrain and grow in numbers over the years in the ruins of this forgotten town.
Abercrombie and Fish?
Arson and safety issues plagued the New World Shopping Mall in Bangkok, Thailand until it was shuttered in 1997. The roofless structure sat empty, collecting rainwater in it’s basement until a 1600 square foot pond formed. Mosquitos began to take up residence, annoying locals around the forgotten structure so much that they introduced some koi and catfish into the pond to combat the problem.
Left to breed uninhibited, the fish flourished in their new environment and turned the mall into their own private aquarium. The future of the fish is unclear as there are questions about the stability of the building, but for now locals visit the fish to throw them food.
While walking around the woods surrounding his summer home in Salo, Finland, photographer Kai Fagerström came upon a derelict house. Not one to miss a chance to snap some unique shots, Fagerström ventured inside to see that the house may have been derelict but it was far from empty.
The house was teeming with animal tenants like badgers, mice, foxes and birds to name just a few. In fact, 12 different species of animals were all living together in harmony under the same roof, becoming the subjects to his photo book The House in the Woods.
Life finds a way in the shadow of disaster
In 1986 the residents of Pripyat, Ukraine were forced to abandon their homes as the nearby Chernobyl Power Complex experienced what is considered the worst nuclear meltdown in history. The area has been deemed uninhabitable for the next 20,000 years as radiation levels in the area continue to measure off of the charts, but that hasn’t stopped a large variety of wildlife and insect species from moving in.
In fact, the native animal populations like wild boar, dogs and horses have thrived in the exclusion zone, making the area around Chernobyl a natural refuge in the absence of human occupants. Scientists have only recently been allowed access to study the area and its inhabitants, with the results providing an unsure glimpse at how the thriving populations will be effected by the radiation for generations to come. Only time will tell, but for now the city of Pripyat is populated with a diverse selection of life.
Wildlife can’t read the ‘Keep Out’ signs
In place since the Korean War Armistice in 1953, a 250 km long and 4 km wide swath of land known as the Demilitarized Zone separates North and South Korea from coast to coast. With people only being allowed to enter through special permit over the last 60 years, the area has become the perfect place for a large variety of indigenous and critically endangered wildlife to live undisturbed.
After the dust settled in the Falkland Islands War in 1982, the waters surrounding the area became so overfished that local penguin populations began to decrease dramatically. Ironically, it was this very overfishing and the ravages of the war that preceded it that ended up creating a unique natural habitat for the penguins to start rebuilding their numbers and living freely.
As a deterrent to the British, the Argentinian army laid 20,000 land mines along the coast and pasture lands surrounding the capital that remain to this day. Too light to set them off, the penguin population lives happily and totally undisturbed in this unlikely sanctuary.
This subway car is going nowhere
Since 2001 the Mass Transit Authority of New York has been participating in a program that retires old subway cars and dumps them along the eastern seaboard to create artificial reefs. Known as Redbird Reef, the cars are stripped of floating materials and then cleaned before they’re dropped into the ocean from barges.
By 2010 the program had placed over 2500 cars into the water in the hopes of giving marine life in the area a home to breed and thrive, including black sea bass, flounder, turtles and barnacles.
Don’t forget to take your carrots!
The tiny island known as Okunoshima Island in Takehara, Japan is also colloquially known as Usagi Jima, or “Rabbit Island.” Abandoned after World War II, the island had been home to a poison gas facility.
How the rabbits came to be on the island is a source of debate but with larger animals like cats and dogs being banned from its shores, the bunnies of Usagi Jima are free to roam wild and multiply while taking the occasional carrot from an adoring tourist.
This island gets an (elephant) seal of approval
Formerly a Coast Guard light station until it was abandoned in 1948, Año Nuevo Island in California is teeming with wildlife. Now part of a nature preserve operated by the California State Parks, the island boasts one of the largest northern elephant seal mainland breeding colonies in the world.
It also plays host to cormorants, terns, otters, California sea lions as well as the rare and endangered San Francisco Garter Snake.
What was once the fourth largest lake in the world at 26,300 sq mi – that’s bigger than all the Great Lakes of North America with the exception of Lake Superior, the Aral Sea in Central Asia is now on the verge of being completely dry due to rivers and dams diverting its water elsewhere. The effects of this were devastating and the area is being monitored so environmental improvements can be made. Leaving behind a sandy desert and stranded fishing boats, the dry lake bed now sees local camels roaming freely amongst wasted hulls to take a rest from the sun.
Revitalization efforts are underway and showing real promise for the area and the wildlife that has moved in, including not only camels but asiatic foxes, wolves and boars.
A place dedicated to taking life becomes a place that preserves it
Once a chemical munitions plant, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Commerce City, Colorado last saw production in 1982. Clean up and decontamination of the site kept humans from entering the area, which left a perfect opening for animals to move in and create an involuntary refuge.
In 1986, much to the surprise of the U.S. Wildlife and Fish Service, it was discovered that not only was there a communal roost of bald eagles taking up residence but also 330 additional species of wildlife had moved in. Today the site is a National Wildlife Refuge and boasts deer, bison, coyotes and owls.
These good news wildlife stories leave a bitter aftertaste – in most cases (thankfully not all) the animals are making their lives in spite of the wreckage wrought by human hand.
The DMZ seems an apt metaphor for the present state of the planet: hostile peoples pointing killing machines at each other, and in the little space left between, Nature.
Nature generating and nurturing transformative life – in abundance.
The Dene Déline are a First Nation people of Canada, with a name-meaning that positively sings:
“Where the water flows”
The People of Great Bear Lake
The settlement of Déline lies on the western shore of Great Bear Lake in the remote Northwest Territories. Great Bear Lake, which is sacred to the Dene Déline, is as vast as the ocean. And so pristine, so pure, “you can lower a cup into the water and drink it.” ¹
The Dene Déline’s spiritual connection with the lake is ancient and profound – their other name, Sahtuto’ine, means ‘People of Bear Lake’. There is a myth passed down through the generations that at the bottom of the lake there lies a gigantic beating heart, a water-heart which gives life to the grass and the trees, the insects, the birds, the animals – and to them. To everything.
“There are prophecies, and relationships with the lake that go back thousands of years. There is, in fact, a prophecy that talks about Great Bear Lake being one of the last remaining bodies of freshwater on this planet.” Stan Boychuk, expert in First Nation culture.
The prophecy he refers to was made by a Dene Déline elder by the name of Eht’se Ayah, who “foretold that in the future, people from the south would come to Great Bear Lake because it would be one of the few places left with water to drink and fish to eat. He said so many boats would come that you could walk from one to another without entering the water. Simply put, Great Bear Lake would be a last refuge for humanity.” ¹
Today, in the 21st century, Eht’se Ayah’s prophecy has already partly come true. Of the 10 largest lakes in the world (yes, we may never have heard of Great Bear Lake, but it comes in at no. 8, bigger than Belgium and deeper than Lake Superior), it is the only one still remaining unspoilt, intact, primeval.
Unexpectedly, a new report from NASA of all things, gives additional credibility to Ayah’s prophecy. NASA’s GRACE satellite mission finds that of the world’s 37 largest aquifers (layers of water-bearing permeable rock under the Earth’s surface), 21 are being depleted at an unsustainable rate, and of those, 8 have little or no water recharging them. We “are inching toward a world where fresh water is much more difficult to come by.” Read more
The Dene Déline’s Territory, Tsá Tué
A while back, if you wanted to visit the township of Déline on the lake shore, you would need to take a hair-raising 200 mile drive along an ice road in the winter time, the only time you could get there by road, and when the temperature is in the minus 20s C. Nowadays you can fly to see the wonder that is Tsá Tué, the 36,000 sq miles of taiga around Déline – ancient boreal forest and water, and one of UNESCO’s most newly-designated biospheres. You can see from the map below how remote Tsá Tué is. And, what 36,000 sq miles looks like – BIG!
You would be forgiven for thinking that sometime over my many years I might have stumbled across biospheres, especially as there are 669 of them dotted about the world. But no. Now I have though, I’m very excited. They are SSSSs – ‘Science for Sustainability Support Sites’, jargon for those special places where human life and activity is both sustainable, and in balance with the local ecosystem.
A UNESCO biosphere typically comprises three interrelated zones:
A core ecosystem of strictly protected landscape, wildlife and plants, with enough genetic diversity to maintain a healthy population of local species
A buffer zone surrounding the core where only activity compatible with research, education and training is permitted
A transition area – the outer circle – where human economic activity goes on, in a way that is culturally and ecologically sustainable
You’ll find biospheres in the Volga floodplain in Russia, in the Maldives, Ecuador, China, India, Japan – in 120 different countries. Closer to home there’s one in France’s Dordogne region, and here in the UK, Galloway & southern Ayrshire where two biospheres merge.
Back at Tsá Tué
Tsá Tué is not only one of the most recently designated biospheres (2016); it’s not only the largest on the North American continent; it is also the only one in the world entirely controlled by an indigenous people. Shortly after its designation by UNESCO as a biosphere, the Canadian government granted Déline self-government, strengthening the Sahtuto’ine’s ability to protect their land and Great Bear Lake. And this is how they celebrated that historic moment in the life of their people:
Tsá Tué’s biodiversity is rich and healthy
The Sahtuto’ine live in harmony with the lake and the land, seeing themselves as stewards of this magnificent piece of N. American wilderness. They have been here for 6000 years, as much a part of the landscape as the grizzlies, moose and caribou they share it with, the snowshoe hares, the arctic foxes, wolves, wolverines and lynx.
And birds: ducks and geese, sparrows, finches, waxwings, warblers, sandpipers, cranes, hawks and eagles in their billions. All these and more nest and raise young in the Canadian taiga, feasting on the humid summer’s swarms of insects, and fall’s berry bonanza before they leave once more, migrating to more temperate climes.
Tsá Tué’s biodiversity has suffered no diminution in recent years – unlike the devastating losses in the ecosystems of, for instance, the Borneo rainforest or the Amazon basin. That isn’t just down to the almost inaccessible remoteness of the territory the Sahtuto’ine inhabit, although that certainly helps. Even supposing they had little respect for the plant and animal life they live among (but the very opposite is the case), with a tiny population of just 600 souls they would be very hard pressed to make much of an impact on their vast wilderness environment. In Tsá Tué, the Sahtuto’ine average 1 person to every 60 sq miles. Compare that with the UK’s 1,010 people to 1 sq mile. Little wonder our own biodiversity is under such severe pressure.
In that case, why does Tsá Tué need this biosphere designation from UNESCO?
The designation will help this tiny community resist attempts from outsiders to exploit their land. Predatory multinational corporations find ways of circumventing protections, even those instituted at national level. There is reason to fear. The area’s natural resources have been plundered before.²
Being an SSSS will make it that much harder to do. And that together with their new self-governing status means their future as a people, and the guardianship of Tsá Tué, belong entirely in their own hands.
Sahtuto’ine beliefs – “When People and Animals were Equal”
“There was a time when it was believed that everyone was the same – animals, birds and humans. It was believed that a creature or a human could change from animal to bird, human to animal, bird to animal. It was also believed that with the change, animals and birds had the power to speak.”
That time “came to an end about the time the first European explorers arrived in the area. By then, most animals no longer had the power to speak or to change their appearance. Only medicine persons with strong dream power could still talk to the animals.” ³
“Every seed is awakened and so is all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being and we therefore yield to our animal neighbours the same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land”
The wisdom of Sitting Bull, a Teton Dakota chief of the 19th century, not a Sahtuto’ine of course, but voicing a belief common to all First Nation peoples of N. America.
Historically, “Animals were respected as equal in rights to humans. Of course they were hunted, but only for food, and the hunter first asked permission of the animal’s spirit. Among the hunter-gatherers the land was owned in common: there was no concept of private property in land, and the idea that it could be bought and sold was repugnant. Many Indians had an appreciation of nature’s beauty as intense as any Romantic poet.
“The Indians viewed the white man’s attitude to nature as the polar opposite of the Indian. The white man seemed hell-bent on destroying not just the Indians, but the whole natural order, felling forests, clearing land, killing animals for sport.”▪︎
But the Sahtuto’ine traditional culture remains little changed. We can be sure they will continue to treasure the priceless pristine wilderness that is Tsá Tué. It could not be in safer hands.
Let’s give the last word to Sahtuto’ine Walter Behza, who has had the responsibility of managing these boreal lands for many years and is now official Integrated Resource Management Advisor for Tsá Tué:
“Listen to what the land wants, listen to what the lake wants, listen to what the animals want”
²”The area became prominent when pitchblende was discovered at the Eldorado Mine, some 250 km (160 mi) away, on the eastern shore, at Port Radium. During World War II, the Canadian Government took over the mine and began to produce uranium for the then-secret Americannuclear bombproject. Uranium product was transported from Port Radium by barge across Great Bear Lake where a portage network was established along the Bear River, across the bay from Fort Franklin, where many of the Dene men found work. As the risks associated with radioactive materials were not well communicated, it is believed that many of the Dene were exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation, which Déline residents believe resulted in the development of cancer and led to premature deaths. Wiki
“Nature inspires me. My hope is that my art will serve its purpose, remind us of how the human-nature relationship is supposed to be, beautiful, harmonious, and living side by side. My subjects are often children and animals because they are sincere, unprejudiced and unpretentious. There’s an innate relationship between them.”Indonesian artist Elicia Edijanto
I find these watercolour paintings profoundly moving. I hope you enjoy them, and that they will continue to touch the hearts of those who see them. The simplicity of colour and detail creates a timeless, tranquil, dreamlike other-world. Is this the Garden of Eden? The kingdom of heaven? The way life was here on Earth before abuse of power, greed, exploitation, cruelty and fear trampled innocence, reverence, trust and love into the dust? Elicia’s art brings to my mind two passages from the Bible, see below.
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.Isaiah 11 v 6
He[Jesus]called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.Matt 18 vv 2-4
Elicia depicts the animals with simple reverence, in all their majesty. They are here in their own personhood, with their own standing. They do not seek Man’s permission. They owe us nothing. They are here by right.
Discover the artist and see more of Elicia’s beautiful work on her website
(Apologies for stumbling a little over placing your name after the P word)
You are a guy true to your word. If we ever suspected those campaign promises were just empty political slogans, you sure proved us wrong. You really meant what you said. Wow!
So cool to have a strong hand at the tiller at last when it comes to the environment. If I can hold your attention for five minutes – a big ask I know – you might want to take a look when we’re getting near the end of this page at what those losers your predecessors had to say on the topic.
Jeez, their sappy ideas were never going to get us the American Dream. But now we have you in the Oval Office, we can go for broke!
Now who is it you’ve fingered for the Environment Protection Agency? Oh yeah, Scott Pruitt. Great choice. Mr Pruitt has an fine record on the environment. Isn’t he the same guy that took the EPA to court a dozen or so times in six years? I guess he took exception to the Clean Water Act being rolled out even further – who wouldn’t? And then there were those irritating rules about coal-fired power plants. He showed’em!
“Excessive regulation is killing jobs”, you say. Well Scottie’s right behind you, 110%, and now he has free rein, we’ll see some hatchet action at last. To quote another of your gems Sir, environmental protections are “out of control”.
I for one can’t wait to see Scottie light a match under all that crappy red tape. How can the hustlers keep lining their pockets, with tiresome stuff like that tying them in knots. Regulations regulations regulations – a nightmare getting in the way of the American Dream.
Now you Mr President are the Real Deal. Billionaire with fingers in multitudinous multinational pies, bestower of the noble name of Trump on real estate around the world, you Donald J Trump are the embodiment, there for all to see, of the American Dream we all aspire to.
(Your business acumen when you “bullied the small businesses that occupy the ground floor of [your] namesake Fifth Avenue skyscraper, jacking up rental prices and then suing tenants when they fought back. Court documents reveal a pattern of legal disputes within Trump Tower over the years, in which [you] the billionaire real-estate developer routinely deployed lawyers to harass the very people funding [your] extravagant and ostentatious lifestyle on the 66th floor.”¹ Wow and wow again. I am taking notes!
But let’s stick with the environment. I admit I’m a bit confused. If I understand it right, the EPA says its mission is “to protect human health and the environment — air, water and land.” Call me dumb but I can’t quite seem to square that with Mr Pruitt’s vision for it. Which is basically, to trash all that hooey getting in the way of jobs, business and ‘the marketplace’. Am I right?
Well, maybe best to scrap the EPA altogether then? Ah, already there on your To Do List of Executive Orders. I should have known you’d be on top of it. As I see it, leaving a federal agency in charge of America’s land, air and water is asking for the bureaucrats to poke their noses in where they’re not wanted. They just put roadblocks in the way of a guy’s rightful pursuit of the almighty dollar -er, I mean happiness. (Isn’t it the same thing?)
Can we hope the ESA² will go the same way? Those wolves, bears and bison are just being allowed to run wild.
Good job freezing regulations that loser you kicked out the White House left still in the pipeline – that’s the bad kind of pipeline. Generally you favour them I know. We’ll get to that in a just a minute.
Love, just love your latest Executive Order pushing through the Regulatory Reform Agenda. Out with the old curbs on business, and in with as little as you can get away with of the new. Regulations regulations regulations. One new one in, two old ones out, just like you promised. Genius!
Those Greenpeace wusses can’t hack it. Wouldn’t you just expect them to say something dumb like, “This executive order will put Trump’s unvetted corporate minions above experts at our federal agencies in charge of protecting our water, our land and our climate.” But heck, who listens to them?
Take Standing Rock. That spineless ex-Pres. left those darn water protectors there for months. But you had them out in days. That’s the way to do business. ‘Water-protectors’ – ha! More like Big-Oil-obstructors. If we start worrying about indigenous people’s rights and hysterical fears of pollution who knows where it will end. We totally need to stamp hard on anyone that gets in the way of our go-getters and our monolithic corporations making themselves richer and richer by the day. It’s plain anti-American to think any different.
And as for so-called ‘climate change’, I wouldn’t expect a man of your intellect to fall for that hogwash. It’s nothing but pseudo-science. Your nuggets of wisdom on that fake news deserve another airing:
“The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” @realDonaldTrump
“It’s real cold outside, they are calling it a major freeze, weeks ahead of normal. Man, we could use a big fat dose of global warming!” @realDonaldTrump
One more thing Sir, can you please hurry up with that wall? It’s not just the foreigners. We need to keep out all that pesky wildlife as well.
So if you got this far Mr President – and I expect you will since I’ve said such a lot of nice things about you – have yourself a smirk at all this guff from former POTUSes (they are history now we have you, the genuine article) on the subject of the environment:
“Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.”
— Theodore Roosevelt
“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt
“If we’ve learned any lessons during the past few decades, perhaps the most important is that preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it’s common sense. Our physical health, our social happiness, and our economic well-being will be sustained only by all of us working in partnership as thoughtful, effective stewards of our natural resources.”
— Ronald Reagan
“‘Environment’ is not an abstract concern, or simply a matter of aesthetics, or of personal taste — although it can and should involve these as well. Man is shaped to a great extent by his surroundings. Our physical nature, our mental health, our culture and institutions, our opportunities for challenge and fulfillment, our very survival — all of these are directly related to and affected by the environment in which we live. They depend upon the continued healthy functioning of the natural systems of the Earth.”
— Richard M. Nixon
“We must not only protect the countryside and save it from destruction, we must restore what has been destroyed and salvage the beauty and charm of our cities … Once our natural splendor is destroyed, it can never be recaptured. And once man can no longer walk with beauty or wonder at nature, his spirit will wither and his sustenance be wasted.”
— Lyndon B. Johnson
And THE most ridiculous of all from the ex-President
In the absence of sound oversight, responsible businesses are forced to compete against unscrupulous and underhanded businesses, who are unencumbered by any restrictions on activities that might harm the environment.
— Barack Obama
This guy clearly doesn’t know excessive regulation is killing jobs, does he? But then, he wasn’t even born in the USA. What do you expect from a foreigner.
Well blah blah blah. For crying out loud. Who needs forests? Who needs critters and flowers – they just take up good ranching and mining land. Who needs bees for heavens sake? Who the heck needs National Parks (more land there for ranching and mining). Who needs crap like romance and history, heritage, environment and nature?
Who needs beauty, wonder or spirit? Notions like that are nuts. What we need, and all we need, is evergrowing heaps of dollar bills. The rest is for the girls.
For those of a less Trumpian mindset, the Center for a New American Dream may be of interest. The Center redefines the American Dream as “… a focus on more of what really matters, such as creating a meaningful life, contributing to community and society, valuing nature, and spending time with family and friends.” Not a dollar sign in sight.
Fine artist Amy Guidry is a Louisiana-based painter who has been making art since she was 3 years old. Her surrealist art tackles the subjects that she’s interested in exploring — she has looked at depictions of women via fairy tale narratives, and the wide variety of human experience. In her newest series, “In Our Veins,” she delves into the human relationship with animals and the natural world.
What was the impetus for your surrealist series about animals and environment, In Our Veins?
I’ve had an interest in animals and the environment since I was very young. I’ve been vegan for almost 18 years now. However, despite the fact that animals and the natural world were often present in my work, I felt the need to up the ante. I wanted to challenge myself both technically and conceptually. My paintings were becoming progressively more surreal, lending themselves to dreamlike backgrounds and unusual imagery. Surrealism allows me to delve into environmental issues and animal welfare issues, creating strange worlds that reflect the current state of our planet. What seems illogical can come to life through a painting. Though in many ways, I feel like what I paint is a mirror-image of our reality.
How do you use psychology in your work?
This series focuses on our relationship to the natural world and our connection to every living thing. As humans, we often view nature as a means to an end. Animals are viewed as pieces and parts — head, rump, wing, and so on. They are no longer sentient beings but things we eat or wear or put on our walls. If they are food, animals are renamed: cow becomes beef, chicken becomes poultry, etc. It’s as if we’re distancing ourselves from nature. While I have depicted this common viewpoint through paintings of just the head or bust of an animal, I have endowed them with personalities or traits that would be considered more “human” to emphasize their importance and do away with the notion that animals are less than humans. So each animal, be it mammal, bird, etc., has been endowed with something we consider a “human quality.”
I’ve also explored what I consider the opposite approach to these paintings. While in some works, I rely on eyes and facial expressions to convey a sense of connection and relatability to animals, other paintings show animals without faces or covered faces. I wanted to explore the idea of anonymity vs. connection. Without seeing their faces, does that make them any less personable or meaningful? And how does this apply on a global scale? For me, even without seeing their faces, I still see so much life and personality in these animals. I still see them as sentient beings.
‘In Our Vein’s is dominated by horses, deer, bears, wolves, rabbits, cows and humans. Why these animals?
I feel like a lot of these animals blur the line between what would be considered domestic and what would be considered wild. As more wild habitat is being encroached upon by new houses and shopping malls, these animals are being forced out of their homes and find themselves having to adapt to this new urban landscape. They are wild, yet at the same time, people either think of them as cute nomads or dangerous intruders, depending on the species.
I’ll use cows because I feel like they are the epitome of the agribusiness animal. They are used for meat, dairy, and leather, and it’s because of them that forests are cleared and “predatory” animals are killed — all for the sake of ranching.
As for incorporating humans, I do so to emphasize that we are all part of the animal kingdom. I’ll sometimes combine a human with another animal to illustrate that connection. Other times, I may just paint the human brain as a symbol of sentience and our moral obligation to the welfare of these animals.
How do you find your images when you create a new painting?
The images I come up with are inspired by issues or events that I feel a need to cover through my work. I start out with thumbnail sketches of the basic concept behind a painting and I’ll do maybe 50 variations on that concept until I have the right one. Then I’ll draw out the piece to size. If I feel like it would work better a bit larger or even smaller, then I’ll draw it out again. Once I have that final composition worked out, I’ll then transfer that drawing to canvas, sometimes just tracing what I just did with tracing paper. I try to keep my drawing on canvas fairly basic, and work out the rest with paint. Then I do a rough layer of paint, just working out the basic image and getting the colors down. The subsequent layers of paint are to build the colors, and refine the details of everything, getting more detailed until the final layer of paint.
If I need a reference, I rely on my own pets, myself, or my husband as live models. I also have anatomical models and books, though I use that as a guide. I take a lot of artistic license because sometimes a literal translation just doesn’t suit what I’m going for.
How does your local environment (or another one) find its way into your paintings?
So far what I’ve been painting has been on more of a global scale, really, though I do plan on doing some pieces more specific to this area (Louisiana), especially because of our wetlands. I’ve been focused on climate change, so oceans have been a dominant theme as of late. I also incorporate desert scenes for not only an apocalyptic feel, but to also illustrate the change in landscape due to the clear-cutting of forests.
Your color palette is very specific; is this to make it easier to reproduce colors time and again or for some other reason?
The colors are really dictated by the subject matter, that being said, there are some choices I make regarding the background which are completely intuitive. I may use a more dramatic sky if I want the overall feel of the piece to be a bit dark.
“Stunning work of tremendous depth, sublime imagination, tranquil visions, and an attention to detail that is second to none. It should be no surprise that Guidry’s work is garnering serious attention in the art world, and rightfully so”
Ryan Kittleman, Collector and Editor of Noble Row, San Francisco, CA
We are going to have to work harder than ever for wildlife and wild places. And for farmed animals. The day after the presidential election my Inbox was bombarded with emails from animal and conservation charities throwing up their hands in horror at the result. Understandably. This authoritative post says it all – Animalista Untamed
Get ready for more drilling, mining, and logging on public lands and an agenda that values preserving wildlife—for hunters.
For people who worry about the nation’s (and the world’s) rapidly dwindling wildlife, the only vaguely good news about Donald Trump’s election might just be that he doesn’t care. This is a guy whose ideas about nature stop at “water hazard” and “sand trap.” Look up his public statements about animals and wildlife on votesmart.com, and the answer that bounces back is “no matching public statements found.” It’s not one of those things he has promised to ban, deport, dismantle, or just plain “schlong.”
More good news (and you may sense that I am stretching here): Trump is not likely to appoint a renegade rancher and grazing-fee deadbeat Cliven Bundy to head the Bureau of Land Management. When Field and Stream magazine asked Trump early this year if he endorsed the Western movement to transfer federal lands to state control (a plank in the Republican platform) he replied: “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold.”
This was no doubt the real estate developer in him talking, but his gut instinct against letting go of land will surely outweigh the party platform. “We have to be great stewards of this land,” Trump added. “This is magnificent land.” Asked if he would continue the long downward trend in budgets for managing public lands, Trump said he’d heard from friends and family that public lands “are not maintained the way they were by any stretch of the imagination. And we’re going to get that changed; we’re going to reverse that.”
This was apparently enough, in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s upset election, for Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, to suggest that “we share common interests in the protection of America’s wildlife and our great systems of public lands, which provide endless opportunities for outdoor recreation, wildlife observation, and other pursuits that all Americans value.”
Meanwhile, pretty much all others active on wildlife issues were looking as if the floor had just dropped out from under them, plunging them into a pool of frenzied, ravenous Republicans. At the website for the Humane Society, where a pre-election posting warned that a Trump presidency would pose “an immense and critical threat to animals,” an apologetic notice said, “The action alert you are attempting to access is no longer active.”
They have reason to be nervous. Trump has surrounded hinself with political professionals who do not think sweet thoughts about wildlife. Newt Gingrich, for instance, loves animals-but mainly in zoos rather than in inconvenient places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Reince Priebus, a likely choice for Chief of Staff, was part of a Tea Party revolution in Wisconsin that put Gov. Scott Walker in power. Just to give you a sense of what that could mean for a Trump administration, Scott handed over control of state parks and other lands to the hook-and-bullet set while shutting out biologists and conservationists. Chris Christie? Rudi Giuliani? Let’s just not talk about them.
Trump’s main advisers on wildlife appear to be his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, and they seem to care only about hunting and fishing. Donald Jr. has publicly expressed a wish to run the Department of the Interior, though his only known qualification for the job is his family name. More likely, as he told Outdoor Life during the campaign, he will help vet the nominees for Interior, “and I will be there to make sure the people who run the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and so on know how much sportsmen do for wildlife and conservation and that, for the sake of us all, they value the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.”
Like his father, Donald Jr. has opposed selling public lands, mostly because it “may cost sportsmen and women access to the lands.” But he believes states should help govern federal lands, calling shared governance “especially critical when we pursue our idea of energy independence in America. As has been proven in several of our Western States, energy exploration can be done without adverse affects [sic] on wildlife, fisheries or grazing.” (America has come tantalizingly close to energy independence under President Obama—without moving new drilling rigs onto public lands—and there is no evidence for the broad-brush notion that energy exploration is harmless to wildlife.)
Two other major considerations to keep in mind: If Trump goes ahead with his favorite plan to build a wall on the Mexican border, it would cut off vital migratory routes and habitat for jaguars, ocelots, desert bighorn sheep, black bears, and many other species. (It might also impede the flow of fed-up Mexicans heading south.)
The bottom line is that a Trump administration is likely to be good for mining, drilling, logging, and the hook-and-bullet set. But for wildlife and for Americans at large? We are facing four dangerous years of self-serving gut instinct and reckless indifference to science, with the damage to be measured, as climate activist Bill McKibben put it the other day, “in geologic time.”
If you are feeling as if a Trump victory is the end of the world as we know it, you may just be right.
Nov 11, 2016
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.