Monday, August 31, 2009

The Australia Zoo's Tigers

The Australia Zoo is one of the very few zoos in the world that devotes so much time and care to interaction between humans and the tigers at the zoo.

The goal is twofold: Proper socialization makes the tigers easier to handle, and the public gets a better idea of the true nature of these wonderful animals.

Here is a very touching video of three tiger cubs' first introduction to the "big pool" at the zoo. Notice how at the very start that mutual respect between the tigers and the zoo people is stressed. Notice also how the zoo people pay attention to the needs of the tigers.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Aesop Didn't Lie

About 2260 years ago, around the year 250 B.C., Archimedes yelled "Eureka!" after getting into his bath and realizing that the volume of his body displaced the same amount of water, making the tub overflow.

About 350 years before that, Aesop told the world the tale of the thirsty crow who, upon finding a pitcher with a low level of water in it, put stones into the pitcher to raise the water level up to where he could drink it.

This month, scientists got around to proving that crows would really do that.

Well, OK, the scientists looked at rooks, a close relative of the crow. (But if you think crows are any less smart, have a look at Recognizing the Intelligence of Crows.)

To prove that the rooks understood the concepts of displacement and volume, they offered a plastic tube in which there was a low level of water, on top of which was floating a worm. The rook could not reach the worm, but when the scientists made some stones available, the rook would drop them into the water one at a time, stopping when the water was just high enough for him to reach the worm. The rooks also would choose larger stones over smaller ones, to get the job done faster.

Seeing is believing:

Aesop used the story to teach the moral that you'll get a job done if you just keep at it. Our scientific community just now got around to recognizing that birds can really be that smart.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Quote from George Adamson

"I really have no patience with people who maintain that an animal's life and actions are governed by pure instinct and conditioned reflexes. Nothing except reasoning powers can explain the careful strategy used by a pride of lions in hunting, and the many examples we have had from Elsa of intelligent and thought out behaviour."
...and he certainly had plenty of hours of actual, careful observation to back up that claim.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Christian's Birthday

Today, August 12, 2009, marks the 40th anniversary of the birth of Christian, the lion that touched the heart of millions of people around the world with his enthusiastic and loving greeting of the two men who had raised him, after they had been apart for a year.

It's amazing that so long after his death (no lion can live for more than 20 or so years) he has more fans than ever and so is accomplishing so much now for wildlife in Africa through the donations he has generated for the work of The George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust and Wildlife Now.

It's amazing for me to think that I've known and promoted his story for 37 years--I still have the 1972 Readers' Digest "condensed" version of the book, which is where I first read about Christian.

I'm going to overuse the word "amazing", but Christian was an amazing lion. You can see his intelligence and spirit in his face. And John Rendall and Ace Bourke are two amazing gentlemen, and did an exceptional job in providing the most wonderful, loving care for him. The bond of love and trust between them and Christian was so great, it even amazed George Adamson, "the father of lions".

I've written a lot about Christian and what he means to us now, and how his legacy has enriched the world. You can use the search box in the right-hand column to find those articles. Or you can revisit the page about Christian that I created back in 2002--the first web page about him. Or you could visit one of the links above to make a donation to the George Adamson Trust to help today's wildlife.

And then you can re-enjoy the beautiful love of a lion for his family:

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Perceptions (Again)

A real toyAnimals are who they are. This site is about raising awareness of who they are. People's perceptions about animals are often far removed from reality, and this applies even to those who are supposed to be objective observers. You can see this theme running throughout all my articles here.

Today, I write about people's perception of other people in relation to animals, housecats specifically, because this particular situation has a direct bearing on the cats' mental well-being.

Purina's division called Tidy Cats, the company that makes cat litter, conducted a survey that led to the conclusion that the majority of people who do not own cats consider those who do own more than one cat to be somewhat mentally out of balance.

Specifically, the terms used to describe those who have more than one cat were:
  • Homebody (75%)
  • Lonely (69%)
  • Crazy cat lady (58%)
Furthermore, the non-cat-owners judge the multiple-cat-owners' houses to be:
  • Smelly (75%)
  • Covered in cat hair (85%)
  • Cluttered (66%)
In the interest of full disclosure, I will say here that I share my home with 3 cats. I would also like to point out that the most common comment from strangers visiting my home, after a cat peers around the corner at the visitor is, "I didn't know you had cats!" So much for the 'smelly' myth. Part of taking proper care of cats is keeping the litter boxes clean. It's that simple.

But why should owning more than one cat be perceived as some sort of personality or mental disorder?

I would tell you that having a reasonable number of cats ("reasonable number" being defined as the number you can take proper care of; and that number will vary depending on the owner's home and abilities) is beneficial for the cats themselves.

Cats are not all loners, as popularly perceived. Last year, we adopted two kittens who had been living together. They are not litter-mates but they are very close in age. They obviously love each other very much, and enjoy each other's company immensely. They normally sleep together and play together.

(Our third cat is much older and is more likely to keep to himself, but he does play with them occasionally and enjoys watching them play at other times.)

The pure joy the cats (especially the younger two) get from each other's company, and the fun they have together, is something I would not want them to be deprived of. While any one of them could get by on his or her own, their lives are obviously enriched by having peers to be with.

So why should owning two or so cats be perceived by so many people as a problem? The people who own the cats don't perceive it that way. It's the people who don't have the experience that perpetuate the myth that it's a problem.

And so we have yet another myth involving animals that needs to be busted.

The Tidy Cats folks have a campaign going to do just that. They call it the Campaign to End Cattiness. I hope it's successful.

The less that people's perceptions of animals are clouded by myths, the better off everyone will be.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Sharks At Play

Everybody knows sharks are just instinct-driven eating machines, right? Can you imagine the word "shark" without the word "attack" close behind?

Well, you know what "everybody knows..." means. (If you don't, then see The Myths of Wild and Domestic and Everybody Knows...) But can you imagine sharks as playful?

The ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research uses the example of the Porbeagle shark to show that sharks do indeed engage in play.

They cite accounts of sharks playing with floating objects. Plus, the sharks will roll in seaweed, apparently just for the tactile pleasure of it. And they will engage in games of chase when one shark swims off trailing a long piece of seaweed.

On the site they acknowledge that people will try to explain such behavior in ways that perpetuate the 'unthinking killing machine' stereotype, but they say that actual observation makes the "play" explanation the most reasonable and compelling.

And, speaking of actual observation, quote:
Many English sport anglers are well aware of the Porbeagle's curiosity. These sharks are apparently fascinated by anglers' balloon floats (from which bait is suspended), prodding them repeatedly with the snout and sometimes even trying to bite the soft, spheroid wonders; when a balloon that a Porbeagle was exploring 'pops', the shark typically shakes its head then pauses momentarily, as though it simply cannot believe its eyes (fish just don't do that sort of thing!).
Unfortunately for the sharks and for our perceptions of the world around us, there's more money to be made from the "killing machine" image.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Disney Force

Combining the themes of my last two posts, there have been several reports in the news this week that people who run guinea pig rescues (and there are a LOT of them) fear that the hit movie G-Force will result in a lot of people buying guinea pigs just because their kids are enthralled by the animated characters, with the end result that the guinea pigs will be dumped in a couple of months when they don't live up to expectations.

I find that a little hard to believe, but I have never really been aware of the influence the media has on people in general. It is a truism that "101 Dalmatians" resulted in mass purchasing of such dogs, which led to mass disappointment when everyone discovered that their temperament is not the same as the hand-drawn puppies on the screen. Now with computer graphics, the on-screen animals can look even more like the real thing, so if line drawings can create such a fad, I suppose animation that looks almost real can, too.

I would hope that parents can have a little bit of sense and buy something like this or this to satisfy a kid's craving for his own furry secret agent. A live animal is not a toy. A toy is a toy. A live animal is a thinking, feeling, loving being.

How about this, parents who must give in to their kids' whims: Guinea pigs pee and poop all the time, they eat their own poop, and your house will smell like a barn unless you constantly clean the cage.

But I suppose the ones who need to be warned won't be reading a column like this.

Guinea pigs do make good pets, for people who have the right temperament. They are social animals and enjoy companionship. They are also fragile and can easily break their backs, which is why I cringe when I think of hordes of kids trying to emulate the movie action with a "disposable" real live animal.

For the thinking person who is considering getting a guinea pig, this page at Seagull's Guinea Pig Compendium looks like a good place to start getting some information.