Monday, February 28, 2011

Domestication: Real, Myth, or Syndrome?

There is an utterly ridiculous article in the current National Geographic magazine. In short, the article says that any "wild" animal can be made into a "domesticated" animal by selective breeding; that "domestication" is determined by genes.

The writer goes so far as to use Biblical terminology to describe man's creation of domesticated species. And we are told that there is a domestication gene in humans that makes us so special.

The whole article is so ridiculous that I have a hard time keeping myself from accusing National Geographic of deliberate misinformation.

I will promise you this: If you have anything to do with animals and you don't want to be hurt or killed, you need to forget the myths of "wild" and "domestic" and think in terms of "socialized" and "non-socialized".

The article deals with animals in terms of stereotypes, apparently ignorant of real life. In real life, more people are killed by horses (a "domestic" animal) than by pet tigers, a stereotypically "wild" animal--and that's on a per-animal basis (you can't just use raw numbers since there are so many more horses). Cows, stereotypically not merely "domesticated" but downright docile, also kill large numbers of people. I can point out any number of dogs you wouldn't want to go near.

On the other side of the coin are the many so-called "wild" animals that people have as pets, that they have properly socialized and live happily with. Even foxes, the central example of the magazine article.

A key flaw in the "domestication is all in the genes" argument is actually pointed out during the course of the article: In comparing wolf and dog genomes, there appeared to be a link to a gene called WBSCR17, which in humans causes Williams-Beuren syndrome, characterized by "elfin features" (ties in with the author's statement that "domestic animals are cuter than wild animals") and "exceptional gregariousness—its sufferers are often overly friendly and trusting of strangers."

Note that humans with this syndrome are called "sufferers" while at the same time we are told this is something we can breed for in animals.

Anyone with any animal experience knows of the chronic medical problems that some breeds have because of selective breeding for various traits. Now they are going to go after other animals and alter their mental states.

If you want a good relationship with an animal, you have to work to establish that relationship. You don't go about it by warping its brain.

The NatGeo article centers around a breeding program that has produced foxes that cry for companionship. Is that domestication or a personality disorder? It sounds to me like something humans would get psychotropic medications to treat. Here's a story of a family that took in a baby fox and get along with her very well, even though she was "wild".

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Eyes of a Wolf

When Bruce Weide was growing up, he considered wolves a menace. He was told a wolf once tried to kill his grandfather, and was convinced wolves regularly ate people. To him, it seemed only natural that Alaska would offer a bounty on dead wolves, and killing a wolf was a service to his community.

When he was a teenager, he went moose hunting with his father and friends. While searching for moose, Weide spotted a wolf a hundred yards away. As Weide sighted the wolf in the scope of his rifle, the wolf turned his head.

"The wolf's amber-green eyes stared at me.... I felt as if the wolf's eyes peered into my soul. I felt exposed and naked before a primal and enduring force.... The eyes reflected an intelligence that I couldn't come close to comprehending at the time."

Weide could not bring himself to shoot that wolf.

For years Weide felt foolish and did not speak of the incident. But he pondered it continuously and he changed from wolf hater to wolf protector. Years later, he would make a film titled The Wolf: Real or Imagined? that looks at how stories about wolves shape our attitudes and perceptions. He and his wife, wildlife biologist Pat Tucker, founded Wild Sentry: The Northern Rockies Ambassador Wolf Program, an educational organization dedicated to correcting misperceptions about wolves.

And it all started by looking into a wolf's eyes. I mean, really looking and paying attention.

You can read more about Weide's ambassador wolf here.

(Most of this post is paraphrased from the introduction to Chris Palmer's book, Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

Totally Silly

Here is a music video/cartoon. Sometimes just plain silliness is a good thing.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Breaking Points

I received the following story in an email a couple of weeks ago. I don't think I could summarize the story any better, so I will quote what I was told. It refers to an incident at Palmetto Ridge High School in Florida on January 24:
On Monday of this week a 14 year old student killed a 16 year old during a fight when they got off the bus. Stabbed the older boy some six times after being hit in the face and gut at least four times. Why he retaliated as he did is now coming out. The older, and much bigger, boy had been bullying the other kid all school year, including beating on him a whole lot. It wasn't a secret either; other students as well as the 14-year-old had told the school authorities, who, of course, did nothing. Even the bus driver had reported attacks, and nothing was done. The younger kid's parents knew, they reported it, nothing was done. Seems the bully was a BMOC, important jock, and his parents didn't want anything done. So, nothing was done. The 14-year-old even tried to not go to school, but because of Florida law his parents had to get him there or they'd be jailed. Two weeks ago the savagely bullied kid refused to go, the cops were called, they took him to school in cuffs. That afternoon the bully hammered on him again. All this was in the reports, all of which were ignored studiously by the school authorities. Then came Monday.

BTW, all of the management of that high school are now in deep doo-doo. There will be changes over there. From what I've heard some 95% of the student body are very happy about that.

photo by Leslie CohelanNow, what has that got to do with the general topic at hand here? It seems to me that there are definite parallels between that story, and the story of Tatiana, the tiger at the San Francisco Zoo that the world heard about in December 2007.

The main question surrounding Tatiana was whether she was provoked by the three people she attacked. A couple of weeks ago I took the author of the book "Fear of the Animal Planet" to task for not presenting a convincing overview of Tatiana's story--anyone researching the story would be knee-deep in conflicting accounts. Now, the Associated Press has provided a key piece to the puzzle. It took a Freedom of Information Act request to get this piece of information, because it had been stricken from the official record. As reported in today's Washington Post:
"With my knowledge of tiger behavior, I cannot imagine a tiger trying to jump out of its enclosure unless it was provoked," Laurie Gage, a tiger expert who investigated the incident for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wrote in a Dec. 27, 2007, draft of her report.

The documents, provided to AP three years after a Freedom of Information Act request, offer the first public glimpse into the findings of the federal investigation. Whether the tiger was provoked has long been a point of contention.

Gage's statement about provocation was stricken from the final version of the report because it was "irrelevant from an Animal Welfare Act enforcement standpoint," said David Sacks, a spokesman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which oversees the nation's zoos.
The Lafayette Journal & Courier has more to the story. The tiger killed one of the tormentors, then,
After sitting with its prey for a short time, Gage wrote that Tatiana likely followed the Dhaliwals' blood trail for about 300 yards to where it resumed attacks. Photographs show blood-smeared asphalt where the tiger apparently dragged Sousa's body.

"After a kill, I find it interesting the tiger would leave a kill to go after something else unless there were a compelling reason," Gage wrote. "The tiger passed exhibits with warthogs which it ignored as it followed [the blood trail] of the two brothers to the Terrace Cafe outside the dining area."

USDA's investigators said they found "some sticks, foreign to the exhibit, and at least one pine cone inside the tiger exhibit indicating that someone may have thrown these items into the enclosure at the tigers."
So, the evidence is now clearer to support author Jason Hribal's contention that the tiger was provoked into action and that her actions were directed and focused. Not mysterious and random ("Keep in mind these are animals: Who knows why they do anything?" said one of the 'victims' attorneys).

Sympathy runs high for the boy in the first story, who was provoked past his breaking point. He will receive a fair trial. In supposedly less enlightened times, Tatiana would have been given similar consideration.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Thick as Sheep

Most people would probably say that sheep are stupid. Nothing but a herd instinct with wool on.

But the people who study sheep are finding that they are very intelligent, even able to master tests that are used to measure human intelligence.

Sheep can not only recognize different plants, they can generalize about them and categorize them by family. This represents thinking beyond the "here and now" that we're told dominates animal thought.

Sheep have been shown to recognize and remember many dozens of faces not only of other sheep, but of humans, too. Watch any animal-themed movie that uses multiple stand-ins for the star and you realize that most people can't distinguish between the faces of different animals.

Sheep can also memorize the routes through mazes (an ability that has many real-life benefits). And while rams fighting with each other may make for good video, they actually form long-term friendships and help their friends in fights. This article in New Scientist magazine also describes how sheep can master a test that it was previously thought only humans and primates could master, a test that requires such complex thinking that it is used to detect the onset of dementia.

What I would like to see, though, is proof of the reports that sheep have learned to lie down and roll over cattle grids that are meant to keep them fenced in. This would be a brilliant maneuver, but there's no video or photo of such a thing. Sheep can jump over 5 foot fences or even squeeze through gaps as small as 8 inches wide, but think what a YouTube sensation it would be if someone could record this rolling maneuver. I'm not saying it's impossible, but seeing it would remove any doubt.

Until that video shows up, here's one smart individual:

Thursday, February 03, 2011

History lesson, and a review of the book it came from.

coverIt is still being taught in universities that animals have no mind, no consciousness. Rene Descartes' despicable, insane notion that animals are nothing but "biological machines" has that deep a hold on our society.

What's interesting, though, is that if you look back before Descartes, back to early colonial America or Medieval Europe or before, you find that people not only believed that animals were conscious beings, they should be considered members of the community. This is most obviously evidenced by judicial trials in which animals, from termites to bears, were accused of committing crimes, from trespassing to murder. They were accorded equal rights under the law, and humans and animals could even be tried together as co-conspirators. Animals were assigned public defenders for these trials.

Underlying all this was the assumption that animals possessed rationality, free will, moral agency, motivation, and emotions.

Then came the "great" philosophers. Descartes took away animals' souls and minds. John Calvin declared that God made the world and its animals for the benefit of humans. John Locke declared animals were "perfect machines". The separation of man from the rest of the world became an unchallenged notion in our society.

Since you are reading this blog, I assume you know how wrong that notion of separateness is. I thought it was interesting to look back in time to when society at large did not have that idea. That history lesson comes from an essay by Jeffrey St. Clair that serves as the introduction to a new book called "Fear of the Animal Planet", by Jason Hribal.

The premise of Hribal's book is that when an animal "attack" makes the news, we should look for and consider the circumstances that led the animal to do that, that the animal was provoked in some way. I don't disagree with that idea; I already held it long before this book appeared.

The book itself is, unfortunately, not going to persuade anyone who doesn't already have that opinion. Most of the book is little more than a listing of various incidents at zoos and theme parks. Hribal doesn't provide the necessary details of what led up to each incident. He needed to provide definite sources and evidence, and he does not. This hurts his effort a great deal. He seems to work on the assumption that ALL zoos, and ALL theme parks, and ALL animal handlers are necessarily and inherently evil; and with this view, providing details becomes unnecessary. This is not the way to get people interested and involved.

The book overall is a slapdash production, which will also put people off. Besides missing details, wrong dates are given, the author rambles off in odd directions, and even falls into incoherency at times. A good editor would need more than one red pencil to take on this book.

Animal attacks make news. The idea that the animal was acting in self-defense or was goaded into such action does not make the news. Bringing the idea of animals as intelligent emotional creatures to the forefront of our societal thinking is a very vital necessity for them and for us. This would be a major paradigm shift, and it's going to take a better effort than what was put into this book.

The first three-quarters of Jeffrey St. Clair's introduction is actually the most compelling part of the book. Maybe he should take on the job of producing a second edition.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Bear Society

Ben KilhamBen Kilham has a knack for bears. North American black bears, specifically. He loves them, he understands them, he spends many days with them each year, he has raised orphan cubs. Most importantly, he pays close attention to them.

By paying attention, he has come to know, and has described, bear society. Bears are social animals, he says, and have a complex society based on altruistic sharing of food. He knows at least some of their language and he has observed their interactions.

But while Ben Kilham may have a knack for bears, he does not have "scientific" credentials. So, those who do have such credentials feel free to ignore him and what he says. Never mind that what he says makes sense. Never mind that his observations are so thorough and astute that he discovered something that no scientist ever knew before: that bears have an olfactory organ in the roof of their mouths (similar to the Jacob's Organ in cats, for example).

What's incredible to me is that scientists cling to their conclusion that bears do not interact socially; that they are solitary animals. This is based on nothing more than the fact that no scientist has observed bears closely enough to notice their society. Anyone with any interest in logical thought knows that lack of evidence is not proof of anything. Science has jumped to a conclusion about bears' behavior based on lack of evidence.

Ben Kilham has the first-hand evidence, and it makes sense. Science tells us that many different animals live solitary lives, but I believe that if these animals were really and truly observed it would be discovered that they actually have complex societies. Take tigers. "Everybody knows" that they live solitary lives in the wild. But they are extremely difficult to observe in the wild and of necessity have extremely large ranges. They have a complex vocal language, they get along well with each other in captivity--why should anyone conclude that they do not naturally have their own society?

Thankfully, Ben Kilham is not daunted. He is willing to give lectures on what he has learned about bears. He continues to observe, and film, and write about them. He's doing what he can to improve the world's knowledge of bears. Let's hope science one day will decide to pay attention.

Ben Kilham has his own site at