Animals & Pets


Two signs posted on the door of a nondescript dental office here asked passers-by to mourn the death of Cecil, a lion who was lured off his sanctuary and killed during a game hunt this month in Zimbabwe.

“WE ARE CECIL,” one read; “#CatLivesMatter,” read another. Nearby was a sign with a darker message for the dentist who said he killed the cat: “ROT IN HELL.”

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In the hours since Dr. Walter J. Palmer apologized for killing the lion, he has gone from a dentist and longtime hunting enthusiast to a villain at the center of a firestorm over the ethics of big-game trophy hunting.

“I had no idea that the lion I took was a known, local favorite, was collared and part of a study, until the end of the hunt,” Dr. Palmer said in a statement. “I relied on the expertise of my local professional guides to ensure a legal hunt.”

The outrage and attention surrounding the lion’s death online caused Dr. Palmer to keep his office closed on Wednesday as he joined an ever-expanding group of people who have become targets of Internet vigilantism, facing a seemingly endless shaming until the next issue comes along.

After Zimbabwean officials identified Dr. Palmer as the hunter, activists used search engines to find his contact information and social media to share information about his business and his family, stirring a fever pitch of anger strong enough to effectively dismantle his digital life. Angry people sent a surge of traffic to Dr. Palmer’s website, which was taken offline. Vitriolic reviews flooded his Yelp page. A Facebook page titled “Shame Lion Killer Dr. Walter Palmer and River Bluff Dental” drew thousands of users. Dr. Palmer’s face was scrubbed from industry websites.

Even a local crisis management expert was pulled in to the fray. The specialist, Jon Austin, who operates a Minneapolis-based communications firm, said in an email that he had been asked only to circulate Dr. Palmer’s initial statement.

On Wednesday, Mr. Austin ended his involvement with the matter, but not before his own Yelp page was flooded by angry commenters.

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At Dr. Palmer’s office here, a memorial to the lion sprung up with red roses and more than a dozen plush toys, many of them jungle animals, strewn outside the locked front door.

“Murderer! Terrorist!” one protester, Rachel Augusta, screamed into a megaphone.

No one answered repeated knocks and doorbell rings at Dr. Palmer’s large, stucco house in an affluent neighborhood. And his neighbors would not talk.

Trophy hunting, undertaken by wealthy hunters who pay tens of thousands of dollars for licenses to kill protected animals for trophies and sport, has long been a subject of global debate. Hunting advocates and some conservationists argue that, if done responsibly, the selling of expensive licenses to big-game hunters can help pay for efforts to protect endangered species.

A 2009 study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimated that trophy hunters killed around 600 lions a year. Last October, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list the African lion as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a move that would also establish guidelines for permitting the importing of lion trophies. That proposal is under review.

Cecil had been closely studied by researchers at the University of Oxford since 2008 as part of efforts to study a decline in Africa’s lion population and to better understand the threats the animals face. The university’sWildlife Conservation Research Unit said in a statement that Cecil’s adult “brothers” and cubs would probably be killed by other male lions seeking dominance in the community.

Debates over trophy hunting have long been held among conservationists and animal rights activists without reaching the mainstream. When a Texas man reportedly paid $350,000 to hunt and kill a black rhinoceros in Namibia this year, the furor largely stayed within that community. But the death of Cecil, a 13-year-old lion who wandered out of his sanctuary in a national park in Zimbabwe, struck a chord.

Dr. Palmer had paid around $54,000 to hunt the animal, according to news reports, and in 2009, he paid $45,000 at an auction to help preserve an elk habitat in California. He was profiled that year in The New York Times when he shot and killed an elk from 75 yards with a compound bow in pursuit of a bowhunting record.

According to the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, the lion was shot with a crossbow after he was lured out of the sanctuary, following the scent of food. Cecil, well known to those who visited Hwange National Park in western Zimbabwe for his jet black mane, was only injured by the arrow. The hunters tracked him for about two days before he was killed with a gun, conservation officials said. He was beheaded and skinned, his corpse left to rot.

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Two Zimbabwean men, a farm owner and a professional hunter who are accused of helping Dr. Palmer, appeared in court on Wednesday on poaching charges. Zimbabwean officials said Dr. Palmer was also being sought on poaching charges.

Erin Flior, who specializes in crisis management at the public relations firm Levick, said that frequent cases of widespread social media outrage had made digital crisis and reputation management a growing specialty. She recalled cases in which clients had to move or consider changing their names.

“The fact that it crosses my desk at all means it happens too much, in my opinion,” Ms. Flior said. “It really tends to be instances where a very educated, tech-savvy crowd has jumped on board that those kind of instances get taken to that level where personal information is being released.”

JULY 29, 2015

With half as many neurons in their cerebral cortex as cats—and half the attitude, some would say—dogs are often taken to be the less intelligent domestic partner. While dogs drink out of the toilet, slavishly follow their master and need a chaperone to relieve themselves, cats hunt self-sufficiently and survey their empire with a regal gaze.

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Cats can hold grudges and look like kings—but when it comes to memory, dogs get the pat on the head.

If you show a child a red block and a green block, and then ask for the chromium block, not the red block, most children will give you the green block, despite not knowing that the word “chromium” can refer to a shade of green. Children infer the name of the object. They know that you can’t be referring to the red block.

In 2004, Juliane Kaminski from Britain’s University of Portsmouth and her colleagues published the results of a similar experiment with a dog called Rico who knew the names of hundreds of objects.

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Pole gets ready to play at the Duke Canine Cognition Center.

Dr. Kaminski showed Rico an object that he had never seen before, along with seven other toys that he knew by name. Then she asked Rico to fetch a toy using a word that was new to him, like “Sigfried.” Just like human tots with the word “chromium,” Rico was immediately able to infer that “Sigfried” referred to the new toy. Since the report on Rico, several other dogs have also been shown to make inferences this way. Dogs are the only animals that have demonstrated this humanlike ability.

Based on the ability of cats to hold a grudge, you might think that they have better memories than dogs. Not so. Several years ago, Sylvain Fiset of Canada’s University of Moncton and colleagues reported experiments in which a dog or cat watched while a researcher hid a reward in one of four boxes. After a delay, they were allowed to search for the treat. Cats started guessing after only one minute. But even after four minutes, dogs hadn’t forgotten where they saw the food.

Still, dog owners should not be too smug. In 2010, Krista Macpherson and William Roberts of the University of Western Ontario published a study that tested navigational memory, in which dogs had to search for food in a maze with eight arms radiating out from a central position. The researchers then looked at rats previously given the same test. They beat dogs by a wide margin. 

Animal Planet’s “Puppy Bowl” pups take a romp in The Wall Street Journal studios. (And leave us a special, uh, surprise). Watch them Super Bowl Sunday at 3 p.m. EST just before kickoff. 

While it may seem intuitive that most doggies know how to paddle, some need a little instruction. WSJ’s Geoffrey Fowler attends a canine swimming class. Even the dog’s closest relative, the wolf, beat its cousin when food was placed on the opposite side of a fence, as shown in a 1982 study by Harry and Martha Frank of the University of Michigan.

In 2001, Peter Pongrácz and colleagues from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary published a study with an important qualification to this earlier finding: When the experimenters showed dogs a human rounding the fence first, the dogs could solve the problem immediately.This is the secret to the genius of dogs: It’s when dogs join forces with us that they become special.Nowhere is this clearer than when dogs are reading our gestures. Every dog owner has helped her dog find a lost ball or treat by pointing in the right direction. No other animal—not even our closest relatives, bonobos and chimpanzees—can interpret our gestures as flexibly as dogs.

So are dogs smarter than cats? In a sense, but only if we cling to a linear scale of intelligence that places sea sponges at the bottom and humans at the top. Species are designed by nature to be good at different things.And what might the genius of cats be? Possibly, that they just can’t be bothered playing our silly games or giving us the satisfaction of discovering the extent of their intelligence.

* By Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods

—Dr. Hare is the director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, and Ms. Woods is a research scientist at Duke University. This essay is adapted from their new book, “The Genius of Dogs,” published by Dutton.

A version of this article appeared February 1, 2013, on page C3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Dogs.

He was on Ecuador‘s bank notes and stamps, an evolutionary remnant, a money-spinning tourist attraction and an icon of internationalconservation. No one knew if he was gay, impotent, bored or just very shy. But he is thought to have been about 100 years old and in his primewhen he died on Sunday at the Charles Darwin research centre in theGalápagos Islands, although the giant tortoise known as Lonesome George and commonly called the “rarest animal on Earth” may in fact have been far older – or much younger.

In the 40 years he spent in a field on Santa Cruz Island, having been relocated from Pinta Island in 1972, the 200lb, 5ft-long animal showed little interest in either man or other tortoises. He mostly ignored thefemale company provided to encourage him to breed, kept his 3ft scraggy neck down in the long grass, and only responded to his keeper, Fausto Llerena, who runs a tortoise breeding centre.

“The park ranger in charge of looking after the tortoises found Lonesome George, his body was motionless,” said Edwin Naula, head of the Galápagos National Park. “His lifecycle came to an end.”

George was found near a water hole, but no one knows how or why he died, and evolutionary scientists are still baffled by his life in the volcanic Pacific islands 1,000km off Ecuador that inspired Darwin’s theories on evolution and which are now a global laboratory for conservation.

The last known representative of the giant Galápagos tortoise subspecies Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni had every reason to shun humanity, however. His relatives were exterminated for food or oil by whalers and seal hunters in the 19th century, and his habitat on Pinta was devastated by escaped goats. George possibly has relations on neighbouring Isabela Island, but it is more likely his whole subspecies is now extinct – the end of what is probably a 10m-year-old line.

On Monday, scientists who had spent time with George recalled his peculiar ways. “George was the last of his kind. He had a unique personality. His natural tendency was to avoid people. He was very evasive. He had his favourites and his routines, but he really only came close to his keeper Llerena. He represents what we wanted to preserve for ever. When he looked at you, you saw time in the eyes,” said Joe Flanagan, the head vet of the Houston zoo, who knew George for more than 20 years.

Scientists’ attempts to get George to mate with other giant tortoises from the Galápagos Islands and to eventually repopulate Pinta all failed and were often comical. Artificial insemination did not work, nor did a $10,000 reward offered by the Ecuadorean government for a suitable mate. In the 1990s, Sveva Grigioni, a Swiss zoology graduate student, smeared herself with female tortoise hormones and, in the cause of science, spent four months trying to manually stimulate him – to no avail.

In 2008 and 2009 George unexpectedly mated with one of his two companions, but although two clutches of eggs were collected and incubated, all failed to hatch.

Henry Nicholls, author of Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of the World’s Most Famous Tortoise, reported that George was irresistibly attracted to the late Lord Devon’s wartime helmet, presumably because it resembled the shell of a young tortoise. Even after being put on a diet, the celibate tortoise with the scraggy neck, who could have been expected to live until he was well over 200, remained obstinately alone.

Conservation scientists on Monday said George was important because he symbolised both the rapid loss of biodiversity now taking place around the world, and provided the inspiration to begin restoring it in places like the Galápagos Islands. “Because of George’s fame, Galápagos tortoises which were down to just a few animals on some islands have recovered their populations. He opened the door to finding new genetic techniques to help them breed and showed the way to restore habitats,” said Richard Knab of the Galápagos Conservancy, which is running giant tortoise breeding programmes with the Ecuadorean government.

In 1960, 11 of the Galápagos Islands’ original 14 populations of tortoises remained, and most were on the point of extinction. Today, around 20,000 giant tortoises of different subspecies inhabit the islands and most of the feral goats have been eradicated.

But George will be sorely missed for financial reasons, too. As the star of the islands and an icon of global wildlife, he helped attract 180,000 money-spinning visitors a year to the archipelago. He is likely to become a conservation relic and will probably be embalmed and displayed – alone still.

 

* By , environment editor, Guardian, 25 June 2012

 Glauco Machado’s plans for his future were not working out the way he had hoped. It was 1996, and he was an undergraduate in São Paulo, Brazil. He knew he wanted to be a biologist and to study amphibians with a professor who specialized in their behavior. Then the professor died in a car crash.

An adviser was essential to starting a research career, but no one else at his university worked on amphibians. He was bereft. For a field biologist studying behavior, the animals that are the subjects of study may turn out to be lifelong companions. The young biologist had already given up on tortoises, his first love, because there were none nearby. Now amphibians were out. What was he to do?

A friend and fellow biology student reminded him that his real interest was in studying behavior, not a specific animal, and told him about a cave with large numbers of a relatively unstudied order of arachnids (spiders, ticks, mites and other creatures that people commonly call insects, but are not), easily observed, with a wide range of behaviors. The creatures in question were harvestmen; the most familiar North American member is the daddy longlegs.

As Dr. Machado, now head of the Laboratory of Arthropod Behavior and Evolution at the University of São Paulo, recalled recently, he had never heard of this group, but he was intrigued enough to go to the cave, where he encountered one small problem. “I am a little arachnophobic,” he said, “a little bit.” And “there were huge spiders inside the cave.”

For a moment he hesitated, but the harvestmen drew his gaze, some of them gathered in tangled groups of spindly legs and small bodies, others guarding nests of eggs. “They were amazing,” he said. In three months he had enough information to persuade an ant specialist at the university to advise him, and to publish his first scientific paper; he had found his life’s work.

“It was,” he said, “completely accidental.”

Now, a decade and a half later, Dr. Machado is one of the foremost experts on the creatures he first saw in the cave. He was at the annual meeting of the Animal Behavior Society here this month to describe the extraordinary amount of care that males in some varieties of harvestmen take of nests and eggs, and how he and his colleagues had experimentally demonstrated the reason. Within those groups, the nest-guarding males attracted more females and had more opportunities to copulate.

He was an editor of the definitive work on the creatures, and the research he and colleagues in his lab have done is drawing the attention of other scientists to a once obscure group.

This kind of career is often recounted by field biologists, an accidental start leading to a lifelong passion for an animal others might ignore. Although the framework of science may seem hyper-rational, some decisions are more like choosing a spouse than designing an experiment, with room for serendipity and accident.

The childhood of the biologist Edward O. Wilson offers one of the best-known tales of turning an accident to good use. Dr. Wilson, among his many other achievements, is a world authority on ants. He is an author, with Berth Holldobler of “The Ants,” the definitive tome on this subject, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991, a rare achievement for a book of serious science.

But birds were his first love. He lost the sight in one eye in a childhood accident, and with it the depth perception needed to pick birds out in the forest leaves. He turned instead to close observation of the forest floor, and ants. He wrote in his autobiography, “Naturalist,” that “most children go through a bug phase. I just never grew out of it.”

Some passions are easily understood. Jane Goodall loves chimpanzees, which she described as, “next to Homo sapiens, the most fascinating and complex in the world today.” Elephants, lions, wolves and ravens have caused scientists to fall in love with them as well as study them.

Other loves are more difficult for people outside of the field to grasp. Mark Siddall at the American Museum of Natural History is a great fan of the animals he studies — leeches. He told The New York Times in an article a few years ago that as a child, he hated leeches. They would attach themselves to him while he was swimming. Now he collects them all over the world.

It may be that field scientists, in their professional lives, learn to love the one they’re with, so to speak, or the one that will interest an adviser, and get a grant. Certainly, scientists are not trained to pick the animal that they love to study. And there is no rule that they have to stick with one animal, even if that often happens.

I asked Marlene Zuk, a professor in the department of ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota, who wrote a book about insects, “Sex on Six Legs,” whether she had stayed with insects, or one variety of insect.

She said that she had studied several animals, including red jungle fowl, the ancestor of chickens, and had a strong interest in birds as well as insects, but that crickets had been her main focus for many years. She said that graduate students in animal behavior are encouraged to think of what question they want to ask, not what animal they want to study. If a romance ensues, well, scientists are human.

And when passionate connections are formed, they can be contagious. She said in an e-mail that because of the work of Dr. Machado and his lab, “I have developed a huge love of harvestmen.”

Dr. Zuk said that insects have a strong appeal to her partly because they are so different from people that it is hard to anthropomorphize them. She has stuck with crickets, she says, because “I keep finding out interesting things with them, some of them serendipitously. Also, I wanted an animal that had a sexual signal that was easy to analyze, and one that got parasites.”

“But,” she added, “I do really like them, also.”

 

* By , NYT,—June 25, 2012

Burgeoning populations of wild animals in cities and suburbs throughout the country may thrill folks who rarely, if ever, see such creatures outside a zoo or museum, but these animals can wreak havoc on human health and safety.

Wildlife experts say that human activities, as well as groups that oppose culling troublesome animals, are directly or indirectly responsible for many of the risks to people. To save life and limb, it pays to know what is out there and how to reduce the chances of hazardous encounters with wildlife in our midst.
At least six coyotes have found their way into New York City this year, including one that crossed the Hudson via the Holland Tunnel. The animals move easily into residential areas along travel corridors like greenways, power lines and train tracks, according to Paul D. Curtis, a wildlife specialist at Cornell University who studies human-wildlife interactions and ways to minimize their negative consequences.

Although coyotes are rarely a threat to people, Dr. Curtis said in an interview that they can be aggressive when breeding and rearing pups. In just the last week and a half, in separate instances, two young girls, ages 6 and 3, were attacked by coyotes in their Rye, N.Y., backyards. Small children have been attacked in Los Angeles and Arizona, Dr. Curtis said, and small dogs everywhere are at risk, even when on a leash.

In January 2009, a flock of Canada geese got sucked into the two jet engines of a loaded US Airways flight and forced an emergency landing in the Hudson, a stone’s throw from Manhattan. The resident population of urban and suburban geese has soared to more than 4 million of these 10-pound birds, each of which deposits a pound of slippery excrement a day, often on park paths, golf courses and athletic fields.

Raccoons, the most adaptable of urban wildlife, rummage through trash cans, snack on pet foods left outside and occasionally break into homes, where they can cause serious destruction in search of food.

The animals may bite when cornered. But their main risk to humans and pets is rabies. There are now rabid raccoons in many areas east of Ohio, including Central Park and Nassau County, where wildlife experts are studying novel ways to get them vaccinated.

White-tailed deer wander fearlessly into suburban yards and fields, munching on crops and ornamental plantings, spreading dreaded ticks that cause Lyme disease. A hungry deer consumes six to eight pounds of vegetation a day, often with little respect for lists of deer-resistant plants.

Deer kill far more people each year than do alligators, and cause over 1.5 million car accidents a year (more than 70,000 in New York State alone).
You need not have seen black bears roaming around Woodstock, N.Y., in April to know that they had ended their hibernation. Overturned garbage cans, with their nonedible contents strewn over lawns and roadsides, were a dead giveaway.

The animals are well established on the west side of the Hudson, where they have caused an occasional fatality. Get between a mother and her cub and you may become history.

The range of black bears has more than doubled along the entire southern border of New York State and across the Hudson in the last decade. “I don’t think black bears will come to New York City, but I’d never say never,” Dr. Curtis remarked.
Dos and Don’ts

Heading the list of negative human behaviors is feeding wild animals, directly or unintentionally. Providing food can cause them to lose their fear of people and bring potentially aggressive quick-footed creatures, like coyotes, bears and raccoons, much too close to potential prey, like children and pets.
Edible garbage should not be left outside in unsecured containers where bears and raccoons can forage. If you live near a city park, like Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and you find your trash can ravaged, chances are a raccoon was responsible. Garbage should be placed in metal cans with tight-fitting lids and enclosed in a bin or attached to a solid object.

In residential areas like Woodstock, the bears seem to know what night people put out their garbage for morning collection. They are capable of overturning almost any can except a bear-proof dumpster.
Composting food items is also a bad idea, unless it is done behind a fence that can keep out bears and raccoons. Otherwise, limit compost to nonfood items like leaves.
Pets should be fed indoors; never leave pet food outside. Dr. Curtis recommends taking down bird feeders in summer (bears love bird food) and picking up fruit that drops from trees.

Make sure your chimney has a cap; raccoons without a tree den will use chimneys to raise their young. You can keep out skunks by sealing off openings under porches, decks and crawl spaces.

Unless your property is surrounded by a tall fence, try planting only what deer dislike — plants that are bitter, pungent, toxic or prickly, like rosemary, chives, daffodils, boxwood, barberry, juniper and other evergreens (though a very hungry deer will eat almost anything). Keep bird feeders out of a deer’s reach.
Unless you have a large or aggressive dog that lives outdoors, vegetable gardens should be fenced to keep deer out. (Use chicken wire buried a foot below ground level to deter rabbits and small rodents.) Deer repellents do help, if sprayed often on vulnerable plants. I’ve had luck with a smelly (to deer, at least) fertilizer called Milorganite (made from human waste) sprinkled on the soil around ornamental plantings.

To reduce the ever-growing population of urban and suburban geese, biologists have demonstrated that removing the eggs and nests of locally breeding birds encourages them to find other residences more hospitable than local parks. Other control efforts, like harassing geese with border collies, firecrackers, remote-controlled boats, high-powered lasers and strobe lights, have not worked unless they were done daily, Dr. Curtis said.
Research is under way to control the spread of Lyme-carrying deer ticks. In heavily infested areas of New York State, like Shelter Island and Fire Island, corn-stocked feeding stations equipped with neck rollers treated with tick-killing chemicals have reduced the tick population by 70 to 90 percent, according to preliminary results. A similar tactic under study in Central Park — providing feed laced with rabies vaccine — appears to be effective in reducing this deadly hazard from city-dwelling raccoons.

Dr. Curtis urged prompt reporting of any raccoon acting abnormally, like foraging during the day, coming close to people or walking with an odd gait.
Localities that have experimented with culling deer and bears have demonstrated a significant reduction in motor vehicle accidents and fatalities caused by these animals. Hunting, the main deer-control technique of decades past, has declined greatly. However, states that encourage the killing of does have found that it can control the deer population better than the killing of bucks.


By JANE E. BRODY (NYT. July 5, 2010)

No one knows how many Philippine forest turtles (Siebenrockiella leytensis) are left in the wild, but however many there are, the number is rapidly shrinking thanks to illegal trade, says Pierre Fidenci, President of Endangered Species International in San Francisco.

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Once believed to be extinct, the forest turtle was rediscovered in 2001 when scientists found several turtles for sale in a local market. Since then, a single population has been located on the island of Palawan, but it is already dwindlng. “In some creeks where the Philippine forest turtle used be abundant, it is now very difficult to find it, if not impossible,” Fidenci says.

Why the decline? The turtle is so rare, and so striking, it has become highly desirable in the pet trade, says Fidenci. Over the last four years, ESI staff have found more than 170 turtles for sale at pet markets in Manila. ESI found that the turtles were kept hidden in the back of stores and brought to potential buyers only when it was felt that there were no risks involved. “There is no doubt that more than 500 turtles are sold every year,” Fidenci says. The species is legally protected in the Philippines, but enforcement is rare.

The species’ rediscovery in the wild was, Fidenci says, “the trigger for its sharp decline. Demand amongst pet traders for this enigmatic and rare turtle was immediately rampant.” ESI investigations have found the turtles selling for between $50 and $75 in the Philippines, but after export to Japan, Europe and the United States, prices skyrocketed as high as $2,500 each, says Fidenci.

The group has pressed local authorities to target illegal traders in Palawan, but nothing much has happened. So far, it’s “business as usual and no actions have been undertaken to really stop the trade because there is a lack of leadership to move forward,” says Fidenci.

So how can the turtle be saved? Fidenci is calling for the creation of a special unit to monitor illegal trade and creation of alternative livelihoods for the people who are catching turtles in the wild. One approach he advocates is to transform “traders into conservationists and reward them for their protection achievement.” Since the turtles’ habitat is just 150 km by 50 km, Fidenci says this wouldn’t require much in the way of resources, and “we can achieve our goal in saving this turtle from becoming extinct.”

 

*  Pierre Fidenci; 19 MAY 2009

With the number of confirmed U.S. swine flu cases double the 20 it was yesterday, the government says that it is closely monitoring the swine flu outbreak and is preparing for further spread.

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“This is obviously the cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert, but it’s not a cause for alarm,” President Obama said today at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

In the U.S., 40 cases have been confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in five different states: New York, California, Texas, Ohio and Kansas. All individuals have recovered, including the one that was hospitalized, Richard Besser, acting director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), said in a press conference today. Twenty of the cases have stemmed from a New York City preparatory school. Although that’s more than twice the number originally reported, the additional cases were a result of further testing rather than continued spread of the flu, Besser noted. The CDC is distributing kits to test for swine flu in affected states, and as testing ramps up, Besser said, “I expect we will see other cases across the country.”

New cases are being reported in Canada and across the Atlantic, according to a report by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota. As of April 26, six confirmed cases of swine flu in Canada and one in Israel had been reported. An informal map of cases worldwide is being collected by a biomedical researcher in Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, the European Union has issued a travel warning to citizens, urging them to avoid nonessential travel to the U.S. or Mexico, reports The New York Times. The CDC will be distributing information cards at U.S. ports of entry to inform travelers about the flu’s symptoms and precautions that should be taken to avoid it. Later today, the CDC will also issue a travel advisory recommending that all nonessential travel to Mexico be avoided.

“This is a serious event, and we’re taking it seriously,” Besser said. “This situation is evolving very quickly,” he said, and a clear picture of how the disease is spreading may not be available for another week or two.

Although a vaccine for the flu strain, which is similar to those responsible for the 1918 and 1957 outbreaks, is likely months away, biotechnology companies are anxious to get to work, notes FierceBiotech, a biotech industry newsletter. The CDC is discussing whether to include strains of this flu in next year’s flu vaccines.

By dubbing the outbreak a public health emergency yesterday, the government authorized states to release 25 percent of their antiviral drugs from the Strategic National Stockpile, which means that 11 million courses of the drugs are en route to the affected states, said Besser.

Although the drugs could help treat those infected with the virus, Besser noted that, “there’s no single action that will control an outbreak… It starts with personal responsibility, but it doesn’t end there.” He recommended that people take standard precautions such as frequent hand washing, covering coughs and sneezes and staying home from work and school if feeling ill.

At the speech to the NSA, Obama concluded, “If there was ever a day that reminded us of our shared stake in science and research, it is today.”

By Katherine Harmon

That might be stretching things but, as an expert on animal cognition discusses, certain birds display startling abilities and intelligence

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Irene Pepperberg is associate research professor at Brandeis University and the author of a new book, Alex and Me. She and Jonah Lehrer, the editor of Mind Matters, discuss what Alex and other African Grey Parrots can teach us about the evolution of intelligence and the concept of zero.

LEHRER: What first got you interesting in study avian intelligence? After all, to say someone has a “bird brain” is insulting.

PEPPERBERG: I had parakeets as pets as a child, and I knew they were quite smart. For instance, they could learn to say words and phrases in context. But I didn’t connect that to science at the time. I trained in chemistry at MIT and chemical physics at Harvard, not even knowing that a new field, animal cognition, was developing in psychology. It wasn’t until I saw the first NOVA programs, in 1974, on ape signing, dolphin intelligence and the one on “Why Do Birds Sing?” that I realized that one could look at animal-human communication and animal intelligence in a scientific way. That’s when I realized that no one was looking at parrots, which could actually talk. I decided to use their ability to produce human speech sounds to examine their cognitive processes.

LEHRER: Were you surprised by Alex’s talents?

PEPPERBERG: In general, no. But occasionally he would do something that was really impressive, jumping beyond the task at hand, transferring his knowledge unexpectedly from one domain to another. That’s when I’d get surprised.

LEHRER: What do you think was Alex’s most impressive cognitive feat?

PEPPERBERG: The work on the “zero-like” concept. He had shown that he could label the number of a subset of items in a heterogeneous mixture (for example, tell us the number of blue blocks in a mixture of red and blue balls and red and blue blocks), but we hadn’t tested his comprehension of number. That task was important, because young children, at a particular stage in number learning, can label a set but can’t, for example, remove a specific number of marbles from a big heap.

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So we were testing him on number comprehension, again showing him heterogeneous mixtures of different numbers of objects of different colors (for instance, two blue keys, five purple keys, six green keys and asking, “What color is six?”). As was his wont, he was at about 90 percent accuracy on the first dozen or so trials, but we needed far more for statistical significance. The problem was that he just did not want to comply. He began to turn his back to us, throw the objects on the floor, or give us all the wrong answers and repeat the wrong answers so that, statistically, we knew he was avoiding the correct response. We started bribing him with candies and treats to get him to work. One day, in the midst of this, I’m testing him with a tray of three, four and six blocks of different colors, and I ask, “What color three?” He replies, “Five.” At first, I was puzzled: there was no set of five on the tray. We repeat this interaction several times, and he consistently says, “Five.” Finally, in frustration, I ask, “OK, what color five?” He says “none”! Not only had he transferred the use of “none” from a same-different task, where “none” was the response if nothing about two objects was indeed “same” or “different,” to the absence of a numerical set, but he had also figured out how to manipulate me into asking him the question he wanted to answer!

LEHRER: What can bird intelligence teach us about the evolution of human intelligence? Birds and primates parted ways a long time ago.

PEPPERBERG: Yes, primates and birds separated about 280 million years ago. But Alex’s abilities show us that it’s important to examine parallel evolution and to be willing to examine how a brain functions, not only how it looks. The cortical-like area of the parrot brain looks nothing like human cortex, but it is derived from the same pallial areas as is human cortex, functions in a similar manner and takes up roughly the same proportion of space. We also must examine the conditions that likely selected for intelligence in evolution. Grey parrots, for example, like nonhuman primates, are long-lived and exist in a complex ecological and social environment. Likely the same conditions that selected for intelligence in nonhuman primates were at work in the parrot lineage.

LEHRER: In your book, you describe repeated examples of scientists and journals ignoring and discounting your results. Why do you think people are so resistant to the idea of bird intelligence? And have things improved?

PEPPERBERG: When I started my research, very few scientists studied any bird other than the pigeon, and used any technique other than operant conditioning. Pigeons did not perform very well compared to other animals (such as rats and nonhuman primates), and were thus considered to be lacking in intelligence; scientists extrapolated their findings to all birds. At the time, scientists didn’t understand how the avian brain functioned, and thought it lacked any significant cortex. And, of course, when I began my research, some scientists started discounting much that had been done in the field of human-animal communication. So, when I started working with a parrot, and chose to use a nontraditional training method, few in the scientific community would give credit to Alex’s achievements.

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Whether or not things have improved depends a lot upon whom you ask. Many scientists do appreciate what Alex did and have been inspired to further investigate the abilities of all birds—not only parrots and corvids, but also to perform new research with pigeons.

Other scientists, intent on proving the uniqueness of humans, tend to discount my research. Much of the work in avian cognition has shifted to Europe now, with large grants going to researchers in the U.K. (St. Andrews, Cambridge, Oxford) and other countries in the E.U. (such as Austria). Unfortunately, very little funding is available here in the U.S.

“Alex & Me,” Irene Pepperberg’s memoir of her 30-year scientific collaboration with an African gray parrot, was written for the legions of Alex’s fans, the (probably) millions whose lives he and she touched with their groundbreaking work on nonhuman communication. Alex — for anyone who missed the commemorations last year in The Economist, Nature, The New York Times and on the radio and TV — could label more than a hundred objects and understood the concept of categories, as well as bigger-smaller, same-different and absence. (The Guardian called Alex “smarter than the average U.S. president.”) To anyone who’s dreamed of talking with the animals, Dr. Doolittle style, Alex was a revelation.

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For a technical analysis of his feats, you’ll want to read Pepperberg’s book “The Alex Studies,” published in 2000. The present book, in contrast, is largely celebratory — light on science, heavy on cute animal stories and heartwarming in its depiction of what was either a fruitful professional collaboration or a weirdly dependent friendship, or both. Still, it isn’t all billing and cooing: a strain of “I’ll show them” runs through the text. Accusations against the scientific establishment, which at first denied Pepperberg funding, publication, prestigious appointments and professional respect, propel the narrative.

Pepperberg’s basic biography ought to be rousing (nerdy girl abandons career in chemistry to pursue animal intelligence; is rejected by establishment; achieves international acclaim). But she tells her own story with far less emotion than she does Alex’s. There’s much that Pepperberg is unwilling to reveal — about her cold and controlling parents, her failed marriage and her relationships with colleagues. That’s the author’s prerogative, but it leaves a reader wondering how she ended up in her 50s, alone and jobless, reduced to eating 14 tofu meals a week (to save money, not the earth). Her approach to herself is neither scientific nor humanistic: the woman remains an enigma.

Alex, on the other hand, is a delight — a one-pound, three-dimensional force of nature. Mischievous and cocky, he also gets bored and frustrated. (And who wouldn’t, when asked to repeat tasks 60 times to ensure statistical significance?) He shouts out correct answers when his colleagues (other birds) fail to produce them. If Pepperberg inadvertently greets another bird first in the morning, Alex sulks all day and refuses to cooperate. He demands food, toys, showers, a transfer to his gym.
This ornery reviewer tried to resist Alex’s charms on principle (the principle that says any author who keeps telling us how remarkable her subject is cannot possibly be right). But his achievements got the better of me. During one training session, Alex repeatedly asked for a nut, a request that Pepperberg refused (work comes first). Finally, Alex looked at her and said, slowly, “Want a nut. Nnn . . . uh . . . tuh.”


“I was stunned,” Pepperberg writes. “It was as if he were saying, ‘Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it out for you?’ ” Alex had leaped from phonemes to sound out a complete word — a major leap in cognitive processing. Perching near a harried accountant, Alex asks over and over if she wants a nut, wants corn, wants water. Frustrated by the noes, he asks, “Well, what do you want?” Mimicry? Maybe. Still, it made me laugh.
After performing major surgery on Alex, a doctor hands him, wrapped in a towel, to an overwrought Pepperberg. Alex “opened an eye, blinked, and said in a tremulous voice, ‘Wanna go back.’ ” It’s a phrase Alex routinely used to mean “I’m done with this, take me back to my cage.” The scene is both wrenching — Alex had been near death — and creepy, evoking the talking bundle in “Eraserhead.”


Pepperberg frames her story with Alex’s death: the sudden shock of it, and the emotional abyss into which she fell. Ever the scientist, she wonders why she felt so strongly. The answer she comes up with is both simple — her friend was dead — and complex. At long last, and buoyed by the outpouring of support from people around the world, she could express the emotions she’d kept in check for 30 years, the better to convince the scientific establishment that she was a serious researcher generating valid and groundbreaking data (some had called her claims about animal minds “vacuous”). When Alex died, that weight lifted.


BUT in revealing how Alex lived, and the day-to-day workings of her lab, Pepperberg may soon find herself open to fresh criticism. Her book raises an important question: why, if Alex has the cognitive skills of a young child, and even seems to grasp such concepts as love, would anyone confine him to a cage in a lab? Why run him through the drills, or scold him for getting answers “wrong”? (“You turkey,” he’d say, mimicking his trainers, or “Say better!”) During a stint at M.I.T.’s Media Lab, Pepperberg worked on a device, designed for gray parrot owners, that projects terrifying images of predators when their pets’ vocalizations “exceeded the desired level.” She doesn’t comment on the morality of either confining a highly intelligent creatureor scaring it into submission. She deals with the question of animal rights in just one sentence: while acknowledging it would be cruel to adopt a gray and leave it alone all day, “that doesn’t mean grays or other animals have wide-ranging political rights.”
Alex was a celebrity, and this book will surely please his legions of fans. Meanwhile, supporters of Pepperberg, who continues her research with other grays, will remind critics that we’d have no inkling of parrot intelligence without Alex’s sacrifice.
Elizabeth Royte, a frequent contributor to the Book Review, is the author of “Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash” and “Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It.”

 

By ELIZABETH ROYTE (NYT, November 9, 2008)

A police dog from DeKalb County, Ga., was shot in the face by a fleeing suspect on Thursday morning. Local investigators say the animal, whose name is Twan, is a “sworn officer.” How does a police animal take the oath of office?

Sometimes with a bark but usually with human help. Human police officers are typically sworn in at a brief ceremony attended by the new officers’ families and friends. Canine swearing-in ceremonies, on the other hand, tend to be public events celebrating the role of police dogs. In some cases, the police chief administers the human oath of office to the dog, and the handler affirms on the dog’s behalf. In rare instances, the dog is trained to bark in affirmation of the oath. When the ceremony is complete, the dog is presented with a badge to wear on its collar.

There is no legal significance to swearing in a canine officer. Anyone who kills a federal law enforcement animal will face fines and up to 10 years in prison, but there is no sentence enhancement if the animal has taken an oath. Similar statutes exist to protect police animals from malicious injury in every state but South Dakota—but these, like the federal law, apply to every canine cop, not just the ones that bark, “I do.”

Many police dogs don’t even speak English. European breeders have been selecting and propagating service dogs for generations, and their dogs are preferred by many U.S. police departments for their ability to obey orders under the stressful conditions of police work. Because these dogs receive their initial training in foreign countries, U.S. handlers often continue to command them in German or Dutch. There is a widespread myth that foreign language training is intended to prevent suspects from contradicting the commands of the handler. In fact, the dog is trained to ignore commands from anyone except its handler. (If you want to test the myth, the next time a police dog is pursuing you, try to make the dog heel by yelling “Fuß!” or “Volg!”)

* Brian Palmer is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.
Posted Friday, July 18, 2008

Shiba the newest chimpanzee mum holds her week-old baby girl while she feeds at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia.

The chimpanzee conservation status has bee upgraded to critically endangered so the new baby is a very important event for world zoos efforts for their wild counterparts.

(Associated Press / March 4, 2008)

A 70-day-old Sugar Glider, an Australian marsupial that is part of their collection, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008 in Baton Rouge, La. .

Some people may joke that their house is like a zoo, but for Brett and Lori Matte, it’s more than just a figure of speech, it’s a daily reality.

The Mattes, who call what they do “Zoo-Zoom ‘The Little Zoo on Wheels’,” house rescued exotic and not-so-exotic pets.

(AP, BRYAN TUCK / February 27, 2008)

Canine prep
A Shih Tzu named Sammy is seen waiting to be groomed during the 132nd Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York on Feb. 12. Nearly 2,600 dogs are entered in this year’s show.
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(Getty Images/Chris McGrath)

Sheepdog line-up
Old English Sheepdogs line-up for judging during the first day at the 132nd Westminster Kennel Club Annual Dog Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Feb. 11. The dog show, established in 1877, is America’s oldest organization dedicated to the sport of purebred dogs.

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(AFP/Getty Images/Timothy A. Clary)

Foreign tourists surround a Philippine Tarsier in central Philippines on March 12. The endangered Philippine Tarsier measures about 4 to 6 inches in height and is considered one of the smallest primates in the world. (AP/Aaron Favila)

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