Thursday, October 28, 2010

If We Could Talk to the Animals...

A little music for a Thursday...

Something interesting about that song is that it consistently refers to talking in each animal's own language: "Can you speak rhinocerous? Of courcerous!" It's pretty cool that a song writer would have that perspective when so often researchers aim to get animals speaking in a human language.

One well-documented example of the latter was the project involving Vicki, "the talking chimp". After much training, the researchers were able to get Vicki to approximate three words: Mama, Papa, and Cup. She did this with great difficulty and signs of stress, and had to use her hands to help her mouth form the "p" sound. The results were akin to getting a dog to say "I love you" or "mama"--you could imagine that the words were being said, but it does take imagination.

The failure to get the chimp to talk led to the myth of the "language instinct", that supposedly only humans have. But while a chimp can't speak English, it is plain that chimps can comprehend a spoken human language. This comprehension reveals that the animals do have language abilities. The inability to speak in a human language is the result of different physical aspects of their bodies, not underdeveloped minds.

More enlightened researchers, such as primatologist Dr Katja Liebal, believe that chimps have their own complex system of communication, and it is up to us to try to understand. Liebal is compiling a dictionary of the chimpanzee language, which uses gestures, facial expressions, and physical displays. She says that chimpanzees have a complex communicative system--even though they can't speak English.

Still, people prefer sameness. Earlier this year, much was made of a short film showing a bonobo chimp shaking her head to indicate "no". I was surprised at this, because I didn't think this was a great revelation. Even my cats will shake their heads to indicate "no". I suppose I should set up a camera and send a video of the cats to the BBC...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Chickens on Thursday

A few fun and interesting videos for a Thursday...

It seems that it's not all that uncommon for brooding chickens to 'babysit' kittens. Here's a chicken with two eggs and two kittens in her nest:

The maker of this video says that the momma cat put her kittens in the chicken's box so she (the cat) could take a break:

There's also a photo of the kittens finally asleep with the chicken here.

In this video, two chickens seem to be intent on preventing two rabbits from fighting:

And finally, for now, a little look at a motion-feedback stabilization system (aka, a chicken):

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Voice for the Big Cats

Alan Rabinowitz is a naturalist who, as a child who stuttered so severely that he couldn't speak at all, made a pledge to an aging jaguar at the Bronx Zoo to become a voice for all the world's big cats.

With no professional help available for his stuttering, he discovered he could talk to animals, and he would sequester himself in his bedroom closet with apartment-compatible pets, and talk to them. "The animals didn't judge me. The animals had no expectations. The animals just let me be who I was." And their inability to talk to him made him feel closer to them. "They didn't have a voice, either."

At the zoo, Rabinowitz gravitated to the big cats. He remembers a tiger, locked in a cage the way he felt locked in his own head. And an old female jaguar who looked sad and broken, the way he felt.

"I swore to the animals that if I could ever find my voice, I would be their voice." he recalled. He reasoned that if animals could make themselves understood, people would treat them a whole lot better than they do.

Rabinowitz did learn to conquer his stutter, and he did remember his promise.

He is now president and CEO of Panthera, an organization active in preserving all wild cats. Rabinowitz takes an extremely wise, long-range approach to preservation: seeking ways for humans and big cats to co-exist in the same areas.

Rabinowitz tells his story and more in this interview with professional smart-ass Stephen Colbert:

The Colbert Report
Alan Rabinowitz

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Challenge to See "White Lion..."

This one will be tough, but undoubtedly worth it. Kevin Richardson's movie, "White Lion... Home is a Journey" opens today (October 15) in just 3 cities in the US: Memphis, St. Louis, and Louisville.

Professional movie reviewers are giving it a middling reaction, saying that it's not action-filled enough, but at the same time they say that it is a beautiful movie and emotionally powerful. That means more to me than overblown action sequences.

The story is told from the perspective of an old man recounting the tale of the young Shangaan boy, Gisani, and his adventures protecting a rare white lion, a messenger of the gods in his cultural lore.

We then see the story of the white lion, Letsatsi, unfold with remarkable close-ups of the lions that portray him and the other animals he encounters. Letatsi is forced from his pride, learns to hunt, and returns to his territory fully grown and ready to claim his due — all the while being stalked by hunters eager to bag such a rare trophy.

Kevin Richardson is depending on this movie's success to support the animals at his Kingdom of the White Lion in Africa. So, every ticket you buy will support the animals you see in the film.

One reviewer made this puzzling statement, without any explanation: Not recommended if you can recall Kimba the White Lion? I wonder what that means? I have been looking forward to this movie since I first heard about it. The trade magazine Variety predicts that this movie will not get a general theatrical release in the US. I hope they're wrong (in 1977, no one thought Star Wars was worth a wide theatrical release). Grab the chance to see it when you can.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What Does It Take to Change People's Perceptions?

As part of its campaign to raise awareness and funds for gibbon conservation, the International Primate Protection League (UK), together with naturalist Bill Oddie, is re-releasing The Goodies’ hit 1975 single "The Funky Gibbon". The track has been re-mastered to include real gibbon sounds.

The music video to accompany the song was only just filmed on October 21. When it is released, I will include it or link to it here.

Since the music video isn't released yet, the clip below is obviously old. But it will give you an idea of the song. The Goodies (Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, and Graham Garden) were an amazingly funny comedy team and, of the dozens of songs they recorded, "The Funky Gibbon" was their biggest chart success. I'm sure the re-released version will do well, but will it make people think, or care, about real gibbons?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

More Myths, and Their Outcomes

Here's an interesting little fact: Animal control officers across the country have told the ASPCA that when they alert the media to a dog attack, news outlets respond that they have no interest in reporting on the incident unless it involved a pit bull.

Now, if every time you hear of a dog attack, it involves a pit bull dog, what does that do to your perception of pit bulls?

And in Denver Colorado, this perception has led to a long-standing complete ban on the breed. This ban has survived numerous legal challenges.

Apparently no one ever told the lawmakers or the judges that the breed most responsible for dog bites in Colorado is the Labrador. (And apparently none of those people in power ever bothered to research the issue.)

Mixed up in this mess is the emerging tendency (also reported by the ASPCA) for all short-haired, stocky dogs to be called pit bulls.

Amelia Glynn points out (in her Tails of the City blog) that "nearly every time a pit-bull-attack story appears in the news, it ignites new fervor for breed-specific legislation. However, the mass banning of specific breeds has been shown to be ineffectual when it comes to dog-bite prevention."

BUT... Once you get one breed-specific law on the books, it becomes incredibly easy to add new breeds to the ban.

AND... Certain very powerful and very active so-called "animal rights" organizations have stated that it is their goal to end ALL pet ownership...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Not By Instinct

So much of any animal's mental life and social life goes unrecognized that the myth of instinct was created to explain animal behavior. The myth is such a powerful and convenient replacement for reality that it is going to take a long, long time to replace it with real observations.

Here is one good place to start: What could be more "instinctual" than swinging from a tree branch, for an ape? But look at the orangutans at Ouwehands Dierenpark Rhenen, a zoo in The Netherlands. They had been kept in a low, simple cage that allowed no such activity as swinging from a branch. And when the zoo upgraded their enclosure, they didn't know how to do this quintessential ape maneuver.

So the zoo hired an Olympic gymnast, Epke Zonderland, to teach the orangutans how to swing from branches.

In their natural homes, orangutans rarely are found on the ground, but these had been forced to live on the ground in their old cage. When the zoo moved them to the new enclosure, with 30-foot-high trees, they seemed to not only not know what to do, they even seemed a bit afraid of the trees.

When this story was reported elsewhere, some labeled the orangutans as "lazy". But in reality this shows just how much of what can seem to be "instinctive" in an animal really depends on socialization--learning behavior from others.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Two Additional Points

An article in yesterday's Washington Post brought up two points I should have included in my previous post about The Lost Dogs...

Both the Humane Society of the United States and PETA called for Vick's dogs to be killed. Not rescued. Not rehabilitated. Killed. Always remember those two names, and what they really want to do.

Most of the dogs were gentle but suffering from second-hand trauma--that is, they were aware of what was happening to other dogs, and it scared the hell out of them. Further proof of animals' intelligence and emotional sensitivity.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Michael Vick's Dogs

People are constantly posing the question, "what separates humans from other animals?" I think one of the answers has to be "torture".

But I'm not here to dwell on Michael Vick.

The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption by Jim Gorant tells the stories of the 51 dogs seized from Vick's dog fighting ring.

Like, "Jonny Rotten" a litle black-and-white dog who couldn't navigate stairs, couldn't climb onto a couch, and ran from any sudden noise. He had been locked up, away from people and other dogs, all his life, and had no socialization skills. Other dogs had been so traumatized that they flattened themselves on the ground and trembled whenever people approached them.

Thanks to US District Court Judge henry E. Hudson, Vick was ordered to pay for the rescue and rehabilitation of as many of the dogs as possible. The results show the intelligence of the dogs, as well as the benefits of proper socialization of an animal. Also fortunately for the dogs, the rescuers knew that each dog should be individually assessed and treated according to his individual needs.

Each animal is indeed an individual, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

The results are spectacular. Jonny Rotten now wears a vest that says "Therapy Dog" and works in a program that helps children improve their reading. And he's not the only one that is now a therapy dog.

And there are many other success stories, of dogs that can now live happy lives in normal families, with other dogs and cats.

You can read some of their stories on the Parade Magazine web site (if you can deal with all the ads).

The Pit Bull breed has such a horrible reputation, due to horrible treatment, that it is wonderful to know that people are willing to approach such dogs, even ones with serious problems, as the individuals that they are.