Skip to content

What Giraffes Tell Us About Zoos, Endangered Species, And Human (Mis)Perception Of Animal Intelligence

October 6, 2014

Who you calling stupid?

So being a hit in zoos didn’t translate into scientific interest and understanding of giraffes in the wild:

Giraffes are the “forgotten megafauna,” said Julian Fennessy, a giraffe researcher and the executive director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. “You hear all about elephants, Jane Goodall and her chimpanzees, Dian Fossey and her mountain gorillas, but there’s been a massive paucity of information about giraffes.”

Now all that is changing fast, as a growing cadre of researchers seek to understand the spectacular biology and surprisingly complex behavior of what Dr. Fennessy calls a “gentle giant and the world’s most graceful animal.” Scientists have lately discovered that giraffes are not the social dullards or indifferent parents they were reputed to be, but instead have much in common with another charismatic mega-herbivore, the famously gregarious elephant.

Well, just because scientists have been ignoring giraffes, doesn’t mean the giraffe-loving zoo public hasn’t been concerned about giraffes in the wild, right? Zoos say they give people a passion for animals that helps protect them in the wild. Apparently not. According to the story: “The species is not listed as endangered, but researchers point with alarm to evidence that in the past 15 years, the giraffe population has plummeted some 40 percent, to less than 80,000 from 140,000.”

Which raises an important question, I think: how does a species which has seen a 40% population crash in 15 years NOT get listed as endangered?

This story is also one more datapoint in Zimmermann’s Axiom Of Animal Intelligence (which states that research into just about any animal never shows it is dumber and less sentient than we thought). To wit:

Female giraffes, for example, have been found to form close friendships with one another that can last for years, while mother giraffes have displayed signs of persistent grief after losing their calves to lions.

“Giraffes have been underestimated, even thought of as a bit stupid,” said Zoe Muller, a wildlife biologist at the University of Warwick in England. But through advances in satellite and aerial tracking technology, improved hormonal tests and DNA fingerprinting methods to extract maximum data from giraffe scat, saliva and hair, and a more statistically rigorous approach to analyzing giraffe interactions, she said, “we’ve been able to map out their social structure and relationships in a much more sophisticated way; there’s a lot more going on than we appreciated.”

So one story, three important insights. 1) Being a zoo star doesn’t appear to do much for you in the wild; 2) The process by which species are labeled and treated as “endangered” needs a re-examination; and 3) Yet another species labeled “stupid” by the human species turns out to be not so stupid.

A Scientist Combats Climate Change (A Bit)

October 3, 2014

Eric Holthaus quit flying to reduce his carbon footprint:

This week marks one year since I last flew on an airplane. To the likely dismay of Fox News, which called me a “sniveling beta male,” my decision didn’t result in a dramatic tailspin of self-loathing or suicide, the ultimate carbon footprint reducer. Quite the contrary: It’s been an amazing year.

My decision was prompted by a science report that brought me to tears. It wasn’t that the consensus statement was particularly new or noteworthy—we all know by now that climate change is one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced as a civilization—but that, for the first time, I realized that my daily actions were powerful enough to make a meaningful change.

Folks, we are in trouble if a scientist just now realizes that his daily actions are powerful enough to impact climate change. And chooses to quit flying instead of digging deep enough to discover that if he really wants to make an impact he should also have quit meat.

He comes to many of the right conclusions:

What the math behind climate science is asking for is nothing less than a revolution. Anderson thinks scientists like him should lead by example. “I think we have to start to actually act accordingly with our own analysis. That lends credibility to our work.” This holds true for nonscientist advocates, too, he believes. “Al Gore’s probably got an emission footprint similar to a small African country, and he’s wandering about the planet telling other people that they should reduce their carbon emissions.”

Still, Anderson admits that it’s a big ask to broaden the efforts from a few passionate scientists to broader society. But without that, the chances of maintaining a stable climate are slim. Still, Anderson remains about as optimistic as his research permits him to be.

“I think we will fail, but I don’t know we will fail. There’s a very big difference between those two.” Anderson continued, “It’s likely we will die trying. But if we don’t try, then we will definitely not succeed. I work in this area because I still think there’s a thin thread of hope.”

Well, maybe less than a thread if a dude can write an article about how we need a revolution, how personal choices have an impact, notes what incredible climate hogs Americans tend to be, and somehow misses the most carbon intensive choice he makes every day that he reaches for a bacon burger.

We all need to make changes. And, sure, reducing air travel can make a difference (you should have seen my wife’s face when I told her I thought we should fly only once a year, and explore the area around DC instead of immediately hopping on planes whenever we wanted to go somewhere).

But the most important and impactful first step in this personal revolution, apparently missed by both these scientists, is simple: stop eating meat. (Do that, and you might even be able to fly a little!)

And if everyone did the same, and scientists who wrote articles about climate change followed the numbers wherever they went, then we might have a little more than a “thread of hope.”

A San Diego Progressive Takes On SeaWorld

October 3, 2014

Is this the best use of valuable San Diego property?

Not everyone who lives in San Diego thinks San Diego needs to protect SeaWorld. Linda Perine, of the Democratic Womans Club, wades into the fray with facts, links, and a fierce attitude:

Being very well connected and making a lot of contributions to politicians allows a business a fair amount of leeway, especially in San Diego.

As Voice of San Diego pointed out in one of its somewhat boosterish articles Sea World By the Numbers  Sea World employs up to 4,500 people, albeit many are temporary positions and minimum wage.

As was mentioned before, Sea World pays a percentage of its income as rent on a lease to the City that some view as extraordinarily favorable to Sea World.  While putting $14 million into the public coffers may be an attention getter, it is nowhere near what it ought to be.

Sea World is deeply imbedded in the San Diego conservative hierarchy.  It is a heavy contributor to the PACs of the Lincoln Club,the California Restaurant Association’s local chapter and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.   Sea World has a presence on the board of many local organizations like San Diego County Taxpayers Association, Equinox, San Diego Tourism Authority, the Chamber and many others.

Yes, that is the same Lincoln Club, Taxpayers Association, Chamber and Mayor who oppose increasing the minimum wage so that the workers at Sea World can afford to feed their kids.  So, no, they are not going to get all misty eyed over some “black fish”.

In the interconnected world of Who Runs San Diego it is the mutual back scratching benefit of interlocking boards and contributions to politicians that allows our Mayor and City Council to be so unquestioning in their support of this morally and fiscally compromised corporation.

Sea World is imbedded. It’s a player.  As its Prez said – they make no apologies.  And we are to be grateful?

If you like the attitude, read the rest of Perine’s takedown. There is plenty more.

Reader Mailbag: Don’t We NEED Zoos?

October 2, 2014

In response to Humanity Vs The Planet, Philip just posed a very legitimate (though depressing) question:

Tim, why do you advocate against zoos and aquariums? Do you honestly believe that things are going to get better? 7.2 billion humans on Earth with all of our garage and oil spills, radiation, by catch. Where are the animals supposed to live? What will the planet be like when there is 8 billion, 9 billion, 10 billion humans? Where will the animals live? African elephants have reached a tipping point, more are killed by poachers than are being born. The Yangzte River dolphin is extinct, there are only 50 Maui’s Dolphins left. The list goes on.

That had the benefit of forcing me to organize my thinking about zoos and aquaria (at least a bit!). And here is how I responded:

I do not have absolute feelings about zoos and aquariums. I am against for-profit zoos and aquariums for sure. And worry that the idea that zoos and aquariums can somehow preserve or substitute for animals in the wild will only hasten the demise of animals in the wild. And a part of me wants to say that if we are so short-sighted and self-interested as to destroy the environments the animals need to survive in the wild we don’t really deserve to be able to enjoy them in zoos and aquaria. Plus, I do not believe that our pleasure at seeing an animal on display in captivity should outweigh any suffering that animal experiences by being in captivity. So, you are correct, I am not really a fan of zoos and aquaria.

But there is one context in which I can support the work of zoos and aquaria: and that is in the preservation of the genetics that would allow us to reintroduce or repopulate an extinct or threatened species if we ever did change enough about the way we treat the planet to restore the environment they need to thrive in the wild. That sort of Noah’s Ark strategy, as much as I hate that it has come to that, is hard to dismiss. But for me to accept that as a sufficient rationale for zoos and aquaria, the captivity and display model would have to change dramatically to better serve the interests of the animals, and serve less the interests and desire of curious humans seeking amusement.

This also continues a conversation started by Carl Zimmer in the comments section of a post about zoos and the passenger pigeon.

Climate and Capitalism

October 2, 2014

Zachary Karabell offers an interesting critique of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything:

In fact, capitalism—in the form of multinational corporations—is doing more than many governments and multilateral institutions to stem the progression of climate change. They are doing so because of self-interest, not altruism; the relentless demand for profit is compelling an increasing percentage of the world’s largest companies to take concerted, forceful action. Yes, many companies remain obstacles to action, as Klein argues, but increasingly, more are becoming the agents of rapid and necessary change.

To say that corporations are doing more than governments to combat climate change is not to say much, since governments have proved so incapable of communicating the problem and rallying the public behind policies to address it.

But, sure, there are corporations that are looking to make profits from developing goods and technologies that will reduce carbon emissions. At the same time, there is no question that there is a multitude of corporations, even beyond the carbon energy sector, whose businesses hurt the climate and whose profits depend on fighting changes in their business practices. And Klein is very effective in explaining how that works.

But to me, the real issue is not the behavior of specific companies. It is the structure and nature of the form of capitalism that humanity has developed and celebrated. Klein is correct, I think, that the era of deregulation gave corporations more freedom to pursue business and profits that harm the environment and climate. But the underlying dynamic is a global form of capitalism that relentlessly pursues growth and sales, promotes consumption, and does not hold corporations fully accountable for the external costs to the environment of their business practices and products.

So this shouldn’t really be an argument over whether capitalism is good or bad. Instead it should be an argument about how to reform or reinvent capitalism so that the incentives in play for both businesses and consumers don’t destroy the planet.

The single most powerful reform I can think of would be to hold businesses and consumers accountable for the choices they make, by starting to adding to the sales price of most goods the costs to the environment and climate. That would mean a tax on carbon, and much more. Want to drive a Hummer? Sure, but you will pay extra. Want to eat burgers every day? Go for it, but boy will that get expensive.

Pricing is the key variable that, to paraphrase Klein, can change everything. If businesses had to pay for their impact on the planet they would change how they do business, and carbon-heavy industries would wither away while carbon-friendly industries would grow and thrive. If consumers had to pay for the way in which their consumption impacts the planet, they would change the what they consume and how much they consume.

Of course, getting governments to make this shift is the hard part. Part of the reason that corporations and governments haven’t done a better job of confronting climate change is that their publics don’t really want to make the changes, and fear that change means sacrifice. In this regard, Klein’s argument is vital. Governments and corporations will change when voters and consumers demand it.

 

 

Humanity Vs The Planet

October 1, 2014

 

This is the most shocking, infuriating, and meaningful conclusion I have maybe ever seen:

The new Living Planet Index report from the World Wildlife Fund opens with a jaw-dropping statistic: we’ve killed roughly half of the world’s non-human vertebrate animal population since 1970.

The WWF data show that the species declines vary by habitat and geographic area. Tropical areas saw greater declines, while temperate regions – like North America – saw lesser drops. Habitat-wise, land and saltwater species saw declines of roughly 39 percent. But freshwater animals – frogs, fish, salamanders and the like – saw a considerably sharper 76 percent drop. Habitat fragmentation and pollution (think algae blooms) were the main killers of freshwater species.

The declines are almost exclusively caused by humans’ ever-increasing footprint on planet earth. “Humanity currently needs the regenerative capacity of 1.5 Earths to provide the ecological goods and services we use each year,” according to the report. The only reason we’re able to run above max capacity – for now – is that we’re stripping away resources faster than we can replenish them.

This is a model, so I don’t know how much faith to have in the specific percentage. But it is the clear and obvious trend, and its implications for life on the planet, that should slap us in the face, wake us up, and get us thinking about how to entirely re-invent human culture, human lifestyles, and the global economy.

The way in which the ever-expanding human presence on the planet is devastating the natural world and the biodiversity that we should be nurturing (instead of destroying) should be the number one preoccupation of humanity. It should be treated with greater alarm than Ebola, Al Qaeda, ISIL, and the Kardashians.

Put the arcane and petty religious disputes aside. Put the shortsighted and endless warring aside. Put intolerance, self-interest, and callous disregard aside. Put rampant self-gratification aside. And focus on the fact that we can’t think the way we think, and live the way we live. Everything must be questioned. Everything must be changed.

SeaWorld’s (Slippery) Support Of The Virgin Pledge

September 30, 2014

SeaWorld has released a statement supporting the Virgin Pledge:

SeaWorld welcomed the opportunity to participate, along with similarly accredited organizations, in the six-month stakeholder engagement process on marine mammals conducted by Virgin Unite. We have always been willing to lend our expertise to any objective and science-based process that seeks to assure the health and welfare of animals living in professionally operated zoological institutions.

SeaWorld has supported efforts to protect and conserve our oceans for future generations since we first opened our gates 50 years ago. We were pleased to share this commitment with Virgin Holidays, and fully support their pledge concerning the collection of whales and dolphins from the wild — something SeaWorld hasn’t done in decades. The millions of guests who come through our gates each year are not only inspired and educated by what our parks offer, but also are key contributors to the important conservation and research we do that helps protect wildlife and wild places. We thank Virgin for recognizing the vital role zoological facilities can play in ocean preservation and conservation and look forward to working with them on these efforts in the future.

I highlighted the section about wild captures because it makes two questions pop into my head:

1) How does this statement lauding SeaWorld’s restraint regarding wild captures square with the fact that SeaWorld was part of a consortium led by Georgia Aquarium that in the past few years both captured 18 wild belugas and tried to import them into the United States?

The import permit was denied (Georgia Aquarium is appealing), which I suppose allows SeaWorld to stay technically consistent with the Virgin Pledge. Though to the extent that SeaWorld was part of the consortium that captured the belugas (even if Georgia Aquarium was acting as the umbrella for the group) I don’t think they can honestly say they haven’t “collected” from the wild in decades.

2) If protecting and conserving our oceans is linked to refraining from wild dolphin and whale captures, why stop with those species? Why not help protect and conserve our oceans by refraining from all wild captures?

Both those questions posed, I do credit SeaWorld for taking the Virgin Pledge. I also think it will have positive implications going forward, implications that SeaWorld may or may not have thought through. Having signed the pledge, plenty of people (like me) will keep an eye on the extent to which SeaWorld remains true to the spirit and letter of the pledge. And that could constrain how they pursue their marine mammal entertainment business.

For example, what if Georgia Aquarium wins its appeal regarding the wild beluga import? Will SeaWorld take its allotment of 11 belugas, and say “oh well, never mind” with regard to the Virgin Pledge? Or will it make a painfully self-interested argument that the beluga import is about conserving a wild species (even though belugas are not listed as endangered by the IUCN)? Or will it say “Hey, those belugas were caught before February 2014, so stop hassling us?”

No matter what option it chose, SeaWorld’s choice would come under extra-detailed scrutiny because it has signed the Virgin Pledge. Is it even conceivable that SeaWorld would take a look at how bringing in 11 wild belugas would look in light of changing public opinion about captivity and their support of the  Virgin Pledge, and take a pass on the wild belugas? Unlikely, I know. But these days it seems like almost anything is possible.

I can also forsee other choices SeaWorld might have to make in the future that will get extra scrutiny, and may even be constrained, thanks to SeaWorld’s commitment to the Virgin Pledge (even if the action comports with a very lawyerly, narrow reading of the words of the pledge).What about engaging in breeding loans with captive facilities that violate the Virgin Pledge? Or keeping future rescue animals for SeaWorld shows? Or breeding wild caught rescue animals, like Morgan, to increase SeaWorld’s killer whale holdings and benefit its bottom line?

That sort of analysis against the Virgin Pledge will be a very good thing. And while enthusiastically signing onto the Virgin Pledge today might yield a quick PR bump, I wonder if SeaWorld may come to regret taking the pledge down the road.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,748 other followers

%d bloggers like this: