Surprising (Yet Unsurprising) Fact Of The Day: Zoo Surplus Edition

“Wait, did you just say you sold me to a hunting ranch?!”

A 1999 investigation by reporter Linda Goldston found that:

Of the 19,361 mammals that left the nation’s accredited zoos from 1992 through mid-1998, 7,420 — or 38 percent — went to dealers, auctions, hunting ranches, unidentified individuals or unaccredited zoos or game farms whose owners actively buy and sell animals, according to transaction data from the International Species Information System.

Just a snapshot in time, after lots of effort by Goldston to get state and federal records (since zoos and the AZA don’t freely share this info). But revealing…

 

Humpback Bubble Feeding And The Importance Of Animal Culture

Humpbacks are high on my list of fascinating animals, in part because of this sort of spectacular and complex behavior, filmed by drone in Alaska’s Prince William Sound:

For the uninitiated, I09 describes what is going on:

Typically, humpback whales lunge into a shoal of prey, but as described in Arkive, they also herd their prey using a “bubble net” to trap them in quantity:

During this process, a number of whales will circle underwater emitting a continuous stream of air which traps fish in the centre of the ring, the whales then surface up through their ‘net’ gorging on the contents within. During the summer months, humpbacks must feed intensely as they do not feed again during either the migration or the time spent in tropical breeding grounds.

The fact that many species have developed unique and distinctive behaviors gives credence to the idea that animals have “cultures,” that both define them and help them survive. Increasingly, conservationists are arguing that understanding and incorporating those cultures into conservation strategies is a key to success. Last month, delegates at the UN Convention on Migratory Species passed a resolution (PDF) that calls on conservationists to acknowledge and incorporate animal cultures into conservation thinking.

This is a key evolution in thinking about the animal world and its future. Philippa Brakes of Whale And Dolphin Conservation explains:

In 1975 sociobiologist E. O. Wilson noted the influence of social structure on fitness, gene flow and spatial patterns in some species. Deeper understanding only started to emerge in the past decade, and wildlife policy has been slow to catch up.

The new resolution recognises both positive and negative consequences of non-human culture. Individuals passing on knowledge may increase population viability by allowing the rapid spread of innovations amid environmental challenges, which could mean more-resilient social groups. On the other hand, the effects of human-induced threats may be amplified by the presence of non-human culture.

How so? The type of threat and the type of society is important. For example, orca societies are often conservative and so may be reluctant to adopt an innovation in response to a new threat, like the depletion of a food source. The distinct cultures of different groups also lead orcas to behave in different ways, and this can make one group more vulnerable than another. So they should be assessed as cultural groups, rather than by absolute population numbers.

In African elephants, older matriarchs are thought to act as “repositories of social knowledge”, holding information important to the survival and fitness of their social group, such as the location of food or water. Their removal may have impacts beyond the loss of one elephant.

There is also evidence that baleen whale calves learn migratory routes from their mothers and that hunting two species – southern right and humpback whales – meant that critical knowledge was lost.

I would add another benefit. Understanding the distinctive cultures of animals opens the door to empathy. A mother elephant or whale who has knowledge and plays the same role that your own mother might is more than just a whale or elephant. She is inherently valuable and her protection is inherently important.

That makes a difference. It shouldn’t, in my view. But unfortunately humans care more when they can see parallels to their own lives and social structures. So the more awed and compelled we are by any cultural behavior, like bubble-feeding, the better.

Points Worth Noting…

From Anthony Barnosky, who is featured in the new Smithsonian Channel documentary Mass Extinction: Life at the Brink (which aired last night):

“We have killed about 50 percent of the world’s vertebrate wildlife in just the past 40 years,” he says. “We’ve killed half the numbers of individuals. We’ve fished 90 percent of the fish out of the seas. So these are big things we’re doing to the world.”

Yes, very big. Sounds like Barnosky’s book, Dodging Extinction: Power, Food, Money and the Future of Life on Earthis worth a read. (via)

Reader Mailbag: Don’t We NEED Zoos?

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.

Big News Of The Day: NonHuman Rights Project Files Suit For Chimpanzees

“I’d really like the right to get out of here.”

We may talk about animal rights, but animals in fact have no legal rights. The NonHuman Rights Project is determined to change that, and win basic “personhood” rights for nonhuman animals, and has now filed its first lawsuit, on behalf of a chimpanzee named Tommy. Similar lawsuits will follow this week:

This morning at 10.00 E.T., the Nonhuman Rights Project filed suit in Fulton County Court in the state of New York on behalf of Tommy, a chimpanzee, who is being held captive in a cage in a shed at a used trailer lot in Gloversville.

This is the first of three suits we are filing this week. The second will be filed on Tuesday in Niagara Falls on behalf of Kiko, a chimpanzee who is deaf and living in a private home. And the third will be filed on Thursday on behalf of Hercules and Leo, who are owned by a research center and are being used in locomotion experiments at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

The lawsuits ask the judge to grant the chimpanzees the right to bodily liberty and to order that they be moved to a sanctuary that’s part of the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance (NAPSA), where they can live out their days with others of their kind in an environment as close to the wild as is possible in North America.

Establishing some semblance of legal rights for animals is the new frontier for “animal rights,” and potentially the most powerful strategy possible to change the way in which humans relate to animals. Much more on the lawsuits being launched this week here.

Stay tuned….

Annals Of Animal Intelligence: Elephants Understand Pointing

“Dude, it’s over there.”

Here’s another datapoint in humanity’s endlessly evolving understanding of animal intelligence, otherwise known as “Holy crap, they are smarter than we thought!”:

We point to things without giving much thought to what a sophisticated act it really is. By simply extending a finger, we can let other people know we want to draw their attention to an object, and indicate which object it is.

As sophisticated as pointing may be, however, babies usually learn to do it by their first birthday. “If you don’t get that they’re drawing your attention to an object, they’ll get cross,” said Richard W. Byrne, a biologist at the University of St Andrews.

When scientists test other species, they find that pointing is a rare gift in the animal kingdom. Even our closest relatives, like chimpanzees, don’t seem to get the point of pointing.

But Dr. Byrne and his graduate student Anna Smet now say they have discovered wild animals that also appear to understand pointing: elephants. The study, involving just 11 elephants, is hardly the last word on the subject. But it raises a provocative possibility that elephants have a deep social intelligence that rivals humans’ in some ways.

Can’t say I am shocked (though I do wonder how they prevented the smell of the food being a factor). Anyhow, Byrne is interested in testing the pointing recognition of dolphins and whales. I can save him some time and money but letting him know that dolphin researchers like Lou Herman, among others, have pretty successful demonstrated that dolphins understand pointing. And pointing certainly gets used at SeaWorld and in other marine parks every day.

Can Drones Save Elephants?

I’ve been interested in that question, along with other creative and technical solutions to rhino and elephant poaching. And Chris Spillane has a nice piece at Bloomberg that investigates:

“It’s pretty grim,” Goss, a 28-year-old Kenyan who manages the Mara Elephant Project, said as he stood 50 meters (55 yards) from the carcass. “It’s an elephant without a face. It’ll be eaten by Hyenas now.”

Poachers had speared the pachyderm in her back. Its ivory would be worth more than $8,000 inAsia. The carcass was the third found in four days, an unusually high number, Goss said. One was shot with an automatic rifle and the other animal was also pierced.

When he started using the drones, Goss thought they would help mainly with providing aerial footage of the landscape and tracking poachers armed with rifles and the Maasai who sometimes killed the animals when they interfere with the grazing of their cows. He soon discovered they could help by frightening the elephants, keeping them out of harm’s way.

“We realized very quickly that the elephants hated the sound of them,” said Goss, whose week-old beard goes white near his temples. “I’m assuming that they think it’s a swarm of bees.”

Goss and his team have put collars with global positioning system devices on 15 elephants so they can be tracked on a computer overlaying their paths on Google Earth. That way the animals, who have names such as Madde, after Goss’s wife, Fred, Hugo and Polaris, can be followed to see if they’ve strayed into areas at risk of poaching or human conflict.

Goss hopes to buy 10 more drones and to modify them by adding a mechanism that releases capsaicin, the active component in chili pepper, when elephants stray near dangerous areas.Paint balls loaded with chili pepper are being used in Zambia’s lower Zambezi region to deter elephants from high-risk zones.

“Drones are basically the future of conservation; a drone can do what 50 rangers can do,” said James Hardy, a fourth-generation Kenyan and manager of the Mara North Conservancy. “It’s going to reach a point where drones are on the forefront of poaching. At night time we could use it to pick up heat signatures of poachers, maybe a dead elephant if we’re quick enough.”

It’s always interesting to see the different and surprising ways in which technical solutions will take you. And as depressing as it is that saving an elephant from poachers means harassing it with a drone and chili pepper, I guess an annoyed or uncomfortable elephant is better than a dead elephant. You do what you gotta do in this fight.

Nonhuman Rights Explained

Steve Wise, the founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project, explains in the Dyson Lecture the legal context and strategy for establishing civil law rights for nonhuman animals:

I am an “animal slave lawyer.” I have been practicing “animal slave law” for thirty-five years. I do not want to practice “animal slave law” anymore; I want to practice “animal rights law.” When I teach, I do not teach “animal slave law,” I teach “animal rights jurisprudence.” This jurisprudence does not yet exist; it is a jurisprudence that is struggling to come into existence.

If you are just starting to catch up on this potentially game-changing movement, Wise details exactly what he is doing to try and make animal rights come into existence:

Poaching To Extremes: Museum Ivory Edition

Jacques Cuisin, head of restoration at Paris’s Natural History Museum, said the damaged elephant skeleton would be repaired. Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

The rhino and elephant horn poaching has got so out of hand, that even museum ivory is being targeted. Witness the recent attempt to escpae with the chainsawed tusk of an elephant once owned by Louis XIV, and on display at Paris’ Natural History Museum.

Really:

Visitors to Paris’s popular Museum of Natural History this weekend found a key exhibit under wraps after a man broke in and chainsawed a tusk from an elephant which once belonged to the Sun King, Louis XIV.

Police were called to the museum in the early hours of Saturday morning where they found a chainsaw still whirring after a man in his 20s escaped over a wall with a tusk over his shoulder. A police official said a neighbour of the museum on Paris’s Left Bank alerted authorities after hearing a strange sawing sound at around 3am. The museum alarm system was activated and startled the intruder into fleeing just minutes after beginning his chainsaw attack. He was treated in hospital for a fractured ankle from a fall while escaping and was being questioned by investigators.

Better keep an eye on your pianos. The only thing that has a hope of stopping this is a strictly enforced Chinese government ban on any and all ivory. But is any government, including the US, pressing this?

Battle For The Elephants

Via: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/10/ivory/stirton-photography#/

Of all the intelligent, self-aware creatures under threat by man, the plight of the elephants is the most urgent and tragic. The reason is simple: they are being killed for the most indefensible of reasons (an Asian love of ivory trinkets), and the killing is so successful that 98% of the African population has been wiped out in a century, leaving a real possibility that African elephants will be extinct in as little as a decade.

That is an epic human failure–perhaps the most epic failure–to respect, steward, and conserve one of Earth’s most fascinating and iconic creatures.

Carl Safina is on it, and recommends the PBS special “Battle For The Elephants” as must-watch TV. It came out of Brian Christy’s epic National Geographic feature, Blood Ivory.

I hadn’t heard about it before, but dug around a bit.

Here’s the description from PBS:

The film tells the ultimate wildlife story — how the Earth’s most charismatic and majestic land animal today faces market forces driving the value of its tusks to levels once reserved for precious metals. Journalists Bryan Christy and Aidan Hartley take viewers undercover as they investigate the criminal network behind ivory’s supply and demand. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, one of the world’s main ports for smuggled ivory, Hartley attempts to buy large quantities of tusks from poachers. In China, Christy explores the thriving industry of luxury goods made from ivory and the ancient cultural tradition of ivory carving.

And here is the full episode: