Tooth Damage Is A Major Health Problem For Captive Orcas

Orca tooth problems.

It has long seemed that one of the biggest challenges of keeping orcas healthy in captivity is dental care. Many captive orcas wear down and break their teeth by fighting, and chewing on concrete or the gates between pools. If the damage is bad enough SeaWorld and other facilities drill out the teeth and then flush them daily. Even so, the damaged teeth become prone to infection, infections which can lead to serious health problems.

To more fully gauge and understand the extent of this threat, John Jett and Jeff Ventre, two former SeaWorld trainers, along with other researchers, studied dental damage in captive orcas, using photography to catalogue and evaluate the problem.  The result, “Tooth Damage In Captive Orcas, which appears in the Archives Of Oral Biology, is a comprehensive, scientific, assessment that reveals how common and extensive tooth damage in captivity really is.

Highlights of the paper include:

  • Mouth images of 29 orca held in captivity were evaluated for tooth damage. Individual teeth in the mandible and maxilla were scored for coronal wear, wear at or below the gum line, fractures, bore holes and missing.
  • Dental damage was present in all whales examined, and the various pathologies were observed across animals with different durations of captivity, across both sexes, in captive-born and wild-captured whales as well as whales kept in each facility. Dental pathology was especially prominent for mandibular teeth.
  • Forty five percent of whales exhibited “moderate” mean mandibular coronal wear, and an additional 24% exhibited “major” to “extreme” wear.
  • Bore holes were observed primarily within anterior mandibular teeth, with more than 61% of tooth 2 and 3 and 47.27% of tooth 4 bearing evidence of having undergone the modified pulpotomy procedure.
  • Dental damage begins early in a captive whale’s life.
  • Both conspecific aggression among captive whales and oral stereotypies such as biting and chewing on concrete and steel tank surfaces likely contributed to the tooth pathology observed.

Keeping any animal captive–especially a highly evolved, free-ranging, top predator–presents unusual health issues, both mental and physical. It is unlikely many marine park visitors suspect that tooth damage is one of the leading health challenges for captive orcas. But this paper makes clear how common the problem is, and how severe the damage can be. That is important, because the more we understand the negative side-effects of keeping animals captive for entertainment, the better we can weigh the ethical question of whether it is justified.

Sustainable Is Also Healthy

In my recent Outside story about sustainable eating I didn’t get into the question of whether foods which are easier on the planet are also healthy (or healthier). So this Washington Post story, which looks at whether there is scientific consensus or disagreement, on a number of dietary choices, caught my eye.

Check out this summary chart. Looks to me as if there is pretty solid scientific consensus on the health benefits of a more plant-based, low environmental footprint diet.

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It reinforces what I believe about plant-based foods. They are a three-fer: 1) Good for you; 2) Good for the planet; and 3) Good for animals.

I find that logic overwhelming, which leaves taste and habit as the only real barriers to a plant-based diet. And good recipes (and chefs like Dan Barber) can easily obliterate those barriers.

Can Test Tube Meat Replace Dead Cows?

James McWilliams has his doubts:

David Steele, a molecular biologist and head of Earthsave Canadatells me that lab meat “is extraordinarily unlikely to work.” Tens of thousands of calves, he notes, “will have their hearts punctured … to collect the liter or so of serum that can be taken from them.” The claim that lab meat might be propagated with blue algae, he says, “is patently absurd” as “no one has accomplished anything close.” He also notes something so obvious I wish I had recalled it on my own: Cultured cells lack an immune system. As a result, according to Steele, “there will be a need for at least large doses of penicillin/streptomycin.” Preventing the spread of viruses within these cultures “would be a huge additional problem.” And as far as allergies go, who knows?

Daniel Engber, a science writer and editor at Slate, is equally downbeat about the future of cultured meat. He posted a piece earlier this month with a headline declaring lab meat to be “a waste of time.” Acknowledging the ecological and welfare implications of the technology, he highlights what strikes me as a critical point: Lab meat only seems to be “real” when it’s adulterated with food-like substances designed to “improve color, flavor, and mouthfeel.”

In this respect, there’s nothing novel to ponder about the slab of lab meat. It’s a heavily processed, fabricated food that’s essentially no different than the plant-based substitutes that are becoming increasingly popular. So, Engber justifiably wonders: “What’s the point?” After all, do cultured cow cells dressed up to look like real meat “really get us any closer to a perfect substitute for flesh than soy or wheat or mushroom?” Not a bad question, given that the market for lab meat would likely be the same market that currently eats Tofurky (myself included).

You know the meat industry will jump on that infection and allergy point, and scare the bejesus out of any consumer who is tempted to try lab meat.

But I think McWilliams’ point that processed lab meat is not really that different from processed soy gets to the most fundamental point, which I raised yesterday: if the choice it to simply move on from meat and cultivate a new diet and culture around delicious vegetarian and vegan cuisine,  or contort oneself in all sorts of complicated ways to try and find complicated and highly processed (and dubious) substitutes for meat, isn’t it um, easier, to simply go for the veggies?

I know, people will say meat is culture, our bodies crave animal fat, etc., etc., ad nauseum. And that it is not that easy to simply move humanity past meat. But what if eating test tube meat leaves you with a craving for the real thing? What if test tube meat has other health and environmental side-effects? That doesn’t sound like an easy solution either.

To me, the simplest approach–just stop thinking about meat and meat substitutes as food–is the most promising approach. I am amazed at how quickly my body and mind stopped craving meat. And in fact I now, through some strange evolution of my body and its senses, find meat actively unappealing. It just wasn’t that hard.

Is Soy Bad For You?

Hmm.

Men’s Health, cue scary music, takes you one way:

The unassuming soybean has silently infiltrated the American diet as what might just be the perfect protein source: It’s cheap and vegetarian, and could even unclog our hearts. But there may be a hidden dark side to soy, one that has the power to undermine everything it means to be male….

….Long the foundation of a vegetarian diet, tofu provides protein with little of the saturated fat and none of the moral indigestion that comes with meat. Moreover, in the past decade, research has emerged suggesting that scarfing down soy may also play an active role in extending our lives. In 1999,soy protein earned a highly coveted FDA-allowed health claim: Diets that include 25 grams—about a pound of tofu—a day may reduce the risk of heart disease. Add to this the number of studies showing that soy protein might also help protect against prostate cancer, and suddenly the stuff starts looking like powerful medicine for men.

Of course, most medicines have side effects. And when you consume soy protein, you’re actually courting the Mr. Hyde side of two natural drugs: genistein and daidzein. Both act so similarly to estrogen that they’re known as phytoestrogens (plant-produced estrogens). Soybeans couldn’t care less about human sex characteristics—genistein and daidzein may have evolved to act as chemical defenses against fungi and grazing animals. (They aren’t very effective deterrents, apparently, since soy meal is widely used to feed livestock.) But when humans consume these compounds in high enough quantities, they may experience gender-bending nightmares like James Price’s (TZ note: he grew breasts and cried more at movies]. What’s more, studies of these phytoestrogens in leading peer-reviewed medical journals suggest that even lower doses—such as the amount in the 25-gram soy proteintarget cited by the FDA—have the potential to wreak hormonal havoc.

And then the New York Times, cue soothing music, debunks the other way:

As far as any downside, most of the health concerns about soy stem from its concentration of phytoestrogens, a group of natural compounds that resemble estrogen chemically. Some experts have questioned whether soy might lower testosterone levels in men and cause problems for women who have estrogen-sensitive breast cancers. Animal studies have found, for example, that large doses of phytoestrogens can fuel the growth of tumors.

But phytoestrogens mimic estrogen only very weakly. A number of clinical studies in men have cast doubt on the notion that eating soy influences testosterone levels to any noticeable extent. And most large studies of soy intake and breast cancer rates in women have not found that it causes any harm, said Dr. Anna H. Wu of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. In fact, work by Dr. Wu and others has found that women who consume the equivalent of about one to two servings of soy daily have a reduced risk of receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer and of its recurrence.

Still, some women who have developed breast cancer remain particularly worried about eating soy. But the evidence “is overwhelming that it’s safe,” said Dr. Bette Caan of the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research, who has studied soy intake and breast cancer. “If people enjoy soy as a regular part of their diet,” she said, “there’s no reason to stop.”

Confusing, no? And a perfect example of how difficult it can be to find a clear answer to a simple question. But I think I will go with the clinical trials and the New York Times, rather than anecdotal scare stories, on this one. And buy a bra.

The Pros And Cons Of Pesticide Use

Are pesticides causing bee colonies to collapse? We don’t really know for sure, and that is the problem with how we approach technology.

Well, while we know most of the pros, there are plenty of cons (like maybe wiping out out bee populations) that we don’t really yet understand.

Here’s a good summary of what we do and don’t know:

Pesticides have become an enduring feature of modern life. In 2007, the world used more than 5.2 billion pounds of weed killers, insecticides, and fungicides to do everything from protecting crops to warding off malaria.

And that’s led many researchers to wonder what sorts of broader impacts all these chemicals are having. They’ve helped feed the world, yes, but they may also be causing health problems elsewhere. To that end, the latest issue of Science has a fascinating special section on the world’s pesticide use.

This is a great example of how we push technology forward because we can (and we can see immediate benefits, and profits) without always grasping the net cost on health or the planet. And the thing that has always troubled me is that instead of the burden of proof being on those who want to develop and use a technology (to prove it is safe and a net benefit), the burden of proof tends to fall on those who suspect there are problems (to prove it is not safe or a net benefit). Smoking is another great example.

Sometimes, of course, we can’t assess the full impact of a technology, pesticides in this case, until it has been field tested on the planet (and on us). But it would be nice if the system was set up to better monitor and assess the balance of good and bad any technology does. And it would be nice if the environmental and health impacts of any given technology were priced into the actual cost. Right now, the industries that reap the benefits of using potentially harmful technologies have too much influence over how the technology is assessed (and regulated).

Here, for example, is what science is starting to show about pesticides:

Three long-term cohort studies now suggest that certain chemical pesticides can interfere with brain development in young children. And some experts suspect that a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids are at least partly responsible for the recent collapse in bee populations (though this is still disputed).

There are other, lesser-known impacts as well. Australia’s wheat farmers are now dealing with one of the worst weed infestations in the world — an issue caused in part by overuse of herbicides, which led to resistant weeds. And some 300,000 people kill themselves each year by ingesting pesticides, largely in Asia. That’s one third of the world’s suicides.

And those are just the effects scientists know about. A notable paper from Heinz-R. Köhler and Rita Triebskorn points out that researchers still don’t understand the full impact of many chemicals on broader ecosystems. “Although we often know a pesticide′s mode of action in the target species,” they write, “we still largely do not understand the full impact of unintended side effects on wildlife.”

It’s the unintended side effects that get you every time.

The Meat Files

“The fact is that the blue planet is literally being destroyed by meat production.”

That’s a slightly more edified version of my blunt mantra: “Meat is killing the planet.” (It’s also killing lots of people, but even that doesn’t seem to get a meat-lover’s attention).

Think it’s hyperbole? Not really–though it is a very hard reality to accept:

I’m Standing At My Desk Right Now….

….here’s why:

Just as we were all settling in front of the television to watch the baseball playoffs, two new studies about the perils of sitting have spoiled our viewing pleasure.

The research, published in separate medical journals this month, adds to a growing scientific consensus that the more time someone spends sitting, especially in front of the television, the shorter and less robust his or her life may be.

This is research that is not counter-intuitive. Using television-watching as a proxy for time spent sitting or being sedentary, researchers found:

Every single hour of television watched after the age of 25 reduces the viewer’s life expectancy by 21.8 minutes.

By comparison, smoking a single cigarette reduces life expectancy by about 11 minutes, the authors said.

Looking more broadly, they concluded that an adult who spends an average of six hours a day watching TV over the course of a lifetime can expect to live 4.8 years fewer than a person who does not watch TV.

Those results hold true, the authors point out, even for people who exercise regularly. It appears, Dr. Veerman says, that “a person who does a lot of exercise but watches six hours of TV” every night “might have a similar mortality risk as someone who does not exercise and watches no TV.”

I ride my bike alot, but I also spend a lot of time sitting infront of a computer. I’ll try to stand more, but the deeper issue, I think, is that modern human culture puts people in chairs, and in front of screens, much more than it puts them on their feet or outside. I haven’t figured out how to solve that paradox in my own life yet, but I am working on it.