Thursday, October 28, 2010

Amazing animal abilities... not so much

Homing pigeons are astonishing animals. Despite the poor reputation of urban pigeons in modern times, pigeons have long been of service to humanity, for many centuries delivering messages faster than any available technology. During the two World Wars, pigeons were even awarded medals for their service carrying critical military information.

More recently, they've been used to protest the poor quality of internet access in rural communities: in a demonstration in England, ten pigeons carring USB sticks reached their destination in ninety minutes, beating out a video download started at the moment of their release that had only managed to process 24% of a 300MB file.

All of these uses harness the pigeon's remarkable natural ability to find their way to their home roost from any location. Racing pigeons, driven in closed trucks for several hundred miles to a place they've never been, will unerringly find their way home, flying at speeds of 40 to 60 miles per hour.

Or... not.

A bird named Houdini was released for her first race, an easy 200 miles from Guernsey to Dudley in the West Midlands of England that should have taken only six hours. When she didn't arrive, her owner assumed she'd met with foul play and that he'd never hear of her again.

Over a month later he got a phone call from Gustavo Ortiz, who'd tracked him down using the information on the bird's leg band. The call was from a rather surprising location, as the owner explained to the Daily Mirror:

"I was gobsmacked. I didn't even know where Panama was."
"I've no idea how Houdini got there - I can only assume she hitched a lift on a ship across the Atlantic. They must have fed her on the boat because she's in perfect shape judging by the pictures Gustavo emailed me."

Did Houdini really get that drastically lost, sullying the proud reputation of her species for navigation? Or had she flown the coop deliberately, hitching a lift to a better climate? Either way, it's too expensive to ship her back, so she'll be staying in her new country - well, at least for now, till she gets lost or takes a notion to hitch a ride again.

World's first airmail stamp from the Great Barrier Island Pigeon-Gram Service from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Humans behaving stupidly

In many of the stories on this blog, beneath an obvious tale of an animal behaving badly, there is a subtext: humans behaving stupidly about animals. Once in a while, it's only fair to bring that subtext to the fore.

In England, a woman feeding white bread to ducks in a part was chastised for not jumping on the whole foods bandwagon:

"Then a man in a fluorescent waistcoat who was holding a litter pick-up stick came over to me and said 'I know you mean well but giving them white bread is not good for them.'

“He said next time if I brought wholemeal, granary or bird seed that would be better for them.”

Elsewhere in England, police cleared the area and called for assistance when they saw a cobra coiled around the handlebars of a bicycle. As the snake expert who responded told the tale:
"I grabbed all the kit I would need to protect myself from a venomous snake, including a snake hook and my snake stick, which I need to grab snakes to stop them biting."

But when he arrived at the scene on Sunday lunchtime, the red-faced officers revealed it was a rubber toy.

A happy ending for all there, but in the Congo, herpetological ignorance and overreaction turned to tragedy when a crocodile escaped from a passenger's luggage:

The croc had been hidden in a passenger's sports bag - allegedly with plans to sell it - but it tore loose and ran amok, sparking panic.

A stampede of terrified passengers caused the small aircraft to lose balance and tip over in mid-air during an internal flight in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The unbalanced load caused the aircraft, on a routine flight from the capital, Kinshasa, to the regional airport at Bandundu, to go into a spin and crash into a house.

A lone survivor from the Let 410 plane told the astonishing tale to investigators.

Ironically the crocodile also survived the crash but was later killed with a machete by rescuers sifting through the wreckage.

Speaking as a former reptile-keeping professional, if you're ever in this situation, my advice: A crocodile that can fit in someone's hand luggage is WAY less likely to kill you than a plane crash. Please remain seated.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Why chimps should not be pets

There are many intolerable behaviors that we regularly excuse in our companion animals. But I for one draw the line at insolence to our most long-suffering public servants:
A 300-pound chimpanzee escaped from its owner Tuesday afternoon and ran rampant through a Kansas City neighborhood, scaring walkers, pounding on passing cars and breaking a police car’s windshield.

The 21-year-old ape, named Sueko, also pointed and laughed at residents and flipped off an animal control officer near 78th Street and Indiana Avenue, witnesses said.

Read more and watch the video at the Kansas City Star.

Rude chimp by Flickr user Gerry Clement.

Monday, October 18, 2010

This is your mind on bad animals

Dearest readers, perhaps writing this blog, being constantly steeped in the lowest lows of animal behavior, has made me into a bad person. But all I can add to the following story from Florida is: LOL.

A horrified 8-year-old boy watched as an alligator ate the pet turtle he'd just donated to a Panhandle aquarium.

Brenda Guthrie and her 8-year-old son Colton witnessed Tomalina’s death as the red-eared slider disappeared into the alligator’s jaws at the Gulfarium. When the two looked away from the sight, she said they could hear the crunching of the turtle’s shell.

“He was jumping up and down screaming,” Guthrie said of her son’s reaction. “He was shouting, ‘Oh no alligator, let it go.’”

Guthrie said that they decided to donate Tomalina after the turtle outgrew its aquarium. They chose the Gulfarium so that Colton could come back and visit the turtle.

They brought it there Thursday afternoon and watched as workers put the slider into the alligator exhibit, where two other red-eared sliders already live.

Gulfarium officials said that the alligator, Gracie, had just been hand-fed and that the gators normally don’t express interest in the turtles.

“It’s horrible for a little kid to have to see that,” said General Manager Don Abrams. “That’s not unusual to put sliders in the same exhibit. (The alligators) have never eaten a turtle in the exhibit before.

“It’s just Murphy’s law that nature would take over right then,” he added.

Photo of alligator behaving naturally by Flickr user otzberg.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Heroic humans

The animals in our last post may be terrible role models, but recently some average people have showed us what it means to take a stand against bad animals, bravely leaping into action with nothing but their normal household surroundings to depend on.

In Japan, a couple of citizens took the monkey attack situation into their own hands, and caught the culprit that is believed to have bitten over 100 people.

Municipal government officials said the monkey was spotted on the second-floor balcony of the home of 33-year-old resident Yuki Yoneyama at about 12:30 p.m. on Sunday. His 36-year-old wife opened the window to their children's room, and when the money went inside, Yoneyama shut it from the outside, trapping the animal.

The monkey scampered into a closet, but municipal government workers and police who arrived at the home used a tear-inducing spray to drive it out, and captured it with a net at about 1:30 p.m.

And in Montana, a woman tried to defend her elderly dog from a bear by kicking it. That didn't work, and it next tried to break into her house, but fortunately, she had a weapon to hand:

"She kicked the bear with her left leg as hard as she could, and she said she felt like she caught it pretty solidly under the chin," Maricelli said.

But as she kicked, the bruin swiped at her leg with its paw and ripped her jeans.

The bear then turned its full attention to the woman in the doorway. She retreated into the house and tried to close the door, but the bear stuck its head and part of a shoulder through the doorway.

The woman held onto the door with her right hand. With her left, she reached behind and grabbed a 14-inch zucchini that she had picked from her garden earlier and was sitting on the kitchen counter, Maricelli said.

She threw the vegetable. It bopped the bruin on the top of its head and the animal fled, Maricelli said.

Authorities are looking for the bear; reports say they'll use DNA from the zucchini to confirm its identity.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Bad influences

It's been far too long since we called attention to substance abuse in the animal kingdom. Setting a particularly bad example is a chimp in China with a smoking habit. Yes, he died recently, but:

Zoo spokesman Qondile Khedama said Charlie had become an institution, entertaining thousands of visitors every year with his antics.

For years, zookeepers had been trying to get the chimp to kick the habit, and they discouraged visitors from giving him cigarettes.

But Mr Khedama said he did not believe the addiction had ended Charlie's life prematurely, as he had lived around 10 years longer than the average chimp.

And in Austria, some zoo rhinos were directly responsible for enabling one man's drug habit:
An Austrian zoo has fired a zookeeper after discovering that he had been secretly growing a cannabis plantation in the rhinoceros enclosure he was in charge of. It was a clever scheme because the 59-year-old man had exclusive access to the enclosure at Salzburg Zoo, and the presence of the notoriously irritable one-ton beasts was likely to deter the curious.

But perhaps the most disturbing case reported recently is that of a deer at a resort in China. A few months ago, a waitress offered the animal a taste of some beer, and it was the first step on a descent into alcoholism:
Since then, says Zhang, whenever there is any leftover beer she takes it to feed to the deer.

"It has a growing addiction to beer. To begin with it was half a bottle but now it is several big bottles in a row. Her daily feed is around two bottles of beer."

Zhang adds: "I don't know what her maximum appetite for beers is though we once tried giving her four bottles of beer and she drank them all."

Elsewhere the restaurant's chef is quoted:
"It drinks beer quite often. It does not drink water any more, it only drinks beer."

Some say that drug abusers hurt only themselves, but when people foolishly believe that animals are cute and noble, we run the risk of their behavior being used as a role model, especially by innocent youth. What are our children to think when they see Bambi guzzling beer?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bad bird, murder and family dysfunction

Where's the fellow feeling among birds? They clearly feel no need to be nicer to other birds than to anyone else. A couple of weeks ago we saw a seagull that dropped a budgie onto the head of a pedestrian. That's nothing compared to the rampages of a swan nicknamed "Hannibal," who has killed at least fifteen other swans to defend his territory in a pond in Wales.

You'd think just beating intruders up and driving them away would be enough, but Hannibal not only takes it as far as murder - he even involves the wife and children, as a local volunteer rescuer reports:

"He holds their heads under the water until they drown or he beats them to a pulp with his wings.

"Mrs Hannibal blocks off the escape routes while he attacks them and then they take the baby to view the kill while mum and dad do a triumphant, wings-up, celebration."

The wildlife rescuer has applied for a permit to remove Hannibal from the pond, but she may be part of the problem. Despite that fact that she is caring for three victims that managed to escape this monster, she is not advocating his immediate destruction - she's open to the possibility that he can be rehabilitated:

"He will be here until we can determine if he has a solvable problem. If it is treatable he will be relocated, perhaps to a private lake."

Don't mess with that swan by Flickr user pigpogm.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Shocking scientific standards

Last week, we saw that children's books - even when based on a "true" story - can't be trusted to provide our youth with the truth about animals. Today, we find the same lack of context in a branch of literature that ought to be more reliable.

This blog was was initially thrilled at the news that an Ig Nobel Prize was awarded to the researchers who discovered that fruit bats have oral sex and copulate at the same time, which we reported on here. Finally, we thought, this sort of thing is getting the publicity it deserves.

However, our pleasure immediately turned to disappointment when we read one of the scientists, Gareth Jones, quoted in the eminent Guardian as saying:

"It is the first documented case of fellatio by adult animals other than humans to my knowledge."

This scientist has clearly not done his homework. Never mind combing the periodical indexes - with little effort, he could have simply read the book mentioned in our last post. Biological Exuberance by Bruce Bagemihl, in the course of seven hundred pages worth of evidence for homosexual behavior in the animal kingdom, also documents many other sorts of, to put it somewhat tastefully, "non-procreative" sexual interactions.

Consulting the index of this tome, under "oral stimulation (heterosexual)," there are entries for twenty different kinds of animals, and under "(homosexual)", twenty-five.

In fact, this act has been documented in all sorts of creatures, including but not limited to primates, cheetahs, hedgehogs, and various fruit bats. Not only don't some care what sex their partner is - for example, in walruses and manatees, pairs of males do it together - also, some don't even care what species - caribou and moose do it to each other.

Bagemihl's book was published in 1999, and it seems likely that in the last ten years, many other naturalists have observed such behavior. I'd go check some journal indexes if I wasn't feeling kind of sick to my stomach already (do you have any idea what it is like to read seven hundred pages of this sort of thing?). But this is exactly what our much better paid, fruit-bat-voyeur scientist friends should have done before making public claims about discovering a first.

When a respectable academic makes a claim "to my knowledge," we expect better that this. How are we going to make progress in exposing bad animal behavior if scientists do their background research so poorly?

Full frontal fruitbat by Flickr user hanifridz.