Monday, February 28, 2011

Who's in charge?

I recently noted a disturbing fact: there are nearly three times as many posts about dogs on this blog as there are about cats.

Given how many cats share our homes, this can't be right. I have long suspected that cats have the power to cloud our minds. Why else do we continue to feed them and pay their bills when they no longer serve a useful purpose for most of us?

Now a scientific study suggests that my suspicions may have some basis in fact.

Researchers discovered that pet cats are skilled at manipulating their owners into feeding and petting them. They even suggest that our relationship with a cat is like a relationship with another human - a particularly demanding sort of human, in fact: "Both cat and human infant are, at least in part, in control of when and what they are fed!" one author told Discovery News.

You may like to think you're too smart to fall for it, too tough to be bossed around by a small furry animal. But you may not even be aware of what's happening. The scientists found that the methods cats use are so subtle, they're basically subliminal messages: in some cases "a single upright tail move" is all it takes to get the owner's affectionate petting.

So if cats can do that, I have to wonder: are they somehow preventing me from writing about what they're up to? Could they be tired of settling for merely free room, board, and petting? Any plot would have the advantage that it's very hard to raise our suspicions about cats. We saw in my last post that they've figured out they can even steal the neighbor's underwear and people just laugh.

And news from elsewhere is even more unnerving. The new cat at the British Prime Minister's residence recently had to be bodily removed when trying to crash a photo op.

Larry the cat was hired merely to eliminate rodents. But perhaps he was interested in infiltrating the government for a very different purpose. If he'd managed to grab the mike, what would he have announced?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Klepto-kitties escalate their efforts

A cat in San Mateo, California has gotten a bit of attention lately for a three year long spree of burglaries.

Dusty's owners say he's stolen around 600 items: gloves, shoes, toys, even underwear. You can watch a TV interview here, with night camera footage filmed by Animal Planet that leaves no doubt what is going on.

He's a hard-working criminal, and also thorough: Dusty will make two trips to get both members of a pair of socks or shoes, and one neighbor reports that the cat stole her bikini top, and then came back for the bottom.

The coverage is all very lightheared, and one of Dusty's owners says that the victims don't complain: "I think they find it kind of funny."

But with the usual lack of in-depth investigative research that is sadly typical of TV, what's being missed here is that this is not an isolated incident. On this blog, we reported this past summer on a cat named Oscar in England, who stole dozens of socks, various ladies' and children's underwear, builder’s gloves, a knee-pad, a paint roller, rubber gloves and gardening gloves.

At almost the same time, Houdini, a cat in Seattle, was stealing gloves from all over the neighborhood. His owners put out a bright orange bucket where neighbors could come and look for the missing property.

And a couple of years before that, a cat named Frankie in England was in the news for stealing dozens of cat toys from nearby homes.

In that early case, Frankie stuck mostly to cat toys except for a few old socks and rubbish. Houdini stole human possessions, but nothing too valuable - worn-out gardening and latex gloves that wouldn't cause too much of a ruckus.

But Oscar and Dusty show that the trend is moving in an ominous direction: the lastest culprits have discovered that they can even steal our most intimate garments without raising more than a giggle.

They've laid the groundwork. They're living in our homes. Where will they take it next?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Who's endangering whom?

Poor Australians. Even under normal circumstances, animals are out to get them. The country is filled with venomous snakes, spiders, and jellyfish, and even a cute wombat can go mad and try to kill you.

On top of that, recently the weather has been after them as well, with devastating flooding all over the country.

And now, the two have combined: Residents of Queensland have been warned to watch out for cassowaries coming out of the forest to look for food, since cyclone winds have stripped the trees of fruit.

If you wonder how dangerous a mere bird can be, you've never been close to a cassowary. They can be up to six feet tall and over a hundred pounds, and it's said that they can disembowel a human - or even a horse - with one kick of their dinosaur feet:

Although only one human death by cassowary has been confirmed, one zoo I worked at had a short list of animals that staff were prepared to shoot to kill if they escaped and endangered humans. The list mostly consisted of the usual large and/or carnivorous suspects - and, the cassowary.

This is not a creature you want to mess with. Australian authorities are so concerned about the situation that they are actually planning airdrops of food into cassowary habitat to keep them away from populated areas.

Somewhat oddly, at the same time, scientists have announced an iPhone app that allows people to report sightings of cassowaries to help with conservation research. But maybe this is actually good timing: How about working to deploy this technology to report cassowary locations so people know where to stay the heck away.

Cassowary giving you the eye by Flickr user mrgarris0n and feet by mulch thief.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Animals, journalists and press spokespersons behaving badly

Looks like it's "humans behaving ignorantly about bad animals in print" week here on the blog.

There's no way I couldn't be attracted to a headline like this one:

Small dogs chew off elderly man's toes

But little did I know I would find such riches in this report by Fox News in San Diego.

First, to get the facts out of the way: Yes, the evidence seems conclusive that two cute little Cavalier King Charles Spaniels ate three toes off a 72-year-old man with neuropathy, a condition that left him with no feeling in his feet.

As a person with two cute smush-faced dogs myself, who certanly will eat anything, I want to state this as decisively as possible: THIS IS WRONG. DO NOT EAT YOUR OWNER'S BODY PARTS.

But there's plenty of blame to go around in this report, and the offenses go from one extreme to the other.

On the one hand we have the elderly victim's caretaker making excuses for the man-eating pups:

But Chilson said he believes the dogs were trying to heal a sore.

"Occasionally he can get a knick on his foot, and I think what happened is they found a scab on his toe and began licking and chewing."

Oh, sure. Just trying to help him out, they were.

At the other extreme we have the animal control department's spokesperson:

DeSousa said he had never heard of a case where dogs had gnawed off someone's toes before, but he said fatal dog attacks are relatively common.

Now, I'm all for exposing the under-reported bad behavior of animals, and I'm perfectly happy to put a spin on a story to make a point. But fatal dog attacks are only "relatively common" if you think it counts as "common" that you have a one in 18 million chance of being killed by a dog. You're five times more likely to be killed by lightning. Dogs kill more children than they do adults, but even children are more likely to die in an an accident involving a party balloon.

I feel we should also place equal blame on the reporter for the inclusion of this statement, since it's totally unclear how it is relevant - after all, even I find it hard to believe that chewing off toes is the first step on a slippery slope to a fatal attack. If that was the intent, it is seriously not a very efficient way to go about it.

However: While we should admit that animals are bad but dogs are not likely to kill you, that doesn't mean we should go to the other extreme - and in the very next sentence - where the spokesperson appears to make a complete turn-around and come down on the side of the excuse-makers:

"Accidents happen all the time, and in most cases we'll never know why, because we can't talk to the dogs," DeSousa said.

OK, anyone could take a taste of a motionless digit by "accident." But when THREE human toes are totally consumed, someone knew exactly what they were doing.

Cavalier contemplating turtle soup by Flickr user colorblindpicaso.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The blogger isn't the only one who's prickly today

Yet again, it's hard to know who's worse, humans or animals.

I recently stumbled across a press release touting the results of an online poll of Australians who have nothing better to do than respond to an online poll about what is the cutest baby Australian animal.

The winner was the baby echidna, and this result impressed me with the broad-mindedness of Australians, given that the picture above is a good example of the creature in question. Not exactly your conventional example of cuteness and beauty.

However, the plot thickened when I tracked down the blog that conducted this survey and discovered that this was the photo posted with the entry announcing the results:

I can only hope that by the time you follow that link they've responded to my comment and changed the photo, since, with the enormous insight into the natural world that we have come to expect from lovers of cute animals, what they are using there is a actually a picture of a hedgehog.

So who knows what the poll-takers thought they were actually voting on. But, while I'm on the subject, we don't want to let the echidnas themselves off the hook, as they have quite a bit to answer for as well. Their sex lives are particularly appalling. Researchers have found that they commonly have group sex, with up to four males attempting to mate with one female at a time. At least that's presumably consensual, though: worse, males are also happy to mate with a female while she is still hibernating.

Perhaps this isn't surprising since even the basic reproductive anatomy of this animal is an offense to any right-thinking person. This is a mammal that lays eggs, after all, so it fails to follow even the most basic rules of its class. The following video is a good introduction to the "horrifying and disgusting reproductive practices" of the echidna, if you think you can take it. Three words of warning: four-headed penis.

Picture of actual baby echidna from For the curious I recommend these Flickr results.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Unlikely suspects

Regular readers of this blog should know this already: there is NO animal you can trust. But if you're still not convinced, watch out, because the most unexpected can even turn out to be killers, as some recent stories show.

-In California, a chicken committed murder: A man was stabbed by a knife attached to the leg of a fighting rooster. He was taken to the hospital but died about two hours later.

- A case of invertebrate manslaughter in England: A nineteen year old girl was killed in a collision caused by a malfunctioning traffic signal. A police investigator discovered that the problem was caused by a snail or slug: "There was a trail across the circuit board and it had short-circuited it – it was one of those things, it's a tragedy."

- And don't let down your guard because some poor creature has a disability: In Nepal, a blind rhino was recently given a one year jail term for murder. The ungrateful beast had been rescued from villagers who attacked it, causing it to lose its sight. It had long posed for pictures with tourists uneventfully, lulling everyone into a false sense of security - till it attacked the priest of a local temple, who died of his injuries.

Seriously, don't get as close to a chicken as MisterQueue did to take that picture.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Snakes on a train... and other inconvenient places

Some of this blog's best friends are snake owners, and admittedly its author can be found rooting for them in print on occassion.

But like any other animal, when you invite snakes to share your life you're asking for trouble. And it's not always the kind of trouble you might expect.

For example in England, a pet snake recently caused a house fire. Rearranging its enclosure on its own without following basic safety precautions, it moved a heat lamp so that it touched a piece of bark, starting the blaze.

Your pet snake problems may inconvenience others as well. In Boston, a remarkably inattentive woman somehow lost her boa constrictor on a subway train a month ago. They were reunited last Friday, after a commuter spotted the 3-foot-long snake and the train was taken out of service to search for it.

And while acquiring a pet from a reputable source is important no matter the species, snakes can present special issues: a man in New Jersey recently ended up in the hospital after being bitten by his pet cobra. The dealer claimed that its venom sacs had been removed, but apparently, not so much.

Those folks have only themselves to blame, but others are the innocent victims of uninvited guests. In Idaho, a house is for sale cheap after a foreclosure, but it's not the usual recession-related sad story. The owners abandoned it because it's infested with thousands of garter snakes. A herpetologist told Reuters that the house was probably built on the site of a den where the snakes return every year when the weather gets cold.

The realtor says he's looking for a very special sort of buyer: "I guess I need a snake lover; either that or someone with multiple mongooses."

Photo of sign from the New York City subway, where they are prepared for you to lose your snake (see far left) by Flickr user eston.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Post-Groundhog Day linkarama

This blog is pleased that the latest ice storm turned out to be rain. But don't get all excited about the news that the groundhog did not see his shadow yesterday. An analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association shows that when it comes to forecasting the weather, the rodent's no better than humans: from 1988-2010 there was no correlation between the groundhog's prediction and the weather for the rest of the season.

Punxsutawney Phil's forecast was seconded by New York City's groundhog prognosticator, again assisted by Mayor Bloomberg, who has learned his lesson after being bitten in 2009: he wore heavy gloves.

But two random rodent opinions don't make a right, so don't pack those winter boots away just yet.

Sorry for the bad news. The only comfort I can offer is some links to settle in and read next time you're snowed in:

In Smithsonian magazine: Some long-form bad animal reporting on feral pigs in Texas.

A highly disturbing post about animals commiting sexual assault on humans, including the tale of a victim of attempted rape by a sea turtle. Stop laughing! It's not funny!

Scientific American suggests that you might be afraid of the wrong animals. (Here we suggest, of course, don't trust any of them.)

And not to lose sight of how we are our own worst enemies when it comes to our relationship with other species: courtesy of Cracked, Animals that humans have accidentally made way scarier.