Thursday, April 28, 2011

The day after

OK, we've done sloths and wombats and anteaters, and today, I will continue to try to be a role model by reporting on the misdeeds of my own personal favorite animals.

Yesterday was World Tapir Day, dedicated to raising awareness of the four little-known and apparently perfectly charming species of tapir.

If you don't know what a tapir is, please don't walk up to their exhibit at the zoo and say "Look at the anteater!" For the love of God, read the sign, OK? It's not a pig, either. In fact, their closest relatives are horses and rhinos, which just shows what you know.

So now that your awareness is raised and the tapir has had its day, let's give equal time to the dark side. You may not think that this mild-mannered looking herbivore with the adorable squishy nose is a dangerous animal, but you'd be wrong there too.

At the website of the IUCN's Tapir Specialist Group, you can read a first person description of an attack by a tapir in the wild. Tapirs are usually elusive in their natural habitat, and it's a good thing, because here's what happens when you get too close to their babies:

I turned around and ran, but in less than 5 meters she caught up with me. She pushed me to the ground and began biting me. The first bite was on my rubber boot and the next four bites were to my backpack (which saved my life!). All along I was playing dead, like an opossum, until I felt the tapir was trying to bite me in the back of my neck. At that moment, I ran on all four limbs and jumped into a dry rocky creek. I hit many rocks and fallen branches and landed hard on one side of my body. I lost consciousness and when I came to, probably an hour later, I was walking in the forest very confused and in a lot of pain. I remembered everything that happened to me and realized that I was very lucky to have survived, because this animal was furious and her strength was incredible.

And don't think you're any less at risk when the tapir is safely behind bars. In 1998, a zookeeper lost her arm to a tapir. You may wonder, what offense was she committing against this animal at the time? Well, she was trying to feed it.

What's more, the subject of the attack above was Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Echandi, the former Costa Rican Minister of Environment and Energy, described by the Tapir Specialist Group as a "highly acclaimed conservationist," who was on a visit to the forest to try to solve the poaching problem.

Some gratitude, huh?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Short-attention-span bad animals

Today, we're just going to stick to the headlines:

Street's mail deliveries banned after dog bites postwoman

Rat Sends Plane Scurrying Back To Sea-Tac Gate

Man falls to death from rooftop after monkey attack

Female baboons are victims of domestic abuse

Taser fails to slow moose

Girl finds seven-foot snake in toilet

Rage-inducing chemical on squid eggs turns males into violent thugs

Looks like bad animals all over the world, of all sizes, shapes, orders, and families, are keeping busy victimizing all kinds of innocents in all kinds of ways. On the bright side, after reading that list, isn't it almost a relief to turn back to the human news?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

It's your turn, otter-huggers

After the heartbreak of that last post on anteaters, I am feeling particularly cruel towards fans of the conventionally cute. So today it's their turn: I am going after otters.

There are various nasty facts I could relate about otters, but let's concentrate on a recent paper in the journal Aquatic Mammals that was reported on last month by Discovery News.

This study described some interactions between sea otters and baby harbor seals in California. Before we go on, let's remind ourselves of how adorable a baby harbor seal is, pictured here with its loving mom courtesy of Zooborns:

Are you picturing those babies frolicking in the waves together? Good. So now it's time for me to tell you how male sea otters were observed violently raping juvenile harbor seals - and not stopping until the victim was dead.

Here's just part of a description of one incident:
...The sea otter gripped the harbor seal’s head with its forepaws and repeatedly bit it on the nose, causing a deep laceration. The sea otter and pup rolled violently in the water for approximately 15 min, while the pup struggled to free itself from the sea otter’s grasp. Finally, the sea otter positioned itself dorsal to the pup’s smaller body while grasping it by the head and holding it underwater in a position typical of mating sea otters. As the sea otter thrust his pelvis, his penis was extruded and intromission was observed. At 105 min into the encounter, the sea otter released the pup, now dead, and began grooming.

The authors observed 19 similar events in Monterey Bay between 2000 and 2002, which in at least 15 cases ended up with dead seals.

This actually should surprise no one: in fact, these male otters aren't treating the seals any differently than they treat their own. They will also mate with a female otter till she's dead, and indeed, during the study period, 11 percent of the dead female otters examined appeared to have succumbed to such attacks.

This behavior also should surprise no one because it's not the first time it's been observed. In fact, I've linked to this sort of story before, but I was kind enough not to rub your face in it. But if you didn't click last time, and you still have any illusions left about sea otters, read this page from the ironically named Love Lab of marine biology.

He makes it sound amusing... but that doesn't make it any less wrong.

PS: The photo up top is actually an Asian small-clawed otter (via Zooborns.) But you couldn't tell the difference, right? So take this whole post as a lesson about falling in love with animals that you don't know nearly enough about.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Another cute idol falls

Even after several years of blogging about the misdeeds of animals, even after researching and writing a book on the subject that will appear later this year, there are certain animals that I retain a soft spot for.

You would think I would know better, but it still inexplicably pains me to post a story about sloths diving into sewers or a wombat attacking a man in a battle to the death.

Another of my favorites has managed to escape notice on this blog so far. I once worked in the building in the photo above, in front of which a giant anteater is honored. I once slaved over this adorable lesser anteater, or tamandua. Look how cute it is sniffing my shoe!

And despite having escaped from that servitude, more recently, I admit it, I have been known to forward adorable baby anteater photos around the internet:

But I understand that despite my weaknesses I have a job to do, and in that spirit, it would be wrong to pass up the following headline:

Swedish flamingoes massacred in frenzied anteater attack

A flock of ten flamingoes have met a brutal end at a zoo in Eskilstuna in eastern Sweden after a curious anteater broke into their compound and clawed them to death, leaving a further five birds nursing injuries.

"It is not as dramatic as it sounds. The anteater panicked when the birds cackled and flapped their wings and it struck back," Helena Olsson at the Parken Zoo told The Local on Tuesday.

"The anteater is not a meat-eater, unless you consider ants meat, but when it feels threatened, it will defend itself," she said.

Olsson said that the South American animal, whose claws she said are strong enough to damage concrete, became curious and managed to pull apart the fence separating their pens and enter the enclosure holding the long-legged birds.

"The birds are very frail and the anteater is very strong," she said.

"Not dramatic" unless you were the victims. And when an animal has claws that can damage concrete, you don't need to be a frail, pink bird to be at risk. Perhaps Ms Olsson is unfamiliar with a past story that I confess I have been sitting on, with the excuse that it is too old to be news: in 2007, a 19 year old zookeeper in Argentina actually died after being attacked by an anteater.

I guess now I'm just waiting for the inevitable news story where a pack of pugs eats its owners alive. We can only hope that I don't let down my guard to the extent that I'm the subject of that story myself.

Historic photo courtesy of Circus No Spin Zone. Check out some of his more amusing insights into bad animals here and here.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Now that's more like it

A couple of weeks ago we learned of a drive-though zoo where the monkeys had long enjoyed vandalizing vistor's cars. Two years of construction had deprived them of this pleasure, and should have been a good opportunity to break them of the habit. Instead, when the exhibit re-opened, keepers gave the monkeys their own car to demolish in celebration.

In defense of my former profession, not all animal keepers are like this, and today we meet some better role models for how to treat bad animals.

At the London Zoo, there's a walk-through exhibit of Bolivian squirrel monkeys. When it opened in 2005, the zoo proclaimed:

Our revolutionary new enclosure is the result of extensive research into what visitors really want from a modern zoo, and allows them to actually get in with the monkeys and observe them in their natural habitat.

If what visitors really want from a modern zoo is to get in with the monkeys, they're asking for trouble, as anyone who reads this blog knows. Because what you will then have to contend with is, what do monkeys really want?

The answer is never a good one. We've seen them stealing from cars, decimating vineyards, and repeatedly attacking innocent citizens, just to name a few cases.

And people who get up close on purpose usually end up sorry, even when it's a monkey they know personally.

This exhibit provides further proof of the folly of mixing too closely with our fellow primates, although no bloodshed has been involved, at least. The monkeys have taken to stealing visitor's sunglasses, and have accumulated a stash of seven pairs.

This should be no surprise: for one thing, it's not the first case we've seen of an eyewear-thieving monkey. For another, these same monkeys caused a problem a few years ago when they had to be trained to stop stealing visitors' cell phones.

And fortunately, staff are taking action again: they're providing decoy sunglasses coated with bitter apple, hoping the nasty taste will turn the monkeys off the shiny toys.

But you know, now that I think of it, I am having second thoughts about this approach. If the public is foolish enough to want to get up close and personal with monkeys, maybe we should butt out and let them see what monkeys are really like.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Time to panic down South?

There was a moment last week when all of these headlines appeared simultaneously at

* Wild coyotes eat zoo birds (New Orleans)

* Mom stabs dog, saves tot (South Carolina)

* Hawks attack 5 people (Florida)

* Mouse poop found on shelf at local Kroger (Kentucky)

* Pants saved teen from gator ("Florida lawmakers may think twice about banning droopy drawers after a teen claims he was saved from an alligator attack because of his baggy pants.")

Given the range of creatures and offenses involved here, I think I am staying up North for the foreseeable future despite our lingering winter weather.

Photo of sign that needs to be updated with some fashion advice by Flickr user alicetiara.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Animals and Transportation, aquatic department

Last week we saw snakes and a ferret travelling by train and a penguin overcoming its flightless nature via airline. And while last week's monkeys used their car as a toy rather than a means of transportation, we've seen bears and dogs try to drive cars more than once.

Is no form of transportation safe from animals? Apparently not, since we've recently seen a rash of sea life getting on boats.

In Texas, some fisherman who were after nothing more than red snapper ending up coming home with a 375 pound mako shark that jumped into their boat. The shark, perhaps having second thoughts about its choice of conveyance, thrashed around so wildly that they were unable to help it back into the water, and it died.

Although the men had no permit to catch sharks, officials reasonably concluded that no offense is committed when a shark commits suicide using your boat.

A more serious case occurred a few days earlier when an eagle ray jumped into a boat on the Florida Keys. This fish seemed more intent on murder than suicide: it landed on a woman passenger and slammed her against the deck repeatedly.

The ray was reportedly 8 feet across and probably 300 pounds, and the other passengers thought the woman was going to die. It wouldn't have been the first time - a woman died of head injuries in a similar incident in 2008.

Nearby wildlife officers heard the commotion and rushed to the boat - "shoes were getting thrown off the boat, towels were going everywhere," one told CNN. But by the time they got there, the victim had freed herself, completely uninjured. So their only contribution? Helping the culprit escape back into the water. Thanks, guys - good to know whose side you're on.

The only kind of shark that belongs on a boat by Flickr user MV Jantzen.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Bad animal pays the ultimate penalty

Fred, the baboon in South Africa who learned how to break into cars to steal food, is no more.

Fred was captured and executed by lethal injection when officials decided that he had become a danger to humans. The official explanation reported in the news read in part:

This baboon’s aggression levels had recently escalated to the point where the safety of tourists, motorists and other travellers along the road past Smitswinkel Bay was being threatened. In 2010 he physically attacked and injured three people, of which two required medical attention

The decision was not without controversy, with some locals attempting to win a reprieve till the last minute. As we have seen time and again, there were those who made excuses for Fred's bad behavior, putting the blame on tourists for feeding and encouraging the baboons. One local photographer was interviewed by The Telegraph:

"The problem here was not Fred or any other baboon that can open car doors or house windows – the problem was the people," he said reportedly.

Mr Chapman added that “selfish” tourists had corrupted the animals and “turned them into a Sunday afternoon drive party trick”

Despite these passionate defenses, it seems undeniable that Fred had a role in his own problems. If tourists are handing out food, a monkey could just take it politely and be glad to have it. This blog does not condone the death penalty - if nothing else, it seems unlikely to be successful as a deterrent - but there was no reason that Fred's response to generosity had to involve breaking into cars and attacking people.

Rest in peace, Fred, and let us hope that your sacrifice serves as an example to your fellows: If people think it's cute to give you food, recognize that you've got a good gig. Don't push it, because when humans turn against you, they don't mess around.

Fred has been memorialized in his own Wikipedia entry and elsewhere, such as by photographer of the above, Flickr user