Animal Matters

I thought I would share some recent stories about wildlife that crossed my path.  The first comes from NPR’s Weekend Edition.  I was running my payday weekend errands yesterday and had a “driveway moment” in the parking lot of my grocery store.  Rebecca Davis was reporting on her trip to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.  She was there to see gorillas in the wild.  I couldn’t pass up a chance to experience, vicariously of course, a visit to a group of wild gorillas.  The icing on this cake, this group had a pair of young twins.  You may not know that twins are rare for most large mammals, so this was a chance of a lifetime for the reporter and me! Listening to the quiet whispers of the reporter and guide transported me into the forest along with them.

When I decided to change my major from mathematics as an undergraduate, I chose zoology.  I had long been awestruck by the incredibly magnificent animals of Africa.  Elephants, giraffes, rhinos, lions, cheetahs, what’s not to love?  As a child, after seeing the film Born Free, I read all of the books written by Joy Adamson and her husband, George.  I dreamed of going to Africa, if for no other reason than to visit the grave of Elsa the lioness.  PBS’ Nature had an episode last year entitled Elsa’s Legacy. I have to admit that I cried, nearly uncontrollably watching this episode, mourning once again Elsa’s death. Both Joy and George met tragic ends with Joy being murdered by a former employee and George being killed by poachers.

At the same time I switched to my zoology major, something remarkable was taking place in the scientific world. Dr. Louis B. Leakey, the renowned archaeologist and anthropologist, had sent three young women into the field to study primates; Jane Goodall to study chimpanzees, Dian Fossey to study gorillas and Birute Galdikas to study orangutans. Tragically, Dian Fossey, author of Gorillas in the Mist, was murdered by poachers in 1985.

My major professor and advisor in college was Dr. Llewellyn Ehrhart. Although he was a vertebrate zoologist and mammologist, he chose to focus his field work and research on sea turtles. His mentor was the renowned turtle biologist, Dr. Archie Carr. Check out the links to find out more about Dr. Carr and the group he founded, the Sea Turtle Conservancy and the National Wildlife Refuge named for him I came across a report on leatherback turtles on Treehugger yesterday. Several species of sea turtles nest on Florida’s coasts. Each species is listed as endangered, and leatherbacks are of particular concern. I have closely followed the efforts here in Florida to protect these species, where volunteers patrol the beaches to locate nests, cover and mark them. In addition to human poachers, which are relatively rare along America’s coastlines these days, there are natural predators. Raccoons, in particular, dig into the nests for the eggs. The volunteers put wide spaced wire grates over the nests to keep the raccoons from destroying the incubating eggs. The leatherback story has some wonderful photos that accompany it.  You can see how enormous these prehistoric creatures are in comparison to humans in a couple of the photos. Sea turtles evolved during the late Jurassic period, while dinosaurs (oh, my!) were still walking the earth.

Treehugger, once again, has a video of a polar bear in a zoo in the Netherlands who used a stone to fracture the glass in the pool habitat of his enclosure. Possibly the bear was just trying to get the attention of the two zoo visitors who were standing in front of the glass. Who knows? It certainly made me wonder why those guys were even there in the first place, since they obviously weren’t interested in the magnificent animal right in front of them. I couldn’t find any other recorded instances of a polar bear using a “tool” which is what makes this incident so fascinating. I will save my opposition to zoos and marine parks for another post. I will say that many larger, well funded zoos have improved the once bare and small enclosures with larger and enriched habitats. These changes have certainly improved the lives of captive animals during their lifetime imprisonment.

This link is to a sad, but not unusual story, also from Treehugger. The story entitled Half of Republic of Congo’s Forest Elephants Killed in Past Five Years naturally caught my eye.  There are other links on the page to other stories about recent assaults on the elephant populations in Sumatra, Cameroon and the Eastern Congo.   This information from Scientific American will give you an idea of how much damage has been done to African elephants in the past 80 years.

 In 1930, there were between five and 10 million wild African elephants, plying the entire African continent in large bands. Just 60 years later, when they were added to the international list of critically endangered species, only about 600,000 were scattered across a few African countries. Today that number is likely less than 500,000.

This massive decline in African elephant populations is due to a combination of poaching for ivory and habitat loss.  With an ivory ban still in place, but might not be for much longer, and stepped up conservation efforts in many areas, some countries are seeing a slight increase in numbers of individuals.  Unfortunately not every country or areas within the countries are on board with protecting this magnificent species.  Population declines of 50% for already endangered species can spell their imminent extinction.  When the size of the gene pool is dramatically reduced, rare traits or mutations are more likely to occur and, thus, weaken the species.

A final dose of science geekiness is an interview with Dr. Sylvia Earle, featured on the American Public Media radio show, On Being. Dr. Earle has been at the forefront of ocean exploration and discovery for about 50 years. She will be 77 later this year, and Krista began the interview this way:

Sylvia Earle: That’s the joy of being a scientist and explorer. You do what little children do: you ask questions. Like who, what, why, when, where, how? (laughs). And you never stop and you never cease being surprised. It’s just impossible to be bored.

Ms. Tippett: And you’re still diving, aren’t you?

Dr. Earle: Well, yeah. I breathe. So I can dive. (laughter)

Dr. Earle is the only person who has walked on the bottom of the ocean,in a specially designed, pressurized suit, similar to the suits worn by astronauts. She is one of the leading voices on protecting the Earth’s oceans. As I listened to the interview, the child like sense of wonder and excitement in her voice was uplifting and helped me recall that same feeling within myself. Despite the fact she has witnessed the decline of species and habitat in oceans around the world, there is no despair in her voice or her message. If you do nothing else today, please listen to this delightful, informative and hopeful discussion with a truly amazing woman. I seriously doubt that the phrase I CAN’T has ever been a part of her vocabulary.

Whether it is development, a need for fuel or simply money, so many species are on the brink of extinction worldwide at the hands of humans. For me, a world without non-human animals is not a place worth living in. Our species’ need to commodify and conquer everything around us must stop. Science is how our eyes will be opened, which is why science education is so critical now more than ever. Will we learn to appreciate the wonders and marvels of the natural world surrounding us before it is too late?

I will leave you with my favorite quote, one which sums up my feelings toward our planet and all the life upon it. It’s from Henry Beston’s book The Outermost House:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

33 Comments on “Animal Matters”

  1. This was a wonderful post Connie, and I look forward to reading the links you have posted. Do you work with any of the animal rescue areas in central Florida? I think there was a couple places east of Orlando that would care for wild animals that could not be returned to the wild…

    • ecocatwoman says:

      There are several wildlife rehabbers in town. I’ve never worked with them, however. And although I work at Save the Manatee Club (for nearly 20 years), I’m not involved in the conservation area. That said, my fascination with wildlife is alive and well nearly 40 years after getting my degree. The gorilla link is only about 10 or 15 minutes long. The guide told the group a story about when he happened to be with the gorilla troop and a female gave birth. WOW! If nothing else, the report is worth listening to for that story.

      Thanks for your kind words.

    • ecocatwoman says:

      BTW, elephants and manatees are related.

  2. bostonboomer says:

    What a wonderful post for a Sunday afternoon! Thank you so much for sharing these stories. Until today, I never knew that you had studied zoology in college. I hope you’ll write more posts like this in future!

    • ecocatwoman says:

      I’m so glad you liked it. Stuff about animals always get my attention, but I realize that it isn’t something to appeals to everyone across the board. Thanks for the encouragement.

  3. bostonboomer says:

    I found an article about baby elephants in Sri Lanka about a “mass christening of babies born in the last few years. It says that many baby elephants have been orphaned because of warfare, but recently a study showed that the elephant population in the country is making a comeback.

    • ecocatwoman says:

      Orphaned Asian elephants may not experience the same problems as do orphaned African elephants. Asian elephants are considered more docile than African ones. One of the horrible side effects of the poaching is what happens with the orphans not killed when the rest of the herd is annihilated with AK 47s. Here’s a link that details the problem of aggression in juvenile/adolescent males due to a lack of a role model:
      Mammals, more than other classes of animals, require an extended period of time with their mother or within their social group to learn appropriate “social” behavior. For predators, they learn, through play, how to hunt. The young also learn what to eat and other necessary survival skills. This is one of the MAJOR reasons that captive breeding in zoos won’t solve the problem of vanishing species. Only recently has the US Fish & Wildlife Service re-instated the practice of releasing orphaned manatee calves. They put a stop to captive breeding of manatees in 1993 or 1994. Why? Because shortly after release they were found dead. In captivity manatees are fed mostly lettuce, which floats. In the wild they eat seagrasses which grow on the riverbeds. In captivity the water temperature is controlled. In the wild, being extremely sensitive to cold/hypothermia, they migrate to warm water sources in the winter. In captivity they can’t be taught that, nor do they need to worry about it.

      This link is about “delinquent” juvenile African male elephants who killed 39 protected white rhinos. Elephants normally live together peacefully with rhinos.

    • ecocatwoman says:

      Here’s a Nat Geo article about a nursery in Africa:

  4. Toonces says:

    Elephants were making a comeback when the ivory ban was still in place, but since the ban on selling “stockpiles” of confiscated ivory was lifted in 2002 (I believe) by CITES, the price of ivory has gone up, from something like $5-10 per pound during the ban to about $135 per pound after. This has caused poachers to sharply increase their activity and it has gotten much worse recently. Elephants are in trouble, and illegal ivory is sold amongst “legal” ivory. Re-banning the sale of ALL ivory, including stockpiles is needed. In China, which is the main demand for ivory (followed by the US), many people don’t realize the elephants are actually killed — they believe the tusks grow back like teeth, so education is obviously needed as well. Etsy needs to actually follow ebay’s lead and ban the sale of ivory.

    Elephants are incredible animals and people should care about them. There was a story on 60 Minutes a few months ago about a woman researcher living near a kind of natural elephant sanctuary (a place where elephants can hang out and be left alone) and she witnessed a funeral for a baby elephant. The other elephants lined up and walked past the baby, one at a time, touching it and wailing. Many elephant researchers believe they are smarter than we are, at least in certain ways. They have incredible depth of emotion.

  5. HT says:

    Ecat – wonderful post, truly wonderful. I was revisiting my 60’s/70’s younger self today, and I’m ashamed to admit that I am not the person I was. Watching Jacques Cousteau, Carl Sagan and others equally as impressive I wondered where and when I got sidetracked. Perhaps it was listening to the interview with Jane Goodall last week that prompted my inward thinking. I’ve followed her for years, but have to admit that I lost my enthusiam for everything for a long while (My doctor tells me it’s clinical depression, whatever that means, but I clean the cat boxes twice a day still)
    Today I went to youtube and watched Calypso, the musical video from John Denver’s song about Jacques Cousteau, and ended up in tears. Why are humans so hell bent on eliminating all the beauty that this world holds, if they were just wise and compassionate enough to recognize.
    I’ve followed your stories about the manatees – it hurts to know that humans would knowingly inflict pain and death upon a fellow traveller on the earth.
    Most of these apocolyptic nonsense cites “End of the World”. It will not be the end of the world at all. Earth will last for many millions of millenia – humans as the infestation could be wiped out. Just wish humans would realize that they are not “all that”.

    • ecocatwoman says:

      So glad to hear from you. I’ve missed your comments here & at ecocatwoman. How is your shoulder?

      Hey, I had the same experience with Calypso about a month ago. I was waiting for it to come up on my Denver Greatest Hits & when it did, all I could think of was that both John & Jacques were dead and our oceans were so much worse than they were on their voyage. ARGHHHHH! Anyway, I cried inconsolably. That song used to make me want to dance.

      Yeah, the Earth will still be here, but it will either be devoid of ALL life or it’s going to look like Terminator or one of those horrible future worlds. I’m thinking Door #1.

      • HT says:

        Eco – the world/earth will survive – it has done so through a few major cataclysms and has come back guns blaring and quite frankly, the terminator scarnario is just one more immense leap of logic from humans. When Gaia gets mad, she wipes out everything, resettles, adjusts then allows life to survive I just hope that she will choose more carefully next time.
        Shoulder is okay – needs improvement and I hate exercises, so it’s slow. I think it has more to do with that clinical dep shit. Where did I go wrong? LIke most women of my age, I wanted to be something different. See – clinical dep shit. I’ll come out of it in a few months and will be back aggravating youse guys. Till then, take care and do not hesitate about posting more articles like this. It was a joy combined with deep sorrow to read – ah for the idealism of youth.

        • ecocatwoman says:

          Life stages stop being mostly fun at 30, at least that was my experience, although I am looking forward to retirement. And, above all, remember that you are a vital part of this caring community. I’m going to bookmark the Calypso video. Unfortunately, I’m not as adept at putting up a post as the other front pagers. Today’s post, which I started last night, has worn me out.

      • HT says:

        Damn, wrong clip in previous comment. This is the one I wanted to include. At the end it has Jacques Cousteau with a manatee. You have no idea of how much I wanted to be on that ship with him and the rest of the crew – I even took scuba lessons but girls just didn’t do that kinda stuff in those days. Curse me for not running away from that sheite. BTW the Calypso is in drydock and being refurbished. I’ve sent a few dollars their way – I hope they can get it out to sea soon.

      • NW Luna says:

        Ah, HT, you did the best you could back then with what you had and what you knew. Today is different. Please be as kind to your younger self as you would be to a friend regretting she didn’t do something years ago because she couldn’t see into the future.

      • HT says:

        Luna, thanks – I try, but to swim on the back of a whale shark – that would have been breathtaking. I wish I could have had the courage to shuck convention and just did what I wanted to do….. sigh.

  6. ecocatwoman says:

    And, something else to contemplate, the Japanese organisms who hitched a ride on a 20 foot long dock that was detached during last spring’s tsunami: This story has a bit more detail of just who hitched a ride.

  7. SophieCT says:

    ecocatwoman: Thanks for an incredibly interesting post. FWIW, the 60 Minutes piece on the elephants was interesting and well done.

  8. Outis says:

    I wanted to chime in and thank you for your post! It’s so wonderful to get this information. I try to keep up but work takes me away from it. I too am a HUGE fan of Cousteau and still only watch nature shows if I watch any television at all. I finally fulfilled a life-long dream and am now certified to dive and go twice a year if I can. Underwater is the only place that feels like home. I loved the quote from Sylvia Earle and have downloaded the podcast as I quite like that show and have been waiting for new episodes. Your post was a treat and a feast all in one!

    • HT says:

      Outis – I am so very, very jealous. Underwater is where I always wanted to be. Enjoy it – but do post about your experiences so I can live vicariously through your experiences – pictures too, okay?

      • Outis says:

        Thanks HT. I don’t take pictures when I dive because I realized I was more concerned with looking through the camera and getting a good shot, I wasn’t experiencing anything. So as a camera person, I had to make the decision to put it away. My next dream is to be an underwater photographer, though I’m far too old to get started. I always wanted to be one of those rugged documentary filmmakers who works for National Geographic and goes out into the wild to get amazing stuff. Now it’s just a hobby but at least I’ve fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams. The very first time I went down I saw a shark. It was a Caribbean reef shark and it was far enough away to not be scary, but man, did I know I was alive right then because my heart was racing! Now that I’ve seen some up close, they’re amazing! There’s so many great documentaries and photos, I’m going to have to go look at some now!

    • ecocatwoman says:

      Thanks so much. The interview with Sylvia Earle was really delightful. Her enthusiasm is contagious. Please, download the gorilla podcast. No sadness and fascinating, especially near the end when the guide relates a story of witnessing the reactions of the gorilla group when a female gave birth. He had never witnessed it before & I’m not sure if anyone else has either.

      I tried diving in a swimming pool as a teenager and nearly drowned. I never tried again. I get claustrophobic and short of breath watching asthma commercials.

  9. Seriously says:

    That was fascinating. I went to a lecture by Sylvia Earle when I was a little kid and it was great, she talked about her experiences with the submergibles trying to go deeper and deeper and deeper and showed some amazing images of the different forms of marine life visible at the various depths to try and give a sense of some of what she experienced. Her enthusiasm is really contagious. She also talked about seafood and sustainability, I remember how shocked I was to find out for the first time that tuna are huge fish high up on the food chain instead of the tiny goldfish cracker size I guess I was imagining.

  10. NW Luna says:

    ecat, thank you for such a thoughtful and interesting post. From the comments, it’s obvious that many of us value your writing about animals. Please consider doing more.

    • Second that!!

      My four legged gang keeps me sane. And I know many of my friends – 2 legged — share my belief.

      Many third world countries don’t take kindly to white expats advocating for animal welfare. In St. Lucia a strong voice was silenced – assassinated in front of her sister. The corporation running a resort wanted to capture dolphins — to pull in the tourists. Her sister & friends have no expectation that this crime will ever be solved. The Caribbean islands have a dark, ugly underbelly. Japan wants to kill the few remaining whales — and as a famous Calypso song says “Pay offs”.

      • That would be the few remaining whales in the Caribbean. Now a days expats are thrilled to see just one whale passing on their trip south.

  11. Eric says:

    Love elephants. They’re almost more human than humans.