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.”


Friday Reads

Welcome back to the Gilded Age!!!
Well, it’s morning!

It’s more like a mourning morning than anything else.  If you ever needed more proof that voting for Democrats appears to be a waste of time any more, this is it.  Republicans have been overrun by Birchers and the Dems appear to be ready to let them get away with anything.  On top of that we have a president that appears to want to further enact Reaganomics.  It’s really a very sad situation.

Politico has an apt headline from last night’s gruel for every one else spending bill. You know those guys and gals that easily passed the Tax Breaks for Billionaires Bill?  The headline is ‘Democrats concede budget fight to Republicans’.  Senate Democrats don’t fight for the high ground and they sell out everything.

Senate Democrats abruptly abandoned an omnibus budget bill for the coming year, pushing major spending decisions into the next Congress and giving Republicans immense new leverage to confront President Barack Obama priorities.

The decision Thursday night sweeps away months of bipartisan work by the Senate Appropriations Committee which had crafted the $1.1 trillion bill to meet spending targets embraced by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R—Ky.) himself prior to the elections.

Sen. Robert Bennett (R—Utah), an old McConnell friend, worked actively to round up as many as nine potential Republican votes for the compromise, but these numbers rapidly evaporated amid personal attacks and the uproar this week over spending earmarks in the package.

McConnell, embarrassed by reports on his own earmarks in the omnibus, went to the Senate floor Thursday to propose a one page, “clean” two month extension of the current stop gap funding resolution that has kept the government funded since Oct. 1. And as if caught with their hands in the cookie jar, he and other top Republicans vowed to do everything in their powers to kill the omnibus to square themselves with their tea party backers.

It keeps getting worse. This is also from Politico: ‘Democrats keep ‘don’t ask’ on wish list’. Wish list?  They’ve got enough votes to repeal DADT. WTF is holding them up?

Senate Democrats on Thursday moved one step closer to repealing the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) scheduling a key vote Saturday on a bill to end the ban on openly gay service members.

But Democrats are bracing for an enormous backlash from repeal advocates if they fall short again.

As time runs out on the 111th Congress, top Democrats are pointing fingers at Republicans for stalling Senate action, saying if the buzzer sounds before Congress ends the policy, the GOP will be to blame. Still, there are at least four Republican senators on the record saying they’ll vote to repeal “don’t ask” under the right procedural circumstances.

Democrats also are reminding gay-rights activists that they — not their Republican counterparts — have been fighting to overturn the 17-year “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

One Republican senator suggested “he was going to do everything he could to run out the clock,” Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters. “I don’t think that’s really what the American people want — to run out the clock. I think what they want is for us to get things accomplished.”

They frittered away two years of a supermajority when they could’ve really accomplished things instead of  following–at best–a Reagan/Dubya Democratic president.  Obama’s re-election strategy is going to be to basically run as a Republican.  I hope all those Dems that supported his vanity agenda that gave tons of money to the corporate plutocracy get thrown out of office next time.  At the very least, some special hell realm should await them.

Here’s more information on the passage of the Tax Breaks for Billionaires Act. It also zoomed through the House.  Thanks a lot Nancy!  You are sooooo gonna get lumps of coal in your stockings for the rest of your life!

Congress passed the most far-reaching tax bill in a decade late Thursday, averting across-the-board tax increases, enacting new breaks for individuals and businesses and laying a marker for how Washington might work in an era of divided government.

The bill goes to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature after the House overcame persistent liberal opposition and passed it with an unexpectedly large bipartisan majority of 277-148. The measure passed the Senate earlier in the week also with an overwhelming majority.

The bill reaches deeply into the life and economy of the U.S., more so than might have been expected when Congress first started tackling the matter. Wage-earners will get a new payroll tax break; wealthy heirs get a lower estate-tax rate; and businesses gain an unexpected plum—a big tax write-off for new equipment purchases.

I don’t want to hear any of these jackasses talk about the deficit if they can justify signing this kind of disastrous economic policy.  It’s tax pandering and pork squandering at its absolute worse. There’s absolutely  no economic justification for this.

So, at least one piece of good news is coming out from the Fed. Yup, that’s the FED that all the tea partiers love to hate. The Dodd-Frank Law that extended the FED’s ability to regulate credit is actually having an impact.  If you give the Fed the power to do things, they will do it.  They’re reeling in the extraordinary profits from VISA and MasterCard.

Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc. may face permanent damage to the fastest-growing part of their business after the Federal Reserve proposed rules that could cut debit-card transaction fees by 90 percent.

“It is negative all around,” wrote Scott Valentin, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets, in a note to clients. “This significantly impacts the business model for the networks.”

Visa and MasterCard, the world’s biggest payment networks, plunged more than 10 percent in New York trading yesterday after the Fed proposed capping so-called interchange fees at 12 cents each. Currently, the networks charge merchants an average of 1 percent of the purchase price, regardless of cost, and pass that money along to card-issuing banks.

The change, if approved by the Fed after a public comment period, would wipe out most of an estimated $15 billion in annual revenue for U.S. lenders that issue Visa and MasterCard debit cards, including Bank of America Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co.

“These credit-card giants and banks are imposing fees that are in no relation to the actual cost of processing, and the retailers and merchants have no way to bargain or even resist these increases,” U.S. Senator Richard Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who pushed for the caps, said in an interview. “This new law brings the Federal Reserve into the picture and changes that dynamic.”

Couldn’t happen to a nicer group of plutocrats!   Here’s a somewhat depressing headline from The Daily Mail :  ‘We’re living longer… but not healthier: Children born today will suffer an extra year of disabilities than those born three decades ago’.

Living longer is not necessarily a bed of roses – it may mean more years spent struggling with disability, researchers say.

Figures show life expectancy is rising but that in return people born now will have to cope with disability or a long-term illness for an extra year compared with those born 30 years ago.

The gender gap is also closing, with women losing their traditional advantage in having better health for longer as they enjoy greater life expectancy.

There is some especially bad news for elderly women.

Men born in 2007 are likely to spend an even greater proportion of their life in poor health, 8.7 years compared with 6.4 years in 1981.

Women today spend 11 years in poor health compared with 10 years in 1981, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics.

Most of these problems will be due to obesity, an increase in hypertension and high cholesterol, more cancer, and more diabetes and cardiovascular disease.   Lifestyle and eating habits as well as exercise are more important than ever.

The Independent has a article up about a new threat to Polar Bears from climate change.   Scientists believe that there will be polar bear-grizzly bear hybrids as the two species have to change their habits to survive the immense loss of habitat.  Polar bears are especially endangered.

The first polar-grizzly hybrid to be spotted in the wild was shot by hunters in 2006. It was a white bear with brown patches and DNA tests subsequently confirmed that it was the result of cross breeding between the two species.

Although hybrids were known from captive bears kept in zoos, none had been confirmed in the wild. However, earlier this year another hybrid was killed by a hunter in the western Canadian Arctic and tests confirmed that it was a second-generation hybrid – the offspring of a hybrid female and a pure-bred grizzly bear male.

Scientists said that more cases of polar-grizzly bear hybrids are probably out there waiting to be discovered because of the change in behaviour of the polar bear brought about by climate change. They are spending more time on shore waiting for the sea ice to form, bringing them into close contact with grizzlies.

Brendan Kelly of the US National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Juneau, Alaska, led a study that found 34 possible hybridisations between discreet populations or species of large mammals living in or near to the Arctic. Twenty-two of these cases involved isolated populations at risk of intermixing.

“The Arctic Ocean is predicted to be ice-free in summer before the end of the century, removing a continent-sized barrier to interbreeding. Polar bears are spending more time in the same areas as grizzlies; seals and whales currently isolated by sea ice will soon be likely to share the same waters,” Dr Kelly and his colleagues report in the journal Nature.

It looks like its going to be one of those days where I’d just like to pull the covers over my head and stay asleep.  A recent report on the war in Afghanistan shows very mixed results.

Already, parts of the country with fewer troops are showing a deterioration of security, and the gains that have been made were hard won, coming at the cost of a third more casualties among NATO forces this year.

Then there are the starkly different timelines being used in Washington and on the ground. President Obama is on a political timetable, needing to assure a restless public and his political base that a withdrawal is on track to begin by the deadline he set of next summer and that he can show measurable success before the next election cycle.

Afghanistan, and the American military, are running on a different clock, based on more intractable realities. Some of the most stubborn and important scourges they face — ineffectual governance, deep-rooted corruption and the lack of a functioning judicial system — the report barely glanced at.

“We have metrics that show increased progress,” said a Western diplomat in Kabul. “But those positives are extremely fragile because we haven’t done enough about governance, about corruption. 2010 was supposed to be a year of change, but it has not changed as much as we hoped.”

It’s not known as the grave yard of empires for lack of evidence, that’s for certain.

Anyway, hug your  loved ones and appreciate the local if you can, because, all I can say is we are so f’d on the national level.

Oh, there’s one thing I’m kind’ve giggling about.   The Obamas are not on the Wedding list for the Prince William/Kate Middleton merger. Next time, some one should tell FLOTUS she’s not to touch the Queen and tell POTUS it’s totally tacky to return a present like a bust of Churchill.  Saying you didn’t know who it was makes the return even worse.

Oh, the humiliation. Once not so long ago one of the world’s top celebrities in his own right, Barack Obama and his wife Michelle did not make the cut for invitations to the royal wedding in London next spring.

On April 29 in Westminster Abbey with all the grace and pageantry sure to capture international imaginations, commoner Kate Middleton will marry Prince William, son of Princess Diana. And don’t forget the horsedrawn carriage perhaps.

But the current residents of the White House will not be there, according to the Daily Mail.

The official excuse provided to the British paper by royal sources is that the royal couple wants to share their special nuptial moment with ordinary citizens. Anyway, it is not an official state event, they said. And, you know, Westminster only seats 2,000.

Nice try.

So then how to explain the invites to French president Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni?

What goes around eventually comes around.  Karma will out.

What’s on your reading and blogging list today?