Category Archives: society

Never Judge An Article By Its Headline

I am occasionally reminded that “news” outlets these days are more in the business of drawing viewers than of actually reporting accurate news.  This is especially dangerous in the area of science — journalists are not often trained scientists and it sometimes occurs that a journalist, in reading an article and trying to pull an eye-catching headline out of it, draws an incomplete or erroneous conclusion from the research and then publishes a “news” article about that conclusion.  Thousands of people read the erroneous headline, never look at the source publication, and pick up, however subliminally, the mistaken message.

Today in my Facebook feed I found these two competing headlines:

Your Baby and Your Dog Light Up Similar Parts of the Brain

Neurobiological basis of human-pet relationship: Mothers’ brains respond differently to images of their child and their dog

Image Source: Dee @ www.morguefile.com

Image Source: Dee @ www.morguefile.com

The first headline says that our brains react similarly when we view photos of our pets and our children, implying that the same mechanisms may influence our relationships with both.  The second headline states that our brains react differently when we view photos of our pets and our children, implying that different mechanisms may influence our relationships with both.

I was somewhat appalled to find that both articles refer to the exact same study, which actually supports both conclusions.  Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital examined the brains of 16 women (14 actually completed the entire study) via MRI while they viewed photographs of their children and their dog, as well as photographs of unfamiliar children and dogs, then compared the women’s reactions to each.  The abstract ends with the following sentence: “Although there are similarities in the perceived emotional experience and brain function associated with the mother-child and mother-dog bond, there are also key differences that may reflect variance in the evolutionary course and function of these relationships.”

So, based on this extremely small (only 14 subjects!) and preliminary study (the official press release indicates that the researchers themselves suggest further research with a larger sample), one can conclude that, well, we use the same bits of our brain to evaluate our relationships with both our pets and our children, but these bits respond differently to pets than they do to children.  Both of our headlines could be true.  Who knows?  This tiny study is only “contribut[ing] to answering this complex question“.

The lesson here?  Always read the source material, and never assume that any single “news” headline is telling you the entire story.  (In defense of both journalists in this instance, the accompanying articles were both much more neutral in tone than the headlines, and both provided reference to either the official press release or the original article.)

One Possible Cause of Farm Worker Shortage

This is just an “interesting choice of photo” moment — but today I saw an article called “Want a Job?  Agriculture Industry Teeming With Them“.  What interests me is not so much the content of the article as the photo that USA Today chose to go along with it:

(Photo: Alvis Upitis, Getty Images file)

(Photo: Alvis Upitis, Getty Images file)

My original thought was “veal calves” — although the original photo source says “Holstein dairy calves” on a Wisconsin farm, and these do appear to be dairy calves.  There are theoretically good reasons to keep dairy calves this way; however, for a huge variety of reasons, this is not a location in which I’d personally be comfortable working.  Maybe that’s why there’s a shortage of workers?

(The shortage might also have something to do with the low paydangerous and unpleasant working conditions, and other problems, but those aren’t in the photo.)

It’s Okay To Shoot Kittens As Long As We Can’t See

Multiple sources.

Multiple sources.

A sadly tiny blip across the “WTF” radar was the shooting of five kittens by an Ohio policeman named Bob (or Barry) Accorti on June 10, 2013.  The story in brief: homeowner has litter of feral cats in her woodpile; calls police; police send Accorti (a “part-time humane officer”, according to the North Ridgeville, OH, police web site).  The homeowner assumes, and Accorti tells the homeowner specifically, that the cats will be “euthanized” as “the shelters are all full”.  Homeowner pictures “euthanasia” involving the cats being trapped and taken to a shelter and euthanized there.  Accorti, however, conforms to the traditional police method of euthanasia (another link, another link) for “nuisance animals” — and instead shoots the 8-10-week old kittens, right in front of the homeowner and her young children who are watching through the windows.

The department has cleared him of any wrongdoing, concluding that the officer acted as required to remove the nuisance animals and that “research and other animal organizations accept shooting as an acceptable means of euthanasia.”  (Well, yes, they do, but “with conditions” and only in “emergency situations”, requiring that personnel be “highly skilled” and that “pre-euthanasia sedation is recommended” because cats “may be difficult to shoot humanely” (section S1.3.3).)  He was, perhaps, extremely tactless about it, but he did the job he was called to do, and did it in a legally acceptable manner.

Using phrases like “screaming kids” and “helpless kittens“, multiple individuals and organizations are trying to get Accorti punished, somehow, for shooting the kittens.  However, they can’t punish him for shooting the kittens, because shooting kittens is, technically, a viable option, and legal (at least in Ohio) — so instead they’re trying to punish him for shooting the kittens in front of the children.

I am of two minds on this point: I believe we should at least be open and honest about the horrible things we do to animals (only by publicly acknowledging that these things are being done can we stop them being done).  If you’re going to shoot kittens, you should not be able to do it in secret — you should have to do it right out in the open so everybody knows it’s happening, and has ample opportunity to object and/or stop you.  However, I also believe there is a required maturity level juvenile humans should reach before being confronted with concepts like “things die” and “sometimes we cause things to die”, and that the officer was not in a position to dictate whether or not those kids were at that maturity level.  In any case, the officer probably should have at least warned the homeowner before firing, so she could choose whether or not she wanted to educate her children about those ideas at that exact moment.

I think the bigger point, however, is this: if we’re offended and horrified by the shooting of kittens, so much so that we don’t want our children exposed to it, and don’t want to see it ourselves — why don’t we attack, and call to ban, “the shooting of kittens” instead of “the shooting of kittens in front of children“?  Officer Accorti, and his actions, are not the problem here — the problem is that our legal system still regards “gunshot to the head” as a viable method of euthanasia for cats (and a bunch of other animals, including dogs).  If we think that’s so horrible that we’re willing to lynch a guy for doing it, maybe we ought to consider passing legislation prohibiting that method of “euthanasia”.

Cheerios is 99.99% Vegan; So Am I

I made one of my usual tactical errors the other day, and decided to check whether Cheerios, my breakfast cereal of choice, is, in fact, vegan.  I’d just managed to wean myself off of traditional dairy based milk onto soy milk (and boy, did that suck — sorry, cows); I was feeling proud of myself and wanted to verify that I’d finally gotten breakfast fully vegan.

The answer is interesting: no, Cheerios is not vegan, because the vitamin D3 which is added to the cereal is made from lanolin, which of course comes from sheep.  Technically, this may make the cereal just vegetarian rather than vegan, but since there’s no way to tell if the wool was sheared off living sheep or skinned off dead sheep, it may also technically be “animal based”.  This means that any “fortified” cereal (or any “fortified” food, such as orange juice!) may contain vitamin D3 or other “slaughterhouse by-products”.  Also, if the “sugar” in the Cheerios is white cane sugar, it was likely whitened using the calcium carbonate from animal bones.  So my “vegan” breakfast, well, isn’t.  Arrgh!

My experience wasn’t special.  Non-vegan products are hiding inside apparently vegan food all the time.  What is really interesting about this is that one of the first links I found when starting my search for nutritional information on Cheerios was PETA’s “Accidentally Vegan” web site, which — sometime in the past — listed Cheerios, saying it was vegan and making no mention of the treacherous lanolin-based vitamin D3.  When people complained about this (and other foods on the list which were not actually vegan), PETA responded thusly:

While PETA supports a strict adherence to veganism, we put the task of vigorously reducing animal suffering ahead of personal purity. Boycotting products that are 99.9 percent vegan sends the message to manufacturers that there is no market for this food, which ends up hurting more animals.

So where should I draw the line?  Do I spend four times as much on a “vegan” version of Cheerios, or is 99.9% vegan “close enough”?  (Maybe, maybe not — PETA did eventually take Cheerios, and some other non-vegan foods, off the “accidentally vegan” list.)  But what about animal products hidden in other places (like car tires and plastic bags) that are often impossible to spot?  How far do I go to ensure that I never eat another animal?  How far should I go to never indirectly harm another animal?  How crazy should I get, avoiding having any kind of impact on any other living being, anywhere?

Bloom County, by Berkeley Breathed.

Comic from Bloom County, by Berkeley Breathed.

I finally found the “Bloom County” cartoon I’ve been looking for, which shows veganism taken to its logical extreme.  Because we’re on this planet, we’re using resources, and that’s necessarily going to impact other living things, sometimes negatively.  That’s okay.  That’s something we can’t help.  However, that’s no reason to ignore the issue.  Even if I can’t completely remove my impact on the planet, my choosing to not eat animal products in as much as I possibly can is still reducing my impact by a measurable percentage.  Isn’t that better than nothing?  At least I’m trying, and I can only get better at it.  (Next project: switch breakfast to fruit-without-animal-based-wax-coatings and vegan-bread toast….)

From Pasture To Plate In 0.06 Seconds

Popeye Explodes a Bull

I found this little gif interesting.  Is this humane slaughter?  It’s certainly extremely efficient.

Research to find the cartoon’s title tells me that this animation comes from an episode called “I Eats My Spinach”, which involves Popeye briefly engaging in a bullfight, with the ending pictured above.  However, the same research also leads to a synopsis of an episode called “Bulldozing the Bull” where Popeye refuses to attend a bullfight on ethical grounds — “It’s cruelty to aminals” — and later befriends the bull.

Nothing profound here, just a little glimpse of something.  Also, the one cut of kosher meat intrigues me.

Celebrating the Deformed

This deformed cat is not funny“Grumpy Cat” — whose actual name is “Tard“, theoretically short for “Tartar Sauce” — is just one of many “oh look at the cute animal” memes that have gone past my radar over the past few years.  I’ve seen Sam, once voted the World’s Ugliest Dog; Thumbelina, billed as the world’s smallest horse; and an infinite number of critters on sites like Cute Overload.

I have a difficult time enjoying such photos.  The animals in them are not natural.  Their appearance is generally the result of man messing with animal genes; of overzealous (over)selection for extremely specialized traits; and of practices such as “line-breeding” (a polite term for inbreeding).  Animals don’t look like that naturally (the rare ones which do generally do not pass on their genes).  Those mutations — usually extremes of the brachycephalic mutation wherein the bones of the face stop growing before the rest of the head — give the animals “human” expressions — and incidentally produce malocclusion of the teeth, tear duct abnormalities, facial deformities, and a variety of other ailments.  (Another “popular” mutation for internet-photo-sharing is dwarfism, producing animals with short, twisted limbs, overlarge heads, and, again, a variety of other problems.)

These are not happy animals.  I cannot laugh at them, not even if they are humorously posed and captioned.  They look the way they do because some humans got together and thought, Wouldn’t it be great if dogs/cats looked more like human babies? and bred siblings to each other until the offspring looked sufficiently funny.  The fact that the animal can’t breathe, can’t see, and can’t eat is meaningless — look how cute it is!  It almost looks human!

I am not arguing that we should not breed, for example, Persian cats, because breed-standard Persian cats do not necessarily look like “Tard”.  (It should be noted, however, that there are good arguments against extreme type-breeding in purebred animals.)  I am arguing that, when man’s interference with nature produces its inevitable sports, we not give the poor things contracts to do television commercials and buy T-shirts celebrating them (and, indirectly, the process which produced them).  I don’t support irresponsible animal breeding — why should I support its byproducts?

One Cow Versus 100,000 Smaller Organisms

I once saw a cartoon which depicted vegetarianism in an unflattering light: it showed a closeup of the front of a combine harvester, before which fled an array of inoffensive woodland creatures, yelling things like “Where’s mama?!?” and “I don’t know, just run!”

Edit: found it.  It’s from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

20091207

Agriculture is not without its damage to the environment, and to animals.  A field of wheat or corn is home to mice, rats, birds, rabbits, various insects, and a host of other creatures, at least some of which are inevitably ground up along with the harvestThis recent article on an Australian web site suggests that the many small lives we grind up to harvest a crop in an area of land outweigh the lives of the cows which would graze that land were it devoted to pasture.  (If you’re interested, this article wanders into the notion a little further.)

The presentation of the issue is somewhat simplistic: it assumes that only a few cows are raised in the hypothetical pasture (i.e., it’s not a feedlot, the American standard); that “pasture” is equivalent to unspoiled natural land; that all the wildlife in the field are killed by the plow; etc.  I think it’s a valid notion, but the solution to this issue is not to have everyone eat nothing but red meat.  The problem lies more with how we produce our food, and what methods we’ve adopted to produce that food cheaply, and less with exactly what food we are producing.  For example, we can certainly develop methods to raise and harvest crops more sustainably and with less “collateral damage”.

I don’t think we’re really able to exist, at all, without causing some damage to the world.  It’s in our nature as consumers of energy — it’s got to come from somewhere.  However, we can choose to minimize the amount of damage we cause, and try to choose the least damaging places to cause it.

Cruising With Ethics

From msmediadesign at morguefile.com.

From msmediadesign at morguefile.com.

I refuse to complain about going on a Caribbean cruise.  This is going to be the most wonderful thing ever and I am terribly excited.  However, this is the first time I’ve looked at planning a long, involved vacation with the eyes I have now.  It’s a very new experience.

The cruise literature is full of glossy photographs of equally glossy food, promising how I’m going to have a wonderful time gaining 20 pounds.  Of course, the centerpiece of every photo is a gleaming piece of meat.  Okay, well, I’m used to that by now — there’s hardly a restaurant anywhere that doesn’t have the equivalent of a whole glazed pig splashed in pornographic, hickory-smoked ecstasy across the front page of its menu while the vegetarian “options” — oh, look, pasta again — languish in the back.

I thought I’d be fine when I read there are vegetarian options at dinner.  However, the questions just seem to be piling up:  Can I use the shampoo and lotion provided in the rooms?  Can I even get dressed up for dinner, given that I own no animal-friendly cosmetics?  Does the spa use cruelty-free products?  Are the french fries in the buffet vegetarian?  What do I do when some crazed shipboard photographer hands me an iguana, then demands I buy a photo taken with it?  (This happened on my last cruise.)

I am also having to pick my shore excursions quite carefully.  I’d love to swim with a dolphin, even at a hundred and twenty bucks an hour.  However, there is pretty much no humane way to arrange this.  Captive dolphins are rarely cared for properly, especially not at tourist traps in the Caribbean, and wild dolphins can be harassed to create these photo shoots or can be habituated by them into hanging around in human areas, which can be dangerous for both dolphins and humans.  No dolphins for me.

Does my submarine or glass-bottomed boat expedition benignly view wildlife from a distance, or does it habituate wild fish to humans and/or disrupt their behavior patterns by having someone feed them in front of the viewers?  Does the stable where I want to go horseback riding treat their horses — as well as the land through which they ride — appropriately?  (Is horseback riding even a reasonable recreational activity for an animal lover?)

Will I be shopping for mementos of my trip?  Well, maybe, but not black coral or conch shells, and apparently there’s a whole market of random animal parts (seahorses, starfish) I’ll be avoiding.  And it’s not just animals I’ll be wondering about.  Are we treating the inhabitants of the islands like animals?  Should I really be “touring” these people’s homes?  Sure, I’m putting money into their economy — but I could also just be donating that money.  And is the cruise line I’m on behaving responsibly concerning the environment as well as its own employees?

Don’t get me wrong.  I have almost 100 gigs of memory cards for my camera and I plan to bring back the best souvenirs — photographs.  I am going to have a great time!  I just find myself really interested by how much of this I did not see when I went on my first cruise *ahem* years ago.  (It’s also somewhat disappointing that I’m embarrassed to even care about this.  “It’s just a vacation — enjoy it!  Live a little!”)  What an interesting society we have.  More food for thought….

Apes Still Quite Bright, Humans Remain Insecure

Just a little interesting thing I noticed about this New Scientist article about Kanzi, a bonobo who has, over the course of 30+ years working with humans, learned to do…something.  In fact, he’s learned to do a vast number of things, but it’s hard to say what he knows, because people keep tripping over the language used to describe what he knows.  The question appears to be whether, when an ape, say, uses matches as a tool to start a fire (and then cooks a marshmallow on a stick over it), the ape is using matches as a tool to start a fire, or if it is imitating the uniquely human ability to use matches as a tool to start a fire, without actually having that ability itself.

Apparently the scientists have taught Kanzi how to make stone tools which resemble those made by our ancestors.  And here he is in a video, spontaneously making one and then using it to open a log in which some food is hidden.  The New Scientist article duly reports upon this ape which can make and use primitive tools which closely resemble early human tools, but ends with a lot of not-entirely-impartial reassurance that this tool-using ape is not really a big deal, because Kanzi was taught by humans to perform this task, and “whether the behaviour could arise in nature is unclear”.  Why does it matter whether apes can make stone tools?

One of Jane Goodall’s most controversial discoveries about chimpanzees (cousins to the bonobo, and also apes) was that they made and used (not stone, but plant based) tools.  This disquieted people because humans had been using “use of tools” as one of the distinguishing characteristics which “set man apart from the animals“.  This begs the question Why does man need to be set apart from the animals? but I digress.

The discovery was made almost fifty years ago, but we have not yet gotten over this issue.  Look at how worried the New Scientist article is about implying that apes can use tools, or behave even the least little bit like humans!  “Since these animals are raised in unusual environments where they frequently interact with humans, their cases may be too singular to extrapolate their talents to their brethren.”  I might say they were being cautious about not extrapolating things from the original research which are not strictly true, but when the same publication wrote an article about how scientists have produced a substance which temporarily halts reproductive ability in male mice, it did not use a title like “Scientists Temporarily Halt Reproductive Ability in Male Mice”; it announced “First Non-Hormonal Male ‘Pill’ Prevents Pregnancy“!  Clearly this is not a publication unduly worried about implying possibly misleading things through overenthusiastic interpretation of research results.

Likewise, the title of the Kanzi article is the somewhat sensationalist “Bonobo Genius Makes Stone Tools Like Early Humans Did” — an assertion which the rest of the article then goes on to state, then almost flat-out deny — and there, again, is the bias.  How do we know Kanzi is a genius bonobo?  Apes are hard to keep in captivity — our sample size in this particular research is two bonobos.  Kanzi could be a genius, unusual bonobo…but is it not more statistically likely that he is somewhere under the “average” part of the bonobo bell curve?  Why is it so important that he be exceptional?

The more we relate animal behavior to human behavior, the more we blur the line between human and animal, the less we are able to think of ourselves as something other than animal.  This causes problems on multiple levels:

Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

- Dr. Louis Leakey

Contrast the New Scientist article with articles from the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail, both of which serve a more animal-friendly clientele.  No mention of how this behavior may not occur in the wild (Do wild bonobos need stone tools?  Is there evolutionary pressure for such a talent?), just a lot of admiration (and, alas, reference to that bedeviled “baby chimp feeding a baby tiger” photo which really needs to stop getting passed around).  In fact, both of these articles actively paint pictures in which Kanzi is replicating the first steps of the human journey towards tool use and civilization.  What an interesting contrast of style!

Shelter Stories I

Cairn terrier in shelter cageNearly thirteen years have passed since you were a puppy, and now you are old, mostly blind, and mostly deaf, doddery and pleasant, ready to lie about the house providing doggie ambiance, and retire in a sunbeam.

Today, Mom and Dad put you in the car, and they took you to a strange room full of nervous animals.  Your tail wagged for everyone, even the cats, and the strange humans in the room.  Then someone walked you away from Mom and Dad, picked you up, and put you in a small metal box with a wire front.

Mom and Dad didn’t come back for you.

Since you are old, you will likely not be adopted.  Who wants to adopt an old, blind, deaf dog?  Should you be allowed to compete for scarce adoptive homes against all the young dogs who are also looking for homes?  Would being adopted even be good for you — suddenly moving, after thirteen years, to a new, scary place you can neither properly see or hear?  What is the humane choice for you?*

And what do we say to Mom and Dad, who just dropped you off at the shelter when you got old?  If we make them feel bad about this decision, they will not even bother to bring their next old, blind dog to the shelter for humane euthanasia — they will just open their front door and let the dog walk out, and he or she will become someone else’s problem.  Maybe that dog will make it to a shelter.  Maybe they’ll meet up with a bigger dog, or some angry kids, or the underside of a truck.  Is it better for you that we can at least give you a quiet exit, and treats before you go?

This story repeats itself every day.  I saw it happen yesterday, but it happened again today at a shelter in your town, and it will happen again tomorrow.  The only way to stop this story happening is to work to create people who don’t think it’s appropriate behavior to drop a family member off at the shelter so someone else has to deal with its aging and death.  The first step in that process is spreading the word that this is even happening.


*Note: Here’s a shelter which offers humane euthanasia for older or sick pets as a free service.  I feel this is a good service shelters should not be ashamed to offer, and which people who do not have the $75-100 or so it can cost to euthanize a pet should not be ashamed of using.  I vastly prefer this option to the “let’s let it suffer until it dies on its own” approach.