Monthly Archives: January 2012

Colorado Tourists Feel Threatened By Sheepdogs

As someone who used to work extensively with wolves, I have something of a background with, and fondness for, livestock guarding dogs.  These dogs are a primary, generally quite effective, defense for ranchers against local predators, including wolves.  They live and roam with the flock, providing 24 hour protection, at little cost.  The process works via carefully raising dog puppies with the flock, so that the pups become socialized to the sheep — the pups become kind of “honorary sheep” and fiercely defend their adopted “conspecifics”.  This can be protection for both predator and prey.  In Africa, dogs are employed to defend livestock against cheetahs — protecting the stock from the cheetahs, and the cheetahs from the wrath of the livestock owners.

Today I found myself looking at an article which suggests the dogs might be a little too fierce.  The dogs “snarl”, and “on some occasions, chase” tourists around the Molas Pass area in the San Juan National Forest.  I am curious as to how close the tourists are getting — in the wild back country of Colorado, which I recall being a very wide-open place — to the flocks for the dogs to become alarmed.  The dogs generally do not roam far from their flocks and do not usually become aggressive unless they, or the sheep they protect, are directly and closely approached.

In any case, “snarling” and “chasing” things that get too close to the sheep are kind of required behaviors for livestock guarding dogs.  They aren’t trained to be aggressive, but they are not specifically bonded to humans, either.  They are designed to deter the approach of unfamiliar mammals (and that includes humans) to their adopted flock.  Wasn’t that kind of the point?

However, this is just a briefly trending argument between two groups of people (ranchers and tourists) who want to use the same piece of land for two different activities, and it isn’t a particularly new thing (people have been arguing about land use for years and years).  What is most interesting to me is the photo accompanying the article I first saw (which was not the original, source article).  The original, source article has photos of Akbash guard dogs doing what they do 99% of the time — standing in a field, quietly surrounded by sheep.  The article I first saw used a “file photograph” of two dogs fighting to illustrate the exact same story.  Also, contrast the two titles: the original title, “Problem dogs in backcountry?“, and the title of the story with the fighting dog photo, “Fierce sheepdogs alarming tourists in SW Colorado“.

Same article, two entirely different slants — brought about simply by changing the title and the accompanying photo.  Another good reason to always check the source of an article, no matter where it’s published.  (For full disclosure, the photo I used for this post came from this site.)

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On Pets vs. Parenthood

This is Not How You Make a Point

Arkansas Democratic campaign manager’s cat killed and left for children to find, with political message scrawled on its corpse.

This is not how grown-ups say, “I disagree with your position on the economy.”

This is a chimpanzee threat display.  Pure and simple.  Except, honestly, that chimps are nicer in that they generally use inanimate objects to threaten each other.

This very human tendency for frustration to emerge via the arms when it can’t fit out through the mouth is why I had to wait three years to start working out what I had to say about the treatment of laboratory animals and the current state of the system.  My original expressions of outrage, while I was still open-mouthed and freshly damaged by the experience, might have looked a lot like this — flailing, gibbering, violent — except that I am a grown-up and I don’t argue through violence.  People don’t listen to what you have to say when you are hurting them — they just turn around and hurt you back.  And then it goes on and on, like chimps throwing rocks at one another.  This ultimately decides nothing except which chimp is bigger, and it certainly does not make the losing chimp likely to change its mind and side with the winner — it results in a very angry chimp who starts stockpiling more rocks.

Keeping Animal Abuse Private

A model-aircraft hobbyist recently made an accidental discovery while flying his model airplane, equipped with camera, over the Columbia Packing Company, a Dallas, Texas meatpacking plant: a river of suspiciously red effluence flowing from behind the plant, pouring into the Trinity River.  According to the article, based on the information provided by the hobbyist, “a local investigator was dispatched within 20 minutes, and onside within another 20”, and shortly thereafter the EPA, TCEQ, and Texas Parks and Wildlife executed a search warrant on the plant, finding “a pipe not connected to a waste water system“, apparently deliberately.

The scary part here is the immediate defense brought up (not necessarily by the plant itself, but by people in the comments section of several pages announcing the discovery).  The argument is that the hobbyist was invading the plant’s privacy by taking photographs from his plane.

Where does the right to privacy end?  Is it okay to dump biological agents (e.g., pig blood) into waterways as long as you’re not caught?  Do people who are committing crimes have reasonable expectation of privacy while doing so?  This is one of those questions where I simply do not have the legal background to form an answer.  It’s a complicated mess.  It’s cropped up before, and we’re still arguing about it.

This sort of thing affects the ability of the general public to report problems of all kinds — not just environmental damage but also animal cruelty.  Photographs are some of the best evidence in these cases, and are vital to construction of an effective prosecution.  Making it difficult for photographs or other recorded evidence to be admitted in court is a primary retaliatory response from organizations and individuals caught red-handed by that evidence.  Generally, those interested in recording documentation in order to report issues are instructed to take photographs from a public road so they can avoid having the evidence dismissed amid counter-charges of trespassing.  Well, somewhere above the level of your house or building, the area becomes “public access” again.  How high does a plane need to be flying before it’s out of your curtilage (owned area or property)?  Is Google Maps (which, notably, takes its “street view” photos from the public road, and its aerial photos from satellites) invading our privacy?  By the way, here’s Google’s aerial picture of the packing plant (also, notably, capturing a Very Red River).

It’s kind of important that we answer questions like these, partly because more people are getting access to the kind of technology which lets you fly camera-enabled model planes, but also because companies are using this “privacy” defense to attempt to pass laws preventing people from photographically documenting issues.

In What Way Is This Educational?

Every time I research Horrifying Thing A, I discover Horrifying Things B and C.

This afternoon I visited Horrifying Thing A: “Bodies Revealed“, which succeeds even less at convincing me that it is an entirely education-driven venture than did Gunther von Hagens’ “Body Worlds“, the original exhibition, which I saw years ago in Chicago.  Alas, I am not at this moment equipped to compare them (beyond saying that “Bodies Revealed” is but a sad, faint reflection of “Body Worlds”) or to comment on whether they are “educational” or “exploitative” (probably both, although “Body Worlds” has an edge on being, at some level, actual education).  I am an artist as well as a former worker with large carnivores; I am no stranger to dead things.  The anatomy, as well as the relation to art, fascinates me.  The topic which requires further consideration for me is a more moral angle: what is this exhibition for?  Why should I be giving it money (or not)?  How does it relate to other uses of dead things I have previously encountered, either thought-provoking, ridiculous or theoretically useful?  Why do human carcasses demand a more reverential attitude than do animal carcasses?

While looking around on the “Body Worlds” site for more information about the plastinates, trying to figure out what I did think about it all, I discovered Horrifying Thing B: von Hagens has an online store, in which “qualified users” can purchase actual plastinated human parts (as well as “formalin fixed specimens“).  Little wonder there is no photo available for the “wet whole body specimen, male, covered with skin”.  Okay, I can see how university anatomy departments might be really excited about the opportunity to get one of these, and I certainly support their use in education, but maybe they don’t need a publicly accessible web store.  More stuff for my brain to process (“Is it art?  Is it wholesale exploitationHow can he sell themWhere does he get all these people?  Is education worth the inevitable collateral of people buying these as coffee table decoration?  Is it okay if the bodies are all willing donors?”) later.

The site also notes that “Body Worlds” has some animal plastinates sprinkled in among the humans (my personal favorite is “Horse and Rider“, which in person embodies the word “awe-inspiring”).  In 2010 the animals got their own exhibition, “Body Worlds of Animals“.  This is, on the whole, all right.  We use dead animals, for better or worse, as educational tools all the time, and I’d rather see a dead animal made useful in some way than tossed in the trash.  However, Horrifying Thing C, today, was the discovery that the “Body Worlds” store is selling jewelry made of delicate, individual slices of plastinated fruit and, er, animal parts:

Those charming red circles are plastinated sagittal sections through a bull penis.  There are, of course, a matching bracelet and earrings.  They seem to have a lot of extra bull penises around the place, don’t they?

While part of me is desperate to get one of these for my mother-in-law, most of me is firmly in the “that ain’t right” camp.  There’s no way this is “educational”, and it’s sort of skirting the edge of being “art”.  I don’t mind animals (and, in many cases, consenting humans) being used for actual education, but I have problems with the gratuitous use of animal parts in art, especially if the animals are slaughtered especially so the art can occur.  I don’t think I need to be buying any of these, even if they are (as is likely) just using slaughter remnants of animals which are being butchered for meat and thoroughly used anyway.  My strongest feeling here, though, is that in no other context would anyone willingly wear goat testicles as fashion accessories.

New Book Available on Wolf Hybrids

The bulk of my animal career has been spent working with the socialized, hand-raised wolves of Wolf Park, a wildlife facility in Battle Ground, Indiana.  While working there I met a variety of people who had issues, of one kind or another, with wolf hybrids (also known as wolfdogs, or wolf x dog hybrids).  The problems these people (and their animals) faced inspired me, and a coworker of mine, to write a book, so that people who suddenly find themselves confronted with something labeled a “wolf hybrid” would have somewhere to turn.

The book is now available for purchase.  It can be purchased through Wolf Park, if you’d like to support a nonprofit animal facility.  It can be purchased through the publisher, Dogwise Publishing, if you’d like to support an excellent publishing house with an emphasis on dogs, training, and canine behavior in general.  It can also be purchased through Amazon if you would like to take a look inside the book before purchasing it.

It was our goal, in writing this book, to make the world a little better for critters that got inadvertently mixed up in the “wolf hybrid” controversy — whether they be wolves, dogs, wolf hybrids, or the people who meet them.  If you are a shelter worker, a rescuer, a veterinarian, an animal control officer — or just someone who loves dogs and the things that dogs do — please consider picking up a copy.  The more people know about these wonderful animals, the better.

Can’t Spell “Slaughter” Without Doublespeak

Even though it happens all the time, people hate talking about killing animals.  One of their favorite ways of avoiding the topic is to use euphemisms.  Rather than “killing” animals at the slaughterhouse, they “stun” them; rather than “dismembering” them they “render” or “process” them; and animals do not get crippled or maimed in transit to the slaughterhouse — instead they are “downed” — ad nauseam.

With this in mind: a quiet little law has recently been passed which makes it possible for the US to resume horse slaughter operations.  This sounds gruesome but it might be considered to be of net benefit to the horses.  Horse slaughter was originally banned in the US in order to reduce the number of horses slaughtered for meat, but the same number of horses still got slaughtered after the ban — they just got shipped to Mexico or Canada first.  The only effect of the slaughter ban was to add a horrific multi-day transit in un-air-conditioned cattle trucks to the horses’ experience.  So, we still need to do some work to solve the issue of horses in the slaughterhouse — but, in the meantime, at least we removed that awful transit experience.  Progress.

The Arabian Professional and Amateur Horseman’s Association wanted to show support for the Arabian Horse Association, which came out in favor of this law — but how to show its support without appearing to say, “Oh, good, we’re killing horses again”?  The APAHA decided to use a tragically awful euphemism:

The Arabian Professional and Amateur Horsemen’s Association voted, with unanimous approval, to thank the AHA Board for continuing your support for the re-opening of the equine terminal marketplace, and to join with the AHA in support of the reinstatement of equine processing in the United States.

George Carlin is rolling over in his grave.  The re-opening of the equine terminal marketplaceEquine terminal marketplace!  What on earth is the equine terminal marketplace?  They’re not going to slaughter — they’re going shopping!

Whether you support the rescinding of the ban or not — aren’t we all mature enough to admit, out loud, that humans kill animals for meat?  How are we supposed to solve the problem if we can’t even admit that it exists?  What was wrong with “We are happy that steps are being taken to reduce the suffering of horses bound for slaughter”?  Honestly, they could have just gone with the last paragraph of the original statement:

There are issues to address, certainly, and many different options available to improve the terminal marketplace, among them mobile slaughter units and live web monitoring of plants. As horsemen, breeders, and horse lovers, we are the ones responsible for dealing with these issues, making sure that the terminal marketplace becomes ever more humane, with a quick and dignified passing, without undue stress, and where the horse can go on to be useful to man after his demise, just as he has been for the last 5000 years.

Baby Steps

from mgessford, via Flickr Creative Commons

I am an animal trainer at heart, and I understand that rewarding companies (with my money) for “baby steps” — tiny movements in the directions I consider “right” — will eventually cause them to take larger steps in those “right” directions.  With that in mind, I gravitate towards things labeled “green”, even if those things are only partly green, or even, as I sometimes find, only faintly greenish.

The pen I bought last night might be the most sideways baby step I’ve seen in a bit.  It annoys me, because the big print (of course) says “BIODEGRADABLE PEN!!  SAVE THE EARTH!  ECO-FRIENDLY!!” and then the tiny print, on the back of the carton, indicates that only “most of” the pen (i.e., the actual body of the pen) is biodegradable.  The ink cartridge, the tip, the spring, and the finger cushion are not biodegradable and go in the trash.  In addition, the “biodegradable” parts of the pen are only biodegradable under certain circumstances.  They will not biodegrade in a landfill — you have to take the pen apart, take the biodegradable bits out and bury them in your yard.

In their defense, the pen company does say on the carton that the pen isn’t all biodegradable.  They even have friendly animations on their web site demonstrating how to disassemble the pen and make sure that the bits which can biodegrade are disposed of appropriately.  (And, of course, if I were really eco-friendly myself, I would have a compost bin to put the pen parts in.  Glass houses, etc.)  In any event, I did actually buy the pen, because it is a baby step in the right direction.  If enough people vote with their wallets, perhaps the company’s next “green” pen will be 70% biodegradable, and their next will be 85% biodegradable.

The whole mess just reminded me of having to look on the back of every product, follow every asterisk, and make sure that “cage free” means “living on grass pasture” and not “packed shoulder to shoulder in an open plan barn”, and that “natural flavors” is not a euphemism for “crushed beetles“.  Sometimes it’s really hard to be earth- and animal-friendly, but, well, we’re all taking baby steps.