“It’s a big victory for animal welfare in Norway. It’s a realisation that the consideration for animals can actually weigh heavier than just money and business interests.”
Siri Martinsen, head of Noah, animal rights organisation.
Later this month, the ban on fur farming passes into Norwegian law. It means new fur farms prohibited with immediate effect, and all existing fur farms dismantled by 2025.
Noah has been lobbying for the ban for three decades – that is stickability! “It’s totally unnatural and against these animals’ needs to keep them in very tiny metal cages.”
The babies are born in spring, smooth and furless. But by autumn they will have grown their thick glossy winter coats, brown, black or grey. Then the youngsters pay dearly for their gorgeous beauty, by being gassed and skinned.
So thank you Noah for never giving up on the animals.
It was a quirk of the contemporary political scene that finally tipped the scales in the animals’ favour. In echoes of 2010 in the UK, Norway’s Conservative party found themselves in a position where they were forced to invite the Liberals into a government of coalition. The Liberals said yes, but there was a condition. And the condition was – the fur farm ban.
Norway now joins the UK, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Croatia on the right side of fur farming history. In addition, regulations surrounding the cruel practice in Germany and Switzerland are so strict as to be effective as a ban.
Of course, not everyone is happy. The 200-strong Norwegian fur farmers’ association says the ban is “unjustified, illegal and undemocratic.” Fur farmer Kristian Aasen is enraged: “It’s unbelievable that a microscopic party that is today polling around two percent could impose its views on spineless politicians.”
Aasen farms 20 cows, and as a very lucrative sideline, 6,000 caged mink. He says he can’t make a living without them.
The government is offering financial assistance to dismantle the farms and help find other income strings. (One MP suggested the cultivation of medical cannabis.) But the fur farmers are pessimistic about finding alternatives. One thing is certain, animal farming will not be an option. Everyone knows what one of their number openly admits:
“There is already an overproduction of meat. We produce too much lamb, pork, chicken, milk.”
Pictured above, the quirky, cute and clever monk parrot, native of Chicago.
Did I say native of Chicago? Chicago the Windy City where winter temperatures can plummet to -26°C, and annual average snowfall is 91cm? No way.
Ok, I hold up my hands. That was a lie, or anyway a half lie. The monk is commonly found in South America, and like most parrot species is native to the tropics. On the other hand, several decent-size colonies of monk parrots have called Chicago home for the last 50 plus years, so it’s fair to say they are well and truly naturalised.
But what are they doing right up there on the 42nd parallel, nearly 5,000 km north of their ancestral homelands around the Equator?
According to American legend, as cargo was being unloaded at JFK airport one day in 1968, or maybe 1969, two thousand of the colourful creatures, or was it two dozen (details of the legend are a little hazy) burst forth from their damaged crate and took to the air. And who could blame them? Far better flying the skies of a strange land than looking out on the world through the bars of a pet shop cage – their intended destination.
But that was New York. So Chicago? These lively mischievous birds are a handful, as folk who’ve acquired them as pets will testify. They are “notoriously loud and noisy birds, the rock star of the bird scene, little Houdinis who like to find their way out of a cage and chase your rottweiler around the house …. They are fearless, intelligent and vociferous.”
Some likely escaped from captivity into the city. Or were released by freaked-out owners who got a bit more than they bargained for!
Whatever, this exotic creature of the tropics, which just happens to be themost adaptable of all parrot species, is thriving in the Windy City, snow or no snow. Most of the year they forage in parks and open grassy areas, but bird-lovers’ garden feeders are their salvation in the winter months.
Wouldn’t you think yourself immensely lucky to find some of these little treasures in your neighbourhood? Chicago’s first ever African American mayor, Harold Washington certainly did. Living just across the street from one of the city’s best-known monk parrot colonies, he called them his “good luck talisman”. He was clearly good luck for them too, because once he was no longer around to protect them (he died in 1987),the USDA tried to remove the birds. But the locals, who loved them as much as Harold did, threatened the USDA with a lawsuit. People power at its best!
The monk parrot’s behaviour, it has to be said, is not exactly serious and quiet, as you’d expect from its name. It has another name that’s a much better fit with its lively personality – ‘the quaker parrot’. And this little guy quaking and shaking to ‘Happy’ will show you why –
What do you think of those moves!
Friends & family
As well as being the most adaptable parrot, the monk/quaker is unique in another respect. It’s the only one of all the parrot species that makes a nest.The nest is a fairly messy affair as you can see, and can get quite a lot bigger than you might expect: “In the wild, the colonies can become large, with pairs occupying separate “apartments” in nests that can reach the size of a small automobile.” And even in cities you will find the monks hunkering down with their siblings, cousins, mum, dad, aunts and uncles – they’re all there. Doesn’t that sound a good way to live?
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. The nests can get so cumbersome that it’s said they can bring down power lines, and damage other infrastructure. Hence the USDA’s attempt to remove them.
Monk/quaker parrots in the UK
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, unlike the USDA in Chicago, were deaf to protests about their own program to eradicate this country’s wild monk parrot population, tiny in comparison with those in the US city. “Monk parakeets can pose a threat to national infrastructure, such as pylons and substations, crops and native British wildlife. That is why work is being carried out to remove them in the most humane method appropriate,” they pronounced.
Over 4 years and at a cost of £259K, 62 birds were trapped, of which roughly 40 were safely re-homed. The remainder “could not be re-homed”, whatever that means, and were put down. 212 eggs were taken and disposed of, and 21 nests were destroyed.
62 birds. A “threat to national infrastructure”. Really?
The monk parrot at home
Sadly the monk is not much favoured in South America, its original home range either. If not deterred in some way, large flocks can munch their way right through a farmer’s precious crop. They are, after all, not to know the humans have different intentions for that food.
And now, ‘charismatic, beautiful, exotic’, the parrot we love
If the monk parrots here in the UK are few, what we do have in abundance are these green-feathered beauties –
There are even more mysteries surrounding the Afro/Asian ring-necks’ appearance here, than there are about the monk parrots’ arrival in the US. Take your pick from these wild theories:
An unknown number escaped in 1951 from Shepperton Studios while they were filming The African Queen with stars Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart
Jimi Hendrix released a pair he named Adam and Eve in trendy Carnaby Street, London in the 60s
Something fell off a plane and landed on an aviary. All the birds broke free through the hole it made
A furious wife released her husband’s aviary birds in revenge for his errant ways
But whether all or none of the stories is true (for me, the Adam and Eve one most appeals) this colourful bird has spread all over Britain, and has become “the most northerly, wild breeding parrot species on Earth”. (Further north than Chicago, but of course, much more temperate.) Now numbering at best guesstimate 50,000, over the many decades since they first made their home with us, they’ve become “as British as curry”.
Not welcome at home
These little creatures are no more welcome in their homes of origin (west Africa stretching over India to the Himalayas) than their South American cousins the monk parrots are in theirs. “In its native areas, the parakeet has been a severe agricultural pest for decades. In India, [it is] one of the most destructive birds. They have been known to reduce yields of sorghum and maize in India by 80 per cent.”
Research already shows the ring-necked parrot adversely affecting our native birds, by frightening them from food, commandeering the best nesting spots, and even on occasion attacking them. In December 2017, the bird found itself at no. 67 on the list of Europe’s top 100 most invasive species.
Stricter legislation on the possession, transportation and commercial trafficking of invasive parakeets, which has already happened in Spain
A new system for relinquishing unwanted pet parakeets
Removal of legal and financial constraints on rapid-response eradication of new populations, especially in areas where they are currently not present
Raising public awareness of the parakeet population and potential problems
They have to raise our awareness, because apparently, we the uninformed masses, all love them. “Many people say they bring an enormous sense of wellbeing. They say they are charismatic, beautiful, exotic. They absolutely love having them around.” The authorities know better, naturally.
Champions for the parakeets
These birds we so love have one expert champion in York University’s professor of ecology, Chris D Thomas. He favours leaving the parakeets free to move about and breed. And in his book, Inheritors of the Earth, argues against “irrational persecution” of non-native species. Thomas says, “We do not try to control species because they moved in the past, so why should we now try to police the distributions of species that are thriving in the human epoch? It makes no sense.” Rabbits and hares were invasive species here once.
And Thomas is not entirely alone. Biologist Roelant Jonker is the self-appointed protector of the ring-necked parakeet in the Netherlands. “The next generation [of people] will see the parakeets as ordinary birds… and they will be as ordinary as all the different colours of people and birds in Europe,” he says.
Back to the parrots of the USA
When ecologist Stephen Pruett-Jones left Australia for Chicago University in 1988, it was the presence of “a unique piece of the city’s history”, the monk parakeets in Hyde Park, right there on the university campus where he was taking up his new post, that ignited his quest to discover whether other colonies of parrots might be thriving in equally unlikely settings across the USA.
Teaming up with Jennifer Uehling, Cornell University, and Jason Tallant, University of Michigan, he researched all available parrot data in the States from 2002 to 2016. He found:
56 different non-native parrot species spotted in the wild, in 43 states
25 of the species fully naturalised and breeding, in 23 different states
Monk parakeets, the Red-crowned Amazon, and the Nanday Parakeet the most common species
More Red-crowned Amazons living in California than in their original habitats in Mexico
“Because of human activity, transporting these birds for our own pleasure, we have inadvertently created populations elsewhere. Many of these species are perfectly happy living here and they’ve established populations. Wild parrots are here to stay.”
As of now, the colonies of ex-pat parrots are a welcome exotic addition to America’s native fauna. But as is our experience with wild parrot populations in the UK, it’s a fine line between being ‘welcome and exotic’ and becoming ‘an invasive pest‘.
It’s entirely fortuitous, by luck, by chance, that the dark cloud of animals originally snatched from the wild and taken to places where they don’t belong, may just have one silver lining. Stephen Pruett-Jones believes, for parrots endangered in their native habitat, the colonies dotted across the States may become important, even “critical”, species reservoirs for the survival of species being decimated in their home range.
In an ideal world of course, species reservoirs in alien lands would never have to be the fall-back.
The exotic pet trade causing extinctions
The trade in animals taken from the wild to sell as pets is causing extinctions. “92%of the 500,000 live animal shipments between 2000-2006 to the United States (1,480,000,000 animals) were for the pet trade.”
“Many bird species are under severe extinction threat because of the pet trade. They include thousands of birds in South America, and an estimated 3.33 million annually from Southeast Asia.
Captivating as they are, and delighted as we are to have them living wild and free among us, we should never buy these gorgeous birds as pets. The exotic pet trade is lining the pockets of criminals while driving animals in their natural habitats to extinction.
Last summer, a story appeared in the New York Times that could have come straight from an episode of “Only Fools and Horses”. Just swap Peckham for Shanghai and cast two Chinese guys in the roles of Del Boy and Rodders.
Before the story begins, and in case we didn’t know, we need to understand that to start a pigeon race, the pigeons are transported hundreds of miles away from their lofts. When they are released, their instinct is to fly back home, and it’s the first to reach its loft again that wins the prize.
Right, the stage is set, and the action begins summer 2018, when these two guys decide to enter four birds into the annual Shanghai Grand Prix Race. They come up with the ingenious idea of giving their birds two home lofts, one in Shanghai, the race’s end, and one in Shangqiu, the race’s starting point.
The plan is, when all the pigeons are released by race officials in Shangqiu, their four birds won’t (and don’t) like the rest of the birds in the race, fly the hundreds of miles back to Shanghai. Instead they head straight back to their second and nearest home loft, the one in Shangqiu. Our two geniuses simply collect their birds, hide them inside milk cartons, and smuggle them on to the bullet train that connects the two cities.
Disembarking from the train in Shanghai, the birds are re-released and flap their way back to the Shanghai loft they call home. Needless to say, the four birds beat all the opposition by a long mile, and are declared outright and extraordinary winners of the prestigious race with its $160,000 prize.
The Trotters would have been in their element. You can just hear Del Boy saying to Rodders, “This time next year we’ll be millionaires!” But in this Chinese version, the jubilant smiles are soon to fade.
Even over a long race such as this, pigeons can fly at a phenomenal 80 mph. At that speed, the average race time between the two cities is about 8 hours. But the fastest of avian flyers can’t come close to the bullet train’s top speed of 200 mph. And the train only takes 3 hours 15 minutes to make the same journey.
Mmm. It’s not going to take a genius to work out pdq that in the birds’ record-shattering win the maths doesn’t quite add up. And the other competitors were no slouches working out the sums. If only our guys had thought to stop off somewhere for a leisurely lunch on the way back to Shanghai!
But this story, amusing as it is on the surface, leaves a bad taste. Because in truth…
There is nothing funny about pigeon-racing
After the Grand Prix race, to hide the evidence of their fraud, the two men destroyed their four innocent birds.
Here’s another “extraordinary story” passed on to a reporter for the BBC by one of his colleagues: “She [the colleague] used to live next door to a pigeon fancier. One day his winged competitors returned from a race, but one refused to re-enter the loft; it perched on the house roof, out of reach of its owner who wanted to register its ID from the tag on its leg.
“A simple solution was at hand, in the shape of an air rifle. He shot the bird and collected its corpse to complete his race record.
“‘You made that up,’ I accused. ‘No I didn’t,’ she replied.”
The reporter was wrong about one thing – the story is not “extraordinary” at all. On the contrary, it is all too familiar.
In Belgium, the historic home of pigeon racing and still the epicentre of the pigeon fancier’s world, competition birds can be worth thousands of euros, especially as certified winners. And over the last decade or so, the hobby’s popularity has spread like a contagion across the Far East, particularly in China, the Philippines and Taiwan. Last month a Chinese buyer “spent a record 1.25 million euros ($1.4 million) at an auction for Belgium’s best long-distance racing pigeon of all time.”
Put those facts together, and this is what you get –
Crime and Cruelty, Cruelty and Crime
In one incident, a Belgian national noticed two men who looked ‘Asian’ dumping black bin sacks in some woods. The sacks turned out to be full of pigeon corpses, each with one foot cut off – the foot with the identity tag.
“The Royal Belgian Federation of Pigeon Fanciers has suggested that Chinese criminal gangs are behind a growing number of robberies. Rather than attempting to smuggle their prey abroad, criminals will kill the pigeons and cut off their identifying rings to be used on much less valuable birds bred in Asia.”
“It is really an epidemic, a true plague,” said Pierre De Rijst, president of Fédération Royale de Colombophiles Belges. “All they have to do is fit the stolen identification rings in China onto a bird worth a fraction of the value, which they then pass off as an ace racer.”
When a race is on, people like to shoot the pigeons out of the sky, just for fun. Others string fishing nets across the mountains to catch the birds – then sell them on to would-be pigeon fanciers for a fraction of their monetary worth. (In the world of pigeon racing, a bird with no monetary worth has no worth at all.)
2 million pigeons are bred and raised by the UK’s 43,000 pigeon fanciers every year. Thousands of the birds are killed as ‘unsuitable’ before they even get to race. PETA filmed pigeon-fanciers weeding out “slow-flying birds and snapping their necks before tossing them into the bin.”
“Money—not just entry fees, but vast illegal wagers—fuels the multibillion-dollar pigeon-racing industry. Wealthy racers pay upwards of $100,000 for imported breeder birds, and top flyers admitted to making millions on a single race. The chance to win staggering sums leads to extortion, drugging of birds, and kidnapping birds for ransom.”
As if all that weren’t enough, after a race pigeons may be killed by their owners if they fail to make the time needed to qualify for the next race in the series.
And then there are the races themselves – even worse than the deadly Iditarod
The Alaskan Iditarod dogsled race calls itself “The Last Great Race on Earth”. Since it began in 1973, 150 participating dogs have died. Deaths are so routine that officials consider them “unpreventable”. Many others are injured, or end the race with permanent lung damage. Many many more are bred and then killed if they don’t reach racing standard. (Read more here)
But the stats for losses in major pigeon races are off the scale. Take the prestigious MacArthur Race in the Philippines: “It is a brutal 600-kilometre gauntlet during which competitors face searing heat, wild seas, vicious predators, and the threat of kidnapping.” Only 1 in 10 pigeons that start the race makes it back.
In Taiwan, “the birds, who are released over treacherous open oceans and have to fly hundreds of miles to reach land, are often swept underwater by waves and drown, or fall victim to extreme weather, raptors, electric lines, foul play, disorientation, or exhaustion—or, if they return but finish out of the money, their necks are typically broken.” In Taiwanese pigeon races, only 1 in 50 of the birds survive, 98 out of 100 die.
A Taiwanese fisherman describes the scene of horror he witnessed: “It was raining pigeons – literally. I’ve never seen such a scene. Every one of them crashed. Some crashed on to the boat, some crashed into the ocean… About one hour after the pigeon rain, you could see the whole surface of the ocean filled with dead pigeons.”
Here in the UK it is no better. Pigeons pair for life. They ‘kiss’ affectionately, and both care for their offspring. The fanciers exploit this fidelity by deliberately “widowing” a pair. They use the stronger male, who will fly back fast to his mate, in sprint races. Not in longer races. In longer races, the male is inclined to forget his mate back home and seek new love elsewhere.
The females on the other hand, never stray from their one soulmate, and even over long distance races faithfully fix their sights on home. This steadfast devotion is rewarded by making them the natural choice for the longest, cruellest races, such as the Barcelona International, in which they are forced to fly up to 900 miles to reach home. The final deadly barrier is the English Channel, referred to by those in the pigeon racing world as “the graveyard”, because it swallows up such huge numbers of exhausted birds. Only 1 in 10 make it back. Then, if they’re not going to be of use for future races, their owners drown them or break their necks.
“Millions of dollars fly in this business, but the pigeons are always the losers” – PETA
A pigeon’s worth?
Cock-fighting, badger-baiting and hunting foxes with hounds are rightly banned in the UK as barbaric activities having no place in the modern world. Every life is precious and every animal death for human ‘sport’ an unnecessary tragedy. But it seems we care much more about badgers, foxes and cocks (and the Iditarod dogs) than we do about the racing pigeons, whom “many people consider to be no better than flying rats.”
Who gets to decide what the life of this gentle, intelligent creature is worth?
“My promise to the animals is this: You have all of me. The lioness in the circus—I see you. The pig in the sow stall—I see you. The mouse in the medical experimentation facility—I see you. The fish crushed at the bottom of a trawler net—I see you. I know your suffering, and I will never be silent. I will push forward no matter what life throws my way because the cruelties inflicted on you must end, and I’ll do all I can to see that happen. You have all of me.”
The stirring words of outspoken vegan activist Emma Hurst, representative of the Animal Justice Party(AJP), at her swearing in to Australia’s New South Wales State Parliament. She is now the third vegan activist elected to state office.
My last post “Isn’t it Time to Stop the Killing in the Name of Conservation“, cast the spotlight on the horrific scale of Australia’s ongoing slaughter of wild and feral animals. Still more blood is shed to ‘protect’ farmers’ and ranchers’ interests – without mentioning the unhappy fate of the farmed animals themselves. So it’s good to know Arian Wallach and the Centre for Compassionate Conservation are not alone in their campaign for kinder ways. Here is an introduction to the Animal Justice Party –
Last month vegan activists stopped the traffic in central Melbourne, while others demonstrated outside abattoirs. The Prime Minister Scott Morrison no less, said their activism was “un-Australian”, and bad-mouthed them as “green-collar criminals”. 40 of them were arrested. He declared his determination not to let them “pull the rug from under our Aussie farmers,” at present an industry worth $30 billion.
May 18th’s pivotal election
“Australians will return to the polls this Saturday in what’s becoming a pivotal election for animals and the environment. The big question: Will Australia’s next prime minister be friend or foe to the nation’s animal agriculture industry?”
Veganism in Australia
The country has more than 2 million vegans
Veganism is especially popular among younger voters
44 percent of young people (aged 18–24) think that veganism is “cooler than smoking.” (Certainly much healthier!)
The plant-based food industry there is forecasted to grow 58%by 2020
Why things have to change
1.8 billion animals have been killed for food in Australia so far this year and counting
70% of the $30 billion Australian agriculture is ‘worth’ comes from slaughtered animals
30% comes from milk, wool and eggs (which of course all also mean animal slaughter)
Last year the country exported 2.85 million living animals which suffered cruelly over long journeys in cramped shipping containers
2,400 sheep died of heat stress en route from Perth to the Middle East
Australia’s animal agriculture accounts for 11% of national emissions of GHGs
Over 20 year timescale that actually means 50% because methane has a stronger climate forcing effect
“Nearly 85 percent of the population that lives along the coast will be impacted by rising seas, storm surges, flooding, heatwaves, and damage to public infrastructure”
And climate change is already a big problem
Last year Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology issued four Special Climate Statements relating to “extreme” and “abnormal” heat, and reported broken climate records
With temperatures around 40°C in December last year, firefighters struggled to contain the 115 bush firesraging across Queensland
Piles of dead fox bats, whose brains literally fried in the heat, covered Sydney
For the last two years the country’s rainfall has been 11% below average
With the severe shortage of grazing on the parched land for their cattle, farmers in Western Australia have been struggling to find the money for the cost of feed, at $10,000 dollars per truckload
Farmers have also had to drive round with tankers of water to keep their thirsty cattle alive
In spite of all this, “as far as Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Parliament’s pro-farming majority are concerned, animals are no more than the means to a very profitable end for this Parliament.” (This attitude is what we are all up against.)
The Animal Justice Party, which doesn’t“prioritize a cattle and BBQ culture ahead of a livable climate,” but does, like Emma Hurst, prioritise animal rights, certainly has its work cut out.
If you live in Australia please vote this Saturday for the AJP.
“My promise to the animals is this: You have all of me.”
For the sake of the animals, please share this post widely. Thank you.
Sign Animals Australia’s petition against live exports here and take more actions for the animals here
“Compassion for animals should be fundamental for conservation”
– Marc Bekoff, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
“What gives us the right to be the gods…, to say who lives and who dies? [Invasive species] aren’t our children that we can control. They aren’t our pets or our livestock. They have their own agency. Conservation is ultimately a chauvinist method that treats animals as automatons”
– conservationist Arian Wallach
Filling in the background
Let me jump you back 350 years. We are in the Antipodes, in the land of Arustaralalaya¹, a land of wondrous creatures with wondrous names: the Rufous Bristle Bird, the Kangaroo Island Emu, the Rope River Scrub Robin, the Sharp-Snouted Torrent Frog, the Burrowing Bettong, the Pig-Footed Bandicoot, the Big-Eared Hopping-Mouse, the Western Barred Bandicoot, the famous Tasmanian Tiger, and many many more.
Here too are the aboriginal peoples. In ‘the Dreaming’, a ‘time beyond time’, ancestral spirits created the land and all life on it, the sky and water and all life in them. Nature is not something separate from the people. They, like all the other animals, are a part of Nature. And from it all their needs, physical, artistic and spiritual, are being met. A life with animals and plants, land, water and sky in perfect harmony. A life unchanged for thousands of years.
That is until ….
The British First Fleet, with orders to establish a penal colony where Britain could conveniently offload its felons, sailed into Botany Bay. And nothing was ever the same again.
As the anchors splashed into the water that day in 1788, no-one there could have imagined the magnitude of the moment, marking as it did the beginning of the end for so many species in Australia’s glorious panoply of life. Native animals and plants found themselves defenceless against the predations of the new colonists and the alien species they brought with them. Together, and in record time, these intruders drove the native animals over the cliff edge of extinction. Irrevocably lost. Gone forever.
The first wave of the British brought ashore pathogens till then unknown Down Under: tuberculosis, smallpox and measles, smallpox in particular wiping out huge swathes of the indigenous population. Next followed two centuries of systematic crushing of aboriginal culture, and unspeakable violations of human rights.
Horses and pigs were the first invasive (non-human) animals to disembark from the ships. A decade later sheep arrived. In the 1850s, foxes and rabbits were the unwilling travellers to a land that had never before seen such creatures. They were shipped there just so they could be hunted, for no better reason than that the thrill of the hunt was an indulgence the settlers were simply not prepared to leave behind them in the old country.
And so it went on, one after another. With the colonists, the alien species kept arriving.
Animals and plants in the wrong places are bad news for native flora and fauna conservation across the planet
And nowhere more so than in Australia, where they are “the No. 1 threat to Australia’s most at-risk species” – more deadly even than climate change and land clearance. As we speak, the invaders – plants, animals and pathogens – are putting well over a thousand native Australian plants and animals at risk.
Already a major conservation disaster. But what makes it even more critical is that 80% of the country’s flora and fauna is endemic, unique, found nowhere else in the world. “These species have existed for tens of thousands, in some cases millions of years, and many have been successful in responding to everything thrown at them for that time.” Right now though, in the Rate-of-Species-Loss world league, Australia unenviably holds poll position, right at the top of the table. Invasive species areeating away Australia’s precious biodiversity.
So, how to stop invasive species wiping out more endangered plants and animals in Australia and elsewhere?
The customary answer to this entirely human-created crisis is large-scale culling of the species that have fallen down ‘the status ladder’ as viewed from the human perspective. Humans brought in horses, donkeys and camels to serve as beasts of burden. When technology made the animals’ services redundant, they were abandoned. Now they are a pest. That is the paradigm. The animals go from ‘useful’ > abandoned as ‘no longer useful’ > a positive ‘pest’, the enemy. Once an animal reaches the bottom rung and gets labelled ‘PEST’, it loses the simple right to exist. In fact in human eyes, it’s a virtue to eradicate it, no need for remorse. There are no ethical issues, only practical ones.
And so, the deaths
Accurate figures of feral animals killed in Australia are difficult to obtain. Few records are kept by federal, state, or territory governments. But if this statistic from the state of Victoria is anything to go by numbers are huge: Victoria admits to paying out almost a million dollars for fox scalps – every year. The going rate is 10 dollars per scalp – that’s 100 thousand foxes killed yearly, in one state.
Here’s another chilling stat, this time reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: in the name of conservation 6,000 wild buffalo, horses, donkeys and pigs were ‘culled’ in Kakadu National Park in 24 days.
And another: the Australian government is implementing a cull of feral cats, with a target of 2 million to be eradicated by 2020.
These are researcher Persis Eskander‘s conservative estimates of some of the invasive species culled in the country annually:
Wild boar/feral pigs 3,450,000
Red fox 310,000
European rabbit 200,000,000
House mice 25,000,000
Eradication. Elimination. Cull. Bland innocuous words behind which to hide the true picture – millions of living, breathing individuals made to endure the most inhumanely-inflicted suffering. Animals who feel pain, animals who grieve, sentient beings who want to live.
Foxes and feral cats, which kill millions of Australia’s native animals nightly “are typically killed with cage traps—in which the animals wait for hours until death arrives on two legs—or with 1080 poison, which causes vomiting; auditory hallucinations; irregular heartbeat; rapid, uncontrolled eye movements; convulsions; and liver and kidney damage.”
And we’ve already made acquaintance with the longest fence in the world intended to protect sheep ranches as well as native wildlife from predating dingoes. The fence, “a rickety-looking five-or-so feet of chicken wire that any decently sized mutt could easily dig under or vault over…. isn’t really meant to stop dingoes; it is more valuable as a landmark for the pilots who drop thousands of baits, laced with 1080, in a swath of poison up to four kilometers wide.”
If any of the unfortunate creatures escape the traps and poison, they will be shot at from the air.
The land of Australia runs red with the blood of the slaughtered, whose only crime is to have been born. And all in the name of conservation.
Unhappily, this kind of massacre is far from unique to Australia. Take the slaughter of 250,000 goats, pigs and donkeys in the Galapagos islands for example. The goats in particular were said to have “grazed the island mercilessly, causing erosion, threatening the survival of rare plants and trees and competing with native fauna, such as giant tortoises,” until Project Isabela unleashed on them “one of the best hunting and eradication teams worldwide”.
This unimaginable carnage was applauded as a landmark conservation success.
‘Merciless’: dictionary definition? ‘Callous’, ‘heartless’, ‘inhumane’. Who in this nightmare scene were the merciless?
A better way – compassionate conservation
Travelling the remote highway between Adelaide and Alice Springs, it’s a relief to come across a bloodshed-free zone, Evelyn Downs ranch. This 888 sq. mile ranch is one of the very few places in Australia where wild donkeys, camels, wild horses, foxes, cats – invasive species all introduced by settlers – and dingoes, aren’t being routinely killed. There we will also find Arian Wallach, “one of the most prominent voices in an emerging movement called ‘compassionate conservation’.”
Arian, after persuading the owners of the ranch to implement a no-kill policy for the non-native animals living there, has made it the site for her field research. Her team have set up cameras around the ranch so they can study the natural interaction between the invasive species, the native species and the farmed cattle. She believes they will discover Nature restoring balance to the ecosystem if left to its own devices. It is, after all, and as always, Man that’s thrown it out of kilter.
Arian’s life and research partner can vouch for this in an unusual way. Australian Adam O’Neill was himself responsible for thousands of animal deaths in his former career as a commercial hunter and professional “conservation eradicator” – the irony in that title! Drawing on his many years of experience at the sharp end of invasive species control, he published a book in 2002 with this unequivocal message:
“If humans simply stopped killing dingoes … Australia’s top predator could keep cat and fox numbers down all by itself, allowing native animals to thrive and humans to retire from shedding so much blood.”
The donkey expert in Arian’s team, Eric Lundgren, also knows where to lay the blame, this time for the degradation of pastureland, and it isn’t at the donkeys’ door as the ranchers would want us to believe. The donkeys are being scapegoated. No studies have found donkeys to be responsible.
Lundgren says: “It seems very evident to me that the onlyherbivores to be substantially affecting plant communities there are the cattle—that are maintained at such ludicrously high densities.”
Man has introduced one invasive species, the non-native cattle, every one of which is destined for the slaughterhouse. Meanwhile, he’s busily despatching to equally premature deaths ‘pests’ he deems inimical to his business venture.
And mainstream conservationism happily goes along with this – it’s obvious, the donkeys must be culled. But Wallach instead “sees a puzzle to be solved. Step one: Stop overstocking cattle. Step two: Stop killing dingoes that might prey on the donkeys and keep their numbers down. Do this and the ecosystem will sort itself out—no killing required.”
The birth of compassionate conservation
The concept and phrase “compassionate conservation” emerged from a symposium hosted by the Born Free Foundation in Oxford in 2010. The movement was still in its infancy when the Centre for Compassionate Conservation (where Arian Wallach works) was set up at the University of Technology, Sydney in 2013.
“The core mission of compassionate conservationists is to find win-win approaches where [endangered] species are saved but no blood is shed. Where elephants in Kenya are being killed because they destroy farmers’ fields, the compassionate conservationist promotes a fence that incorporates beehives, since elephants hate bees. (As a bonus, the farmers can collect honey.) Where foxes are being killed on a small Australian island because they are eating rare little penguins, the compassionate conservationist installs guard dogs to look after the penguins and scare away the foxes. Often, advocates say, a solution can be found by examining what all the species in the area want, what they are thinking, and how best to tweak their behavior.”
What is it that makes compassionate conservation different from the mainstream? The Born Free Foundation wraps it up in a nutshell:
“Compassionate Conservation puts the welfare of individual animals at the heart of effective conservation actions.”
‘Invasive species’ are so much more than statistics. They are individuals whose needs must be respected and welfare safeguarded. Individuals, as much as you and me.
¹ The aboriginal name for Australia, “where ‘Arus‘ (अरुस्) means the ‘Sun’, ‘Taral’ (तरल) means ‘Water’ (route they took to travel from Asia 50,000 years ago) and ‘Alaya’ (आलय) means ‘home‘ or a ‘retreat‘. So, Arustaralalaya or Australia is home of Sun-praying, Water-travelled people.”
Fukushima – when the people flee en masse from the apocalyptic scene of devastation, the animals are left behind. Then up steps Naoto Matsumura. What he does and what he is as a human being leaves me awestruck and humbled. This is Network for Animals‘story of one heroic, compassionate man who puts his own life on the line to save his fellow creatures from abandonment, starvation and death.
First came the 9.0 magnitude earthquake. Then a towering tsunami that raged inland for miles, sweeping to their death more than 15,000 people and countless animals.
But then it got worse, much worse.
In what would become a more catastrophic nuclear meltdown than Chernobyl, three nuclear reactors began to leak radiation at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan. People fled. Untold numbers of animals were left behind.
But one man would NOT turn his back…
Naoto Matsumura believed the lives of animals were worth more than his and to this day, every day, he is still there helping some of the most forsaken animals on earth!
We deeply believe Naoto shouldn’t face the fight to keep his friends alive, alone.
As a friend to Network for Animals, you know you can count on us to help animals in the world’s most desolate places. It took us nearly two years to arrange to enter Fukushima’s no-go radioactive zone…
Finally, we visited Naoto and the animals, less than six miles (10 kilometers) from Ground Zero.
Clad in hazmat suits, with the tick-tick-tick-tick of our ever-present Geiger counters as a constant and unnerving background warning, our team listened as Naoto told the saddest story…
When Fukushima melted down the Japanese government immediately declared an a mandatory, and near instantaneous evacuation of nearly 200,000 people. The tsunami-sodden ground was soaked with radiation.
And as Naoto told of how he defied government orders to stay and care for the animals on his family’s small rice farm and as we travelled with him deep into the radioactive restricted zone, we saw the eerie apocalyptic aftermath of the disaster.
Cigarette packs, left on café counters. High-end cars, abandoned by the roadside. Vending machines, still fully stocked. Overnight, thriving communities were frozen in time. They became ghost towns.
Naoto laughs when he tells us that he’s been called the “most radioactive man in Japan.” But he turns sombre as he describes how he soon realized his neighbors’ animals needed help too.
He found one dog near death, just skin and bones, locked inside a barn for 18 months after the disaster! The poor thing had survived on the rotting, dead flesh of the cattle trapped inside.
As Naoto nursed the little dog called Kiseki, “miracle,” back to health, the media spotlight moved on.
He went on making his daily missions of mercy alone, traffic lights signaling to empty streets and overgrown train stations.
Please. Rush your donation to NFA today and you will ensure that Naoto will receive the first of what we hope will be regular shipments of everything from dog and cat food to radioactive-free hay for these forgotten animals, so they can survive and thrive.
If we do nothing, if we leave him to do this work alone, more animals could suffer the fate of nearly 1,000 abandoned cattle, who died in Naoto’s town of Tomioka alone after the disaster.
Please, if you possibly can, be generous today so we can ensure Naoto can continue to come to the aid of the forgotten animals of the Fukushima nuclear fallout zone.
We’ll update you again the moment we get shipment through to Naoto, with your kind support. Thank you for reading and responding with whatever help you can send.
For the animals,
Brian and Gloria Davies (and Max and Flora!)
Founder and CEO
P.S. We want to leave you with one last story about Naoto and Kiseki. After the poor pup had survived locked in a barn for 18 long months eating the rotting flesh of dead cattle, Naoto nurtured him back to health. Thanks to a wonderful friend of animals outside the fallout zone, Kiseki was adopted and has a loving forever family in Tokyo!
There is little doubt that the dingo is the most reviled of all Australian mammals
Aussies, as we all know, have a multitude of colourful expressions, some printable and others less so. But if someone calls you a dingo, there can be no doubt – your reputation is shot. ‘Dingo’ is “a term of extreme contempt… because of the animal’s reputation for cowardice and treachery.” The poor dingo has always had a terrible press.
How did the unfortunate dingo come by such notoriety?
Right from the time British settlers first brought sheep to Australia in the 18th century, the carnivorous dingo has been considered No. 1 pest by ranchers, a pest best met with a shotgun. Bounty hunters were hired to track and kill them. The bounty hunter in colonial writings of the 19th century was cast in the role of the quintessential Australian, canny and heroic, ridding the land of the thieving marauding dingo that was “ripping the heart out of sheep grazing country.” In these tales, dingoes were the outlaws and criminals.
“280,000 bounties were paid for dingoes between 1883 and 1930, by which time dingoes had become scarce in all but the north-eastern corner of the State [New South Wales], where sheep numbers were lowest” – a grievous slaughter, practically an annihilation.
As recently as 2011, an Aussie MP was still proposing a bounty be put on the animal’s head.
The villainous persona the unfortunate dingo has acquired is deeply imbedded in Australian culture. As a former dingo trapper Sid Wright says in his 1968 book ‘The Way of the Dingo’: “In the outback it is accepted without question that the dingo is a slinking, cowardly animal”
“There is little doubt that the dingo is the most reviled of all Australian mammals. It is the only native mammal not protected in NSW by the State’s fauna legislation. [Indeed] the dingo, along with other wild dogs, is covered by a Pest Animal Control Order.”
The longest fence in the world
In the 1940s, the gaggle of higgledy piggledy fences erected to keep dingoes (and rabbits) out of sheep-grazed land was joined up to make one giant fence stretching 8614 km. Since shortened to 5614 km, it encloses the south east quarter of Australia, of which New South Wales is the heart. It’s the longest fence in the world, and its upkeep costs 10 million Australian dollars a year – “a truly epic testament to how much Australians can hate the dingo.”
(Eat your heart out Donald Trump – if your horrible wall happens, as all lovers of wildlife, biodiversity and commonsense sincerely hope it won’t, it would be little more than half the size of this one.)
So, a loathed and despised predatory pest – such is the view of the dingo from the rancher’s side of the fence.
From the dingo’s side of the fence the picture looks very different
Dingoes ranged the bush thousands of years before the first sheep set foot on Australian soil, and while some co-existed with the indigenous peoples, none were ever domesticated. Quick-witted, pragmatic, and resourceful, these are wild animals perfectly adapted to their environment. According to a study undertaken at the Dingo Discovery Sanctuary and Research Centre near Melbourne, the dingo is, “the most intelligent animal in Australia apart from man.”
Sid Wright’s personal opinion of the dingo did not accord with what he knew to be the ranchers’ view. For him the animal was a “wild, magnificent creature” that should be conserved in Australia’s national parks and reserves.
These two opposing stances represent Australia’s ‘dingo schizophrenia’
So what to do about the dingo? Is it villain or hero? Should it be killed to protect sheep, or should it be protected as native fauna? This is the dilemma legislators and conservationists have to grapple with, of which the four most important elements are these:
1. Is the dingo a distinct species of its own, or is it simply a feral dog?
2. If it is a distinct species, is it a genuine native one, and why does this matter?
3. If it is a distinct and native species, is it threatened?
4. As the apex predator in Australia, what is the value of the ‘ecosystem services’ it provides?
According to Dr. Laura Wilson, UNSW’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, “Pure dingoes have been shown to have cranial growth patterns more similar to wolves than domesticated dogs, larger brains and a more discrete breeding season producing fewer pups than domestic dogs.
“Dingoes are also notably less sociable with humans than domesticated dogs, characterised by a weaker ability to interpret gestures and a shorter time maintaining eye contact.”
The most recent research into the animal found further evidence of specific characteristics that differentiate dingoes from domestic dogs, feral dogs, and other wild canids such as wolves. And were there still any doubt, the clincher is of course the genetic data.
Answer to Q.2
“Dingoes have been living wild and independently of humans for a very long time — they have a distinct and unique evolutionary past that diverged some 5 to 10 thousand years ago from other canids. This is more than enough time for the dingo to have evolved into a naturalised predator now integral to maintaining the health of many Australian ecosystems.” – The dingo is a true-blue native species.
Co-author of a new study, Professor Corey Bradshaw agrees:“We show that dingoes have survived in Australia for thousands of years, subject to the rigours of natural selection, thriving in all terrestrial habitats, and largely in the absence of human intervention or aid.”
“The dingo is without doubt a native Australian species,” the Prof concludes.
Why does it matter?
It matters because conservationists’ ability to protect the dingo hinges entirely on establishing and upholding its status as a distinct and genuinely native Australian species.
It matters because the Western Australian government for example, in order to evade its conservation obligations to the dingo, recently made a politically-motivated and controversial attempt to classify it as “non-native fauna”.
Bizarrely – though maybe it’s not so bizarre considering New South Wales’ land area falls almost in its entirety on ‘the ranch side’ of the Dingo Fence, and is therefore no doubt under constant pressure from the ranching lobby – NSW is trying its darnedest to square the circle. It simultaneously acknowledges the dingo as a native speciesandexcludes it from the protection afforded by the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 to all the rest of its native fauna. “All native birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals (except the dingo) are protected in NSW. It is an offence to harm, kill or remove native animals unless you hold a licence.” But not if you’re harming, killing or removing dingoes. That’s ok. And dingoes continue to be routinely shot and poisoned in huge numbers.
It matters because Australia holds an unenviable record: “Half the world’s mammal extinctions over the last two hundred years have occurredin Australia,and we are on track for an acceleration of that loss” – Dr Thomas Newsome, School of Biological Sciences University of Sydney. “Predation by feral cats and foxes is the main reason that Australia has the worst mammal extinction record of modern time” – Prof. Sarah Legge, Threatened Species Recovery Hub.
Answer to Q.3
It matters because the dingo is on the IUCN’s Red List as a “vulnerable species”, and could also be heading for extinction.
Even without finding itself in the ranchers’ crosshairs, the dingo may lope down another disquieting path to extinction: interbreeding with domestic dogs settlers brought with them to Australia. Unless positive steps are taken to segregate the dingo, its genes will be diluted until the true species ceases to exist.
As with all other antipodean native fauna, the simplest way to conserve them is on an island. On islands it’s easier to control who or what arrives and who or what leaves. World Heritage site Fraser Island is “home to the most pure strain of dingoes remaining in eastern Australia.” Fraser Island boasts a wealth of native wildlife and operates an eco-code for visitors.
Dingoes on the beaches of Fraser Island
Yet even here dingoes live under a cloud of controversy. “110 dingoes have been humanely euthanised for unacceptable or dangerous behaviour on Fraser Island between January 2001 and September 2013, with between 1 and 32 dingoes killed in any given year.”
In 2011, one Jennifer Parkhurst was fined and given a suspended sentence for feeding the dingoes on the island, which she claimed were starving. Others supported her claim: “If things go on the way they’re going, the whole dingo population on that Fraser Island will become extinct,” said veterinarian Dr Ian Gunn, from Monash University’s National Dingo Recovery and Preservation Program. Yet other sources claim many of the dingoes on the island are overweight, verging on the obese!
And as you can imagine, the news media are ever ready to fall into a feeding frenzy and stoke dingo controversy whenever there’s a dingo attack on people. Wiki lists 10 such on the island since 1980, the worst in 2001 resulting in the tragic death of 9 year old Clinton Gage.
31 Fraser Island dingoes were culled in response. “It was a meaningless cull, but in terms of the genetics, it was terribly significant because it was a high proportion of the population” – Dr Ernest Healy, of Australia’s National Dingo Preservation and Recovery Program. Such a drastic cull diminished the gene pool, and just where the animals should live free from the dangers surrounding their mainland cousins, this raised the spectre of extinction for the pure breed dingo of the island. “Kingaroy dingo handler and breeder Simon Stretton says purebred Fraser Island dingoes will be gone in 10 years.”
Answer to Q.4
Besides sheep and cattle, invasive species camels, horses, donkeys, deer, rabbits, goats, hares, foxes, cats, rats and house mice also arrived in Australia courtesy of 19th and 20th century settlers. (Foxes were introduced in 1855 simply so the new human arrivals need not forgo the ‘sport’ of hunting them they enjoyed so much at home. The foxes have since multiplied to more than 7 million, and the threat level they pose to native fauna is ‘Extreme’.) After humans, these invasive species are next most responsible for the decimation of Australia’s unique flora and fauna. The carnivores take out the fauna (the foxes and cats alone take out millions of native animals nightly, and are almost solely responsible for the loss of 20 native animal species) and the herbivores “graze the desert to dust and turn wetlands to mud barrens.”
What has this to do with the dingo? A lot! As Australia’s apex predator, the ‘ecosystem services’ the animal provides are, researchers are discovering, invaluable. “Dingoes play a vital ecological role in Australia by outcompeting and displacing noxious introduced predators like feral cats and foxes. When dingoes are left alone, there are fewer feral predators eating native marsupials, birds and lizards” – Prof Bradshaw.
Dingoes may be enemy No. 1 in the eyes of sheep farmers, but cattle farmers (as well as the native fauna) should thank their lucky stars to have them around. “Dingoes can also increase profits for cattle graziers, because they target and eat kangaroos that otherwise compete with cattle for grass in semi-arid pasture lands” -Prof B once more.
And according to Dr. Mike Letnic, Centre for Ecosystem Science UNSW, “the dingo, as Australia’s top predator, has an important role in maintaining the balance of nature and that reintroduced or existing dingo populations could increase biodiversity across more than 2 million square kilometres of Australia.” Where dingoes had been exterminated, Dr. Letnic found far greater numbers of red foxes and invasive herbivores, with small native mammals and grasses being lost.
As the re-introduction of grey wolves to Yellowstone National Park famously proved, from the presence of an apex predator flows a trophic cascade of ecological benefits. In the dingo’s case, the trophic cascade emanating from this particular apex predator flows all the way down and into the soil itself. And for the research that uncovered this surprising benefit, the infamous Dingo Fence for once worked in the animal’s favour:
“The fence provides a unique opportunity to test the effects of the removal of an apex predator on herbivore abundance, vegetation and nutrients in the soil,” says researcher Timothy Morris.
From comparing the conditions in the outback on either side of the fence came forth the revelation that exterminating dingoes not only has an adverse effect on the abundance of other native animals and plants, but also degrades the quality of the soil.
Far from supporting a continued assault on this much maligned creature, all the evidence supports “allowing dingo populations to increase”. More dingoes, not less are Australia’s prerequisite to “enhancing the productivity of ecosystems across vast areas of the country.”
Oh Aussie legislators and ranchers, you are getting it so wrong. Stop demonising and destroying this ‘wild, magnificent creature’, and let us see Canis dingo running free for millennia to come.
If you are of the same mind, please sign and share these petitions:
Petition to save dingoes from extinction – re-classify as an endangered species
Petition (Australian citizens only) to stop the promotion of a new export market — Australian dingoes for Asian diners –
Petition to stop the use of toxin 1080 to poison dingoes
If the dingo teaches us anything as human beings, surely it’s this:
“As they have demonstrated time and again, large carnivores will not stay within human defined safe zones. We need to learn to share the land and its bounty with them, to live with them, or we will lose them—and with them a considerable part of what makes us human.”
“Children and animals are the big losers in the Syrian war. It’s the adults who so often behave badly.”
The cat man of Aleppo, Mohammad Aljaleel, touched the hearts of millions when his sanctuary featured in a BBC video in 2016. He had to leave the city when it fell to Syrian government forces, but he’s now back – in an area nearby – and helping children as well as animals, reports Diana Darke.
(There is nothing I can possibly add to this amazing story, except to say that if you want to see what true humanity looks like, look no further than Diana’s account below of this exceptional man.)
Just weeks after the video was filmed, Mohammad Aljaleel (known to everyone as Alaa) watched helplessly as his cat sanctuary was first bombed, then chlorine-gassed, during the intense final stages of the siege of Aleppo.
Most of his 180 cats were lost or killed. Like thousands of other civilians he was trapped in the eastern half of the city under continuous bombardment from Russian and Syrian fighter jets.
As the siege tightened, he was forced from one Aleppo district to another, witnessing unimaginable scenes of devastation. Yet throughout, he continued to look after the few surviving cats and to rescue people injured in the bombing, driving them to underground hospitals.
When the city fell in December 2016, he left in a convoy, his van crammed full of injured people and the last six cats from the sanctuary.
“I’ve always felt it’s my duty and my pleasure to help people and animals whenever they need help,” Alaa says. “I believe that whoever does this will be the happiest person in the world, besides being lucky in his life.”
After a brief recuperation in Turkey, he smuggled himself back into Syria – bringing a Turkish cat with him for company – and established a new cat sanctuary, bigger and better than the first one, in Kafr Naha, a village in opposition-held countryside west of Aleppo.
Using the same crowdfunding model employed successfully in east Aleppo, funds were sent in by cat-lovers from all over the world via Facebook and Twitter.
But Alaa has always worked for the benefit of the community, as well as the cats themselves.
In Aleppo, he and his team of helpers bought generators, dug wells and stockpiled food. Even at the height of the bombing, they ran animal welfare courses for children, to develop their empathy. They also set up a playground next to the sanctuary where children could briefly escape from the apocalyptic events taking place all around them.
The new sanctuary has expanded to include an orphanage, a kindergarten and a veterinary clinic. Alaa and his team resemble a small development agency, providing services that government and international charities cannot or will not. He strongly believes that helping children to look after vulnerable animals teaches them the importance of kindness to all living creatures, and helps to heal their own war traumas.
“Children and animals are the big losers in the Syrian war,” he says. “It’s the adults who so often behave badly.”
As a boy growing up in Aleppo, Alaa had always looked after cats, spurring his friends to do likewise, even though keeping cats and dogs as pets is not customary in Syria or the rest of the Arab world.
He started working aged 13, as an electrician, but also turned his hand to many other jobs – painter, decorator, IT expert, satellite-dish installer… he even traded toys between Lebanon and Syria.
He worked hard and he learned how to get things done. “May the dust turn to gold in your hands, Alaa,” his mother used to say.
His dream was to become a fireman like his father and work in search and rescue, but such jobs were handed out only to those with connections, and the connection through his father was not enough. So for years his applications were rejected.
“Of course I would never have wished for a war in order to make my dream come true. I wish I could have achieved these things without the suffering I have seen,” he says.
“God blessed me by putting me in a position where I could help people by being a rescue man, but in my worst nightmares I never imagined a war like this for my people or for my country, or even for a single animal.”
During the siege in Aleppo he used to visit both Christian and Muslim old people’s homes, distributing food. Extremist groups such as al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra regularly chided him, calling him a kaafir, an unbeliever, but he continued regardless.
“Our Prophet Muhammad was good to everybody. He spoke with all Christians and Jews. I believe in Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, because all of them had a noble aim. I’m a Muslim, but I am not a fanatic. I just take from religion everything that’s good and that I can learn things from,” Alaa says.
Despite the difficulties he has endured, Alaa has always maintained a wicked sense of humour. At the new sanctuary, a tabby called Maxi the Marketing King is chief fundraiser, soliciting “green kisses” in the form of dollar bills via social media accounts.
Alaa wears a T-shirt with “Maxi’s Slave” written on it, and gets ticked off for smoking too much or for not cooking gourmet meals. He admits his shortcomings. “We submit to Maxi’s authority as the ruler of his kingdom. But even with Maxi’s leadership it wasn’t easy to launch the new sanctuary,” he says.
This is an understatement. The rebel-held area where Alaa now lives is semi-lawless and when powerful gangs realised he was receiving funds for the sanctuary, they attempted to kidnap him. He was no longer being bombed, but his life was still at risk.
As well as cats, the new sanctuary has dogs, monkeys, rabbits, a chicken that thinks it’s a cat, and an Arabian thoroughbred horse.
“There are so few thoroughbred horses left inside Syria now that I worry about finding him a mare to breed with. I plan to perform the role of a traditional Syrian mother and try to find him a wife, so that he can have children and start building up the population of thoroughbred horses in Syria again,” Alaa says.
All the animals have names, generally awarded by Alaa. An aggressive black-and-white cat who came to the sanctuary, stole food and terrified all the other cats was nicknamed al-Baghdadi, after the Iraqi leader of Islamic State (IS).
“Of course, this cat was a million times better than that evil murderer al-Baghdadi, but this name came to mind because his presence in the sanctuary coincided with the arrival of IS gangs in Aleppo,” Alaa says.
Territorio de Zaguates – Land of the Mutts, a sanctuary where every stray is greeted with hearts full of love.
Saved from abuse, abandonment and starvation on the street, given veterinary care, nourishing food, and a multitude of friends to run and play with in freedom and safety, it’s a new life these dogs had never imagined could be theirs.
Awesome Costa Ricans Álvaro and Lya have dedicated their lives to giving these strays the kind of life they deserve. With 1,300 dogs currently in their care, they have a mammoth task.
Take a look at this uplifting little video
In a dark world blackened by the unspeakable acts humans too often perpetrate on other animals, stories such as this shine a light of hope.
For anyone with Netflix, click here for the episode of ‘Dogs’ devoted to Territorio – a riveting and moving closeup view of life at the sanctuary. And the true cost, emotional, physical, mental, as well as financial to those who work there, in particular Álvaro and Lya.
When your holiday zest for sightseeing bazaars and palaces begins to flag, and you turn into the nearest cafe for a much-needed sit down and restorative coffee, chances are several street dogs and cats will have got there before you and nabbed the best seats.
As you settle at a vacant table, a furry feline will in all likelihood settle on you. And in this city no-one is going to turn them out. Because you are in Istanbul, the ‘four-legged city’, where the free-roaming dogs and cats get cared for as well as the pampered pets inside the home.
The cafe owner emerges from the kitchen with dishes of food for his four-legged guests. The fishmonger next door is slicing up pieces of fish for the hopeful, patiently waiting outside.
Local residents are putting out bowls of water and food next to the little shelters they’ve knocked together for the furries out on their own streets. And of course, there are rich pickings to be had for the enterprising in the bags of rubbish thrown on to the street.
Reinvigorated by your coffee? Then head for Nişantaşı Sanat Parkı, otherwise known as ‘the Cat Park’. There are cats, cats and more cats everywhere you look. Hundreds, yes hundreds, of them. Unlike feral cats in the UK, these are completely habituated to people, and will return your attentions with happy purrs and affectionate nuzzles.
You may be puzzled by strange white boxes dotted about the city. These are ‘smart’ recycling boxes. Recycling with an unusual twist: the box rewards you for recycling your empty water bottle by dispensing cat and dog food to give to the animals.
Canines beyond the city limits where food opportunities are thin on the ground are not forgotten either. A van is sent out daily to Belgrade Forest with 1,000 kg of dry dog food. The driver honks the horn, the signal that breakfast has arrived. The dogs come running out of the trees.
That’s hunger dealt with. What about thirst? The city has installed fresh water stations especially for the 130,000 thirsty dogs and 165,000 thirsty cats free-roaming the city – that’s about as many street-dwelling felines and canines combined as there are human residents of Nottingham or Belfast.
If any of these free-spirited furries get sick, no problem – if they can’t get to one of the 6 health clinics (with a little help from the always willing humans), the VetBus will come to them.
There’s no doubt about it: Istanbul’s four-legged residents are done proud. You could say they own the city.
A paradise present and past
What a paradise for these lucky animals, a paradise present and past. Dogs and cats have been documented on the streets of Istanbul for hundreds of years. “The dogs sleep in the streets, all over the city,”Mark Twain wrote after a visit in 1867. “They would not move, though the Sultan himself passed by.”
Why is it that in this city they are not just tolerated, but actively cared for? “They are the neighbourhood’s dogs [and cats]. They protect us and everyone loves them,” says resident Hamit Yilmaz Ozcan.
Sadly the same cannot be said of many other cities in the world. In the last few years alone we have heard of cities like Sochi, Beijing, and Rio de Janeiro’s horrific mass killings of street animals ahead of big sporting events. Other places like Cyprus and Bali also view the street animals as pests, and regularly cull them. ‘Cull’ of course is just officialese for ‘kill’. But killing it is nonetheless. In 2013, Romania’s capital Bucharest ordered euthanasia (another euphemism) of its 50,000 strays.
“The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there are 200 million stray dogs worldwide. Countries such as Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Mexico have in the past, taken reduction measures [yet another euphemism to cloak the unpalatable truth] to control their large populations of stray dogs.”
So what makes Istanbul so different, possibly unique?
The answer is, centuries of Islamic tradition in the Ottoman Empire, of which Istanbul was the capital and seat of power. The Ottomans took to heart the Qu’ran’s teaching that all animals were made by Allah. All animals are loved by Allah. All animals must be treated with kindness and compassion.
“According to Islamic culture, people should avoid being unjust to others, and it places animals’ rights above human rights since it is possible to compensate for the wrongdoing to people by asking for their forgiveness; however, it is not possible with animals as they lack reason.”
(Personally, I think it’s not that they lack reason, but that we don’t understand their language.)
“Prophet Muhammad told the story of two different women who lived long before his time. As he recounted, an evil women went to heaven because she gave water to a dog, while a good woman went to hell because she starved a cat to death.”
(Define ‘good woman’, I’d say. Starving a cat to death sounds pretty evil to me. But anyway, you get the drift.)
“Fearing this story, people in the past fed their animals before they sat down for meals and did not go to bed before they cleaned the animals in their barns and checked if they had water and feed. Moreover, the government punished those who carried barnyard fowls upside down or overloaded horses or donkeys, and people who harmed animals were alienated from their community in the Ottoman Empire.
“The Ottomans established foundations to feed street dogs, and wolves in the mountains, provide water for birds on hot summer days and treat storks with broken wings or injured horses. They also built birdhouses in the courtyards of buildings such as mosques, madrasahs and palaces and placed water pans on gravestones for birds.”
Even ‘worn out’ donkeys and horses, no longer fit to work, were not shot or abandoned as would have been, and often still is their fate elsewhere, but cared for until the end of their days.
Sad change in the 19th century
The people of Istanbul have always loved having the animals around – and who wouldn’t. The state though is a different matter. In the 19th century, the Ottomans, realising the image they were projecting to European powers was one of backwardness, decided to push beggars, orphans and the unemployed into forced labour or deportation. And at the same time made “systemic efforts to annihilate stray dogs within the wider picture of Ottoman modernizing reforms.”
In 1909, “although old Istanbul’s street dogs were very famous, the municipality collected all of them, ferried them to an island in the Marmara Sea and abandoned them. They were left with no food or clean water, and their cries were heard throughout the city.
“The people who pitied them threw them food, but when all of these dogs died on the island, the residents of the city were disturbed by the smell of their corpses. The wars that broke out and the defeats of the empire following this incident were seen as a punishment for what was done to those animals.”
That sudden ruthless disregard for the centuries-old traditions of care and respect for the street dogs and cats continued right through the 20th century. Right up to the 1990s, officials were strewing poison around the city, consigning the animals to a cruel death.
In 2004 Turkey passed an Animal Protection Law
Everything changed again. The municipalities were forced to take a more humane approach. Instead of slaughter, an extensive neutering program was implemented by the VetBus and the clinics.
With rabies still endemic in Turkey, the thought of rabid animals roaming the busy streets of this ancient city is not one the municipality was prepared to countenance for a second, so the other important part of the program is vaccination. Under the Capture Neuter Vaccinate & Release program, CNVR, the dogs and cats are also chipped and given an ear tag so they can easily be identified as having been ‘done’ before they are returned to the street or square where they were found.
It’s a secret
The tons of food, the water stations, the recycle boxes, the clinics, the VetBus, the CNVR program – surely none of this can come cheap? The municipality refuses to say how much is being spent on the street dogs and cats of Istanbul. “If people knew how much money was spent on these services, maybe people would be more upset, but these figures are not disclosed,” says Yildirim, coordinator of the collective “Dort Ayakli Sehir” (Four-legged City).
But Turkey’s Agriculture and Forests Minister Bekir Pakdemirli did recently admit that between 2009 and 2018 his ministry expended 31 million Turkish lira (around $6 million) just contributing towards the budgets of local authorities across the country for their care of street animals.
Maybe still not quite such a paradise for the street dogs and cats after all?
The best efforts of the CNVR program has only succeeded in keeping the stray feline and canine populations at a fairly constant level. Their numbers have not fallen over time as the municipality might have hoped and expected. Of course, there will always be some wily characters that escape the net and keep breeding.
But much sadder than that, according to animal welfare organisations on the ground:
“There is a high incidence of dog abandonment in Turkey. Pets are often bought on impulse, and frequently as gifts. But when cute little puppies grow into large dogs that need space, exercise and long-term care, many families simply abandon their pets to the streets or forests. Many abandoned dogs are pure breeds, like golden retrievers, that are temperamentally unfit to survive on the streets or in the wild.”
The self-same fate awaits cats:
“In Turkey everyday, thousands of puppies and kittens are sold in the pet-shops just like stuffed animals and most of them find themselves abandoned on the streets within a couple of months… Abandoned cats and dogs are everywhere. Sometimes people simply kick them out from their home right on the streets, sometimes they take a dog into a forest and leave him there so he can’t find his way back home, or even abandon him by the side of a motorway so he gets killed quickly.”
This little guy is one such victim. Only 40 days old, found all alone and whimpering in a ditch at the side of the road. Luckily he was rescued and put up for adoption. But there’s still a chance he could end up back on the street further down the line.
Love for the street animals/casual, callous abandonment. How to reconcile the two?
Is it that the good people of Istanbul enjoy the pleasure the animals bring into their daily lives, and feel good giving food and some outdoor shelter, but don’t want the full responsibility of caring for them in their own home?
Or could it be that in today’s cosmopolitan city, while some still hold fast to the old traditions, others have discarded them as belonging to the past? That would be sad indeed.
From the centuries-old Ottoman Islamic ethic of respect and compassion, I believe there is much we and the world could learn in our attitudes towards all animals, great and small. Don’t you agree?
Please sign and share:
Petition to stop the poisoning of strays in Turkey’s capital, Ankara
Petition to end this tragedy in Turkey: dog starvation on a colossal scale.
Petition to stop neighbouring Jordan killing every street dog in the country
Petition to stop authorities in Benalmadena, Spain ruthlessly culling homeless cats
Petition to enforce ban on dog culling in Bangladesh