For those of us who are free, freedom often goes unsung. But for certain mice and rats rescued from a laboratory, that instant of emerging into fresh air and sunshine for the first time ever is a miracle, a moment of true wonder.
And on one such occasion last August, “the perfect day to experience how beautiful this world can be“, Italian vegan and ardent animal-lover Rachele Totaro was there with her camera to capture every emotion.
Maybe like me you believed that ‘only’ those millions of poor animals used in lethal tests die at the hands of workers in labs. Not so. Many millions more used in non-lethal experiments as well as those simply surplus, kept ‘in reserve’ in case they might be needed, are routinely killed. An institution that values these lives only as units for the practice of research is hardly going to care for them once they no longer serve the purpose.
But in Italy at least, the law permits those who do value the lives of these little beings to save them from that fate. And near Milan, a wonderful shelter called La Collina dei Conigli is rescuing all the rats, mice and rabbits they can from laboratories, and searching for them safe, happy forever homes.
Rachele speaks of her gratitude, as the mice and rats were released from their imprisonment and suffering on that particular hot August day, “to have witnessed such a great moment of rebirth!”
So… is this above the famous “sky”?
Who are you?
I’ll protect you…
Enjoying the moment
I love you!
Tell me the story of how you rescued me, again…
So many things to see
“Shy ones, little warriors, curious explorers, cuddle-lovers: every one acted in a different way when taken outdoors, and they showed once again that they are not mere numbers, as they are considered in labs, but individuals with peculiar attitudes and personalities.”
Sharing as they do 97.5% of DNAwith us, why should we be surprised if we find ourselves instinctively reading in their body language and little faces the same emotions we experience ourselves.
And if Rachele’s gentle photos make you cry, know that you are not alone!
To see more of Rachele’s pics of nonhuman persons, click here
Father Christmas in his sleigh, Donner, Blitzen, Dancer, Prancer and the rest, an image beloved of children generation after generation, made their first appearance in the starry winter sky nearly 200 years ago in 1823. But Rudolph was just too darn cosy in his straw-filled stable at the North Pole. It was another 100 years plus (1939) before he first poked his red nose outside, and was promptly appointed Santa’s right hand reindeer. I know Vixen, life is not fair.
It’s likely though that this bizarre-when-you-think-about-it vision of Santa and his reindeer flying across the night sky has far deeper roots:
“According to the theory, the legend of Santa derives from shamans in the Siberian and Arctic regions who dropped into locals’ teepee-like homes with a bag full of hallucinogenic mushrooms as presents in late December.
“As the story goes, up until a few hundred years ago, these practicing shamans or priests connected to the older traditions would collect Amanita muscaria (the Holy Mushroom), dry them and then give them as gifts on the winter solstice. Because snow is usually blocking doors, there was an opening in the roof through which people entered and exited, thus the chimney story.”*
Little wonder our ancestors were dreaming dreams of magic!
The festive sleigh-pulling team contrary to popular belief is comprised entirely of females – yes, even Rudolph. Though both sexes of reindeer wear antlers, the males only need theirs for the autumn rut and shed them well before Christmas
In the winter the animals live almost exclusively on “reindeer moss” (lichen) and cover long distances to find it, travelling the furthest of any land mammal in the world, up to 5,000 km a year
They can run at up to 80 kph
They are smaller than you think, standing at only 1.2m at the shoulder
They have clowns’ feet – wide spreading hooves that make perfect snowshoes, shovels to shift snow (to get at the food beneath) and paddles for swimming
It’s true they do have unusual noses – not normally red – because they are furry. In fact their special insulating hollow fur covers every bit of a reindeer’s body from furry nose to furry feet, except of course their eyes. Their coat is one of the thickest and densest of any animal
They talk to each other with their feet. When the herd is moving, “they make a delicate clicking or popping sound. Being surrounded by a small herd sounds a bit like being in a bowl of puffed rice as the milk is poured on to it”
Once reindeer roamed the hills of northern England and Scotland. They were hunted by the Vikings
In the 1950s a small herd was reintroduced to the Cairngorms and are now 130 strong
Elsewhere they can now be found only in Russia and Norway
This naturally curious and gentle creature was a prime candidate – thought to be the first with hooves – for humans to domesticate, 30,000 years ago in Scandinavia
Like so many animals, their usefulness to humans (milk, meat, skins) meant their being hunted almost to extinction
In southern Norway, there remain only 20 herds, about 40,000 deer in all
In reality, having to pull Santa’s sleigh all around the world, arduous as that sounds, is the least of Rudolph’s problems
The main threats to these beautiful animals, along with nonhuman animals the world over, are human-caused: habitat fragmentation and destruction; roads carving up the forest; house-building; oil, gas and timber extraction. And global warming – the timber line is creeping northwards and shrinking the arctic tundra on which the reindeer rely.
Another serious cause for concern is inbreeding. Reindeer females don’t seem able, as many species of animals do, to select mates from outside their immediate group, and will frequently mate with males too closely related to them. Direct human interference has exacerbated the problem. Large numbers of males were removed from the herds in the 70s, to increase the preponderance of females and produce more young. The intended outcome was more reindeer to hunt. The unintended outcome was a further shrinking of the gene pool.
Shooting rights up for grabs
If you have a yen to celebrate the season of goodwill with a killing spree and have enough spare cash, the Norwegian government has opened up two of their largest national parks for you to slaughter any number of the last surviving wild population of these gentle creatures in Europe.
The business selling the tickets for such a trip, for which it claims exclusive rights, styles itself “Scotland’s Premier Sporting Agency“. Shooting reindeer in Norway is, it says, “a magical experience”. (And feel free to take a pop at bears and wolves, both critically endangered in Norway, while you’re there.) This is the picture promoting the trip on the agency’s website
If you visit the Port of Rotterdam you will now be able to see a world first of its kind – a floating dairy farm. Riding one wave ahead of the right-on-trend urban farming movement, property company Beladon have created a “cow garden”, a three-level futuristic vision of glass, steel and concrete. And its first residents have just arrived on board.
But a farm floating on water? Why have such a thing? Minke and Peter van Wingerden, husband and wife business partners happened to be in New York in 2012, and witnessed firsthand the difficulties bringng fresh food into the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.. A floating farm, they decided, could produce food close to point of consumption, while at the same time neatly resolving the challenge posed by the scarcity of land within cities.
Beladon proudly call it “Transfarmation” and the company website sets out their priorities:-
Producing healthy food in cities, close to the consumer
Sustainability and circularity
Putting to one side the question of animal welfare and healthy food for a moment, in terms of sustainability, the floating farm is indeed a thing of beauty. At least on the surface. The cows are fed with grass from local football fields, potato peel waste from the french fry industry, and chaff (bran) sifted from the flour in local windmills. This fodder which would otherwise go to waste is collected and delivered to the farm by electric cars. Water purified from the cow’s urine, will be used to grow red clover, alfalfa and grass under artificial light. A robot tops up the cows’ food stations and another scoops up the dry dung. The dung will be used on site, or sent to a nearby farm. On the floor below, the 1,000 litres of milk the cows produce daily will be processed into yogurt which will reach Rotterdam’s supermarket shelves with negligible transport costs, either financial or environmental. All good so far.
But with their neat cow poo disposal plan, Beladon seems not to have noticed the massive mountain of the stuff under which the Netherlands is already practically sinking. “The nation’s 1.8 million cows are producing so much manure that there isn’t enough space to get rid of it safely. As a result, farmers are dumping cow poo illegally, the country is breaking EU regulations on phosphates designed to prevent groundwater contamination, and the high levels of ammonia emissions are affecting air quality.” The Guardian
Any excess dung from the floating facility will just add to the pile. What Dutch farm near or far is going to want it?
The WWF is not a fan of all the cow poop either. It’s doing so much damage to the Dutch environment, last year the charity called for a 40% reduction of dairy herds. The Netherlands has the lowest level of biodiversity in Europe after Malta. The Guardian. Fewer dairy farms are needed, not more, floating or otherwise.
We’re not told if Beladon has a plan for what comes out the dairy cow’s other end. Cow burps are an even bigger emitter of methane than the poop. Emissions from either end of dairy cows across the planet together make up 4% of the world’s GHGs.
Milk, a healthy food?
It’s certainly promoted that way. But PETA gives the white stuff a big thumbs down. Check out their list of 12 reasonswhy they think cow’s milk is bad for you.
The NHS takes a different view. Its website says, “Milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yoghurt, are great sources of protein and calcium. They can form part of a healthy, balanced diet.” But adds, “Unsweetened calcium-fortified dairy alternatives like soya milks, soya yoghurts and soya cheeses also count as part of this food group and can make good alternatives to dairy products.”
Good or bad, is it essential for human health? The Conversationexamines the science, and concludes, “Milk and dairy foods are convenient and good value and provide lots of essential nutrients which are trickier to source from other foods.” But that “when it comes to health, the bottom line is we probably don’t need dairy in our diets.”
The Harvard Medical School blog agrees: “Keep in mind that eating a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of green leafy vegetables and nuts can better help you get the calcium and protein you need rather than relying too much on dairy.”
Nature intended mums’ milk for human babies, and a cow’s milk for hers, not for humans, young, old or in between.
Does Europe need more milk anyway?
In 2018, European Commissioner Phil Hogan warned of oversupply in the European milk market. He said that supplies of milk had “unsustainably increased” in certain EU countries and singled out the Netherlands and Poland as the main culprits. Europe already has 350,000 tonnes of skimmed milk powder in storage – “the EU’s method to remove excess milk supplies from the market and help keep a floor on milk prices.”
The answer to our question then is an emphatic “No”. Europe needs less milk, not more. So why would Beladon enter a market already saturated? Is it too cynical to see the floating farm as something of a gimmick, and the cows as unwilling players in an – admittedly spectacular – publicity stunt?
Beladon’s floating milk factory (let’s call a spade a spade here) is anchored near “the heavily industrialised mouth of the New Meuse River”, hardly a cow’s natural environment. But then you’re never going to get that in the heart of a big city.
While just about all cow- and milk-related activities take place on the floating facility, the cows can, if the whim takes them, “potter over a ramp to real-life pasture on the land.” It sounds delightful until you remember that heavily-industrialised river mouth. If I did drink milk, I doubt I’d want to be drinking that milk. And what exactly the logistics are of this pleasant little amble landward is unclear. Cows are herd animals. One can only imagine the chaos created by 30 + cows trying to negotiate a ramp to reach “real-life pasture”, or “pottering” back in the other direction. It sounds suspiciously like a bit of welfarist window-dressing, doesn’t it?
If you’re worried about the cows getting seasick, don’t be. The water-borne building is apparently as stable as a cruise liner. Besides, the Floating Farm website assures us, “millions of heads of commercial cattle spend weeks at sea each year while being shipped around the globe without issue.”Without issue? Really? Read what Animals Australia has to say about that here, and if you can stomach it, click through their gallery of photos.
Of course the cows in residence on the floating farm will not be subjected to those kind of conditions, we would hope. But if Beladon, which is first and foremost a property company, can confidently publish such a fallacious statement, it surely puts a huge question mark over their ideas on what makes for good animal welfare.
The Floating Farm may well be the Ritz Hotel for cows, but still…
This new cow palace in Rotterdam is a very far cry from the traditional picture of your typical dairy farm, that oft reproduced picture of cows munching contentedly in flower-strewn meadows before a rustic barn. But that traditional picture – the one the dairy industry has always projected and does all it can to keep us believing – is even further from the unsavoury reality of the dairy cow’s life than it is from the cow palace. Take a minute to check out the truth hidden behind the cosy illusion.
Just like all other mammals including us, a cow will only produce milk when she has given birth. If you can bear it, look what happens when her babe is born. Whatever else it is, dairy farming can never be humane.
So, do we need Rotterdam’s new floating farm?
Innovation, glass, steel, alfalfa, robots, “real-life pasture”, closed-loop systems or not, sorry Beladon, we do not need your floating farm. For so many reasons, it’s time for humans to wean themselves off dairy, and end the cruel practice of stealing babies from their mums.
How did we get here?
Right next to Beladon’s floating farm, bobs on the water a park made from recycled plastic garbage. How apt that these two facilities float there side by side, together creating a perfect symbol of the madness the human race has led itself into. Of how very far we have allowed a misguided sense of our own ‘superior’ faculties, a mechanistic world view, and blind pursuit of technological advance to distance us from our true place in the natural world – and other animals too.
Beladon’s next exciting venture? A floating farm for egg-laying chickens. The hen, one of the most abused animals on the planet.
Could you believe it – a brown bear escapes his enclosure by scaling a 4-metre high fence, electrified with 7 cables carrying 7,000 volts?
This is the jailbreak 3 year old M49 – so named by scientists with their inimitable imaginative flair – pulled off on Tuesday in northern Italy. The call of the wild, a daring bid for freedom, the stuff of legends. So now our bear-Houdini is on the run. And now his life is in danger.
How did this extraordinary story come about?
Illegal hunting in northern Italy decimated the brown bear population to such an extent that by the 1990s, only 4 of the animals were left. The last bear died in 2000. For the best part of the last 30 years the ‘Life Ursus’ reintroduction project has been working to bring the animals back to the Trentino region, radio-collared M49 among them.
But just recently our poor M49 got too close to human habitation for human comfort. So he was taken captive and placed in a holding pen – the one with the scaringly well-electrified fence. What they planned to do with him next is unclear, but whatever it was, it never happened because this gutsy guy is still very much at large.
Whose side are you on?
There are now between 50 and 60 brown bears in northern Italy, and as is invariably the case with reintroductions of large predators, opinion is split right down the middle. Farmers fall heavily on the frown side of the argument. Farmers’ Association spokesman Sig. Coldiretti claims Orsino has already killed 13 farm animals.
Governor of the Trentino region Marizio Fugatti announced, “If M49 approaches inhabited areas, the forestry service is authorised to kill it.”
On the other side is, among others, zoology professor Luigi Boitani: if livestock are taken, it’s the farmers’ fault for failing to use electric fencing to deter the bears. WWF Italy agrees, blaming the farmers’ “failure to adopt appropriate prevention tools. Adding, M49’s “danger to people is still to be demonstrated.”
And happily for our bear, Environment Minister Sergio Costa quickly countermanded Fugatti’s order to kill. “M49’s escape from the enclosure cannot justify an action that would cause its death,” he said.
“We are on the side of the bear, and of freedom
Michela Vittoria Brambilla, president of the Italian Defence League for Animals
Brown bear or superhero?
We all love a renegade on the run, but this is where our bear’s heroic tale takes a darker turn, because WWF Italy smells a rat. “A solid electrified fence with adequate power is an insurmountable barrier even for the most astute bears,” it says. “Obviously the structure was not working properly, since bears do not fly.”
The League for the Abolition of Hunting (LAC) goes further. They detect conspiracy:- “M49 is, of course, an escape genius… endowed with superpowers like a Marvel Comics hero. He just happened to climb over the fence, unharmed by electric shocks, by chance without his radio collar—and, what do you know, he can be declared public enemy number one and the escape sparks a maximum security alert.” It’s their belief M49 has been allowed to escape so he can be declared a danger and his killing justified.
So Run Bear, Run
If our bear does get caught, let’s hope and pray Minister Costa’s plea for humanity will prevail. But take no chances M49. I’m sure Michela Vittoria speaks for us all: “We are on the side of the bear, and of freedom – run and save yourself.”
For your life bear, run for your life.
CLICK HERE TO SAY NO TO THE CAPTURE OF BEAR M49 IN TRENTINO
“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.
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.”
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
It cannot be denied that the human world is often a place of nightmare, rife with hatred and war: nation against nation, race against race, tribe against tribe, sect against sect, political systems pitted one against the other, hostile factions splintering their own countries to the point of destruction. In the many wars of the last century 108 million humans diedat the hands of other humans.
But human conflict doesn’t just kill humans. Bombs and bullets rain down on human and nonhuman animals alike.
And wars cause famine. Animals starve, and animals are eaten by starving humans. Animals are forced to suffer everything we like to inflict on our own kind, and more.
Animals are even slaughtered simply so they don’t have to be fed. On the outbreak of World War II, the British government persuaded the population it was their patriotic duty to have their beloved pets put down. The first week of the war witnessed a mass euthanasia of three quarters of a million “non-essential animals”. Cat owners were prosecuted for giving their pet a saucer of milk.
At London Zoo, fruit bats, crocodiles, alligators, snakes, spiders, and lion cubs were also euthanised..
And then there were those animals we forced into the thick of it, conscripted into a war that wasn’t theirs: “elephants, dogs, cats and pigeons, even chickens, were all recruited to help in the war effort, and many of them died.”
Turning to a different arena of war, in the 80 years since WWII, “70 percent of Africa’s protected nature reserves have been turned into battlegrounds”taking down animal populations with them. In one decade, in Mozambique alone, 90% of hippos, zebras, elephants, antelope, and other herbivores perished. Happily, the wildlife has since bounced back, almost to its pre-conflict levels.
Ironically, this very belligerence that in our kind seems so deeply rooted, sometimes has the opposite, unexpectedly happy effect not of destroying animals and Nature, but creating space for her and respite for wildlife.
How does this happen?
Mostly, all that is needed is for us to be removed from the scene. Healing Nature does the rest. This happens by chance when we create a No Man’s Land between the territories of two hostile parties. In No Man’s Land there are no humans to hunt, trap or poison the animals (human hunters kill 4 times as many smaller carnivores as do the large wild predators). No farming to plough up and fence off potential habitat, or blitz the land with pesticides. And just as importantly, there is silence.
Because even when we are not fighting each other, or persecuting the animals, not doing anything at all directly harmful, our mere presence, the mere sound of the human voice – this may come as a surprise – terrifies the creatures and drastically inhibits the natural behaviours they need for survival such as foraging or hunting. Researchers from Western University found that we humans are far scarier to badgers, for instance, than are any of the apex predators like wolves and big cats. In fact, simply the sound of people talking filled badgers with “a paralysing terror“
They concluded that we could be messing up wild animals’ lives “even more than previously imagined” – not by doing anything in particular, just by being around.
And it gets worse. If we are doing more than just being there, there are at least four wayswe could actually be causing wildlife to develop cancer. We humans are it seems “an oncogenic species“. (‘Oncogenic’: tending to cause tumours) Some accolade!
So, time to remove the humans
The No Man’s Lands
1. The Iron Curtain
The Communist Soviet Bloc’s Iron Curtain stretching from “the Barents Sea at the Russian-Norwegian border, along the Baltic Coast, through Central Europe and the Balkans to the Black and the Adriatic Seas,”all 12,500 kilometres of it, holds the record as the longest ever No Man’s Land in the world. This several hundred metres-wide scar of barbed wire, land mines, watchtowers and Kalashnikov-bearing border guards, dividing the whole of Europe and splitting Germany into two opposing camps, forcibly confined its citizens, and kept them from the ‘contamination’ of Western democracy.
The Curtain remained in place for forty years until it finally came down in 1989. And in that time Nature turned what was a fearful zone of death for humans, into a line of life for wild animals, an ecological corridor for wolves, bears, lynx and eagles. Along the 1,400 km strip dividing Germany alone, more than 600 threatened animal and plant species flourished.
Fortunately, conservationists in both the East and the West of the reunited Germany, were themselves united in their desire to keep that space for Nature, to protect this wildlife paradise from the inevitable human tendency to appropriate the land for human ends.
From what had been a symbol of human hostilities was born the European Green Belt, stretching along the borders of 24 states, and proudly owning a sweeter record, the record of being the longest and largest ecological network of its kind in the world.
2. The Korean DMZ
The present day DMZ, the de-militarised zone forcibly separating the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, and the Republic of Korea in the south, is pint-size in comparison. Stretching 250 kilometres from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan, and 4 kilometres wide, it can be seen from space as a green ribbon dividing the Korean peninsula roughly in half.
In all other respects though, with all its layers of razor wire, thousands of land mines and military guards, it bears a grisly resemblance to the former Iron Curtain. And yet, in spite of the DMZ being “steeped in violence” and “one of the most dangerous places on earth”, Nature has reclaimed this symbol of enmity too, and transformed its 1000 sq kilometres into a haven buzzing with biodiversity, with thousands of species, many of which are either already extinct or endangered in both countries.
There are “Manchurian or red crowned cranes and white naped cranes, nearly 100 species of fish, perhaps 45 types of amphibians and reptiles and over 1,000 different insect species. Scientists estimate that over 1,600 types of vascular plants, and more than 300 species of mushroom, fungi and lichen are thriving in the DMZ. Mammals such as the rare Amur goral, Asiatic black bear, musk deer and spotted seal inhabit the DMZ’s land and marine ecosystems. There are even reports of tigers, believed extinct on the peninsula since before Japanese occupation, roaming the DMZ’s mountains.
Right now, North and South are making reconciliatory noises. If the two Koreas decide to reunify, there would be no more need for the deadly DMZ. But the DMZ has become the “ecological treasury” of the two Koreas. And even more completely priceless, since over the last 100 years of almost ceaseless conflict, industrial scale mining, deforestation, and soil pollution, ecosystems are in dire straits on both sides of the divide.
Luckily, as with the former Iron Curtain, scientists and citizens in both the ROK and the DPRK, and elsewhere in the world, recognise the richness of Nature in the DMZ, and have been for some time working hard to safeguard the future of its unique ecology. Moves are afoot to get the DMZ recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. Various NGOs are involved, foremost the DMZ Forumwhose mission is “To support conservation of the unique biological and cultural resources of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone,
“Transforming it from a symbol of war and separation to a place of peace among humans and between humans and nature.”
What better mission could there be.
No Man’s Lands aren’t always borders
1. Take the compound of brutal dictator Idi Amin
The “Butcher of Uganda” was responsible for murdering some 300,000 of his own people. His failed invasion of Tanzania proved to be the last throw of the dice for this unspeakable man, and in 1979 he was forced to flee the country. In the video below we can see for the first time how 40 years of Nature’s handiwork has turned the place where this monster plotted his atrocities into a peaceful wildlife paradise.
And this is not the only place once scarred by his dreadful presence. The beautiful island of Mukusu, a spectacular 23-acre paradise in Lake Victoria was the despot’s combined holiday home and torture camp.
“Henry Kabwgo, a fisherman living in a wooden shack on the island’s main beach, recalled how during fishing trips he would often see bodies bobbing in the lake, dumped from the shore by Amin’s henchmen. Then the crocodiles would eat them.”Unsurprisingly he described Amin as “a terrible man, a savage”.
I have not been able to discover how the island looks in 2019, but photos dated 2005 show Nature’s living cloak of greenery softening the ruins that were once the site of bloody horror.
2. No solid borders divide the ocean
While humans are busy killing each other at sea, they can’t be troubling the fish. Back to WWII once again. Fishing boats were requisitioned and fishermen drafted. And any that were not, would have been foolhardy in the extreme to risk venturing out on to the menacing waters of war. The fish got left in peace. Nature is never slow to seize an opportunity, and fish populations burgeoned.
Not only that, but when warships sank, as many did, they made perfect artificial reefs, rapidly colonised by an abundance of marine life. 52 German warships abandoned on the seabed off the north coast of Scotland for example, “are now thriving marine habitats”. Nature once again creating life from the detritus human hostilities leave behind them.
But to every rule, there has to be an exception. Sometimes Nature can prevail even when there are too many humans
In 1945, a certain school of hungry oceanic whitetips, known to be the most aggressive of all sharks, found themselves a new and plentiful supply of food. No encounter with these animals could be worse surely, than the feeding frenzy that followed the Japanese sinking of the USS Indianapolis near the Philippines. In the 12 minutes it took the warship to founder, 900 sailors made it into the Pacific ocean, but the blood from injured men and the thrashing in the water soon attracted the whitetips.
To begin with they satisfied their hunger only with the dead. But when rescue finally arrived, the survivors had been in the water four whole days, and only 317 remained alive. No-one knows exactly how many men the whitetips devoured, but estimates reckon at least 150. If you have an appetite for reading the gruesome story in full, you can do so here.
The event, though undeniably horrific for those seamen, was spawned by humans’ own enmities, one people against another. But Nature finds a way to transcend the deadly worst we can do to each other, and to her.
“Even out of the trail of destruction we leave behind, Nature – which is so much bigger than the human race – takes over, nurturing life.”
The picture¹ above is, for German documentary photographer Nikita Teryoshin,
“A symbol of human control over cows – how we can look into the cow and see everything.
“I wanted to update the old-fashioned image of a cow in a green meadow that weknow from ads and milk packages. To show the dystopian side of milk production.”
The images in Teryoshin’s book Hornless Heritageexpress the shock he felt visiting the EuroTier agricultural fair in Hanover, a shock which prompted his 4-year scrutiny of this industry in his home country, and was the impetus for his book.
At the centre of the dairy industry is, of course, the cow. A cow falls into the zoological class of Mammalia. And the dictionary definition of the word “Mammal” is:
“That nourish their young with milk secreted by mammary glands” – the way Nature intended. But nothing about the German dairy industry bears much relation to Nature. Indeed, today’s dairy production practically all over in the world is so far from the storybook idyll of contented cows grazing in flower-filled meadows with the sun on their backs – the image the industry wants us to believe – that there surely must be a case for referring dairy product ads everywhere to their countries’ equivalents of our Advertising Standards Authority on the grounds of “false or deceptive messages”.²
What does the image below look like to you? What it doesn’t look like to me is a farm. But then, it doesn’t actually lay claim to that name. It calls itself an ‘automated dairy facility’, and is certainly closer to a factory than how most people imagine a farm.
This is journalist Laura Mallone describing Teryoshin’s experience of the EuroTier fair, “The crowds gawked at the latest in animal husbandry, including a Matrix-like robot that suckled a fake cow. But what struck Teryoshin most was an ad that read,
‘Don’t let cows waste your money’
“‘It seemed impossible that you could think that a cow is wasting your money when you’re already taking everything away from it,” he says.”
That prompted him to begin Hornless Heritage. Teryoshin visited farms, insemination stations, laboratories, auctions and even a Best in Show, where owners primped their Holsteins and paraded them before a crowd. He got an up-close glimpse of seemingly happy cows like Lady Gaga—a black-and-white Holstein that’s won bovine beauty pageants—as well as clearly unhappy ones, such as those with bloodied legs he saw on a factory farm. He documented everything with a Nikon D800 and hand-held flash, illuminating the mundane horror of an industry where animals are reduced to commodities.
‘German’ : ‘Efficiency’. Two words forever joined at the hip. Teryoshin witnessed the essence of ‘Vorsprung Durch Technik’ (progress through technology) applied to cows exactly as to cars. Maximising profit by reducing living animals to nothing more than milk-producing machines, their natural needs only being met as far as they further that end.
Teryoshin writes, “Also known as ‘turbo cows’, German dairy breeds, like German cars, are very popular all over the world because of their performance and reliability. Thanks to computer technologies in the last decades German scientists got millions of breeding values together and a knowledge about the genomic code, which allows them to design the ‘Übercow’ with up to four times higher milk output, and even the horns disappearing,”
In evolution, “horns mean for a cow protection and autonomy. They are even important for the milk performance and overall condition of the animal. For life in huge fully automated farms with hundreds of cows, horns are too dangerous. After decades of painful dehorning of cattle with a branding iron, German breeders and scientists in the future will produce cows hornless by birth yet with the same milk performance.”
Germany’s dairy facts
Germany is the EU’s biggest milk producer
The country has 4.2 million cows
Today, farmers use genomic selection to design ever-more-profitable ‘turbo’ cows that can produce more than 88,000 pounds of milk in their lifetimes
Cows used to live about 20 years. Now they end up canned and packaged in the pet food aisle of supermarkets before the age of 5, sent to slaughter because of lameness, infertility or mastitis
Such are the miracles of technology, in a life lasting only a quarter of the time of her great-great-great grandmother’s, a German cow can now be made to produce at least double and up to 4 times as much milk
In 2018, Germany produced from its ‘turbo cows’ 8.6 billion gallons – enough for 104 gallons/473 litres per person – in one year. About 1.3 litres per person per day – milk Nature intended for the nurture of these mothers’ babies, which have been taken from them.
“’I stopped drinking milk and eating dairy for a while,’ Teryoshin says. His photographs might make you lose your appetite for the stuff, too.”
Only for a while, Nikita? What a shame. How desperately sad that you should so readily forget the shock you experienced peeling away the dairy industry’s green pastures fantasy to uncover the technologised nightmare beneath – the pitiful existence of a mammal mother, intended only by Nature to suckle her own, that is today’s Übercow.
Yes, we can indeed “look into her and see everthing”. Everything that is except the one thing that matters – her soul.
It’s not too late to join the Veganuary movement and discover simple and tasty ways to eat dairy-free
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