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
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.
“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.”
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.
Victories won for animals by just a few of the many voices raised for the voiceless in 2018
In the UK,
Since the graphic above was prepared, “more developments have taken place. For example, more than 30 organisations have now taken the decision to cancel live reindeer events. While it has been an excellent year, there is still so much work to be done.
“With your help, we can achieve even more for animals in 2019. Why not get involved straight away by visiting our Take Action page?”
PETA UK 2018 highlights
The International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Awards for inspiring animal advocates
This year’s full list of winners:
Christine (Chris) and George Rockingham, from Norfolk, for a lifetime’s dedication to rescuing and rehabilitating animals at their PACT sanctuary for nearly 25 years.
Michel Birkenwald, from London, for drilling more than 100 ‘hedgehog highways’ in South West London to help hedgehogs navigate to new areas to forage.
Ralph the Golden Retriever, from Hertfordshire, for changing the life of his companion Paul who was left paralysed after a car crash six years ago.
Debbie Bailey, from Derbyshire, for her work to protect badgers from culling through vaccinations.
Michelle Clark, from London, for starting her voluntary run, not-for-profit organisation Dogs on the Streets (DOTS) that cares for and helps homeless people and their dogs.
Nigel and Sara Hicks, from Cornwall, for their dedication to treating injured and orphaned orangutans in Borneo for six months every year, for nearly 10 years.
Chloe Hennegan, from the West Midlands, for running her rabbit rescue and rehabilitation centre Fat Fluffs since 2008.
Trisha Shaw, from Warwickshire, for her many years volunteering and raising thousands of pounds for her local dog charity Pawprints.
Natalia Doran, from London, for setting up Urban Squirrels, a licensed squirrel rescue in her own home.
World Animal Protection 2018 proudest moments
Too much to mention – these are just a few of our proudest moments:
29 travel companies committed to stop promoting elephant entertainment venues, making a total of 226
10 bears used for baiting and dancing were given new lives in our partner sanctuary in Pakistan
We reached more than 500,000 KFC petition signatures, and are in talks with the fast food chain to improve their animal welfare standards
83,000 dogs in Sierra Leone and Kenya were vaccinated against rabies
We helped 454,774 animals recover from 12 disasters around the world
The disaster preparedness work we did with governments and NGOs this year will help protect 52,000,000 animals in future
Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Lidl and Tesco have all joined the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) which we helped set up in 2015 to tackle the problem of Ghost Gear (marine pollution from abandoned or lost fishing nets and lines)
Animal Australia Year in Review 2018
In the US,
Click on the link below to see a wide range and a long list of achievements won for wildlife by the Humane Society of the US:-
The Animal Legal Defense Fund is winning victories for animals in the US courts of law
“As 2019 approaches, we’re looking back at our biggest legal victories for animals over the last 12 months. These are just a few highlights – watch the video from Executive Director Stephen Wells to learn about all the legal advances we made for animals.”
Previous posts related to voices for animals in the legal system:-
Like many of us, German artist Felix Jaensch began building with Lego when he was just a tot – in his case three years old. Unlike him, at some point most of us stopped. But he never did. Now 30, and with 27 solid years of practice with those finickety little blocks behind him, he’s surely earned the title of Lego Master Extraordinaire.
For the last 5 years his focus has been the animal kingdom. He tells us, “I was always fascinated by nature and biodiversity and I like to build organic forms with these angular bricks.”
If you wanted to create art, you would think hard, unyielding Lego in all its angular and geometric shapes is an unpromising material. But Felix sees it as “a great medium for 3-D art”, and his work speaks for itself. To capture the essence of the living creature using nothing but plastic Lego bricks as he has done, seems to me an impossibly difficult achievement little short of magic.
This may be my personal favourite.
Or is it this one? This pooch is so alive, I practically expect to hear her bark. See which of these awesome sculptures grabs you most.
(By the way, if you’re imagining it must take an age to build one of these, you would be right. “Small animals may be finished in just some hours, big projects can take months. But I never counted the hours or bricks which I spend on one sculpture. I often modify some details even months after I finished an animal”, says Felix.)
So, what could possibly be the sting in the tail of Felix’s amazing body of work?
Whatever merits Lego has, and it undoubtedly has many, it is still plastic – a dirty word in 2018.
I haven’t been able to discover Felix’s thoughts on the disastrous effect plastic is having in the world, but the Lego company itself does have thoughts. Earlier this year, the huge corporation, producer of plastic, more plastic, and nothing but plastic, sought to mitigate any criticism it might attract for having a business model intrinsically inimical to the environment, by announcing that it planned to make its tiny green Lego trees and plants out of real plants! Sugar cane to be precise, in place of the oil from which plastic is most often made. Good news? Or just cynically jumping on the environmental bandwagon, ‘green-washing’, nothing more than a bit of opportunistic window dressing? These are the facts:
All plastic is made from ethanol, whether extracted from oil or plants. The new Lego parts will be indistinguishable from the other bricks – that’s because they are identical
Lego trees and plants make up only a tiny tiny fraction of Lego’s output, and the rest of the bricks remain firmly oil-based
It’s true that Brazilian sugar cane has a somewhat smaller carbon footprint than oil, but in reality it is only by the slightest of margins more sustainable. Farming it on a large scale wipes out precious habitat (think Amazonian rainforest), uses up valuable resources, pollutes with herbicides and pesticides, and displaces local farmers
Either way, plant-based plastic is no more biodegradable than plastic from oil, and when broken down in small pieces will pollute the environment like any other plastic
Looking on the brighter side, Lego is, as we all know, kid-proof and virtually indestructible. When one child has outgrown it – unlike Felix who looks like he never will, and more power to him – those bricks can be passed on to others, used and re-used. Lego plastic is decidedly not – Collin’s Dictionary Word of the Year – ‘single-use’.
Meanwhile, let’s not go away thinking Felix excludes the human animal from his magnificent menagerie. Below: what is said to be an anatomically-correct human skull in Lego.
But whereas all Felix’s other animals are so intensely bright and alert they almost seem to have the breath of life in them, we humans are represented by a death’s head. Make of that what you will!
If you haven’t seen your favourite animal here, check out Felix’s Flickr account.
All designs, photos and video copyrighted to Felix Jaensch
Some of his creations can be purchased from Mochub
“Scientists are experimenting with artificial intelligence in order to decode and interpret animal vocalizations such as barks, growls or howls into a language which humans can understand.”*
“So many people would dearly love to talk to their dog or cat or at least find out what they are trying to communicate. A lot of people talk to their dogs and share their innermost secrets. With cats I’m not sure what they’d have to say. A lot of times it might just be “you idiot, just feed me and leave me alone”
Professor Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University speaking to The Guardian.
Rapunzel the Conversational Cat
My brother has proper conversations with his cat Rapunzel. Not unusual among those of us who have companion animals, you might think. When I say ‘conversations’ though, I mean proper two-way, back and forth discussions on matters of serious import, along the lines of “What do you think of Theresa May’s handling of Brexit, Punzel?”
Punzel: “The woman doesn’t know what she’s doing. Please don’t talk to me about Brexit. I’m depressed enough as it is by the state of the world.” And so on.
Of course Rapunzel doesn’t actually say that. She’s a real cat, not one in a fairytale, in spite of her name. My brother helpfully speaks her lines for her. He thinks she’s a socialist, but maybe he’s got her all wrong. When she does meow for herself, what is she saying? It could well be, “you idiot, just feed me and leave me alone.” She may even be a closet Tory. Without the key to unlock cat-speak, no-one will know.
Dr Dolittle & Zoolingua
For those of us who couldn’t live without animals somewhere in our lives, the tale of animal-loving Dr Dolittle is particularly captivating. The story goes that Dr Dolittle’s parrot Polynesia teaches him the language of the animals. The good doctor opens his home to an ever-growing menagerie of animals whose speech only he can understand, until – the final straw for his long-suffering sister who keeps house for him – the arrival of a crocodile. A creature too far. She gives her brother an ultimatum – me or the animals. I love it that he chooses the animals!
Don’t we all want to be Dr Dolittle? What if we really could understand every word our cats, dogs, guinea pigs and rabbits utter? Well now maybe we will be able to do just that, thanks to something called Zoolingua, a project born from Professor Siobodchikoff’s work with other furry little creatures.
Meet the Prof & the ‘Villagers’
It’s true to say Con Siobodchikoff is the world expert on North American prairie dogs, having studied them closely for 30 years. Prairie dogs are not dogs at all of course. They are rodents, but every bit as fascinating as the canines in our homes. What Prof Con discovered over three decades is that the animals use “a sophisticated communication system that has all the aspects of language”.
These engaging little creatures live in ‘villages’ of underground burrows, and take it in turns to stand guard, watching out for predators. With hundreds of hours of recordings of prairie dog chatter, the Prof and his team discovered that whoever is on lookout uses particular calls for different predators, and the other ‘villagers’ respond according to the type of call.
Deciphering Prairie Dog-ese with AI
Using advanced artificial intelligence to analyse the recordings, they found that the little rodents have specific ‘words’ for ‘human’, ‘hawk’, and ‘coyote’, and their language is sophisticated enough to distinguish between coyotes and domestic dogs.
Professor Con noticed that there were interesting individual variations in calls about specific dangers. So although there was a distinct call for ‘coyote’, for instance, there were also varying elements around the call. He began to wonder if the calls might be doing more than specifying the threat as a coyote. Could they actually be describing the coyote?
The Prof had four human volunteers walk through the prairie dog village in identical clothing except for the colour of their shirts: one wore blue, the next yellow, then green, and finally grey. Analysis of the rodents’ calls revealed they were indeed describing each individual human, and not just in terms of shirt colour:
“Essentially they were saying, ‘Here comes the tall human in the blue,’ versus, ‘Here comes the short human in the yellow,’”says Slobodchikoff.
The prairie dogs’ linguistic ability turns out to be astonishing. When the team placed a picture of a large black oval near the village, the animals created an entirely new alarm call for it. The team took the picture away, and later brought it back. The little rodents all voiced exactly the same alarm call in response to it. It appears the components of the new call are describing the size, shape and colour of the oval in ‘words’ already part of their rich vocabulary. If that is not language, I’d like to know what is.
Prairie dog villages in different locations have their own dialects. The Professor says that the animals he has studied for so long in Gunnison AZ are unlikely to understand Mexican prairie dogs, and vice versa. But then, it’s pretty unlikely they will ever need to!
Prairie Dogs Love to Chat
Most fascinating of all, it seems they love a good gossip. “Prairie dogs also have what I call social chatters, where one prairie dog will produce a string of vocalizations, and another prairie dog across the colony will respond with a different string of vocalizations.
“If animals seemingly as simple as rodents have a language replete with nouns, adjectives, syntax and dialects, think what higher-order animals might be saying”
But thankfully we are now beginning to grasp that, in the words of evolutionary biologist Seeder El-Showk:
“Like every other kind of life on Earth, we may be unique but we are not special”
– even when it comes to language. All nonhuman animals that live in social groups exhibit complex behaviours. And complex behaviours require complex communication. Thankfully we are starting to take, can I say, a more respectful approach, attempting to unlock the secrets of the nonhumans’ own languages, their conversations with each other. And, being fascinated, and humbled, by what we are finding out about their complexity and sophistication, thanks to the work of dedicated zoologists like Prof Siobodchikoff.
Not Quite There Yet
“We know a lot more than we knew a few decades ago, but we’re still a long way from two-way communication,” says Stan Kuczaj, director of the Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory in Mississippi.
So best not get too excited just yet at the prospect of understanding your enigmatic feline as well as he/she gets you. Perhaps a read of Professor Slobodchikoff’s book, “Chasing Dr Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals” can give us a few pointers. As yet we don’t have access to the kind of sophisticated AI that is helping him unravel the secrets of the prairie dog. Wait till the Prof has succeeded in converting his system into a handy pocket-size translator of dog-, cat-, or guinea pig-ese. Won’t that be a wonderful thing – a bestseller for sure.
It has to be said though, his Zoolingua is still very much a work in progress. Even the Prof thinks it might take 10 years. But watch this space!
“A key reason animals are still used so widely is money. Vivisection is very big business. The pharmaceutical industry is the most profitable industry in the world and its interests are strongly protected by governments. Animal experiments are in the industry’s interests because they can be used to market their products more quickly and – most importantly – they provide a legal defence for the company when people are injured or killed by ADRs [adverse drug reactions]. They will argue that, having carried out the animal tests, no blame can be laid at their door.”– Animal Aid
Animal advocates – up against “the most profitable industry in the world”– that is some formidable foe. Faunalytics Fundamentals aims to arm us for the fight with the best and latest data from the USA on what people think about the issue of animal research; and on the millions of animals that suffer distress, harm and death in labs every year, and the millions more lined up to replace them. (It’s safe to read on – there are no graphic images or descriptions here. They are important, but I leave that to others.)
MEET THE ANIMALS
With their complex thoughts and intricate social structures, primates are the nonhuman animals most like humans. Good reasons not to use them in labs one would think, but unfortunately the very reasons they are used
Docile, friendly, cooperative, eager to please. Makes them ‘perfect’ lab subjects
Easily handled gentle animals that ‘purr’ when they are happy
Mice and Rats
Empathetic and altruistic – they’ve been seen to risk themselves to save cage-mates in captivity
While these are the most commonly used in labs, cats, birds, fish, frogs, rabbits, pigs, horses, cows, sheep, goats are unhappy lab residents too.
“Animals live rich and complex lives” and the animals used in labs are each “unique, sentient, and deserving of their rights to life and freedom.”
Over time (between 2008 – 2016) there has been a welcome decline in the US in the percentage of people agreeing to the statement, “Animal research is necessary for medical advancement” – a drop from 55% to 45%.
In general, people don’t want to see animal testing for cosmetics and personal care products, but many are still ready to believe it is necessary if it is said to be for the purpose of improving or saving human lives. There’s clearly much room here for raising awareness.
Changing public perceptions is vital – just think, for example of good-hearted people donating to medical charities that fund animal research, completely unaware of what is happening in the labs.
BREEDING & TRANSPORT
This is where the tragic story begins. Most are born in large breeding facilities and then shipped to the labs. While some ‘suppliers’ are relatively well-regulated, many are not. The graphic below shows the picture in Southeast Asia. Macaques and humans share 93% of their genes. Substitute ‘humans’ in the infographic below for ‘macaques’ to sense the true horror of what is happening.
IN THE LABORATORY
While it is impossible to know exact numbers of animals bred for the labs and used in experiments, best estimates put it at 115 – 127 million worldwide.
As the rats and mice, fishes, birds, insects and invertebrates are not covered by the US’s Animal Welfare Act, not only are researchers not required to keep statistics for them, there are also next to no protections for them, or official controls, or oversight governing their use. There are no witnesses to their suffering but the perpetrators themselves.
The HSUS has put together an interactive map of testing facilities in the US – you will be shocked to see how many there are. And these are ONLY those covered by the Animal Welfare Act, so there are many many more not identified. You will not readily happen across one when you’re out and about. They are invariably well-concealed. (The same here in the UK. There used to be one only a mile from my home. I never knew it was there until after it ceased to function. It was literally underground – entirely invisible to passers-by.)
IN THE CLASSROOM
Dissection in schools may not have a direct connection with the powerful pharmaceutical industry, but it’s certainly a channel for insidious conditioning to the supposed necessity of using animals in research. So in that sense, schools are doing the pharmaceuticals’ dirty work for them.
Luckily many students, rightly revolted at being made to cut up animals, are demanding alternatives. Some schools have responded by creating “student choice policies” which allow students to opt out of dissection for ethical reasons. So far 18 states and the District of Columbia have such policies in place – a small minority. Unfortunately, even where the option is in place, 53% of teachers aren’t aware of it, neither are 38% of students. Interesting that students are more clued up than their teachers – clearly a great opportunity here too for advocacy and raising awareness.
As if ethical arguments were not enough, there is an overwhelming practical argument against testing on animals – and that is, its ineffectiveness.
Of about 100 vaccines that worked against HIV-like animal viruses – NONE prevented HIV in humans
Of approx, 1000 drugs effective for neuroprotection in animals – NONE worked in humans
9 OUT OF 10 DRUGS FAIL because they cannot predict how they will affect humans
ONLY between 0% and 5% of drugs tested on animals are considered fit for human use
A meta-study found the researchers OVERESTIMATE BY 30% the probability that treatments work, because negative results are often not published
“Animal studies are done for legal reasons and not for scientific reasons. The predictive value of such studies for man is often meaningless.” – Dr James Gallagher, Director of Medical Research Lederle Laboratories
Even if you were one of those people who believed testing on nonhuman animals was justified for human benefit, would you not grieve for all those millions of animals that suffered and died for NOTHING?
There are many alternatives to animal research, and many more being developed.
The infographic shows just a few. FRAME, INTERNICHE, and Animalearn are some of the organisations pioneering and promoting alternatives in research and education.
WHAT WE CAN DRAW FROM THIS TO BETTER ADVOCATE FOR ANIMALS
It has to be about raising awareness – arming ourselves with the facts and getting them out there. As we’ve seen from AnimalTest Info and the Lab Animal Tour, those invested in testing on animals are expert at presenting the public with a highly-sanitised picture of their work. They also have no conscience about employing emotional blackmail – “What if it was your son/daughter with leukaemia/cerebral palsy/kidney disease?” Neatly sidestepping all other objections to research conducted on animals such as its ineffectiveness and the availability of better alternatives.
WHERE WE CAN LOOK FOR MORE INFORMATION & SUPPORT
In the UK
Animal Aid comprehensively covers abuse of animals in the name of science. We can find out everything we need to know here. We can order an End Animal Experiments action pack here
In the US
NEAVS has a brilliant page of FAQs. We can arm ourselves with all the answers we need in our advocacy for the millions of animals suffering in labs. There is also a useful list of other practical ways we can help end vivisection.
Sign petition to tell Congress to Reintroduce The Humane Cosmetics Act 2017
and petition to stop US Fish & Wildlife Service from Making Another Mistake
and petition to stop Air France Transporting Monkeys to Their Deaths
Support SAEN, (Stop Animal Exploitation Now) founded to “force an end to animal abuse in laboratories”
It seems like things are about to get a whole lot worse for the millions of unfortunate animals being tested on in US labs. The Trump administration has a passion for deregulation, unaware (if we’re feeling generous) or not caring (if we’re brutally honest) that regulations were put in place to begin with to provide important legal protections – protections for the environment, for drinking water, for clean air, for safe food, for national parks, for indigenous sacred places etc. And for animals.
The 21st Century Cures Act
To say the first year of the new presidency has kept the newsmen and women busy is an understatement. Trump and the GOP have attempted, and sometimes succeeded, in getting through Congress some very controversial and retrograde bills. But the 21st Century Cures Act Congress passed last month appears to have attracted little press attention.
The Act “is designed to help accelerate medical product development and bring new innovations and advances to patients who need them faster and more efficiently.” So far so good. What’s not to like? But the devil is in the detail. One provision of the Act calls on the USDA, the NIH and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to work together to reduce the “administrative burden” on the researchers and institutions that use animals. Under those two innocuous words lie a worrying threat to lab animals in the USA.
The mishmash that is the current US animal-testing legislation
Admitted, the rules around animal testing are at present quite the mishmash. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversees tests on rabbits and larger mammals (800,000 animals in 2016). The National Institutes of Health (NIH) oversees testing on rats, mice and birds – these animals are considered so unimportant that no statistics about them are required to be recorded. Then there are privately-funded animal studies, already pretty much under the regulation-radar.
What’s bugging the scientists
Animal-testing scientists and their universities have grumbled for years about what they see as tedious and time-wasting red tape, the paperwork they are required to complete, and the regulations they are required to adhere to. Now the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and three other groups have joined forces in a new report to demand –
“Moving all oversight to a single agency, conducting less frequent lab inspections, and giving researchers greater say in crafting new rules”
Can you hear the alarm bells ringing? Well, you are not alone. Kathleen Conlee of the Humane Society (HSUS) says, “It’s clear this would negatively impact animal welfare.”
These are the present legal requirements scientists find so irksome:-
Animal facilities must be inspected by university committees every 6 months
Test protocols must be reviewed by the universities every year
Researchers must submit their protocols long before they get grants, and need to complete and resubmit more paperwork if the protocols change
Worst of all as far as the scientists are concerned, they are required to check the literature for “less invasive alternatives” before opting to test on animals
What the scientists want
So this is what the scientists are calling for:-
Animal facility inspections once a year instead of every 6 months
Protocol reviews reduced to every 3 years
Doing away with annual site inspections by government officials. Instead focusing only on facilities with a poor track record
Exempting certain types of experiments from full review by the university committees
“The goal”, says Sally Thompson-Iritani, overseer of animal research at the University of Washington, “is getting scientists back to the bench doing their research, and animal care specialists getting back to their animals.” (It’s unclear what she means by “animal care specialists.” Animal care and animal testing are two concepts troublesome to reconcile.)
And there’s worse
I haven’t yet mentioned the two most disquieting of the animal-testing scientists’ proposals:-
Abolishing the requirement to trawl the literature for alternatives to animal testing
Calling on the White House “to create a new advisory panel made up of animal researchers”
Less than a year ago, the company Emulate was proud to announce its new partnership with the FDA to test its organ-chips, a great breakthrough. These organs-on-a-chip have the potential to “eliminate the need to test drugs or cosmetics on animals.” Empty the labs, in other words. How perfect would that be. Apparently the FDA is still committed to this venture. On its website: “FDA has research and development efforts underway to reduce the need for animal testing and to work toward replacement of animal testing.”
How this endeavour will fare going forward if the end-users, the researchers, get their way, who knows. Proposal No.1 is as perverse as it is retrograde and horrifying.
And as for No.2, who will there be to speak for the animals?
Until December 2018
The Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare has received the animal-testers’ proposals, and has until the December 2018 deadline to present recommendations that comply with Congress’s call to cut the red tape.
Which means we who care about the plight of those millions suffering in US labs have until then to support every possible campaign that is speaking up for the animals.
Update from PETA
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is considering a move that would let the agency shirk its responsibility to ensure that laboratories are complying with the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA). If this happens, laboratories and other animal-abusing industries—including puppy mills, circuses, and roadside zoos—could be allowed to use private, industry-friendly groups to inspect their facilities, leading to even more suffering for animals imprisoned in them and even less transparency.”
If you are a US citizen, have your say in the USDA’s consultation process about the lowering of inspection standards for animals in labs here You have until March 21st to speak up for animals.