Archive for May, 2012

Planet of the Apes

There I was watching my favourite movie (the original with Charlton Heston of course) thinking (not for the first time) that this is an allegorical tale of church versus state. For those not familiar with the story it centres on an astronaut (Taylor) who lands on a planet far in the future, a planet that is ruled by apes. The planet’s human population is primitive and mute. The arrival of our intelligent talking astronaut threatens the religious beliefs of the apes, who have been taught that only they are created in God’s image. Dr. Zaius, an orang-utan who is both Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith (no conflict there) realises the threat and does what he can to dispose of Taylor. However, Taylor’s cause is championed by two chimpanzee scientists, more interested in the truth than politics, and claim, under threat of prosecution for heresy that an intelligent civilization existed before the apes. They help Taylor escape and show him their diggings in an ancient cave. The cave holds a human doll that talks. Rather than acknowledge this as proof Dr. Zaius orders the cave to be sealed, while Taylor escapes and finally finds his own proof. He is, in fact, back on Earth.

This is not a new story, religion rejecting science. While religion refuses to believe scientific evidence it expects us to believe in a doctrine for which there is no evidence at all. Dr. Zaius knows Taylor and the chimpanzees are right but cannot acknowledge this fact because it will bring his civilization crashing down around him and so he must suppress the information and expunge it from the records, for the greater good. Heretics like Galileo and Copernicus faced similar opposition. Fortunately for us they continued to pursue the truth. As science reveals more and more religious inaccuracies religious support will continue to fall, but not without protest and quite possibly violence. People always fear the unknown.

Religion provides a warm blanket to protect us from the unknown. It guides us, leads us and tells us what to do. I understand why the excellent book, “Life of Pi” claimed it would make us believe in God (and religion). Life with God (and religion) is much simpler and less stressful than life without. To choose a life without God means to believe that death really is the end. It also means that we all have to take responsibility for our own actions and develop our own moral compass by which to live. This is difficult and requires careful thought and consideration, but I still prefer this route to the one where every bend and cross road is lit with preplaced signs instructing us which way to turn.

Dr. F. Bunny

You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill.
I will choose a path that’s clear.
I will choose freewill.

(Rush – Freewill)

 

 

 

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People, People Everywhere

Forget climate change, oil supplies or the rise of Manchester City. The biggest threat to civilization is the seven billion people who are wandering around even as we speak. If this number was cut to one billion or less we could probably exploit, pollute and destroy to our heart’s content without causing more than local perturbations. But, because there are so many of us doing it, the ramifications tend to be much more major. The Rwandan genocide did not really occur because of ethnic differences between two tribes of people. It occurred because Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries on earth resulting in an extreme scarcity of resources. When there is plenty for all we can’t usually be bothered to make war on our neighbour no matter how much we dislike them.

As mentioned on previous blogs I am a big fan of the TED talks (http://www.ted.org), and there was a particularly good one recently by Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor and statistician, who drew attention to the fact that population growth, is declining. The data is quite elegantly displayed at http://www.gapminder.org. According to Rosling there are four reasons for this decline: increase in wealth, decline in child mortality, education of women, and access to contraception. If the world is to have a long term future these are the areas we must target.

We must help countries to drag themselves out of poverty. Individually we can facilitate this through the agency of organisations such as Kiva (http://www.kiva.org), which provide interest free loans to people in developing countries.

We must do what we can to decrease child mortality by supporting organisations such as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI at http://www.gavialliance.org). Diarrhoea is the second biggest child killer in the world wiping out 1.3 million children each year, and rotavirus is the main culprit responsible for 450,000 deaths annually. GAVI plans to distribute rotavirus vaccine to 40 countries by 2015.

Women must have access to education and couples must have access to contraception, so they can decide for themselves how many children they want. There was another excellent TED talk by Melinda Gates on this topic (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/melinda_gates_let_s_put_birth_control_back_on_the_agenda.html). See also http://www.impatientoptimists.org/Topics/Family-Planning for more information.

David Attenborough, in his documentary, “How Many People Can Live on Planet Earth?” stated, based on Canadian academic William Rees’s concept of an ecological footprint that we can support 15 billion if we live the way the average Indian does and possibly up to 18 billion if we all live like average Rwandans. However, if we wish to live like the Europeans that number drops to 2.5 billion and falls to 1.5 billion if we all decide to become Americans.

While we have seen an exponential growth in human numbers from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 7 billion now that does look like levelling off at around 9 billion by 2050. To continue to grow at our current rate in order to support our aging populations, as some would suggest, is total nonsense and completely unsustainable. We cannot produce more children to support those who are now aging, because we would then need to keep producing even more children to support those when they age, resulting in an ever increasing spiral of disaster. The concern centres around how many people, who are not working, can be supported by those who are. With our increasing emphasis on technology and movement away from manual labour older people can remain active in the workforce for longer. Bear in mind that, generally speaking, children do not work and need to be supported and educated for 16 years or more, especially in developed countries. This means parents and caregivers are also drawn out of the workforce to provide that care. Fewer children mean lower education and health care costs and more people working. According to figures from Population Matters in 1976 there were 71.6 dependents for every 100 working people in the UK, more children than older people. By 2011 total dependents had dropped to 60.8. With lower birthrates and longer lives this is projected to rise again so that, by 2051, it will be back to 71.5. This time there will be more older people than children but the net result will be the same (http://populationmatters.org/wp-content/uploads/ageing_populations.pdf).

Unless we discover other suitable planets that will allow human habitation we cannot permit ourselves to be sucked into any arguments that favour a continuing increase in human population. As a result of gains made in prosperity, health and freedom of choice our population is beginning to level off. We need to make sure that continues, while devising new and innovative ways to feed, water and care for the billions that are already here and still to come.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Bless You!

We all know about the large number of species going extinct each day (20 to 200), but did you know that 18,000 new species of plants and animals are discovered each year? In true David Letterman style the International Institute For Species Exploration (http://species.asu.edu/) has developed a top ten list of the most charismatic, unusual and bizarre organisms discovered each year. The 2012 members are the Bonaire banded box jelly, the devil’s worm (a nematode found living 1.3 km under the earth in a South African gold mine), the night-blooming orchid (the first plant to do so), the dive-bombing wasp, the spongebob squarepants mushroom, the Nepalese autumn poppy, the wandering leg sausage (a large Tanzanian millipede), the walking cactus (related to velvet worms), Sazima’s tarantula (an iridescent blue Brazilian tarantula), and, my favourite, the sneezing monkey of Myanmar. This monkey, with black fur and a white beard, has such a dramatically upturned nose that water leaks into it when it rains, causing it to sneeze. To avoid rainwater dripping into its nose it tends to sit with its head between its legs. It doesn’t seem like a terrific idea, as hunters find them by following the sneezes, but presumably the upturned nostrils convey some evolutionary advantage? Maybe they stop the monkeys getting cream in their nose when they have Devonshire tea?

Dr. F. Bunny

Sneezing monkey when it’s not raining.

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Pick Me!

Isn’t it wonderful the way the internet is making us all smarter? Well, at least the 1.4 billion of us who have internet. Well, not smarter exactly but certainly more knowledgeable. In the good old days if you didn’t know something you asked your friends, went to the library or rummaged fruitlessly through various books. More often than not you just shrugged your shoulders and got on with life. Now, with the click of a button, you can ask your friend Mr. Google (hands up if you know the Google colours without looking) and he will tell you everything you need to know about the workings of string theory, the worldwide classification of fungi (http://www.doctorfungus.org), or Charles Taylor’s ridiculous plea for clemency. With this wonderful repository of knowledge at our fingertips it is no wonder that we all know so much more than our predecessors. We are now able to converse intelligently and logically, with all the facts readily available, about politics, religion, geography, science, philosophy and a whole lot more. That is, we could if we didn’t spend all our time googling Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry (http://www.google.com/press/zeitgeist2010). At least our ancestors could plead lack of access, which has to be infinitely more justifiable than lack of interest.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Morality Without God

Atheists are commonly asked, “How can there be morality without God?” This is the wrong question. The question should be, “How can there be morality with God?” God is incredibly divisive and regularly pits his followers against the non-believers. The trouble is that all theists consider themselves to be his followers. God must be very keen for people to come and stay with him because he has been, and continues to be, one of the major causes of conflict throughout the history of the world. Before judging the amoral atheists consider that atheists do not raise armies to destroy non-atheists. Atheists do not blow themselves up, or anyone else for that matter. Atheists are very tolerant of other people’s imaginary friends and do not force them to recant their beliefs. They don’t burn people at the stake, behead them, threaten small children with eternal damnation, subjugate women or build extravagant monuments to their imaginary friends. Atheists decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong. They don’t rely on anachronistic scribblings to tell them what to do, scribblings such as those I have listed below. Unfortunately these edicts are a little too general and need some clarification and updating. I would appreciate it if anyone can help me out.

a)      When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord (Lev 1:9). The problem is my neighbours. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

b)      I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obliged to kill him myself?

c)      A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev 1:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this?

d)     I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her (While visiting Morocco I was offered 1000 camels. Of course I refused. He then increased it to 2000 camels. That represented serious currency. Unfortunately my wife threatened me with serious violence, so I was forced to decline his generous offer, much to my daughter’s relief)?

e)      Lev 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighbouring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Indonesians, but not New Zealanders. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own New Zealanders?

f)       I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev 15: 19-24). The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offence.

g)      Lev 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or are there some allowances for reading glasses?

h)      Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev 19:27. How should they die?

i)        I know from Lev 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean, but may my son still play football if he wears gloves?

j)        My uncle, a farmer, blatantly violates Lev 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). I have also heard him curse and blaspheme. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Lev 24:10-16). Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair?

Definitely an oldie but a goody. How can there be morality without God? I’m sorry what was the question?

Dr. F. Bunny

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Here Puss, Puss, Puss

Recently I was in Florida at a veterinary conference. Attached to the conference facility was a large hall full of exhibitors touting everything from the latest surgical instruments to stem cell treatments. There was also a booth belonging to Alley Cat Allies (https://www.alleycat.org).  Intrigued, I sauntered over to take a look. Unfortunately they represent an organisation that, rather than attempting to solve the feral cat problem, seem destined to perpetuate it by their program of trap and neuter. This works by catching feral cats, desexing them, vaccinating them and then letting them go again. The result is a vaccinated population of cats that cannot breed, which will hopefully lead to a gradual decline in the population.

Unfortunately what it doesn’t address is the fact that feral cats, sterilised or not, still need to eat. In Australia it is estimated that cats chew their way through 3.8 million native Australian animals annually (http://www.derm.qld.gov.au/wildlife-ecosystems/wildlife/threats_to_wildlife/cat.html). Add that to the fact that they also spread diseases such as toxoplasmosis, a condition which causes large numbers of marsupial deaths each year. After some “lively” discussion the Allies put it to me that the situation in America is different to Australia, as American animals evolved with a feline presence e.g. bobcats and mountain lions. Unfortunately no one mentioned this to the sea otters that are dying of toxoplasmosis off the California coast.

The only sensible way to manage feral cats is to euthanase them. No one would suggest trap and neuter programs for foxes or rabbits (at least I hope not) and I don’t see why feral cats should be treated differently. They are treated differently because of our emotional attachment to cats (as discussed in “All Animals Are Equal”). One argument advanced against the trap and euthanase method is that fresh cats will wander in to fill the void. Good. Then they can be euthanased too until, hopefully, there are no more cats left to euthanase. The New Zealanders have successfully re-introduced a number of native bird species to some of their offshore islands. They were only able to do this, not by desexing and releasing cats, but by removing every last one of them.

The root of the problem obviously goes back to irresponsible cat owners who, for whatever reason, lose interest in their pet and decide to turn it loose on the world instead of either rehoming it or having it euthanased. For a more realistic discussion of the feral cat problem see “Who’s For Cats?” at http://www.whosforcats.com.au/.

And the definition of a feral cat? According to a friend of mine, it’s any cat found more than 100 metres from a house that doesn’t answer to “Here Puss, Puss, Puss”.

Dr. F. Bunny

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The Two Faces Of Zoos

As I mentioned in a previous blog (Zoo Based Conservation – What have the Romans, er Zoos, done for Us, I mean Conservation? 9/2/12) zoos have a somewhat dubious record when it comes to conservation and endangered species programs. This is at least partly because traditional zoos contain two powerful opposing forces, which are constantly at war with each other. On the one hand we have the keepers who interact directly with both the public and the animals. They are there because of a passion for conservation and a love for the animals they work with on a daily basis. On the other hand we have the managers. Many of these people have no animal related backgrounds. The zoo is just another place to work and it exists primarily to entertain and make money.

Because this dichotomy exists zoos are constantly at war with themselves. Keepers complain because insufficient funds are allocated to conservation programs and animals are expected to perform excessively. Managers complain because keepers are being too precious about their animals and fail to understand that without the money brought in by visitors there can be no funding for “nice to do” activities, like conservation programs.

Many of the gains made by zoos are being eroded in the interests of entertainment. While the chimpanzee tea parties will hopefully remain a thing of the past, zoos have reinstalled amusement park rides and are more and more willing to have hand raised, humanised animals engage in hands on contact and photo opportunities with visitors. As mentioned previously, this does no one any favours.

The solution? Make zoos charitable institutions that can be accessible to the public for the purpose of education, but do not rely on gate takings from visitors for their existence. Ensure that all staff share the same vision by emphasizing experience in conservation and animal management at all levels of the organisation above other attributes. None of the really good managers ever work in zoos anyway because the pay is so poor compared with real companies. If you’re going to have barely competent people at least have ones with some passion for conservation.

Dr. F. Bunny

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