Archive for January, 2013

What Are You Sinking About?

“May Day! May Day! We’re sinking!” radioed the distressed captain from his ship.

The German coast guard immediately replied, “What are you sinking about?”

There I was drifting peacefully along, blowing bubbles out of my regulator, marvelling at the fish, when I floated over a snake eel. Snake eels belong to a group of fish that spend most of their lives buried up to their necks in sand, with just their heads sticking out. Occasionally they will dine on small fish and crustaceans but most of their day is spent just watching the world drift by.

And I started wondering, “What is he/she thinking about?” If it was me my mind would have been wandering over a huge range of subjects including last night’s dinner, the latest sports results, the situation in Syria/Egypt/Mali (insert the name of your preferred world hotspot), our chances of being kidnapped by Filipino pirates, and, “Is that a fish louse attached to that grouper?” (You can take the man out of the veterinary practice but you can’t take the veterinary practice out of the man). In fact this has always been one of my major problems whenever I’ve tried meditation or mindfulness: my complete inability to still my mind and think of nothing, or at least just my breath. So what about this eel? Was he a sentient being passing the time by reminiscing about last night’s delicious crab, or former eel girlfriends or perhaps that huge typhoon that destroyed half the reef last year? Or had he achieved eel nirvana and lay there with a completely blank mind tuned only to the passing currents and the possibility of a meal? What really goes on in the non-human mind? Obviously animals experience the same basic emotions as us: fear, aggression, lust, and some of the so-called higher ones display more complicated emotions such as affection and grief. But do they actually think the way we define thought, or do they just produce an automatic response to a defined stimulus, like tapping the knee elicits that leg jerk reflex?

In order to have abstract thought some form of language is surely necessary. Otherwise how could these concepts roll around our minds? Conversely if an animal has language, and many species do, it must have evolved for a purpose, presumably to convey thoughts and ideas. What would be truly fascinating would be to look inside their brains and see how these thoughts are conveyed and processed. I suspect we cannot truly communicate with intelligent animals like dolphins, not because they are not clever enough, but because they think and process data in a way that is completely different to the way we do. Interestingly, while dolphins have been taught to mimic human speech, I don’t think any human has ever been accused of being able to speak delphinese.

Many years ago I was in Thailand watching a gibbon torment a dog. The gibbon would wait in a tree above the dog, until its back was turned. He would then swing out of the tree, give the dog’s tail a hefty tug, and then swing back into the tree before the frustrated canine could nail him. The gibbon did this repeatedly, each time the dog turned its back. Surely there can be no greater proof than a well-developed sense of humour to show us that animals are capable of abstract thought.

Dr. F. Bunny

Black-finned Snake Eel

Black-finned Snake Eel

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A Whale Of A Time

My family and I have just returned from a fantastic trip to the Philippines. While the scuba diving was superb everyone’s highlight was the 30 minutes we spent swimming with whale sharks. Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish. They can grow up to 40 feet long and weigh as much as 20 tons. Despite these impressive statistics they pose no danger to humans, being filter feeders that consume things like plankton, krill and fish eggs.

The small town of Oslob, on the island of Cebu, is where our amazing interaction took place (http://www.oslobwhalesharks.com). Whale sharks used to be regarded as pests, and were even killed by locals, as their presence interfered with their fishing activities. This has now changed with these massive fish pumping significant ecotourism dollars into the local economy. However, in order to ensure that the steady stream of tourists has something to snorkel with, the locals have begun feeding krill to the whale sharks. At this point the activity is regulated so that feeding and swimming only occur between 6 am and midday.

Ordinarily I am completely against the feeding of wildlife but, in this case, I might have to make an exception. One criticism that has been levelled at the activity is that it changes the whale shark’s behaviour inducing them to stay for the free food, instead of foraging far and wide, as they normally would. Up to 50 whale sharks have been identified by local researchers, but there were only three swimming about while we were there. A whale shark consumes between 0.5 and 3.0% of its bodyweight every two to three days. An adult whale shark needs to eat about 400 kg to fill its massive stomach (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_much_do_whale_sharks_eat). The ones we interacted with were possibly half grown, which still translates into 200 kg of food. I cannot see it being economically viable or physically possible to tip this much krill down their throats, which means that the whale sharks still need to forage to satiate themselves, and possibly come in for a free feed when they feel like a top up. The fact that the water was not boiling with whale sharks would seem to bear this out.

Unlike the junk food that is put out in bird feeders whale sharks are at least fed a natural diet, so there should hopefully not be any nutritional issues.

A recent Australian study found that tourism had no negative effects on the whale sharks’ behaviour (http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/breaking/15561889/whale-shark-tourism-harmless-report). Admittedly these whale sharks were not being fed.

However, if the alternative to feeding and ecotourism is spearing, then it is difficult not to endorse the current activities which, at the moment, appear to be reasonably well regulated. When I say we interacted with the whale sharks this is not strictly true as they appeared to completely ignore us, swimming where they wanted, and doing what they wanted when they wanted, as is your prerogative when you weigh several tons.

The locals’ view of whale sharks has certainly changed since this tourism venture began in December 2011. This is probably motivated more by self-interest than any inherent concern for the whale sharks or their conservation. It has certainly become very trendy for zoos in particular to promote their animal encounters as a way of encouraging conservation. An interaction with a whale shark (or koala, or gorilla, or seal) will make people more likely to care about their conservation, or so the rhetoric goes. But does it? Is there any real evidence to support the statement that animal interactions foster greater conservation outcomes? Or are the people who seek animal interactions more likely to join conservation organisations, donate money and plant trees anyway? I suspect the latter is more likely to be the case.

The fact that we are prepared to spend a considerable amount of money to swim with a large fish (or cuddle a koala, or see a gorilla, or kiss a seal) shows how isolated from the natural world we have become, and how we still see nature as entertainment, instead of a vital part of our existence. Not that I am any different because I got just as much of a buzz from my up close and personal experience as everyone else did.

Dr. F. Bunny

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The Hunter And The Hunted

I am currently reading a book entitled, “The Call” by Yannick Murphy. The book’s main character is a veterinarian who, oddly enough, enjoys hunting. I have never been able to understand how a person who devotes their life to healing sick and injured animals can inflict injury and death on those animals in their spare time. Unfortunately the story is not particularly far-fetched as two of my classmates were avid duck hunters. When questioned (harassed) about this their only defence appeared to be that they ate their victims. This seems to be a commonly used defence as does the “enjoying the great outdoors” one. I too enjoy the great outdoors and I enjoy seeking out and watching animals go about their business. I don’t, however, feel the need to then go and kill them. The only shooting I do involves a camera.

When we bought our rural property it was overrun with rabbits, and still is unfortunately. I had grand ideas about shooting all the rabbits and providing the meat to the local zoo to feed to the carnivores. I even went out shooting a few times, but my heart just wasn’t in it. While I can certainly see the need to remove the rabbits and other feral species, such as foxes, I take no pleasure in the activity and so have left it to those friends who do seem to enjoy it.

The inconsistency in this approach is not lost on me and other conservationists who routinely work with hunters. Unfortunately this dance with the devil is a necessary evil as, ironically, hunters can be a force for good when it comes to conservation. At a wildlife management conference I attended, the pros and cons of hunting were widely debated, and the final consensus was that hunting brings in far more money than ecotourism. This is money that can be ploughed back into conservation and local communities. For example, instead of rangers culling a rogue elephant a hunter will gladly pay for the opportunity to add the pachyderm to his trophy cabinet. Revenue raised from hunter related activities in California paid for the acquisition of a helicopter by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Controlled legal hunting has the potential to decrease poaching as local communities benefit from hunting but not from poaching. As I recall only the Indians objected to hunting on ethical grounds.

While I acknowledge that the end can justify the means, what I still cannot grasp is that people kill animals, not for food, not because they damage the environment or other species, not because they are a danger to people, but because they enjoy it.

Dr. F. Bunny

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