Archive for July, 2013


“Don’t hit your sister because there is plenty more where that came from!”

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians are calling for a ban on parents smacking their children, making it a criminal offence to beat your child (

About time too. Smacking is already illegal in countries such as Sweden, Italy and New Zealand and it is about time Australia caught up. It is a pretty sad indictment of our parenting skills when a wise, experienced adult can only discipline a five year old by giving him a clip behind the ear. Surely we are better than that?

I see two major issues with smacking. Firstly it sends incredibly mixed messages to the child. How can we create a non-violent society where conflict is resolved through dialogue and reason when we can’t even resolve conflict in our own home without resorting to force?

The second issue is that smacking is just plain bullying. If one of my work colleagues annoys me I am not allowed to belt him. If my wife upsets me I can’t give her a swift backhander to put her back in her place. But I am allowed to hit a small defenceless child who has no hope of defending themselves or being able to strike back?

Unfortunately I grew up in an era where parents, teachers and just about anyone you could think of was allowed to go around randomly beating kids. While I seem to have survived it occurred to me that there must be a better way to instil good behaviour. Having an inquiring mind I often made the mistake of asking why I should do something. Answers like, “Because I said so” used to drive me mad and I resolved never to subject my own kids to that. When I asked them to perform a task I expected and encouraged them to ask why and was ready with a reason. It forced me to think more clearly about why I wanted them to do it in the first place and, if I could not come up with a good reason, perhaps it wasn’t really necessary. Decisions were not cast in stone. If the kids advanced a reasonable argument why they should not have to do it then they sometimes got out of it. The result was that both kids and parents took time out to think about their actions and arrived at a reasoned result. Admittedly this process could become drawn out and was not always something you wanted to be doing when you were rushing to catch a plane or late for work. However, I think it worked well and we got pretty good compliance without resorting to a lot of beating, shouting or screaming.

Discipline and responsibility must come from within and can’t be beaten into someone. If kids are treated with respect and given responsibility I find that more often than not they respond in kind. We were lucky enough to be able to send our kids to a primary school with similar values to ours. Teachers and students were on a first name basis. The day began with a school meeting chaired by a different student each day where the kids could air their grievances, discuss issues and plan activities. All students had chores to complete: feed the ponies or chooks, weed the vegie garden, etc. Older students mentored the younger ones and all age groups interacted with each other. Apart from the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic the curriculum was largely student driven. If the class showed an interest in amphibians the teacher developed a project focussing on the local frog pond. Parents were encouraged to help with classes and, if they had a special skill, to share it with the students. My special skill was to turn up with a dead kangaroo and cut it up in front of everyone. The kids loved it. They kept egging me on to take its brain out.

Unfortunately our kids went from this school to the standard high school where it was back to obsessing about having your shirt tucked in and other inconsequential trivialities. They seem to have survived that too but I am convinced that treating them with respect when they were young has resulted in them treating others with respect now that they are grown up (almost).

Dr. F. Bunny

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Dog suits up for a day in the hives – ABC Rural (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Dog suits up for a day in the hives – ABC Rural (Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

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Do Animals Have Religion?

Hopefully this post won’t be as painful as the last three. I have just finished reading the latest Jared Diamond book, “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?” Apparently one of the things we can learn is that all societies invented some kind of religion. However, just because everyone else is doing it does not necessarily make it right.

Diamond advances a number of reasons for the apparent ubiquity of religion. Firstly, we want to know why things happen the way they do. We want reasons and answers and, when we can’t find any, we make them up by inventing mysterious forces to explain the workings of the world. The more science removes the cloak of mystery the less religion is needed to explain the universe. These days we rarely see Apollo and his chariot zipping the sun across the sky each day.

Secondly, religion is used to defuse anxiety and provide comfort when things go wrong. If we think our dead loved ones are going to live on in some magical place like heaven we tend to feel a bit better about it all. When our plane hits that turbulence and we start praying to avoid dying in a fiery crash we feel a bit more in control of the situation and believe we still have influence over the outcome. Unfortunately praying is a little bit like sitting in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but it does not actually get you anywhere.

Thirdly, religion is used to generate a code of behaviour to which followers are expected to adhere. This has the double advantage that it allows leaders to demonise external groups that do not follow the code and justify wars against them. Those heathens over there eat pigs, kill cows, etc. Therefore, they cannot be the chosen ones and we are doing God’s will by putting them all to death and taking their land and resources. To make doubly certain that we do not accidentally smite members of our own team religions come up with all manner of rituals, such as cutting off the end of the penis, that confirm our membership of the club.

Diamond states that religion is a peculiarly human trait. No animals have religion. He does not, however, come up with any evidence to support his assertion. While it is true that no other species appears to erect edifices to imaginary friends or engage in bizarre rituals for no obvious purpose, our animal friends may have come up with their own unique ways of worshipping things that don’t exist. Dolphins are, after all, anatomically ill equipped to build cathedrals.

Diamond thinks that animal intelligence has not evolved to the point where it needs supernatural comfort or answers to the universe’s unanswerable questions, and so has not been able to develop religion. But could not the opposite have happened? Could animal intelligence have developed to the point where animals are happy to admit that some things cannot be explained and that when you die you rot or are eaten in order to continue the circle of life? Is it possible that they accept that life has no higher meaning and we are just alive for the here and now, and are perfectly comfortable with that fact? Are they secure enough in this life that they need no imaginary support or comfort?

Dr. F. Bunny

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Wake Me When It Hurts

Now that we know all vertebrates and probably the majority of invertebrates feel pain what about young animals? Until an animal (or human) reaches a certain stage of development its brain is presumably not sufficiently mature enough to recognise and register that a painful event is occurring. This does not mean painful events do not occur or that the body does not respond to them in some way. It just means that the brain is not able to consciously register the event. This happens during surgery when an animal (or human) is anaesthetised. The surgical event is still painful but the part of the brain that recognises and responds to this fact has been switched off by virtue of the anaesthetic. Extrapolating from this a foetus is effectively unconscious and unaware of painful stimuli until its brain has become complex enough to develop consciousness.

The electrical activity in the brain can be measured via an electroencephalogram (EEG). Very early on in development the EEG is absent i.e. there is no detectable brain activity. As the animal develops EEG activity begins to appear. The time when this occurs relative to an animal’s birth depends on how mature it is after it is born. Lambs are born fairly well developed and are able to stand and walk shortly after birth. They develop EEG readings and therefore conscious perception after about 80% of the pregnancy has elapsed (similar to humans) and are born more or less fully conscious, although their EEG shows significant continued maturation during the first week of life. Lamb EEG responses to castration are not as great at one to two days after birth as they after one week post birth.

Rats are reasonably immature when born and have no detectable EEG. EEG signals don’t appear until 12 to 18 days after birth. Rats whose tails are clamped five to seven days after birth do not respond, while those clamped after 12 days do.

Marsupials are an interesting case because they are born at a very immature stage and crawl into their mother’s pouch where they complete most of their development. Interestingly they are able to complete that task even though their brain consists of only two layers of cells. In the tammar wallaby EEG activity does not appear until after 120 days of pouch life (total pouch time is approximately 250 days). Earlier than this and there is no response to toe clamping (Diesch et al 2007).

The main assumption here is that EEG activity correlates with consciousness. While this seems valid it is impossible to be certain and, even if the young animal does not consciously experience pain, the body can still react to painful stimuli by releasing stress hormones, withdrawal reflexes and changes in brain blood flow. There is some suggestion that while the animal cannot consciously perceive the pain it becomes sensitised to it such that it develops an increased perception of pain after birth that could become permanent ( As always it seems prudent to err on the side of caution and avoid causing pain wherever possible.

Dr. F. Bunny


Diesch, T.J., D.J. Mellor, C.B. Johnson, and R.G. Lentle. 2007. Responsiveness to painful stimuli in anaesthetised newborn and young animals of varying neurological maturity (wallaby joeys, rat pups and lambs). Proceedings of the 6th World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences, Tokyo. Pp. 549-552.

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Happy As A Clam

Exactly how happy are clams? Not very, according to Mark Miller of the Huffington Post (, who cites Dr. Patra Gupta of the Kerala Institute of Undersea Study. Dr. Gupta states that “the clams’ liquid secretions are identical in DNA structure to human tears. Clams also have less mobility than almost any other living creature, one of the sure signs of depression. They don’t fight back, don’t react to pain, take no interest in their appearance, don’t play or communicate. I’ve seen suicidal individuals with more zest for life, coma patients with a greater level of activity. These clams have less than zero interest in living; we might as well eat them.”

Gupta’s team attempted to generate some degree of happiness or life in the clams, introducing them to the far peppier shrimp, scallops, crab, lobster, even angel fish. But nothing. “Those clams couldn’t have cared less; they scarcely peered out of their shells. It was quite rude, actually. We’re getting in touch with a fish therapist to see if counselling might help, but quite honestly, I’m not holding out a lot of hope for it. I think we’re just going to have to face the fact that clams as a species are severely depressed.”

Maybe they were depressed because they were examined at low tide because the complete expression is, “happy as a clam at high water” ( High tide is when clams are much less likely to be predated, a good reason for happiness. Apparently the phrase originated from the US in the early nineteenth century.

The idea of happiness implies some kind of functioning nervous system, which makes me wonder, not about the clam’s state of mind but, carrying on from the previous post, can clams feel pain? Lobsters and crabs do have what can be termed a brain and, despite what our lobster eating friends would have us believe, do appear to feel pain and don’t appreciate being boiled. In a 2008 study a noxious stimulus was applied to the antenna of prawns. The prawns immediately began grooming the treated antenna and rubbed it against the side of the tank. This activity did not occur if the prawns were treated with benzocaine, a local anaesthetic (Barr et al 2008). In a much earlier study lobsters tossed into boiling water took up to seven minutes to die, all the time writhing, thrashing and convulsing (Baker 1975) (

While this appears extremely disturbing it is important to determine if these movements are the result of an organism in pain or merely a reflex to a noxious stimulus without a conscious perception of pain. While this may seem counter intuitive the brain of so called lower life forms is not as all important as it is for higher life forms. Many tasks are delegated to the spinal cord or other clusters of neurones. This can even be seen in higher vertebrates. Many years ago, while necropsying a freshly dead horse, I cut through a nerve in the groin region and promptly received an impressive kick for my trouble. The horse was well and truly dead, could feel no pain and yet reacted to the stimulus. A similar event occurred during a lizard necropsy. The lizard had a severed spine and, at the conclusion of the procedure, I was left with the lizard’s tail, back legs and pelvis. When I pinched a toe the leg and tail both wriggled, even though they were no longer attached to the top half of the body. (As a digression freshly dead reptiles often still have beating hearts when they are opened up. They are, however, definitely dead. If the heart is removed from the body it will continue to beat, lying on the table by itself, for up to an hour. It certainly creeps the students out and can make it somewhat tricky to confirm death in a reptile.)

It can be difficult to differentiate reflex from pain response in a live animal of limited reactions. I feel that, if the animal responds to pain killers by not reacting to the noxious stimulus, like the prawns and the fish in the previous post, then it is probably experiencing pain. The implication here is that the animal has pain receptors that can be chemically blocked. Pain and opioid receptors have been identified in snails, nematodes, crustaceans and insects (

But the clincher, for me at least, is the phenomenon of avoidance learning. To demonstrate this effect a light was shone on a crayfish. Ten seconds later the crayfish received an electrical shock. The crayfish learned that the light was associated with the shock and rapidly moved away when the light came on, thus avoiding the shock. A similar phenomenon was reported for Drosophila flies. In this case the electrical shock was paired with an odour. The flies quickly learned to fly away from the odour whenever they detected it (Elwood 2011). This cannot just be reflex. These animals are displaying a learned response and acting peremptorily to avoid a painful stimulus.

Which brings us back to clams. As far as I can tell clams do not have a brain as such but do have clusters of nerve cells called ganglia, which allow them to respond to certain stimuli. Pain receptors have been identified in their snail relatives and presumably exist in clams. Given that the avoidance of pain is universally beneficial to all forms of animal life and most clams are capable of movement, at least some of the time, I am prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they can feel pain. I hope that, at least, makes them happy.

Dr. F. Bunny


Baker, J.R. 1975. Experiments on the humane killing of lobsters (Homarus vulgaris) and crabs (Cancer pagarus). Part 1. The killing of lobsters by gradual heating. Scientific papers of the Humane Education Centre 1: 1-10.

Barr, S., P.R. Laming, J.T.A. Dick and R.W. Elwood. 2008. Nociception or pain in a decapod crustacean? Animal Behaviour 75: 745-751.

Elwood, R.W. 2011. Pain and suffering in invertebrates? Institute for Laboratory Animal Research 52: 175-184.

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Something Fishy Going On Around Here

I have quite a spectacular goldfish swimming around its tank. His (or her) name is Witchhaven. That is what happens when you let your kids name the animals. I won’t even mention Cork and Spider-man, two former chickens. Anyway Witchhaven is the last of his kind. A decision was made that when all the fish died we would move from cold water fish to tropical ones. Witchhaven continues to stubbornly cling to life long after his contemporaries have moved on.

Interestingly, while we have decided to allow Witchhaven to live out the term of his natural life, I would be perfectly within my rights to shove a sharp barbed hook into his mouth and lift him out of the water with his full body weight hanging by his lip from the hook. This is called fishing. While fish do get a mention in the 1986 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act the act does not apply to any fishing activities authorised by and conducted in accordance with the Fisheries Act 1995 ( Hooks are, of course, regarded as an integral part of recreational fishing and, as the act clearly states, “recreational fishing equipment means any fishing equipment prescribed in the regulations to be recreational fishing equipment.” I love bureaucracy.

Intriguingly were I to pull my cat along by a hook embedded in its lip I would get into trouble as this, no doubt, falls under the definition of someone who “wounds, mutilates, tortures, overrides, overdrives, overworks, abuses, beats, worries, torments or terrifies an animal (” Unfortunately it is perfectly fine to do that to our aquatic friends, because that is in the interests of sport, which override all other considerations.

And don’t think you can get out of it by saying fish don’t feel pain. They have a brain and a nervous system and the avoidance of noxious stimuli has the same benefit for them as it does for us. There is certainly no shortage of studies supporting the notion that fish feel pain.

A 2003 study was conducted where a noxious chemical was rubbed onto the lips of rainbow trout and their behaviour compared with untreated fish. The treated fish rocked from side to side and rubbed their lips into the gravel and on the sides of the tank. Their breathing rate also increased. When these fish were treated with morphine, a potent pain killer, these abnormal activities decreased, indicating analgesia (Sneddon 2003).

A similar 2007 study found morphine blocked the effects of a noxious stimulus (acetic acid) that had been injected into the cheeks of flounder (Newby et al 2007).

Koi carp showed a marked decrease in interactive behaviour, food consumption and activity following surgery. This did not occur if the carp were given butorphanol (another pain killer) or morphine (Baker et al 2010).

I could go on but it is pretty obvious that in this day and age the only people who still argue against fish feeling pain are those with a vested interest in perpetuating those painful activities i.e. anglers.

So go forth and fish, if you must, but don’t delude yourself that the marlin on the end of your hook, leaping so magnificently out of the water, is doing it for fun.

Dr. F. Bunny


Baker, T.R., B. Cummings, S.M. Johnson, and K.K. Sladky. 2010. Comparative analgesic efficacy of morphine and butorphanol in koi (Cyprinus carpio) undergoing gonadectomy. Proceedings of the AAZV AAWV Joint Conference. Pp. 203-204.

Newby, N.C., A.K. Gamperl, and E.D. Stevens. 2007. Cardiorespiratory effects and efficacy of morphine sulphate in winter flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus). American Journal of Veterinary Research 68: 592-597.

Sneddon, L.U. 2003. The evidence for pain in fish: the use of morphine as an analgesic. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 83: 153-162.


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