Archive for November, 2013

I’m A Tiger When I Want Love

So sang Jethro Tull in their song, “Bungle in the Jungle”. Perhaps the tiger that attacked his trainer at Australia Zoo recently (http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/australia-zoo-tiger-handler-recovering-after-attack-20131127-2ya2h.html) was only after some love and affection? Or perhaps he was fed up with being asked to jump through hoops and act like an overgrown pussy cat when all he really wanted was to be left alone and allowed to behave like a tiger? Despite being hand raised this tiger is still a wild animal with all the instincts that wild animals have. The trouble with hand raising is that it makes animals tame. Tame animals lose their fear of people. This can be an advantage for nervous animals that tend to panic and crash into fences but for a top order predator, like a tiger, it is only a recipe for disaster. I am aware of numerous cases of keepers having to defend themselves against attacks from hand raised animals, including kangaroos, deer and this tiger.

Zoos make things difficult for themselves by pandering to what they think the public wants: close encounters with wild animals. So they hand raise them to make them human friendly and perpetuate the misconception that wild animals are cute, cuddly and there for us to interact with. This leads to incidents like this one and numerous others where children try to pat wolves or parents smear honey on their kids’ faces so the nice bear will lick it off (along with the kid’s face).

By all means enjoy tigers and other wild animals but enjoy them as they were meant to be, as wild animals, not as some kind of deranged travesty that can’t decide if it’s wild, tame, tiger or human.

This is what I get for writing a positive article about zoos.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Then Again….

Zoos are not really all that bad and the main reason I criticise them is that I care and want them to harness their powers for good, rather than evil. Unfortunately they fall victim to the same issues that plague all of us, the need to make money to survive.

However imperfect they may be, zoos still occupy an important position in the world. While I have spent most of my career in zoos I have never actually seen myself as a “zoo vet” but rather a “wildlife vet” who worked in a zoo. Working in zoos has given me the opportunity to treat and rehabilitate injured wildlife, investigate disease outbreaks in wildlife, and embark on research projects to improve the health and welfare of the creatures we share the planet with. As wild animals do not have owners they do not have anyone to pay for these services, which are subsidised by zoos.

For better or worse, zoos are at least making an effort to understand and breed endangered wildlife with a view to hopefully returning it to its ecosystem. Consequently they are an enormous repository of knowledge and expertise when it comes to the biology, husbandry and health of the world’s fauna.

They are also making an effort to address the myriad issues that have contributed to species becoming endangered in the first place, such as promoting sustainable palm oil production and labelling (http://www.cmzoo.org/conservation/palmOilCrisis/resourceKit.asp), encouraging the use of toilet paper made from recycled paper (http://www.zoo.org.au/fighting-extinction/conservation-campaigns/wipe-for-wildlife-campaign), funding the training of Wildlife Protection Units to prevent illegal wildlife related activities in Sumatra (http://www.perthzoo.wa.gov.au/act/wildlife-conservation-action/success-stories/protecting-sumatras-wildlife/), and providing indigenous communities in Kenya with alternative forms of income to alleviate some of the pressures on local wildlife (http://www.zoo.org.au/fighting-extinction/conservation-campaigns/beads-for-wildlife-campaign). 

All reputable zoos have education programs because everyone understands the important role the next generation must play in moving the planet into a sustainable future.

It would be nice to think that a trip to the zoo encourages people to embark on some form of previously unthought-of conservation activity but, as we have seen, this can be notoriously difficult to prove. Still, all the ancillary activities which a visit to the zoo subsidises should be justification enough for the zoo’s existence. Unfortunately zoos often fund their projects by entertaining visitors in ways which potentially undermine those conservation messages. As long as that continues it is necessary to provide constructive criticism in order to bring them back onto the right path.

Dr. F. Bunny

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US wind energy turbines killed 600,000 bats last year, study says

From the South China Morning Post: http://www.scmp.com/news/world/article/1352671/us-wind-energy-turbines-killed-600000-bats-last-year-study-says.

More than 600,000 bats were killed by wind turbines across the United States last year, with the highest concentration of kills in the Appalachian Mountains, according to new research.

In a paper published in the journal BioScience, University of Colorado biologist Mark Hayes used records of dead bats found beneath wind generators and statistical analysis to estimate how many bats were struck and killed by generator propellers each year.

“Dead bats are being found underneath wind turbines across North America,” Hayes wrote. “This estimate of bat fatalities is probably conservative.”

The new estimate is among the highest yet for generator-related bat deaths. Previous studies have calculated mortality rates of between 33,000 and 888,000 a year.

The bat deaths were calculated on a per megawatt basis, and the highest rates were associated with generators in the Appalachian Mountains-Buffalo Mountain, in the state of Tennessee, and Mountaineer, West Virginia.

Hayes said his estimates were conservative for several reasons.

Little information on bat mortality was available for wind generators along the Sierra Nevada ranges and Rocky Mountains, he wrote, and scavenging animals likely carried away a percentage of dead bats before they could be counted.

Hayes also said that if a range of bat deaths were listed by a facility, he used the lowest one for his calculations.

There are 45 known bat species in the continental United States, but biologists do not have a firm handle on their total population. Experts say the animals’ small size and nocturnal habits make them difficult to survey.

Nonetheless, biologists suspect their numbers are decreasing because of changing climate and diseases such as white-nose syndrome.

Even under the best circumstances, bat populations grew slowly, as they give birth to one pup per year, and the mortality rate for young bats was high, Hayes said.

While they are not generally beloved by the American public, bats perform two highly valuable services: they eat enormous amounts of flying insects, and they help pollinate crops like peaches and avocados.

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What About A Big Glass Of Harden Up?

According to my reading the average person takes about two weeks to recover from a marathon. Obviously I am not average because, a month later, I still feel tired, my legs are sore and that seven kilometre run I completed last week nearly killed me. What better way to move my rehab along than to complete an adventure race, at least that’s what my son thought.

Festivities began with a five kilometre rogaine (wandering through the bush trying to find four checkpoints and getting totally lost). Once we finally had them ticked off it was back to base for the mountain bike leg of the journey. Neither my son nor I had ever been mountain biking before so attempting to navigate eight kilometres of the black diamond Commonwealth Games mountain biking track in fairly steady rain, while ticking off another ten checkpoints and avoiding fallen riders, proved to be challenging, to say the least. After this leg it was another five kilometres of running plus five more checkpoints. Despite the hilly terrain I did feel a bit more in my element and we actually overtook some of the hard core bikers.

Unfortunately that triumph was short-lived as we jumped back on the bikes for eleven more kilometres and ten more checkpoints. By now the steady rain had turned into a torrential downpour and the adventure race had begun to resemble a mud run.

After wearily peddling back to base the last thing I felt like doing was a two kilometre paddle across the lake. Four times they made us cross it, just to collect the last three checkpoints. The upside was that the rain had finally stopped and, being strong paddlers and even stronger competitors, we managed to burn a few teams off near the end, despite the mother of all quad cramps magically appearing in my left thigh as we approached the shore for the final time.

All told we spent a bit over four and a half hours getting cold, wet and exhausted but short term memory is a funny thing. At the time all this was happening I had completely convinced myself that I was not having fun, this was a stupid idea and that I was never going to do it again. However, about five minutes after the finish, with a hamburger and hot coffee in my belly, I thought that maybe it wasn’t all that bad. After all time spent with my son is always going to be time well spent.

Dr. F. Bunny

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This Here’s A Zoo, And The Keeper Ain’t You

 

Lou Reed (Sick Of You, from the album “New York”)

Enough of this self-indulgent nonsense. I am a wildlife vet, so it’s time I started banging on about zoos again.

In my opinion there are three ways to experience wild animals: in the wild, in a zoo, on TV. It seems obvious to me that the best way is the wild way. How could anything beat the experience of seeing a lion wandering about the savannah doing its thing? Even local fauna like kangaroos and wombats are so much more exciting when seen in the wild. I think part of it is the unpredictability, never knowing what you are going to see or what it is going to do. I remember taking my aunt and uncle to Healesville Sanctuary to give them a dose of Australian wildlife. We spent the day looking at kangaroos, koalas and Tasmanian devils. On our drive home they spotted a mob of wild kangaroos and made me stop the car so they could take pictures of them. They got much closer and took much better photos of the Sanctuary kangaroos but were a lot more excited about the wild ones. Of course we can’t all visit polar bears on their ice floes, jaguars in the Amazon or Przewalski horses in the Gobi desert.

This is where David Attenborough and his cohorts step in to dazzle us with astonishing images of wildlife doing its thing in the wild, without the need for passports, visas, water purification tablets or huge wads of cash. Through the magic of television we can gain a much more detailed, intimate and lasting view of the world around us, one that we can rewind and re-watch at our convenience.

Which brings us to option three. Does the experience of seeing something up close and personal, despite the fact that it is bored, pacing or overweight, leave a lasting positive impression that justifies placing it into that environment in the first place? Are we better off seeing a polar bear on TV or not at all? Although I speak from a privileged position, having worked with wild animals all my life, I believe so.

Zoos quite emphatically state that they change people’s attitudes to conservation and wildlife, citing the only study to date to attempt to quantify this, a 2007 non-independent survey (strongly refuted by Marino et al (2010)) by Falk et al. Unfortunately many of the questions in this study were extremely nebulous and subjective asking visitors if they felt a stronger connection to nature as a result of their visit (57% said yes), if zoos had a role to play in conservation, education and animal care (42% said yes), and if the visitor had an elevated level of awareness of their own role in conservation as a result of their visit (54% said yes). The vast majority of visitors did not, however, increase their knowledge of ecological concepts. This was put down to the fact that zoo visitors have a higher than average ecological knowledge in the first place, which reinforces my belief that people who visit zoos are already conservation minded and the zoo is really only preaching to the converted.

The researchers did do some follow up work to determine if there were any long term effects associated with the zoo visit. Unfortunately they were only able to obtain responses from 14% of the visitors originally interviewed. Rather than asking them what they had actually done because of their visit to the zoo the researchers again asked nebulous and irrelevant questions. 42% of the respondents mentioned a particularly memorable animal they saw on their visit, 21% enjoyed the zoo grounds, 61% did confess to have learnt something after all, 76% said zoos were invested in conservation, and 66% said zoos played an important role in species preservation. But there is no mention of what any of these visitors actually did as a result of their visit. Surely that is the crux of the issue? Do zoos stimulate people to act for conservation in positive ways that justify displacing animals and housing them in conditions that cannot hope to replicate their wild environment, social structure or nutritional needs? Am I more likely to want to conserve the bored, depressed looking zoo polar bear or the TV polar bear leaping from ice floe to ice floe, hunting seals and rearing cubs?

Removing zoos and putting the money saved into in situ conservation programs does not mean we can no longer experience wildlife first hand. Recently I visited the Western Treatment Plant (http://www.melbournewater.com.au/whatwedo/treatsewage/wtp/Pages/Habitats-and-wildlife.aspx). This is the fancy name for Melbourne’s sewage farm. I spent six hours there bird watching and, ironically, saw many more bird species than I would in any zoo. This experience left me with a far more positive feeling about bird conservation than seeing the wing clipped, feather plucking versions in a zoo. True, it required a bit more effort and the species weren’t as spectacular as Andean condors or birds of paradise, but they were local species and, at the end of the day, aren’t we more likely to act and more likely to be effective in our actions when we attempt to conserve what is in our own backyard? Surely we will have a much greater impact on their future than we will ever have on the future of the orang-utan or gorilla, no matter how many palm oil friendly products we buy or mobile phones we recycle?

Dr. F. Bunny

References

Falk, J.H., Reinhard, E.M., Vernon, C.L., Bronnenkant, K., Deans, N.L., Heimlich, J.E. (2007) Why Zoos & Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit. Association of Zoos & Aquariums. Silver Spring, MD.

Marino, L., Lilienfeld, S.O., Malamud, R., Nobis, N., Broglio, R. (2010) Do Zoos and Aquariums Promote Attitude Change in Visitors? A Critical Evaluation of the American Zoo and Aquarium Study. Society and Animals 18:126-138.

 

 

 

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