On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

Monthly Archives: May 2011

Animal ESP (Extra-Sensory Perception)

Paul the Octopus correctly predicts a win by S...

Image via Wikipedia: Paul, the psychic octopus, picks Spain to win the 2010 FIFA over the Netherlands on 9 July 2010.

Historically, it’s been commonly believed that animals are more in tuned with nature than their human counterparts and are thought to perceive when disaster will strike. They become restless, agitated or noisy for no apparent reason (source: Mott); bees leave their hives in a panic and birds will find shelter before a storm (source: Nature). But is their “sixth sense” true clairvoyance or are we, as humans, overlooking our surroundings?

Fans of the late Paul the Octopus would fancy the first suggestion.  Paul, the cephalopod mollusk who lived at the Sea Life Centre in Oberhausen, Germany, correctly picked all seven outcomes for Germany’s matches in the 2010 FIFA World Cup and predicted Spain to be the winner of the final after Germany’s elimination.

The success story of Paul the Octopus has American Zoos trying their luck too.  Most notable are Eli the Orangutan from Salt Lake City, who won media acclaim after correctly choosing the Super Bowl winners of the last three years (source: Viegas), and Jenny the Elephant from the Dallas Zoo; both successfully chose the Green Bay Packers to beat the Pittsburg Steelers in last season’s final.  Although they have a lot of catching up to do before they can beat Paul’s record, good fortune is not on their side. The odds of picking a winning team consecutively for eight matches are 256 to 1.

Regarding Paul’s ability to decide between the soccer teams, senior aquarist Matthew Fuller at Weymouth Sea Life Park had this to say:

“It’s the first time I’ve known of an octopus making predictions, so it is quite a surprise. They are the most intelligent of all the invertebrates and studies have shown they are able to distinguish shapes and patterns so maybe he’s able to recognize flags.”

Even if animals don’t have a gift for predicting the future, their unique abilities allow them to notice changes in weather or the earth that we would not see without modern technology.  In 373 B.C., historians documented rats, snakes and weasels evacuating the Greek city of Helice days before an earthquake devastated the city.  More recently, a rise in missing pets were documented from the local classifieds before the San Francisco earthquake of 1989. Those pets were likely escaping disaster.  Hammerhead sharks can sense and differentiate between electric waves and migrating birds have an internal magnetic GPS that literally makes them living compasses (source: Dietel).  With grizzly bears and bloodhounds possessing heightened senses of smell  that can detect prey 18 miles away or pick up on week-old scent-trails, it comes as no surprise that animals have been known to sense fires, hurricanes and earthquakes much earlier and quicker than the rest of us.

Michelle Heupel, a scientist at the Mote Marine Laboratory, told reporters:

“I think these animals are more attuned to their environment than we give them credit for.  When things change, they may not understand why it’s happening, but the change itself may trigger some instinct to move to an area that is safer for them.”

There has been no conclusive study into the extent of how aware animals are to natural catastrophes, but it cannot be argued that we as humans still have a lot to learn from them.  Animals can identify what we overlook, but do they have the gift of prophecy? What are your thoughts?

Today’s post was researched and written by NMAS intern Michelle Wong.


World Turtle Day

African Sulcata (African Spurred Tortoise). By Alexey Krapukhin.

Image via Wikipedia

May 23rd, 2011 marks the twelfth annual World Turtle Day, as established by the nonprofit organization and animal sanctuary American Tortoise Rescue and cosponsored by the Humane Society of the United States. Located in Malibu, California, American Tortoise Rescue was established by husband and wife team Marshall Thompson and Susan Tellem in 1990 to advocate for the protection and conservation of all members of the order Testudines, which includes tortoises as well as both land and sea turtles. World Turtle Day was created in 2000 “to increase respect for and knowledge about one of the world’s oldest creatures,” says Tellem.

Turtles first appeared on earth around 215 million years ago, making them one of the oldest reptile groups to still exist. Currently, there are fourteen extant families within the order Testudines, made up of approximately 300 unique species. They range in size from the tiny speckled padloper tortoise, about 3 inches in length and 3 ounces in weight, to the critically-endangered leatherback sea turtle, which can attain a length of 10 feet from head to tail and weigh over 2,000 pounds.

Turtles and tortoises flourished on this planet for hundreds of millions of years before the arrival of modern humans. However, due to habitat destruction and the food, medicine, and exotic pet industries, approximately 72% of all living turtle species are currently threatened with extinction, according to findings by the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission. What can we, as the species responsible for this ancient order’s rapid decline, do to protect the world’s turtle populations from further decimation? American Tortoise Rescue gives these tips:

  • If you’re considering a turtle or tortoise as a companion animal, never buy from a pet store, as this increases the demand for turtles to be taken from the wild. Always adopt from a rescue. Likewise, never remove a turtle from the wild, unless the animal is sick or injured and in need of medical attention.
  • If you see a turtle or tortoise trying to cross a busy street, and it is safe for you to do so, stop and move the animal to the side of the road in the direction s/he was headed.
  • If you witness the illegal or cruel sale of turtles or tortoises, report it to the appropriate authorities. It is especially important to report any sale of turtles under 4 inches in length, as selling baby turtles is illegal in the United States due to the high risk to humans of salmonella contamination.

Turtles and tortoises have not only existed as a species for an extraordinary amount of time; they are also renowned for their incredibly long lifespans as individuals. Adwaita, a male Aldabra giant tortoise living in the Alipore Zoological Gardens of Kolkata, India, was said to be 255 years old when he died in 2006, although his true date of birth has not been verified. Officially, the world’s longest-lived vertebrate animal was Tu’i Malila, a radiated tortoise given to the royal family of Tonga in 1777 by Captain James Cook. After a long and pampered life, which included meeting Queen Elizabeth II when she visited the country in 1953, Tu’i Malila died in 1965 at the age of 188, still in the care of the Tongan royal family.

Scientific studies into the turtle genome are only just beginning to unlock the secret to these hardy creatures’ astonishing longevity. Is there anything we, as humans, can learn from the “turtle way of life” to help us prolong our own time on this earth?

  • Eat lots of leafy green vegetables and drink plenty of water – but don’t overdo it. After all, turtles, like most reptiles, have such slow metabolisms that they can go without food or drink for months at a time.
  • Don’t get weighed down with material goods. Turtles carry everything they need on their backs.
  • Be kind to others and keep those you love close to you: you never know when you might need someone to help you get back on your feet.
  • It’s fine to be shy sometimes, but don’t forget to pop your head out of your shell and try something new every once in a while.
  • Most of all, take things slow. We all know what happened to that precocious hare.

National Dog Bite Prevention Week: A Case Study

2004 White House First Dog, Barney. By Karen Nutini.

Image via Wikipedia

In our last post for National Dog Bite Prevention Week, we’ll put all our new-found knowledge about animal body language, potential bite warning signs, and how to approach an unfamiliar dog to a practical application: analyzing video of a real dog bite, trying to determine why it happened and how it could have been avoided.

I’m sure you all remember back about three years ago when a very famous dog was involved in a very embarrassing incident. It was the morning of November 6, 2008, when President George W. Bush’s Scottish Terrier, Barney, was out for his morning walk on the White House lawn. While being filmed by American Urban Radio Networks’ April D. Ryan, Barney was approached by Reuters correspondent Jonathan Decker. When Decker reached down to pet Barney, the dog snapped, puncturing Decker’s index finger. Afterwards Ryan interviewed Decker, who showed his bandage finger and stated that the White House doctor had cleaned the wound and prescribed a short course of antibiotics to prevent infection.

The raw video of the incident, which is not at all graphic, can be seen here.

The video opens with a shot of Decker kneeling down close to Barney, who has his head turned in the opposite direction. As Ryan greets Barney in a friendly, high-pitched voice, the dog stands stock-still, his tail unmoving, his bushy Scottie eyebrows wiggling furiously as his eyes dart back and forth. The reporters try to coax Barney to turn towards them, which he does, but then freezes again and sets his ears almost flat back against his head. Suddenly, Decker leans in to put his hand on top of Barney’s head; the dog rears back and bites at the hand, settling back on the ground with his ears completely forward and his eyes looking piercingly at Decker. He then composes himself, averts his eyes again, and licks his lips.

If you paid attention to our last post, the warning signs shouldn’t be hard to read. By turning his head and avoiding eye contact, Barney is clearly saying, “I’m not in the mood to deal with you right now.” His tense muscles and flat ears say, “In fact, you’d better back away, because I’m very uncomfortable.” Suddenly, Decker’s hand comes in from nowhere; Barney has not been shown the hand and has not been allowed to sniff it. Since he has not granted Decker permission to pet him, Barney – who is leashed and therefore has no means of escape – perceives the hand as a threat and reacts instinctively by snapping. His aggressive body posture then tells the reporter, “You’d better not try that again!” Barney then realizes that the message has been received and goes back into “uncomfortable, but not outright aggressive” mode. He licks his lips as a sign of stress (and not because he thought Decker’s finger was delicious).

If Jonathan Decker had only implemented the W.A.I.T. approach, he could have avoided getting bitten. He needed to WAIT to see if the dog appeared friendly – Barney was avoidant and standoffish from the beginning. He should’ve ASKED the handler if it was alright to pet Barney – the handler could’ve told Decker if the dog was feeling ill or grumpy that morning. He definitely should’ve INVITED Barney to sniff him – a surprise attack from the air isn’t going to win you any points with an apprehensive dog. And he should’ve TOUCHED the dog gently on the back – not patted him on top of the head.

I hope this series of posts has informed you on why National Dog Bite Prevention Week is so important, and why we need to teach children – and adults! – how to approach dogs in a comfortable, nonthreatening way to avoid being bitten. Millions of unnecessary injuries – and the unnecessary euthanasia of thousands of allegedly “aggressive” dogs – could be avoided if humans would only learn to better understand and respect our canine companions.

National Dog Bite Prevention Week: Avoiding the Attack

A child with a Shiloh Shepherd Dog. By Tina Barber.

Image via Wikipedia

In our Monday post on National Dog Bite Prevention Week we looked at some harrowing statistics on how frequently serious attacks by dogs occur in the United States. What, then, can be done to prevent such attacks?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider dog bites to be a major public health issue, especially for small children, the most frequent victims of serious injuries inflicted by dogs. They offer the following tips to reduce the likelihood of such attacks occurring.

For parents or other adults considering bringing a dog into their home:

  • Do the research and pick a dog suitable to your household. Each dog is an individual just like each human is an individual, and it should not be assumed that all dogs coming from a so-called “aggressive” breed will have issues with aggression. However, dog breeds have been developed by man over thousands of years to fill certain roles and fulfill specific functions. If you have a house or neighborhood full of kids, find out which breeds or mixes have been shown to get along well with children. It is also important to choose a dog whose exercise and intellectual requirements you can easily meet; a dog that is pent-up and bored stuck at home all day is more likely to become unhappy and potentially aggressive. The more you learn about the dog going in, the happier you, your family, your neighbors, and your dog will be.
  • No matter how much you’ve studied about the breed or mix, get to know the dog as an individual before you bring him or her into your home. Spend as much time with the dog as possible, and ask his or her caretakers about the dog’s individual personality.
  • Likewise, get to know your child as an individual, and be sensitive to cues that s/he may be apprehensive or fearful around dogs. A child that is afraid of dogs is more likely to be skittish and make sudden movements around the dog, which in turn may frighten the dog and lead to an attack. If your child does not seem ready for a dog, wait until s/he is before you bring one into your home.
  • Get your dog spayed or neutered. A dog whose brain is not controlled by hormones and the drive to find a mate will be calmer, more sociable, easier to train, and all-around better behaved.
  • Never leave your child and dog unattended together, no matter how much you trust both of them.
  • Don’t encourage your dog – or your children – to play aggressively. Avoid games like wrestling or tug-of-war.
  • Do teach your dog submissive behaviors. Learn how to train and properly socialize your dog, or get an expert to do it for you.

For children:

  • Never approach an unfamiliar dog. If one approaches you, stand as still as possible with your arms held close to your body. Avoid direct eye contact.
  • Do not scream or run away. This may trigger the dog’s natural instincts as a predator and cause the dog to chase after you.
  • If you’re knocked down by a dog, roll into a ball with your hands covering your ears. Remain still.
  • Never touch a dog that is eating, sleeping, or guarding something precious, like a toy or a puppy.
  • Never sneak up on a dog. Let the dog see and smell you before touching him. This is a way of asking the dog’s permission. If a dog tries to run away or evade your touch, respect the dog and do not pursue him.

The nonprofit organization Prevent the Bite (PTB) seeks to prevent dog bites to children through classroom education. They advocate the W.A.I.T. approach:

  • WAIT to see if the dog is with her guardian, and if she appears friendly.
  • ASK the guardian if you may pet the dog.
  • INVITE the dog to sniff you.
  • TOUCH the dog gently on the back, never near the face, head, or tail.

PTB also provides coloring pages for children to get to know the differences in body language between a happy dog, an angry dog, and a fearful dog. A happy dog has a soft, relaxed face; the mouth may be open but the upper teeth don’t show; and the tail is low and wagging. An angry dog tries to look bigger: the body is tense and leaned forward, and the hair on the back and neck may be raised; the eyes look directly at you; the face is tense and the teeth may be showing; and the ears are forward and alert. A fearful dog tries to look smaller: the body is tense and low to the ground; the back end is hunched and the tail may be tucked between the legs; the face is tense but the eyes avoid your gaze; and the ears are back. Other signs of a dog which may bite are less obvious: he may lick his lips or yawn when you approach, or he may turn his head away to avoid you. While many dog bites may seem to come “out of nowhere,” all of these signs and signals are a dog’s way of warning you that a bite may be coming. Just because a dog can’t say with words that he doesn’t want to be touched doesn’t mean his own method of communication shouldn’t be observed and respected.

Coming on Friday: a case study. We’ll take a look at one famous dog bite incident caught on tape, and examine the cues and warning signs that the dog exhibited prior to the attack – as well as showing what the victim did wrong.

National Dog Bite Prevention Week

Trained attack dog Samo leaps forward toward a decoy's arm wrap as Tech. Sgt. David Adcox restrains him. By U.S. Air Force photo/Robbin Cresswell.

Image via Wikipedia

This week (May 15-21) is National Dog Bite Prevention Week, an awareness campaign originally launched by the United States Postal Service to draw attention to the problem of attacks by domestic dogs on postal workers. Currently co-sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the American Academy of Pediatrics, the educational nonprofit group Prevent the Bite (PTB), and a host of organizations representing the plastic surgery and insurance industries, the event is now in its 17th year and is geared primarily toward educating dog guardians on how to prevent injuries to young children ages 5 to 9, the demographic most likely to be seriously and even fatally injured in dog attacks.

Here are a few statistics illustrating just how serious and widespread the problem of dog bites currently is in the United States:

  • About 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year. That amounts to 12,329 people per day, 514 per hour, and nearly nine people per minute. (Source: CDC)
  • Over half of all reported dog bites occur to children under the age of twelve. The odds of a dog bite victim being a child are 3.2:1. (Source: PTB)
  • Over 800,000 dog bites per year – that’s one in five – require medical attention. Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States seeks medical attention for a dog bite; nearly 70% of them are children. In fact, dog bites to children are 300% more likely to require medical attention than those to adults. (Source: PTB)
  • In victims younger than 18 years old, 30% of dog bites are inflicted by the family dog, and 50% by a neighbor’s dog. (Source: AVMA)
  • In 2010, nearly 33,000 reconstructive surgeries were performed to repair damage from dog bites, up 8% from 2009. (Source: ASPS)
  • Over one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims paid out in 2010 – amounting to nearly $413 million – were the result of dog bites. The average cost of dog bite claims was over $26,000 in 2010, up 5.3% from 2009. From 2003 to 2010, the cost of dog bite claims has risen almost 37%. (Source: III)

The real tragedy of dog bites is that, in the majority of cases, they are entirely preventable. “Veterinarians recognize, while there are 72 million good dogs in the United States, any dog can bite if it is frightened or feels threatened, even the family pet,” says AVMA President Dr. Larry M. Kornegay. Unfortunately, dogs involved in biting incidents are often euthanized to prevent further aggressive behavior – even if that behavior is purely the result of improper training, mistreatment, or poor judgment on the part of the guardian or victim. The responsibility lies with the human, yet sadly it is the dog who most often faces the consequences.

So how can dog bites be prevented? What methods can be used to educate children on proper dog handling and behavior? What are the signs and cues that a dog is feeling threatened or uncomfortable and may be about to bite? Please stay tuned for our next post, where we will bring you safety tips and more on National Dog Bite Prevention Week.

Renovating Place and Purpose

The Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinate...

The Lorraine Motel, where Dr. MLK was assassinated. Image via Wikipedia

Earlier this week our education intern, Caroline Shapiro, blogged about a dog fighting app that’s ruffling quite a few feathers. In the wake of the Michael Vick controversy and his return to the NFL, it’s a timely subject and one that reminds me of the future of Vick’s former Virginia home at 1915 Moonlight Road in Surrey County.

Dogs Deserve Better (DDB), an organization working to end the practice of chaining dogs, secured a loan to purchase Vick’s property, the same one on which he used to house and train bit pulls. Vick’s name for his venture was Bad Newz Kennels. DDB has renamed the estate to the Good Newz Rehab Center for Chained & Penned Dogs. The closing date on the property purchase is May 15th. The group’s goal is to rehabilitate dogs that have suffered abuse and neglect by providing a home-like environment. It’s a turn away from a traditional shelter concept where dogs may be confined to a kennel for the majority of a day. Founder Tamira Thayne elaborated in an interview:

“Yes, basically it’s [the rehab center] to do what we do with these dogs in foster homes every day already, but with more dogs and on a grander scale. When a dog is living chained or penned, it’s very rare that they come away issue-free. The very least we have to do is spay/neuter, vet, bath, and housetrain the dog to get him/her ready for adoption. As more issues come into play, we will address those as well. Some examples of chained-dog issues that we deal with frequently are: timid dogs from lack of socialization with humans, food aggression from time spent with too little food and water, territorial aggression from spending so much time ‘guarding’ their little plot of land, and poor people skills, such as jumping for attention and mouthing to get attention.”

What fascinates me is that DDB is converting a place once known for serious mistreatment of animals to a refuge of love, warmth and hope. Personally, I find such poetic justice in that renovation of place and purpose. In that same interview, Tamira was asked if she found the place haunting. Her response:

“I felt when I was there that the dogs who lost their lives and suffered there welcomed us and were grateful to us for both preserving their memories, continuing the fight against dog abuse, and bringing happiness to a place of such sadness.”

There are other locales that have undergone similar changes in facing a “haunting” past. For one, many historical museums centered on the holocaust or civil rights have, in a way, reclaimed or reinterpreted their residential spaces. The former concentration camps in Dachau and Theresienstadt are now sites that interpret the past, but also allow for visitor reflection and remembrance. The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN was the location of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, but now serves to chronicle “key episodes of the American civil rights movement and the legacy of this movement to inspire participation in civil and human rights efforts globally.”

Do you know of any site that served as a backdrop to negative human-animal interactions, but has been revitalized for other purposes or as an educational venue? Would you feel that these places are “haunting”?

Dogfighting Game Could Have Real Consequences

American Staffordshire Terrier - suka o imieniu INA Atillo, Iwona Dąbek Hodowla CANOSSA (FCI)

Image via Wikipedia

The head of the Los Angeles police union, the Humane Society of the United States, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are all calling for an end to a controversial new mobile phone application that allows players to breed, train and fight virtual dogs, as well as earn points and rewards for killing other dogs.

KG Dogfighting, originally released as the free application Dog Wars for Google’s Android smart phone operating system, is a creation of Kage Games LLC and sports a picture of a blood-splattered pit bull above the tagline “Raise your dog to beat the best!” Los Angeles Police Protective League President Paul M. Weber has called the game’s concept “repulsive and sickening,” noting that, in addition to simulating an activity which is classified as a felony in all 50 states, the game also virtually provides players with a “gun for police raids.” In a statement to the Los Angeles Times, Weber expressed concerns that the game would stimulate a real-world rise in dogfighting activity amongst local gang members and encourage violence toward law enforcement officials. He has called for Google to permanently ban the app from its marketplace.

Both the ASPCA and HSUS have released official statements condemning Kage Games for its actions and calling for a public boycott of the game and company. In a blog post dated April 25, HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle voiced his belief that KG Dogfighting could have very dangerous consequences for dogs in the real world, and could in fact be used as a virtual training tool for potential dog-fighters:

This game gives detailed instructions concerning the selection of dogs, food, a feeding schedule, and items to properly condition dogs for fighting. These are virtually identical to the conditioning methods our anti-dogfighting team typically finds when working with law enforcement to raid these criminal operations.

However, Kage Games has defended its right to release KG Dogfighting, stating that “just because something is illegal in real life in certain countries, does not mean it is illegal to make a song, movie, or video game about it.” They go on to claim that the game is meant to be taken as “a satire about the ridiculousness of dogfighting” and note that “it has been in our operating agreement from the start of this project that a portion of the proceeds go to animal rescue organizations.”

The fear of players of violent video games blurring the line between fantasy and reality has weighed heavily on the minds of Americans ever since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. However, a tangible link between engaging in virtual violence and real-world violence has so far remained elusive. Do games like KG Dogfighting promote real-world violence against animals, or do they act as a harmless outlet for aggression?

Kage Games has cited two of the most popular video game franchises, Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, as fellow examples of games which allow players to engage in virtual activity that would be illegal in the real world, but which have not been met with as much criticism and controversy as the KG Dogfighting app. However, following Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick’s 2007 arrest and conviction on felony charges of dogfighting, it has become obvious that there is still a need to raise awareness of the cruelty of fighting dogs, which is still seen as a socially-acceptable form of entertainment in some communities and parts of the world. In light of this fact, is Kage Games’ comparison to Call of Duty and GTA appropriate, or does KG Dogfighting have the potential to set back the cause against dogfighting, one which has recently proven it still has a long way to go?

The Dog Who Found Osama

You may have heard by now that Osama bin Laden was captured by 79 Navy Seals and one famous, although anonymous dog. Details on the canine – name, age, breed – have been withheld, but he or she is likely a German Shepherd or Belgian Malinois and others have speculated a Newfoundland, trained to sniff out bombs and individuals in hiding and catch runaway suspects. Using these breeds in America became much more of an official trend after World War II.

At the beginning of WWII, the United States, unlike Germany and Japan, did not have official canine training camps to aid in its war effort. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the American Kennel Association launched “Dogs for Defense,” an orchestrated campaign to recruit Spot, Rover and Fido, the household animal companions of millions of Americans, to serve in the War. Regional offices and training centers opened across the country. Trainers donated their time and skills to ready dogs for sentry work, patrolling, messenger services, and mine detection.

Of the 10,425 dogs trained during World War II, ~9,300 were for sentry duty. Less than 2,000 dogs were shipped abroad. Four of the 549 dogs that returned from the war were unable to be untrained and returned to civilian life. Many military dogs went home with their handlers instead of their pre-war families. A significant number also lost their lives or were left behind.

Due to the number of donated dogs found unsuitable for military work, the practice of acquiring dogs from patriotic citizens ceased in 1946. The decision was made to instead purchase dogs that would then become property of the Federal Government. In 2000, H.R. 5314 passed allowing civilians to adopt retiring military working dogs. Perhaps the unknown canine who found Osama will be enrolled in an adoption program following his service.

If you’re interested in becoming a guardian to a retired military canine, visit the Military Working Dog Foundation.