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Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Animal World of C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis. Image via Wikipedia.

C.S. Lewis. Image via Wikipedia.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a prolific writer throughout the the 1940s and ’50s. Not to be confined to one field, he wrote on and in every genre imaginable. As a professor at both Oxford and Cambridge, his area of specialty was medieval studies. But he worked with linguistics, and later, heavily with philosophy and theology after a dramatic conversion from atheism to Christianity. Today he is noted in academic circles as being an insightful literary critic. To most of us, he is probably most famous for penning the children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia, which was the bestselling children’s series until Harry Potter and effectively paved the way for the fantasy genre as it is today. In the midst of his sea of writings concerning many other areas, particularly in the midst of post-war trauma, Lewis is very rarely considered an animal welfare activist.

However, Lewis was incredibly passionate about the cause of animals, and during his time was very vocal about animal welfare. It is obvious to anyone who picks up a work of Lewis’ fiction that he loved animals. The Chronicles of Narnia, for example, deal with a world populated mostly by talking, sentient animals, with the most significant and most central character being a wise lion named Aslan. Animals are also featured heavily in his Space Trilogy, which features lush visions of life on Mars and Venus, where animals live in harmony with the inhabitants. However, Lewis’ real “activism” is most evident in the final books in both these series respectively.

In The Last Battle (1956), the final book in the Narnia series, the sentient animals who had so long lived as equals with their human counterparts are enslaved by the humans and treated like real-world work animals. This appalls all of the protagonists and the reader, and is clearly meant to inspire shock and horror. Throughout the series, Lewis had made readers think of his animal characters as empathetic, well-rounded characters; to see them treated as real-world animals is intentionally jarring and disturbing.

"The Last Battle," first edition. Image via Wikipedia.

"The Last Battle," first edition. Image via Wikipedia.

In the final book in the Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength (1945), there are two distinct factions, one obviously good, and one very clearly evil. The good faction has many animals about their headquarters, who behave charmingly despite their ferocious nature — a wild bear is kept as a house pet, among others. The bad faction, by contrast, has no respect for animal life and uses them in hideous and vicious experiments, including vivisection (the practice of dissecting still-living animals) from which one can constantly hear them shrieking in pain. Here, as in other places in Lewis’ writing, vivisection is characterized as one of the cruelest and most senseless acts humans are capable of doing. This disregard for the feeling of animals is one way in which the antagonists  are distinguished as irredeemably evil. Furthermore, one of the most redeeming moments occurs when the animals are allowed to exact revenge against their tormentors, and there is never any question of which side the reader is meant to be on.

Lewis did not only acknowledge the subject of animal welfare in his fiction, however. In his theological text The Problem of Pain (1940), Lewis dedicates an entire chapter to the subject of animals, where he refers to animal suffering as “appalling.” The book is a discussion of what theological purpose pain has, and while Lewis found in his faith suitable justification for the pain one feels as a human, he admits, in this chapter, to wrestling with the idea of animal pain. It was very obvious to Lewis that animals suffered physical and even emotional pain.

It’s important to look at Lewis’ views in perspective. At the time, most Western religions did not place any emphasis on animal welfare or fair treatment. Scientific practices were increasingly utilitarian, with animals subjected to cruel experimentation with little justification other than that humans were “more evolved.”  Lewis was one of the only people during this period to really address the topic of animal suffering in light of both religion and science, and given his wide audience his influence in the many subjects he wrote upon is monumental. Lewis believed that taking a stance for animal welfare was not only kind, but the proper thing to do — as a Christian as well as a thinking, feeling human being.


The Truth About Bunnies

Four rabbits. Image via Wikipedia.

Four rabbits. Image via Wikipedia.

This past Sunday, September 25th, was International Rabbit Day, an annual holiday celebrating the joy of bunnies, and also bringing attention and awareness to the many problems both wild and domestic rabbits face. Rabbits are the third most common creature in animal shelters after dogs and cats, yet it’s amazing how little-understood they still are. This is partially due to the fact that, unlike dogs and cats, rabbits are prey animals, the ones who are hunted instead of doing the hunting in the wild, and therefore have a completely different way of looking at the world than do our more common omnivorous companion animals.

Furthermore, there are a number of misconceptions about rabbits that still linger from our past treatment and interaction with them, despite more modern and correct knowledge that has recently come to light. Many people believe rabbits are good pets for children because they require low maintenance, prefer to reside outdoors in hutches, and don’t live very long. On the contrary: rabbits are fragile beings with complex social, medical, and dietary needs; they are incredibly vulnerable to temperature changes and wild predators, making it much safer to keep them indoors; and they have an average lifespan of 10-12 years. Rabbits are a long-term commitment, and no living thing should be taken in merely to provide a “lesson” to a young child who may not be ready for such a responsibility, leaving the animal to suffer.

Rabbit eating greens. Image via Wikipedia.

Rabbit eating greens. Image via Wikipedia.

Many cities still classify rabbits as farm animals, and therefore regulate their care and keeping differently than they do for dogs and cats. Still other places regard rabbits as “exotic” pets, making it hard to find a rabbit-savvy veterinarian. This can make keeping a rabbit difficult, as they do require regular medical care just like other companion animals, sometimes even more so. Their teeth and nails need regular trimming if they don’t have suitable surfaces to chew and dig, and they are very vulnerable to a condition known as gastrointestinal stasis, where their digestive systems spontaneously stop working and emergency care must be provided. People keeping a single rabbit may not see the necessity of having their animal spayed or neutered, but besides the obvious benefits of eliminating the threat of bunny overpopulation – the phrase “breed like rabbits” doesn’t just come out of thin air – there are a lot of other health and behavioral benefits to spaying and neutering as well. Female rabbits are especially vulnerable to reproductive cancers, and will have a drastically reduced lifespan if not spayed. Because rabbits are territorial animals, males can have extreme and often intolerable problems with aggression, destructiveness, and sanitation unless they are neutered.

Rabbit in litter box. Image via Wikipedia.

Rabbit in litter box. Image via Wikipedia.

Rabbits may sound like difficult pets, but they are definitely worth the effort. Like dogs and cats, some rabbits will bond with their human companions and become affectionate, playful, and can even be taught to do tricks. Some rabbits, however, will simply always prefer the company of other rabbits and want little or nothing to do with humans; each bunny’s personality is unique and shaped by their genetics and experiences. The good news, though, is that most rabbits take very well to litter box training. You read that right! If given a box of hay lined with newspaper, most rabbits will instinctively know to urinate in one side of the box and eat from the other. Feces, however, are another story, and even the best rabbits will leave pellets around the house as a territorial marker; fortunately these are dry and odorless, and can be swept or vacuumed up easily.

The House Rabbit Society, founded in 1988, advocates for companion rabbits to be kept indoors as free-range pets, just like dogs and cats. Their website is the most complete resource for companion rabbit information on the Internet. You might also be interested in visiting The Language of Lagomorphs, a remarkable compendium of rabbit quirks and behaviors and what they are meant to communicate – as well as how you can communicate back!

Less is More

Petfinder, the online searchable database of animals in need of homes, has declared the week of September 17-25 to be Adopt-a-Less-Adoptable-Pet Week. Animals usually considered “less adoptable” include senior pets, cats tested positive for FIV, large or “aggressive breed” dogs such as pit bulls, white rabbits with pink eyes, and all animals with special needs or preexisting medical conditions. With most people interested in only adopting puppies or kittens, even adult animals that would be considered highly desirable in their younger days can languish in the shelter system or foster/rescue homes for months.


Consider Yogee, a spaniel/Border Collie mix with The Dawg Squad in Los Angeles. Found in Westchester with a microchip sourced to Highland Park, when his guardians were contacted they said that Yogee had been missing for so long that they assumed he was dead and had gotten another dog. They didn’t want Yogee back. At 12 years old, this sweet-tempered and cuddly boy still has a lot of love to give and deserves a family that will appreciate him.


Then there’s Buzz, a black domestic short hair not even a year old. Born with a deformed eye, Buzz watched all his brothers and sisters get adopted while he stayed behind, overlooked and unwanted. A playful people-lover, Buzz is waiting to find his forever home at A Cat’s Tale in Hawthorne.

Finally, there’s beautiful Erishkegal, a pink-eyed white rabbit with RabbitMatch in Los Angeles. Likely purchased at a pet store as a baby bunny, Erishkegal’s original guardians had no idea how to care for a rabbit and never bothered to clean her living space. As a result, Erishkegal’s feet, tail and belly are permanently stained orange from being forced to sit in her own urine.


All domestic animals – not just the superficially “cute” or purebred ones – deserve a chance to find love. Check out Petfinder’s gallery of “less adoptables,” submitted by the rescue groups who care for them, for even more unfortunate stories of sweet animals in need of forever homes.

7 Billion and Counting: Too Many Humans Means Fewer Animals

7 Billion and Counting

7 Billion and Counting

Have you noticed a difference in the world lately? Do things feel a bit more… crowded? It’s not your imagination. According to the Population Division of the United Nations, the seven billionth human on earth – that’s #7,000,000,000 – will be born this upcoming October 31st.

But this milestone is scary for more reasons that just its accidental coincidence with Halloween. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based environmental nonprofit which works to secure a future for threatened species, “overpopulation and over-consumption are the root causes of environmental destruction.” More humans means more land development and more resource use; for non-human species, it means less habitat, less food – less of absolutely everything. This catastrophic overload of the planet’s resources has inspired the Center to launch the 7 Billion and Counting campaign, intended to bring awareness to the pressure that human beings are putting on the world’s ecosystems. Within this campaign is the Endangered Species Condoms project, a unique and amusing approach to spreading the word about the effect humans are having on imperiled species, and what we as individuals can do to stem the flow (so to speak) of population overgrowth.

The Museum spoke with Amy Harwood, the Center’s overpopulation campaign coordinator, on what seven billion people means for our earth, and what the Center is trying to do about it.

What is the goal of the 7 Billion and Counting campaign?

The goal is to get people to start to connect species extinction to the issue of [human] population growth. Population growth has been an issue for a long time, obviously. There’s been a lot of people working on that issue, and we feel like this component of that issue has been missing. So our hope with this campaign is to elevate it and bring it into people’s minds.

How dire is the threat of human overpopulation to the earth and to the other species that share it with us?

We are currently witnessing a massive species extinction. Some scientists believe it’s the fastest extinction that’s happened on earth. It is totally caused by humans’ impact. The Center for Biological Diversity has been working on that issue [of endangered species] for a long time. We have been working on some of the impact of over-consumption, things that you hear a lot more about: resource use, fossil fuel energy, impact on wild lands… We’re hoping that this becomes another part of that work and continues to further our work on protection for species.

Is anything being done by governmental agencies across the world to bring awareness to this issue?

I think that the history of population growth with regards to government involvement is tricky, because a lot of people think of things like the one-child policy in China. I think that has left a big black eye on this issue, in terms of oppressive policies. But the way we see it is, this is an opportunity for government to see the benefit of making sure that women have access to family planning resources and are empowered to actually take advantage of them, and are actually getting provided education about those access points. To us, working on those policies is really part of the solution, and if we can bring species protection into the incentives for getting those policies the support that they need to remain, then I think we have something new and fresh that people are going to be responding to really well.

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AZA Announces New Elephant Care Regulations

Elephant with keeper at Baltimore Zoo. Image via Wikipedia.

Elephant with keeper at Baltimore Zoo. Image via Wikipedia.

In a press release dated August 22nd, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), considered the leader in assuring and maintaining the quality of captive animal programs both in the United States and in six other countries around the world, announced its intention to require all accredited institutions to implement new elephant management safety protocols by September 2014 in order to maintain their certification. Amongst the new policies is the mandated transition from “free contact” elephant care to “protected contact,” meaning that zookeepers and all other elephant care professionals will be required to have a barrier between themselves and the animal(s) at all times, except in very specific veterinary or transport situations.

The compulsory phaseout of free contact is lauded in a September 14th blog post by elephant keeper Gina Kinzley of the Oakland Zoo, an AZA-accredited institution in the Northern California Bay Area which has required all zoo employees who work with their African elephants to practice protected contact since 1991, following the tragic death of an elephant keeper. Praising the AZA’s new safety protocols as “the biggest breakthrough ever in captive elephant history,” Kinzley notes that, “Elephants will now have the freedom to choose whether or not they want to participate in training and foot care. Elephants will no longer be abused by the bull hook, be yelled and screamed at, and treated in a negative and punishing manner. Elephants will no longer have to give rides to visitors time and time and time again.”

Although the protection of captive elephants from violent and abusive trainers is a definite perk of the new AZA rules, the legislation is primarily aimed at protecting elephant care professionals from their much larger, much stronger pachyderm charges. According to Kinzley, 31 keepers have been injured or killed in free contact management since 1990. The AZA’s own research into protected vs. free contact has found that “the amount of time (both frequency and duration) an elephant care professional spends with an elephant in the same unrestricted space increases occupational risk.”

In addition to regulating how close keepers can get to the elephants, the 2014 protocols also include mandates for increased staff training, semi-annual program safety assessments, daily behavioral logs for each elephant, and the development of a widely-applicable scale/index to measure elephant aggression.

If A Critically Endangered Tiger Dies in a Zoo and Nobody Cares…

Seri. Image via El Paso Zoo.

Seri. Image via El Paso Zoo.

A female tiger is jealous of her mate’s affections for another female, and in her anger, ends up killing her mate instead of her rival.

It could be a great allegory for the absurdity of human jealousy if Aesop had written it. But when it happens in real life, in a zoo setting, with a critically endangered species, should it really be played up for comedic effect?

On September 8, three-year-old female Malayan tiger Seri grabbed six-year-old male Wzui by the neck and killed him at the El Paso Zoo. Seri had been brought to El Paso earlier this year from the San Diego Zoo as an intended mate for Wzui; however, apparently she did not get along well with 15-year-old female Melor, reportedly exhibiting signs of “jealousy” over Wzui’s affections toward Melor.

I’ve seen this story bouncing around the media for the past week or so; the headline always catches my eye, as it invariably refers to a “tiger love triangle” gone awry. As far as I can tell, the source of the original wording of this story came from this Reuters piece; it was then picked up and reprinted in its entirety in the Los Angeles Times. Reuters refers to the incident which led to the male tiger’s death as the result of “months of simmering jealousy in a feline love triangle.”

If Seri had killed her keeper, or escaped and killed a zoo visitor,would the tone of this story be so flippant? And humans aren’t even endangered.

It’s not anthropomorphism to say that animals have emotions, at least not in my opinion. But to act like an incident in which a member of a critically endangered species was killed in a captive setting in a way that may have been entirely preventable is just some wacky animal version of “Melrose Place” strikes me as wildly irresponsible.

Is the El Paso Zoo investigating Wzui’s death and if the keepers could’ve done anything to prevent it? Is Seri a threat to Melor or zoo employees? What will happen to Seri, and what is the fate of the Zoo’s Malayan tiger breeding program? These are all relevant and important questions, yet Reuters makes no effort to answer them in their report.

We need to hold the press accountable when they make grievous errors such as this. Television, print, and online media are where people get their news, and the way that news is presented helps to dictate and influence people’s understanding and feelings toward the particular subject of discussion. If we allow the media to report that the premature death in captivity of a critically endangered animal is just some “human interest” or “weird news” story, it creates the false impression that tigers aren’t endangered, that Wzui’s death isn’t important, and that there was nothing that could’ve been done differently to prevent it. Putting the blame strictly on Seri’s “jealousy” over Wzui’s affections for Melor not only removes culpability from the El Paso Zoo and hampers the cause of tiger conservation – it’s also downright misogynistic, if you ask me.

What do you think the public can do to hold the media accountable for the way they discuss animal issues? How should this story have been presented?

Free Kibble for Irene’s Victims

Freekibble.com, the website which rewards users for answering fun and simple trivia questions by donating pet food to homeless dogs and cats, is today contributing all of their proceeds to help pets in Vermont and North Carolina displaced by Hurricane Irene. The best part is, you don’t even have to answer the trivia question correctly to have ten pieces of kibble donated on your behalf!

Freekibble was launched in 2008 by an 11-year-old girl in Bend, OR, by the name of Mimi Ausland. Freekibble’s primary goal is “to provide healthy, nutritious food to the dogs and cats at shelters who are working so hard to see that none of their animals go hungry.” Anyone who has worked or volunteered for a city shelter knows how dire things can get when the city’s budget cannot meet the animals’ needs. Through Freekibble’s partnership with sponsor Halo, their website now helps to feed thousands of animals in shelters, rescues and food banks across the country. Since its inception in April of 2008, 619,029,020 pieces of kibble have been donated! (Probably more by the time you read this.)

When Hurricane Irene swept through the eastern United States at the end of August, it left a trail of devastation in its wake. Parts of Vermont are still dealing with the aftermath of extreme flooding, and over 11,000 people in North Carolina have registered for federal assistance, with a current estimate of $400 million worth of damage done in that state alone. Read more about what the Central Vermont Humane Society, a beneficiary of today’s Freekibble donations, are doing to help the four-legged victims of this natural catastrophe.

Give Freekibble a click today to help support animal welfare, the ingenuity and generosity of kids like Mimi Ausland, and the pets and people displaced by Hurricane Irene. It’s an easy and painless way to make a difference and show your support.

Working for the World’s Poorest Animals — and People

Carthorse in Mongolia. Image via SPANA.

Carthorse in Mongolia. Image via SPANA.

Yesterday was Labor Day, a U.S. federal holiday which celebrates the economic contributions of America’s workers by giving them a day off. This got me thinking about working animals – police dogs, workhorses, pack mules, and all the others – and how much they contribute to the workforce, not just in our country but the world over. My musings and Google searchings led me to SPANA (Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad), a U.K.-based charity founded in 1923.

Started by a mother and daughter after witnessing the mistreatment of working animals while on a tour of North Africa, SPANA works in some of the world’s poorest countries to offer assistance and free veterinary care to working animals, as well as education to the families and drivers who depend on these creatures for their livelihood. By working to help both the animals and their guardians, SPANA not only rescues suffering animals from further mistreatment based on ignorance, they also foster respect and understanding in the people who are often the victims of crushing poverty and hunger themselves.

“Families often rely on their animals for survival and can be devastated if their horse or donkey is ill or injured and unable to work,” SPANA’s website explains. “There is a lot of misunderstanding about how best to treat a suffering animal and in some cases traditional treatments can cause more suffering to an animal. Taking time to speak to owners about the causes of an illness or injury and educate children about animal welfare helps prevent future suffering.”

These days SPANA works primarily in Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Mali, Syria, Mauritania, Ethiopia and Algeria, where their 21 mobile veterinary clinics provided treatment to over 380,000 working animals last year alone. They have done additional outreach in another 25 countries, and have been on the scene to respond to emergencies in Zimbabwe, Chad, Iraq, Kenya and Sudan.

A victim of the African drought. Image via SPANA.

A victim of the African drought. Image via SPANA.

Right now, SPANA is working in East Africa to help stem the effects of the terrible drought which has thrown 12 million people and their animals into crisis. The group has been working hard to provide food to livestock close to starvation in order to prevent a further humanitarian crisis for the famine-ravaged people of Ethiopia and northeast Kenya. “The poor pastoralist communities depend on animals for their livelihoods – for milk, for trade, for transport,” says SPANA. “Without animals their future is bleak.”

You can donate now to SPANA’s African drought relief efforts, or simply take the time to read more about the current situation and SPANA’s work. I think they’re an incredible charity working diligently to save the lives of both animals and people in need of assistance, care, and understanding.

Vultures Rock Poetry Contest

In the spirit of vulture awareness, the website Vultures Rock, a project by Princeton Ph.D. candidate Corinne Kendall who is studying vultures in Kenya, is launching a vulture-themed poetry contest for kids ages 8 to 12. The deadline for submitting your entry is October 10th ; three winners will be announced October 28th, just in time for Halloween. The winning entries will be published on the Vultures Rock website, and the authors will each receive an iPod Shuffle! Here’s a little more information about the contest:

Help Us Get Out the Word That Vultures Rock Through Your Poems!

If you think about all the things that vultures do for the environment, they really do ROCK! But vultures are in big trouble. Their numbers are dropping around the world, mainly because people know so little about them and why they need to be protected.

To honor vultures for Halloween 2011 and also help raise awareness of their plight, Vultures Rock is sponsoring a poetry contest for kids ages 8 to 12. Write a poem on a topic related to vultures, such as: why vultures are important to our world, what vultures look like, why vultures are beautiful, what’s happening to the world’s vultures, or something spooky about vultures and Halloween – or choose a topic of your own that describes how you think vultures rock.

Check out Vultures Rock for more information and full contest rules.

To help inspire you, here is a poem by American poet Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962), simply titled “Vulture.”

I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean. I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing, I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring. I said, “My dear bird, we are wasting time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.” But how beautiful he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him.
To be eaten by that beak and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes–
What a sublime end of one’s body, what an enskyment; what a life after death.

Africa’s Magnificent “Ugly Five”

Hyena and vultures. Image via Wikipedia.

Hyena and vultures. Image via Wikipedia.

Perhaps you’ve heard the term “Big Five” tossed around in reference to African safaris. Originally coined to designate the five most difficult savannah animals to hunt, the Big Five are now considered by the African tourism industry to be the top five most popular animals that visitors yearn to see on safari. These are the lion, African elephant, cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. But what about the Ugly Five? That’s right – this alternate list attempts to enumerate the top five ugliest animals to see on safari. Who are these unfortunate five?

The wildebeest, spotted hyena, warthog, Marabou stork, and – you guessed it – the vulture.

As someone who’s worked up close and personal with both warthogs and spotted hyenas in a zoo setting, I have a lot to say about this list! Like all members of the pig family, warthogs are incredibly smart, and their mighty tusks make them highly formidable prey for any predator. They can also be quite gentle when they want to, as with raising piglets or eating grain out of a zookeeper’s hand (something I used to look forward to doing every morning!). Recent studies on spotted hyenas have shown that they are better cooperative problem-solvers than chimpanzees, not to mention statistically more successful at pack-hunting than lions (despite what Disney may tell you). Wildebeests are known for their mass migrations, and possess an uncanny “swarm intelligence,” whereby the animals systematically explore and overcome individual obstacles as one. The plumage of the Marabou stork has been used for centuries in the trimming of various clothing such as feather boas and hats – if we humans think they’re so ugly, why are we so eager to wear them?!? As for vultures, well, we’ve already discussed how beautiful and majestic they are. Plus, as previously stated, the savannah would be a much uglier place if it weren’t for their janitorial services.

In conclusion, check out these Flickr portraits of these five so-called “ugly” animals and see for yourself how beautiful they can be.

Portrait of Wildebeest (DSC_0102), by Schristia
Spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), by Arno & Louise Wildlife
Self Portrait, by Envisage Photography
Marabou Stork, by Skylarkerette
Königsgeier / King Vulture, by klausdgrio