On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

Animals in Domestic Abuse Shelters Help Humans To Heal

Therapy dogs. Image via Wikipedia.

Therapy dogs. Image via Wikipedia.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and though violence in the home is tragic, there are stories of triumph that are important to learn about as well. When someone flees their home due to domestic violence, often they have to do so with little more than just the clothes on their backs. This is clearly a trying time as they are separated not only from their homes but also from loved ones, as they must avoid providing clues as to their whereabouts while escaping from their abusive partners or guardians. This is where a little-known type of therapy animal steps in. Domestic abuse shelters are increasingly employing dogs and cats to lift the spirits of adults and children who have fled abusive environments.

Many people already know that dogs and cats are used in hospitals and rest homes in order to bring love and comfort to the patients and residents. Domestic abuse shelters are now implementing a similar strategy. Studies have shown that interaction with an animal can lower blood pressure, battle depression, and help increase mental stability. Also, for those who had to leave their pets behind, having a therapy animal in the shelter brings a little bit of home to an unfamiliar place.

Safe Horizon, an advocacy organization for victims of domestic violence, explains why therapy animals are so beneficial: they don’t judge, they just love. Also, “a physically or sexually abused child may not want anyone – not even their non-offending parent – to touch them. Yet they will want to pet, hold, or even hug a dog or cat.” The animal can also provide a non-threatening presence to whom the child may verbally communicate feelings. Somewhat like when a child speaks through a doll to let go of secrets and feelings, when the child talks to a therapy animal s/he does so with his or her guard down because the child knows that the animal doesn’t understand the specific words. The child can say anything s/he needs to release and not fear having it come back.

This is just another example of how animals can bring joy and peace into the lives of humans in a multitude of ways.


National Veterinary Technician Week

This week, October 9-15th, is National Veterinary Technician Week. Veterinary technicians, also known as animal health technicians or paraveterinary workers, are the nurses of the veterinary world, performing duties ranging from taking an animal’s temperature or pulse, to cleaning and dressing wounds, to analyzing biological samples such as blood or skin scrapings, to operating machinery such as x-rays and electrocardiograms. I feel the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA), the creators of Vet Tech Week, explain the need for this event best, so I’ll let them take it from here.

Pets are important members for many families, yet sometimes they don’t receive the care they deserve. As a member of the veterinary healthcare team, veterinary technicians are educated in the latest medical advances and skilled at working alongside veterinarians to give pets the best medical care possible. They work closely with the veterinarians, veterinary assistants, practice managers, patients and owners [sic] to provide the essential link with all involved in the care process.

The National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America, Inc. (NAVTA) has proclaimed October 9 – 15, 2011 to be National Veterinary Technician Week. “Technicians are an integral part of the veterinary healthcare team, and celebrating National Veterinary Technician Week gives them the credit they deserve. It also provides an opportunity to teach the public about what veterinary technicians do on a daily basis,” says Sandy Sponaugle, NAVTA Communications Director. This annual event recognizes veterinary technicians for their contributions in pet healthcare, as well as veterinarians, assistants, practice managers and others involved in this care. This year, Hill’s Pet Nutrition, a company dedicated to helping pets reach their full potential through quality nutrition and healthcare, is sponsoring the week-long celebration.

NAVTA is a nonprofit organization that represents and promotes the veterinary technician profession. NAVTA provides direction, education, support and coordination for its members. Incorporated in 1981, NAVTA is the national organization devoted exclusively to developing and enhancing the profession of veterinary technology. Pets give us unconditional love and veterinary technicians give us peace of mind. For this reason, they should be celebrated during National Veterinary Technician Week. More information about NAVTA and this special week can be found at http://www.navta.net or by calling 888.99NAVTA.

On Search and Rescue Canines

Red Cross dog, 1909. Image via Wikipedia.

Red Cross dog, 1909. Image via Wikipedia.

Dogs are among some of the most beneficial animals to humans. They have long been appreciated for their loyalty to humans above most other animals, and valued for their heightened senses. Their sense of smell in particular is extraordinary, which makes them an invaluable aid to humans in an investigative capacity. Dogs are internationally used in police and security outfits as drug detectors for this reason, and more impressively, as search and rescue (SAR) dogs.

One of the earliest uses of dogs in the search and rescue position was during World War I. Dogs were used by the Red Cross across Europe to search for the wounded on the battlefield. The French Army also employed the animals as “ambulance dogs” for a similar purpose. Today there are several national services, including the Red Cross, the American Rescue Dog Association (ARDA) and FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, who raise and train dogs for this purpose. Red Cross, ARDA, and FEMA have been present at many of the major disasters in the last decade, including 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the recent Japan earthquake. At the World Trade Center after 9/11, an estimated 300 SAR dogs were present.

There are two types of SAR dogs: airscent dogs, who are trained to sniff the air for and detect a scent and alert their handler to the location of the scent; and tracking dogs, who nose the ground to track a scent given them ahead of time, allowing them to track a person through their steps. The most common dogs trained for airscenting are Golden and Labrador Retrievers. Due to their sturdy build and playful nature, they are generally not stressed by the work of a SAR dog, and their naturally docile temperament makes them easy to work with and extremely loyal to their handlers. It also raises their protective instincts towards humans. Collies and Shepherd breeds are also common due to their strong herding instincts. Most dog breeds can be trained for tracking, however the most common are hounds, who are renowned particularly for their ability to follow a scent.

Handling a SAR dog is a constant task, with training beginning usually in early life, puppyhood preferably. The dogs must be trained in basic obedience in order to maintain their own safety. They are also trained in agility and, of course, scenting. The most essential training for a SAR dog, however, is bonding with their handler. The handler must not only be a trainer to the dog, but also a friend. The reason, after all, that dogs make such effective creatures for this line of work stems from their natural inclination to serve, protect, and obey their human pack.

While the training can be difficult, and dogs are sometimes put in dangerous situations in order to protect human life in the line of SAR work, the dogs lead, on the whole, good and happy lives. They are necessarily well-cared for by their trainers, praised for their work, and kept in constant exercise and diversion in the course of the task. Most importantly, the dogs serve an essential function that humans who have been found by them will forever be grateful for, and humans who train them will always respect.

World Animal Day

St. Francis statue. Image via Wikipedia.

St. Francis statue. Image via Wikipedia.

Initiated in 1931 by a convention of ecologists in Florence, Italy, seeking to bring awareness to the plight of endangered species, World Animal Day is now held every October 4th, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). Known as the patron saint of animals due to a popular collection of folktales, Fioretti di San Francesco (Little Flowers of St. Francis), penned a century and a half after his death, St. Francis is said to have preached the duty of men to protect nature as well as the duty of non-human animals to give glory to God. In recognition of his feast day, many churches hold a Blessing of the Animals, which has also been carried over to synagogues and other places of worship along with nondenominational community centers, animal shelters, and parks.

This is the Blessing of Pets commonly read over animal visitors at Franciscan churches:

Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures! Amen.

The mission statement of World Animal Day designates October 4th as a day “to celebrate animal life in all its forms; to celebrate humankind’s relationship with the animal kingdom; to acknowledge the diverse roles that animals play in our lives – from being our companions, supporting and helping us, to bringing a sense of wonder into our lives; [and] to acknowledge and be thankful for the way in which animals enrich our lives.” On October 1st, the National Museum of Animals & Society launched Souls Awakened, an online community art and photo exhibition designed to show and tell the individual stories of animals that have changed how we feel, how we think, how we act, and who we are. While you spend time today reflecting on how animals have impacted your life, consider contributing your image and story to our collection and becoming a part of our shared history.

World Farm Animals’ Day

Image via Wikipedia.

Image via Wikipedia.

On October 2, 1869, in the Indian seaside town of Porbandar, Karamchand and Putlibai Gandhi welcomed into the world an infant who would grow up to become an incredible force for change – for both people and animals. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, often referred to as Mahatma, is recognized for leading his countrymen (and women!) in a crusade for independence, but he’s less widely known for his genuine compassion for animals.

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated.

Animals too, he believed, benefited from the tenets of nonviolence and justice. Gandhi advocated for better, more humane farming practices as well as for a vegetarian diet. During his years in the UK, Gandhi was involved in the London Vegetarian Society and contributed quite a bit to the weekly newspaper aptly named The Vegetarian.

To my mind, the life of a lamb is no less precious than that of a human being. I should be unwilling to take the life of a lamb for the sake of the human body. I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man.

I feel that spiritual progress does demand at some stage that we should cease to kill our fellow creatures for the satisfaction of our bodily wants.

Fast forward 142 years after Gandhi’s day of birth. October 2, 1983 marked the first celebration of World Farm Animals Day, an event created by the Farm Animal Rights Movement in memory of Gandhi’s life and contributions towards farm animal welfare. In the 28 years that this event has taken place, participants the globe over have initiated creative means for enlightening the public to the plight of farm animals on factory-style farms: vigils, marches, leafleting, tabling, cage-ins, and video displays. 2011 promises to be another innovative year with the use of the new Pay Per View campaign. Participants, who would otherwise shy away from knowing what takes place on factory farms, are paid $1 to watch a few minutes of undercover footage. They say an image speaks a thousand words. These videos speak millions.

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.