Zoo chimp drowns in escape attempt

June 9, 2010

A chimpanzee has drowned during an attempt to escape from Veszprém Zoo in Hungary, pestiside.hu reports.

Ghafula, an 11 year old female, had recently been transferred to the Hungarian facility from her previous quarters in Amersfoort, in the Netherlands.

The chimpanzee failed to settle in her new home, and, in a bid for freedom, attempted to ford the eight metre moat surrounding her enclosure. She was soon out of her depth, and foundered. Keepers rushed to her aid but were unable to resuscitate her.

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4,000 lb rhino escapes Jacksonville zoo

May 8, 2010

A monstrous rhinoceros escaped his pen at a zoo in Jacksonville, FL, The Florida Times-Union reports.

Archie the rhinoceros

Look at the size of him!

Keepers attempted to lure Archie back to his enclosure with food, but to no avail. Eventually the prodigious perissodactyl was sedated and hauled back behind bars. At no time were the public in danger, since the brute remained contained behind a second fence.

Rhinoceroses are not, of course, renowned for their cunning or dexterity. Neither were required for Archie to secure his freedom, since (surprise surprise) a keeper had left a gate open.


Wildlife documentaries “breach animals’ privacy”

May 4, 2010

Recent human concerns about the expansion of the surveillance state, to the extent that one’s every waking moment is observed by sinister officials peering at flickering CCTV screens, have been echoed by a lecturer in film studies at the UEA. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, Brett Mills is not concerned with privacy in the human realm.

Instead, in a recent article for Continuum: the Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, Mills contends that BBC Bristol’s documentaries, including Nature’s Great Events, “use newer forms of technology to overcome species’ desire not to be seen,” and in so doing “deny many species the right to privacy”.

“We have an assumption that humans have some right to privacy, so why do we not assume that for other species, particularly when they are engaging in behaviour that suggests they don’t want to be seen?” Mills rhetorically asks The Guardian.

Your spiny correspondent has frequently speculated that houses are merely artificial caves, to which humans retreat for a bit of shelter from the elements, predators of various stripes, and prying eyes. Mills seems to ask the devastatingly obvious question of whether a beastly lair addresses not only the first two concerns, but also the third.

“We can never really know if animals are giving consent, but they do often engage in forms of behaviour which suggest they’d rather not encounter humans,” Mills argues.

So next time a beluga whale dives under the arctic ice, or a badger pegs it for the safety of his sett, the BBC should think twice before gleefully deploying some fiendishly clever invaso-probe to winkle Nature’s dank mysteries out into the glare of human scrutiny.

Perhaps we can go one further than Mills. Unlike the denizens of human zoo Big Brother, this video of Javan rhinoceroses suggests the critically endangered mammals have no great love for the jungle paparazzi.

For their part, however, BBC Bristol mounted an eminently sensible defence of their activities, countering that their techniques allow them “to film animal behaviour with minimal disruption to the animal.”

“Natural history films play a major role in spreading knowledge of [scientists’] work. And understanding the world around is vital in the continuing endeavour to preserve our ecosystem,” they state.

Ros Coward, writing in The Guardian, links Mills’ research with a further two studies that suggest chimpanzees mourn their dead in a recent article discussing the ascription of emotions to non-human animals.

Coward longs “to see an end to claims of human superiority based on the belief that animals, even if they feel, do not have the ‘higher’ emotions of humans.” But she warns against “unscientific” interpretations of the chimpanzee funeral footage, preferring robust, falsifiable experiments.

Happily, such studies exist: baboons show elevated levels of stress hormones and engage in more social grooming activities following the death of a close relative. But it does not necessarily follow that they are “grieving” in the human sense of the word.

“If we assume animals have identical emotions to humans, perhaps we will insist on treating them as human. But until we know what animals really feel and what those feelings are, then treating them as identical to humans might be just as cruel as ignoring their feelings,” Coward writes.

Of course “treating animals as human” would require that they be endowed with certain inalienable rights humanity cherishes for itself. Most people would probably concede that animals have some kind of right to an existence without unnecessary pain or suffering, even if those terms are not particularly well-defined. Others, of course, demand that animals have a right to life, without ever quite adequately explaining why, if animals are not meant to be eaten, they are nevertheless made of meat. Now Mills suggests that the beasts have a right to privacy. How long, we are forced to ask, before they are afforded the right to representation?

Before this all gets out of hand, and we hear speeches in the House of Lords delivered in ultrasonic clicks, or we see faeces literally flung at the Prime Minister by Her Majesty’s Loyal Apeposition, humanity can reassure itself with the knowledge that, for the time being at least, dolphins still form pods, not political parties, and chimpanzees are organised in troupes, not trade unions.


Pig transporter overturns on motorway

April 12, 2010

A pig transporter has overturned on the M4 motorway in Wiltshire, UK, BBC News reports.

Dozens of porkers were spilled from the double-decker trailer. Thirteen swine are confirmed dead, and vets are treating an unspecified number of injured.

A spokesman for Wiltshire Police told the BBC: “The remainder have been recovered into a second transporter.”

But a Highways Agency spokesman appeared to contradict the Police’s claim, saying the emergency services were merely “doing their best to round them up”.

Motorists are advised to avoid the area, between Junctions 17 (Chippenham) and 18 (Bath), or to bring plentiful supplies of white bread and brown sauce.

Whether a media frenzy similar to that which greeted the Tamworth Two‘s escape remains to be seen.


Can animals commit suicide?

March 29, 2010

An article in Endeavour ponders the peculiar question of whether animals can commit suicide.

Animals routinely indulge in behaviours that, should they be undertaken by humans, would be labelled suicidal. Strangled exotic goats are mourned as victims of circumstance. Kamikaze cliff-diving cows are presumed clumsy. Some, like Poppy the spaniel, who fling themselves headlong from clifftops and live to bark the tale, are considered reckless in the pursuit of quarry.

None is thought to be bidding addio a questo mondo cruele, because, no matter how baffling the means,

it is commonly assumed that suicide is a distinctly human act. Lacking the capacity to visualise and enact their own deaths, animals are seen to be driven by an instinct of self-preservation.

Human lives, on the other hand, are not governed by such base concerns, and their owners are at liberty, by the force of their superior intellects, to engage in self-destruction. For the modern mind, the notion of animal suicide is abhorrent:

By granting animals the capacity to take their own lives, they [are] granted emotion, intelligence, consciousness.

It was not ever thus, the Endeavour article notes, citing Aristotle’s noble Scythian stallion, who offed himself once he discovered he had committed the Oedipal sin. Later, Victorian minds were fascinated by tales of

a canvasback duck that drowned itself at the loss of its mate, a cat that hanged itself on a branch following the death of its kittens, a horse that leapt into a canal after years of maltreatment and numerous dogs that starved to death on the graves of their masters.

Many scientists would dismiss such accounts as so much sentimental, anthropomorphising nonsense. But the myth of the suicidal animal refuses to die (so to speak). Time raises the ghost of Kathy the dolphin, who “looked [her trainer Richard O’Barry] in the eye, sank to the bottom of a steel tank and stopped breathing.”

O’Barry is unequivocal about what he witnessed, telling Time: “The [animal entertainment] industry doesn’t want people to think dolphins are capable of suicide, but these are self-aware creatures with a brain larger than a human brain. If life becomes so unbearable, they just don’t take the next breath. It’s suicide.”

The notion that animals will choose death over suffering is simultaneously challenging and appealing. In a scene that is probably played out many times a day away from the eyes of the media, Otto the dachshund “was trying to tell [his owners] that he’d had enough,” and was put down “to end his suffering”. In such circumstances, it is tempting, if not particularly instructive, to redefine euthanasia as assisted animal suicide.

The nature of suicide: science and the self-destructive animal is available to subscribers from ScienceDirect. Lay personnel can probably find it here, pending the intervention of the law.

(Spotter’s badge: Tim)


Calgary snakes escape down drain

March 9, 2010

A pair of snakes at Calgary zoo slithered their way towards freedom through an open drain, CBC News reports.

The brace of Malagasy giant hognose snakes were returned to confinement following an exhaustive search of 274 metres of shit smelling foulness I can’t even imagine.

Zoo officials were at pains to point out that the snakes could not have entered the city’s sewer system, nor are they venomous: probably points one and two on the public’s escaped snake panic card.

Having snake-shaped tunnels littered around the vivarium might seem a bit of a blunder on the part of the zoo’s designers, but Cathy Gaviller, Calgary zoo’s director of conservation, education and research, laid the blame squarely at the door of the Human Error department:

“A normal procedure that was put in place seven years ago when we opened the building wasn’t followed,” she frowned.

No prizes for guessing that the “normal procedure”, in this case, involves closing the drain after cleaning it.

The hognosed snakes were closely followed by a hogbodied python that proved too fat to fit through the pipework, stage-whispering “Go on without me; I’ll only slow you down.”

CBC News notes that Calgary zoo has attracted the opprobrium of animal rights activists, who point to the zoo’s dismal record of keeping its inmates alive.

In recent years, the zoo has failed in its duty of care to a baby elephant, a hippo, a suicidal wild goat, four gorillas, more than 40 asphyxiated stingrays, and a solitary capybara that was crushed to death by a hydraulic gate.

Happily, on this occasion, all three snakes lived to escape another day.


Tokyo zoo runs tiger escape drill

February 23, 2010

Ueno Zoo in Tokyo has run its biannual animal escape drill, stuff.co.nz reports.

In characteristically unconventional style, the Japanese zookeepers have indulged in a little cosplay; the place of the escaped beast is taken by a furry who roams the zoo and terrorizes human onlookers.

Previous years’ escaped “animals” have been rhinoceroses, zebras, gorillas and polar bears. But this year being toradoshi, Ueno’s marauding mammal has taken the form of the tiger.