Ape apologist: apes escape because they can

March 17, 2010

Following Dallas Zoo’s recent embarrassing incident, The Dallas Morning News quizzed Kristen Lukas, who holds the gorilla chair at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan.

Dr Lukas is evidently an individual of exquisite taste and subtlety, since her answers betray a close reading of these pages. Asked whether gorillas are more likely than other species to spring from confinement, she answered:

I am not aware of any data that would [support that conclusion]. I am aware of a wide range of animals that have breached containment in a zoo, including birds, turtles, snakes, monkeys, carnivores, insects and hoof stock, in addition to apes. You may be aware that 30 chimpanzees escaped a British zoo enclosure last year, for example. I think the evidence to date suggests orangutans [like Pulang and Karta] and are among the most creative escape artists.

When asked to consider what should be done to prevent animal escapes from zoos, Dr Lukas answered:

… things can happen unexpectedly. Equipment can fail, infrastructure can age and human error can lead to opportunities for animals to breach containment. In short: Animals escape because they can.

Read the Q&A in full.

When she is not (allegedly) reading idiotic animal escape blogs in her spare time, Dr Lukas works to understand the behaviour of captive animals — especially primates — with a view to improving their welfare.


Boffins: “Dolphins are people too”

March 9, 2010

America’s top scientists recently pondered the question “Is a dolphin a person?” in a timely beard-stroking session at the annual AAAS meeting, Science reports.

Scientists have finally joined the long list of hippies, teenage girls and vegetarians who have come to the conclusion that, since dolphinkind rates among the smartest crews ever to clutter God’s bluish-green Earth, they are deserving of a greater measure of our respect.

“They are the second most encephalized beings on the planet,” Lori Marino, neuroanatomist at Emory University, Atlanta, GA, told ScienceNOW.

Found among Marino’s research is a fascinating paper on the convergence of behaviours between primates and toothed whales, which includes a thought-provoking discussion of the neuroanatomy of dolphins.

Primates and dolphins share a number of abilities — in sociality, problem solving, and self recognition — despite embarking on separate evolutionary paths around the time the Spinosaurus went the way of the dodo 95 million years ago.

But what is especially surprising about this convergence in behaviour is the divergence in brain structure betwen the groups.

The brains of great apes — and especially humans — show elongation in the lengthwise axis, especially in the region of the frontal lobes (above the eyes, dimwit). Experiments involving human individuals whose frontal regions have been (more or less deliberately) damaged have established the importance of this area in executive function.

And yet among the toothed whales, this region is almost non-exisent; instead, the cetacean brain exhibits expansion across the lateral axis.

Quite literally, they have more between the ears than we do.

But wait: there’s more. Detailed sections of the dolphin brain have revealed the presence of a layer of tissue that is completely absent in primates — a paralimbic cortex whose function is “largely unknown”.

This raises the intriguing possibility that dolphins, with whom we seem to share so much, quite literally cannot percieve the world in the same way we do.

Nevertheless, our neuroanatomical differences notwithstanding, philosopher Thomas White of Loyola Marymount University in Redondo Beach, CA, is bold enough to call dolphins “non-human persons”.

[Dolphins are] alive, aware of their environment, have emotions … seem to have personalities, exhibit self-controlled behavior, and treat others appropriately, even ethically

Provoking the world’s complement of philosophers, White said: “When it comes to what defines a person, dolphins fit the bill.”

Pouring out the measure of scorn traditionally required by each new announcement from the scientific community, Dr. Jacopo Annese, neuronatomist at the University of California, San Diego, scowled across the AAAS table: “We don’t know, even in humans, what is the relationship between brain structure and function, let alone intelligence.”


Whale kills trainer at SeaWorld Orlando

February 25, 2010

A SeaWorld employee was killed by a captive killer whale yesterday, 24th Febuary, The Orlando Sentinel, The Associated Press, and dozens of others report.

Dawn Brancheau, 40, one of the most experienced trainers on SeaWorld’s books, was addressing guests at the “Dine with Shamu” poolside buffet when tragedy struck.

Initial reports were confused, stating that Brancheau had slipped or fallen into the tank before being attacked by the whale. But eyewitness reports emerged later, indicating the trainer was taken by the whale while she stood at the edge of the tank.

“The trainer was explaining different things about the whale and then the trainer that was down there walked away from the window. Then Tilly [Tilikum – the whale] took off really fast in the tank and he came back, shot up in the air, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started thrashing [her] around,” Victoria Biniak told WKMG TV.

“He was thrashing her around pretty good. It was violent.”

Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld’s Corporate Curator of Zoological Operations, later confirmed to Reuters: “She was rubbing the killer whale’s head, and [it] grabbed her and pulled her in [to the tank]”.

Brancheau died from “multiple traumatic injuries and drowning” having been pulled underwater by her pony tail, Orlando County Sherrif’s Office told the Orlando Sentinel. “Rescuers were not able to immediately jump in and render assistance” owing to the whale’s “aggressive nature.”

The 30-year-old bull killer whale, Tilikum, is so large and dangerous that SeaWorld Orlando trainers are instructed not to enter the tank with him. Indeed the beast has been implicated in two previous deaths.

Prior to being sold to SeaWorld, Tilikum was held at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia. In February 1991, 20-year-old University of Victoria marine biology student Keltie Byrne was killed by three whales, one of them Tilikum, after she slipped and fell into their tank. SeaWorld purchased Tilikum from the Canadian facility in 1992; shortly thereafter, Sealand closed.

In 1999, the naked body of a man was found draped across Tilikum’s back at SeaWorld Orlando. Daniel Dukes had apparently slipped through security at the amusement park under cover of darkness, stripped, and had either jumped or fallen into the tank. The cause of his death was later found to be hypothermia and drowning, but Dukes’ body showed evidence he had been in the whale’s jaws.

With its sorry history of whale attacks on trainers, SeaWorld has been the subject of intense scrutiny, including mine, and the latest incident has prompted the WDCS, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Orlando Sentinel to renew calls for a moratorium on killer whale captivity.

The behaviour of these captive whales contrasts starkly with that of their wild counterparts, among whom there are no documented attacks on humans.

The contrast is most poignantly illuminated by the case of Luna, a killer whale abandoned by his pod in Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

The subject of a recent BBC Natural World documentary, Luna looked to humanity for companionship in the absence of his cetacean brethren.

He became totemic in a three-way struggle between the First Nations of British Coumbia, well-meaning Canadians who wished to relieve the loneliness they perceived in him, and conservation workers concerned that human contact would end in tragedy.

In the end, their worst fears were realised when Luna was killed by a tugboat propeller in March 2006.

The question now is whether Tilikum will pay a similarly heavy price for his association with humanity, an association that, unlike Luna’s, is entirely outside his control.

Update: Three options are open to SeaWorld: keep, release, or destroy Tilikum. Chuck Tompkins, SeaWorld’s Corporate Curator of Zoological Operations, has ruled out euthanasia. When asked whether SeaWorld should release the killer whale into the wild, Tompkins answered, apparenly without irony: “I think it’s unfair to do that to an animal.”


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.


Dallas zookeeper disciplined following gorilla escape

February 23, 2010

A keeper at Dallas Zoo has been suspended following the escape of a gorilla, Dallas Morning News and Associated Press report.

A momentary lapse of the unnamed zookeeper’s attention allowed the 180lb beast the freedom of the Gorilla Research Center. The keeper “failed to verify the area was empty before stepping away to gather cleaning equipment,” according to Dallas Zoo Executive Director Gregg Hudson.

Tufani, the 19-year-old great ape, was summarily tranquilized before being carted back to her pen.

Although the massive primate was not afforded the liberty of public areas of the zoo, which was nevertheless closed at the time of her escape, the incident provides an uncomfortable reminder of a previous tragedy at Dallas Zoo.

In 2004, a 14-year-old female gorilla scaled the walls of her encolsure and went on a rampage, leaving three people injured before she was mown down in a hail of police bullets.

AP reports that security measures were “beefed up” following the 2004 incident, but the changes appear to be no remedy for human absent-mindedness.


World’s oldest dog put down

January 16, 2010

The title of World’s Oldest Dog has been vacated following the sad demise of Otto, the Dachshund-Terrier cross, BBC News reports.

The Shropshire resident was a month shy of his 21st birthday when his owners, Lynn and Peter Jones, took the unenviable decision to have him euthanased.

Otto had been suffering from a stomach tumour, and could no longer tolerate his discomfort.

“He couldn’t sit or lie down comfortably and he was trying to tell us that he’d had enough, so we made the decision to end his suffering and took him to the vet this morning,” Mrs Jones told the BBC.


Hippo escapes from Montenegro zoo

January 16, 2010

A hippopotamus remains at large having escaped from a Montenegrin zoo, BBC News reports.

Nikica, a two-tonne Hippopotamus, made good her escape when floodwaters swelled the pond in her enclosure sufficiently that she cleared its fence.

Montenegro’s natural disasters commission, which busies itself with the fallout from floods such as these, told The Guardian that they were required by law to destroy the behemoth.

Dragan Pejovic, the hippo’s custodian, countered with assurances that Nikica poses no danger to humanity “unless someone attacks and kicks her.”

Despite swimming free of her enclosure, the semi-aquatic quadruped remains in Pejovic’s care, residing as she does in a swimming pool at a restaurant he jointly owns with his brother.

Pejovic’s assurances notwithstanding, diners at his establishment should think twice before heading to the pool. As cracked.com notes, Steve Irwin, who routinely slapped crocodiles about the face for laughs, was terrified of hippos.


Camel horde besieges Australian town

November 26, 2009

When camels come, they come not single spies but in battalions

A town in Australia’s Northern Territory has been besieged by legions of thirsty camels, The Times reports.

Residents of Docker River, NT, are even now trembling in their homes as a thundering herd of feral dromedaries lays waste to their town in search of liquid sustenance.

Townsfolk first noticed the vanguard of the humpbacked horde in October, as a few desperate dromedaries sought respite from Australia’s endless drought. As the weeks wore on, the thirsty beasts gradually swelled in number, cracking open fire hydrants and moisture condensers in an attempt to slake their burning thirst.

“Some people are opening their windows and all they see is camels,” Graham Taylor, chief executive of the MacDonnell Shire Council, told The Times.

Taylor has secured emergency funding from Northern Territory’s local government to hire helicopter-borne marksmen in an effort to exterminate the marauders from the air.

However, reports have emeged that a division of camels has seized control of the local airport, “causing problems with medical evacuations.”

“More and more keep arriving! The numbers are building daily!” Taylor screamed into a shortwave radio, moments before he was replaced by the sinister hiss of static.

Camels were introduced to the antipodes in the mid-nineteenth century in an attempt to tame the arid interior. Having lately cast off the shackles of human bondage, the creatures have successfully established a feral population that is estimated to exceed a million in number.

Through wanton environmental destructiveness, they have earned themselves an A$19m price on their heads. But if this month’s developments are any guide, the Australian federal government has had its work cut out.


Crazed kangaroo tries to drown man, dog

November 24, 2009

Following March’s lunatic ninja kangaroo attack, Australia’s marsupial population appears to have developed aquatic kung-fu skills, ABC News reports.

Chris Rickard, 49, of Arthur’s Creek, Victoria, inadvertantly surprised a sleeping ‘roo, which immediately sprang into the nearest body of water.

Rickard’s canine companion, Rocky, failed to suppress his instincts and gave chase, but was immediately bogwashed for his trouble.

Caring naught for the consequences, the valorous Victorian waded into the billabong in an attempt to rescue his pooch, but was rewarded with deep gashes to his abdomen and a visit to the local A&E.

“I thought I might take a hit or two dragging the dog out from under his grip, but I didn’t expect him to actually attack me,” an incredulous Rickard told ABC News from his hospital bed.

“They [Kangaroos] don’t go around killing people,” Rickard said, adding: “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch Skippy quite the same.”

Rocky, being a dog, was of course completely unharmed.


World’s oldest sheep bleats its last

November 24, 2009

The world’s oldest living sheep has shuffled off its wooly coil at the ripe old age of 23, BBC News reports.

Lucky the ewe, of Lake Bolac, Victoria failed to live up to her name during a recent heatwave.

Lucky had been hand reared from birth by Mrs Delrae Westgarth, who unsuccessfully attempted to save the animal from the stress of the 30°C scorcher by running air conditioning units in her sheep shed.

The vicenarian ovine was buried under her favourite fruit tree in a private ceremony, and is mourned by her 35 offspring. No flowers, please.