Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Nim Chimpsky by Elizabeth Hess

Hindsight is 20/20, especially when it comes to scientific studies that are revealed to have been miscalculated only in retrospect. Such is the true story behind Project Nim, an experiment that revealed the long-term consequences of exploiting a primate for research. A result of interviews and historical records collected by journalist Elizabeth Hess, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human is a tragic, funny and maddening story of misguided attempts at scientific advances resulting in animal cruelty, and a character study of a much loved yet much mistreated chimp.

Project Nim was an attempt on the part of Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace to disprove Noam Chomsky’s theory that the capacity for language belongs exclusively to humans. Taken from his mother at birth, Nim was placed in a human family in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and raised as one of the children, while taking lessons in American Sign Language. Yet as human as he was, it soon became clear that Nim’s feral nature could not be contained, and the experiment was subsequently deemed a failure. When Project Nim ended, the chimp was abandoned by the only family he knew, and rotated throughout various facilities, from a chimp breeding farm to a medical research lab. It was his signing ability—along with the fame he amassed as a result of the study—that would save his life.

Given that Project Nim took place during the 70s, the personal dramas of the people involved were influenced by the zeitgeist of the era: a time of increasing political activism, hippie culture, the sexual revolution and women’s liberation. By detailing the cultural backdrop, Hess successfully provides some rhyme and reason to the uninformed and deplorable actions on the part of the researchers, from substance abuse and marital infidelities to punishing Nim with solitary confinement. Additionally, Hess always makes it clear that there are few clear-cut heroes and villains, and that their intentions, whether good or bad, have little bearing on the outcomes.

Hess characterizes Nim himself as not unlike a human child: mischievous, playful, unruly, and endearingly creative in his means of disobedience. But the professionals involved would eventually realize the hard way their own cardinal sin of anthropomorphizing a primate; a fact that became clear during attempts to socialize Nim with other chimpanzees after a lifetime spent with humans. What appears infuriatingly obvious to modern readers was not so to these seemingly intelligent psychologists and linguists whose actions are now considered not only despicable but completely foolish.

Alternately humorous and heartbreaking, Nim Chimpsky is a story that needs to be told; a cautionary tale of the treatment of animals as research subjects, and the unpleasant truth about the price of scientific discovery; as much a morality tale, and a fun, charming story, as it is an educational biography. 

When did saving animals from extinction become Sophie's Choice?

You would think that saving animals from extinction is a pretty straightforward goal, right? Not at the St. Louis Zoo, where zookeepers "are increasingly being pressed into making cold calculations about which animals are the most crucial to save." According to a New York Times article by Leslie Kaufman, "Some days, the burden feels less like Noah building an ark and more like Schindler making a list."

For example, the priority of saving the ruffed lemurs - a species native to Madagascar - from extinction is currently taking precedence over the lion-tailed macaque:
Now scores of these black-and-white ruffed lemurs are being bred here at the St. Louis Zoo and at other zoos across the United States as part of a broader effort to prevent their extinction.  
But Ozzie, a lion-tailed macaque, will never father children. Lion-tails once flourished in the tops of rain forests in India, using their naturally dark coloring to disappear into the height of the jungle. Though there are only about 4,000 remaining in the wild, not one among Ozzie’s group here in St. Louis will be bred. American zoos are on the verge of giving up on trying to save them. 
According to Dr. Steven Monfort,"the director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, part of the National Zoo in Washington," this means of unnatural selection is due to zookeepers placing entertainment value above conservation, and thus lacking the resources to save more species and not neglect others:
Dr. Monfort wants zoos to raise more money for the conservation of animals in the wild and to make that effort as important as erecting fancier accommodations for their captive collections. Zoos, he said, should build facilities — not necessarily open to the public — that are large enough to handle whole herds of animals so that more natural reproductive behavior can occur. And less emphasis should be placed on animals that are popular attractions but are doing fine in the wild, like African elephants and California sea lions, Dr. Monfort said, adding that they should be replaced with animals in desperate need of rescuing.
He wants all zoos within the Association of Zoos & Aquariums to aim higher on conservation efforts. “I am comfortable with raising the standards for zoos so that eventually it will be harder and harder to be accredited unless you are doing that,” he said in an interview. “If you can’t keep up, then you probably need to be dropped off the bottom.”
Indeed, the function of zoos has evolved over centuries, given that the first zoos were purely for the entertainment of the general public:
In their first century, American zoos plucked exotic animals from the wild and exploited them mainly for entertainment value, throwing in some wildlife education and a touch of preservation. When wilderness began disappearing, causing animals to fail at an accelerating pace, zoo officials became rescuers and protectors. Since the 1980s, zoos have developed coordinated breeding programs that have brought dozens of animals, like the golden lion tamarin of Brazil, back from the brink.
Some remnants of the olden days still persist, shortchanging species who are currently in need. The article goes on to describe how the St. Louis zoo spent $18 million on a new pool for sea lions - a species that is now thriving in the wild - instead of expanding breeding space for endangered species, or building a new pool for the walruses. This was due to the sea lions' popularity; they were the ones drawing in the crowds, not the walruses.

However, focusing more on the endangered species is not as easy as it sounds, as it could lead to overcrowding, which would not be beneficial to a majority of the other animals:
As standards for animal care rise and zoos install larger, more natural-looking exhibits, there is room for fewer animals. 
In the 1970s, the primate house in St. Louis held 36 species of monkeys and apes. Now it has 13. And that narrowing of the species list is likely to continue for another reason. Zoos have come to understand that for animals to reproduce successfully for the long term without inbreeding, they need to maintain much wider gene pools for each animal. There are 64 polar bears in captivity in American zoos, far short of the 200 considered optimal for maintaining the population over 100 years. So zoos have been adding to the numbers of some species while culling others at the same time. St. Louis says it houses 400 more animals but 65 fewer species or subspecies than it did in 2002.
Undeniably, commerce matters, as it brings in the funds needed to expand exhibits and provide more productive habitats for endangered animals. But ideally, once the popular animals bring in the money, it should be distributed evenly among the animals who are most in need of it. But that's just an outsider's opinion, as I am unfamiliar with the inner workings of zoo finances.

The only thing that's for certain is that saving endangered species requires the collective efforts of as many dedicated individuals as possible. Only then can they all have an equal chance to be redeemed from the brink of extinction.

For more information on endangered species, visit the website for the World Wildlife Fund, where you can stay up to date on the latest conservation threats and opportunities to pitch in to save animals in need - both the ruffed lemurs and the lion-tailed macaques, and the walruses as well as the sea lions.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Chinese Pet Treats Linked to 900 Dog Deaths, Illnesses

PHOTO: Sampson, a 9-year-old fox terrier, died of kidney failure in January. His owners blame his death on Chinese jerky treats.

A recent ABC News article by Cindy Galli details the latest outbreak of pet food-related illnesses and deaths. Pictured is Sampson, a "9-year-old fox terrier" who "died of kidney failure in January." According to his owners, he died of contaminated Chinese jerky treats: 
Just six months after issuing its latest warning about chicken jerky dog treats made in China, the Food and Drug Administration confirms it has logged more than 900 complaints from pet owners who say their dogs either were sickened or died after eating the treats. 
The number of complaints has nearly doubled since the story was first reported by ABC News in March. The FDA says its investigation is ongoing and that it continues to test samples of the popular treats, which dog owners across the country say have caused kidney failure in their pets, resulting in severe illness or death.
The two brands that consumers have complained about are Waggin' Train and Canyon Creek Ranch, which are "both produced by Nestle Purina and made in China."

Luckily, Sampson's Terry Safranek,along with other dog owners, are doing their part in spreading awareness of this issue:
Safranek is a member of a Facebook group called "Animal Parents Against Pet Treats Made In China," which has grown to 4,500 members and includes hundreds of photos of dogs whose owners claim were sickened or died from chicken jerky treats. 
"We're just the ones who are online. There literally could be tens of thousands of people whose dogs were affected," said Safranek.
The group also keeps its own spreadsheet of victims, ranging from a 1-year old, five-pound Chihuahua named Kiarra to a 111-pound German Shepherd named Floyd.
For more information, and for the latest updates, head to www.fda.gov or join the above-mentioned Facebook group. In the meantime, check the labels on any pet treats you buy in the future.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Take Action - Help Ban Animal Gas Chambers

What comes to mind when you hear the term “gas chamber”? The Holocaust, most likely. Its genocide program is perhaps the most widely documented use of gas chambers in history. Within concentration camps, one gas chamber was large enough to kill as many as 2,500 people at once.

Deaths within gas chambers are extremely slow and painful, as the commonly used hydrogen cyanide gas takes its time to suffocate its victim, leaving them gasping for breath, choking on their own vomit or, in some cases, slamming their heads against the chamber walls to put themselves out of their misery. If not killed, Holocaust victims slipped into comas and were subsequently buried alive in mass graves.

Nowadays, of course, we look at such mass cruelty as a regrettable thing of the past; a practice that is thankfully no longer in use. However, that is not the case. Of the 35 states that allow capital punishment, five of them—Arizona, California, Maryland, Missouri and Wyoming –currently still endorse gas chambers, though their use is rare compared to other means of execution.

Humanity seems to have gotten the idea that execution by gas chamber is no way to treat our follow human beings. But somehow, apparently it is still a fairly common means of executing shelter animals.

An estimated 6 to 8 million dogs and cats are cared for in U.S. shelters every year, roughly half of which are euthanized. In more than 20 U.S. states, gas chambers are still in use. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) even lists it as an acceptable means of euthanasia.

Think about that for a moment. A method of execution deemed too cruel and unusual for our worst criminals—serial killers, rapists, pedophiles—is deemed acceptable for use on dogs and cats, simply because no one wants to adopt them.

How, by any stretch of the imagination, could this be considered justice?

While cyanide is the most used toxic gas, some shelters use chloroform for animals under 8 weeks of age. Some shelters in Arizona use T-61, a drug that immobilizes and suffocates an animal without causing unconsciousness, resulting in an even slower and more painful death. One shelter in Louisiana employs the use of acrid exhaust gas; its hot fumes burn the animals’ skin and eyes as they suffocate to death.

At least in the case of human prisoners, they know what to expect as they step into the gas chamber. Animals do not. They are placed in a hot box of sorts, hear the hiss of gas, become dizzy and start to panic, clawing at the chamber’s walls, calling for help that doesn’t come. Generally the process of gassing an animal takes about an excruciating half hour; most of this time, they are alert and conscious that something is terribly wrong, though they don’t know how or what. Needless to say there is nothing at all humane about this practice.

Not only is the use of gas chambers inhumane in itself; abuse of gas chambers is common as well. While most shelters require one animal per chamber and close observation of the process, some employees have been reported shoving many animals in the chamber at once and then walking away. Some don’t even bother cleaning the chamber out; they put live animals in with the dead ones who were executed previously.

These horrible chambers have proven dangerous to employees as well. When improperly maintained or mishandled, the toxic substances can cause illness and even death to those in close proximity. There have been numerous cases of shelter workers dying while operating gas chambers.

Thankfully, state legislations have been taking action to end this barbaric practice, as the No Kill Movement gains momentum throughout the U.S. Within the past couple years, 19 states have passed laws that either ban or restrict the use of gas chambers.

In 2003, in a shelter in St. Louis, Missouri, a Basenji mix named Quentin was, miraculously, the sole survivor of seven dogs placed in the gas chamber at once; the first survivor in the shelter’s 64-year history. A shelter employee, moved by Quentin’s will to live, called the Stray Rescue Organization, which gladly took him in. Randy Grim, founder of Stray Rescue, would later write the book Miracle Dog: How Quentin Survived the Gas Chamber to Speak for Animals on Death Row. Due to Grim’s lobbying efforts, the St. Louis shelter eventually shut down its gas chamber.

In June of 2010, Grace’s Law was passed in Georgia after a shelter dog survived an agonizing 30-minute gassing session. The dog, aptly named Grace, was subsequently adopted, as is now used as a mascot for the No Kill Movement.

Judging from these cases, what we need to do is spread awareness of this outrageously cruel practice and funding for organizations lobbying against it. I am certain that if more U.S. citizens were aware that this archaic form of torture is still in use, the momentum against it would skyrocket and lead to more human laws and practices when it comes to animal welfare.

If you’re anything like me, the thought of gas chambers being used on friendly, healthy and otherwise adoptable animals makes you physically ill. For ways on how to help, I suggest you visit the following sites to find ways on how you can put an end to this unimaginable cruelty.