Animals Behind Bars

elephant locked up

Is it fair to capture wild animals and keep them in captivity for our entertainment?

 

We lock many animals into tiny cages or swimming pools despite their clear intelligence, emotions and self-awareness. Dolphins, chimpanzees, elephants and killer whales are just a handful of animals that can certainly find captivity as stressful and horrific as would you or I. Imagine being in the Truman Show but confined to a small house, with strange things staring into your windows, laughing and flashing bright lights at you. Even tapping the glass in the hopes that you’ll move or do something interesting.

OrcaKiller whales locked up at SeaWorld. Watch the documentary Blackfish on netflix and see how corporations like SeaWorld lie and cover up their mistreatment of orcas and their own trainers.

 

Maybe we should draw a line and only allow lower, less complex and intelligent animals to be kept in zoos and aquariums; animals which don’t have the cognitive capacity to feel the emotional trauma of being locked up. Ignoring for a moment the difficulties of making such a distinction, would it be fair to give different rights to different animals? Shouldn’t all animals have an equal right to live freely in their natural environment?

Well we already apply animal rights differently across species. For example in scientific and medical research there is a hierarchy of increasingly strict test regulations through from plants to insects to mammals to primates and finally to humans.

A complicated grey area comes when considering if we can or should be allowed to own an animal. Perhaps you could argue ownership is merely an asymmetric symbiosis, where both parties benefit (the owner by using the other, and the owned by being looked after and protected). But in each scenario with zoos and domestic livestock, the animals don’t have a say in the matter, they’re under lock and key.

I’m not a vegetarian, but I do care deeply about animal welfare. I think that for domesticated animals, agriculture is their natural environment, so I don’t have a problem as long as their welfare is ensured. Many animals have been changed so drastically through selective breeding that they are no longer adapted to a wild home. That being said, it’s very clear that we’re simply using and exploiting these animals, hence why I believe their wellbeing and fair treatment is absolutely crucial.

When it comes to animals at zoos and aquariums, there are some non-selfish justifications for keeping them. There is potential for preventing extinctions by having animals in captivity, but really most effort should be in protecting the species in its wild habitat. Another possible benefit of zoos is their outreach and inspiration for the general public. It may be that an encounter with captive animals increases people’s willingness to support their conservation in the wild.

I’ve been to zoos, as you probably have too, and it is quite extraordinary to be able to see amazing creatures up close and personal. The cultural value they provide us, when they’re managed and designed well, is priceless. Whether or not this is worth the psychological suffering of some of the animals we’re viewing is debatable. Unfortunately, I think zoos also propagate the false sense of entitlement and dominance that our species has over the rest of our planet, which has led to our destruction of the natural world. It’s hard to see animals as our equals when every animal except us is locked up. Perhaps adding a caged Homo sapiens exhibit would start to rectify the situation.

Homo sapiens zoo exhibitZagreb Zoo in Croatia allows people to enter a Homo sapiens exhibit. The idea is there but they fail to get the whole message across, as they let people leave at will.

 

Meat and the Environment

The meat industry is an enormous contributor to greenhouse gases and climate change. Plus it requires very large areas of land for production – tens of times more land (not to mention water and energy) than the equivalent weight of plant based food. In our rapidly developing world there is a growing demand for meat which is causing greater CO2 emissions and greater pressure to increase land available for agriculture, which typically comes at the expense of biodiverse forests, leading to further climate change. A simple way we can choose to combat this is by reducing the amount of meat and animal products in our diet. I love meat as much as the next person, but I love our planet even more!

 

Meat in Moderation.

 

Hometree fallingHometree burningPristine forests being destroyed to allow the exploitation of mineral resources in the poignantly environmental film Avatar. Director, James Cameron urges “You cannot claim to be an environmentalist if you’re still eating meat and dairy”.

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Major Lessons In Human Evolution

Major Transitions In Human Evolution
The Royal Society, London Major Transitions conference

I recently attended this fantastic conference on human evolution but the key question it left me thinking was: What’s the point?

Don’t get me wrong, I love the study of human evolution and have great respect for those doing it, but it just seems to me like they’re missing a trick. They seem to overlook the fact that our environment is in a state of crisis, and fail to link their work to the bigger picture in a way that could help promote environmentalist attitudes.

Improving our knowledge of the details of human evolution is necessary, but, more urgently, we need to increase engagement of the general public with the fundamental lessons this field has to offer. Currently, many people misunderstand our evolutionary past, or worse: remain unconvinced that we even evolved. So I think much work needs to be done to improve this state of affairs, so that we can effectively spread the message that humans are not special, and that we evolved just like any other creature on Earth.

Homocentric worldviews

We’ve evolved to be so homocentric that the question of our own origins is of great interest to everyone.

tree-magnified

We must take modesty from our shared evolutionary origins, and understand that all other species are no less important than our own!

A selection of top paleoanthropologists, archaeologists and paleoclimatologists presented their cutting edge research at the conference last week, yet they all failed to acknowledge the key lessons I think we must take from their studies. They totally ignored the immense issues facing our (and every other) species today, despite the great relevance of their research. I believe an appreciation of our humble origins and connection to the rest of life could help spark a much-needed global conservation movement.

Many messages were given to the younger generation that it’s an exciting time to be in science, urging us to continue their work in expanding the fossil record. While I’m sure it’s greatly interesting, I believe we’d be better served trying to link our understanding of evolutionary history with moral lessons for our rather pressing future. We need to promote a modest-evolutionary and pro-environmental ethic that might give our deteriorating planet and biodiversity some chance at survival.

 

This is my call to the many brilliant scientists working in the field of human evolution:

Explicitly link your work to current environmental issues by encouraging a little modesty in evaluating our position and role within life on Earth.

Sincerely,

Simon Moore
University of Cambridge

Why Save Species From Extinction?

Extinction is a normal part of the process of evolution – its counterpart being speciation, in which new species emerge, or more accurately, diverge. It is not the place of humans to try to control nature, but we are putting an enormous extinction pressure on the environment (hence the nickname Homo destructus). It’s about time we put our money and effort into conserving the unique species we have left, before it’s too late.

CRITICAL-CONDITION-12-EXTREMELY-RARE-AND-ENDANGERED-ANIMALS1

Just a few of the world’s most critically endangered species

Humans have caused a huge number of extinctions in recent history, and we continue to do so today. Our forager ancestors managed to wipe out the largest animals on every island they migrated to, including Australia, the Americas, Madagascar and the Galapagos. This doesn’t mean we’re off the hook, it means we are already in big trouble! Current extinction rates across the globe are severely high – comparable to the five mass extinctions that have occurred in the past 600 million years. Previously, the triggers were large asteroids colliding with the earth, volcanoes or severe climate change causing epic inhospitable winters, wiping out as much as 90% of the existing species at that time1. These extinction events may have taken tens of thousands of years, yet we’re causing noticeable, irreversible change within just a few hundred1. Never before has an extinction of millions been caused by one, single species2. Us.

We are causing a sixth mass extinction. And it is our responsibility to prevent this atrocity.

Won’t a mass extinction free up ecological niches and allow a novel evolutionary diversification?

Yes, this has been known to happen in the past. But previously it took anywhere from 5 – 30 million years for biodiversity to recover to pre-extinction levels1.

How do we cause extinctions?

  • Hunting and exploitation: Big game, known as megafauna, have been killed all across the world for meat and for trophies. Overfishing and trawling continue to cause unimaginable declines in the world’s aquatic ecosystems.
  • Destruction of habitat: Huge declines in forests provide cleared land for agriculture or urban areas (see figure).
  • Invasive species: Moving species (accidentally or deliberately) to foreign locations where they decimate local populations of endemic species.
  • Climate change: Many species can’t adapt or migrate fast enough to the rapidly changing climate.

ForestCover

Comparison of the forest cover from 8,000 years ago to 2005

Our Responsibility

There’s 7.37 billion (and counting) of us straining planet Earth’s precious resources to their limits. We are all responsible for the decline and loss of each species, each distant (or close) cousin that we share this home with. Therefore, we are 100% responsible for saving the many, many species that we’re driving extinct.

Biodiversity, the varieties of life, is the most valuable, extraordinary thing on this planet (and perhaps the universe) so it’s our duty to stop indiscriminately wiping it out. We must finally display the wisdom our species, Homo sapiens, is meant to possess, by saving and restoring the planet’s ecosystems and their exquisite inhabitants.

References

  1. How Long Does Mass Extinction Take? By Helen Thompson on Smithsonian.com
  1. How To Survive The Sixth Mass Extinction. By Grennan Milliken on PopularScience.com

Images

Critically Endangered Species Image from WebEcoist.

Deforestation Figure from Global Greenhouse Warming.

Consuming Wisely: Eat Local

My opinions of ‘organic’ food are skeptical because I don’t believe there is always much good behind the label (see The Green Marketing Façade). Unfortunately, organic food has become a brand in itself, and has been separated from the ideals which inspired its inception. The industrial food machine has adopted organic and driven it to extremes that often contradict its purpose – to reduce environmental damage (see more here). However, the idea behind organic is still alive and kicking in sustainable, polyculture (mixed) farms, which typically don’t require pesticides and fertilisers, as they are self-regulating. This is exactly the kind of agriculture we need right now, on our over-exploited planet. My previous article was a warning against reading too far into buzzwords such as ‘green’, ‘natural’ and ‘organic’, but if they are accurate then they are certainly the right choice for consumers. 

A more trustworthy and consistently environmentally friendly source of food is that which is locally produced. The likelihood of that produce coming from huge monocultures is much lower, the food miles clocked up will be drastically fewer and the reputation of the farm will hopefully ensure its sustainability and fair-treatment of its animals. Shouldn’t we all be eating food from farms with open doors, allowing their consumers to see exactly how they practise their trade?

  
Local, ‘alternative farms’ that grow seasonal produce in a sustainable manner are now filling the role that organic food tried to assume. This is where we must turn as consumers, forcing big, wasteful, industrial agriculture to clean up its act. Otherwise, we’ll continue exploiting and mass-producing until our planet burns up before our very eyes. 

There’s no doubt our massive urban populations will continue to require gigantic quantities of food. But our current agricultural systems are vulnerable to collapse, and far too wasteful in light of our ever-diminishing planet. It is time for change. 

For more on this topic I highly recommend ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ by Michael Pollen. 

Questions for Simon The Scientist

Following on from my last request for feedback, I’ve now got a new request for you awesome people: Questions. Many of my posts were inspired by a single question that someone asked me casually in conversation, which I attempted to answer in a rambling and lengthy reply. Later I realised I could do a much better job at answering it, which many more people might like to hear, so I took to the keyboard/touchscreen. So below are most of the questions I’ve attempted to answer thus far on this blog, as inspiration for you to fire away with any questions of your own in the comments section.

Should gay people be allowed to adopt?

What’s wrong with incest?

How the hell does cloning work?

Can religion co-exist with modern science?

Are ‘green’ products always superior?

Are humans special compared to the rest of the animal kingdom?

Shouldn’t we all be environmentalists?

Are we supposed to help our genes?

Is it unlucky to get cancer?

What’s the point trying to save the environment? It’s basically already screwed.

Post your own question below and I’ll do my best at answering it for you and everyone else who might be interested.

Thanks and you’re welcome!

Conservation At The PATT Foundation

IMG_8879

I recently interned at a charity based in Bangkok, Thailand, called the Plant A Tree Today (PATT) Foundation. They plant trees in order to combat climate change, as well as educate students on the environment through awesome trips in the forest. My experience was fantastic and I learnt a lot about conservation that you can’t be taught in a lecture theatre:

• Love for the environment is not something that can be forced on to people, you have to show them and let them be inspired by nature.

• Planting one tree might not save the world, but getting a child to plant that tree can inspire them to do great things and make a huge difference.

• It’s not easy to raise money for a very good cause, no matter how hard you try and how much you glitz it up.

• If you want to make a serious, positive environmental change you need big, reliable funding.

  I thoroughly enjoyed working for the PATT Foundation and appreciate the insights that first-hand experience provides. Not to mention all those beaming smiles and laughing kids, inspiring me as much as I them, with their love and care for the environment.

My PATT bio:

Check out my interview with PATT’s top individual supporter Matthias Gelber (pictured below), also known as The Green Man for his dedication to tackling the climate crisis:

http://www.pattfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Matthias-Gelber-Interview.pdf

Animals of an Indonesian Island

Animals of an Indonesian Island

Here is a selection of awesome animals I saw around Pulau Weh, an island just north of Sumatra, Indonesia:

• A flying lizard with a yellow skin flap on it’s neck and fan-like wings tucked away under its body. No known lizards have powered flight, so this flying lizard like all others was a glider, but some can travel hundreds of metres while losing only a couple of metres in height. The male had a blueish head and yellow neck which it was extending, possibly to display to the less impressive, but very well camouflaged, female that was slightly lower on the tree. A similar lizard from Bogor Zoological Museum

• Millions and millions of baby, translucent crabs migrating up the river, where we walked to find a waterfall on Pulau Weh. I’m not entirely sure why they were migrating, but we followed them as they crawled across the rocks (and each other) on either side of the river. Occasionally the stream of crabs hopped into the water and swam for a short while before clambering back onto a rock as the water became too fast and choppy.

 Crabs, crabs, crabs

• Monitor lizards swimming in the clear, aqua-marine ocean in front of our hut and basking in the sun. Then one chasing a rival off the rocks and into the sea as it asserted its authority over a territory.   Monitor lizard showdown

• Fruit bats flying between islands during and just following a storm. From our kayaks we saw around a dozen over a couple of hours. Soaring above us with a wingspan of around a metre, they flew between trees and then started munching on some fruit as they hung beneath the branches. With over 12,000 different species discovered so far, bats make up a fifth of the total number of mammal species on Earth! This they owe to their almost exclusive access to the large, nocturnal-flying niche. 

The last common ancestor of all living mammals* was a nocturnal insectivore that looked something like a shrew and lived alongside the dinosaurs around 140 million years ago.   Maybe it looked a little like this shrew I saw in West Java

This mammalian ancestor scraped by, living in the shadows, at a time when dinosaurs – reptiles – ruled the planet. But the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) mass extinction 65 million years ago wiped out all of the dinosaurs, except the ancestors of modern birds. This allowed the mammalian clade to undergo massive diversification and to dominate the planet as it does today. 

The bat lineage separated from the rest of the mammals around 80 million years ago and, with the aid of flight and echolocation, has enjoyed huge success in colonising the world. Most bats use echolocation to navigate in the dark – they emit high-frequency sound which bounces off the environment and is detected by their ears, giving them a sound scape, a mental ‘image’ of the scene. Despite the saying, most bats are not blind, and many have very large eyes which they use instead of echolocation. Our fruit bats on Pulau Weh were frequently spotted in the late afternoon navigating by sight, which they exclusively use.

Unfortunately, I’ve since learnt that some local Indonesians fly barbed wire kites to bring down these majestic fliers to put them in a soup. Across Asia, many bat species have been pushed close to extinction through human hunting activity, though smoking out caves is a more common method of capture. This illustrates one of the biggest difficulties in conservation biology – educating and convincing local people to care for the long-term survival of a species, rather than over-exploiting it to extinction (as we’ve done time and time again across the continents).

*excluding the five species of monotremes, the egg laying mammals (echidnas and platypus of Australia), which diverged earlier, maintaining their reptilian oviparity.

• Moray eels, lobsters, octopus, barracuda, sting rays and more on two scuba dives off Pulau Weh. Plus countless numbers of other fish swimming in every conceivable direction around us. And the occasional tiny sting of a jellyfish, barely visible to the naked eye. 

• Cats, damn cats! On Pulau Weh in our 5 day visit we had the misfortune of seeing cats toy with and kill a praying mantis and a frog. 
 
 A similar, dead praying mantis

Domestic animals reach remote islands by deliberate and accidental introduction. And domestic cats are one of the most harmful alien species you can take to a remote island, especially in places that have no large mammals of their own. This is because the native community of species are not used to living alongside such predators. Without the strong selective pressure of mammalian predators, endemic island species are able to thrive while being relatively defenceless. But throw in a handful of cats and they can quickly eat their way through a huge proportion of the naive local species. 

Other invasive species that typically do serious damage to island fauna are rats, snakes, rabbits and toads. Not to mention the foreign parasites and diseases they bring with them, to which the local species have no immunity. It requires huge operations to try to rid an island of an invasive species, and often the efforts are in vain. Hence why there are such strict customs regulations in countries like Australia, where Johnny Depp recently took two un-quarantined, illegal-immigrant Yorkshire Terriers. 


All pictures from this article were taken by me, except the crab photo, which was taken by my travelling companion Samuel Holdway.