Four people accused of stealing a young specimen of the Indonesian Komodo Dragon have been thrown into jail, to await their trial.
The accused robbers found their innocent victim in a well-known reptile park in Pierrelatte (Drôme). It appears that their sole motivation for stealing the young lizard was their eagerness to keep the reptile as a pet. However the dumb buggers had no idea of how to look after a Komodo Dragon, and they locked him up in a cellar where he soon died.
There are countless sad tragedies of this kind, which reveal that idiotic specimens of Homo sapiens ignore the elementary nature and needs of certain exotic cousins from the animal world.
To my mind, there's an obvious golden rule:
If you don't understand the animal, don't touch it !
A few days ago, I presented a video about a smart monkey [display]. And here I’m at it again. This marvelous photo [from Gallica,here], taken on the beach at Deauville in August 1921, shows excited kids watching a lovely little monkey who’s doing a tightrope act (not a particularly hard task for such an animal).
Click to enlarge
The joyous expressions on the kids’ faces reveal their intense expectations. They want that monkey to succeed, and they’re convinced that he will in fact get to the other end of the rope without slipping and falling down onto the sand. So, they’re ready to applaud him as soon as he gets to the end of his act. Most of our human fascination for watching smart monkeys comes from the fact, I believe, that we associate ourselves with the beast. For those kids on the beach, the monkey is a kind of baby brother, and they’re tremendously proud that he can do smart things. The children are all saying to themselves: “Gee, the little baby brother is really talented, and he’s courageous, too. None of us would be able to do what he’s doing.”
If a donkey were to come along and start chewing at the rope, or throwing its weight against the rope and trying to burst through (I can assure you that donkeys do things like that), the smiles would disappear immediately from the kids’ faces. They would consider the big clumsy animal as stupid, and not at all like themselves. But a baby monkey is quite another cup of tea. It actually looks a bit like us (or like some of us, in any case… but don’t expect me to give you names). And it’s smart enough to be our cousin… which it is, in fact. Like the donkey.
… you might get slapped in the face. I love the determined behavior of this smart little beast.
I can almost hear him saying: “Don’t fuck around with me, lady.”
PS It's nice to be fooled by an innocent little monkey act. Clearly, the trainer has taught cheeky Wilson to perform the face-slapping act. Outside of the world of movie cartoons, a monkey wouldn't normally bear a grudge against a human who had teased him by withholding a piece of food. Besides, if the monkey really wanted to "teach a lesson" to another creature, biting would be a more normal form of punishment than face-slapping. Wilson's act could be made better still (in an anthropomorphic sense) if he were to stick up his middle finger in the lady's face, or maybe even turn around, pull down his pants, and bare his bum.
Owls are fascinating creatures. We hear them at night, and we know they're not far away. But we hardly ever see them. In fact, they are splendid living machines, designed to catch prey. Somebody said that you might describe an owl as a big pair of claws with wings.
This is a fine specimen of marvelous owl images that I found on Jerry Coyne's blog [access] titled Why Evolution is True.
This BBC video provides a highly didactic account of why owls are such expert killers:
I've always admired the cat of English animator Simon Tofield. I just came across this brilliant little specimen of hedgehog talk.
I love the way the cautious cat uses a single leaf to test the possibility that it could stick to a bristle on a hedgehog's back. The test is positive. So the cat performs a full-size operation. I have the impression that Simon's cat doesn't really respect that serious and talkative hedgehog.
The most fitting operation that could be performed as a tribute to celebrate the life and marine loves of the veteran Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau, drowned by a captive orca on February 24, would consist of releasing the huge animal into the ocean. An interesting article entitled How to free a killer whale written by Naomi Rose, a US marine mammal scientist, explains how this complex operation could be carried out [display].
This amazing sex video appeared on the excellent Pharyngula blog by the US atheistic biologist PZ Myers [access]:
This National Geographic video provides us with new insight into the difficulties of being a hyena. Among humans, these animals have acquired a particularly negative reputation, which they surely do not deserve. They're depicted as cruel, treacherous, greedy, "piggish", laughing devilishly and obsessed with kinky sex. Even in Africa, where people should know better, hyenas were thought of as the steeds on which sorcerers and witches traveled around. It's true, however, that it might not be a great idea to bring home a pair of hyena pups with a view to bringing them up as pets. Now, I wouldn't be surprised if a reader were to inform me that my judgment on this question of household hyenas is wrong. In any case, the criterion of evaluating wild animals by their potential as pets is ridiculous.
For those who like watching opening/closing ceremonies, I'm sure that last night's TV transmission from Vancouver was a huge source of happiness. Personally, I seem to remember that I abandoned TV transmissions of opening/closing ceremonies back at the time of the Sydney Olympics. I was overcome by a nauseating feeling of embarrassment when I discovered that the artistic director of the panorama of Aussie history and lifestyle had imagined a sequence revealing that hordes of dwellers in suburbia devote their weekends to mowing their lawns. Big deal! What an awesome bunch of people they must be in Australia! Believe it or not: They cut the grass on their lawns with power mowers! Each of the actors in this scene took delivery of a big cardboard box containing his personal lawn mower. The impact was too much for me. You can't fight nausea. I decided at that instant to give up forever the habit of watching opening/closing ceremonies.
Should we be alarmed or simply saddened by the accidental death of a 21-year-old tobogganist from Georgia? Long ago, I recall a brief Internet conversation with a woman who was disturbed to have discovered, during her genealogical research, that a great-uncle, working in New South Wales as a commercial traveler, had been mortally intoxicated in a hotel room by a cyanide-based product that was once used to fumigate bed mattresses. In those days, in many countries, there were tales of hotel guests who went to bed in similar circumstances, and died peacefully in their sleep. My friend exclaimed: "What a terrible way to die!" She was surprised to find me disagreeing: "On the contrary, it's surely one of the most harmonious ways imaginable of dying. God had decided that this salesman had visited his last customer. So, the Almighty calmly drew a line under his final order." I think it's a bit like that in the case of the dead tobogganist.
Meanwhile, here at Gamone, I'm getting fed up with the recurrent whiteness. I've often wondered whether the quiet and friendly personality of many Scandinavians might not be the longtime outcome of endless months of pure whiteness. In that respect, I'm a bad Scandinavian. With a bit more snow, I could well end up in some kind of nasty neurotic state. My dog Sophia, on the other hand, is in a constant state of happiness.
As I pointed out already in an earlier blog, the fluffy white world, for Sophia, is exactly as it should be. Incidentally, that's probably the main reason why the winter hasn't yet made me neurasthenic. It's such a joy for me to witness constantly the happiness of my dog.
My donkeys don't seem to be greatly troubled by the snow, particularly when they drop in for their massive daily dose of oats. They've taught themselves to gouge out the snow with their hoofs and snouts to access grass. On the other hand, they advance cautiously through the smooth snow, step by step, because they've discovered that the hidden earth can be uneven.
Their fur is so long and thick that one is tempted to imagine that it's the snow that actually causes the fur to grow this way. But that thinking would, of course, be bad biology. Meanwhile, in the latest issue of Scientific American, which arrived in my mailbox a fortnight ago, there's a front-page story entitled Why humans have no fur. Its subtitle: And how evolving bare skin led to big brains. Goodness me, we're expected to digest such a vast assortment of basic knowledge in our modern existence. When I've assimilated that article, I'll be able to go out and boast to the donkeys that it's all very well to be able to wander around in the snow, oblivious of the cold, awaiting solely the next bucket of oats... but I've got a bigger brain!
As for the birds, they seem to be happy with the seeds that I leave out for them. But I've learned that the situation is a little more irregular than what I had imagined. The black and yellow tits visit the wooden container, where each bird only stops long enough to pick up a sunflower seed in its beak. For the finches, though, it's a quite different procedure. They seem to be interested only in picking up seeds of other kinds that I've strewn around on the ground. If I leave the seeds in a dish, no bird ever goes near it, no doubt suspecting the dish to be some kind of a trap. So, I have to empty the dish of seeds onto the snow.
As they fly in and out of the bird-house, often waiting politely for the previous occupants to leave before barging in, the tits are so well organized that you could almost imagine that they have radio contact with a control tower. I notice however that all is not necessarily so harmonious in the existence of the finches. Whenever there's a small group of finches darting around on the ground, they seem to start attacking, or at least intimidating, one another. It's quite amazing. As soon as one bird has picked up a seed, it often moves aggressively towards a neighboring bird. I've been examining the erratic behavior of the finches, and wondering whether there might be some kind of hierarchy in the finch colony, resulting in a pecking order as for chickens. Thinking that Google might be able to enlighten me, I typed in the words "finches pecking order", which directed me to a review of a book: The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner, published 16 years ago [display]. With a little astonishment, I discovered that Weiner's book is included in the bibliography of Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins. My naive question about the birds at Gamone had landed me right back in the middle of Darwinian interrogations. Finches (rather than iguanas and tortoises) were in fact the true heroes of Darwin's revelations on the Galapagos.
Apparently Weiner's book describes the efforts of a couple of English-born scientists, Peter and Rosemary Grant, who spent two years on the desolate Galapagos island of Daphne Major studying the beaks of finches. [Click the banner to explore the finch story.] During their stay on the island, in the drought conditions of 1976-77, Peter and Rosemary discovered that "the average beak size of the larger seed-eating finches increased by half a millimeter", enabling the birds to tackle bigger and tougher seeds. [I sometimes feel that you have to be English to possess the necessary enthusiasm and stamina to make that kind of discovery!]
I'm living in a wonderful world [a world full of wonder]. Clearly, I can no longer go outside to give oats to my donkeys, or seeds to the wild birds of Gamone, without my being impregnated unexpectedly by marvelous evocations of science.
Like countless Earth-dwellers, I was moved by the fabulously beautiful image of our concestor Ida.
Even Google got into the act immediately, which proves (if need be) that the discovery and presentation of the fossil is a cosmic happening:
The term "concestor" was introduced into the terminology of tribal history (or genealogy, if you prefer) by Richard Dawkins in his monumental The Ancestor's Tale. It stands for "the (latest) common ancestor". For example, when a Skyvington in Choranche encounters, say, an individual named Skivington over in Canada, it's quite possible that their concestor was a 17th-century farmer named George over in Dorset, England. Researchers concerned with individuals X and Y are interested, above all, in identifying the latest concestor: that's to say, the common ancestor whose offspring split into two forever-separate lines, one of which ended up producing X, and the other, Y.
Juvenile Ida ("lovely Laura in her light green dress") looks a little like a modern lemur:
Let's say that 47-million-year-old Ida was almost a lemur... like our human ancestors, for that matter. But certain telltale features reveal that Ida had jumped onto the human, rather than the lemur, band wagon. She was surely one of us: an ancient member of our human tribe. Welcome aboard, Ida!
My dog loves walnuts, which are abundant at Gamone. Periodically, when she's feeling a bit hungry (which is most of the time), Sophia rambles down to the walnut trees and has a small feast. She has no trouble cracking the fruit open with her powerful jaws and then rummaging through the smashed mass for edible fragments. Then she comes back to the house with a single walnut clenched in her mouth, and settles down on the lawn to crack it open and eat it in an almost ritual style, as if there were something special about this particular walnut that she chose to bring back to the house, as a kind of trophy.
It doesn't take much, in Sophia's mind, for a perfectly ordinary act to be elevated to the status of a special event. For example, she can dart off constantly to various places in the vicinity of the house in order to piss and drop her turds. But, whenever Sophia realizes that I'm going to wander up the road and accompany her on such an excursion, our walk is transformed immediately into a Special Event, even though I might accompany her for no more than a hundred meters or so. She leaps around in joy and scrambles across the slopes, as if this were an extraordinary outing, while looking back from time to time to make sure that I'm still participating in our journey.
Although, as I said, Sophia is perfectly capable of breaking open walnuts on her own, she's happy if I can do the job for her. At Gamone, I have a constant stock of orange mesh bags full of fresh walnuts, which I use above all in my bread and cake making. I break the walnuts open using an ordinary steel hammer and a thick wooden cutting block that I brought back from Bangkok, many years ago. As soon as Sophia sees me sitting down alongside a bag of walnuts, the block and a hammer, she joins me, to wait for fallout. On such occasions, the average is one walnut kernel to Sophia for three into William's bowl.
When an animal has neither powerful nut-cracking jaws nor a master with a hammer, it has to rely upon other means, as reveled in this delightful Japanese video:
The other evening, Tineke and Serge evoked enthusiastically a recent TV documentary on the extraordinary cognitive capacities of the native crow from the island of New Caledonia, which has taught itself to find or even build tools (from pine leaves) to catch wood grubs.
[Click the image to visit the Wikipedia page about this fascinating bird.]
Professor Russell Gray, of Auckland, discusses the amazing cognitive talents of this bird in the following two videos:
If I were kind with regard to my lovely dog, I would say that my life with Sophia has made me more and more respectful, over recent years, of the engineering achievements and intellectual qualities of non-human animals. As I said to Tineke and Serge, I have become totally enraptured, on twilight evenings at Gamone, by the spectacle of the flight of bats. Please don't tell Sophia I said this, but I think this evolution in my regard is a consequence, above all, of my intense reading of the brilliant books of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker. To do justice to everybody, let's conclude that I'm under the combined influence of Dawkins, Pinker and Sophia.
Pif is basic dog... in the same sense that the celebrated 2-horsepower Citroën used to be described as basic car. You get your money's worth, but there are no extras. Canine critics might say that his ears are too floppy, his tail too massive, and that he's too high on his rear legs. His rectangular snout and wide mouth remind me of a dredge used to remove mud from a river. As for his education, let's just forget about it. In spite of all these faults, or maybe because of them, I find Pif adorable. It's a pleasure, every morning around nine, when I hear the tinkle of his paws on the wooden stairs leading up to my computer. He darts into my lap, and licks my face rapidly, then he scrambles down to the ground floor to initiate a new day of intense and profound bodily and mental contact with Pif's guru goddess: my dear Sancta Sophia.
All this would be nice and orderly except for the fact that Pif started acting yesterday, in the late afternoon, as if he might be contemplating a kind of crossing of the Rubicon. To put it bluntly, Pif indicated explicitly to his mistress, Alison, that he was quite happy down at my place, with Sophia, and that he didn't particularly wish to go home.
This evening, the same thing happened. Alison bowled in on her scooter, as usual, and ordered her dog to follow her back up the hill, to their home. But Pif didn't agree. He stayed put at Gamone. I suggested to Alison that, if she were to accept the idea of Pif wearing the red collar I gave him a fortnight ago, she might be able to lead him calmly back home. But it was Alison who started to get hot around the collar, declaring sillily that it was intolerable that her dog didn't obey her. The truth of the matter, of course, is that Pif is perfectly happy here, on our soft clover lawn, in the company of a wise and adept female [Sophia], not to mention a kind meat-eating friend [me, the alpha dog], and that he's smart enough to figure out that little can be gained by trotting back up to the stark house from which his mistress Alison is usually absent.
Finally, I told Alison that I would try to "launch" Pif on the homeward journey. She would start off back home on her scooter while I would race alongside with Pif in my arms. Then her dog would run alongside us, attached to a lead. Finally, in mid-action, I gave the lead to Alison and the two of them went trotting off home together, successfully.
Tomorrow afternoon, I'm aware that the scenario is likely to be similar. Be you Caesar, or be you Pif, once you've decided to go beyond a point of no return, you don't look backwards. What I'm hoping is that Alison might be smart enough to park her bloody scooter, walk down here, take up Pif in her arms, kiss him fondly, carry him back up to her place and treat him to a nice welcome-home dish of raw meat.
Now, there might be Freudians in the audience who imagine that I see myself in the role of Pif. No way. Through her skills with horses and her behavior, Alison is indeed a splendid specimen of what we used to call a tomboy back in rural Australia. Amused readers who knew me as an adolescent might well imagine superficial associations with my marvelous Graftonian friends Anne F [a celebrated horsewoman, deceased in 2006] and Alison G [my first female object of adoration and desire]. No, sadly, Pif and I, not to mention my neighbor Alison, are truly not in the same ballpark as these mythical female creatures of my youth, of another age.
Half an hour ago, I spotted this female roe deer and her two fawns on the other side of Gamone Creek. Earlier this afternoon, I heard a male deer barking in the nearby woods. So, there's a nice little family installed there.
The neighbors' donkey Mandrin has been residing at my place for so long, with my Moshé, that I now consider him as mine. Their horses Bessie and Aigle are still here as guests, because there's not enough feed for them up at Bob's place, and Alison is too busy (working in the Choranche cave restaurant) to find time to look after them.
Yesterday morning, just after Alison's departure on her noisy scooter (which always causes my Sophia to bark), a new member of her family arrived unexpectedly at my place: a marvelous little male dog, a few months old, named Pif.
Pif promptly started to romp around with Sophia, who seemed to appreciate the presence of this tiny animal climbing all over her.
I had the impression that Pif was greatly awed, at times, by the massive stature of Lady Sophia.
In any case, throughout the entire day, the two dogs got on wonderfully well, and Pif was also extremely friendly with me, often snoozing in my arms and licking my nose. I gave him food and organized a comfortable basket for him alongside Sophia's queen-sized model.
I can't be certain, of course, that Sophia approved entirely of this audacious little dog reposing on her master's door mat. But there were never any squabbles.
At times, Sophia would gallop around the lawn to impress her young companion, and demonstrate her weighty Japanese-style wrestling prowess. On the other hand, there were limits to the amount of ear-biting that Sophia would tolerate from Pif's sharp baby teeth, and Sophia would make things clear at this level with a few ferocious snarls.
Towards the end of the day, I was starting to imagine that Pif might have moved in here as a permanent guest.
But I had not bargained on the magic attraction of the spluttering din of Alison's scooter, as she returned home at the end of her working day. Pif recognized the presence of his mistress as soon as she turned off the main road down in the valley, and he immediately shot off home to wait for her. Consequently, it's quite likely that Alison imagined that her disciplined dog had spent the day patiently in front of their house, awaiting her return. On the other hand, it's possible that Alison might have noticed that Pif's jet black fur was covered in sand-colored hairs from another animal... unless, of course, Pif took precautions to shake off all this telltale evidence on the track back home.
My guess is that I'll be able to use the absence or presence of Pif at my place as a means of knowing whether Alison is, or is not, at home.
When I was a child in South Grafton, and my father was developing his initial beef-grazing activities at a nearby property named Deep Creek, I had the impression that he was obsessed by the challenge of building and repairing fences. I felt that, if my father were truly a cowboy, then he should be spending far more time on horseback. Instead of that, he was perpetually digging holes to plant eucalyptus posts, and tightening barbed wire. Today, my small property at Gamone has taught me a lot, retrospectively, concerning my father's preoccupations at Deep Creek. And I too, at my humble level, have often been concerned by the all-important question of fences.
Yesterday, I finally got around to using steel rods to support the electric fence, instead of wooden posts or plastic spikes. The advantages are their robustness and low cost, combined with the fact that they're easy to plant and move from one spot to another. By the end of the day, my two donkeys were fenced in behind a ribbon supported by steel rods. But I didn't have time to connect the electricity to the new fence.
In the middle of the night, I was woken up by Sophia's furious barking. Looking out the bathroom window, I distinguished the silhouette of a large animal in the dark, and I imagined that one of my donkeys had broken through the new fence. Later on today, I discovered that this was not the case.
Neither of my donkeys had broken out. On the contrary, a neighboring animal had broken in! This mare was tired of eating hay and being alone in a wooden cubicle up at Bob's place, so it broke loose and came down to visit my donkeys and dine on real grass. The animal belongs to a charming young lady named Angélique, who's a producer of goat cheese in Châtelus, on the other side of the Bourne. She's wondering why her elegant mare would wish to join up with a pair of lowly donkeys. As for me, I like to think that this fine animal came down to Gamone in the middle of the night because it wanted to be there, as soon as the sun came up, to admire my new electric fence.