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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Animals to Humans: Listen, Learn, and Respect!

Dissident Voice: a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice

Animals to Humans: Listen, Learn, and Respect!


I have long wondered what the animal kingdom – mammals, reptiles, birds, fish and insects – would want to tell us humans if we and the animals had a common language?

Well, in my new Fable – Animal Envy (Seven Stories Press)– a “Human Genius” invents a digital translation application whereby animals can speak with each other across species and also speak one way to humans so they learn to listen. The response by “subhumans” was so overwhelming that the Human Genius reserved 100 hours of global TV time for the denizens of the natural world to tell their stories before mesmerized billions of humans all over the Earth.
An Elephant, Owl and Dolphin – sensing the need for some sort of production order and fair play – called themselves The Triad and convened theGreat Talkout. Driven by the complexity of raising their young and surviving generation after generation, the animals, led by the wisdom of The Triad, developed a strategy born out of their keen sense of observing the human animal whom they internally called The King of Beasts.
To make their core messages palatable, they had to frame their approach during those early television hours to be seen as ingratiating and flattering to humans’ self-interest. They knew that humans had their doubts and their dissenters, but overall their long-touted “conquest of nature” as a measure of their “progress” reflected a level of ongoing aggressive behavior, marked by arrogance and violence that had no equal on Earth.
The Triad suggested that all species commence with flattery of humans to get them to open their minds. Animals could better show how useful the animal kingdom is to humans once humans accepted and understood them.
Animals were not going to rely on appeals to justice and fairness. They wanted to speak directly from their experience and conditions of their existence.
It turned out that different species made different demands on The Triad’s program management. There were the dire urgencies of species facing severe habitant loss and extinction. The Triad gave them special emergency access to the television stage. There were species who disagreed on using flattery and went right into their priorities. Other species said the heck with mutual self-interest – look what humans can learn from our far superior physical capabilities such as our sense of sound, smell and sight – from dogs to owls to octopi – and their unique relation to their biological environments. Think of beavers, bees, spiders, beetles and the critical earthworm.
Many species wanted to convey to humans that they were far more than genetically determined organisms – called instinct. “Multiple intelligences” came into play soon after birth. They were forms of feedback – stimuli, fears, hunger, heat, cold, weather eruptions and intricate mating and social rituals. In short, animals learn and adapt.
To the massive human audience, the Great Talkout was beyond fascinating. All ages were glued to the screen. The sheer variety and recounting of different species were startlingly new to all but animal scientists, ecologists and other specialists. After all, animals were stereotyped simplistically over the centuries.
We knew, for example, that elephants had extraordinary memory, but we did not know they had compassion, empathy, courage, sorrow, even grief. And so have other species beyond just mammals.
The book describes a revolt of the Insects who felt their massive numbers, variety, beauty and impact on humans (eg. mosquitos) deserved more airtime. They organized a challenging parade to impress The Triad of their importance to the environment and their ability to command the attention of humans who feared them. They got their time on stage.
Some animals spoke directly to The Triad to convey warnings to humans. Particularly vociferous were the Asian beetles known as emerald ash borers who have destroyed tens of millions of urban and rural ash trees. Foresters estimate losses so far of about twenty-five billion dollars and much more to come.
One ash borer, speaking for all of them, declared that “We want you, oh mighty Triad, to broadcast this message: ‘Humans, know that we came from China, hitchhiking in packing materials. We’re a half-inch long with green wings and a reddish stomach. You can’t stop us from our meal. Neither Chinese wasps nor birds, like those hated woodpeckers, can stop us. They can eat a whole lot of us but we still multiply. You might be asking why I’m telling you all this. It’s because you need to be more humble, but humility can become a great asset to your survival and health.’”
Because the various species knew that humans are much “smarter” than they are, they cautioned the humans to beware of their past habit of outsmarting themselves and succumbing to the intensifying hubris that could cause ever bigger disasters and extinction on our small planet.
There are many consequential facts about the animal kingdom, including domesticated animals for food and pets, which should fascinate readers of all ages. This may be partially why Animal Envy has been praised by leaders of how humans must and should deal with other sentient beings, such as Princeton Professor, Peter Singer, environmental attorney, Eric Glitzenstein, and scholar-author Mark Bekoff.
A special comment came from singer/poet Patti Smith who described the Fable as “a tale of two kingdoms, mirroring that reflective insight of animals and closing eyes of human kind. Animal Envy is a clarion call!”
Authors, naturally, want their books to be read. Such reactions are indeed welcome.
Ralph Nader is a leading consumer advocate, the author of Unstoppable The Emerging Left Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State (2014), among many other books, and a four-time candidate for US President. Read other articles by Ralph, or visit Ralph's website.

Dogs Remember What You Do, Even When They Aren't Supposed To

Dogs Remember What You Do, Even When They Aren't Supposed To


Anyone who has been around a dog for long knows they can understand human language and that they watch our every move - especially when food is involved.
But a new study shows they have a whole level of complex memory that's never been proven before to exist in animals other than humans.
"The results of our study can be considered as a further step to break down artificially erected barriers between non-human animals and humans," Claudia Fugazza of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, said in a statement.

Smart Dog study. Claudia Fugazza / MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group

"Dogs are among the few species that people consider 'clever', and yet we are still surprised whenever a study reveals that dogs and their owners may share some mental abilities despite our distant evolutionary relationship."
The team was looking for evidence of episodic memory - which is an orderly memory of events, usually associated with self-awareness.
It took some tricky training to make sure the dogs weren't just trying to please.
"Dogs were first trained to imitate human actions on command," Fugazza's team wrote in their report, published in Current Biology.
Then they were trained to simply lie down after any command. The idea was to trick the dogs into forgetting that they had been trained to imitate the trainer.
"We then tested whether dogs recalled the demonstrated actions by unexpectedly giving them the command to imitate, instead of lying down."
So for instance, a trainer would tap an open umbrella, then take the dog behind a screen for a while, return the dog to the room, where it would lie down. Then the trainer would give the unexpected command "Do it."
Many, but not all of the dogs would repeat the action -- walking up to the umbrella and tapping it with a paw. There's a video of one experiment here.

Episodic-like memory in dogs (canis familiaris): Recall of others' actions after incidental encoding revealed by the do as I do method. Credit: Claudia Fugazza, Ákos Pogány, and Ádám Miklós / Current Biology 2016. Link to Paper: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/f...

Even though the dogs could not have been expecting that they would be asked to imitate a trainer's actions, they could. The actions were odd, such as hitting an umbrella or walking around a bucket, so the dogs had to have remembered what the people did, the researchers said.
"These findings show that dogs recall past events as complex as human actions even if they do not expect the memory test, providing evidence for episodic-like memory," the team concluded.
So be careful what you do in front of your dog.

Study finds evidence that dogs have episodic memory

 | Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016, 11:00 p.m.


Do you remember what you did last year on Thanksgiving? If so, that's your episodic memory at work — you're remembering an experience that happened at a particular time, in a particular place, maybe with particular people, and probably involving particular emotions.
Humans have episodic memory, and that's pretty easy to prove, because we can use our words to describe the past events we recall. Demonstrating that animals have it is much more difficult.
But now researchers in Hungary say they've found evidence that dogs have episodic-like memory (they added the “like” because they acknowledge they cannot get inside a dog's head to absolutely confirm this), specifically when it comes to remembering what their owners do. Even more interesting is that they can remember these things even when they don't know they'll have to remember them.
To determine this, the researchers put 17 pet dogs through a multistep training process designed to first make them memorize an action, then trick them into thinking they wouldn't need to do it. The dogs' performance was described in a study published in Current Biology.
First the dogs were trained in what is known as the “do as I do” method. It involves a dog's owner demonstrating an action — say, touching a traffic cone or an umbrella — and then telling the dog to “Do it!” The pups' successful imitations were rewarded by treats. Once they had mastered that trick, the owners switched things up on them. They performed an action, but instead of asking the dogs to imitate it, the humans told the pets to lie down. After several rounds of that, all the dogs eventually were lying down spontaneously — a sign, the authors wrote, that they'd lost any expectation that they were going to be told to imitate, or “Do it!”
“We cannot directly investigate what is in the dog's mind,” said lead author Claudia Fugazza, an ethologist at the University of Eotvos Lorand in Budapest. “So we have to find behavioral evidence of what they expect or not.”
Next, the owners switched things up on the dogs yet again. They'd do the action, and the dogs would lie down, and then the humans would totally violate the poor pooches' expectations by waiting one minute and saying, “Do it!” The owners made the same command after waiting an interval of one hour.
This was the test: Had the dogs tucked the memory of their owners' actions somewhere in their mind, and could they dig it out?
After the one-minute interval, about 60 percent of the dogs imitated the human action, even though they probably didn't expect to be asked to. After the one-hour wait, about 35 percent imitated the action.
“What's lovely about the study is the way it shows dogs remembering an action that they'd seen at a later time — without doing it themselves,” Alexandra Horowitz, who runs the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard, wrote in an email. “It speaks to what might be on their mind: that they are remembering episodes that they witness, not just things that they are the subjects of.”
Fugazza and colleagues had previously carried out a variation on this study that didn't involve messing with the dogs' expectations. In that one, the dogs were not taught to lie down, but just to “Do it!” — which the researchers say means the dogs expected to be told to imitate. The canine participants in that study aced that test, with nearly all imitating the human actions even after a one-hour delay.
The dogs' much lower success in the current study “also suggests they were really using their episodic-like memory, because episodic memory in humans is known to decay faster, too,” Fugazza said.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Animal Liberation: Violence or Non-violence? Revolution or Rhetoric?

Armory of the Revolution

The Most Radical Animal Rights Blog on Earth! Universal rights, ecosocialism, and political grenades by Roland Vincent

Animal Liberation: Violence or Non-violence? Revolution or Rhetoric?

approach to animal liberation
This excellent piece was originally posted as a comment to the Armory article John Sanbonmatsu Attacks Roland Vincent. It deserves to be read and shared by every animal activist, everywhere.
by Marcia Mueller
According to Dr. Sanbonmatsu, it seems Mr. Vincent is too radical and Mr. Pacelle is not radical enough.

When it comes to the issue of animal cruelty, Dr. Sanbonmatsu does “get it.“ In the introduction to the book he edited, Critical Theory and Animal Liberation, he gives a catalog of horrendous examples of abuse: There is the picture of the young boys, complete with adult audience, who are beating foxes to death with a baseball bat. One fox, “crouched, tongue lolling, exhausted almost to the point of death, gazes vacantly, a look of hopelessness or resignation visible on his pinched face.” He notes the unwanted animals in Puerto Rico thrown from bridges, run over by vehicles, or killed with machetes as a form of recreation. He discusses the “pogroms,” or routinized extermination, in slaughter houses and the mass slaughter of Asian poultry with the H5N virus when birds were “burned alive, suffocated, strangled, shot, and beaten with pipes . . . as though they themselves were to blame for the excruciating illness which their own squalid confinement and brutal treatment had made them susceptible. (pp. 1-3).
However, Dr. Sanbonmatsu’s solution is problematic: “The fact is that until and unless we can convince at least a sizable minority of our fellow humans to end the speciesist system, there is no prospect that we will be in a position to begin dismantling that system.”
When will we finally be able to do that? Individuals have criticized animal cruelty as early as the days of Pythagoras, and advocates have been trying to pass laws against it since the early 19th century. Although we have made some advances, we have not come nearly far enough. Progress has been slow and unsteady. Successes have met with resistance.
Take animal agriculture as just one example, since it is responsible for some of the most egregious cruelty for the greatest number of animals. The abuse and killing of “food” animals is institutionalized in every country and every society. Attempts at improvement have failed.
On June 10, 1822, Dick Martin’s law was passed in England, which made it illegal to “wantonly and cruelly beat or ill-treat [any] horse, mare, gelding, mule, ass, ox, cow, heifer, steer, sheep or other cattle . . . .” The law imposed a “fine of not more than five pounds or less than ten shillings, or imprisonment not exceeding three months.” But the abuse continued.
Fast forward to the America of the 21st century, when farm animals continue to be the victims of extreme violence and cruelty. They are often excluded from state anticruelty laws under what are called “standard agricultural practices,” which seek to minimize costs and maximize profits. Such practices include dehorning and castrating without anesthesia, lack of veterinary care for sick and injured animals, “euthanasia” of baby pigs by slamming them into concrete floors, and using fork lifts to shove sick and disabled animals into transport trucks and onto slaughter house floors. The brutality of that slaughterhouse floor in America has been documented by observers since Upton Sinclair’s expose, The Jungle. Animals’ Angels has documented the horrors of auction lots and the transport of horses to slaughter, with foals being born on the transport truck and then trampled to death. Other horses arrive at their destinations battered and crippled. One appeal after another, even with thorough documentation, seldom leads to change or punishment, this in spite of Animal Welfare Act regulations that are supposed to ensure humane transport. Thus farm animals are just one of the species who are victimized by human beings and for whom no help arrives. Even documenting the cruelty by undercover investigations has led to attempted ag-gag laws to criminalize the investigations rather than the abusers.
Nevertheless, advocates have followed Dr. Sanbonmatsu’s advice in trying to eliminate speciesism and bring about culture change for all animals. We have passed out leaflets, written letters to Washington, DC (where they will compete for legislators’ attention with lobbyists from Big Ag, Big Pharma, and other wealthy corporate abusers ), and we have engaged in protests. We haven’t gotten very far. Laws are passed with exclusions and loopholes. Legislators neglect to allocate funding for enforcement. Federal agencies or local authorities do not have the will to punish. Animal rights protests never reach the size or get the attention of the Civil Rights marches of the 1960s or even of Ferguson or Baltimore. A “protest” of six people marching against wolf hunting does not discourage the hunters or the NRA, just as a “protest” against gestation crates by fifteen people at Wal-Mart does not influence Smithfield’s treatment of its pigs. Only now have some circuses decided to free their elephants, but that still leaves other animals, such as horses and big cats under their control.
Sometimes advocate voices do reach the numbers needed to get attention, as when Black Fish was aired and revealed the unnatural lives of the whales in Sea World and drove down audience numbers. When Cecil was murdered by Dr. Walter Palmer, thousands commented, donated, and called for an end of trophy hunting. But a few weeks later, Dr. Jan Seski was accused of illegally killing a lion in Zimbabwe; that death received much less attention. A short time later, a German millionaire, Rainer Schorr, killed one of the biggest elephants in Zimbabwe; the elephant’s murder also received less attention. But when Safari Club International held its convention in Las Vegas last summer, it attracted 18,000 trophy hunters from six continents. And that just included the “elite” hunters. It didn’t include the good old boys who take to the hills every fall with their guns and bows to wound and kill deer, elk, and moose. Laws against cruelty to wildlife, including steel-jaw traps, are virtually never passed or enforced. Cecil’s example reveals that it is not just the numbers that are important but also the persistence of those who complain.
After describing the enormous breadth and the atrocities of animal cruelty, Dr. Sanbonmatsu notes the following: “When atrocity becomes the very basis of society, does society not forfeit its right to call itself moral?” (p. 12). Animal advocates believe causing suffering and death to living beings is, indeed, evil. However, Religion, that arbiter of morality, disagrees. Philosophers from Aristotle to Kant and theologians from St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas and beyond declare animal lives do not count as a moral issue. The Catholic Catechism teaches that we should have respect for animals, and not cause them un-necessary harm. However “animals should not be treated like people, and it is okay to eat meat, wear leather and experiment on animals. “ The Church also does not condemn the outright torture of animals in Spanish-speaking countries to celebrate the festivals of its saints nor does it speak out against rodeos or other prevalent forms of abuse, including hunting. Most of the major religions agree. In 2014 the Oak First Baptist Church in Paducah, Kentucky, gave away guns to attract more people into the congregation. The East Bay Calvary Community Church in Traverse City, Michigan, gave new converts a chance to win 80 guns. Apparently mixing guns and God works well in hunting country.
So the history shows that culture change happens slowly while millions of animals die. Laws, if passed, are ineffective. Morality exists for Homo sapiens alone.
Then there is direct action. The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) saved lab animals, freed fur animals, and damaged property, as well. Their work helped those animals who were saved, but did little lasting good, and the activists when caught went to prison. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) effectively protested company CEOs of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) which provides animals used in research. SHAC members protested employees at the office and at their residence. They also targeted secondary companies, those who did business with Huntingdon Life Sciences. SHAC was successful enough that some of those companies severed their ties with Huntingdon and caused its stock to plunge. However, protesters eventually went to prison, and HLS is back in business. The activity of the ALF and SHAC, as well as even peaceful protests and undercover work, has led to retaliation in the form of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act.
Then there is direct action against the people who are guilty of the abuse, a strategy yet to be tried but condemned by Dr. Sanbonmatsu and others who recoil at the idea of harming humans. Many advocates feel such action would constitute condign punishment for the abusers. I suspect most of us fantasize about flash mobs of vigilantes punishing the man who raped and hanged a pit bull in Washington State or the people who set cats on fire or drag horses to death behind their trucks. We think about waylaying the slaughterhouse workers who spend their days slashing and pounding living beings to death. That we refrain is probably more a matter of futility than morality. With a world population of over 7 billion, millions of them poverty-stricken, any dispatched slaughterers would be quickly replaced. They are mere cogs in the killing machine.
As for Wayne Pacelle, he has made the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) a major force in highlighting and combatting animal abuse. Although a vegan himself, as a CEO he is a pragmatist, not a purist. His HSUS is more of an animal welfare organization than an animal rights organization, which I believe explains some of his recent disappointing decisions, particularly involving farm animals.
To sum up, the animal rights movement has not produced enough motivated activists to create major changes in the culture of abuse. Our legal system has not worked for animals. Our moral codes do not include them. Harming or “taking out” abusers that are a dime-a-dozen would accomplish nothing.
So time to try socialism. Roland has outlined exceedingly well the path to achieve the “revolution” and the manner in which it will help animals when they are no longer exploited in astronomical numbers by capitalism.
Dr. Sanbonmatsu also believes that animal liberation cannot do without socialism and that socialism without animal liberation is false and one-sided: “. . . to affirm a socialism without animal liberation is to affirm a civilization based on continued antagonism with the rest of nature. It is to suggest that an ideal society, a society of universal freedom and justice, could be founded upon enslavement, exploitation, and organized mass killing of other persons [sic]. . . . A speciesist socialism thus contradicts itself causally and materially because speciesism itself serves as one of the crucial ideological props of the capitalist system, a system which, in its anti-ecological iniquities, more and more poses a threat to human civilization itself (p. 31).
Sounds a like meeting of minds here.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

As Thinking On Animal Ethics Shifts, New Journal On Animal Feeling Launches

NPR logo

As Thinking On Animal Ethics Shifts, New Journal On Animal Feeling Launches

May 6, 2016

The first issue of Animal Sentience looks at the question of whether fish can feel pain.
The first issue of Animal Sentience looks at the question of whether fish can feel pain.
A new scientific journal is not merely a new venue for publishing research, it can encourage new science, create a new community of investigators and, to some degree, contribute to the establishing of new fields.
There are numerous examples of this in the history of science. For example, cognitive science was not born in 1978 when Stevan Harnad established Behavioral and Brain Sciencesbut there can be no doubt that BBS helped make cognitive science the sort of robustly cross-disciplinary field it has become. In BBS, "target articles," by psychologists, linguists, philosophers, roboticists, for example, would garner "commentary articles" from dozens of writers working in different fields. The idea that "the mind" is not the proprietary subject matter of one discipline — but truly demands that different methods and starting points and practices come together to try to sort it out — was one that was realized in the pages of BBS. I don't think that any history of cognitive science could afford to neglect a chapter on BBS itself.
Stevan Harnad, who ran BBS more or less single-handedly for decades, is at it again. He has recently established a brand new journal devoted to the study of animal feeling. This one, taking advantage of open access and the efficiencies of web-based publishing, threatens to be a massive success. The first issues have been devoted to fish pain (Do they have it? How can we know for sure?) as well as other important topics such as that of animal mourning (looking at the writing of our own Barbara J. King, who is also on the editorial board of the new journal).
In the editorial introducing the journal called Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling, Harnad writes: "The inaugural issue launches with the all-important question (for fish) of whether fish can feel pain." And he notices: "The members of the nonhuman species under discussion will not be able to join in the conversation, but their spokesmen and advocates, the specialists who know them best, will."
The tone of Harnad's remarks give a good sense of what has changed in the past few years that has made the establishment of a new journal such as this seem so imperative. It isn't that there's been a sea change in theory itself. Hard as it may be to believe, I think scientists are pretty divided, as they have always been, about whether animals are genuinely sentient. But the strength of the conviction on the part of many, not only that animals can think and feel but that this is a fact of enormous moral, social and political importance, has increased greatly. And if there has been no theoretical sea change, I think there has been an ethical one. The demand that animal lives matter and that, wherever one comes down on such questions as to whether fish feel pain or whether it is permissible to perform research on animals, the conviction that the interests of animals need to be taken seriously is now, I think, very much the norm.
It is impossible to say whether Animal Sentience will change the scientific landscape the wayBehavioral and Brain Science did. But there is every possibility that it will, especially under the guidance of the ambitious, hands-on and indefatigable Stevan Harnad. Writing in the inaugural editorial, he says: "As animals are at long last beginning to be accorded legal status and protection as sentient beings, our new journal Animal Sentience will be devoted to exploring in depth what, how and why organisms feel."
Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Dog and Cat People Reveal Why They Love Their Animals

Dog and Cat People Reveal Why They Love Their Animals

Scientific American MIND’s online survey of pet owners uncovered some interesting results when people were asked about their interspecies relationships

Credit: nguyen hoangnam/Flickr

More on this Topic

For many of us, family life is a multispecies affair—and although we don’t get to choose our relatives, we do get to pick our pets. What makes us identify with and select one type of animal over another? We explored this and several other aspects of pet ownership in Scientific American MIND’s recent online survey. We were gratified that more than 2,000 readers took the time to respond.

If one thing is clear from the results, it’s that the answer is complex. This is reflected in the incredibly heterogeneous responses we received from readers who, as it turned out, keep a remarkable array of pets. Nevertheless, a few patterns did emerge—particularly in answer to this question: Explain why you prefer cats, dogs, neither or both. The answers yielded such distinct camps that we decided to visualize them as word clouds (in which the size of each word reflects how frequently it was used).

Cat people tended to focus on practical reasons for loving felines, namely the lower maintenance demands. More than any other descriptive, the word “independent” dominated, perhaps because it both describes the feline personality and the ease of cat care. It came up a whopping 139 times in the explanations that the 520 self-described cat people gave for their preferences.

Word cloud generated from the responses by 520 self-described cat people. Click to enlarge.

Dog people, on the other hand, emphasized classic canine personality traits. Words such as “loyal,” “loving,” “affectionate” and “companions” came up repeatedly. Some more practical considerations came up as well, particularly allergies to cats that all but disqualified felines as pets. But it was clear that, above all, dog people valued the close interactions they have with their pets—a sharp contrast from cat people’s emphasis on independence.


Word cloud generated from the responses by 817 self-described dog people. Click to enlarge.

Although the majority of pet owners in our poll kept either a cat or a dog, more participants identified themselves as both cat and dog people than either or neither type. In their explanations these cat- and dog-loving people tended to emphasize that each species appeals to different parts of their personalities and that they are fond of many other kinds of animals as well.

Word cloud generated from responses by 909 participants who described themselves as both cat and dog people. Click to enlarge.

Personality data from poll participants also revealed a few patterns. We asked readers to rate, on a scale of 1 to 5, how strongly they identified with certain descriptors, such as assertiveness and empathy. As in previous studies and polls, we found that cat people tend to rate themselves as more reserved and quiet than dog people do. Findings like these support the notion that certain personality traits may predispose a person to choosing one pet over another. But our survey also found that on many measures these two archetypal pet owners were not so different. Their self-ratings of openness to new experiences and dependability, for example, were very similar.

Although cats and dogs were by far the most popular pets, participants in our survey also reported keeping shrews, squirrels, potbellied pigs and fennec foxes (among other unusual animals). After dogs and cats, the most popular pets in our survey were fish, birds, rabbits, horses and turtles, in that order.

Another piece of the pet preference puzzle is that, of course, many people keep more than one type of pet. We found a few pet-pairing trends. For example, more than 80 percent of horse owners also own a dog and, more surprisingly, 25 percent of snake owners also own a bird.

An important caveat: our survey was informal, not scientific. In fact, rigorous research on the subject remains scarce. Even so, our findings contribute to a growing appreciation of the powerful bond between pets and people, and how much about it remains to be explored.

This article was originally published with the title "What Your Pet Reveals about You."

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Truth About Cats: They're Good for Us

Discovery News

The Truth About Cats: They're Good for Us

- Cats have gotten a bad health rap, as new research suggests they may be beneficial to human health.

- Cats could even help to lower human risk of cancer.

- Cats may harbor T. gondii, but feline ownership does not predict risk of infection with this parasite.

News headlines over the past few years have linked cat ownership to everything from cancer to craziness, but new studies suggest that cats are actually beneficial to human health, and may even reduce our risk for cancer and other diseases.

Reports in this week's issue of Biology Letters, for example, counter the tabloid-suggested link between cats and human brain cancer.
Marion Vittecoq of the Tour du Valat research center and her colleagues conclude that cats should not be blamed for human cancer. In fact, studies show just the opposite.

Vittecoq told Discovery News that "according to our knowledge, studies that have focused on the link between cancer and cat ownership so far have found either no association at all or a reduced risk of cancer in cat owners."

NEWS: Cats Adore, Manipulate Women

As an example, she and co-author Frédéric Thomas cite a National Institutes of Health Study by G.J. Tranah and colleagues. It found dog and cat owners have a reduced risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The longer the duration of pet ownership was, the less chance the individual would suffer from this type of cancer.

Why cats and dogs may benefit human health remains a mystery, but another study from earlier this month provides some intriguing clues. It found that infants having pets at home suffered from fewer respiratory tract illnesses.
"Our findings support the theory that during the first year of life, animal contacts are important, possibly leading to better resistance to infectious respiratory illnesses during childhood," wrote Eija Bergroth and colleagues in the paper, published in the journal Pediatrics.

Countless other studies demonstrate the mental health benefits of pet ownership, particularly for students, seniors and people with chronic illnesses. In such cases, pets can provide much needed comfort and companionship.

Cats have gotten a bad rap over the years, however, for a few different reasons. One is based on old ridiculous superstitions, such as how black cats are bad luck. The other, however, centers on a scientific debate concerning cancer and the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii.

In earlier research, Vittecoq and Thomas determined that there is a positive correlation between this parasite and incidence of brain cancer. Cats can host this bug, and therein lies the "felines are bad for you" media frenzy over the past several months.

But the authors themselves indicate that cats have been mistakenly maligned, due to the other studies supporting the health benefits of cats, the fact that the connection between the parasite and cancer has still not been firmly established.

NEWS: Dogs and Cats Help Prevent Infections in Kids

Thomas explained that "humans usually get infected through the consumption of undercooked meat, especially sheep, containing asexual stages of T. gondii" or through contact with contaminated soil (which good hygiene remedies). Other studies show that ingestion of the bug in contaminated water, fruit, vegetables, and raw goat milk can lead to infection. The parasite is therefore somewhat similar to E. coli, in terms of transmission routes.

Victoria Benson of Oxford University's Cancer Epidemiology Unit, and her team also have a statement in the latest Biology Letters addressing this matter.
Benson and her team are conducting what's called the "Million Women Study," which investigates a tremendous amount of data concerning middle-aged women from the U.K. The scientists found zero association with incidence of brain cancer and women living with a cat.

"This, however, does not rule out the possibility that T. gondii infection from another source may be associated with brain cancer incidence," Benson and her team write.

If that other source, which may even be another parasite, is found, Thomas says it could "provide a means to reduce the risk of brain cancer, particularly in countries like France where the incidence of brain cancer and T. gondii are both high."

Friday, October 17, 2014

Forever And A Day: Can Our Bond With Dogs Survive Death?


Forever And A Day: Can Our Bond With Dogs Survive Death?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Grover Krantz was onto something when he had his remains donated to science. 

A professor of anthropology, he didn’t see why death should interrupt his life-long teaching. His body first went to the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center, where he contributed to the study of human decay. His skeleton was then moved to Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, where he can be found to this day. Back when Krantz first approached the Museum about housing his remains, he was upfront about the catch: his bones were to stay with those of his late Irish Wolfhounds, Clyde, Icky and Yahoo.

Krantz and his beloved companions didn’t stay behind the scenes for long. In 2009, he and Clyde, his first and favorite dog, were put on display in the exhibition Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake. The position of the two skeletons, together in life and death, captures the mutual adoration between the two species. In fact, the skeletons were posed using a picture of Krantz and Clyde from the good old days.

Maybe you find Krantz’ final directives on the extreme side. A Washington Post piece profiling Krantz’s life (and afterlife) suggests he had always been known for eccentricities. Even so, life-and-death ties with pets run deep.

A recent study published in Anthrozoös offers a novel approach to investigating what companion animals mean to us. For the study, lead researcher Cindy Wilson and her collaborators decided to analyze a unique datasource: the obituaries. Over the course of three months, they conducted a “bi-national, exploratory, content analysis of companion animals mentioned in newspaper obituaries.” They wanted to know: when people pass, do their obituaries make mention of a pet or pet survivor, and are donations requested to a pet-related charity?

A scan of 11,818 obituaries in The Washington Post (Washington, DC), The Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia) and The Zurich (Switzerland) revealed that 2.2%, or 260 obituaries, met their criteria. Only one obituary in Switzerland mentioned an animal (in this case, a man’s surviving cat), and all others came from the States. Obituaries were roughly split between mentioning a pet survivor and requesting pet-related donations. Most non-human survivors mentioned were dogs, and the obituaries often gave the dogs’ names.

This study makes me think that many people might understand where Grover Krantz was coming from when he decided to spend eternity with his dogs. For one thing, the obituaries rarely used the word ‘pet.’ As the researchers explain, “these animals have most likely been elevated to family status…. To be listed in an obituary which is typically reserved for conventional kin extends the concept of fictive kin to these animals that appear in the last tribute to their human companions.” Fictive kin refers to non-blood relatives on equal footing with biological relatives. It seems companion animals can also serve as fictive kin.
In the obituaries, non-human animals were often listed as survivors alongside human family members. An octogenarian is described “as being survived by two nieces…a nephew…and a loyal canine companion, Shirley.” Another describes a man as leaving behind “his beloved granddogs, Brie Sherwin and Otis Huddleston. His non-furry grandchild will arrive in May.” The obituaries also contain the other side of the coin—the animals’ perceived response to the loss of a significant person. For example, “He will be sorely missed by Molly, his ever-present cocker spaniel companion.”

A study like this gives you pause. I imagine most researchers and practitioners in my field would agree: on one hand, we try to objectively study the inner world and workings of Canis familiaris (whether in their own right or as they compare to other species), but we also have personal relations with members of this species. There are some dogs who think I am the bees’ knees, and I feel the same.

When I was a kid, I used to have a reoccurring, one-sided conversation with my dog, Brandy. It usually took place at night when she was stretched out under the covers, somehow taking up three-fourths of the bed with her chihuahua-dachshund body. Before falling asleep, I’d lay out the rules, “If you ever die, I’ll kill you.” At the time, it seemed natural to couple such deep love with a threat. Like most dogs, she didn’t listen.


Picture: Krantz and Clyde via Smithsonian.com

Wilson C.C., Dennis C. Turner & Cara H. Olsen (2013). Companion Animals in Obituaries: An Exploratory Study, Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People , 26 (2) 227-236. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2752/175303713×13636846944204

Julie Hecht About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.