Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Ma'am,... Please put the cub down and slowly back away"

I talk animals a lot.  Seriously.  I'm told to "shut it" more often than not (thankfully with a glare and seldom with the actual words).  So, one day I'm talking animals with a bud when somehow the conversation turn to a topic called "habituation". If you're not familiar with the word, no worries, I'll help.

Habituation - in the wildlife world - simply means the animal is exposed to a certain stimulus (like, humans, for example) and therefore stop responding in the natural manner.  You've probably experienced a form of habituation if you've ever been to a zoo.... specifically the primate buildings. They're not known for being a harmonious blend of odoriferous bouquets.  You walk in and your nose balks, begging you to cover and leave; but ironically, after a few mere minutes, you don't even realize there's a stench.  The same principle is in use: if animals are exposed to humans, they lose their natural tendency to react in a specific manner.  
Let's consider that...

Jane Goodall... you've heard of her, right?  Everything she did surrounded habituating chimpanzees to her presence.  In her study, she was relying on habituation to provide a rare glimpse to see chimpanzees interacting in their normal fashion in the wild. So... this is where the ethics of the habituation come in.  See, I'm a fence rider to some degree on this one.  I wouldn't walk up to Ms. Goodall and berate her for habituating chimpanzees to humans because I'd likely be doing what most people do: simply be enamored by tales from the jungle. I'm also pretty fond of my bud Dave who is pretty accomplished at interacting with wildlife in the wild (albeit I'll defend him since he also worked to teach captive tiger cubs how to be wild again).  Then there's me... we "inherited" a deer named Filene.  But even with Filene, I try not to break the rules (I don't have a bowl outside for her filled with treats...).  Just for the record, if you feed birds, different story.  ...even though that goes awry (like when the 50+ flock devastates my feeders).

But again: Fence Rider.  And the fence that I'm perched precariously on isn't a very wide one.  For the most part, and in most circumstances, I completely disagree with habituation of animals.  There'd better be some solid science on the line and not simply a photo op or a ratings ploy.  There's a pretty solid logical reason for my generally stubborn stance on this one:

If you take away an animals natural fear of people you've taken away the very best protection that animal has against people.  For lots of reasons.  Let's look at a few examples.  For these, I'm a bear (yes... I am... don't question it).  I'm naturally afraid of people.  They have funny smells and my instinct says that even if they are virtually hairless, clawless, and toothless predators, they are still the most efficient and deadly predators ever.  That's my instinct jumping all through me. BUT:
ABR Cub in Tree
Photo from App Bear Rescue

  • "This one human keeps hanging out by me.  First I started to hurry away, but... geez, it won't bugger OFF!  ...and it's berry season and its right there at my berries.  After awhile, I give up and ignore it, because I'm hungry and its not bugging me... it's just... there!"

    So in that example, what happens the next time the human isn't the harmless person but someone hunting.

    ...or worse, its a soccer mom taking a nature walk with her kids and here's this bear with no fear of humans.  
  • "This other human keeps putting out things that I swear its doing for me. It smells so good!  I can't help myself... I mean, I'm a bear... and that's a flawlessly made NummyBear Stew if I ever smelled one!  I'm trying to resist cuz it's right there by its porch but wow.  Did I mention it's the best I've smelled?  Who am I kidding.  I can't resist that.  Besides, it set that out for me cuz that's way to good'a NummyBear Stew for it to not be for me, so I'm going to go sample the goods!"

    So in that example, the bear learns that nomnom goodness can be attained from humans.  This porch, that porch, campgrounds, garbage cans, tents, cars.... after the lesson is learned, it's a slipper slope because even if it's in a nontraditional sense, the human just became the food source. Like the saying goes: "Fed bear is a dead bear."  The human's fault.  
Regardless how cheezy my examples are, people really need to understand this lesson not only for the wild creatures in our world, but also for those wild animals that we are responsible for (for whatever reason) with the intent to release them back into the wild.  Wild animals have to retain that natural instinct and that fear of people.  It's what helps keep them safe.  It's what helps keep us safe as well.  We can't turn wildlife rehab animals into mascots.  If we hug and cuddle and kiss the cute little guys that we're rehab'ing... what happens after we release them?  Do you think they're going to see humans as a cruel conflict-fueled potentials?  Well, likely not since they got "kissy face" and bottle feeding from them for so long.  

I'd love to take credit for this rant... but honestly I can't.  I mean, do I agree? Sure.  Is it something important?  Yup.  But I am afraid that I suffer from a double-X chromosomal disorder that prompts me to start cooing and making unintelligible words every time I'm near certain species.  I'd like to say it's not my fault, but personal accountability kicks in and I realize that the best thing I can do to help that "ootsie-wootsie wittle beh-bay" is to keep it safe by not making it think humans are friends.  Face it folks, some of us are advocates but that doesn't mean humans all are... you know it and I do... so act, think, feed, and coo responsibly.  It's for their safety.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Global Warming is Simple... what's the deal?

I hear debates about global warming quite often.  It's one of those things that just spawns a good debate... like evolution. What I really don't get, though, is why we're always arguing it.  I mean, I realize I'm a tree-hugging, fern-cuddling, bunny lover... but really? If everyone would stop standing so stubbornly on their side of the fence ranting till they're blue in the face (at the same time the person on the other side is ranting) and took just five freaking minutes to hear each other out, maybe we could actually learn something.  Far too often people are so busy thinking about what they are going to say as a response that they miss half the conversation.  Even if it's not your thought/belief, show respect and listen to other folks instead of continuing your side of the rant in your head... and maybe you'll be shown some respect in return and both parties may glean a thought they didn't have before.  Anyhow, before I digress into a diatribe about our general lack of communication skills, let's think this out together:

  1. There were climate shifts (some massive) before and around the time humans discovered that newfangled gadget called fire.  We lovingly refer to these periods in time as "ice ages".  Nope, it's not just a movie anymore, folks.  Ice covers, ice recedes... rinse and repeat.  There's other factors to look at here as well.  Examples are solar cycles (generally 11 year shifts if memory serves, but please don't quote me on that one) and volcanic activity.  Granted, I'm sure there's a slough of natural things that contribute to and help the ozone and climate and yaddah yaddah.  
  2. Anyone who says we don't contribute to global warming: please raise your hand.  Ok... you, you, and you there in the back; go ahead and take a seat over in a different yard.  Of course we contribute to global warming.  For a period in time during the industrial age, I'm sure we were pumping out junk that contributed to a lot of things and very few healthy for you or your planet.  To say we don't contribute is like saying we don't inhale mostly nitrogen.  

So - does that mean that climate change (ya'll should have known this would get back to animals soon) is the sole culprit behind potential for some species to go extinct - we'll use the climate change poster child: Polar Bears.  Yes and no.  Let me explain.

  • Yes, because we can look through the fossil records and witness that when we have massive climate shifts some things go extinct because of a strong contribution from climate change (especially if they are in a geologically fast manner... to learn more on ice ages, find a local glaciologist or glacial geologist).    Seriously... it messes with lots of things.  Really. If you don't believe me and don't know a really cool glaciologist, just what that movie "The Day After Tomorrow" and then de-Hollywoodize it, throw away 99.5% of the content and you'll have a tickle of the truth in the back of your mind.  
  • No, because there's often contributing factors... the polar bears currently are likely not "going to go extinct" simply from the climate change.  Why?  Well, cuz they suffer massive habitat disruption/ habitat fragmentation, and exploitation from that one species that developed a frontal lobe: US.  

Long story short, folks, is that we've been shaping our world for eons... but it wasn't until we really started to take strides with "technological advances" (you know, like the wheel) that we started really impacting the world.  I've said it a million times, developing/inventing/discovering (pick your fave) agriculture was what initially led to the where we are today.  And where we are today is a society with some pretty cool science and oodles of great gadgets.  But even with all our tools, we're seeing a mere blink on the geologic timeline.  We can't hope to pretend to have answers to all the problems when we're making new discoveries all the time where we FIND new problems.  The real headache comes when we realize that some problems we discovered today are related to the "fixes" we did in the past.  Lots of other issues come from ignorance fueled exploitation.  So easy to see what idiots we were when we have the luxury of hindsight! We, as a species, suffer from hubris, entitlement, and greed at a un-measurable level.  
So in the long run: did we cause global warming? Nope... but when you look at our contributions to it in light of all the other things our species has done in the almighty name of Advancement... what does that answer really say?  

I simply hope we are learning from our mistakes and that, one day, people will honestly feel that they are part of the natural world and act as stewards (rather than the exploitative) parts of a giant puzzle. 

Never let people tell you that one person can't make a difference... granted, he's a wretched example, but Hitler was just one man and we all know the impact he had on the entire world.  I'll end my rant with this quote from Ghandi: "Be the change you want to see in the world."  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Humble Pie? I'll have a double serving, please!

Some people don't like when they do something and they're corrected later.  Me? Heck, I'll take a second serving!  The best way to learn is if you really listen to advice from experts - from people who know more about something than you.  And I mean experts here.  Not the average guy who thinks he knows more than me simply because he came with a Y chromosome.  Those types can just kiss my tush. The key is listening - with an open mind and a decision to learn rather than defend your actions or knowledge.  It's really one of the best ways to learn.  In my case, I was served a great portion of humble pie surrounding my bear charge.  You remember that one, right?  The momma black bear who went from 3 cubs to 2 and then bolted 50 yards downhill at me and my daughter stopping a few mere feet from us? Yah, good times, eh? HAHA.

So I'm talking to a bear expert - I don't want to use his name because I didn't ask permission, but I promise you he's worked "hand-in-paw" with eastern black bears for many years and is very versed on their behavior and how to work with bear.  I trust his input and don't question it.  He has the knowledge and the experience to prove that I'm merely a toddler in the scope of bear.  That being said, here's the humble pie that is an eye opener for me (and a bit scary in retrospect):

My and Jess's actions were perfect for a solitary bear - usually a male - that is too close for comfort.  On the flip side, for a momma in protection mode (as witnessed initially from the cubs being sent up the tree), my reaction wasn't recommended because momma is thinking one thing: keep the cubs safe.  We posed a threat and his recommended action would have been to speak softly, lower my head, and slowly back off.  I did the opposite of that for the most part, which he noted he was glad ended well instead of the alternative (um, me, too!).  I looked bigger and imposing and made a lot of noise.  Perhaps the fact that we did slowly back off was what kept us safe?  In retrospect - again - I see where this makes sense.  I see where my education on bear behavior wasn't precise - I used generic info and I should have learned more.  ESPECIALLY because I knew the mom and cubs were local to my trail.  I knew it.  And I dropped the educate-myself ball.  Granted, bears aren't my forte but, my motto is always to know what's out there that you COULD encounter and be prepared for any situation.  I slacked, I have been corrected, I have assimilated the info and won't make the same mistake again.  Humble pie is not only delicious, but nutritious.  

So, take this knowledge of how I didn't react in the way I should have and add this to the mix: bluff charges aren't usually 50+ yards.  Apparently they're normally pretty short.  So... wow.  Just keeping that fact in perspective with the other info is really eye-opening.  The only thing that apparently made mine a bluff was that she stopped before barreling into me/us. I did get a compliment though - he said that, under the same circumstances, it was really good that I was able to assess the situation and react... apparently acting in the face of an "oh Sh**!" situation is hard.  It's like muscle memory though... you go over and over it in your head and when it happens it's an instant reaction rather than a conscious digging for information in your head.  Now I'll revamp that info so it's more appropriate and situation-based.

In the end, I'll take the info I was taught and beat it into my head so that - if that situation ever comes up again - I'm better prepared.  Which is likely... after all, hundreds of miles away I encountered a momma and her cub.  Some people may say "yah, but you were in a car that time"... hello... it was a convertible camaro.  ...Geez, I miss that car.  I think I may need to buy one.  I'm digressing, aren't I?

But... let's not forget that I'll REALLY glow in the compliment about reaction time!  See, sometimes humble pie has whipped topping! :)

Saturday, March 9, 2013

I Feel a Good Rant Coming On

It's no secret that I want to work with some pretty big creatures with some pretty ferocious teeth and claws.  Everyone knows that.  Meet me once and you'll know that (and that I'm a die-hard Preds fan) within 3 minutes of knowing me.  These are the things that make me tick.  There are a few of us weirdos out there who love things that most people fear.  We want to work with, protect, and be a voice for things that others are afraid will gnaw on their neck.  Or, as Funkdubie eloquently says (and I shall do part of this phonetically):

"People fear being eht."

I get that.  I do.  But here's the thing: most of the people who fear being eaten (or "eht" if you will) don't go anywhere to even warrant that fear.  I get freaking reports all the time of someone terrified a black panther will steal and eat their kid... Sadly, my NORMAL response to that person is, "Wow... you let your 5-year-old go hiking alone, then?"  I realize my sarcasm doesn't often help, but ignorance fueled hysteria isn't helpful in any realm.  I mean, how much BS rolls around the internet about (recent example) the president ordering drone killing of American citizens for stockpiling.  The logical person should automatically raise an eyebrow, shake their head sadly, and just walk away.  Or maybe we should look for an example about news channels who ALWAYS find the extremist views to argue and broadcast.  We fuel that crap! Know why?  Ratings.  We force stations to obtain funding, the more viewers the better the funding (advertisement/commercial spots), so the more sensational and amazing the news, the better the profit margins.  

It's the same easy-access news and blatant ignorance that hurts apex predators.  Only in this case we've got another couple issues to face.

On top of the ignorance fuel, we have 
  • genetic fear (fight or flight, anyone?) for being 'eht', 
  • eons of being told about the "big bad wolf" and other 'monsters' out to steal our children and our lives, and 
  • (once again) the immediacy combined with a 'lack of legit info with more focus on the hysterics to spur the general public' "news".
If you thought that was my rant, I'm afraid to admit you're mistaken, cuz the rant is coming now.  Ready? 

I want to work with these animals in their environment to learn more about how they interact with and impact the world that we live in (and for anyone shallow enough to think they don't - please don't waste your breath or keystrokes until you've educated yourself on the issues of trophic cascading).  Ok... so that being said, there's a better than average chance that I - being an avid outdoorsman and wanting to work in the wild to boot - could actually die from an interaction with an apex predator.  Let me be very clear in my next sentence: 


It's quite simple.  Animals are going to act like animals.  I go into their realm.  I have a benefit a lot don't wherein I actually go educated on various things AND prepared with - example - bear spray. I also take precautions.  I don't hike alone near dawn or dusk or at night... I ensure my backpack covers my back and the back of my neck.  I (again) carry a can of bear spray that sorta looks like a fire extinguisher.  I learn when to do certain things and when not to.  I use a bear can and put it far enough away for it to be effective.  I don't keep food in my tent or hammock.  At times, I'm armed (though the bear spray is likely going to be a lot better defense).  If I'm not in a national park, I have my very large dog.  I don't hike in absolute silence.  These are VERY simple things that I do to keep both myself and the wildlife safe.

Here's the heart of the rant: 

WHERE IS THE SENSE OF PERSONAL ACCOUNTABILITY IF YOU'RE NOT DOING EVERYTHING YOU CAN TO KEEP YOURSELF SAFE AND YOU BECOME A 'VICTIM'?  This is the biggest rub I have these days.  "mountain biker attacked by cougar" or "hiker mauled  by grizzly".   It's all over the news within moments.  Please don't misunderstand my frustration as a lack of empathy for the person's family - but if you aren't educated on HOW TO BE IN THE OUTDOORS then DON'T BE IN THE FREAKING OUTDOORS.  Not only could YOU get yourself killed, you could get an animal killed for being - ironically - an animal! Is that too much to ask?  I mean, you're not going to go jump out of a plane without a parachute and blame the pilot, are you?  You're not going to go eat a bowl full of hemlock, and then blame the plant for getting violently ill, right?  IGNORANCE IS NOT A DEFENSE.  If you're going into the wild and you're doing everything RIGHT then you knew what you were getting into and - while it may suck - you knew there was a chance of exactly that happening.  

To allude to a recent headline... if I go into a cage with a tiger and I get killed... who is to blame?  I mean, the tiger lacks thumbs - it couldn't work the key or the gate latch... so if I did that and I died, I really hope you all would sit around and tell your friends how I had it coming because I did something I knew better than to do.  Oh - and I wish they wouldn't shoot said tiger to get my body from it - it could be tranq'd...  ((by the way - I know facts come out AFTER things happen... but my rant surrounds the initial "truth" they "report"...which always garners more time than corrections.)) 

These are WILD animals, people.  In a cage or not - they are all inherently still wild.  They are prone to doing what wild animals do.  They don't have eons of domestication bred into them.  They are NOT fuzzy little kitties and puppies and teddy bears. They are predatory mammals that can and will kill you if they feel they need to.  That doesn't mean the average guy or gal is in danger.  That doesn't mean stay out of the woods (unless you're just wanting to leave them to me - which I'm way cool with)... 

...what it means is be smart about the decisions you make, do what you can to protect yourself and the nature you're trying to be a "part of", and realize the very real consequences.  

But - just for the record - you're far more likely to break a leg on a trail than be 'eht'.  Oh wait - that's why you wear boots or good shoes, right?  To keep yourself safe from a potential.  Now take that mentality and increase it.

So, consider that the end of my sermon and I'll STFU the rest of the day.  :)

I need just ONE worthwhile study

Ok. That subject line is a little harsh.  But I get really frustrated when I'm reading through science journals and can't find what I'm looking for because it's flooded with things that I don't care about because it's just another 'take' on an already quantified theory.  That's horrible of me, I know.  But seriously... where are the epic multi-landscape studies?  I mean... is it too much to ask for a study on how herbivory differentiates between predated ungulates of the west and non-predated ungulates of the east?

...Sorry.  Let me try that again in human.

- Is it too much to ask for a study showing how hoofed wildlife out west - used to having predators constantly looking to munch on them - differ in their eating and habitat-use patterns from ones in the east who act more like livestock now than wildlife cuz they have nothing looking to chew on their leg.  The only things they have to fear are humans and traffic... and they don't fear either of those enough to STOP and look both directions before crossing 6-lane interstates or quit hanging out in the neighbors yard during deer season.

I've said it till I'm blue in the face, but we'll never get the deer populations (much less the other issues with feral swine) in check till we get a few natural predators back on the landscape.  Less hunters.  More Deer.  More Pigs.  Easy math.  We need studies to show that predated (places where there are apex predators who make it a habit to eat deer/elk/swine) ungulates (hoofed animals) have decreased populations and cause less damage.  If there's no study's for that cuz it's expensive then get out and start knocking on doors to obtain funding.  Everyone barks that we're hoping for extensive and uniform protective laws for the big animals (namely predators who require very large amounts of space because they are at the top of the trophic level - or food chain) but yet no one is taking on the study to show why we need them uniformly placed?  Geez, I can't do everything.

I'm being a little brutal and for that I apologize... but where there's a will there's a way to fund it - so fund it and get studies we need rather than redoing or micro-analyzing old stuff!

((Just so we're clear: in no way am I slamming our TWRA state agency, by the way.  I have nothing but respect for the one(s) running that team.))