Cat Conflicts: Conservationists and Protectionists Remain at Odds but the Conflict Might be Ameliorating

Cat Conflicts: Conservationists and Protectionists Remain at Odds but the Conflict Might be Ameliorating
June 30, 2020
by John Hadidian, Ph.D. and Andrew Rowan, D.Phil.
An early relationship between humans and cats is supported by hard evidence from a burial on Cyprus that dates to 9500 BP. Cats were never native to that Mediterranean island, so the occurrence of a young cat within a human burial, while not evidence of taming, is suggestive of some affinity. Certainly, by 4500 BP cats had begun to be idolized in Egypt, beginning the well-documented history in which cats have been alternately loved and damned, protected and persecuted, or viewed as either beloved pets or hated pests. Such is the history of the human-cat relationship. Now we have “Cat Wars,” the contemporary casting of the domestic cat as an environmental demon responsible for driving vulnerable species on islands extinct and as a wildlife plague elsewhere. The authors of Cat Wars call for cat control by “any means necessary.” This statement is representative of the current conflict over cats which has led to many acrid exchanges between environmental conservationists and cat advocates.
The arguments have spilled over from scientific publications to the popular press in articles with titles such as “The Evil of the Outdoor Cat” and “Apocalypse Meow.” The irony here is that both sides in the conflict (conservationists and protectionists) seek the same endpoint: fewer cats outdoors, whether for the good of wildlife or the good of cats or both.
Currently the major themes being argued seem to revolve on two issues: how many cats are there, and how can their numbers, where needed, be controlled? Here, we share a few thoughts about cat demographics and impacts on wildlife based on our recent review of this contentious issue: “Cat Demographics & Impact on Wildlife in the USA: Facts and Values” (see Journal of Applied Animal Ethics Research, 2020, Volume 2, pages 7-37, however, the full article is behind a pay wall).
In the United States, the issue of how many wild animals are killed by owned and unowned cats has been debated for more than 100 years. Within the last two decades, however, the volume has increased significantly and globalized to encompass a voiced concern about the status of vulnerable wildlife on islands and even continents (e.g. Australasia). To be clear, these concerns can be warranted, as feral cats on islands and in Australia and New Zealand have been documented as having negative impacts on vulnerable native species. Outdoor cats, therefore, add considerably to the usual perils wild animals face. Accordingly, we do not argue that outdoor cats not be managed, but we do propose that any management be justified, effective and humane.
This is where the need for good science comes in. As we have argued at greater length in the published article, developing effective management solutions will be infinitely more productive and simpler if the conservation and animal welfare communities could cooperate. We need to determine much more carefully how many cats there are in the different habitats they occupy. Once we have reasonably accurate estimates of cat population demographics in the habitat of concern, then we can move on to create effective management programs. Researchers in Australia have taken the first good steps in making such determinations at a national level, resulting in earlier guestimates of as many as 12 million cats living feral lives in that country being corrected by better approximation that estimates this figure at 1.6 to 5.6 million depending on the season (the higher number is estimated for the rainy season in Australia). In the United States, the claim that there are 80 million (or more) outdoor cats has almost become dogma, leading to commensurate claims of impacts to wildlife and corresponding clarion calls to address this environmental catastrophe (we speculate that the actual figure may be half that number). Clearly, we need to proceed with the same rigor as in Australia to produce better estimates of outdoor cat numbers that will give us a solid platform on which to build responsible policies.
The good news is that such an effort is well underway. The DC Cat Count represents a collaboration of conservationists and protectionists in a three-year project to estimate the true number of cats living as feral, as owned outdoor, as owned indoor, and as shelter populations in the nation’s capital district. The project employs an array of contemporary data-collection and analytical techniques, including surveys of households, photographing free-roaming cats in city alleys and parks, counting cats along transect lines, and tracking cats surrendered to the animal shelter. These surveys will document the lives of all the urban cats in the District of Columbia. From this database, an accurate estimate of the number of cats will permit the development and impact monitoring of proposed intervention strategies. The data will also provide for public education initiatives and permit city agencies to produce a replicable model that other cities can adopt on a cost-effective basis. This is how cooperation between groups and agencies can be advanced for the good of people, cats, and wildlife.

Karuna for Corona- Feeding the Homeless Dogs

Karuna for Corona- Feeding the Homeless Dogs
by Andrew Rowan
On March 24, the Indian government ordered a national 21-day lockdown as part of its response to the global Covid-19 pandemic. The lockdown has been extended several times and is now projected to last until June 30. This precaution has resulted in significant hardship for the people of India, especially the poor. But it has also adversely affected India’s street dogs, who mostly rely on leftover food from eateries and food put out onto the streets by good Samaritans. (There is a widespread belief that Indian street dogs survive on rubbish, but several recent studies have demonstrated that there are too few calories in street rubbish to support many street animals.) During the lockdown, eateries were closed and members of the public were initially discouraged from feeding street dogs. The dogs began to starve.
Fortunately, the Indian government recognized the problem and declared that feeding street animals was an essential service. Indian animal organizations and advocates have stepped up to the challenge. One such organization is the Blue Cross of India (BCI). Under the direction of board member Tyag Krishnamurthy, BCI started ramping up an emergency feeding operation in late March and, from the middle of April, was providing food to around 3,000 animals a day in Chennai, through a program entitled Karuna for Corona. Karuna means mercy or compassion in Sanskrit.
BCI has been operating with limited staff during the lockdown and has had to rely mostly on volunteers to prepare and deliver the food to the animals. In addition, a number of businesses in Chennai have stepped up to help, including food service staff who have prepared large quantities of food for distribution (see a video documenting this effort). The feeding effort is now nearing 100,000 meals distributed. At its peak, BCI could call on a group of 100-150 citizen feeders who distributed the food to the street animals every day. Some individuals distributed almost 10,000 meals in April and May.
In this regard, the top volunteer was a 25-year-old sales executive for a Chennai company, Vignesh Sukumaran. He has been feeding and rescuing stray animals for several years, ever since he saw an injured street animal. He became aware of the BCI Karuna project via a WhatsApp group and ended up feeding 300-350 animals daily during the lockdown. He has a goal of opening an animal shelter for abandoned, sick and disabled dogs.
On most days, the demand has outstripped the available food, but volunteers were advised to alternate the places where food was placed and to be frugal. The need has diminished since the easing of the lockdown in mid-May, though BCI continues to feed street animals in non-residential areas that have still not been opened up. Check this Facebook post for more photos of the program.
(Note: BCI was also the place to first propose sterilization of street animals [or ABC – Animal Birth Control] to manage dog populations humanely.)

Pets and Coronavirus: An Update

Pets and Coronavirus: An Update
by Andrew Rowan
In the last WellBeing News (Issue 2:4), we ran a short item on pets and the coronavirus. We would like to draw readers’ attention to an excellent new review of all the studies to date that have looked at the potential for pets to catch the coronavirus and pass it to their human guardians. The review, “Infected not infectious,” was produced by the International Companion Animal Management Coalition (ICAM) and provides summaries of the available studies on pets and coronavirus as of May 14, as well as a nifty graphic showing the numbers of humans, dogs and cats that have been reported as having been infected by the coronavirus.
Graph showing the numbers of humans, dogs and cats that have been reported as having been infected by the coronavirus.

IUCN ‘Guidelines for Conserving Connectivity through Ecological Networks and Corridors’

IUCN ‘Guidelines for Conserving Connectivity through Ecological Networks and Corridors’
May 30, 2020
By Rachel Caldwell
Conservation Program Officer, Center for Large Landscape Conservation
The Center for Large Landscape Conservation (CLLC) is working to mainstream connectivity conservation solutions around the world that save biodiversity, increase resilience to climate change, and safeguard human health. To this end, CLLC supports the new IUCN Guidelines and the operations of the Connectivity Conservation Specialist Group (CCSG) that was established in 2016 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA). The current Chair of the CCSG is Dr. Gary Tabor, the founder and President of CLLC.
CCSG will soon release the first-ever IUCN Guidelines for Conserving Connectivity through Ecological Networks and Corridors. The main objective of these Guidelines is to clarify and standardize consistent practices for the effective design, governance, and management of larger conservation networks of protected and conserved areas that are connected by designated ecological corridors.
What Is “Ecological Connectivity”?
As defined by the UN Convention on Migratory Species in February 2020, “ecological connectivity is the unimpeded movement of species and the flow of natural processes that sustain life on Earth”. This definition demonstrates the importance of connectivity conservation solutions, and everything they protect, including invaluable resources like water and nutrient cycling, pollination, seed dispersal, food security, and disease resistance.
About the Guidelines
The Guidelines are the culmination of over two decades of effort by the IUCN, and the result of contributions from more than 100 experts in 30 countries. When complete, they will provide managers, policymakers, and experts across the globe with insights into the science, definitions, and principles for planning and managing for ecological connectivity, as well as 25 case studies illustrating projects around the world.
Why It Matters
Connected ecosystems are more resilient. They support plants, animals, and biological processes and permit them to persist in an increasingly human-dominated world. However, more than half of the planet is now developed and this is threatening human well-being, accelerating species loss, and limiting nature’s ability to withstand the impacts of climate change. Safeguarding ecological connectivity is a proven conservation measure, and the Guidelines bring together the most current knowledge and proven practices to lead a new global effort to combat habitat fragmentation and protect intact ecological networks for conservation.
Key messages

The Guidelines define the spaces meant to maintain, enhance, and restore connectivity; summarize best-available science; and recommend ways to formalize designated ecological corridors and networks with these messages.

  • Science overwhelmingly shows that interconnected systems of protected and conserved areas are necessary for species and natural processes to persist in the face of climate change;
  • Communities and countries around the world are working to protect ecological connectivity, and more consistent global practices can advance legislation, policy, and action;
  • A coherent global approach to connectivity conservation allows for measuring, monitoring, and assessing the effectiveness of efforts to enhance biodiversity conservation.
The Kavango-Zambesi “Peace Park” project (see map below) is an example of the complexity of developing and ensuring ecological connectivity across national borders containing a mosaic of private and public lands. This area contains around one-third of all African elephants on the planet today as well as an extraordinarily rich fauna and flora.
National parks are in dark green and protected areas are in light green. The Kavango-Zambesi area includes sections of Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia and is also home to approximately 2 million people!
Sound ecological management requires careful planning aimed at ensuring corridors for wildlife moving throughout these multi-jurisdictional landscapes. Using the guidelines, complex areas like this can access and apply globally-agreed-upon standards and best practices for promoting connectivity within protected areas, increasing ecological health across the world.
Learn More
To learn more about the Guidelines and the WCPA Connectivity Conservation Specialist Group, visit or contact [email protected].

Don’t Blame Wildlife for Covid-19

Don’t Blame Wildlife for Covid-19
April 30, 2020
By Mark Jones BVSc, MSc (Stir), MSc (UL), MRCVS,
Head of Policy, Born Free Foundation
The coronavirus pandemic sweeping across the world is causing physical, social and economic disruption on an unprecedented scale.
By April 21, 2020, around 2.5 million Covid-19 cases had been reported across the world. More than 170,000 people had died, and the numbers keep rising. A huge proportion of the world’s population is in some form of lockdown as countries try to slow the spread of the virus. The cost to the global economy is predicted to run into several trillions of dollars.
The strain of coronavirus responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic is thought to have originated from wildlife. There has been much speculation over whether bats, snakes or pangolins, or some combination of these were the sources of the original human cases in Wuhan, China. However, importantly, whichever species are ultimately confirmed as the agents that transmitted the virus to people, wildlife is not to blame for the current pandemic.
A Flying Fox (Bat) – Yarra Bend Park, Melbourne, Australia by CraigRJD
Covid-19 is an example of a zoonotic disease – one that can spread from animals to humans. Many infectious agents have the potential to be zoonotic. The World Health Organisation estimates that 60% of all human infectious diseases recognized so far are zoonoses, and about 75% of emerging infectious diseases that have affected people over the past three decades originated from wild animals.
Recent human zoonotic epidemics include Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus which also emerged in southern China in 2002, which infected more than 8,000 people and resulted in 774 deaths. SARS is thought to have originated in bats and made its way to people via civets. Other notable examples of zoonotic epidemics include Ebola, Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and HIV.
SARS was considered a serious global epidemic. But although some jurisdictions in affected areas temporarily closed down wildlife markets at the time, they quickly reopened once the epidemic had subsided. Critically, the lessons we should have learned then were soon forgotten.
The impact of SARS has been dwarfed by that of Covid-19.
Viruses and other infectious agents with zoonotic potential circulate within wildlife populations all the time. In the past, however, most would never have made the jump to people, or if they did their impact would have been extremely limited.
Temminck’s Ground Pangolin, South Africa by Shongololo90
The reasons why zoonoses are becoming so problematic in today’s world lie in the way we humans interact with and exploit wildlife and natural habitats. Relentless development in pursuit of economic growth has carved inroads into wild habitats, granting easy access to poachers, traders, traffickers, and facilitating the collection and export of wildlife. Ill-advised expansion of human settlements into wildlife areas irrevocably leads to increasing contact, and often conflict, with wild animals.
Rapidly expanding human populations are placing massive demands on wildlife for nutritional and medicinal uses. Increasing disposable incomes among a burgeoning middle class have resulted in the commodification of wild animals as exotic foods, traditional medicines, “health tonics”, pets, high-end gifts, status symbols or investments.
Trade in wild animals, both legal and illegal, has grown exponentially. Wild animals are collected, farmed, transported, exported and traded in huge numbers, more often than not in appalling and unsanitary conditions. Crowding, stress and injury among such animals provide the perfect environment for pathogens to spread and mutate, and their close proximity to people during capture, farming, transportation, butchering, processing and trade creates many opportunities for human transmission.
What may once have been small-scale subsistence use of wildlife has become commercialised on a massive scale, facilitated by an unfettered global communications and travel infrastructure, with dire consequences for conservation, animal welfare and human health.
Several international conventions, institutions and conservation professionals continue to promote the idea of “sustainable” use of and trade in wildlife, as a means of giving monetary value to wild animals thereby incentivising their protection. As a result of decades of promotion by government, wildlife farming in China is estimated to be worth $74 billion dollars. In South Africa, the government has now listed 130 wild species as livestock as part of its “sustainable use” policies. However, when the potential costs of such activities are factored in, in terms of wildlife decline, the scale of animal suffering and the impact of pandemics such as Covid-19 on human lives and the global economy, the whole concept of sustainability clearly needs to be re-thought.
More immediately, the knee-jerk reaction from some has been a call for the extermination of animals that are perceived as a risk. We are already seeing reports from China and other countries of people calling for bat roosts to be destroyed. Pangolins, those gentle, shy, scaly insectivores that have already been devastated by poaching for their scales and meat, could be next on the target list. But it is not the animals themselves that are to blame. Destroying bat roosts or persecuting pangolins will do nothing to reduce the risk of future human health catastrophes; in fact, it could make things considerably worse as the balance of the natural world is further disrupted.
Back in 2015, Bill Gates warned that we needed to prepare for a global pandemic and called for planning to be put in place. Last year, eminent scientists from across the world identified the need for “transformative changes” in our relationship with nature if we are to stop and reverse the catastrophic and unprecedented declines in wildlife and biodiversity that we are causing, primarily through habitat destruction and commercial exploitation. Covid-19 has confirmed that change is needed, not only to protect the natural world but also to prevent future pandemics. Wildlife markets, with their vast array of wild animals with which people would not normally interact directly in the wild, certainly increase the possibility of harmful pathogens “jumping” to humans. The commercial capture, ranching, farming, trade and consumption of wildlife in all its forms, with its dire consequences for biodiversity, animal welfare and human health, must end.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a prominent member of the US White House coronavirus task force, was recently quoted as saying, “It just boggles my mind that how, when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface [wildlife markets], that we don’t just shut it down. I don’t know what else has to happen to get us to appreciate that.” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation, has stated that “governments must rigorously enforce bans on the sale and trade of wildlife for food.” Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, acting Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, said, “The message we are getting is if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us. It would be good to ban the live animal markets…” Many other experts are adding their voices to the calls for change.
However, we need to dig deeper still and reset our fundamental relationship with the natural world, rethink our place in it and treat our planet and all its inhabitants with a great deal more respect, for its sake and for ours.
One thing is for certain. Once Covid-19 is hopefully behind us, returning to business as usual cannot be an option.

The Context for the Coronavirus Pandemic

The Context for the Coronavirus Pandemic
March 31, 2020
by Andrew Rowan
At the beginning of this century, a review paper (Daszak et al, 2000) highlighted the importance of the consumption of wildlife as a major source of a series of dangerous new “emerging” pathogens.
Maps are derived for EID events caused by a, zoonotic pathogens from wildlife, b, zoonotic pathogens from non-wildlife, c, drug-resistant pathogens and d, vector-borne pathogens. Illustration from Jones et al,2008, Nature 451,
The most well-known of these is the AIDS virus that was first recognized in 1981 and that has to date been responsible for over 32 million human deaths, over 75 million human infections, and annual global expenditures for prevention and treatment now running at around $20 billion a year. A later study reported that the number of new human pathogens emerging from wildlife was increasing and this article’s accompanying image indicates the hot spots for emerging infectious diseases (EIDs) for various types of pathogen.
The world has been living with blinders on. Periodically, a new study will raise questions about the dangers of wildlife consumption, but little has been done to slow or end such consumption. There are many constraints on the movement of domestic animals to prevent disease outbreaks, but relatively little effort has been devoted to containing the movement of wild animals from one country to another. AIDS illustrates the human health (and economic consequences) of new emerging diseases, but countries have been slow to establish controls to reduce and prevent the threat from such new pathogens. The relatively mild and quickly contained SARS outbreak cost the world $40 to $80 billion in just a few months. The COVID-19 pandemic, the estimated global economic impact of which is now running to $1 trillion or more, will hopefully accelerate new policies to prevent and mitigate the impact of new emerging pathogens and possibly give new impetus to ending wildlife consumption and habitat destruction.
Several reports have found that bats are the host mammals for a significantly higher proportion of zoonotic viruses than other mammalian groups. The latest published papers on COVID-19 indicate that the virus appears to be the most recent to have originated in bats, although pangolins (a much trafficked and consumed wild animal) have also been involved in its evolution. Apart from the restrictions placed on human travel, steps are now finally being taken to shut down the “wet” markets where one can buy and trade wild animals for consumption. These markets have long been recognized as a potential threat to human health and the Chinese government briefly closed them after the emergence of SARS in 2003.
“Wet” markets are found across the world. They are places where the shopper is confronted by a toxic mix of wild and domestic animals, blood, entrails, excrement and other waste creating ideal conditions for disease to migrate from animals to people. However, such markets are not the only source of new emerging viruses and pathogens. Our intensive animal agriculture facilities also provide a breeding ground for new pathogens. In 2009, the novel flu virus (H1N1) emerged from pigs though it was fortunately not particularly pathogenic. Although 60 million Americans caught the H1N1 “swine” flu virus, “only” around 13,000 deaths were attributed to it (mortality of 0.02%). But intensive animal agriculture operations continue to be a significant risk factor for emerging diseases, including both new viruses and drug-resistant pathogens, and especially new flu viruses.
The Chinese have now passed a law banning all “wet” markets in the country and regional authorities have begun to extend such bans. Shenzhen is proposing an additional ban on dog and cat meat consumption as well. But it is not clear just how far the ban on “wet” markets and wildlife consumption might extend. There is a very large network of wildlife farms in China producing live animals to be sold in “wet” markets as well as wildlife meat and wildlife parts sourced for Traditional Chinese Medicine. In a 2017 report, the Chinese Academy of Engineering estimated that more than 14 million people were employed in the farming of wildlife and that the industry had annual sales of $74 billion. It is not clear how the new laws will affect this industry or if they will be permanent.
China is due to host the 15th Conference of Parties of the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, a southern Chinese city of around 5 million people and a major trade hub for South-east Asia. The theme for this meeting was announced last year as “Ecological Civilization: Building a Shared Future for All Life on Earth” but the emphasis continues to be on economic development and human interests despite the call to build “a shared future for all life” by “leveraging green sustainable development.” The current Coronavirus outbreak will no doubt have a considerable impact on this event, which is currently planned for October 2020.
The world has to take the threat of emerging pandemics much more seriously. First, the controls on wildlife trading across countries have to be strengthened considerably. Second, we should start discussing efforts to end the human consumption of terrestrial wildlife. With the world population reaching 8 billion and global wildlife populations and wildlife habitat declining rapidly, we can no longer afford to view consumption of wild animals as a human right. The COVID-19 pandemic is simply the latest and possibly the most serious manifestation of the threat to humans posed by the consumption of wild animals. And human demands for wildlife products are driving many species to the edge. Wild mammals now constitute only about 4% of global mammalian biomass but avian, amphibian and invertebrate populations are also plummeting, leading to grave threats to crops that require insect pollination.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates that our political leaders can act decisively when faced with an acute threat. Let us see if we can push those leaders to show the same decisiveness in dealing with threats that are no less real but that develop over longer periods of time.

Zakouma, Chad – A Dying to Living Story

Zakouma, Chad – A Dying to Living Story
March 13, 2020
by Andrew Rowan
Elephant calf drinking in Zakouma, NP, Chad as part of the largest elephant herd in Africa. Photo by Thomas Clode
The Chadian government established the Zakouma National Park, a 3,000 Km2 area in the south-east of the country, in 1963. At the turn of this century, the park was home to 4,000 elephants. Unfortunately, in 2002 it was targeted by poachers, and by 2010 it was estimated that there were only around 450 elephants left. Virtually all breeding had stopped because the survivors were so stressed. Chad then contracted with African Parks, a relatively new NGO, to manage Zakouma and gave it complete authority over the park.In short order, the NGO engineered a remarkable turnaround. In 2010, there were very few or no elephant births and in 2011, African Parks counted only one elephant under five years old in the park. But by 2018, there were 127 young elephants under five. The elephant population is now approaching 600 individuals. Since 2010, only 24 elephants have been poached compared to hundreds per year from 2002 to 2010.
This is not just a wildlife success story. African Parks has also built strong relations with the communities around the park who had suffered along with the animals because of a general lack of security. The African Parks team developed relationships and trust among the local communities and, having established safety and security, the park is now home to an astonishing array of wildlife and is the largest employer in the region. Education, especially environmental education, is also a focus of the park’s managers. From 2013 to 2018, 17 schools were built and supported, and over 6,500 children received an education. The Zakouma veterinarian has been vaccinating local cattle against anthrax and support has been obtained for human health services as well.
There have been over 25,000 visitors to the park since 2010, half of them local Chadian citizens, and in 2018 tourists generated almost $700,000 of revenue.
In the wake of this success, the government of Chad has now asked African Parks to manage the Ennedi Natural and Cultural Reserve, a 50,000 Km2 area where approximately 30,000 people live. The Ennedi Massif was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016 for its extraordinary rock formations and significant collection of rock art. It also is home to relict fauna and flora including desert-adapted crocodiles. African Parks has started working with local communities to ensure that Ennedi is also conserved in a way that benefits people, animals and the environment.

Impact of the Coronavirus Outbreak on Wildlife

Impact of the Coronavirus Outbreak on Wildlife
February 26, 2020
by Andrew Rowan
Health authorities around the world are now bracing to deal with the growing threat of the latest coronavirus zoonosis. But there are already silver linings beginning to appear on this particular dark cloud. The Chinese government very recently (and very quickly) passed a new nationwide law banning the consumption of meat from all wild animals (whether imported or grown domestically). It is still unclear how this law will be implemented but the reported 20,000 farms inside China raising wild animals to serve the demand for “wild” meat are very anxious. In addition. Shenzhen, a Chinese industrial hub just across from Hong Kong, has just proposed adding to the wild meat ban an additional prohibition on the consumption of dog and cat meat! The Shenzhen proposal states as a reason for this additional proposed ban that dogs and cats are now family members of many Shenzhen households. It is true that pet-keeping has exploded in China over the last few years. Euromonitor reports that the pet (dogs and cats) population in China has risen from 88.1million in 2014 to 188.5 million in 2019 (a 16% year-over-year increase) and, in 2019, the Chinese were projected to spend almost $29 billion on their pets. It should be noted that the dog and cat meat market is only a small fraction of current pet expenditures.
Photo by: REST-Maria Diekmann
Pangolin meat is e a delicacy in China however, it was considered to be a source of the latest coronavirus outbreak.

In Search of Explanations and the Truth

In Search of Explanations and the Truth
February 27, 2020
by Andrew Rowan
Photo by: Ondreji Presicky
In the search to explain the world around us, there have been occasions where a particular set of observations produces a narrative that appears to provide an elegant explanation of what is happening, even though it might not be entirely accurate. One such story is that of Arizona’s protected Kaibab Plateau, which President Roosevelt established as a game preserve in 1906 and where deer hunting was prohibited. At the same time, bounty hunters exterminated large predators and, as the story went, the lack of predation led to a deer population explosion. This increased population ate all the browse on the plateau, leading to starvation and a population crash of as much as 60%. This narrative was told and retold in ecology classrooms and textbooks until the 1970s, when doubts were raised about the accuracy of the Kaibab deer population estimates.
The classic graph showing a rapid rise and equally rapid fall in deer numbers disappeared from the textbooks. More recently, research on the ages of aspen trees on the Kaibab plateau (a measure that can be used as an index of deer browsing)suggests that there were several periods over the past 120 years when the survival of aspen saplings was abnormally low, and one such period coincided with the reported die-off of deer (Binkley et al, 2006, Ecosystems 9:227).
Now it seems that we are facing another such problem with a widely accepted story identifying how dogs might have become domesticated and developed their neotenic traits (tamer, floppy ears, white color patches and more juvenile faces with smaller jaws).
The narrative follows the following lines. A Russian scientist, Dmitry Belyaev, acquired a number of fur foxes (which typically are very fearful and aggressive in the presence of humans) and began a selective breeding program based on a single behavioral trait – namely, affiliative behavior and a willingness to approach and be handled by humans. According to the story, the foxes that were selected for their tolerance of humans changed their appearance and morphology over relatively few (10-20) generations. The phenotypic changes included the development of neotenized skulls (e.g. shorter muzzles), floppy ears, curly tails and piebald coat colors. The tamer foxes also reportedly “barked.” These observations led to the acceptance of a “domestication syndrome” that could be elicited by selective breeding based simply on an affiliative behavior phenotype.
But just like with the mule deer on the Kaibab Plateau, there may be more than meets the eye. Now Elinor Karlsson and her colleagues have reported that Belyaev’s foxes were not from wild stock but were sourced from fur farm foxes from Prince Edward Island, Canada that had been raised and bred on fur farms since the late 1800s (approximately thirty or more generations before the fur fox experiment in Russia) (Trends in Ecol. & Evol. 2019). The authors found no reports of intentional selection for behavior on Canadian fur farms, but the foxes were reported to be unusually friendly (and also reproduced successfully). In 1928, 65 pairs of foxes were exported from Canada into Russia. By 1959, when Belyaev started the Russian behavioral experiment, his foxes consisted of the multi-generational descendants of these friendly Canadian foxes.
While Belyaev’s breeding project is still a very useful trove of data on the genetics of canid behavior, Karlsson and her fellow authors argue it does not support claims that there is a “domestication syndrome” that can be recapitulated simply by selecting for affiliative behavior. It is really too bad. The story provided an attractive and compelling narrative. These characteristics may be why it was picked up and disseminated so widely. But, to borrow from American journalist and iconoclast HL Mencken, this explanation may be “neat, plausible, and wrong.”
For additional reading, see Science News, Psychology Today, Gizmodo.

Support for Australian People, Animals and Environment

Support for Australian People, Animals and Environment
by Gary Tabor, VMD, Center for Large Landscape Conservation
The New York Times (19 January 2020) reported that Australia has shifted from being a donor country to a charitable recipient nation in the face of its current wildfire emergency. To make matters even worse, the wholesale burning of Australia’s landscapes has set the country up for massive post-fire dust storms, record flooding levels as burned, denuded soils can no longer absorb moisture and recent devastating hailstorms. People, Places, and Platypuses have all succumbed to a nightmarish experience.  In Tinbinbilla Nature Reserve near Canberra, there is currently an operation to remove all the platypuses and wombats from the reserve to minimize possible wildfire mortality.
I wish I could report this tragedy in more remote and objective ways, but anyone with friends or family in Australia is sure to be touched directly by events. My mother-in-law and partner were trapped along with 4,000 other souls on a lone beach in Mallacoota Victoria surrounded by firestorms. Only the Australian Navy could rescue them and evacuate them off the beach.  My Australian veterinary colleagues are doing volunteer stints tending to wildlife burned in the hardest-hit areas. My staff are even sewing sleeves for the innumerable marsupials whose limbs have been ravaged by fire.  People have asked me what can they do and who should they support?  My answer is that this is an “All Hands On Deck” moment for Australia and there are many worthy organizations that are doing the best they can.
The Australia Environmental Grantmakers Network has compiled a list of organizations and their program focus areas.  I serve as US Chair of Bush Heritage Australia, the US arm of an Australia land conservation non-profit, which is focused on landscape recovery. They have partnered with WIRES and Aussie Ark  in helping to provide emergency relief to impacted wildlife.  Zoos Victoria is providing a great deal of veterinary response.  The Great Eastern Ranges Initiative  is in the process of creating a large-scale landscape regeneration plan.
In Australia’s tragedy, I think we may see a glimpse of our own potential future in this climate-changing world and we must ask ourselves…who will be there to help us.
Smoke from fires near Sydney – G Tabor