Rhythmic sea lions–what’s a scientist to do?

Here’s a piece that caught my attention this morning.  A Santa Cruz researcher trained a young sea lion to keep a musical beat which, evidently, is considered a breakthrough discovery.  Here’s the video:

What really surprised (and confused) me was the young man’s assertion that to date, scientists have maintained that mammals are incapable of keeping a beat, that it’s an ability specific to humans and some birds capable of vocal mimicry.

Huh?  Don’t they watch Youtube?

Here’s a dog tapping his foot to some rock music:

And here’s a golden retriever grooving to a jazz beat:

Honestly, scientists can be so brilliant and yet so clueless sometimes.  Especially where animals are concerned.  Of course their position is an incredibly difficult one considering what they have to do to these little companions on a daily basis to produce all the miracles we demand of them.  I imagine if it was me doing the experimenting that I’d have to deny any of them were intelligent, sentient beings capable of love and suffering, too.

Sigh.

As always, I continue hoping for a shift in paradigm on this one.  And it may be coming.

NEXT POST: The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness–a group of leading neuroscientists announces that many animals are indeed conscious beings capable of experiencing stimuli the way that humans do.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

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Poisonous pips and pits: Dangerous for dogs or urban legend?

533px-Apple_stark_s

In an earlier post I mentioned that our dog, Dane, loves apple cores more than life itself and in the following comments womencyclists mentioned that apple seeds are considered toxic and potentially harmful for dogs.  Feeling a strong mixture of alarm (OMG! Have I been poisoning my dog?!!) and luck (thank God he hasn’t died yet!!!) I dove into the world wide web to see what I could find on the subject.

Research is a little like a tic for me.

An initial Google search of apple seeds poisonous for dogs provided around 700,000 hits from blogs, media outlets, pet websites and forums, Yahoo answers, veterinary websites, etc.  And each one that I read confirmed that apple seeds contain a compound called amygdalin, a cyanide and sugar compound which…under the right conditions…can degrade into hydrogen cyanide.  Hydrogen cyanide is the bad thing.

A wave of realization and horror washed over me, followed by a wave of relief, followed by another question.

(Always a niggling question.)

“Does a real dog eating a real apple core provide the right conditions to convert amygdalin to hydrogen cyanide?”

I wanted to see the studies, read the case histories of all the actual dogs poisoned by actual apple seeds.  Or people for that matter…poisoned people would do.  Or poisoned rodents or monkeys or song birds or cats or other mammals who would joyfully ingest apple seeds given half a chance only to vomit a few times, fall into seizures, or even roll over and die.

Frankly, this information proved harder to come by…even on the Internet where you can find just about anything.  In fact, after about an hour and a half of searching all I came up with was a woman blogging about backyard chickens who said that she fed her girls some apple seeds and a few hours later discovered one dead.

Not the most definitive case of cause and effect but still, it made me nervous until I read through the following comments where a number of other chicken-holders mentioned that they fed their birds apple cores regularly (some in substantial amounts) with never an ill effect.

It was at this point that I started to wonder.

(Always the wondering.)

Is the bad reputation of apple seeds really due to the actual, tragic loss of scores of fruit loving dogs worldwide?  Or is it more the result of theoretical chemistry being applied to theoretical dogs in a way that theoretically harms them?

Where are all the bodies?  I need bodies.  And preferably not just an unlucky dog here or there with a rare disorder that predisposes it to amygdalin synthesis.  I need numbers of injured animals that are statistically significant enough to warrant picking out the seeds.

Dane’s been eating an abundant and steady supply of apple cores for seven years now with no signs of anything but occasional gas.  For that matter he scavenges a good daily dozen windfall peaches from under our backyard tree during the season and peach pits are supposed to be more toxic still.

And yet…he thrives.

(He will also graze tomatoes, cilantro, and spinach, dig up carrots and turnips, and chew zucchini to the stem given the chance, not to mention wolfing down small birds and animals.  He was feral and starving before the Humane Society finally caught him and I’m afraid seven years has not been long enough to erase those memories.  A pox on people who abandon helpless, frightened pets into the wild.)

I’m reluctant to curb one of his few great pleasures without compelling evidence that it’s absolutely necessary.  Is there somebody out there with first hand experience of apple seed toxicity in dogs?  Especially vets?  Or any veterinary journals with studies I can read?  I’d be grateful for any contributions.

copyright Dia Osborn 2013

Poll: Immortality. If you could, would you?

The Alchemist In Search of the Philosopher’s Stone

This past weekend a friend and I had a brief discussion about the pursuit of immortality down through the ages (Fountain of Youth, Holy Grail, alchemy, etc.) at the conclusion of which we both exclaimed that, even if living forever someday became possible, we wouldn’t want it.  Passionately.  In fact, the idea of living forever (or even a lot, LOT longer) was kind of repulsive.

My personal aversion stems from two separate issues.  The first is the fact that life is riddled with tough spots, occasionally becoming harsh to the point of undesirability.  The cumulative injury of those traumas over not just an average lifespan, but an eternity, would have to become unendurable at some point.

Pooh on that.

My second objection is that seizing that much life for myself feels unethical.  We live in a finite universe full of limited resources that can only support so many biologically functioning human beings.  So if I don’t die, then a fair number of future children won’t be born.  I would, for all intents and purposes, be stealing their lives in order to lengthen my own and…well…isn’t that a vampire thing?

Ick.

Although…the question of ethics and immortality gives rise to all kinds of possible plot scenarios for a novel or sic-fi movie.  Which is pretty fun.  Here’s one:

Opening scene: New York City, 150 years in the future.  A mysterious wave of miscarriages has been sweeping across the world for fifteen years and the pace is increasing geometrically, potentially threatening the future of the human race.  A concerned official from the World Health Organization comes knocking at the door of two, world-reknowned, research scientists who specialize in fertility studies.  They’re married and (surprise, surprise) she’s nine weeks pregnant.  The WHO official finds that enrolling them to look for a solution is pretty easy.

Break to next scene:  New York City, present day.  A small group of Swedish scientists reveal a startling anti-aging discovery to a secret committee of the World Economic Forum.  They propose The Methuselah Project, a campaign to lengthen the human life-span by a couple thousand years, and the proposal is instantly and enthusiastically adopted.  (It begins, of course, with the inoculation of power brokers, mega-wealthy, and top government officials.)  Over the next hundred years, trials are run and all of the now-virtually-immortal insiders on the project consolidate their power over just about everything.  Things are finally ready for the second stage where inoculation will be offered to pre-selected people at a hefty price.

Back to the future:  As the two research scientists probe deeper into the growing problem, they uncover a secret network of wealthy, powerful, reclusive people who all seem to be unusually old, although their pasts are cloaked in mystery.  As they start to question individual members of the network, all the usual, life-threatening car, plane, and other accidents quickly begin to happen to them.  The couple survive everything thrown at them and eventually track down one of the original Swedish scientists who now works among the Inuit people in a remote region of the Canadian Northwest Territories.  He reveals that he’s actually 193 years old, and then explains how the original vision of The Methuselah Project was corrupted for the purpose of establishing a two-tier world order; those who live for thousands of years served by those who die by their sixties.  Part of the project involves drastically reducing the world population to a number more easily controlled, and the tool employed is a simple pennyroyal compound leaked into the water supplies of the world (all owned and controlled by Immortals BTW) to induce widespread miscarriages.

Conclusion: This will depend on whether the movie is a feel-gooder or a horror film.

Feel-gooder conclusion: the scientist couple manage to get the word out to the media and expose the scheme to the world, after which all the people rise en-masse to destroy the Immortals and return the world to it’s natural order.

or…

The scientist couple re-engineer the anti-aging serum to bestow not only longevity but wisdom.  The evil Immortals are transformed into kind, benevolent, enlightened teachers who then work to change the world into a better place for everyone.  All are eventually inoculated with the new serum and the scientist couple’s baby grows up to be President of the New World Utopia.  (This ending could be a tough sell.)

or…

The horror film: the scientist-pair are killed before they can expose the plot, but not before their own baby is born and taken away to be raised by an Immortal couple who can’t have children of their own.

or….

The bad Immortals are killed after which the original Methuselah Project is reinstated and everyone in the world is inoculated with the anti-aging serum.  The widespread miscarriages are then replaced by a new set of sterilization, abortion, and lottery-pregnancy laws.  (This movie obviously gives rise to the sequel where desperate women start becoming pregnant illegally only to be hunted down and treated badly when they’re caught.  Or has that movie already been made?  It sounds familiar.)

ANYWAY!!!  This was fun but I really have to get on with my day now.  I’m curious though.  How many of you are intrigued by the idea of immortality (as versus just-not-dying, which is a completely different issue.)  Here’s a quick poll to get an idea of where people stand on the subject and, if you need more room for nuance, by all means feel free to use the comment section.

Autism, Vaccines, and My Beef With (Some) Scientists

I love science so I subscribe to Scientific American.  It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking, extraordinary read which usually fills me with a lot of hope for the future.  So I look forward to it every month.

However, in the latest issue of Scientific American, Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, wrote an article entitled Trust Me, I’m a Scientist where, after referencing the current storm raging around vaccines and autism, he ponders why-oh-why “so many people choose not to believe what scientists say.”   He goes on to posit two possible explanations:

1)  The ever-popular (and sadly accurate) speculation about the poor quality of science education in the U.S. which he downplays, and then his own theory;

2)  People are emotionally prone to accept inaccurate beliefs, a position he argues for during the rest of the article.  (He is a psychologist.)

Needless to say the dreaded “I” word eventually surfaced…IRRATIONAL…the one which, however true as a strict definition, scientists also use for character assassination against someone coming from a non-scientific perspective.

And as usual, as soon as I read the word my blood pressure shot up about twenty points and I had to put the magazine down while I struggled to calm the bristling, snapping, fiercely irrational dog in me that scientists keep poking through the fence with these fucking  sticks.  I don’t think they understand how patronizing it feels–or how counterproductive it is–when they airily reduce and dismiss the rich, complex, nourishing, ancient and essential emotional/instinctual lives we all share as irrational.   They might as well just call us naked, dirty, jungle people who eat with their spears.

image from Wikipedia

I mean, really.  It’s so much harder to help people once you’ve antagonized them.

Now just so we’re clear here, I don’t for one second doubt the sincerity of the brilliant, decent, dedicated scientists who are working to find causes and cures for autism.   I, personally, am really grateful they’re trying and I believe them when they say please, please, please people, we’ve looked long and hard, and we really and truly cannot find a link between autism and vaccines.  It sounds to me like they mean it and so I weight that information accordingly.

But on the other hand, not finding a link and proving there is no link are two completely different things.  The first finding leaves wiggle room and your average parent’s instincts are likely to sniff that out and mistrust it.  Instincts don’t like uncertainty.  For them uncertainty is like a patch of tall grass where predators could still be hiding, even though the scientists periodically go in and beat the brush.  It’s nothing personal against scientists, it’s just that…well…it’s tall grass.

So, a possible suggestion for scientists here:  Acknowledge that wiggle room is wiggle room, and try not to patronize a parent who knows it and is already growling and circling their child.  If you do they’re not going to listen to you and it won’t be because you’re a scientist.

And a possible suggestion to parents who are thinking of not vaccinating their children at all:  Please don’t get so focused on this one patch of tall grass that you completely forget about the other tall patches behind you.  A few of those ones definitely harbor predators and you need to have some kind of plan in place for fighting them off, too.  Whooping cough, diptheria, polio, etc. are all still crouching nearby, eying your child and lashing their tails.  And even if their populations are relatively low right now, low is not the same as extinct.  Low means they could still breed their way into a comeback given the chance so, whatever plan of action you eventually settle on, be sure you build some kind of defense strategy that protects your child (and the adult they eventually become) against these other diseases, too.  While they may seem less familiar today than autism, they’re certainly not less dangerous.

I once helped care for a woman who lived for over fifty years with the personal devastation caused by one of the last, major polio outbreaks in this country.  She was quadriplegic and still, over a half-century later, in constant, low grade pain.  The stories she told me of “how it used to be before the vaccine was discovered” made my hair stand on end, and through her eyes I finally got the chance to see what an absolute horror the scourge of polio really, really, was, and what a blessing the polio vaccine has been for all of us born after it’s discovery.   She thanked God everyday for that vaccine, and for the fact that her grandchildren would never have to endure what she did.

Vaccines are not an evil.  To the contrary, they’re a miracle and a gift.  But they’re also not without risks which means, miracle or no, they still need to be utilized carefully and wisely.

So back to Dr. Willingham’s question about why “so many people choose not to believe what scientists say…”  (Man, there are just so many things wrong with that question.  Like…what?  Scientists own the ultimate truth and we’re all somehow obligated to believe everything they tell us?  Or that there’s something wrong (irrational!) with us non-scientists if we question their conclusions?  Boy howdy, that phrasing smacks of an arrogance that’s totally setting my inner dog off again.  Damn.)   Frankly, I think his conclusion that “people are emotionally prone to accept inaccurate beliefs” (another phrase brimming with innuendo) borders on being dismissive and condescending.  

I know this much; people are definitely emotionally prone to mistrust those who disrespect them.  And as long as skeptical parents feel that scientists like Dr. Willingham are talking down to them, I just don’t see them becoming a lot more receptive to the science itself.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

A Parrot’s Grief


We once had two dogs.  They joined the family two years apart, lived most of their lives together frisky and inseparable, then died at the end, also two years apart.  Our big guy died first.  Swift and unexpected.  He was fine and healthy for years and years, and then one day got sick and three days later died.  Just like that.

Our second dog was lost without him.  For a month following his death she withdrew.  She’d still come to us if we called and try to look happy to see us, but as soon as her duty was done she’d slip away to the corner where they used to sleep together and lie down again, eyes open and unfocused and numb.

We were heartbroken for her and heartbroken for ourselves.  We all missed him terribly.

But time worked its magic and one day, for no particular reason, she returned.  She followed me around the house that morning, trying to flip my hand up on her head with her nose again, and my heart eased knowing she’d be okay.  We had two more wonderful years together before she, too, eventually died.

There’s a lot of controversy on whether animals experience emotions, but the suggestion that they can’t feel things like simple grief makes me angry.  I usually try to respect the beliefs of others but, because this particular belief is so often used as a justification for exploitation, neglect, or abuse, I don’t respect it.  I find it suspect.  The claim is far too riddled with conflicts of interest to take at face value.  Besides, in five decades of living, every interaction I’ve personally had with animals and birds, (and reptile, fish, and even a few insects believe it or not) has confirmed that these other strange and wonderful companions I share my world with feel a great deal, even if most of the time I don’t understand what exactly that is.

A case in point:

One of my first hospice patients had a parrot she said she’d smuggled over the border from Mexico twenty years earlier.  She was a wild, untamed kind of woman and her parrot was just like her.

I don’t remember now what kind he was, but he was smallish, maybe a little bigger than Snowball the dancing cockatoo, and he spent most of his time in those final days perched on the valance above the window next to her bed.  I was a little nervous at first because family members warned me that sometimes he flew down on people, swooping at them again and again, testing to see if they would duck and run.  He was a fierce little thing, tolerating only a handful of people and attacking the rest, but he clearly loved and needed that woman lying on the bed and was made achingly vulnerable by her approaching loss.

He never flew down on me.  I used to speak to him gently when I was on that side of the bed, changing her sheets or dressing or incontinence pad, and he’d closely monitor everything I did, anxious and curious, sometimes fluffing up into a ball of down and shaking his head rapidly, raising his wings for a moment like he just couldn’t stand the uncertainty anymore, then settling back down to watch and wait again anyway.  He’d sidle back and forth along the length of the valance, first to the left, then to the right, over and over again like a loved one pacing the corridors of a hospital.  He knew something was wrong and it seemed to fill him with unease.

Once I saw him fly down to the bed while I was in and out of the room, doing laundry.  She was asleep and he seemed to want to just be next to her, to touch her.  He awkwardly waddled up next to her head, curling into the warmth still emanating from her.  He bent his head over next to her mouth as though checking for breath and just stayed there for a long time, frozen, his feathers brushing her lips.  My heart broke for him and I wanted to pick him up, cradle and croon to him, but I knew he’d bite me if I so much as extended my hand.

First her sister told me and then her daughter.  How he wept on her body when she died.  He flew down from the valance to her chest and started nuzzling and nipping at her, trying to make her respond.  Stroke him.  Yell at him.  Anything.  But when she didn’t move he went still and stunned, and it was then that he started making the strange, small noises, noises unlike anything they’d ever heard him make before, like sobs.  His head bobbed slowly up and down to the rhythm of the sounds, and her family just stood there around the bed, surprised and stricken by his grief.

Later, when the men from the funeral home came to remove her body from the room he attacked them.  Viciously.  Angry and hysterical, he dive bombed at their heads repeatedly until one of the men ran  in the bathroom to hide.  The family finally captured him and put him in his cage while they took her body away.

I’ve often thought about him over the years and hoped that he eventually found someone else he could trust, someone he’d allow to love him, to bring him back in healing and wholeness.

Like just about every other person I’ve ever known, the deep emotional bonds I’ve shared with animals over the years have provided me with a well of strength, beauty, unconditional love, and hope.  My ties to these companions have helped shape me, often healed me, and even saved me, more times than I can count.  I really, really hope that some day soon we’ll grow past the economic and scientific need we have to deny the depth of their vulnerability to us, and instead forge a higher, kinder relationship based on mutual respect.  They’ve already given us all so much.  They deserve something far better than what they’ve gotten in return.

copyright 2010 Dia Osborn