Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Birds keep getting some ways like primates

It's not really that birds are getting smarter, just that we're continuously gathering more evidence about how smart they really are. One of the smartest birds ever studied was Alex the African gray parrot. Irene Pepperberg of Brandeis University showed that Alex could count up to six items, and had more than 100 vocalizations for objects, actions, and colors. But Alex is not news, even though he's very famous. His accomplishments have been well-documented for years. He died not long ago.

But new research keeps turning up all the time. The latest buzz on bird intelligence comes from Germany, from Helmut Prior at Goethe University. It involves self-recognition, a capacity at one time attributed only to humans. In biology, the litmus test of self-recognition is to recognize that the image in a mirror is oneself.

We know now that a few nonhuman animals share this ability, but so far, the list of species is very short. The usual way behavioral scientists test for self-recognition is put a bright mark on an animal's face or neck, and then place the animal in front of a mirror. If the animal uses the mirror to inspect or touch the mark on itself, that's considered evidence that the animal recognizes the image as itself.

Up until now, only humans, apes, bottlenose dolphins, and elephants have been shown to respond to a mirror image this way. Other animals often react to their mirror image as though it's a different individual. I've seen male Anolis lizards make aggressive displays toward a mirror, as though the image was a different male making its own aggressive displays. The lizard sometimes gets madder and madder, when the "intruder" refuses to back down!

But Helmut Prior has just published research showing that magpies have joined the ranks of self-recognizing animals - the first birds to be included.

In the experiments, each of five magpies was given the option of entering a chamber with a mirror, alone. Three of the magpies preferred the mirror chamber to an adjoining chamber without a mirror, taking time to inspect the mirror image, looking behind the mirror, and moving around in front of the mirror.

Then the researchers marked each magpie with a spot of paint on the front of the throat (see photo at the top of this post). The three magpies that had previously inspected the mirror now used the mirror to carefully inspect the paint spot, turning their heads and tilting their necks close to the mirror. Two of them scratched off the the spots with their feet, while looking in the mirror. When the mirror was not present, these three magpies ignored the spot.

(A) Attempt to reach the mark with the beak; (B) touching the mark with the foot; (C) touching the breast region outside the marked area; (D) touching other parts of the body. Behaviors (A) and (B) entered the analysis as mark-directed behavior; behaviors (C) and (D) and similar actions towards other parts of the body were considered self-directed, but not related to the mark.

What about the other two magpies? Throughout the experiment, the other two birds reacted as though the bird in the mirror were a stranger, jumping and running around the compartment, regardless of whether they had a paint spot on their neck or not.

Chimp studies have found that mirror self-recognition declines with age - this may be the case with these two magpies as well. Or maybe it's just individual variability in intelligence.

So what does it mean, that some magpies recognize their own image? This is important to me because it's evidence that we're not as special and entitled as some people think we are. Other animals are smart too. My hope is that, as we eliminate the capabilities that distinguish us from other species, we'll realize they are sentient, and as sentient beings, they deserve more consideration than we give them. Wishful thinking probably, but it makes sense to me.

by Sally Kneidel

Bruce Bower. Magpies check themselves out: reactions to mirror image suggest self-recognition. Science News. September 13, 2008.

Helmut Prior et al. Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition. PLoS Biology. August 19, 2008.

Monday, November 24, 2008

"Owl" turkey anyone? Smuggler busted with 900 "oven-ready" owls

I got an appalling email from wildlife-activist Richard Thomas of TRAFFIC last week.

Wrote Richard, "Did you see the story I posted on the TRAFFIC website yesterday - an extraordinary haul of around 900 dead "oven-ready" owls, plus more than 7000 Clouded Monitor Lizards in Malaysia. It appears they were destined for China. First time we've come across owls in the 'meat trade' in this part of the world."

"The 900 owls piece got quite a bit of press coverage - the raid was made by Malaysian police, following information received about a cargo being readied for export to China," Richard continued a couple of days later.

Richard and I have been corresponding a little about my efforts to share my own writing about the illegal trade in wildlife, and my efforts to promote the work of TRAFFIC. I had recently sent him a link to my post on the wildlife trade in Iquitos Peru.

Due to the enormity of the haul of owls, and its proximity to Thanksgiving, when millions of birds will be roasted here at home (albeit legally), I want to reprint TRAFFIC's article in its entirety below.

900 "oven-ready" plucked owls consfiscated in Malasia.
Click photo to enlarge
©Chris R Shepherd / TRAFFIC

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 12 November 2008—Over 7,000 live Clouded Monitor Lizards and almost 900 dead owls plus other protected wildlife species have been seized in two raids in Peninsular Malaysia.

On 4 November, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) staff raided a house in Muar, in the state of Johor, and found in a freezer and storage room 796 Barn, 95 Spotted Wood, 14 Buffy Fish, 8 Barred Eagle and 4 Brown Wood Owls, 2 Crested Serpent Eagles, 51 live Clouded Monitor Lizards, 4 live juvenile Wild Pigs, plus parts of one or more Wild Pig, Malayan Porcupine, Reticulated Python, Malayan Pangolin, Sun Bear and Greater Mouse Deer.

A local man was arrested and remanded in custody for three days, but pleaded not guilty and was released on bail of MYR19,000 (USD5,300).

Information obtained during the raid led to a second raid on a storage facility in Segamat, Johor, on 7 November 2008, when 7,093 live Clouded Monitor Lizards were seized, but no arrests made.

“The number of owls and monitor lizards seized is truly staggering,” said Chris R. Shepherd, Senior Programme Officer for TRAFFIC’s Southeast Asia office.

“This is the first time we know of where ‘ready-prepared’ owls have been seized in Malaysia, and it may mark the start of a new trend in wild meat from the region. We will be monitoring developments closely.”

All the animals seized are believed to have originated in Malaysia and were probably bound for China, to be sold in wild meat restaurants.

All are protected to some degree under Malaysian national legislation, and most are listed in CITES (the Convention on Illegal Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), with Clouded Monitor Lizard and Sun Bear in Appendix I, which prohibits international trade, whilst most other species, including all the owls, listed in Appendix II, which restricts such trade.

“Malaysia is home to a vast array of amazing wildlife,” said Shepherd. “However, illegal hunting and trade poses a threat to Malaysia’s natural diversity.

“TRAFFIC applauds the actions taken by Perhilitan, and urges the public to report cases of illegal hunting and trade to the authorities.

“TRAFFIC also encourages countries where these cargoes are bound to be vigilant to prevent the illegal import of wildlife from Malaysia and elsewhere.”

Malaysia is a member of the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN-WEN), a partnership that seeks to end illegal cross-border wildlife trade in the region.

For further information:
Chris R. Shepherd, Senior Programme Officer for TRAFFIC Southeast Asia (in Malaysia) tel: +603 78803940, cell: +6 012 234 0790, E-mail:

Richard Thomas, Communications Co-ordinator, TRAFFIC. Tel: +44 1223 279068, mob + 44 752 6646 216. E-mail

Keywords:: 900 owls Malaysia oven-ready owls wildlife trade TRAFFIC Richard Thomas Chris R. Shepherd

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Turkeyless Thanksgiving: Pumpkin Lasagna or Brazilian Black Bean Soup Instead

Ever wonder what a turkey's life is like? Not that much fun.
For an intimate portrait of a turkey farm that breeds turkeys, read Jim Mason's account of his job as a turkey inseminator. Tools of the trade include vacuum pumps, clamps, rubber hoses and syringes. Not very pleasant for the turkeys or the inseminators.

We've been wondering what to serve our Thanksgiving family gathering of 10 people, in lieu of turkey. I think we've settled on Brazilian Black Bean Soup, a filling and savory vegan dish from Mollie Katzen in the Moosewood Cookbook. I like it a lot, and daughter Sadie says this was a staple at the vegetarian restaurant where she used to work - Berrybrook Farms. It's basically black beans, with carrots, celery - and sections of seedless oranges. The orange pieces add an unexpected sweet tang that complements the beans.

We're also considering pumpkin lasagna, which Sadie says her friend Elise made for a neighborhood pre-Thanksgiving meal in Greensboro. Sadie declared it "delicious." I haven't had it, but here's a recipe for no-boil pumpkin lasagna from Roz Cummins of Grist Magazine. The recipe is vegetarian, but not vegan. Roz is a good writer; the short article about making the lasagna with her friend is funny. She makes a plug for using organic ingredients - including organic dairy products. I'll second that.

Happy T-Day

Key words:: turkey farm; turkeyless thanksgiving; pumpkin lasagna; black bean soup; turkey substitute

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Working in a turkey insemination factory

by author, attorney, & animal-activist Jim Mason

A friend heard an advertisement on the local radio about the Butterball Turkey Company needing workers in artificial insemination, called "AI" for short. So I went to the personnel office across the street from the turkey killing plant in this small midwestern town. Latinos, Asians and poor whites filled the waiting room. Everybody wore rubber boots and big, puffy white hairnets - both men and women.

"Bob," the AI boss, explained that the modern turkey business is about the "most high-technical" of all the animal operations. "The turkey is a creation of modern science and industry," he said. "It's been out of the wild only about 100 years, the last animal to be domesticated. Because of that wildness, it tends to go broody, which means it lays a few eggs once a year and quits. We have to trick it into laying all the time."

Bob told me that the company's birds are much bigger and more clumsy than the original turkey — so much so that they can't breed by themselves anymore. So the company has to use AI to produce the fertile eggs that hatch the chicks who then go into "grow-out" houses and grow up to be slaughtered and processed.

The Butterball Turkey Company is a division of ConAgra Turkey Co., a division of ConAgra Poultry Co., a division of ConAgra, Inc. of Omaha, NE (the agribusiness conglomerate). They hired me. I reported for work at 4:45 a.m. I was told to go with "Joe" and his crew. Joe grunted at me, then barked, "Follow me in your car." Down a gravel road, the lights of a turkey building glowed ahead. We parked. Joe handed me a dust mask and grunted something. When I didn't move, he yelled, "Get a hold of this and help me take it in." It was the insemination machine, about the size of a TV set. As we walked toward the building, a worker came out and pitched two dead birds out the door.

Inside the building, I saw a sea of white hens. (Three thousand, I was told later.) The flock was divided in half by a double row of metal "nests" down the middle of the building. From these nests, a row of conveyer belts carried eggs.

Joe did not explain the work to come, nor did he introduce me to the other crew members — all silent, surly-looking white men in their 20s. They set up the AI machine quickly and went to work.

Two men herded birds a hundred or so at a time into a makeshift pen along one side of the house. From there, these "drivers" forced 5-6 birds at a time into a chute, which opened onto a 5x5-foot concrete-lined pit sunken into the floor of the house. Three men worked belly-deep in the pit: Two grabbed birds from the chute and held them for the third, Joe, the inseminator.

They put me to work first in the pit, grabbing and "breaking" hens. One "breaks" a hen by holding her breast down, legs down, tail up so that her cloaca or "vent" opens. This makes it easier for the inseminator to insert the tube and deliver a "shot" of semen.

Breaking hens was hard, fast, dirty work. I had to reach into the chute, grab a hen by the legs, and hold her, ankles crossed, in one hand. Then, as I held her on the edge of the pit, I wiped my other hand over her rear, which pushed up her tail feathers and exposed her vent opening. The birds weighed 20 to 30 lbs., were terrified, and beat their wings and struggled in panic. They were very strong and hard to hold.

With the hen thus "broken," the inseminator stuck his thumb right under her vent and pushed, which opened the vent and forced the end of the oviduct a bit. Into this, he inserted the semen tube and released the semen. Then both men let go and the hen flopped away onto the house floor.

The insemination machine's job was to put a calibrated amount of semen into small, plastic "straws" for the inseminator. Each straw was about the size of a drinking straw 3-4 inches long.

The machine drew semen from a 6 cc. syringe and loaded the straws one at a time. With the tip of a rubber hose, the inseminator took a straw, inserted it in the hen, and gave her a shot. Routinely, rhythmically, like a well-oiled machine, the breakers and the inseminator did this over and over, bird by bird, until all birds in the house had run through this gauntlet.

The semen came from the "tom house" where the males are housed. Here "Bill" extracted the semen bird by bird. He worked on a bench which has a vacuum pump and a rubber-padded clamp to hold the tom by the legs. From the vacuum pump, a small rubber hose ran to a "handset." With it, Bill "milked" each tom. The handset was fitted with glass tubes and a syringe body; it sucked semen from the tom and poured it into a syringe body.

I helped Bill for a while. My job was to catch a tom by the legs, hold him upside down, lift him by the legs and one wing, and set him up on the bench on his chest/neck, with his rear end sticking up facing Bill. He took each tom, locked his crossed feet and legs into the padded clamp, then lifted his leg over the bird©ˆs head and neck to hold him. Bill had the handset on his right hand. With his left hand, he squeezed the tomˆs vent until it opened up and the white semen oozed forth. He held the sucking end of a glass tube just below the opening and sucked up the few drops of semen. It looked like Half & Half cream, white and thick.

We did this over and over, bird by bird, until the syringe body filled up. Each syringe body was already loaded with a couple of cubic centimeters of "extender," a watery, bluish mixture of antibiotics and saline solution. As each syringe was filled, I ran it over to the hen house and handed it to the inseminator and crew.

Each tom house contained about 400 males, 20 to a pen. The toms are milked once or twice a week until they are about 64 weeks old (16 months), by which time they can weigh up to 80 lbs. The hens are inseminated usually once, sometimes twice a week, for about a year. When these breeding birds reach the end of their cycle, they are killed and turned into lunch meat, pot pies, and pet food.

The inseminator crew did two houses a day‹6,000 hens a day. Figuring a 10-hour day, that©ˆs 600 hens per hour, ten a minute. Two breakers did 10 hens a minute, or each breaker broke 5 hens a minute —- one hen every 12 seconds.

This pace pressured the drivers to keep a steady flow of birds in the chute to supply the pit. Having been through this week after week, the birds feared the chute and balked and huddled up. The drivers literally kicked them into the chute. The idea seemed to be to terrify at least one bird, who squawked, beat her wings in panic, and terrified the others in her group. In this way, the drivers created such pain and terror behind the birds that it forced them to plunge ahead to the pain and terror they knew to be in the chute and pit ahead.

The crews worked at this pace from 5 a.m. until 2 p.m., when I left. They had two more hours of work to finish off the second hen house. That's 11 hours at a stretch with no formal breaks. No morning breakfast, no lunch hour. The only breaks came by chance, when a machine malfunctioned or when the semen syringes were slow to come.

At about 12 or 1, the bad-tempered Joe got suddenly generous after yelling and barking orders all day and bought everyone a "sody." He was not our buddy, but our paternalistic leader. We got to sit outside among the swarms of flies buzzing over a pile of dead birds and drink cokes for 10 to 15 minutes while Joe and another guy ran an errand.

I asked the least belligerent co-worker about the workload and the pace, the no-breaks routine. He told me that the crews are given 30 minutes off for lunch, but that his crew (under Big Bad Joe) worked through this lunch break in order to get paid for the time. These guys worked at this pace 10 to 12 hours straight without a break or a bite to eat just to get another $3 on their paychecks. I put up with this for a day because I thought I might learn lots of secret stuff from the crews. Fat chance. Nobody talked. Nobody talked about anything. The few times I tried to make conversation, all I got was surly, glowering looks and a grunt or two.

I have never done such hard, fast, dirty, disgusting work in my life. Ten hours of pushing birds, grabbing birds, wrestling birds, jerking them upside down, pushing open their vents, dodging their panic-blown excrement, breathing the dust stirred up by terrified birds, ignoring verbal abuse from Joe and the others on the crew-- all of this without a break or a bite to eat (not that I could have eaten anything amongst all this).

Working under these conditions week after week (Bill had been there for four years), these men had grown callous, rough, and brutal. Every bird went through their merciless hands at least once a week, week after week, until they were loaded up to be killed.

Jim Mason. Farm Sanctuary News.

Jim Mason is co-author with Peter Singer of The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter; Animal Factories: What Agribusiness is Doing to the Family Farm and also the author of An Unnatural Order: Uncovering the Roots of Our Domination of Nature and Each Other. Please visit his web site.

For more information on this issue, visit LINKS GALORE,

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Her urban homestead is still thriving

butterfly feeding on Butterfly Bush

by Mark Price, Charlotte Observer, Nov 3, 2008

Borys and dhijana Scott-Harmony are among Charlotte's best known “urban homesteaders.” The couple, who were profiled by the Observer in 2007, did away with the grass at their Starmount home near South Boulevard. In its place, they put in a series of agricultural projects, including vegetable gardens, greenhouses, a fish pond the size of a swimming pool and a chicken coop. The neighbors continue to be unhappy about it, however.

Following are excerpts of an interview with dhijana (who lower-cases her name) by reporter Mark Price.

Q. How are things with that one neighbor who hates chickens?

We went to mediation in early spring and negotiated a solution. He wanted a visual barrier, and we ended up with a compromise. He didn't like to look out the window and see the “mess” we have and hear the sound of the chickens. Now, he gets to look out the window and see an 8-foot-tall wooden fence. … I'm impressed with the animal control supervisor, who got involved and suggested we go to mediation. We have eight of our original flock (of 20) left. … Borys' pet chicken, Rosita, died, but we'll have a new Rosita.

Q. What other projects are up and running in the back yard?

The pond is full, with a waterfall. It's about 2 1/2 feet deep and full of fish. We have frogs, visiting herons and all kind of other critters now. I think we have single-handedly restored the amphibian population of south Charlotte. We have three functioning greenhouses, so we can grow winter crops. And we have the gardens, where we grow as much as we can for self-sufficiency. What we don't eat, we sell at the Charlotte Tailgate Market. We go there and sell our stuff, or trade it for food that we can't grow because of the size of our (half-acre) yard. Borys is very busy making my dreams come true.

Q. What about the front yard?

That's where we have our butterfly garden, with only the kinds of plants that butterflies and hummingbirds like.

Q. Are neighbors still pressuring you about the overgrown look?

Nobody is bothering us right now. I'm very involved with the neighborhood association. I took the vice presidency of the association. We joke about it now. The ladies of the Starmount Garden Club came for a tour of the yard a couple of weeks ago. I went to a garden club meeting, and they were talking about calling 311 to report over-grown yards. I told them to make sure they were overgrown and not gardens, like mine.

Q. Have the battles softened your stand on urban homesteading?

We are still committed. My goal is to introduce the idea of others creating as many backyard wildlife habitats as possible. Mecklenburg is so full of development that there is no place for wildlife. I want to encourage people to choose just one kind of wildlife, and develop a place for that (animal) with food, water, shelter and a place to raise their young. Doesn't matter if it's squirrels, raccoons, birds, whatever. If we create enough places where wildlife can live, all those places will eventually connect and wildlife could co-exist with us.

Q. What's your next project?

Beekeeper training in January. I'm going to keep a hive in our garden for pollination purposes.

Keywords:: urban garden city gardening native landscaping beneficial landscaping

Monday, November 10, 2008

Monkeys and parrots pouring from the jungle....

A Three-toed Sloth for sale in the Belen market (photo by Sally Kneidel).

She was angry
The woman behind the table looked decidedly displeased, so displeased that I felt a little frightened. But what could she do? Probably nothing, so I took the photos of the sloth for sale anyway. I knew I was being rude - she was probably just trying to support her family, or maybe the sloth wasn't even hers. But how could I not take pictures? Especially when a local policeman was playing with the sloth, shaking hands with it, unconcerned about the legality of a sale. After a minute or two, my Peruvian friend Cesar told me "enough" with the photos, and I stopped. We were in his hometown of Iquitos, Peru, and naturally, he didn't want to antagonize the locals. So we moseyed on.

We were tooling around the Belen outdoor market, a huge daily gathering of individual vendors, on the bank of the Amazon River in Iquitos, Peru. Belen is a low-income area at one end of Iquitos. The informal market begins at the waterfront in Belen and spreads uphill. Vendors at the market sell items brought in from villages along the Amazon: crafts, bushmeat, rainforest fruits, nuts, vegetables, animal and plant parts used as traditional medicines....and lots of wildlife. Some of the sellers are villagers, others are middlemen.
A young Spider Monkey in the Belen market (photo by Sally Kneidel).

 Baby spider monkey fresh from the jungle, awaiting a buyer
As Cesar and I moved away from the woman offering the sloth, we came immediately upon a woman selling a juvenile Spider Monkey that was tied to her small table with a strip of blue cloth. The seller sat behind the table in black shorts and a pink top, chatting with a barefooted teen on the floor, oblivious to my camera. I paused to take the little monkey's picture....then we spotted the tamarins and marmosets for sale farther down the aisle. Most of these tiny primates were immature and in cages, some were tethered to tops of cages. Others were perched on human shoulders, to show off their pet-appeal.
An adult Pygmy Marmoset, among the world's smallest primates, on display in Belen market (photo by Sally Kneidel).

The price for one of Belen market's immature Saddle-backed Tamarins in the pictures below? The equivalent of $1.60 each (5 Peruvian soles). (photo by Sally Kneidel)
Saddle-backed Tamarins (photos by Sally Kneidel)

Tamarins for sale at $1.60 
I was stunned at the price of the tamarins. These caged youngsters had probably been captured by shooting their mothers, the only way to bring a tamarin and her clinging infant out of the treetops. The young ones might survive a life as a solitary pet in an Amazonian village, but if smuggled abroad, their chances for survival were low. Seeing the young tamarins grimacing in the cages - that's when I really understood the meaning of wildlife as a commercial commodity. I asked the proprietor of the first tamarin cage, a teenage girl, to please put a water dish in the cage. She seemed puzzled about why that would matter, but did as I asked.

Parrots slumped
Primates may have been the most common living animal in the market...but the parrots for sale were close behind. Some were adult parrots, perched atop cages. Others were hatchlings laid together in little baskets lined with cloth, so young that they had only their "pin feathers" - the beginning sprouts of feathers that look like little spikes. The nestlings were too young to sit up straight, but were slumped on the floor of the basket or leaning against the side for support.
Parrot nestlings for sale at Belen market (photo by Sally Kneidel).

In pic above, Amazonian parakeets and/or parrotlets for sale at the Belen market (photo by Sally Kneidel).

In above pic, adult Orange-winged Amazon Parrot (Amazon amazonica) for sale, Belen market (photo by Sally Kneidel).

Among impoverished Amazonians, wild animals are commodities
The Belen market is disturbing, but it's also fascinating - for what it represents about the conflict between the needs of expanding human populations and the long-term prospects for wildlife populations. In Belen, wildlife is a forest product that can bring in a few soles; it's a resource the people along the Amazon have always had. Families from remote villages teetering on the brink of subsistence bring to the market whatever they can sell or trade. Can I blame them? If my kids had no medical care or clean water or functional school, would I not sell what I could to provide for them? The plight of Amazonian wildlife is sad and even infuriating for me, given the mass extinctions that most scientists agree we're headed for. But the poverty that drives people to deplete their most valuable natural resources - the rainforest wildlife and trees - is equally distressing.
Unloading items for the Belen market (photo by Sally Kneidel).

Locals may travel for days to the Belen market in handmade boats
Cesar and I walked out from under the tarps covering the market and down to the water's edge for a breeze, to escape the mosquitos and fishy stink of the market. Dozens of boats were pulled up to the muddy shore, their owners unloading bananas, dried fish, animal skins, parrots, etc. Families may travel by boat for days to bring their offerings to the Belen market. Those who had finished unloading paused for lunch, sitting on crates, a plate with a banana and a roasted piranha balanced on one knee. An intact armadillo was roasting over a fire smoldering in a rusty steel drum.

Lunch roasting: armadillo and bananas (photo by Sally Kneidel).

I'm guessing that most of the bushmeat in the Belen market is consumed by local people - the turtle eggs and turtle meat, the armadillos, the dried agoutis, the peccaries, the dried and fresh fish. Most of what we saw was too perishable to travel far. There was no ice in sight.

Dried agoutis for sale in Belen, above (photo Sally Kneidel).

Turtle meat for sale in Belen market (photo by Sally Kneidel)

Dried fish for sale in the Belen market (photo by Sally Kneidel).

Animal parts as traditional medicines
Local people are probably the main consumers of the animal parts sold as medicine, too, in the Belen market. Probably people all up and down the river from Iquitos shop there for traditional remedies. These medicinal animal parts - bones, skin, eyes, penises, organs - are sold mostly in the form of powders or liquids. Some items are dried and intact. In the Belen market, the medicine booths occupied a whole long aisle, and the aisle was jammed with local customers. Each booth offered hundreds of bottles and baggies of once-living material. Many of the medicinal plants they offered, ground and dried, do have healing value - many modern medicines prescribed by MDs were originally derived from tropical plants.

But animal parts are a different matter. Most of the animal parts offered at these booths have traditionally been thought to offer the customer the perceived qualities of the animal being consumed. For example, eating owl eyes might be thought to improve failing vision.
Above: One of many traditional-medicine booths in Belen market, selling animal and plant parts used traditionally as medicine (photo by Sally Kneidel).

Many of the bottled items at the booths in Belen had flashy labels that offered enhanced virility or sexual performance. Aside from the bottles and baggies, the traditional-medicine booths offered whole anaconda skins, jaguar skins, raptor feathers, viper heads, and dolphin jaws for sale, too. Maybe these whole items are thought to bestow some sort of status or power on the owner - I don't know. Or perhaps these are the wares that make their way to someone's den in the United States.

A viper head for sale in a traditional-medicine booth in Belen market (photo by Sally Kneidel).

So the meats, eggs, and the "medicinal" animal parts probably stay pretty local. But what about the living animals? What about the parrots, the primates, the baby coatis, the anteaters, the sloths we saw for sale? Where are they headed?
A pet coati in Belen (photo by Sally Kneidel)

Animals smuggled into U.S. like drugs
Thousands of animals every year are smuggled into the United States from Latin America for the pet trade. They are brought into the U.S. the same way drugs are carried in - in suitcases, in the trunks of cars, packed into crates disguised as something else. I don't know how many come from Iquitos, or Manaus, a Brazilian city on the Amazon. I do know that once the animals are in the United States, selling them is easy.

I picked up a few copies of "Animal Finders Guide" while researching our book Going Green. Animal Finders Guide is a weekly newsprint magazine that advertises wildlife for sale in the United States. Its pages offer coatis, marmosets, tamarins, capuchins, baby spider monkeys, parrots.....even camels, zebras, and chimpanzees! These are not "zoo to zoo" sales, but individuals selling to roadside menageries, pet owners, research labs, or shooting farms (where trophy hunters pay a fee to shoot exotic wildlife). I called a guy in Texas who had placed an ad in AFG selling chimpanzees from his home. He said if I wanted to buy one of his chimps, he would drive to meet me halfway. No paperwork needed, he said. Each issue of Animal Finders Guide carries ads not only for individual animals, but for wildlife auctions across the Midwest, such as the infamous "Woods and Waters." Autumn is a peak time for unloading animals at auctions, because their upkeep is more expensive in winter.

What can we do?
There is so much we can do, it's hard to know where to start. The biggest threat to world wildlife is loss of habitat, and climate change will become the biggest driver of habitat loss in the years ahead. Curb your own emissions. Take our carbon-emissions test and get a grip on your contribution to that problem. Eat less meat and fewer animal products. According to the United Nations, the "livestock sector" creates more greenhouse gases than the transportation sector.

Support nonprofits that are working to help people in developing nations pursue sustainable livelihoods, livelihoods that don't involve the overharvesting of forest "products" such as trees and wildlife. Ecotourism can provide sustainable livelhoods. When ecotourists (Americans, Europeans, Japanese, etc.) choose locally-owned lodging, and and hire local people as boatmen, drivers, and forest guides or birding guides, local communities have more incentive to preserve and protect their forests and wildlife. When you travel, try to direct your money into the pockets of local owners, rather than international chains.

Supporting organizations that educate women and offer microloans to working women not only improves the quality of life for families and communities, it also supports conservation goals. When women have opportunites, birthrates decline, meaning less drain on limited natural resources. Consider making donations to organizations like H3O that make microloans to impoverished women to help them start home-based employment, such as making and selling crafts or sewing or opening small shops.

Looking for a pet
If you want a pet, get a cat or dog, ideally from your local Humane Society. Don't buy a bird, any bird, whether bred in captivity or wildcaught. Even buying birds bred in captivity encourages the popularity of birds as pets. If you must have a bird or reptile, get one from a bird or reptile sanctuary that takes in abandoned pets (locate by googling). Don't buy primates! They don't make good pets. If you love monkeys, donate to an organization that supports conservation of their native habitat. Consider contributing to nonprofits such as TRAFFIC, World Parrot Trust, and Defenders of Wildlife that are working hard to slow the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife parts - the 3rd biggest blackmarket trade in the world, after drugs and weapons.

We're not powerless. Americans have more power for change, with our charitable contributions, our travel selections, our consumer spending, than any other group in the world. Exercise your power, and choose selectively. If you need some gut-level motivation, take a trip to the Amazon, and stroll through the market in Belen. You'll find the live-animal aisles on the lowest tier, with the mud and mosquitos.

Links to some of my previous posts about primates:
(to find others, enter "primates" in the search bar above)
Angry chimp reveals "uniquely human" trait

Almonds or pizza? Capuchins are smarter than we thought

Exciting new discovery: chimps' short-term memory is better than humans'

Chimps share the human trait of altruism

Monkeys can estimate numbers as well as Duke students

U.S. labs import thousands of wild-caught primates

Chimps and gibbons have human elements to their speech

Research shows older females preferred as mates

Top 6 ways to protect wildlife from commercial trade

Wildlife trade, forestry, and the value of activism

Keywords:: wildlife trade Iquitos, Belen market, primate trade, parrot trade, trade in parrots, illegal wildlife trade, wildlife parts, bushmeat, TRAFFIC, Going Green, Veggie Revolution, Sally Kneidel, World Parrot Trust

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Robert Kennedy Jr. to lead the EPA for Obama?

Obama may be considering Robert Kennedy as head of the EPA, according to internet buzz. What fantastic news! I wrote an article earlier this year describing RFK Jr as the most influential environmentalist of our time. And that's a heavy statement, given what Al Gore has accomplished. No point in comparing the two, but I do believe that RFK is ideally suited to take the reigns of the EPA.

Bobby Kennedy is an environmental attorney; he also heads up Pace Law School's litigation clinic. As such, he teaches environmental law and oversees numerous lawsuits filed against corporations that are violating environment laws in order to save money for their stockholders. Cleaning up effluent before it ruins rivers, scrubbing smokestack emissions - these are expensive processes that no corporation will take on unless forced to do so. RFK's lawsuits force them to.

Robert Kennedy really gets it. He understands that corporations will press as far as they are allowed to press in order to maximize their profits, because, as he said, "their only obligation is to their shareholders." They will take the low road, the polluting road, whenever possible. If you doubt this underlying principle of the corporate world, watch the documentary The Corporation. It will make a believer of you.

Kennedy is also the president of the Waterkeeper Alliance and has been for some time. He's passionate about clean rivers, clean estuaries, clean streams and lakes. When I asked him to endorse our 2005 book about factory farms in North Carolina, he agreed to do so because factory farms are among his "pet peeves" - according to one of his staffers. Kennedy knows that factory farms and the giant meatpacking corporations behind them have trashed the NC coastal plain, have been allowed to by lax enforcement of environmental laws. He feels so strongly about the environmental damage done by factory farms that he traveled to Poland with Animal Welfare Institute's Diane Halverson in an attempt to stop the takeover of Polish hog farms by the polluting American meatpacker, Smithfield. You can read about that venture on AWI's website.

Kennedy knows how corporations get around regulations. From years of litigation, he knows all their tactics and strategies. He will nail them. If he doesn't have his hands tied by lobbyists, he will nail the perpetrators - the corporations that foul our water, exploit our land, and cloud our skies - he will nail them to the wall. I feel giddy thinking about it.

But that's not the only reason Obama likes him. Obama himself has a quality that can move people, can make grown men cry. Tuesday night, when Obama made his acceptance speech, my husband cried and cried and cried. I don't mean his eyes got moist. He really wept. It may have been the second time in a couple of decades that I've seen him cry. Tonight at dinner, he tried to explain it to me. He said it was like he'd forgotten how to feel patriotic, it had been so long. He had forgotten what it feels like to have hope for his country, and for the planet. He said that during his acceptance speech Obama went through history pointing out all the things our country has overcome, saying "Yes we can." And Ken felt it somehow. Felt maybe we can. Felt patriotism stirring. Ken the cynic. He felt it and it made him cry.

I felt a lot of the same feelings when I heard RFK speak a few months ago in Charlotte. He began with material I sort of knew - he talked about what he does in his job, the lawsuits, and the companies that will get away with whatever the government allows them to do. Kennedy said polluters create wealth by making others poor, by depleting and destroying resources for others. The "revolving door of plunder," he called it.

He surprised me by saying that he is not an environmentalist but a "free marketeer." He calls himself that because he believes that corporations should be made to internalize all the costs of their production methods, including the costs to public health and to the environment. If their effluent causes liver cancer, or their emissions cause asthma, or their production methods blow mountaintops off, then they should pay the costs to the local communities, in lost wages, or medical costs or whatever. Can you imagine if Kennedy were able to pull that off, as head of the EPA?

But this is what brought me to tears. He talked about camping with his sons, how he loves the mountains, the trees, and the rivers near his home. He said "wilderness is the undiluted work of the creator. Wildlife is the way God communicates with us most forcefully, with force, with clarity, with texture."

Americans love and value nature, now and since our inception as a nation, he said. Consider Thoreau, Emerson, Merwin. In fact, he said, "nature is the unifying theme of American culture."

Robert Kennedy made me love my country. He made me want to fight to keep it clean, and he made me angry in a new way at the values of corporate profit in Bush's administration, the values that have cheapened the natural resources we have been blessed with.

See how he fits with Obama? They are, quite simply, two of the most inspirational living men I know. They both have the gift of describing the big picture, the global picture, the historical picture in a way that makes us want to get to work to save it.

Please, please, please pick RFK to head up the EPA.

by Sally Kneidel, PhD

This post syndicated on:

Washington Post Link!
Keywords:: RFK Robert Kennedy Jr. EPA Obama Bobby Kennedy Jr.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Environmental education: A new necessity for healthy kids?

As a new generation of American children face more adult stresses than ever before – pressure to achieve adequate test scores, rising rates of childhood obesity and its accompanying diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and emotional complications - scientists have found an unexpectedly simple cure. The American Journal of Preventative Medicine reports this month that the silver bullet for children’s physical and emotional health is no medicine at all: rather, it’s access to natural green space.

In a recent study of 3800 children ages 3 to 18, mostly poor and African-American, scientists documented a dramatic health disparity in children living in urban neighborhoods with varying amounts of green space. Children with access to more wild areas – from vacant lots to city parks - gained weight more slowly than their less green counterparts, and were less likely to be obese as adults. They also displayed higher cognitive functioning and fewer symptoms of ADHD. Adult residents of greener neighborhoods, meanwhile, tend to display lower stress, lower weight, and better health.

These results come as no surprise to some policy makers.

In an attempt to patch over educational gaps left by No Child Left Behind, the groundbreaking No Child Left Inside Act passed the House in September. No Child Left Behind demands that children meet grade level standards in reading, math, and science. In a push to prepare students adequately on these subjects, this legislation has sidelined topics deemed more superfluous, including environmental education. It’s not surprising, then, that in a recent study, two thirds of American adults failed a basic environmental quiz and 88% failed a basic energy quiz. “Forty-five million Americans think the ocean is a source of fresh water and 130 million believe that hydropower is America's top energy source,” the study findings report.

No Child Left Inside would provide $500 million over the next five years to fund environmental education in K-12 classrooms. As the environmental education movement gathers steam, more and more educators acknowledge the necessity of training the newest generations to be wise stewards of our dwindling natural resources. As today’s children reach adulthood, they will have to make unprecedented decisions about our energy resources and the health of an overtaxed planet.

Biologists use the term mutualism to describe a relationship between two species that benefits both parties. For example, a hummingbird drinking nectar from a flower both feeds itself and pollinates the plant. Perhaps humans and the earth are mutualistic as well. By preserving the health of our green spaces , we are also protecting the health of our children.

by Sadie Kneidel