Friday, March 27, 2009

Obama invites me and you to email him our opinions

I heard on NPR a couple of days ago that the White House website ( now has an e-mail link where anyone can write a note to President Obama. I didn't really believe it, but I went online to check, and there it was. You just scroll down the opening page to the word "contact" on the right. Click on that word, and you'll go to the page with the little box waiting for your comment.

Above the space for you to write, it says:
"President Obama is committed to creating the most open and accessible administration in American history. To send questions, comments, concerns, or well-wishes to the President or his staff, please use the form below."

You can write 5000 characters. Or less. Thank you Mr. Obama. Your predecessor never asked.

I knew right away what I want to say to Mr. Obama. I think I'll start with "Dear Barack" because most people probably don't.

I'm not gonna talk about the stuff on the front page of the newspaper: Obama's economic recovery plan, or reducing taxes for 95% of Americans, or ending the war in Iraq, or solutions for the drug trade over the Mexican border. That's all important, today. But it's all stuff that will be forgotten in 1000 years. Most of it won't make any difference in 1000 years. People will always have wars, use drugs, fight over borders, gripe about taxes ---- those struggles have been around as long as civilization has existed, and before. It's our human nature to have those particular struggles.

Here's what really matters, to me. We're entering a period of mass extinctions, where the majority of biologists agree that 25 - 75% of existing species are likely to go extinct within the next hundred years. This mass extinction is not like previous mass extinctions that occurred due to meteor impacts or glacial movements. In earlier extinctions, the surviving creatures had a variety of rich habitats remaining on Earth. They could adapt and evolve to fill these nurturing habitats. That's not the case now. We're fouling and destroying almost all habitats, most of them beyond recovery. Oceans, temperate forests, tropical forests, grasslands - all of them. Some by means of overharvesting, some by means of pollution, some by way of climate change. To me this is what really matters, because in 1000 years, in a million years, these habitats will still be trashed beyond recovery. And the animals will still be extinct. Forever. And not to be replaced by something new.
So that's what I'm going to say to Barack. Tomorrow I'll write it, after tonight's basketball games are over and I can say it in my clearest voice. "Please protect wildlife," I'll say, "so that the trillions of people to follow us on this planet won't have to live in a world without birds, without bears, without lions or wolves or whales. Think on down the line. You're probably good at that."

Keywords:: Obama wildlife extinctions white house

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Angry chimp reveals a "uniquely-human" ability

Santino the chimp, photo courtesy of

Santino the angry chimp is famous. You can google his name and find dozens of stories about him, in science journals and popular media.

It's not his anger that's making him famous, but how he plans ahead for his fits of rage.

Santino, a 30-year-old resident of the Furuvik Zoo in Sweden, has been observed collecting and stockpiling stones in his enclosure to use as future weapons. Later, when zoo visitors get on his nerves in a big way, he grabs stones from his cache to hurl at the annoying voyeurs!

He has also been observed tapping the concrete rocks in his enclosure to identify the weak parts, then dislodging a piece. If the chunk is too big to throw, he breaks it into smaller pieces.

The newsworthy part of this story is not that Santino makes tools; we have abundant documentation of primates and birds making tools, mostly as food-gathering implements.

The remarkable feature here is that Santino is planning for his future outbursts of temper.

Planning is a cognitive ability generally attributed only to humans. Or at least, we have little verifiable evidence of planning in non-human animals.

You might say that a squirrel's stashing nuts for winter is evidence of planning, but it's not necessarily. It's more likely that squirrels instinctively stash nuts as day length begins to shorten, since young squirrels who have never experienced a winter still do it.

True planning shows that an animal is considering what its future feelings will be at a later time.

As it turns out, Santino, as the dominant chimp at the zoo, has been storing and heaving stones over the moat at visitors for at least 11 years. Zookeepers have found and removed hundreds of Santino's caches of stones over the years. Fortunately for visitors, chimps throw underhanded and have terrible aim, so no one has been seriously injured by these "hailstorms" of aggression. And the stones are directed only at zoo visitors, never at the other chimps.

Scientist Mathias Osvath of Lund University says "These observations convincingly show that our fellow apes do consider the future in a very complex way. It implies that they have a highly developed consciousness, including lifelike mental simulations of potential events.....he first realizes that he can make these and then plans on how to use them. This is more complex than what has been showed before."

For me, Sally, it means that once again we have evidence that humans are not so unique after all. And so, I believe we should stop hogging the world's land and resources for ourselves, and stop fouling the remaining green spaces and waterways with our effluvia. We do not deserve dominion over the scraps of wild habitat and resources that remain.

Santino the chimp with stone in hand, photo courtesy of

Keywords:: chimps chimpanzees animal intelligence planning in animals Santino the chimp

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Pope values religious dogma over African lives?

On his way to Africa, Pope Benedict XVI said Tuesday that condoms are not the answer to preventing more HIV infections on the continent. "On the contrary," he said, "it increases the problem."

According to Victor Simpson of the Associated Press, three-fourths of all AIDS deaths worldwide in 2007 were in sub-Saharan Africa. By all accounts, an HIV pandemic is raging throughout this impoverished continent and has been for some time.

Pope Benedict has an alternate solution in mind, something he feels will be more effective than condoms. He and his senior Vatican officials advocate fidelity in marriage and abstinence from premarital sex as the key weapons in fighting HIV/AIDS.

Well, that's a nice little fantasy that might do well in a Cinderella cartoon. In reality though, such a recommendation shows a ludicrous "head in the sand" lack of awareness of the social structure in many impoverished African nations, and the collapse of social structure as their resources vanish. In the deep poverty that characterizes much of sub-Saharan Africa, women often lack autonomy in their relationships, marital or premarital. Men decide when, where, how often, and with whom sexual relations occur.

In cultures that have been disrupted by the depletion of natural resources, men often move to urban centers seeking work, leaving wives or girlfriends behind, and beginning new relationships in the informal settlements outside of cities. Men pick up HIV in these settlements and carry it back to their villages on their return visits. If they can afford to return.

Women in urban centers, less employable than men, may live in desperate poverty. Unable to farm in the city, they may be forced into the sex trade to feed their children.

On top of these dynamics are traditional spiritual beliefs, held in some areas, that a man's immortality is secured through the number of progeny he leaves behind, which can encourage promiscuity among men who are forced from their homelands in search of work.

So now the pope says, let's suggest to them that they suddenly return to a society where they are all able to remain with their nuclear family, and practice monogamy throughout adolescence and adulthood.

Does the pope read books? Does he watch documentaries? Is he in any way in touch with reality? I think I'll try to mail him "Darwin's Nightmare," an excellent documentary about the collapse of normal cultural life around Tanzania's Lake Victoria, after the collapse of the lake's ecology.

Rebecca Hodes with the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa said if the pope is serious about new HIV infections, he will focus on promoting wide access to condoms. "Instead, his opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans," said Hodes. Hear, hear. Well said, Ms. Hodes. If only the pope were listening, or interested.

What do you think, readers?

Source: Victor Simpson. March 18, 2009. On Africa trip, pope says condoms won't end AIDS. Associated Press.

Keywords:: pope AIDS HIV Africa condoms

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Are media making the recession worse? What do you think?

I think the media, maybe newspapers in particular, are driving consumer fear that is a significant contributor to our current recession. During the course of my day, I rarely think about the recession, other than to wonder if I'll get my contract renewed this year. Even that is largely out of my hands, so I don't think about it much.

But as soon as I pick up the local are some headlines from Sunday's newspaper.
  • Returning to lessons of the great depression
  • Huge cuts likely in [Governor] Perdue's plan
  • Unfinished homes worry neighbors
  • How will we know when the economy hits bottom?
  • No free passes in a deep economic downturn
  • Recovery to 'take time' despite hopeful signs
  • Economy getting employees down? Try a morale booster
  • Job scarcity creating long-distance couples
  • Digging out of a $3.4 billion budget hole
  • Revealed: Who got AIG aid money
  • Reading the signs of the bear and bull
And then we read this headline, in the same paper:
Obama: Have 'confidence'

Obama's right. If we can have confidence, then people will begin to spend more, and the economy will benefit. But as long as the media continue to create and foster an atmosphere of fear, who's gonna feel like spending?

Michael Moore said long ago that we're manipulated by fear, generated by the media. I have never felt that truth more than I feel it now. Fear sells newspapers. But what else does it accomplish?

Readers, what do you think?

Keywords:: recession, fear, media-driven recession

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Almonds or pizza? Capuchins are even smarter than we thought

White-faced capuchin eating fruit at
Manuel Antonio Parque Nacional, Costa Rica
Photo by Sally Kneidel

I'm thinking about monkeys again tonight. (See my last post about capuchins.) Since that last post, I've read another Science News article about capuchins; this one says they've been shown to use "symbolic thought." At one time, symbolic thought was believed to be a unique and defining attribute of humans. But now capuchins have joined the growing ranks of animals that can think symbolically. Specifically, capuchins have been shown to recognize tokens as symbols for different kids of foods. I was thrilled to see that bit of information, but not too surprised. Capuchins are smart, and I know a little about the power of tokens.

My freshman year at Roanoke College, I had an internship with a clever psychiatrist who worked at a nearby VA hospital. He too experimented with tokens as symbols. He had devised a "token economy" program to motivate severely ill psychiatric patients who couldn't behave acceptably in the hospital. If the patients managed an entire day without eating cigarette butts or smearing feces on the wall or attacking somebody, etc, then they were rewarded with tokens. They could trade the tokens for valued prizes, such as candy bars, or TV time, or even a visit with family off the hospital grounds. The tokens worked well. Even the most troubled of the patients got the idea, and took advantage of it. Violent and noxious misbehavior plummeted on the token-economy ward. My mentor published paper after paper about the success of his model.

So what's the deal with monkeys and tokens? In behavioral experiments, capuchins have learned to regard arbitrary tokens as symbols for different foods, according to primatologist Elsa Addessi of the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies in Rome. These capuchins then spontaneously choose certain tokens over others in ways that correspond to how they choose particular foods over others. The exception occurs when a less preferred token or food is offered in big quantities, which increases its attraction. Yes, we can all relate to that. One toasted almond versus a whole pesto pizza? Easy.

Adessi's team began by establishing a preference ranking for 3 foods among the experimental capuchins. The foods were Cheerios, Parmesan cheese, and sunflower seeds. The monkeys then learned to exchange distinctive tokens for each of the three foods. For example, the capuchin "Carlotta" knew to give the experimenter a green poker chip to receive a Cheerio, a black plastic tube to get a piece of Parmesan cheese, and a brass hook to obtain a sunflower seed.

In the final experiment, the capuchins were allowed to choose from among the tokens that they had learned to associate with particular foods. They almost always chose the tokens that represented the foods they preferred, demonstrating that they understood that the tokens symbolized the food items.

The experiment, published online June 11 in PLoS ONE, shows that capuchins have at least a rudimentary capacity for symbolic thinking, agree the researchers. Symbolic thinking involves the use of an object to represent something other than itself. The finding is significant to evolutionary biology because these South American monkeys diverged from primate ancestors of modern humans about 35 million years ago - which suggests that symbolic thinking has been around for a lot longer than we thought. After all, Homo sapiens has existed as a distinct species for only about 200,000 years. Symbolic thinking is pretty significant in our own development. Humans have used symbolic thinking to develop spoken and written languages, among other things.

Experimenters have been trying to demonstrate symbolic learning in nonhumans for 30 years. Chimps long ago learned to press artibrary symbols on a key pad to ask for various foods and tools. When I was in graduate school at the University of Oklahoma, I worked under the guidance of Dr. Roger Fouts, teaching American Sign Language to chimps and orangutans, which of course involves complex use of symbols.

me at 22, teaching ASL to Pancho the chimp, at University of Oklahoma's Institute for Primate Studies

me with Foots the orangutan, another ASL pupil at OU
Align Center
The chimps taught ASL to their own youngsters, used it among themselves, and used signs to ask us for things they wanted, like a snack, a drink, a ball, or a "tickle." There's no question that apes can understand and teach others the use of symbols. African grey parrots have also been shown to use symbols. If capuchins can reason symbolically too, then many other animals - primates, birds, and others - may also be able to. As I've said before, we're not as unique as some of us like to think. The more we learn about our furred and feathered relatives, the more blurred the distinctions become. Which, for me, makes our monopoly over the world's resources even more untenable and distressing! When I read about research like this, I pine for solutions to the habitat loss and climate change that threaten wildlife everywhere.

By Sally Kneidel, PhD

Bruce Bower. Monkeys learn to deal with arbitrary tokens as if they are different foods. Science News Vol. 174 #1.

Kate Wong. An interview with Alex, the African grey parrot. 60-Second Science Blog.

The Alex Foundation.

Keywords:: capuchins use of symbols primate intelligence symbolic thinking

Saturday, March 07, 2009

An alternative to Tyson: Natalie and Cassie of Grateful Growers Farm

Sadie Kneidel interviews Natalie Veres (center) and Cassie Parsons
(right) of Grateful Growers Farm.
Photo by Sally Kneidel

"Tyson: that's what your family deserves." It's an odd slogan for a corporation that feeds its chickens slaughterhouse scraps, fecal matter, antibiotics, and feather meal. The company gets away with it because few people know what goes on in a Tyson broiler shed, or what the chickens eat. Even the farmers who raise the Tyson chickens under contract don't know what's in the feed that Tyson delivers. It's a "trade secret".

While Sadie and I were researching our latest two books, Going Green and Veggie Revolution, we toured Tyson factory farms and interviewed the farmers. We went inside crowded Tyson broiler sheds, where the broiler chickens are raised. And we found out what they eat. It wasn't so hard to find out. We called the National Chicken Council and asked; we called food scientists at land grant universities and asked them too. They told us.

Fortunately, a growing number of smaller farms are raising happier livestock on healthier diets. We toured lots of those farms as well. One of our favorites was Grateful Growers Farm, owned by Cassie Parsons and Natalie Veres in Lincoln County, North Carolina. Cassie and Natalie have dedicated themselves to raising healthy livestock and vegetables. "Visiting a corporate factory farm," Cassie says, “took my breath away. It reaffirmed what we’re doing completely.” What Cassie and Natalie are doing is surprisingly simple. They raise hogs, broiler chickens, and egg-laying hens, all in outdoor pastures under the Carolina sunshine. They also grow and sell organic vegetables.

At Grateful Growers Farm, the broiler hens reside in pastured chicken-wire enclosures. Each fenced enclosure is sturdy enough to protect 75 hens from predators. Because broilers grow bulkier than laying hens, they are less nimble and thus more vulnerable to foxes, weasels, birds of prey, and neighbors’ dogs. Yet the chicken-wire enclosures are light enough to be portable, and are moved to fresh ground on the field twice a day – with the chickens still enclosed. So their manure is distributed evenly around the pasture, and is easily broken down by soil organisms to fertilize the pasture. The feces of factory-farmed broilers, on the other hand, are cleaned out of their sheds only once every 18 months, causing “hock burns” and “breast blisters” on the crowded chickens. We saw their reddened and featherless rumps when we visited Tyson broiler sheds.

Grateful Growers Farm's laying hens have lives of true luxury, as livestock go. In contrast to the million caged and tightly packed hens at the Food Lion egg farm we toured, Natalie and Cassie’s layers have the run of the farm. As we talked to the owners, the hens moved in and out of the woods close to their spacious hen house, dust-bathing, preening, pecking, and snuggling in the leaves under the watchful eye of an attentive rooster. After an active day, Natalie says, the hens put themselves to bed in the roosts inside their shed. They’re all trained to lay their eggs inside, where Natalie and Cassie collect close to 50 eggs per day.

A spacious hen house for every 25 hens at Grateful Growers Farm.
Photo by Sally Kneidel

While walking around Grateful Growers Farm, I asked myself a question I learned from Diane Halverson of the Animal Welfare Institute, an organization that has developed a protocol for humane husbandry of farm animals. She asks, "Do the animals live a life worth living?" At Grateful Growers, the answer is yes. At a Tyson contract farm, that would be no - from what I saw.

We need to support the kind of agriculture we want to see in our own communities. They need our support to stay in business. Visiting your local farmers market can help you track down responsible providers of animal products, as well as organic vegetables. While you're mulling over the mustard greens, ask around about local farmers who are raising animals, including dairy cows, humanely and sustainably. It's not that hard to find them. In North Carolina, you can contact Carolina Farm Stewardship Association for their listing of small-scale farmers, or the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. In Georgia, contact Georgia Organics. I imagine just about every state has such an organization now.

I'm a vegetarian, but I recognize that most people are going to continue eating animal products for the foreseeable future. Given that, I want my community to support the farmers who are trying to do it right. Responsible, humane, and ecofriendly providers - that's what my community deserves.

Keywords:: Grateful Growers Farm Natalie Veres Cassie Parsons poultry Tyson chickens broilers layers North Carolina Carolina Farm Stewardship Association

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Our new book , Going Green, reviewed in the Charlotte Observer

Sadie (left) and Sally Kneidel

Books that help readers get leaner and greener

Pam Kelley column in The Charlotte Observer

Feb 27, 2009 (The Charlotte Observer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX)

Looking to live healthier and greener? Two new books by N.C. authors offer advice and inspiration.

Start with "Going Green: A Wise Consumer's Guide to a Shrinking Planet" ($19.95; Fulcrum Publishing). Charlotte biologist Sally Kneidel and daughter Sadie Kneidel, a community activist in Greensboro, show how to make smart green choices in food, transportation, housing and clothing.

Some are simple. (Buy locally grown food. Use compact fluorescent bulbs.)

Others, such as building a house out of hay bales, require a larger commitment.

The book is loaded with great facts. Nonorganic cotton, I learned, is one of the most pesticide-intensive crops. And the United Nations has concluded that livestock creates more greenhouse gases than transportation. This means you can reduce your carbon footprint more by going vegan than by switching from an SUV to a Prius.

Mother and daughter both practice what they preach. Among other things, they eat mostly vegan and shop at thrift stores. Find out more:

After you get greener, check out "Stuffed: An Insider's Look at Who's (Really) Making America Fat" (HarperCollins; $25.99), by Chapel Hill's Hank Cardello with Doug Garr.

Cardello, a former food industry executive, shows industry's role in our obesity epidemic.

Not all insights are new, but he offers insider details about why consumers are always pushed to supersize their food.

Restaurants and food companies can make their products healthier without sacrificing profit, he argues. And consumers can cut fat and calories while still enjoying favorite foods. The growing popularity of 100-calorie pack cookies and crackers is one good example, he says.

Ultimately, Cardello says, it's the food industry's own interest to produce healthier products.

Bottom line: Dead customers don't buy soda.

Click here to see article on Observer's website.

Keywords:: Charlotte Observer Going Green book about going green sustainable living consumer choices