Here Puss, Puss, Puss II

I read a recent blog post highlighting the feral cat problem in Hawaii (http://rumpydog.com/2014/08/14/so-hawaii-wants-to-kill-cats/). The post mentioned a paper published in Conservation Biology which indicated that Hawaiian residents preferred euthanasia over trap-neuter-release (TNR) programs when it came to feral cat management (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12201/abstract;jsessionid=FB4AAB1970A118DB0073E69D40924627.f01t04?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false). This study was criticised as being flawed and its findings erroneous by Vox Felina, a group that supports TNR (http://www.voxfelina.com/2014/08/a-response-to-lohr-and-lepczyk/).

Whether or not the Conservation Biology study is flawed is irrelevant. What the residents of Hawaii prefer in this regard is also irrelevant. The fact remains, feral cats should not be present on Hawaii. They were introduced in the 1800s and have caused untold destruction to the native bird life since then. These species, like the birds of New Zealand, evolved without the presence of predators and are ill equipped to deal with them. Neutered cats kill just as many birds as cats that have not been neutered.

The debate over TNR and euthanasia only occurs because we have an emotional attachment to cats that has evolved over many hundreds of years. No one appears to be advocating TNR programs for the possums of New Zealand, the rabbits of Australia or the brown tree snakes running rampant on Guam. Why the inconsistency? All four groups of animals are feral and cause untold damage to their new environments, environments which will only recover properly if these animals are completely removed. The only way the New Zealanders were able to successfully reintroduce any of their endangered birds to their offshore islands was to remove every last cat.

As well as the predation issue cats also carry toxoplasmosis. This disease is caused by a small parasite that needs cats to complete its life cycle. It causes no disease in cats but has killed alala (Corvus hawaiiensis), nene (Hawaiian goose; Branta sandvicensis), red-footed boobies (Sula sula) and even the endangered Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi). Toxoplasmosis is also a zoonosis, posing health risks for pregnant women and immunocompromised people (http://www.usgs.gov/ecosystems/pierc/files/factsheets/cats.pdf).

Unfortunately as long as there are feral cats running around the Hawaiian Islands, its bird species will be at risk of extinction. No TNR programs will remedy that. The only remedy is to remove the cats from the environment. Anything else is nonsensical.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Ebola

The Ebola virus was “discovered” in 1976 causing trouble for people living near the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Since then it has popped up several times in the DRC, Sudan and Uganda. The current outbreak is the first to involve Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The virus itself is a filovirus, a group of long filamentous RNA viruses that are surrounded by a lipid envelope. It causes a severe disease in people characterised by vomiting, abdominal pain, fever, headache and bleeding. Symptoms usually appear eight to 10 days after infection but this can range from two to 21 days. Mortality rates can be as high as 90%. Unlike influenza, people tend not to be infectious until they are symptomatic.

The virus is spread via direct contact with blood and body fluids, although there was a publication indicating airborne spread between pigs and monkeys (Weingartl et al 2012). Although not in direct contact the two groups of animals were caged only eight inches apart. According to a second report it appears that the Ebola virus causes a different disease in pigs compared with primates (http://www.vox.com/2014/8/10/5980553/ebola-outbreak-virus-aerosol-airborne-pigs-monkeys/in/5712456). The virus hits the lungs of pigs, whereas the liver is the main target organ in primates. Therefore, while pigs can cough and sneeze out viral particles, primates tend to shed large numbers of virus in the blood and faeces, making airborne transmission unlikely. This is borne out by the current situation. If the Ebola virus was as contagious as the influenza virus we would all be drowning in our own blood by now. Instead the outbreak has remained relatively localised.

The main reservoir of Ebola virus is unknown although, as with most emerging diseases nowadays, bats have been fingered as the main culprit. Ebola has been found in gorillas, chimpanzees and duikers but, as they also develop clinical disease and die, they are unlikely to be a reservoir. However, as they are part of the bush meat cycle they represent a great way for the virus to spread to people.

The virus itself is not particularly hardy. It can survive for several days at room temperature but is destroyed by boiling for five minutes, and common disinfectants such as bleach, phenolics, glutaraldehyde, formaldehyde and 3% acetic acid (vinegar is 4-8% acetic acid). Alcohol hand wipes and washing with soap and water are also effective at killing the virus.

Unfortunately there is no vaccine and no treatment. ZMapp, a drug made of monoclonal antibodies, has been used experimentally but, oddly, there appears to be some debate over the ethics of using this unlicensed drug on people. I know that if I was infected with Ebola and someone waved a drug at me that might or might not work, I would certainly risk it.

The biggest problem in controlling the current epidemic is a lack of infrastructure and knowledge. I can imagine that it is not easy to convince people with very little or no education that a thing that is far too small to see is killing off your family, friends and community. And no, it is not us, the aid workers, who are bringing it in. And yes, you really should stop eating bush meat, even though it is a centuries old tradition. And no, if someone dies don’t wash the body by hand. And yes, we really need you tell us if you, or someone you know, is feeling sick so we can stop them spreading the virus to other people. Please don’t hide them at home. With early medical care they do stand a chance of recovery. Previous Ebola outbreaks had mortality rates of 90%. This one is running at 60%. So it is possible to survive an Ebola infection.

As an interesting aside to the Ebola issue, in 1989 shipments of monkeys were imported into a holding facility in Reston in the US from the Philippines. Those monkeys died with symptoms similar to those caused by an Ebola virus infection. It turned out they were full of a related filovirus subsequently named Reston virus. Interestingly, 14% of the people who had contact with the monkeys had filovirus antibodies, indicating they had also been exposed to the virus. It was just lucky that this, closely related virus, does not appear to cause disease in people. It is amazing that such a small change in viral structure can turn a harmless virus into a lethal one.

Dr. F. Bunny

Reference

Weingartl H.M., C. Embury-Hyatt, C. Nfon, A. Leung, G. Smith, and G. Kobinger. 2012. Transmission of Ebola virus from pigs to non-human primates. Scientific Reports 2, 811; DOI:10.1038/srep00811.

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The U.S. Bans GMOs, Bee-Killing Pesticides in All Wildlife Refuges

From http://news.yahoo.com/u-bans-gmos-bee-killing-pesticides-wildlife-refuges-193150944.html.

The U.S. government is creating a safe place for bees in national wildlife refuges by phasing out the use of genetically modified crops and an agricultural pesticide implicated in the mass die-off of pollinators.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System manages 150 million acres across the country. By January 2016, the agency will ban the use of neonicotinoids, widely used nerve poisons that a growing number of scientific studies have shown are harmful to bees, birds, mammals, and fish. Neonicotinoids, also called neonics, can be sprayed on crops, but most often the seeds are coated with the pesticide so that the poison spreads throughout every part of the plant as it grows, including the pollen and nectar that pollinators such as bees and butterflies eat.

“We have determined that prophylactic use, such as a seed treatment, of the neonicotinoid pesticides that can distribute systemically in a plant and can affect a broad spectrum of non-target species is not consistent with Service policy,” James Kurth, chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, wrote in a July 17 memo.

The move follows a regional wildlife chief’s decision on July 9 to ban neonics in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Hawaii, and the Pacific Islands by 2016.

The nationwide ban, however, goes further, as it also prohibits the use of genetically modified seeds to grow crops to feed wildlife.

A FWS spokesperson declined to comment on why the agency was banning genetically modified organisms in wildlife refuges.

But in his memo, Kurth cited existing agency policy. “We do not use genetically modified organisms in refuge management unless we determine their use is essential to accomplishing refuge purpose(s),” he wrote. “We have demonstrated our ability to successfully accomplish refuge purposes over the past two years without using genetically modified crops, therefore it is no longer [necessary] to say their use is essential to meet wildlife management objectives.”

GMOs have not been linked directly to the bee die-off. But the dominance of GMO crops has led to the widespread use of pesticides such as neonicotinoids and industrial farming practices that biologists believe are harming other pollinators, such as the monarch butterfly.

Neonicotinoids account for 40 percent of the global pesticide market and are used to treat most corn and soybean crops in the U.S.

“We are gratified that the Fish and Wildlife Service has finally concluded that industrial agriculture, with G.E. crops and powerful pesticides, is both bad for wildlife and inappropriate on refuge lands,” Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said in a statement.

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Boxing Day

I have been learning Krav Maga, a system of self-defence developed by the Israel Defence Force, for over a year. Krav Maga is very practical, designed to finish a fight as soon as possible using whatever is necessary to protect yourself from harm. Part of the system involves mastering a series of punches and kicks, which we then try out on each other while wearing boxing gloves and shin pads in an activity euphemistically termed sparring.

Each round lasts for two minutes and involves protecting yourself from your opponent’s blows while at the same time trying to land some of your own. It is free flowing, mentally demanding and thoroughly exhausting. For me, it has also been quite a novel experience. I do not consider myself particularly aggressive and have not been in any kind of fight since I was in school, so I was considerably surprised at the emotions these sparring bouts stirred within me.

The people I sparred with were not my enemies. Some of them I knew reasonably well, having trained with them for some months and have, under normal circumstances, no desire to do them harm. However, in this sparring environment it is almost like someone has flipped a switch in my brain releasing something ancient and primal.

Nothing teaches you to duck or protect your face more than someone hitting it. As well as pain this also releases an intense burst of adrenaline along with an enhanced need to hit back. The whole thing quickly escalates in both speed and intensity and it becomes a real force of will to keep it somewhat contained. As we are not wearing helmets we are instructed to hit with only half our maximum power. This still ends up with combatants battered and bruised and, in one case, in definite need of a sit down.

It is an odd mix of fear of being hit, anger at being hit and aggression to hit back. Oddly, at the end of the round, I feel eager to head back into the fray, mentally armed with a new series of tactics designed to lay my opponents low. I find these alien feelings to be quite disturbing (and exhilarating) especially because, as soon as the class is over, everyone rapidly returns to normal. It is a bit like a real life Fight Club.

I now have a new appreciation for how a crowd of normal, rational people can metamorphose into a frenzied mob capable of untold destruction. It is not too dissimilar to a dog or cat fight where normally placid Fido or Puss will rapidly whirl around to sink his teeth into your hand, should you try and drag him away from his adversary. He too has flipped the switch and become lost in the heat of battle.

Dr. F. Bunny

 

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Veterinary association to support second year of badger culls

Considering all the data I have read appears to indicate that badger culling to control tuberculosis not only does not work but actually makes it worse as it encourages badgers to move around more, I find it very disappointing that the BVA would support such a dubious activity.

Dr. F. Bunny

 

The following article appears at: http://www.farminguk.com/news/Veterinary-association-to-support-second-year-of-badger-culls_30544.html.

 

The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has said it will support the second year of the pilot culls in England. This follows Defra’s response to BVA’s call for improvements to humaneness and effectiveness in light of the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) report on the first year.

The IEP report, published in April, found that the first year of culling failed to meet criteria for effectiveness (in terms of the number of badgers removed) and that the method of controlled shooting had failed to meet the criteria for humaneness. BVA welcomed the report and called on Defra to implement all of the IEP’s recommendations fully.

BVA has remained in constant dialogue with Defra and met with the then Secretary of State Owen Paterson, the Chief Veterinary Officer Nigel Gibbens, and other Defra officials to seek clarification on Defra’s proposals, as well as calling for robust monitoring and collation of results and independent analysis and audit by a non-governmental body.

Defra has moved considerably, confirming a number of changes to its plans. In particular, Defra has confirmed that:

- shotguns would not be used for controlled shooting

- contractor selection, training and assessment would be enhanced

- the number of field observations of shooting and number of post mortem examinations of badgers would be in line with that carried out in year one

- real-time information would ensure a better distribution of effort and that poor performing marksmen would be removed from the field

In addition, and in response to BVA, Defra has committed to an independent audit of the way the protocols are carried out during the cull. BVA is satisfied that the appointment of such an auditor addresses many of our original concerns. However, BVA will continue to call upon the new Secretary of State to put in place independent analysis in order to give confidence to the wider public.

BVA’s position on any further rollout of controlled shooting as a method to cull badgers (and its continued use in the pilots) will be decided once we have assessed the outcomes of the second year.

Commenting, BVA President Robin Hargreaves said: “BVA has always maintained that we could only support the use of controlled shooting as a method to cull badgers if it was found to be humane, effective and safe. We supported the findings of the Independent Expert Panel and called on Defra to implement the recommendations fully.

“We therefore welcome Defra’s proposals to improve humaneness and effectiveness in light of the IEP report, and we have been pleased how far Defra has moved towards BVA’s position, in particular by ensuring a robust and independent audit is in place.

“It is essential that Defra gets this right to allow the veterinary profession to have confidence that controlled shooting can be carried out humanely and effectively. We continue to call upon the Secretary of State to put in place independent analysis of the second year of culling to give confidence to the wider public.

“Badger culling is a necessary part of a comprehensive bovine TB eradication strategy that also includes strict cattle measures and vaccination. Culling remains a hugely emotive issue but we must tackle the disease in both cattle and wildlife. Scientific evidence supports the use of targeted, humane badger culling to achieve a reduction in the disease in cattle.

“I’m proud that the veterinary profession has had such a significant influence on Defra’s position and we will continue to engage with the government to ensure the pilot culls are humane and effective.”

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Island Time

While on holiday I am perfectly happy to take it easy, relax and leave the watch at home. Actually, that is a total lie. I am just as obsessed with punctuality when I am on holidays as when I am at work and countries that do not know how clocks function drive me crazy. To ignore a concept pioneered by the Egyptians over two thousand years ago seems just plain disrespectful. They did it to make life more predictable and less stressful for people, and it works, so why not adopt it?

We returned recently from a week of scuba diving in the Solomon Islands. The resort where we stayed was quite remote from the capital, Honiara. Getting there required a one hour light plane flight followed by a thirty minute boat ride. It was a beautiful, isolated spot with great fish diversity and a few manta rays thrown in for good measure.

Our return flight was due to leave at 11.10 am, plenty of time to make our 3.00 pm connection back to Australia. The day before, we were informed that the flight was now scheduled to depart at 10.00 am. Considering we would now have quite a bit of time to sit around Honiara airport (not one of the more desirable of the world’s airports) we organised for a driver to meet us and show us the sights of the capital.

Next morning, we were informed that the flight was now leaving at 9.30 am. We quickly finished our breakfast, said our farewells and headed for the boat, congratulating ourselves once again on having the foresight to organise that Honiara tour.

There were seven of us leaving the resort and we arrived at the little grass airstrip just after 9.00 am. Check in involved weighing both ourselves and our luggage on what looked like kitchen scales. We then hunted around for a bit of shade, preferably with a breeze, to get out of the heat and humidity and settled down to wait for our flight. Our boredom turned to concern when a rather large school group appeared and also checked in.

The 9.30 am scheduled flight turned up at 10.15 am, a 19 seater twin engine otter. Our concern turned to relief when a chap wearing a yellow T-shirt, inside out, started loading our bags onto the plane, the baggage handler presumably. Our relief turned back to concern when he then refused to let us board, saying the school group would be getting on this plane. We informed him that he had already loaded our bags, so he should really let us get on the plane. Unfortunately he held firm and seemed a bit put out when we insisted that, in that case, he really must take the bags back off the plane. If we were not going to Honiara, neither was our luggage.

About half the school group boarded the plane and we gazed wistfully as it took off and disappeared into the distance. In an attempt to presumably cheer us up our friend with the inside out shirt informed us that another plane would be along around 11.40 am, thirty minutes after our originally scheduled flight.

At 12.15 pm a very small plane landed. The pilot informed us that he could only take five passengers. Fortunately two of our group volunteered to stay behind, avoiding the messy situation of having to club them to death. We loaded our luggage, climbed aboard and noticed with dismay that, no matter how many times the pilot tried, that pesky right engine simply would not start. I thought about offering to spin the propeller for him. Instead, we got out again and offloaded our luggage. The pilot informed us with a cheery smile that we should wait 20 minutes, he would try again and then the engine was bound to start.

Fortunately for us a second otter had just arrived and we raced for it, hoping its engines would be slightly more functional. This plane was able to fit both us and the remainder of the school group and we finally left the little grass airstrip at 1.30 pm, a mere four and a half hours after our arrival.

Although clocks don’t appear to exist in the Solomon Islands electronic communications do, and the pilot was able to radio ahead so that our connection was still sitting on the tarmac when we arrived. After landing we were checked through the domestic terminal, instead of having to cart all our bags to international, which would have been bizarre at the best of times considering our plane touched down right next to the Australia-bound jet.

Safely aboard we departed Honiara thirty minutes behind schedule. This created more anxiety because we had yet another connection to make at the other end. Fortunately it all ended well and we were even upgraded to Business Class for the flight to Australia. We thought this was an attempt by the airlines to make it up to us, but the pilot informed us that the plane had not been loaded properly, with insufficient weight up front, so they wanted us up there to act as ballast.

Thinking back, I wonder if our driver is still waiting at Honiara airport for us.

Dr. F. Bunny

 

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Bongo Congo

I am currently reading “Congo Journey” by Redmond O’Hanlon. Redmond and his travelling companion, Lary, journey through the Congo from Brazzaville in the south to Lake Tele in the north in search of the mythical mokele-mbembe, a kind of Congolese Loch Ness monster. They are accompanied on their travels by several local Congolese who “assist” them to navigate the maze of Congolese politics, villages and pygmies.

It is an interesting, thought provoking and, at times, hilarious read. One of the points the book touches on is the way people’s relationships towards animals differ. This is illustrated in an exchange between Redmond and Nze, one of the local Congolese who is about to kill a chicken for dinner. Redmond expresses concern and asks Nze to make sure he despatches the chicken quickly and humanely. Nze, puzzled, says, “It’s a chicken.”

There is no “fluffy bunny” syndrome in the Congolese jungle with animals divided roughly into two groups: useful and not useful. Those that are useful fall into that category because they provide meat, eggs or milk. The not useful group can be further subdivided into benignly not useful i.e. they have no discernible human use but they are not harmful either e.g. many of the birds, frogs, etc., and not useful but harmful, such as leopards, cobras and Driver ants.

The “human-animal” bond, as Redmond and Lary would understand it, appears not to exist. Presumably this is because, in a society where each day is a struggle for human survival and death an ever present possibility, the luxury of wasting food and emotions on non-human individuals that do not contribute physically to that survival cannot be afforded. This is not to say that they do not understand the animals that surround them. I would say they have a much better understanding of human-animal interdependencies than either Redmond or Lary. For the Congolese it is important to know how the natural world functions, not out of abstract scientific curiosity, but because everyone’s survival depends on it. There is no room for sentimentality over other species when human life is lived so precariously and human death occurs so frequently.

Much of what occurs in people’s lives on a daily basis is mired in superstition and magic with pygmies singing songs to ensure hunting success and sorcerers placing spells and curses on people for all sorts of bizarre purposes. The reasons behind these superstitions and religion in general are summed up in this elegant exchange between Lary and Redmond.

“God damn it all to hell and back twice,” announced Lary, outwardly peaceful, lying straight out on the groundsheet. “What’s the point, that’s what I want to know, what is the point of all this sorcery? What is the psychological and social function of all this fear? Why live in terror of all this magic and bullshit and spells for this and spells for that when you don’t have to? Why not say to Dokou (the sorcerer), “Dokou, old man, I’m sorry, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but with all due respect for your great age and wisdom and authority in this village, why don’t you just take your mumbo jumbo and stick it up your ass and turn it sideways?”

“I don’t know,” I said. …. “The usual answer is that it gives a structure, a meaning to life, and that you certainly need one when all your thinking is pre-logical, when your idea of nature makes no distinction between subjective and objective impressions and thoughts –  when your inner and outer worlds are all mixed up, when there’s no obvious dividing line between your own mental reality and that of a passing leopard, or a bat over the hut, or a bamboo clump that’s holding a party for Driver ants. I imagine we all think like that for at least a fraction of each day, some more so than others, and more at some times of our life than at other times – when we’ve had a setback or a shock or when someone dies or when we’re ill or in love –  and more often at night than in the daytime. But here the nightmares never get an enclosing line drawn round them, they never get bagged up and thrown away – they just hang around out there, you meet them when you go for walks in the forest, they come at you between the trees, they get you after dark.” ….

“But the real point of it must be simple – you know the big fear is out there, waiting to bust in through your hut wall: you can be sure that two or three of your children will die as children, that you’ll get ill, that you’ll die young. So you give yourself lots of little fears, fears you half-know are not serious, to diffuse the big horror into the landscape. It’s a bit like the psychological bargain Christians and Muslims strike with themselves: you agree to abandon for life your ability to think straight; you accept a job-lot of fairy tales, all kinds of absurdities; and in return for the effort it costs to push your intellect back in to bed every time you get up in the morning, you’re released from the big one, the fear of death. You can really start to tell yourself that you’ll see your dead mother and father again, that your dead children are not dead, that your dead friends are still sitting drinking round the fire, and, maybe, even your favourite dog is waiting for you, fast asleep.”

“Put like that,” said Lary quietly, “it’s not such a bad bargain.”

Dr. F. Bunny

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