Archive for February, 2012

Make Poverty History

I confess to being totally fed up with this slogan and others like it that adorn the backs of cars. Car stickers are advertising and, as advertising goes, this one is a total failure. If I want to make poverty history how is this facile slogan going to help? It is nothing more than a vague catch phrase that someone can put on their car to make themselves feel less guilty about their rapacious consumerism. They don’t actually have to do anything. A more practical and effective slogan would tell us in 25 words or less what we can really do to facilitate this aim. Perhaps “Help Make Poverty History: Buy Fair Trade Coffee”? Or “Help Make Poverty History: Don’t Buy Nestle” (as they have encouraged mothers to buy their products instead of feeding their infants breast milk). Something tangible that might, in some tiny way, make a difference.

I do wonder about the origins and continuation of poverty. Why are some countries developed, while others never seem to stop developing? I thought Jared Diamond made an interesting point in his Pulitzer Prize winning book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” (unfortunately I haven’t read the book, only seen the TV series: http://www.pbs.org/gunsgermssteel/). He believes that the wealthier nations were lucky enough to settle on fertile ground containing animal species suitable for domestication making it easier to grow crops, feed their families and improve their standard of living, while the less fortunate ones spent proportionately longer periods of time foraging for grubs and berries. The free time not spent on agriculture was available for extra activities such as inventing the wheel, dreaming up imaginary friends to keep the populace in check, and exploiting those other less fortunate cultures. Once the ball of inequality had been set rolling it quickly gathered pace and momentum with the wealthier and more powerful nations dominating and exploiting the rest with ever greater ferocity.

This economic exploitation of the poor by the rich has certainly been well documented with particular emphasis usually being placed on the role of the US. For an especially florid account of their raping and pillaging read John Perkins’ book “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” (http://www.johnperkins.org/).

While it is easy and often justified to point the finger at developed countries as the cause of the entire developing world’s problems this view is far too simplistic. Why have some countries, such as the Asian tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan), been able to drag themselves out of the mire and into the light, while others continue to go nowhere but down? Of the 183 countries listed in the United Nations 2011 Human Development Report (http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/HDR_2011_EN_Summary.pdf) all but one of the bottom 29 countries is in Africa (Afghanistan is the exception in case you are wondering. And Norway tops the list followed by Australia, the Netherlands and the US, in case you are thinking of emigrating). Surely this can’t be blamed solely on the Americans? Developing countries need to shoulder at least some of the blame for the state of their backyards because at least some of the impediments to development are entirely home grown.

One of these is war, which has become a constant companion in places like Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine. While the influence of external politics and interference in these conflicts can be argued it is obviously impossible to develop an economy, educate children and live happily ever after while ducking bullets, dodging packages of anthrax and avoiding land mines.

The other home grown issue delaying development is corruption. Each year Transparency International releases its Corruption Index (http://cpi.transparency.org/cpi2011/results/). Not surprisingly our friends in Somalia are top of the list, along with North Korea, Myanmar and Afghanistan. And where is the best place to do business? New Zealand is the world’s least corrupt country, closely followed by the Scandinavian countries and Singapore. And what does this mean?

Botswana is the least corrupt country in Africa and also has that continent’s highest per capita GDP. As for the corruption kings, Somalia and North Korea are so bad that figures are not available while, according to the IMF, Afghanistan’s GDP ranks 168 out of 183, with Myanmar coming in at 156. The bottom 15 countries for GDP are all in Africa. Regarding GDP for our non-corrupt friends New Zealand comes in at 23, Singapore at 11, and the lowest of the four Scandinavian countries comes in at 13. Clearly corruption isn’t the only issue but it certainly doesn’t help matters.

The Doing Business Project (http://www.doingbusiness.org/rankings) provides objective measures of business regulations and their enforcement across 183 economies. Not surprisingly GDP is often related to the ease of doing business with Singapore topping the list followed by Hong Kong, New Zealand, USA and Denmark. Fourteen of the bottom 17 countries are in Africa. Starting to see a pattern?

With high levels of corruption and difficult business conditions it is hardly surprising that African countries rank so low in terms of GDP. The World Bank’s Africa Competitiveness Report 2011 (http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GCR_Africa_Report_2011.pdf) also makes illuminating reading. This report tries to quantify the reasons why doing business is so difficult on this continent. Of the 35 countries listed in this report (which doesn’t include some of the past and present basket cases such as Somalia, DRC, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudan) 21 listed corruption as one of the top three impediments to successful business ventures, 12 listed inefficient government bureaucracy, 13 mentioned inadequate infrastructure, eight complained of poor education but, overwhelmingly, 28 out of 35 listed inadequate access to finance with 19 of those citing it as the number one barrier.

Unfortunately things like corruption need to be dealt with by the countries themselves and, until they are, will always be a millstone around the neck of developing economies. But what we can help with is providing access to finance. This does not have to occur on a grand scale but can be as little as providing a loan to a struggling business person to help them grow their business and prosper. If you really are serious about doing something about poverty check out http://www.kiva.org. The Kiva organisation facilitates the provision of interest free loans to small business entrepreneurs around the world. These are not handouts. Loans are expected to be repaid and start from as little as $25. This is real aid provided to people who want to help themselves. You can loan money as an individual or as part of a team. Vetsbeyondreason have gotten on board this exciting initiative. How about you? Do something real to “make poverty history.”

Dr. F. Bunny

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Evidence Based Medicine

Is it just me or is this statement a tautology? After all, what other kind of medicine is there? Medicine for which there is no evidence? What sort of fool would be interested in that? The sort of fool who believes water has a memory and a potion can still be effective after being diluted to the point where it contains the equivalent of one molecule of active ingredient dropped in the Pacific Ocean. Homeopathy. Despite being a voracious reader of scientific journals for the past twenty years I have not seen one article proving the effectiveness of homeopathy. Oddly enough I don’t recall any articles disproving it either. Could this be because the premise is so absurd?

Every antibiotic, analgesic, anaesthetic or other drug needs to pass a series of tests demonstrating that it is safe and does what it claims to do. While not perfect the process is so rigorous that it can take years before a pharmaceutical is deemed ready for release onto the market. This way the consumer can have some faith that it will behave as described. Not so with homeopathy, which does not appear to require any form of testing or evidence that it actually works. Like god, it appears to rely solely on faith.

Science and conventional medicine is more than willing to accept the fact that it cannot cure all mankind’s ills. Mankind, however, refuses to accept this and, when conventional medicine fails, it turns to charlatanism. Interestingly the same people, when faced with a life threatening bacterial infection or fractured bone, will readily embrace conventional medicine because they have seen evidence that it works. Some time ago the veterinary practice where my wife worked was presented with a pigeon with a broken wing. It was brought in because the lady, who practiced “alternative” medicine had tried distance healing (whatever that is) and, oddly enough, the bone had stubbornly refused to heal. Amazingly it needed conventional medicine to restore the bird to flight.

People need to realise the limits of conventional medicine. It is not possible to cure everything, especially those afflictions that arise because of the ravages of time. Even though they can only be treated palliatively it is important not to give in to superstition. The term “evidence based medicine” is superfluous and unnecessary. Without evidence it cannot be medicine. It is quackery and should be called as such.

Dr. F. Bunny

If you’re still not convinced seven “alternatives” to evidence based medicine were published in the British Medical Journal in 1999. You can find them at http://www.bmj.com/highwire/filestream/393069/field_highwire_article_pdf/0.pdf

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I Am An Atheist – Thank God

Actually I was brought up a Roman Catholic and it took a long time for me to shake that programming. Those priests did a good job of drumming the fear of hell and eternal burning into me, but it was the possibility of earthly burning that finally forced it out for good. Surviving the 2009 Black Saturday fires when 173 other people didn’t finally brought home to me that there is no one looking out for us and we are all responsible for our own lives. No one is going to “save” us and we don’t live for any higher purpose. We just live. And, after giving it much thought, I’m perfectly happy with that. I don’t need anything more than my family, friends, a desire to embrace all the wonders around me and an enquiring mind. As Linus Pauling (winner of the Nobel chemistry (1954) and peace (1962) prizes) said, “Satisfaction of one’s curiosity is one of the greatest sources of happiness in life”.

It is a shame that so many people have deluded themselves into thinking there has to be something more in order to be happy and fulfilled. What is even more unfortunate is that they think it is their duty to force these delusions on the rest of us. I don’t want to be killed by someone who is grumpy because I don’t share his imaginary friend. And with all the imaginary friends out there I don’t understand how one group can be so sure that their imaginary friend is the right one. How do they know that their book is correct and everyone else’s is wrong? Where is the evidence? When is there ever any evidence? How can anyone claim that intelligent design should be taught in science classes as an alternative to evolution? Teach it if you must, but not in science class. At least evolution is supported by evidence. There is no evidence for intelligent design, so it cannot be discussed in the same environment. How people of science, who are taught to question and search for proof, can be religious is beyond me. I guess that early age indoctrination is pretty hard to break.

I have recently returned from Colorado where the Colorado Coalition of Reason (http://www.cocore.org) has generated the latest atheist controversy. They have erected two billboards in Denver which read, “God is an imaginary friend. Choose reality, it will be better for all of us.” This is the latest in a series of atheist slogans including, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”, which was plastered on British buses and “Atheism – celebrate reason”, which was far too inflammatory and heretical to be run on Australian buses. Why all the concern? Whether you believe in it or not surely the atheist viewpoint is entitled to just as much exposure as the theist one? I personally find the stylised fish on people’s cars and various slogans on billboards telling me to “repent the end is nigh”, or “Jesus is the light”, etc. offensive, but I believe people have a right to express their views. Although why such a big deal is made of religious freedom is another mystery to me. If my religion is sport, as it seems to be for many people, and my team plays on Sunday why can’t I have the day off to pay homage to them? How is that any different to asking for the day off because my imaginary friend tells me to? And how are these adult imaginary friends any different to the ones children sometimes have? At least those friends don’t tell their devotees to maim, kill and slaughter.

I don’t, however, agree with Richard Dawkins who states in his excellent book, “The God Delusion”, that religion is the root of all evil. I believe a perceived lack of resources is the real reason we decide to murder each other en masse. Religion is used as an effective tool to cleanse our consciences when we do invade. They don’t believe in the same imaginary friend as us. Therefore, they are evil and we are obligated to destroy them. Just because we acquire lots of arable farming land and litres of oil is, of course, beside the point.

Surely it is time for the human race to grow up and face facts. There is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of a god. Accepting this does not mean the end of morality. We are a pretty poor species if the only reasons we have for not killing each other come from the dictates of a non-existent entity. Having successfully discredited Apollo carrying the sun across the sky in his chariot, and the world being supported by an infinite tower of turtles, isn’t it time we completed the exercise, enjoyed our lives for what they are here and now and moved on into a rational future?

Dr. F. Bunny

“If you want my final opinion on the mystery of life and all that, I can give it to you in a nutshell. The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination. But the combination is locked up in the safe.”
(Peter De Vries, Let Me Count the Ways. Little Brown, 1965)

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Feed Me!

People like to interact with wildlife, whether they’re holding it, cuddling it, having their photo taken with it or even shooting it. In order to facilitate this interaction people draw wild animals to their gardens with food. Unfortunately providing artificial food is never a good idea and can never be done properly. It occurs primarily because people only value wildlife for the warm and fuzzy feeling interacting with it gives them.

One of the problems with providing artificial food is that it temporarily increases the stocking rate and density of wildlife in a given area. After the Black Saturday fires of 2009 it was very popular for people to put food out for wildlife because much of the surrounding vegetation was charred and burned. Rather than allow nature to return to a balanced state after such a catastrophe this had the short term potential to artificially increase survival, stocking density and reproduction leading to more animals than the environment could realistically cope with. Unless we enter a farm type scenario, which typically operates with elevated stocking rates, by providing supplementary food ad infinitum populations will eventually crash and animals starve. Unfortunately this occurs some time after the event when the people who mistakenly believed they were helping the wildlife have forgotten about their commitment, lost interest and moved on, leaving the wildlife to fend for itself.

The largest and most obvious ongoing wildlife feeding problem focuses on the provision of bird feeders. All over the world people put seed out to attract birds to their gardens. This is not a balanced diet. Seed mixes contain a high proportion of sunflower seeds, which are palatable to birds because of their high fat content. Most seed is also low in calcium, zinc, Vitamin A, B vitamins and Vitamin E. Birds are as lazy as the rest of us. Why spend all day looking for food when it’s available free of charge? Birds become reliant on this unbalanced diet which results in malnutrition. This is also a problem for carnivorous birds such as magpies and currawongs because people like to feed them mince meat. Every year juvenile birds are presented to veterinary clinics suffering multiple wing fractures and deformed bones because they have grown up on a calcium deficient diet. Affected birds are in considerable pain and usually end up being euthanased (See the attached photo of a young magpie fed a calcium deficient diet. Beaks really should not bend like that).

Bird feeders obviously attract large numbers of birds. All these birds congregating in a small area squabbling, sneezing, and defaecating on each other provides a fantastic opportunity for disease transmission. In fact outbreaks of mycoplasmosis in the US (Ley et al 1997), salmonellosis in New Zealand (Alley et al 2002) and psittacosis in Australia have all been directly linked to bird feeders. Not only are the birds at risk but human cases of salmonellosis in New Zealand and psittacosis in Australia were also traced back to the feeders.

Unfortunately hygiene is not a high priority for many people who put out bird feeders and seed is often left to go mouldy in the rain. A recent study found fungal toxins in the feeders. If consumed in large amounts these toxins can cause kidney damage and death (Oberheu and Dabbert 2001).

The irony is that the people who are so desperate to help and encourage wildlife are also directly responsible for its demise. It’s time people realised that wild animal stocking rates are determined by available resources and any manipulation of these resources will have long term deleterious effects. If there aren’t enough birds around to keep you happy plant some native bushes. If that still doesn’t do it for you and you desperately need to see massive flocks of birds go to a zoo, but if you really care about wildlife please don’t feed it.

Dr. F. Bunny

References

Alley, M.R., J.H. Connolly, S.G. Fenwick, G.F. Mackereth, M.J. Leyland, L.E. Rogers, M. Haycock, C. Nicol, and C.E. Reed. 2002. An epidemic of salmonellosis caused by Salmonella Typhimurium DT160 in wild birds and humans in New Zealand. New Zealand Veterinary Journal 50:170-176.

Ley, D.H., J.E. Berkhoff, and S. Levisohn. 1997. Molecular epidemiologic investigations of Mycoplasma gallisepticum conjunctivitis in songbirds by random amplified polymorphic DNA analyses. Emerging Infectious Diseases 3:375-380.

Oberheu, D.T., and C.B. Dabbert. 2001. Exposure of game birds to ochratoxin A through supplemental feeds. Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine 32:136-138.

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Zoo Based Conservation – What have the Romans, er Zoos, done for Us, I mean Conservation?

Zoos have existed in one form or another for many years. Originally they were nothing more than menageries, keeping animals in captivity for the amusement and amazement of the public. Over the years that public has become increasingly more discerning and is gradually deciding that caging animals for amusement is no longer acceptable. This has spelt trouble for the zoos of the world that have seen a steady drop in attendances.

Conservation has become quite the buzz word and zoos have leapt on this bandwagon as an opportunity to restore their credentials and bolster flagging attendances. In reality, do zoos have much to offer conservation or is it all just lip service to get the punters through the gates and fill the coffers?

Captive breeding for release to the wild is often touted by zoos as one of their main reasons for existence. However, literature from Animal Aid in the UK (http://www.animalaid.org.uk) appears to paint a different picture. They claim that only 5% of species in UK zoos are endangered, less than 1% of the endangered species held in UK zoos have been reintroduced to the wild and only 2% of the world’s 6000-plus threatened or endangered species are registered in zoo breeding programmes.

Captive breeding for return to the wild is an incredibly time consuming, protracted and expensive process but it has yielded positive results for some species such as the golden lion tamarin, red wolf, Andean condor, Przewalski horse, whooping crane and perhaps the most well publicised of all, the black-footed ferret. The total ferret population dwindled to 18 individuals before six zoos were able to successfully breed them in captivity. Since 1986 over 7100 kits have been born. Reintroduction began in 1991 and there are now estimated to be approximately 1000 ferrets living in the wild (See http://blackfootedferret.org for more information). Unfortunately this is another example of the high attrition rate associated with translocation programs, as mentioned in the previous post. Ferrets, at least, are relatively prolific breeders.

As mentioned above many species have no captive breeding program and for many of those that do the programs have been of minimal or no benefit. There are no more wild helmeted honeyeaters now than there were when their captive breeding program started, some 20 years ago, and there are fewer wild orange-bellied parrots than when their program began over 15 years ago. And these, like the ferrets, are small animals with short generation times. If they have been unable to achieve success it is delusional to suggest that zoos can play any meaningful role in the conservation of “charismatic megavertebrates” such as elephants and rhinos. With their incredibly long generation times, slow breeding and huge demands for space zoos will never be able to “save” these species and they only burble on about their conservation to justify their continued existence in captivity. It is obvious that zoos feel their presence is really required to drag the public through the gates. Any hope for long term survival for these and all species must come from in situ conservation programs, of which the African elephant is a successful example. A possible population of three to five million had been reduced by as much as 80% by the 1980s mostly due to poaching and the ivory trade. A ban on ivory coupled with innovative solutions employed by local people to try and live sustainably with these massive creatures has seen the elephant populations of eastern and southern Africa increase by a rate of 4.5% per annum since the mid-1990s (Blanc et al 2005). More details can be found in Tammy Matson’s excellent book, “Elephant Dance” and on her website http://tammiematson.com. Zoos do not feature but they will not give up their elephant populations for fear of falling attendances.

Apart from the fact that zoos exist to make money and entertain, despite what their glossy literature and websites might pronounce, they are hamstrung by the fact that they are captive institutions selecting animals that do well in captivity. The wildly unpredictable individual that mopes around its cage, plucks its own feathers or smashes itself against the glass on a daily basis is not a good display animal but possibly well suited to life in the wild. Unfortunately this is not the individual that will yield generations of progeny. It is the docile animal that adjusts well to captive conditions that will produce most of the next generation. However, these individuals are not nearly as well suited to life in the wild, which may go some way to explaining why release programs experience such high mortality rates. Studies of silver foxes have shown that in just a few generations of selecting for docility, very tame foxes are produced. This is much more effective than hand rearing animals, which tend to be mentally maladjusted and, rather than being tame, often end up as aggressive and dangerous to their human caregivers.

How irresponsible then is it for zoos to deliberately hand rear animals in order to pander to a public that wants nothing more than to pat and cuddle a presumed wild animal? As well as producing a completely maladjusted individual the public become conditioned to believing that this is how wild animals behave. Who hasn’t heard horror stories of a misguided parent smearing honey on their kids’ face so they can take cute photos of a wild bear licking it off? This usually results in the bear licking the kids’ face off instead. Or the people who are mauled each year because they decide to commune with the lions or reach through the bars to pat the wolves? These are wild animals that will only survive in the long term if we accept their true value as vital members of the ecosystem, not as cute cuddly playthings put on this planet for our amusement.

Despite zoos’ best intentions animal welfare will always be less than optimal. Because the visiting public want to see animals, and lots of them, exhibits are often small and designed to show off their inmates, restricting an animal’s ability to hide, migrate, forage or form effective social groups leading to well publicised stereotypic behaviours. Nutrition suffers also with zoos unable to replicate natural diets, leading to a range of deficiencies and a high rate of obesity. Apparently the feeding of carcases to carnivores is also too much for a public accustomed to meat arriving in sealed plastic containers, leading to problems with dental hygiene. Some zoos are attempting to address this by educating the public about the importance of feeding whole animals to carnivores.

Despite the negatives zoos can make positive contributions to conservation. Many zoos have excellent education and outreach programs, which focus on conservation of habitat and the threats that many wild species face each day along with measures that can be taken to mitigate them. They are also centres of excellence containing many people with skills in natural history, husbandry and medicine who can be utilised to provide support for in situ conservation programs. If zoos are really serious about captive breeding they need to focus on those species with the greatest likelihood of success. These will likely be smaller species that can be maintained in large enough numbers to minimise inbreeding depression. Each species should also be tied to an in situ conservation program to ensure that the original threatening processes are minimised or eliminated and the animals they choose for release are as wild as possible. An animal preserved in a zoo is of no use to anyone. Its purpose can only be realised when it fills its niche within its ecosystem. Unfortunately while money and attendances are the main drivers there will always be conflict between the conservation and entertainment roles that zoos have. Perhaps the conservation component should be farmed out to dedicated breeding facilities, which are either government or privately funded, to avoid this dichotomy? These places already exist: the Lubee Bat Foundation (http://www.batconservancy.org) and White Oak Plantation (http://www.wocenter.org) are both located in Florida. Neither is open to the public, so the animals can be contained within enclosures that have their best interests in mind. The Durrell Wildlife Park in Jersey is an example of a zoo that combines the best of both worlds, being accessible to the public while maintaining a much higher proportion of endangered species than most zoos (http://www.durrell.org/Wildlife-park). Of course private facilities are also subject to the whims of their owners, an example being Howletts Wild Animal Park in the UK where the owner saw a need to jump into the gorilla enclosure on a regular basis (http://www.aspinallfoundation.org/howletts).

Zoos are not going to go away but if they are to become true conservation organisations they need to develop many more endangered species breeding programs that are directly linked to in situ conservation activities. Where funds are limited in situ programs need to be given priority. If non endangered species are maintained they must be used to educate people about the threats they face and what can be done to assist their plight. And the wildness of the animals needs to be maintained and emphasised at all times. Walking animals on leads, hand raising, fondling or anything else that fosters an image of wildlife as cute, cuddly and domestic needs to be avoided at all costs. We are all equal partners in our ecosystem and only by taking a holistic approach will we be able to mitigate extinctions and move sustainably into the future.

Dr. F. Bunny

Reference

Blanc, J.J., R.F.W. Barnes, G.C. Craig, I. Douglas-Hamilton, H.T. Dublin, J.A. Hart, and C.R. Thouless. 2005. Changes in elephant numbers in major savannah populations in eastern and southern Africa. Pachyderm 38:19-28.

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