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Archive for May, 2009


Despite protests from local residents and the distaste of City Hall, San Diego is on the verge of spending $700,000 a year to play the sound of dogs barking to the 100-some seals at the Children’s Pool. The harbor seals (small, gray and shy) and sea lions (big and more aggressive) have been hanging out at the beach for years, delighting tourists, seal protectors and at least some residents.

But others are fighting to use the area the way donor Ellen Browning Scripps originally intended and state law proscribes: for children. The manmade beach is the subject of dueling lawsuits. Valerie O’Sullivan wants to get rid of the seals and she got a state court judge to order the city to get rid of the seals to clean up the bacteria in the water.

Who is Valerie O’Sullivan? A former resident of La Jolla who moved out of the country years ago and isn’t even a citizen. So, the city has argued she shouldn’t have a say in the matter. But meanwhile, the city had to come up with this absurd, expensive plan to get rid of the seals by playing dogs barking dawn to dusk and spraying water on the seals.

Meanwhile seal lovers and the Animal Protection and Rescue League tried to get protection for the seals in federal court. The federal fisheries agency was no help: they said the city didn’t need any special permit to get rid of the federally protected animals. Then again, that was a Bush era ruling, so is anyone surprised?

Meanwhile a third plan to save the seals is that the legislature could just change the the law about the purpose of the beach. San Diego says that the seals will just move to “Mission Beach, Pacific Beach and other nearby coastal spots.” Of course if they knew that for sure, there wouldn’t be any fuss really. Nobody knows what will become of the seals if they are forced out. It would be a lot easier to move the children’s part of Children’s Beach to one of those areas. It’s a lot easier to get parents to comply with some common sense adaptations–aside from Ms. O’Sullivan. You can’t tell seals where to go.

This is also a perfect case for federal protection. This beach is a unique natural attraction in the country. It’s one of the few places you can go to see sea mammals reliably hauled out on the beach. The beach itself is no natural wonder; it’s one of those giant let’s mess with nature infastructure projects that would never get off the ground today. The sea lions that showed up one day at the San Francisco Pier 39 certainly got in the way of boaters. But the city reasonably worked out a way to let them stay–and got a delightful addition to the city.

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An Australian court decided to end the military’s plan to shoot 7,000 kangaroos on a base near Canberra. But the decision comes half-way through the program, so they’ve already killed 4,000 gray kangaroos. The military says the 9,000 kangaroos living in Austtralian Capitol Territory were over-grazing and destroying native grasslands.
Animal Liberation, the group that sued to stop the cull, says the science behind saving the kangaroos is flawed and that kangaroo culls are pushed by the “kangaroo industry” as a way to produce a kind of cheap, free-range ‘roo meat. The meat is often contaminated and the clubbing of joeys and clumsy shooting of adults makes the Canadian baby seal-clubbing look quaint, the group says.
The local government is going to try to write some new laws and a way around the judgment so it can carry on slaughtering the kangaroos.
The case highlights the vastly different ways of viewing animals: either as populations to be managed to human desires or as individuals. I know it’s supposed to be soft-minded to anthropomorphize and describe animals as unique characters. But you can’t be around them without starting to think of them that way.
Think about another Australian making a decision about kangaroos at the same time. Surfer Neil McCallum saw a joey go out for an ocean swim and get caught in a riptide. He grabbed his surfboard and pushed the little kangaroo back to shore. The story made headlines around the world–not, I think, because everyone thought he was crazy to have bothered. But that’s the story we’d rather hear about and rather believe about ourselves, the one where we go out and save even just one animal, no matter how pointless the gesture.

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The New York Times must have sent a cat person out to public housing complexes to get the story on the agency’s new ban on pit bulls, rottweilers and dobermans as well as any dog over 25 pounds. The big issue is: Will the agency be get rid of harmless dogs that keep little old ladies company instead of going after gangs’ attack dog props?

Without discounting fears of pit bulls and fighting rings, I don’t know any serious dog person who wouldn’t see those rules as anything but ham-fisted. Everyone knows that a dog’s weight and breed don’t tell you how dangerous the dog can be. The dogs need to pass a behavioral test, like the Good Citizenship Test trainer Bash Dibra helped develop with the AKC.

But this story seems to portray both sides as clowns, whose motives are as inscrutable as they are mockable. The story story begins with the tail of a miniature pincher, who is grandfathered into his housing spot while “others of his kind are not.” Manny Fernandez goes on to point out the folly of banning this 10-pound toothless dog. The housing authority may be ignorant, but they’re not that dumb.He’s completely oblivious to the fact that this is a separate breed that’s been established for centuries and, according to the kennel club, “is not a scaled-down version of anything, especially the much larger Doberman Pinscher.” This wasn’t just a particularly petite doberman that had been swept up in the new law; it’s a different breed.

Or different species, as Mr. Fernandez would have it. He describes dobies, pits and rotties and “the three banned species.” Oh if only that were true. Since the classic definition of a separate species is a group of animals that can’t breed with animals outside their species, that would be a great form of birth control to prevent our dog overpopulation problem.
And then for the justification of the new rule, Mr. Fernandez cites not any of the substantial arguments on either side of this issue, but a few anecdotes of pit bull attacks. He doesn’t mention the dog bite stats that place these breeds among the disproportionate perpetrators. He doesn’t bother to talk with trainers–who would point to a behavioral rather than breed test. He doesn’t bother to mention the Malcolm Gladwell story from the New Yorker disputing breed stats.

This is a big story to a lot of people. Did the Times have to lay off all the dog people on their reporting, editing and copy-editing staffs?

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Bear rescuer Casey Anderson has a fascinating show on bearology on National Geographic this Sunday. He tracks grizzlies in the wild, then shows you their behavior in depth up close with Brutus, a bear he rescued as a cub. The knowledge he’s been able to gain by living closely with 7-year-old, 700-pound Brutus make Expedition Grizzly, which is on May 3 at 9 p.m., put him a step above the average bear documentary.

Anderson is a very hands-on documentarian. He came into the Peoplepets.com office this week and told us he spent weeks in the field getting shots like a nerve-wracking encounter among two young siblings and an older alpha bear. He’s had Brutus since the grizzly was just a few weeks old, so he’s picked up bear body language and tells probably better than the biologist in the field. Since he can read Brutus so well, he has a good idea what other bears in the wild are thinking.

He doesn’t mistake Brutus for a pet or a wild bear, but puts him somewhere in between. Brutus was born in one of the many animal attractions around the country that tries to make their animals have crowd-drawing cubs, he says. The attractions end up doing what the Wall Street Journal recently reported, European zoos do: they don’t bother with birth control, then end up euthanizing the extra animals they can’t take care of–which often end up as food for the other animals.

Anderson keeps four bears in a sanctuary at the Montana Grizzly Encounter. Brutus’ acting jobs and visits from tourists en route to Yellowstone help pay for the huge costs of keeping the bears.

Anderson explains with some simple graphics how the island of bears around Yellowstone could easily be connected to the bigger population to the northwest. That would help solve some bear conflicts and allow them to move to more hospitable ground when they needed to. All it would take is a few land bridges over major highways, which grizzlies are reluctant to cross.

The show is a nice preview of what you might learn at the Grizzly Encounter. I hope I get to make there some day to see Brutus in person.

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