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Archive for February, 2010

I want to start by saying I have been to SeaWorld twice in my life, once as a child and once as an adult (last spring). I have seen the show and the environment but am by no means an expert on whale behavior so please keep that in mind.

That being said, for years now (since 2003, in fact) I have volunteered with and worked for a number of organizations who deal with animals and large carnivores in particular, so I do have some experience in that department.

By now the whole world knows that a trainer was killed at SeaWorld Orlando. It’s tragic, yes, but not entirely unexpected. I have heard it said on the news that the whale had a “violent history” (quoted from an AP article) and people keep repeating how “violent” this animal is and talking about how he is a “12,000 pound carnivore” who “has killed before.” This bothers me because it makes it sound like this whole thing was the whale’s fault. On the flip side, you have the contingency of (mostly unspecified) “animal rights activists” who are already using this as reasons why animals, in particular large animals and especially carnivores, should never be kept in captivity.

Both of these are knee-jerk reactions to a tragedy, which is understandable, but we need to look at the bigger picture here. The main question is “Should Orcas be kept in captivity?

Answers to this question I have heard today on the news:
1. Yes! Biologists study their behavior so they can learn more about them.
2. No! Animals shouldn’t be kept in cages. (And we should turn them all back into the wild!)
3. Yes! People learn more about them and care more about them when they see them.
4. No! Orcas are intelligent and forcing them to do tricks is demeaning and frustrating to them.
5. It was just an accident, so what’s the big deal?

Okay, so all of these might seem like valid points, but I want to offer you a few scenarios to think about.

As someone who has worked with conservation groups (non-profits mostly) and for two zoos, I often find I have to defend myself to each group against the others. Zoos and aquariums are often the target of backlash when anything happens to an animal anywhere in the world, and often in an unfair light. Sometimes things just happen. Animals get old and they die. Animals also get sick and sometimes die. They’re less likely to die in captivity if they receive veterinary care, but it still happens. And then there are accidents, where an animal falls and can’t get itself upright again (think hoofstock like giraffe and zebra) or when natural behaviors take over and a mother kills her offspring. This is nature. It happens. Should it happen all the time? No. And should animals be in a situation where they can’t receive veterinary care or be in an unsafe environment? No. This is where the AZA comes into the picture (and I will point out here that I only support AZA accredited zoos and aquariums). SeaWorld Orlando is listed on the AZA website as being accredited. The AZA is supposed to make sure that animals in accredited facilities are treated correctly. This includes things like as natural an exhibit as possible (notice I didn’t say “cage”– if you’re at an AZA facility, you’re almost guaranteed to see open spaces and room for the animals to move and behave in a natural way); encouraging natural behaviors like foraging, climbing, grooming, etc; proper veterinary care; and proper genetic maintenance. I’ll come back to this last one, but the other three are tied together in this whole SeaWorld incident.

Let’s compare the 12,000 pound carnivore with a “violent history” to your average captive elephant. Similarities are more than you might think: each weigh about 8,000 to 14,000 pounds, each is considered to be highly intelligent, and each likes to live in social groups. Furthermore, each has been used for entertainment, doing tricks with trainers in front of an audience. Elephants are a usual species at AZA zoos. Why? Well, the AZA has strict guidelines about keeping elephants, including everything from how much contact they have with keepers to the amount of space they are provided. The main thing about elephants, however, is that you are supposed to have at least three of them. This is because elephants form very strong social bonds and will even mourn their dead. If you only have two elephants and one dies, the other will be at risk for depression and may die as well. If you have a third elephant, the two remaining will comfort one another and then continue. Zoos with elephants do many things to help the elephants use their natural behaviors, from providing hidden food for foraging, to hay and other browse that they can reach for to get out of “trees” to watering holes for them to make mud to put on their backs; this is called “enrichment.” Most importantly, elephants in AZA zoos do not do tricks. They are taught certain behaviors that help with veterinary care (such as putting a foot forward for a keeper to examine) but they aren’t doing tricks– there is no repetition and it is not being done for entertainment value.

Now let’s look at the orcas at SeaWorld and at other, similar theme parks. Orcas also live in large family groups in the wild, are intelligent (hence, why they are able to be trained), and take up a lot of space. While the training done with the whales probably does give them mental stimulation (or “enrichment”), they are not exhibiting natural behaviors when they have humans riding around on them. They do the same tricks over and over. This whale in particular was isolated from the other whales (again, see the AP article), so had no other orca interaction.

Can you see the differences?

“But he’s a carnivore! Elephants aren’t!” Okay, then let’s look at another large carnivore in captivity. Let’s talk about tigers, shall we?

Tigers, relatively speaking, weigh much less than any orca, ranging from about 200 to 600 pounds. They are, however, the largest species of cat on the planet. They aren’t exactly social, and they’re not too high up on the known intelligence scale, but they are big and can be deadly. They are also highly endangered. There are so few tigers left in the wild that the estimates range from only 10 to 20 years’ time for them to exist outside of captivity. So why do we keep them in captivity? For the same reasons AZA zoos keep many other animals in captivity– to preserve the species. When you have an endangered animal, not just one that is endangered in a specific region, but genuinely almost completely gone from the wild (think of elephants again), zoos provide a safe haven for the animal to continue even when the wild population stops existing. There is even a registry called the SSP (Species Survival Plan) that monitors this to make sure there aren’t too many of them in captivity and that the species stays strong genetically. The SSP has allowed species to even be returned to the wild, which is the eventual goal of the program. Many animals from elephants and rhinoceroses to bats and even pink pigeons are included.

What does this have to do with orcas? Orcas are not about to disappear from the planet. While their populations aren’t as large in some places due to overfishing, they are found in all of the world’s oceans and can be observed and studied there. They are not commonly found in aquariums looking to help sustain a population. Besides that, it is almost impossible to provide a large enough enclosure for an animal that must constantly swim. Large animals like elephants can wander, or stand still, or wade in ponds, but orcas must keep moving. A facility like SeaWorld, while providing a 36 foot deep pool for them, can still only allow them to do laps for their whole lives.

All of that being said, I think the important thing to keep in mind here is the message being sent. SeaWorld’s orca show sends a message that these animals can be treated almost like pets, and that they are here for our entertainment and to do tricks. AZA facilities are supposed to send a message of conservation (in the true sense– preserving the animals and their habitats for the future) and respect.

So let’s look at the answers to my original question, “Should Orcas be kept in captivity?”

1. Yes! Biologists study their behavior so they can learn more about them. Well, kind of. There isn’t as much studying going on of orcas as there is of, say, chimpanzees and elephants.
2. No! Animals shouldn’t be kept in cages. (And we should turn them all back into the wild!) Animals shouldn’t be kept in cages, but AZA animals are not supposed to be. They (should) have large enclosures and be exhibiting natural behavior. You also run into a problem with animals who have to learn survival behavior from their parents– they won’t know how to take care of themselves in the wild. It wouldn’t be fair to suddenly cut them off from all human care when they don’t know how to survive without.
3. Yes! People learn more about them and care more about them when they see them. This is true, if what people are learning is actual information about the animal and its behavior. The more people understand something, the more they care about that thing and the more passionate they will be about it. My long winded-ness here should be evidence of that.
4. No! Orcas are intelligent and forcing them to do tricks is demeaning and frustrating to them. This is also true; again, it’s the message being sent that matters here. While they need some stimulation, doing “tricks” for an audience isn’t anywhere near the best way to accomplish this.
5. It was just an accident, so what’s the big deal? It’s a big deal because it wasn’t the first and won’t be the last incident. No one should have to die for a show.

Two things to think about at the end of this very, VERY long soapbox of mine. One, wild animals do not, not ever make good pets. Any show that encourages cuddling or playing with a large carnivore, even while stressing how much training the people do it have, isn’t sending a good message. Two, SeaWorld sends entirely mixed messages and it needs to decide which way it’s going to go.

SeaWorld itself supports conservation of animals and their habitats. They aren’t the pure evil corporation they will be made out to be in the media. They have a program (which J and I toured when we visited the Orlando park last year) where they take injured sea turtles and manatees, rehabilitate them, and return them to the wild. This is a very good thing! I mean, look at all the things they are able to fund through their profits. The problem on their hands is that they are sending two messages. On the one hand, they are promoting orcas simply for their entertainment value in a situation in which the animals are agitated (just read all the accounts of what happened yesterday and the one consistent thing is that something was bothering them). On the other hand, SeaWorld does a lot to help other species that really need it.

It is time to choose your message, SeaWorld. Choose wisely.

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On Saturday, J and I flew to Maui to go whale watching. This sounds like a little bit crazy, especially since we didn’t spend the night, but Hawaiian Air offers reasonable prices for island hopping and it would’ve been expensive to stay somewhere on Maui, as it’s got a lot of resorts and things.

Anyway, we landed in Maui around 7:45 in the morning, picked up our reserved rental car (which turned out to be a Jeep, surprise!), and headed south to Ma’alaea Harbor where our tour started. Along the way… No, actually, about five minutes away from the airport we found the only Krispy Kreme doughnut shop in the entire state, so we stopped for “second breakfast” and had a doughnut. It was wonderful. Then we headed south to Ma’alaea.

Maui is shaped somewhat like a peanut laying on its side, and the airport is in the part to the north that would be the middle and the harbor is in the south of the middle, so it only took us about 25 minutes to drive the whole width of the island there. The eastern and western halves are the big round bits and would’ve taken much longer. Turns out the western and southern part of the island don’t get much rain, either, as it was not only sunny and hot the whole time we were there, but we didn’t see too many trees or flowers or anything. That must all be on the eastern half of the island, where the black sand beaches are. We need to go back and see those.

Our boat left from the harbor around 10:30 and we just went around the bay because there were whales everywhere. I didn’t realize they came so close into the shore, but apparently they’ll come into water shallower than they are long– and since they’re the length of school buses, that’s still pretty shallow water. We saw several types of “typical” whale behavior, like diving with their tails up, slapping the water with their pectoral fins, and just hanging out along the top of the water so we could see their backs. We also saw some not quite as typical whale behavior, which was really cool– we saw a pair of males competing for a female, which involved bumping into one another and blowing bubbles. I’m sure it’s very fierce looking to the whales. We had a biologist on board who explained that the main purpose of bumping into each other and blowing bubbles and churning up sand and such is to make it so the other male can’t see anything so that the one making the distraction can scoot away with the female for a few minutes.

After we left the little “competition” group, we moved farther out into the bay and saw whales completely breaching from the water (check out that link!). It’s pretty amazing to see a whale jump completely clear of the ocean and then crash down into the water. I wasn’t able to get a photo, but it happened several times and was just amazing.

The other awesome thing about this time of year, and the main reason we went now and not this summer, is that this is breeding season for the whales, and also the time when the calves are born. We saw two whale calves in the bay, both born in the end of January or so, and both playing along the top of the water since they can’t hold their breath all that long. The photo at the top is of one of the calves. They were doing all the fun whale behavior, too, except being so small they weren’t quite as good at it. It was so amazing to be that close to them, though!

After our whale watch, we went to a place called Buzz’s Wharf that was recommended to us by the guy at the rental car place and it turned out to have very good seafood. Then we went to the Maui Ocean Center, which is one of the best aquariums we’ve seen. From there we decided just to drive along the coast for a while until it was time to head back to the airport. We saw most of the west coast of Maui (which, as I said, is the dry part) and saw some amazing rainbows and a nice sunset. Then we turned back toward the airport.

The trip back was uneventful and I slept through most of it. We got home exhausted and sore from all the walking (and standing on a moving boat) we’d done, but it was well worth it. I think the next time we go, though, we’ll head to the east coast, and the black sand beaches and rainforest. There are rainforest and waterfall tours you can take there that look fascinating. We want to see as much of Hawaii as we can while we’re here, after all.

Photos of the trip are up in my photo journal. ^_^

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Adventures on the AFB Part Two!

In which our Brave Heroine ventures once again onto Hickam Air Force Base in search of a Craft Store.

Today I experienced the very best (I mean this both sarcastically and seriously) of military efficiency and helpfulness.

Our story begins after lunch with J. We had to go by the ITT office to get aquarium tickets for this weekend (more on that later) and if he’s there we get half off because his ship has an ITT budget. Good stuff. Anyway, we got the tickets, I dropped him back off at the ship, and told him I was going to head over to the AFB to look for the craft store.

Background Information That Will Help You Understand the Story: On February 1 Pearl Harbor and Hickam AFB became a “joint base.” According to the press release this will make everything SO much more efficient for everyone involved. Really, I think it’s just a matter of paperwork, as we could already use all of each others’ stuff (as in the NEX and BX, the gyms, the stores, the gas stations, the beaches, etc… everything) and could come and go on both bases whenever we wanted. Silly, really. Anyway, one of my friends told me this weekend about a small craft store on Hickam and roughly how to find it, so I decided to go look. I’ve been looking for a craft store since we got here, as there is no such thing as Michael’s on the island. Or Chickfila. Okay, back to the main story.

I drove to the main gate into Hickam and encountered a ridiculously long line of traffic. It took me over ten minutes to creep up to the officer checking IDs, but I finally got there and handed over my card. He looked at it, and at my car’s decals (which are good until 2012, I might add) and then told me I had to pull over and get a temporary pass at the visitor center. “Excuse me?” I said. He explained to me that they picked today to start enforcing the “joint base” thing and that the Navy was making them get everyone new base decals. SO I pulled into the visitor center parking lot, got my car’s info, and stood in line for a while to get a temporary tag, which is a piece of paper taped to my windshield.

Once I finally managed to get onto base, my gas light came on, so I drove to the mini-mart and gas station to fill my tank. The pay at the pump feature wasn’t working, so I had to go inside to pay for the gas. I asked the cashier where I could find the craft shop (since I hadn’t seen it yet) and she told me to go to the “little building across the street.” I thanked her and got back in my car. Upon driving across the street, I found a little building with no sign on it, but a parking lot with some cars and a main-door-looking entrance. I parked and walked inside….

…to find the veterinary clinic. I’m not kidding.

More Background Story: I have been trying since we got here to get ahold of the on-base vet clinic but they never ever answer their phones. Ever. They have no info online, just a phone number that you “have” to call to get an appointment. So I asked them how to get an appointment. Turns out you have to go to the office to make an appointment, then come back in three weeks. Just great.

So there I am at the vet clinic, which I needed anyway, so I asked about getting an appointment. I got the kitties in their system and then talked to the woman at the desk about what all they needed when I bring them back in March. She then lectured me about being late bringing them in. I pointed out to her that if they’d answer the phone, I would have found them months ago, but that I had no way to know where they were or when they were open if they didn’t answer the phone. She shrugged that off and acted mad that we’d been able to bring the cats into the state with their vaccines expired (though I’d explained to her that the vaccines have expired since we’ve been here and were valid when we traveled). Anyway, finally got the cats a vet appointment, and got back to the car… and realized that all of the paperwork she’d given me had both first AND last name misspelled. Now, neither J nor I have an “L” in our first name. Just so we’re clear. And there is no “R” in our last name, either. Isn’t that fantastic?

I finally got back in the car and drove around and around and around the area “across the street” from the mini-mart, looking for the craft store. No luck. In frustration, I pulled into the ITT office (the Hickam office, not the one I’d been to earlier) to ask them for help. The people in ITT where very helpful. They not only told me how to get to the craft store (which was a half a mile further down the road and not at all “across the street,” except that it was, in fact, on the other side of the road. Half a mile away.), but told me the best place to park when I got there and which door to use. Yay for helpfulness!

So. An hour and a half after venturing onto the base to find the store, I FOUND IT! I was very excited. I parked, walked across the street and to the door… to find the lights off and the door locked. They’re open six days a week and closed Monday. Of course. I leaned on the windows anyway trying to look inside and just see what all they had, and it looks like they’ve got a good collection of crafting materials, including scrapbooking stuff. As I moved down the windows, I found myself peering into an office with a woman peering back at me. I think we startled each other, because we both jumped, and then I laughed and called to her through the door to explain what I was I doing. She came to the door and was very friendly; she gave me several brochures and told me about their hours and their stock and the classes they hold during the month. I told her about my adventures looking for the place and about the vet clinic. Her response? “Well, if they’d answer the stupid phones once in a while, it would help!”

I rest my case.

She gave me directions to the gym on base and to the Hickam Pass & ID office and suggested I try there to get my base decals updated. I thanked her and drove to the opposite side of the base and (eventually) found the Pass & ID office. I went inside and was relieved to find a very short wait. At the Pearl Harbor Pass & ID office there’s usually a 2 hour wait; I think this one took five minutes. Anyway, I talked to the airmen there, and they looked at my current decals and told me they’d help me out, so I filled out a piece of paper and they handed me new decals, which will get me onto any base in the state. But the funny part of it all?

My car is now registered with the Air Force.

My only concern at this point is that the decals only say “Hickam AFB” and I might have to re-do them at some point so they say “Joint Base” or something. I dunno. But it works for now and that’s what matters.

[update]
In case you missed the tweet, I added photos from this weekend to the photo journal. Mostly Chinese New Year celebrations. I might blog about that later, but I think the photos are self-explanatory. ^_^

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Rainy Zoosday

Today it is raining.

Not the usual light drizzle for thirty minutes and then gone sort of rain, but the it’s going to pour all day long whether you like it or not sort of rain. This kind of rain is the kind that’s usually associated with a certain Irishman, whom I have yet to meet in real life, but who seems to constantly be out to irritate me.

Why, Murphy? Why?

Anyway, I left for the zoo before 7am because I not only had to drop J off at work by then, but because I was hoping to beat rush hour for my shift that started at 8. I got there at about ten til 8, after battling rush hour for 45 minutes on what is usually a fifteen minute drive, and went to sign into the volunteer log. Then I walked back to the spot where the keeper I’m helping had told me to find her. I leaned on the wall there and waited, watching the animals.

There is a section that is going to be part of where I work called “Monkey Island.” This is a strange name to me because there are actually three parts to this area, and not a one of these has any monkeys at all. In fact, it only has gibbons, which are apes, and lemurs, which are prosimians. Not monkeys. Why is their exhibit called “Monkey Island” then? I have no idea. The actual monkeys are across from the lemurs and gibbons and are mostly spider monkeys. The spider monkeys are more beside “Monkey Island” than part of it, but I think the exhibit might be named for them.

Getting back on track… I waited about half an hour before a keeper came, and it wasn’t the one I was expecting, being neither close to my age nor female. He turned out to beĀ  one of the elephant keepers and a really nice guy; they’d shuffled who was doing what duties today, so he had the fun job of introducing me to the animals while trying to remember who gets what to eat. Of course, it helps that the tigers and primates do NOT eat the same things, at all. Heh.

I met all six tigers (two females, four males) and saw all of the small primates, and even learned how to tell the two elephants apart from one another (they’re waiting on the completion of a new exhibit to get a third elephant, as is required by the AZA). I also got to see their veterinary clinic (which is amazing) and their “animal commissary” which is also amazing. I’ll have to take pictures of them sometime.

It rained the entire time I was there, except for a brief time when I was getting a tour of the tiger night house and was under cover. As soon as we got ready to head back outside, the bottom let out and I nearly got drenched. At that point, one of the keepers loaned me a poncho which I will return next week and kept me from getting thoroughly drenched.

I came home for lunch and realized that the lawn chairs were getting wet, so I stepped outside during a break in the rain to get them inside.

You know all of those Java sparrows I wrote about a few weeks ago? There were about 40 of them outside today and they almost all flew away when I opened the door. One did not; he was hanging from the feeder and I thought he was either very brave or very dumb. As I moved the chairs, however, I realized that he was fluttering and trying to get away, but was stuck. The poor bird had gotten a toe snagged in the feeder and was hanging by it! I ran inside and got a cloth, which I used to scoop underneath him and cover his head (birds will calm down immediately if you cover their heads; weird, but true!) and lifted him, along with the feeder, to the little table outside. His toe was almost severed, hanging by a little piece of skin or something. As I started to lift him free, he pulled it loose and flew away, leaving a good bit of blood behind. Poor guy! He’ll most likely be fine, as birds don’t need all of their toes, but I felt bad for him. And I was worried about what I would do if it happened again. I bent the place where he’d been stuck so that it was bigger and hopefully bird-toe-proof, but what if…?

So I called a wildlife rehabilitator I knew in Virginia and asked her about it. Her solution?

If you don’t have styptic powder, you can use either cornstarch or flour to staunch bleeding. It’s natural and safe for animals, so you can use it with pets, too. This is a fantastic piece of knowledge so I’m sharing it with anyone who is around animals.

What can I say? I walk on the wild side. ^_^

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The Cat Hat

The scene: Sunday evening, before dinner but after dark, and J and I are sitting on the couch, playing a game together on the xbox. We’ve been there a little while, maybe 45 minutes, and are having a good time with the (mostly) mindless game. Out of my peripheral vision, I see Leena jump to the back of the couch. This is normal behavior, as she uses it as her personal walkway to get to the cat tree, so I don’t pay much attention.

Suddenly, I’m getting tapped on the shoulder. Then on the back of my head. I acknowledge her, thinking this is all she wants (both of my cats like to know that they are at least somewhat the center of attention at all times), but the poking continues.

After a minute, there is a whump and a solid weight appears on top of my head.

Leena sat on my head.

It takes me about ten seconds to realize what’s going on, during which time I freak out a little because I hadn’t expected anything on my head. Who does? Ten seconds is also just long enough for Leena to decide to jump down, and for us to lose our game.

J’s reply?

“Why didn’t you just ignore her? I would’ve!”

Yeah, right.

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