Friday, May 19


As always, there's the caveat that scientists have to present their study findings with the "sexiest" possible angle, so it's not surprising to have constant "breakthroughs" in our understanding of animal intelligence. But still.

"Apes and birds may use mental abilities previously attributed only to humans when they gather and store food," reports Bloomberg news, citing two studies from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the University of Cambridge, respectively. "Researchers found that orangutans and bonobos were able to choose the correct tool to retrieve grapes or juice and hang on to it for as long as 14 hours. A separate study by British scientists found that Western scrub-jays seemed to recall which birds were watching them when storing food, and sometimes chose a new spot if they saw a familiar face."

So what does all this imply? Well, Josep Call, an author on the ape study, helpfully points out that "the ability to plan for the future was supposed to distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom," and the reporter re-quotes him on it immediately in paraphrase: "Scientists had believed the ability to plan ahead was a major difference distinguishing humans from apes, which shared a common ancestor millions of years ago, said Call."

There's a potentially more interesting quote from one of the scientists behind the bird study: "Whilst the ability of non-human animals to reason about another's mind continues to elude definitive study, our study provides evidence to suggest that a non-human animal might discriminate between individuals with different knowledge states." In English, this seems to be saying that the birds have some rudimentary awareness of the consciousness of other birds, that other animals may have their own, different, motivations, hopes, and views of the world. What's remarkable, and ironic, is that this very awareness of other animals as conscious subjects still seems to be largely missing in most humans.

Thursday, May 18


I was unaware that the foie gras fight had ventured all the way here to Philadelphia, but this Inquirer story set me straight with a wealth of interesting tidbits. You could say it's overstuffed with choice morsels.

"Councilman Jack Kelly has a new suggestion for how to serve the goose-liver delicacy: not at all. Kelly plans a bill that would ban the sale of foie gras, which he says involves unspeakable cruelty to geese and ducks."

But we must hear the rationalizations well-reasoned arguments of the foie-gras industry titans, mustn't we? "People come in here and they want foie," said Christopher Lee, the executive chef. "We know what to do with it. If they're going to save up for six months to come here for their anniversary, they should be able to get what they want."

And if they want bald eagle for their anniversary, so be it. Or dolphin. Or human babies. Because after all, they saved up for six months for it, and that's the only criterion that matters.

"Kelly's idea is modeled after a bill passed last month in Chicago. He said yesterday that he hadn't known about foie gras until being asked about it by someone who knew about his push to improve city animal shelters." Uh oh, sounds like we're due for the usual "city slickers don't understand farm life" tripe - yep, here it comes, right on schedule: "Joel Assouline, who supplies roughly 400 local restaurants with caviar and foie gras, said the squeamishness was a result of not knowing where food comes from." (Exactly true except for the "not." People eat foie gras all the time not knowing where it comes from. It's when they do know that they get, ahem, "squeamish.")

"Has [Kelly] ever been to a farm?" Assouline continues. "The whole issue, if you look at it really closely, is that farming of animals is not a really nice business. If you see chickens piled up in a little cage or veal being raised, the images are not very pretty. The way I look at it is, it's part of the natural cycle." That's a convenient way to look at it, Joel, since you're too lazy and stubborn to adjust to reality, but force-feeding geese and ducks, piling up chickens in a little cage or confining baby calves to crates has nothing whatsoever to do with "the natural cycle." What it does have a lot to do with is greed and heartlessness.

Here's the money quote: Kelly "voiced little sympathy for businessmen like Assouline. 'They should diversify,' he said. 'Let them grow corn or something. Nobody should be in this business.'" Right on. As I've said before, we don't cry about putting drug dealers "out of business," so why is the fact that someone's been doing something for a long time any kind of rational concern, if what they're doing is reprehensible? Nobody, indeed, should be in the business of animal cruelty. It's just that simple.

Wednesday, May 17


You know the cows I mean - the ones constantly in the process of painting new billboards pushing people to eat chicken, in that zero-sum fantasy of slaughter-food marketers that if people don't eat one, they'll have to eat the other. Well it turns out that a little-reported fact is that both beef and chicken consumption are down significantly, to the point that thousands of animals are now being killed not for food, but simply to prop up the pretense of a viable industry.

"Fears about avian flu have dramatically cut chicken exports, creating bonanza for the food depositories that serve the nation's poor and hungry," reports the Chicago Tribune. "The nation's chicken and meat processors are dealing with a glut caused by the fears about avian flu and, to a lesser extent, mad cow disease. Rather than dumping the chicken and meat onto the market and further sinking retail prices, the food companies are donating the products to the food depositories and taking a tax write-off on the charitable contribution."

The article reports that "prices and sales started plunging last August when avian flu concerns began spreading rapidly through Asia, which imports more than 50 percent of the 7.2 billion in chicken the U.S. exports. Prospects dimmed further two weeks ago when Russia unexpectedly closed its borders to U.S. poultry."

So to recap: As the proverbial chickens come home to roost on our intensive animal agriculture and consumers start noticing, demand is plummeting. But rather than respond to that by decreasing the actual supply (i.e. not killing so many chickens and cows) the slaughter-food industry keeps the kill-line moving apace, dumps the dead animals at food depositories and rips off the American taxpayer, who sees a shortfall in revenue due to the tax write-off these companies get for their "largesse." That's the system, folks, and you're welcome to it.

Tuesday, May 16


A new study from the University of Toronto shows that in terms of lowering cholesterol - something meat-eaters spend millions of dollars on drugs to do - the closer your diet is to vegan, the better off you are. The "portfolio" diet is described as "a near-vegan regimen, meaning no meat, eggs, poultry, fish or dairy." (Sounds like "a vegan regimen" to me, but I couldn't find a source that explained what made it only "near." Maybe they mean it's not quite vegan because the dieters don't actually care about ahimsa.)

"Can a modified portfolio approach help? To answer that, Jenkins and his team enrolled 66 adults with elevated blood cholesterol in a one-year study of the diet," explains this Washington Post article. "The study found a direct link between how closely participants followed the portfolio plan and how much their blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) improved. LDL is directly linked to heart-disease risk. Nearly a third of participants who stuck closest to the plan's goals lowered their LDL levels by 20 percent or more, an improvement that rivals the use of low-dose statins."

Monday, May 15


"Bottlenose dolphins appear to whistle their "names" to each other," according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Here's the best part: "Researchers say that this type of referential communication is extremely rare in nature, and until now had not been clearly shown in a non-human animal." LOL - how do we know this type of communication is "extremely rare" in nature when it was previously non-existent in dolphins? Wouldn't it be a wee tad more honest and accurate to say "scientists successfully decoding this type of animal-to-animal communication is extremely rare"?