Monday, December 28, 2009

Orangutan intelligence


From time to time stories appear on the Web that cannot be ignored. They are intriguing not only for what they report, but also for what they may have missed. Such is the case with two recent reports about that most fascinating of the great apes, the orangutan, which is held by many who have worked with this group of primates to be the most intelligent of all (after humans). My own experience with them is limited, but many years ago, on a visit to the Singapore zoo we were introduced to an ancient female orang who was allowed out for walks with the staff. We were on a semi-official visit and as we walked along the ape held hands with my daughter and then, when we all (including the orang) sat on a bench she gently put her hand on my son’s knee as we contemplated the wonderful array of tropical plants around us.

Both of the web stories concern the use of tools. One is an account by Andrea Thompson, a senior writer with Live Science of how researchers in Borneo who have been studying wild orangs have noted that the apes developed the use of leaves to make a sound called a kiss squeak for communicating with other members of their species in the forests. You can find it here.
The other report is more whimsical and relates how zoo staff in Germany have given one particular female ape her own Facebook page. This after she learned to use a simple camera. Each time she does so she receives a raisin as a reward. The story can be found here
and shows how inventive zoo staff can increase public interest and hence zoo attendance with innovative ideas.

There are other stories about orangs that have not yet appeared in the popular literature, and deserve to do so, as they show even more clearly how smart these creatures really are. The most amazing also involves the use of tools and was told to me in 1988 late at night on a subway train in Toronto by my friend and colleague Dr. Lyndsay Phillips.

“I came into work one morning,” he said, “to find the place in an uproar. The adult male orang was sitting on the roof at topmost point of the primate house with the entire group from the enclosure. We took the calm approach and persuaded him to come down with an offering of food. He led the group back into the cage through the door used by the keepers, which was hanging open. Of course the director went ballistic and hauled the keeper staff over the coals for carelessness. Next morning it was the same, the orangs were on the roof.”

“I imagine the director was not impressed” I said.

“No, you’re right, but we took a measured approach. The keepers swore black and blue that they had double-checked everything. That night volunteers sat all night in the passage way near the door. Nothing happened. We assumed no more volunteers were needed and that it had just been a weird coincidence until the day after that, when the orangs were on the roof again. Now we had a serious situation on our hands.”

Now comes the amazing bit, as Lyndsay told it.

“We set up a video surveillance system and late at night a red hairy hand appeared between the bars and began to fiddle with the padlock. Several minutes later the hand gave a jerk to the lock and the door opened. The orangs headed out and up, to be found perched on high in the morning.”

Lyndsay switched to a brief side-bar.

“There’s a couple of things to know about orangutans. When you have them in captivity you need to keep an ice cream pail handy. You pick up nuts and bolts from the cage area until the pail is full. Then you lock the group into their night quarters and enter the cage to find all the places where the pieces you have found have been removed and replace them. Orangs are incredibly strong and have all day and night to inspect and fiddle. There is one female in our group who will pick up a broom when the keepers come to clean and help them sweeping. She knows exactly what she is doing.”

“So what happened?” I asked as the train slowed on the approach to the downtown station near our hotel.

“Well, long story short, I anesthetized the entire group and we did body searches. We found nothing. As a last resort I set up the portable X-ray. We did the big male first, and saw a metal object in his mouth, near his front teeth. There, between his lip and gum, he had a length of wire. He had become a lock-pick! Once we took the wire away there were no more escapes.”

In case you doubt this account, it is worth mentioning that a much drier version of it was published the following year in the proceedings of the annual convention of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians. The meeting was held in Greensboro, North Carolina, and I was chairing a session on zoo safety. Lyndsay’s story was a perfect fit.

Monday, December 21, 2009

White Rhino Rescue


In the book Last Chance To See written by the late Douglas Adams (he of the five books in the trilogy The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy) and co-authored by Mark Cawardine, Adams described his visit in 1980 to the last refuge of the Northern White Rhino in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. At that time there may have been two dozen of the creatures left after a century of relentless slaughter, aka poaching. So relentless in fact that early in the 20th century the French organized and armed gangs of poachers for the express purpose of collecting rhino horn for sale. Then came the terrible times of Idi Amin in Uganda, and the end of all rhinos in that country.

This picture was taken in Kenya in the 1971 and shows Southern White Rhinos with their guard, but if I had not told you that this was the Southern, as opposed to the Northern, there is no way that you would have known - any more than I would if I had not been told. They look the same.

Four years ago, when I was in Kenya on a visit to my old stamping grounds around the town of Nanyuki, nestled on the western slopes of Mount Kenya, there was serious discussion of the possibility of bringing the last remnants (now only three or four animals) of the DRC group of rhinos to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where this picture was taken. That effort foundered on the rocks of local politics in the DRC’s Garamba National Park where the rhino hung on under some measure of protection.

There was one glimmer, a faint one, in that seven individuals of this now critically endangered rhino had been taken to the Czech Republic and kept at the Dvür Krålové zoo. In ten years only one calf, a female, was born. There were three more in San Diego, but they were not breeding at all. In 2009 there are now only eight northern white rhino in existence.

Now comes the latest, and probably last attempt to save the remnants. As reported on the BBC web siteof 20th Nov under the banner headline
Czech zoo sends rare Northern White rhinos to Kenya

The translocation is not without is detractors, but Rob Brett, who is a member of the IUCN rhino specialist group is quoted as saying
"Moving them now is a last-bid effort to save them and their gene pool from total extinction."

More details emerge in another posting and it is here where one learns about the team of folks who have been involved in this exercise, and perhaps why some folks are concerned. These concerns stem mainly from the fact that the Northerns are likely to breed with the Southerns that are already at the conservancy (if they breed at all). Of course their gene pool would immediately be diluted, but the prevailing view seems to be that the genes would be lost completely if no efforts were made.

Of course the hope is that the return of the two males and two females to a more natural habitat, and relative freedom of thousands of hectares of bush, will turn on their reproductive juices. It seems a faint hope until one remembers that the thousands of Southern White Rhinos scattered in parks and zoos around the world are all descendants of about ten animals left alive in South Africa in 1904.This animal was one of my patients in one of those refuges, Meru National Park in Kenya.

You can find more about this remarkable recovery, and about the long and ugly history of rhino slaughter and why people do it, inThe Trouble With Lions.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Veterinarians Without Borders/ Vétérinaires Sans Frontiéres
If you are thinking of donating anything this Christmas season, why not go the web site of Veterinarians Without Borders/ Vétérinaires Sans Frontiéres and see what you can do. Of course tax receipts are issued as this is a registered charity. If you do not have money to spare you may have AirMiles points and they would be most welcome. The money will go straight to a project somewhere in the world. For instance there are projects needing help right here in Canada, and of course there are projects in many other regions. My efforts have mainly been focused in Africa, and for those who have not delved back very far on this page you can find a length report about our activities in Uganda in the blog of Monday, May 4, 2009 titled Uganda and WCVM primary schools report.. To save you time just click here and you will get straight to it.
It has a large number of pictures, many of them related to activities in two small primary schools.
But not all of them. As a teaser here is one that shows the sort of thing the children would have seen when we arranged for them to take a boat trip and see some wildlife.
My travel to Uganda was supported through the AirMiles program of Air Canada who support VWB/VSF. When Dr. David Waltner-Toews, the CEO of VWB-VSF read the report he wrote to me saying that it is interesting how many of our projects start out working with animals and end up with schoolchildren. Thats' where the need is, that's where the educational opportunties lie for the betterment of the lot of people and their animals.

I know some of you folks following this are veterinary students. Think about joining VWB/VSF. The rewards will far outstrip the costs (which are pretty low as there are special student rates).

Enjoy the holidays!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Murder by elk (moose)?


An unusual report has come out of Sweden and appeared on the BBC website (here) on 28th November and on a blog called JUSTICE", FROM THE CRAZY TO THE DEEPLY DISTURBING" (here). The BBC headline reads,
“Sweden woman's 'murder' committed by elk not husband”
I have been trying to find out more about it since the as the report has some intriguing holes in it. Of course the first thing to clear up is that the word elk means something different in Europe than it does in North America. It is a bit difficult to figure our why the elk of North America, known as Wapiti, ever became to be called en elk, which is what the moose is known as across the pond and right round the globe as far as the Bering Strait. Elch, Alg, and others are the names in languages other than English. Idle speculation on my part makes me wonder if one of the early settlers, maybe even someone on the Mayflower, was either short-sighted or had cataracts. If he or she saw a large brown deer-like beast it might have been dubbed an elk.

Anyhoo, that aside, the story is a sad one. A man named Ingemar Westlund says he was "dragged through a nightmare" after being arrested on suspicion of the murder of his wife. He found the body of his wife Agneta, aged 63 in September 2008 and was immediately arrested by police and held in custody for 10 days.

In the initial investigation, police did not take into account the possibility of a killer elk, assuming that the animal hairs on Mrs. Westlund’s coat were from her dog. It was only when the police realized that 68 year-old Mr. Westlund was not strong enough to have inflicted the damage to his wife that they went to forensics. Scientists at Umeå University sorted out the hair types and identifed the saliva. At that point it must have been assumed that she had been attacked when taking their dog for a walk in the forest. The charges were later dropped.

One of the weirder elements of this story appears as a quote on the BBC site
“Swedish Radio International says the animals can become aggressive after eating fermented fallen apples in gardens.”

There are more detail on the “Justice” blog where it states that:
“Drunken elks attacked an old people’s home four years ago, and had to be driven back by police and hunters… Typically weighing up to half a tonne, elk are best avoided when they are tipsy. They have entered department stores, got stuck in lifts, attacked skiers and barged into kitchens.”

If the “murderer” was a bull then there is a much stronger likelihood that apples had little to do with the event.

The deer scientist in me at once raises a red flag. The sad event occurred in September. September is the month when the rut starts in moose in the Northern Hemisphere and as the month goes along the rut gets more intense.

That intensity is driven by a huge spike in testosterone (T4) in the blood. I am not aware of any exact studies of T4 levels in moose, but in elk (the wapiti version) they are well known. As you can see from this graph, which I made almost 30 years ago during a research project of the rut in wapiti, T4 concentrations increase about 100 fold in the space of two weeks. The scale on the graph does not give a true picture as it had to be altered to fit on a page or screen.

Aggression is then the watch-word and humans are targets if they get too close to the sex-crazed creature. One of my colleagues, who will remain nameless, descried a particularly randy male student (who also flies incognito) as a life-support system for an erection. A rutting male deer really does fit that description.

I have talked to moose hunters who have been attacked. They were all terrified and were mighty thankful to have guns. Poor Mrs. Westlund would have had no chance.

Even if the moose was a female and Mrs. Westlund had got too close, she would have been completely outmatched. Moose cows, especially if defending a calf, are powerful and would attack a dog much as they do a wolf, using the front feet to strike and pound. Imagine 400 kg or more of enraged moose, bull or cow, up against a woman and a dog. No contest.

Another sad element. Mr. Westlund was shunned by his neighbours. “When I and my children bade farewell to Agneta at her funeral in front of 300 mourners, I was suspected of murdering her — can you imagine what that means?” he said. He is now seeking compensation.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Three cups of tea
I have just finished an amazing book called Three Cups of Tea. It is written by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin and tells the story of how Mortensen has led a fantastic program in Pakistan and later Afghanistan, to educate thousands of children, boys and girls equally, through his personal initiatives to build schools in remote regions. The story is compelling and one cannot fail to be moved by it.
Of course this blog is mainly about conservation, and at first the book would not seem to have much to do with the subject, but ultimately it is only though education that we can hope to achieve any kind of balance. Mortensen has, in my opinion, achieved more than all the wars that one can imagine. It seems appropriate to send this post on the very day of the announcement of an additional 30,000 troops are destined to be sent to a country that has never, in all its history since Alexander the Great, been conquered.