Carol: Hello Hurst, I hope you’re ready to discuss some animal news as always.
Hurst: Absolutely, I’ll let you start.
Carol: Well it has been a week of tragic news. So the first story I want to mention is about comfort dogs that provide some hope. I learned about the the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dog Ministry, launched in 2008, which employs purebred Golden Retrievers to provide comfort to people who have endured a tragedy. Nineteen comfort dogs were deployed to Parkland Florida to be with the community for some time. Over 130 dogs are currently in the program; they are trained to interact with people of all ages and circumstances who are suffering. The program’s website notes that they live in homes with caregivers just like other companion animals, but they go to work in times of crisis to bring comfort “to all those affected, including first responders and the volunteers who serve them.” LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs also met the victims of Superstorm Sandy, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Hurst: Other news came out of Oxford University Press recently stating that there have been over 1,000 new mammal species discovered in the past twelve years. This is so exciting because we tend to think that we know most mammal species in the world being that they tend to be larger and more conspicuous as opposed to say insects or marine organisms.
Carol: Wow, that’s really cool, I thought we had discovered mamm-all of them but evidently not. And a thousand of them is a ton!
Hurst: Actually a ton is two thousand but I get your point. Although it seems there are more mammal species to be discovered globally, with an average of 25 new species being discovered each year, it is vital that we protect the environment to provide for the sustained survival of these animals and other undiscovered ones.
Carol: Speaking of mammals, last week we discussed the mutant crayfish taking over Europe, this week I want to talk about the giant rodents invading America.
Hurst: I think I heard a squirrel in my wall last night, is that what we’re talking about?
Carol: Actually, I was referring to Nutria, but you should probably look into that. These critters have already taken hold in several areas in the U.S., but have recently been spotted in California specifically. These 20 pound plus animals have the ability to disrupt ecosystems.
Hurst: Well how exactly do they do that? I’ve got images of the rats from the movie Ratatouille in my head and they certainly wreaked havoc in the French restaurant scene.
Carol: Nutria have plant-based diet, but it is the way that they eat the plant that is so damaging. Instead of simply grazing and eating just the leaves, berries, or flowers, they usually consume the entire plant, roots included. This can be devastating in California where 90 percent of wetlands have already been destroyed by development.
Hurst: You mentioned that Nutria are already living in other parts of the United States as well?
Carol: Yes, they were first brought to the United States as part of the fur trade. However, once the fur industry declined, the rodents were released into the wild where they bred prolifically. Places like Louisiana, where nutria were first farmed for fur, and Maryland have had varying success in eliminating this invasive species. Louisiana ran campaigns that attempted to glamorize wearing Nutria fur as well as normalizing consuming Nutria meat. Maryland’s wildlife department enacted an eradication project that successfully eliminated the animals over a 15-year period.
Hurst: Hmm this brings up some very interesting ethical questions about invasive species and how we treat them while working to save the native environment.
Carol: I agree with you. Moving onto another rodent related story, many rodents play an important role in spreading seeds. They do so by storing the seeds in the pouches in their mouths, eating them later, and pooping them out. Once the seeds are deposited, they sprout and grow, away from the competition of the parent plant. This process plays an important role in spreading plant species. However, this story concerns the snakes that eat the mice.
Hurst: Snakes and mice, can’t we talk about a newsworthy kitten or something?
Carol: Maybe next week, but scientist have recently found that these snakes also play an important role in spreading plant species. Even after the snake digests the mice, the seeds often escape unharmed. Some seeds even germinate in the colons of snakes, ready to grow as soon as they are defecated.
Hurst: Ok, that’s gross, but cool. The next animal-related story is about the people who defend them. Thousands of people – scientists, politicians, educators, advocates and activists – devote their life to the conservation of natural resources in some corner of the globe. However, their work is not always celebrated and in some cases, it is terribly dangerous work, particularly for those working in the field and close to the resources in question.
Carol: Ah, yes, I read about this too. The Guardian out of the UK, and Global Witness, an NGO focused on fighting corruption in natural resource industries, have teamed up to identify and publish a list of all the individuals who have been killed because of their work in conservation. According to their research, many of the deaths are related to mining for a variety of extractive resources, as well as the agribusiness of soy, palm oil, and sugarcane. And the increasing demand of beef worldwide has a direct affect on this issue because whereas we feed corn to cows within the U.S.’s industrial farm system, other countries use parts of soy, sugar cane, and palm plants. On the mining side of things, an example mentioned in the article focused on marble used for monuments and upscale hotels. In this regard, these conflicts come down to a supply chain issue where money is to be gained along each step of the supply chain… but it obviously should not be a situation where people are murdered for their desire to conserve a part of the environment.
Hurst: That’s scary. I’m glad Global Witness and The Guardian are shining a light on this critical issue.
Carol: Me too. Now it’s important that we end our news series with a cuddly animal story so we don’t turn off too many readers. So, which furry ball of cuteness do you have in mind?
Hurst: Uhhhh…a jellyfish? But hear me out on this…while they are probably not an animal that most people (ok, any people) would choose for cuddling, they are absolutely incredible!
Carol: Go on…
Hurst: Well, a new book came out about them called Spineless, which details all kinds of interesting facts about them, but the book is written in an approachable style so that readers are drawn in to learn more about these creatures that suck themselves through water as a means of moving.
Carol: They do what?
Hurst: It turns out they are one of the most efficient “movers” around, using less energy to propel themselves about in the water. And we have all kinds of misconceptions about them, like how many deaths they cause each year and how populations of them “explode” from time to time. But what I found really interesting is the historic reason why we know so little about jellyfish. When early explorers were trying to find out about sea creatures, they would plunge nets down into the ocean to gather aquatic animals to study. Because jellyfish don’t have bones in them, they would slip through the nets, and as a results, we have operated with limited knowledge about them.
Carol: Still, I don’t think I want to hug a jellyfish the same way I would, say, an orangutan.
Hurst: Interesting choice. Well, let’s end with you telling us about some animal celebrations coming up.
Carol: Ok, I’ve got one random one and one mainstream one.
Hurst: You are saying that celebrating animals is mainstream?
Carol: Well, it’s my personal mission to make it so! The polar bear, that iconic image of conservation in general and the effects of climate change specifically, has a day of recognition next week on February 27th. In my opinion, with all that they represent they should have more than just one day, but I don’t get to decide these things…
Hurst: Maybe you’ll be recruited to do so in the future. What’s the random one?
Carol: It’s called International Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day and it is on February 23.
Hurst: Are we appreciating dogs by giving them a biscuit, or are we appreciating the biscuits themselves.
Carol: Exactly. I had to look more into this celebration. Evidently, dog treats used to include stale, moldy bread and rotting leftovers. But according to dog biscuit lore, American James Spratt was inspired in the mid-1800s when he saw stray dogs scavenging for leftover food. He developed a cake-like biscuit comprised of meat, grains and vegetables that called “Dog Cakes.” This of course was developed into the versions we know today, and one enterprising brand even has developed its own Facebook page to honor this day dedicated to this doggy delicacy.
Hurst: Ah, American ingenuity. I guess he could be considered the great, great grandfather of the bazillion dollar pet industry we have today.
Carol: So true. Well, I’ll see you next week, Hurst! Happy Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day to you and yours!
Hurst: Yeah, that’s too long to say. See you next week!