Friday, March 19, 2010

Response to listeners of my interview on the Diane Rehm Show (March 16, National Public Radio)

Thank you to all who listened to the show today, and thank you for taking the time to share your comments. I just now read them (all of them). I have mixed feelings about some of these comments, for sure, but they show that I struck some chords, tweaked some nerves and generally got people thinking into some uncomfortable territory. For that I am grateful. Also, I’m sorry I didn’t respond to all the questions that came through. A one-hour media interview goes incredibly fast and there’s a premium on time for both guest and host. I don’t assume to be the authority on these complex matters (thanks, Lori, for your comment on that) or to have all the answers. I do feel very strongly, however, that our current relationship with animals represents what the Hope Indians would call koyaanisqatsi: life out of balance. There is an enormous disconnect between what we now know of animals’ experiences of their lives, and how we treat them as a whole (most notably as in factory farms and commercial fishing — which consume some 75 billion sentient creatures yearly). That disconnect badly needs fixing. A key element to fixing it is information. Putting the information out there is the core aim of this book.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Snow sparrow

This little fella flew into our deck window, ignoring the falcon silhouettes I’ve placed there. He lay trapped between the soft snow and the glass. I opened the door and gingerly picked him (or her) up. He was stunned but alert and appeared uninjured. You can see why they’re called white-throated sparrows. My cupped hand became quite hot beneath his body. He seemed to like the added heat from my hand. He flew after about 5 mins. Now that the next blizzard has arrived, I suspect he’s one of the many little birds out there on the snow pecking about for the seeds put out by me and the neighbors. I am amazed that these tiny beings survive winter temperatures, never mind when it storms!

Carrot narcissism

I found this in my fridge. Can a carrot fall in love with itself? Or maybe it was just too cold in my fridge.

Sunday, February 7, 2010


Today, after taking in the museum of plant sex (a.k.a. the Botanical Garden), in Washington, DC, I stopped to watch the gulls soaring above the reflecting pool in front of the Capitol Building. It was gusty and a few minutes before sunset. What are they doing up there?, I wondered. So I fixed my eyes on one gull and followed her flight. (I do not share a gull’s skill for distinguishing male gulls from females, so I have chosen this one to be a girl gull).

I followed her for five minutes. With the exception of a 30 second stretch when she lost altitude and flapped her wings, she soared with outstretched wings the entire time. She wheeled in circles, usually clockwise. Her altitude ranged from about 40 to 150 feet, and she never ventured far from the 3 acre pool. When I left, she was still soaring, as were a dozen or so other gulls.

Biologists seek adaptive explanations for practically all animal behaviors. So, what was she doing up there? Clearly, it isn’t energetically expedient to soar when one could be floating or resting on terra firma. I contend that these gulls are flying for the fun of it.

An observation I made week earlier at the same location brought me to the same conclusion. A couple of dozen gulls floated on the water, dunking and preening themselves. Several others soared overhead. I noticed a gull with something in his beak. And, as I’ve often seen in gulls, there was an aerial chase in progress. Gulls are aerial pirates. Like crows, frigatebirds and some other opportunists, they will chase other birds seeking to bully or intimidate them into relinquishing a food item. It often works.

At first glance, the chase looked like it was over food. The lead bird with the item in his beak uttered muffled squawks while three other gulls flew in hot pursuit. He arced upwards, swooped downwards, and made dramatic and sudden shifts in horizontal direction. After about a minute, he got sandwiched between two pursuers and, opening his bill, quite deliberately let go of his prize. One of the other gulls grabbed it before it fell even five feet. The chase resumed. Soon, this gull also released the tidbit. Again, it was grabbed by a pursuer. After 90 seconds of some highly entertaining aerobatics, this third gull managed to break free of her harriers. She flew to a far end of the pond, where I expected her to alight and have her well-earned snack in peace.

She did nothing of the sort. She got to the far end of the pond and—with the deliberateness of a grocery shopper returning a bruised apple to the basket—she dropped the object, which landed unceremoniously in the water 75 feet below. She flew back to her colleagues, alit on the water and proceeded to preen herself.

Like so many sentient animals, gulls are not slaves to their selfish genes. Theirs is not an unremitting, earnest struggle for survival, as some nature documentaries would have us believe. Gulls who soar and play tag are a triumph of emotions over genetics. They remind us of the whimsy of nature and the power of pleasure to add color to our days.

Monday, January 4, 2010


Since I discovered dinosaurs at age 8, it has been a lifelong fantasy of mine to travel back a hundred million years or so and explore the fauna and flora of a bygone era. Being a fantasy, I can have it on my own terms. I would be safely contained inside an invisible glass orb which hovered about as my mind’s desire directed it. If a stegosaurus drank at a waterhole a mile away, I would zoom over to it, silently. I would move in close enough to see the water reflected in its eye. I would listen to the exhalations between each sucking intake of water. I would reach out and feel the moist breath on my skin. A few minutes later I might be soaring with pterodactyls, or thundering across a grassland with a megatherium.

The new film Avatar brought me closer to living that fantasy than ever before. The film is set on another planet — lush with rainforest vegetation — where evolution has taken its own path to life forms no less splendid than those on Earth. We witness the wonderful turns Darwinian natural selection can take when organisms are subjected to different survival pressures through millennia. In addition to many intriguing plants, we meet up close at least a dozen vertebrate and invertebrate animal species. All are exquisitely rendered. The skin of the flying lizards is supple and vibrantly colored, and their four-winged layout as convincing as it is radical. Several of the land-bound beasts run and leap not on four but six legs, and they appear no less efficient for it. The domesticated equine-like beasts ridden by the natives breathe through a series of openings running up each side of the neck, reminiscent of an octopus’s siphons or the spiracles traversing a locust’s abdomen.

The film’s hero, Jake Sully, faces many perils and surprises as his avatar stumbles through this moist, tropical alien terrain. We glide voyeuristically alongside, taking in the visual majesty with the secure knowledge that nothing can harm us. So real is the scenery (enhanced by 3-D technology) that I found myself fully tensed, muscles primed for fight or flight, with each step Sully takes over a moss-covered log or under a massive fern frond.

Thankfully, there is a message to go with the entertainment value of this stunning visual feast. The story-line builds to a violent confrontation between the planet’s nature-loving Na’vi tribe, and an expedition of avaricious humans from whom the Na’vi are trying to protect their sacred homeland. One would have to be asleep not to draw parallels with the might-makes-right, colonial persecution and exploitation of native peoples (and animals) and their shrinking habitats on our own planet.

My enthusiasm was dampened somewhat by scenes of brutality towards animals by the Na’vi themselves, who hunt with arrows and kill for meat. The contrast between humans and Na’vis would have been more profound and poignant had the latter been shown to be animal-friendly to the point of not eating them. Also, there is a predictable emphasis on snarling, menacing animals bent on killing to eat. This is, after all, a Hollywood production. Still, one can hope that the film’s pro-environment message reaches audiences far and wide. After all, a film is just a fantasy, but it might provide inspiration and guidance for dealing with humankind’s real world shortcomings.