Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

29 Aug 2011

Dr. Moreau & the Animal Activists

“To this day I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter. The study of nature makes a man at last as remorseless as nature” Dr Moreau

Published in 1896, H G Wells book ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ tells the tale of a stranded castaway, faced with the increasingly disturbing work of the said mad scientist, whose experiments in blood transfusion and vivisection have created a race of “beast-folk”. Whilst categorically a work of fiction, the book is clearly inspired by scientific progress at the time. Just take a trip to the Huntarian museum at Lincoln Fields Inn, London, where vials of formaldehyde contain the remains of a cockerel who when living had a human tooth grafted to his crest.

Wells himself trained as a biologist, studying under Huxley, whose work on evolutionary theory challenged the view of humanity as supreme beings separate from the rest of natural order (in addition to inspiring the more sinister branch of biological practice, eugenics). It is with this boundary pushing concept that ‘the scientist’ became fearful and mistrusted by many, in particular due to their meddling in God’s creation. Moreau joins Doctors Jekyll and Frankenstein in unleashing evil under the veil of furthering human understanding.

The position for justifying the use of animals in expanding our knowledge of the world has been that animals make no moral choices, and thus have no social contract. This response seems too clinical to really address the issue, which is one of the suffering caused. Utilitarian philosophy supposes that the seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain demonstrates that animals use reason to make choices and as rational beings should be eligible to rights. And yet, utilitarianism would also support the position that the loss of a few lab rats would result in “the greater good” of say curing ovarian cancer. 

Interestingly Locke argued against animal cruelty because of its effects on the perpetrator:  "For the custom of tormenting and killing of beasts will, by degrees, harden their minds even towards men." Dr. Moreau’s search for answers and continual slaughtering of animals makes him insensitive to the idea of bloodshed, till he has no qualms with killing humans who threaten his project.

Human emotion, opinion and our tendency to anthropomorphise (attribute human qualities to non-humans) can cloud a truly scientific view of our position amongst nature. The Nazi party passed the most comprehensive laws of animal protection for their time with the Tierschutzgesetz, but these effectively gave pigs more rights than Jews. A sea change in perceptions came in the 1960s and 70s, centred around Oxford where liberal scholars mixed with student activists. Ronnie Lee, a law student formed the anti-hunting group ‘Band of Mercy’, and following a year in prison after setting fire to a research lab, came out to establish the ‘Animal Liberation Front’. This organisation now has an international reach, breaking into labs, “rescuing” the animals and releasing them in “sanctuaries”. More recently however, a spate of death threats and letter bombs delivered through the doors of prominent scientists means that the ALF are now listed amongst terrorist organisations by the US Government. 

A step back is required to consider our place as consumers of resources within an ecological web. We will always rely on using natural resources to maintain our livelihoods, but we should aim for such extraction to be efficient, sustainable, and with a focus on welfare with no unnecessary suffering.

26 Aug 2011

Le retour du loup

A ribbon of blood leads through the flattened grass, before pooling below the corpse. The victim’s throat is missing, and savage scars stream up her flank. Monsieur Eric Anould regards the body with a mixture of distain and anger, before heaving a sigh, locking the gate and descending back to his farm in the village of Ventron. The April sun rises on the opposite side of the valley, evaporating the morning dew so that the characteristic ‘blue line’ of the forested Vosges Mountains appears. The following week, a further 5 victims are discovered nearby at Cornimont , displaying the same gruesome wounds, which lead the authorities to draw up a list of suspects. Since the attacks take place at night, that the killer targets the neck, and that the victims are partially eaten, it is concluded that the murders are the work of a large carnivoire; a rabid dog, an enraged hunting dog, a wild lynx or a wolf.

This is not the first time that a string of mysterious killings of sheep have occurred in the area; in the 70s “La bête des Vosges” is said to have stalked the forests. Whilst the real perpetrator was never discovered, murmurs in the local brasseries hinted at the return of the wolf. At the time, this conclusion seemed unlikely. Following a period of state encouraged persecution (100 Francs per pelt brought in), the wolf was tracked, trapped, poisoned and hunted to extinction by the early 1900s. Return to 2011, where the local press, encouraged like sharks by the splashes of blood describe the killer as “ferocious and determined”, and media frenzy occurs when the latest victim is revealed. Jean-Yves Poirot demands that action must be taken after his two month old foal is found dead at his ranch outside La Bresse. His father, who lost 21 sheep to “La bête” in 77 argues that today the perpetrator will be caught, with modern methods of surveillance and analysis. But so far, the killer has remained elusive, leaving no prints and the few hairs found at the scene of the crime are too damaged for DNA analysis.

A representative of the l’Office National de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage (the national bureau of hunting and fauna), referred to as the expert in tracking wolves and lynx is brought in, and in the month of July, the first picture taken from a remote sensing camera reveals what is almost certainly a wolf. A month later a second picture is taken in the forests above Gerardmer, this time from profile revealing the characteristic white face mask, confirming that Canis lupus has returned to the Vosges. But unlike an Agatha Christie murder mystery, the unmasking of the killer does not settle the matter. If anything the plot thickens. 

A week later a further 11 sheep are found dead on the Chaume de Sérichamps, the majority of whom were pregnant. Now that the perpetrator is known to be a wolf, the farmers are eligible to a subsidy from the state to roughly 250 € per sheep. But none is paid out for the unborn lambs, or to those mothers who will abort their young from fear. Furthermore, due to the protected status of the Wolf in France, there is nothing to stop further attacks. The shepherd of the latest attack responded: “We are ready to accept the many facets of nature, but we should have the right to defend ourselves against dangerous animals!” M. Poirot takes a different stance: “Everytime that a wolf arrives in our department, we must eliminate it so that it does not proliferate”.  But others argue that: “this would be pointless, even if we killed the wolf, more would arrive in autumn or the following year, it is just a question of time. We thus must equip farmers with ways to coexhist with these predators”.

A further kick in the teeth came for M. Poirot when 4 of his sheep were killed. The farmer told the press that “If a wolf loving green wants to buy my farm, I welcome his offer. He can deal with the beast. The financial aspect is really not the issue. Just imagine the stress I am under with these repeated attacks”. The stress began to show when he took matters into his own hands, returning the subsidy cheques sent to him by the council, and dumping the corpses of 3 of the sheep in a tourist car park to await collection by the incinerators: “I want people to really see what this wolf has done to my animals”. 

The wolf attacks in the Vosges have opened a barely healed wound, and emotions continue to run high. It is hard to see how such a conflict can be resolved, given that money according to M. Poirot is not the issue. All the information above was taken from reports by the L'Est Républicain newspaper

18 Aug 2011

Terra Incognita

Fawcett (holding the dog) and his team search for the source of the Rio Verde in 1908
Ego and curiosity has long driven explorers beyond the frontiers of civilization, reducing an intimidating blank space to a series of figures and diagrams. The rise of the Great White Explorer took place during the Victorian era, where oppressed by the social conservatism, men fled the gentility of their homelands to the wilds.  The enshrinement of these achievements by the Royal Geographic Society meant that these men left the gentle pastures not as conquistadors, but as scientists. This prestige also attracted bored industrialists with money and time on their hands, bolstering the glamorous image of exploration. These expeditions however, were no walk in the park. Hobbes accurately describes natural wilderness as a state of "no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all continual fear, and danger and violent death" (Leviathan, 1651).

Scott faced the blistering ice of Antarctica, Livingstone the wild beasts and tribes of deepest darkest Africa, and Fawcett the flesh consuming Amazon. All three eventually met their ends on expeditions, following long drawn out addictions of the unknown. Conrad described the fate of the perpetual geographer: "From North to South, East and West, conquering a bit of truth here, and a bit of truth there, and sometimes swallowed up by the mystery their hearts were so persistently set on unveiling". Speke, who fought to claim discovery of the source of the Nile against his rival Burton met his end not on the shores of Lake Victoria, but in Wiltshire from a self inflicted gunshot (suicide unknown). Many more lives were lost in the "Green Hell". 

Advances in sanitation, zoology and botany, and technological achievement mean that throughout the 20th century, the blank spaces became smaller. Our infiltration into the impenetrable continued to such an extent, that logging tracks now cut through the horizon spanning seas of green. Seen by many as the ultimate map of the World, Google Earth has shaken perceptions of our planet. Forty years after the photo of planet earth rising from the moon's shadow taken by the crew of Apollo 8, once again we are able consider our place on the planet, but also our influence on it. Google Earth outreach allows organisations to monitor changes occuring on the planetary surface over time, and is now used by organisations such as the UN Environment Programme to monitor deforestation. This ability to monitor large tracts of land simultaniously increases the scope and power of conservation organisations globally, allowing data to be generated in an instant ( once again reducing those intimidating blank spaces).

So where to next? Alpha Centuri, according to Carl Sagan (I love an Optimist):

15 Aug 2011

Where the Wild Things Are

Like generations before them, children today are just as enraptured by tales of escaping to the wild, and books of the 'babes in the wood' style continue to hold a fascination for me. Lord of the Flies by William Golding, The Beach by Alex Garland, The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux are amongst my favorites of the genre. But it is 'Where the Wild Things Are' by Maurice Sendak, which I returned to time and time again as a child, and to Max escaping his bedroom rage to take a boat to an island where a Minator-esque figure awaits. Since its publication in the 1960s the book has forged its place in popular American culture, inspiring cartoons, a live action film and even an opera. Patrick Watson's ode to the book captures the escape across the sea,  the mischievous 'Rumpus', but also the allure of wildspaces.

12 Aug 2011

Cape Wrath & Farewell

My 500 mile coach trip finishes by winding its way round the deep lochs and windswept rocks of Cape Wrath, on the North-Western tip of mainland Scotland. I am here to visit my friends Phil Knott and Jenny Grant, Scottish Wildlife Trust rangers on the island of Handa. The ferry boat heads to the southern shore fringed with seaweed strewn rocks, before turning into a cove, where a white powder beach appears. Crossing heathland, the gradient climbs and the sea breezes become more pronounced. The sting of ammonia in your nostrils, and the shrieks and calls reach you before the ground tumbles towards the sea, and the view out to the horizon is obscured by thousands of pairs of wings. Thus is revealed the importance of the island as a breeding and nesting colony for Puffins, Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Fulmars and Giant and Arctic Skuas.

Phil counts guillimots on Handa's Great Stack
The SWT manage the island as a nature reserve, eradicating introduced rats in 1997, inviting tourists to view the colony, and studying the breeding populations each summer. In May, the roost sites of parents along the cliffs are noted, and the fledging of chicks is monitored until the nests are empty by mid September. Data collected this year revealed that productivity is up on previous years. However, long term results show that the numbers of seabirds on the island are declining. This trend is thought to be driven by changes in the Climate. A rising sea temperature has driven glass eel populations towards cooler polar waters, leaving the coasts of Scotland devoid of a food source not only for seabirds, but also for the Cod which has sustained the local economy.

Climate Change is an issue which has captured our global community in recent years, given its fatal predictions for our future livelihoods. Daily reports of rising sea levels, cataclysmic extinctions, and predicted climate refugees filled the newspapers in the lead up to the COP15 talks in Copenhagen in 2009. But alongside this ran the inevitable politic of international governments, fraudulent academia and forced guilt of the green NGOs so that by the time the wave of publicity had subsided, the general public were left with a bitter taste of patronising rhetoric in their mouths. The gargantuan challenge of facing up to our impact on the climate remains, and whilst progress is being made, most people understandably prefer the "ignorance is bliss" approach.

In 2001, just as the issue was beginning to boil over, artist David Buckland created the Cape Farewell project, a collective of scientists, artists and communicators who aim to bring about long term cultural attitudes towards climate change. The collective takes part in regular expeditions to collect scientific data on the shrinking of the icecaps and other receding habitats, with invited artists (including Rachel Whiteread, Daro Montag) musicians (Feist, Jarvis Cocker, Martha Wainwright) and writers (Ian McEwan, Vikram Seth, Yann Martel) to culturally reflect on the changes in the landscapes. The video piece above accompanied a live choral performance at the Eden Project, created by Beth Derbyshire and Cape Farewell, with the aim of exploring nations, landscapes and identities soon to be lost as the ice melts.

Like me, this years expedition headed north to the highland isles on a marine mammal research vessel, in order to explore the impact of climate change on island cultures and ecologies, and investigate stewardship projects which are revitalising the relationship between communities and their contexts.You can find out more on their website. The use of art to create a cultural shift in attitudes to the loss of habitats such as the Scottish islands represents a brave attempt to engage the wider public, who may otherwise be sick of institutionalised spoon feeding.

1 Aug 2011

My Life with the Gastropoda

At the beginning of this blog, I set out to explore how the natural world is perceived by different people, before seeing how this relationship can be put to good use in protecting threatened nature. This exercise is proving more and more challenging, if not captivating, given its huge scope. Furthermore, I have come to realise that my own perceptions are not static, but have changed dramatically over time. Earlier this week, as I rolled my bike out of the shed, I ran over a garden snail (Helix aspersa) with my back tyre. After shedding a tear, and setting off, I pondered over my long line of gastropod encounters. Now sure, snails are pretty innocuous, sedate... frankly pretty boring creatures given a choice. But that in itself shows just how such a small component of nature can illicit such a range of human responses. To illustrate below, I outline my life with the Gastropoda, spanning generations, continents and cultures.

Peter, Julian and Jonny, Pond dipping in the Peak District
So here I am in the middle, aged 7 or thereabouts with my best friends Peter and Jonny after a pond dipping session at primary school (thinking about it, we had probably caught some pond snails). At a subconscious level, this was probably pretty influential in my future life outlook, but at the surface was more of a piss around. The three of us spent a lot of our childhood messing around outside, whether down in the woods behind my house making dens, or running across the Lindow peat bogs with bb guns. I think as a child, we crave large spaces and the outdoors more as an escape from the confines of a classroom, as opposed to being drawn to nature. Anyway, mollusk memory #1 is of a sleepover at Jonnys house. As usual, after a light rain and being confined indoors, we 'pegged it' (local slang at the time for running) out the back door and into his garden in our socks. Because it was dark, we failed to notice that the lawn was covered in post-rain slugs (Arion ater), until I stood on one. I think before now, slugs had only ever come up in my radar when my mum put down pellets to stop the little bastards from eating her lettuce. So I had no qualms when Jonny ran inside to grab the Tesco economy pot of salt, which we proceeded liberally to apply, so that their little bodies fizzled and burst like sausages.

Mustapha, Number 1 seller of snails at D'jemaa el-Fnaa, Marakesh, Morocco
Mollusk memory #2 also consists of applying seasoning to the little blighters. My mother is french, and my father is a trained chef who would quite happily eat a horse (already has). And so it flows that the starter for our Christmas dinner most years is snails (Helix pomatia) in garlic butter with parsley, baked in their shells in the oven, before being eaten with cocktail sticks. Delicious, although I think the appeal is mostly the garlic butter which is soaked by your hunk of baguette. Later in life, whilst travelling in Morocco with my mate Rob, I had a hearty bowl of snail soup which tasted like soil, tarnishing my idea of snails as a delicacy.

Aged 16, rather than teenage rebellion, I performed my first scientific study on Dog whelks (Nucella lapillus) on coast of Anglesey, North Wales, as part of my A-level in Biology. This was my window to the world of ecological study (besides counting rabbit shit on my grandparents farm in Scotland, and noting in down in a book aged 6), and the time that the idea formed in my mind that "work" didn't need to be performed sat in an office or classroom, but could be outdoors. Mollusk memory #3 was a life shaper for me, not sex or alcohol, but a week in a cagoule measuring snail shells.
Patrick and Doncaster, with a small snail in the middle for comparisson.
Fast forward to university now, where thankfully my lifeshapers were a bit more exciting than a wet beach. Enter Professor John Allen, my lecturer in Evolution who has spent the majority of his life amongst other things travelling the world to better understand the mechanisms of evolution by examining the morphology of snail species. How come a variety of morphs are able to exist in single populations, given that natural selection will act to favour the morph which is most beneficial? This question applies not only to snails, but to life the world over. Sure a snail is small and inconspicuous, but is precisely this which makes them easy to study. After one of Prof. Allen's Evolution lab sessions, my friends smuggled out a pair of baby Giant African Landsnails (Achatina fulica). And so Mollusk memory #4 was receiving 'Patrick' and 'Doncaster' (named after our statistics lecturer, Patrick Doncaster) in a plastic box for my 21st Birthday. My girlfriend at the time voiced no objections, but my housemate described the new residents as "Disgusting".

The snail hunters; James, Julian and Jade
My final Mollusk memory (#5) takes place just over a year ago. After graduating, Professor Allen selected me along with two other students to head to Eastern Uganda for just over a month in order to study polymorphism in a streaked landsnail (Limcoria martensiana). Our first week was spent desperately crossing fields, scrambling down hills, and speaking with local land owers to ask for permission to look on their land for the elusive species. "Ningomsa ekitindinda ekiri omokadju" - We are looking for snails with shells (in the local Rutooro tongue a snail is a slug with a shell). Now, imagine yourself a subsistence farmer, with a plot of land covered in plantain, groundnut and sweet potato groves. Suddenly you are faced with three white foreigners covered in mud, demanding to be shown snails. Occasionally, we were met with howls of laughter, before being asked to pay for such a service. But often, we were welcomed onto their plots and eventually we were able to collect data.

A crater lake, home to snails
One day, we accompanied Jotham Bamakuti, a local entemologist on one of his routine sampling expeditions to the nearby craterlakes. Jotham worked for the Fort Portal vector control unit, whose job was to prevent outbreaks in parasites within the local community. Like my trip with Jonny and Peter all those years ago, we descended to the lake in order to collect some fresh water snails. But this occasion was far more sombre, since the snail in question was Biomphalaria choanomphala, which carries the Schistosomiasis parasite. The parasite causes a chronic illness which damages internal organs, resulting in impaired growth and cognitive development in children, and in some cases mortality. A recent study had found that 50% of children in the local schools were infected with the disease. We potted the samples, and headed back to the car, on the way avoiding a gin soaked rasta who sported a necklace around his neck with a snailshell pendant.

So there we have the humble mollusc: Pest, Delicacy, Subject of Evolutionary Research, Killer and for me Life Changer. Each experience held a new meaning and changed the way that I viewed the small creatures and their place in the world.