Saturday, January 31, 2009

Too Many Babies?

I find the media controversy over the recent octuplets interesting. At first, the news articles seemed to celebrate the multiple births of massive proportions. Then, when it was revealed that the mother had six existing kids aged 2 to 7, bringing her total to 14, media attention seemed to take a negative turn. Now the headlines focus on "the ethics" of having that many children. It probably does not help that the mother is unmarried and living at home with her parents. Her pregnancies were also all the result of fertility drugs and implanted embryos. According to her mother, "she was obsessed with having children since she was a teenager." Fifty years ago, having 14 kids probably was not that unusual, as big Catholic and Mormon families thrived. In today's world, we've downsized enough that 14 seems a nealry insane number of offspring.

I wonder if the same impulse that can cause someone to become a cat or dog hoarder can cause someone to have too many children. We haven't determined why or the cause yet, but there is some evidence that there is a genetic predisposition in certain people to become "crazy cat ladies." It could also be a form of mental disorder. While the cause is not yet known, the pattern is recognizable - someone acquires too many animals to care for them properly, convinced that they are doing a good thing and that only they can care properly for the animals. In reality, the facilities become filthy while the owner seems oblivious, and the animals end up breeding to excess, or simply not getting proper medical attention, food water and exercise. There are some really repulsive cases.

It would seem that the same impulses or genetic drivers could cause someone to take in or to have too many children. Hopefully they would be well cared for. It is certainly possible to have 17 kids all healthy and well cared for, as it is to have 17 animals healthy and well cared for, but it is perhaps more likely that when numbers get to a certain level, individual care and attention slack off and there are not enough resources to go around. I'm not saying that this mother of 14 has this particular problem, just pondering whether or not it is possible and related to similar "hoarding" of animals.

I'm also interested in the fact that there is some public outcry about one person having so many kids. I would love to see more public opinion swing towards fewer children. The world really does not need any more people. While it's a personal choice to have kids, for the past several generations having kids has been "the norm," and very "expected." Everyone asks when you're having kids if you're married, and it is generally thought of as "sad" if you don't. I think we would be better off if we valued adoption over procreation and focused on assisting those already on the planet and in need vs. breeding more humans. It's similar to adopting a pet from a shelter vs. buying from a breeder. While the biological impulse to reproduce may be palpable, as a species we can overcome our biological urges with reason and logic and choose not to have kids. In the developed world, with access to birth control, it is easy to choose not to reproduce. In the developing world, the choice is still not always present.

While there are literally thousands of children without relatives to care for them, without food or medical care or access to education, people spend thousands of dollars on fertility treatments to "have a kid of their own." Some say this is cheaper than adoption, which is very backwards indeed. I think it has more to do with wanting to have a piece of yourself in your child instead of taking in someone else's, but I'd like to think that we could overcome that mentality in time. Of course, it's a long way off - people still want to breed pets instead of spay and neuter, and that's less controversial than human reproduction. What is better for the planet and the existing population, as well as future generations, does not seem to be a primary concern when people want a puppy or a baby.

I hope I live long enough to see a societal shift, perhaps to the perception that adopting or not reproducing are favored. I was recently talking to a woman in her seventies about this issue and she said that when she was having kids in the 1960's there was a big push to have only two - to replace yourself and spouse - but that it was basically disregarded. She said that she loved babies and had them without particular thought to whether she could care for them well or whether it was responsible. She loves her 4 kids and would never regret having them but can also look back and admit it was a fully selfish choice with no real thought beyond what she wanted at the time. I thought it was very interesting she saw it that way.

In another conversation I had on the same subject in recent months, someone argued to me that it was selfish NOT to have kids because "one of them might cure cancer." I thought that missed the boat by a mile. As medical care increases, people live longer. We not only have far more people than ever before, but they stay on the planet longer - we don't have enough resources to support an ever increasing population. So bringing more people into the world on the chance that they can help everyone live even longer is sort of a negative on two levels. While we'd all like to eradicate disease, diseases have a valid purpose in population control of all species, including human beings. Now, the third world continues to have population limitations though disease and drought while the developed world does not.

I don't advocate the government taking control like in China and limiting the number of children born, but I do advocate more thought, debate and discussion on the subject of having kids. Bringing more people into the world is not necessarily a good thing, yet we continue as a society to expect it and celebrate it. Many people don't even contemplate the issue whatsoever, or belong to religions which still advocate "populate the earth" approaches and decry the use of birth control. Europe is actually starting to see population declines and has moved more towards favoring restraint over reproduction. It will be interesting to see how the debate in America evolves over the next 50 years.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Obama Puts Hold on Wolf Delisting

Obama has placed a hold on the decision to delist wolves in ID and MT, pending a legal review. See here. Certainly I think a legal review is in order so I'm glad to hear that. I certainly want someone outside the Bush administration to make the final decision.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Tiny Bit of Adorable

This picture is floating around the internet - and I'm not sure of the source. I doubt a cuter kitten photo was ever taken.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Duck Truck

Well, now, this is just cute! Do you suppose Frank is "truck trained?" If so, I wonder how that was accomplished. Hard to believe the man can still hunt other ducks though....and good for the dog who refused to hunt and started it all. (Nice that the man kept the dog, too...he must be a little soft hearted. )

Friday, January 16, 2009

Science in the Obama Era

One of the reasons I voted for Obama was his promise that he'd consult and rely on scientists in making decisions. Endangered species decisions, conservation policies, and environmental policies need to be determined in light of scientific evidence. So do food and drug decisions, and a host of other issues. One of the reasons I began to hate George Bush was his disgusting disregard for - and attempt to manipulate - scientific reports. Global warming is but one example. I believe science is the best tool we have for navigating many of the problems we face, and I am very hopeful that the Obama administration will make good decisions based on evidence instead of political or - worse - religious beliefs. Religious beliefs are fine on a personal level, even if bizarre, but I certainly do not want them shaping American public policy, and definately not at the expense of scientific evidence! An interesting article on this subject, and the problems we face with the public vs. science, is found here at

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bush's Legacy in Africa?

I found this BBC article on Bush policies in Africa very interesting. It points out a lot of positives the current administration has in African policies.

During the Bush administration, I traveled in Kenya more than once, and in Uganda, Rwanda, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Madagascar. I never once met anyone who liked President Bush. I was almost always asked about him, in every interaction with African people, even buying something at a shop or talking with a waiter. No one liked Bush, and they went out of their way to tell me that - and also to tell me they did not dislike Americans but liked them very much, just not our President. My last few trips, everyone knew about Obama and wanted to know what I thought of him. Everyone was optimistic but many people asked me if I thought America could have a black President. I was optimistic.

I found it interesting how much Americans knew about U.S. news and politics, vs. how little we know about their events and leaders most of the time. I also find it curious that amidst apparently "positive" U.S. policy, Bush was universally hated by every African I met.

During the Obama administration I plan to visit Tanzania, at a minimum. I am looking forward to seeing what the Tanzanian people have to say.

Here in the U.S., I'm assisting a refugee family from Burundi. They are still learning English, and can speak almost none. Yet they told me with great enthusiasm than Barak Obama will be President, and that he is a black man like them.

I share their enthusiasm. I will be very interested to see what this man, with Kenyan connections and a global perspective, does with African policy - as interested as I am to see what he does with U.S. domestic policy.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Our Idaho Wolves to Be Delisted

In it's last days, the Bush Administration plans to de-list wolves in Idaho and Montana, but not Wyoming, since Wyoming does not have a reasonable plan to do anything to guarantee wolves survive there (and the plan is to shoot them on sight). While this is good in that some of the areas around Yellowstone need wolves to be protected to prevent chronic wasting disease from hitting Yellowstone Park (among other things). There's an article in the Statesman on the issue here, and many more with a simple google search if you are interested.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Elephant & Leopard Dramas

I was lucky enough to meet a very interesting woman named Shivani on my last trip to Kenya. She is currently doing lion research in Samburu and has worked with Save the Elephants in the past. The two latest entries on her blog were very interesting stories about an elephant drama she watched and a surprising leopard she came across. I enjoyed both, and the photos, very much. Shivani is on the front lines of conservation and I continue to wish her the best.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Very Smart Dog!

A friend sent me this. Callie is smart enough to do this, if I would take the time to train her!

Chicken Popularity On the Rise

I admit....I really love having chickens. It will be a year next month since I first brought home two, and we now have 4, plus two in the living room which may join the flock if the chick turns out not to be a rooster. (Banned in the City). I am tempted by every Craigslist ad for chickens, but I want mine to have plenty of space and a good life and so I think 6 is a reasonable max unless/until we create a bigger space. And really, 4 keep me in eggs so I should not exceed that number I suppose.

Several things led to me getting chickens. I was always interested...but discouraged by those who said chickens are a lot of work, cleaning the coop sucks, the can have mites, they are messy, etc. I'm not a big bird person either. And, I hate eggs. I wanted them I think because they represent the farm/ranch lifestyle I want, and I thought it would be interesting to try the difference between fresh and store eggs. (The difference between market organic veggies and the store is staggering, so what about eggs? Yes, they are better!)

I always enjoy seeing chickens in Africa, and of course I was struck by the irony that I got halfway around the world to see endangered species and I find the chickens interesting too. I was in Madagascar and found a chicken stranded on an island with no fresh water and I shared mine, and watched the chicken, and was surprised to find I had just as much sympathy for it and concern as I would for a stranded dog or cat. Unfortunately I knew the chicken would get eaten sooner or later, and I had no way to save it, but at least I could make it more comfortable for a day.

I read a few books in which chickens featured, and their pros were touted. The final straw was an ad on Craigslist for an affordable coop that came delivered - so I could try out chickens without creating infrastructure. Of course, we upgraded before long, but it was a great way to start.

Today NPR has a story on the increasing popularity of chickens in urban areas, which I can well relate to. I have really enjoyed getting to know the birds, their language, etc. And, it's a great help towards veganism - I can honestly say I don't feel any temptation to eat chicken anymore. Afer all, when you have one in the living room, it just would feel wrong to eat one for lunch!!

If you are interested in giving it a try, is an interesting website. Also, you can find chickens on Craigslist that are sexed, which I would recommend over mail order chicks (not fun for the chicks!). Chickens make good pets. While cleaning the coop is kinda gross, not really any grosser than cleaning up when the dog has an accident, etc. Comes with the territory. Overall the biggest worry is protecting them from predators - every night there's fox and racoon that could get them, and hawks during the day. But I have them in the Ft. Knox of chickens and they are happy. I let them free range in the daytime, and I know that something could happen - but I can't deny them the happiness of getting out and scratching around, so I try and make it as safe for them as possible and then home for the best. Unlike the other pets, I literally wonder if the chickens are alive when I come to tuck them in after a few hours of free ranging, but so far - despite a few heart stopping moments - they come running when I whistle.

Friday, January 9, 2009

New Evidence on Cheetah Breeding

I love cheetahs - and I have found it exceedingly thrilling to find many of them in the wild. (This photo is of three brothers I came across in Namibia). They are stunningly gorgeous animals, but endangered and in a lot of trouble for many reasons. Among them: 1) cheetahs are the least powerful of the big cats, usually hunting by day, and often losing their kills to other predators before they have time to eat; 2) cheetah hunts can be disturbed by humans due to the fact that they hunt by day and tourists are out and about and can inadvertently interfere; 3) there was a genetic bottleneck which occurred some time ago and eliminated a lot of genetic diversity, making cheetahs more susceptible to genetic problems and less likely to bounce back or adapt to environmental changes or illnesses; 4) loss of habitat; 5) hunting by humans who view the cheetah as a threat to livestock. Captive breeding programs have not been very successful.

Female cheetahs have no regular reproductive cycles. New evidence has demonstrated that a special call from a male cheetah triggers ovulation in the females. Very cool! You can real a fascinating article about it here, and have a chance to hear a recording of the call. It may not sound like what you would expect. Cheetahs have nearly chirps for calls - and they also feel surprisingly rough, not fluffy. This discovery about a link between vocalization and ovulation could help with captive breeding. I would love to see this species survive and thrive!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Elephant's Best Friend

This is a great story and a great video about an Elephant and her dog, or a dog and her elephant as the case may be. Unfortunately their lifespans are unlikely to match up so the elephant is probably in for some heartbreak eventually. If you are not already familiar with The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, it is a cool place and a worthy charity to check out. They even let the elephants paint.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Book Recommendation: "I Married Adventure"

I love a good true adventure story that is well told. There is nothing better than a good book in front of the fire, curled up with some cats and dogs, especially when it's nice and snowy outside. So December was a good month to tackle this book, kindly loaned to me by the Boise Public Library since I am too cheap in this era of cost cutting to buy anything. I chose one of National Geographic's recommended top 100 adventure books.

"I Married Adventure" by Osa Johnson is the story of two kids from Kansas who travel the world. Martin Johnson is a very early photographer who takes a voyage with Jack London, films cannibals in the South Pacific, and embarks on a life of photography and adventure. Osa, his young wife, doesn't realize what she has signed up for at first but is just the type of woman who is up to the challenge, accompanying him on a wide variety of adventures.

The Johnson's encounters with cannibals are interesting to read about, and of course my favorite part of the book covers their adventures in Africa. I am always interested to read of how people found the same parts of Africa I've been to a hundred or more years before I saw them. In part, this is terribly sad - so many rhinos now gone, with almost every book containing tales of killing them. This particular tale is quite interesting on a number of levels because the Johnson's have no interest in killing animals, have a great respect for the natural world, and want to capture animals in their native environment. They are in unchartered territory though and so despite good intentions and a progressive philosophy for their time, they have a negative impact as well as a positive one. They have to kill meat for their crew of African porters, which they find distasteful, but learn to do. In their now known to be misguided efforts to get action films, they will sometimes flush out wildlife and when it charges in a way that is dangerous to them, or they startle an animal they are too close to, they kill it. This is a shame, and though they seemed to think so too, they did it more than once.

Also, their footprint was large - cars and stuff galore rather than the canvas tent approach. But, no doubt they were less of an impact that many modern operations, and they had no idea about the sensitivity of planing domestic crops in pristine wilderness, not feeding wild animals table scraps, etc. Many innocent mistakes were made, including taking in some wild pets under questionable circumstances. It is oh so easy to see how this could happen. Though they wanted to capture what was natural, in remote tribes of people and in animals, they often without appearing to realize it influenced the behavior of the people or animals so that what they got was not actually "natural." They did not stage things, but I don't get the sense they were aware of how much they altered them either. They did have guts and take risks though. (I would not film a pride of lions on foot 10 feet away, that's for sure).

On the plus side, their films and photos interested and captivated and educated and any motivation for people to respect the natural world is a great thing in my view. The story is a very interesting one and a good read. Osa had an adventurous life by any standards but especially for women in the early 1900's her life was most unusual indeed. Highly recommended if you like this sort of story.