Harambe, a 17-year-old gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by Cincinnati Zoo. 

Harambe, a 17 year old western lowland gorilla,  was going about his usual business in Cincinnati Zoo when a 4 year old boy was able to get through a barrier and fell into the enclosure with him.  What ensued was obvious panic from the mother but also from all those that were watching, with lots of shouting and screaming, and a 4 year old was left in a precarious position.  The situation that ended with the death of Harambe, the worldwide unification of grief over his death and the vilification of the parents via the great social media.

What is so upsetting to most is that he was as defined by the IUCN Red List as a critically endangered species since 2007.   Because of civil war, Ebola and hunting, some areas have had a decrease of up to 90%.  Harambe was a gorilla that had been raised in captivity to help carry on the species through the captive breeding program.  Cut down in his prime, due to a child finding his way into the enclosure.  There have been calls that the child should have been left to be killed or that the mother should be executed, that the parents should lose custody of their kids; the parents are now being investigate by the police.           I find it amazing how differently people treat these parents to that of a certain toddler left on her own in an apartment in a foreign country that was never seen again.  There have been people eager to shout it was wrong that a species that is over populating the planet took precedence over one that is on the brink.  Further, there have been calls speaking out against humanity for allowing such an iconic animal to be in a ‘concrete prison’.

As much as I am angry that such a beautiful creature died, I’m glad the child was safe because the alternative would have been much much worse for the future of conservation efforts and zoos.  Should the parent/s been more watchful, yes.  But then we weren’t there,  the parent had other children they were dealing with when the child got through the fencing.  It’s easy to levy blame when we only have a limited view as to what actually happened.   Shouldn’t we also be questioning how it was that a child was able to climb through?  This is not the first time a child has found it’s way into a gorilla enclosure;  one only needs to search the internet for Jambo in 1986, or Binti Jua in 1996.  So why in 2016 are these enclosures still not being made ‘idiot proof’ so that they protect seriously endangered animals from human children that don’t know better and parents that take their eye off the ball?  It’s all very well to see so called experts saying Zoo’s aren’t babysitters, nobody really expects them to be, but they ARE responsible for the animals in their charge and should be protecting them from these events by installing adequate barriers.  If from what I read is correct a 3 foot barrier with gaps is hardly what I would class as adequate with a class A mammal (these include gorillas, tigers, lions, bears).    That was an accident tragedy waiting to happen.

There are lots of reports saying that Harambe was trying to protect the child, I have since read reports that https://www.facebook.com/plugins/post.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Famanda.odonoughue%2Fposts%2F1203379586363094&width=500“>refute this or say we simply don’t really know what his motives were, but that if nobody had done anything that child’s death was a very likely outcome.  One thing everyone agrees on is that the clambering of people shouting and screaming would have made Harambe distressed.  He was dragging the child around, which may have been posturing, it may also have been trying to pull the child away from the screams.  Either way, that’s a concrete moat, filled with water.  Hardly something a human child could cope for long with, as primates go we are a pretty flimsy species. They tried to lure him but he wasn’t interested, he had the child which was apparently all he was interested in.  I’m glad they didn’t try and tranquillise him as that may have made the situation ten times worse.  His already agitated state could have been exacerbated.  The other cases of where children have fallen in with gorillas had different outcomes, but the gorillas acted differently too.  Just as no two humans are the same, neither are gorillas.   I wish the area had been cleared of spectators, to help lesson the tension that was mounting.  In those last few minutes of Harambe’s life, the keepers and experts were the ones who had to gauge how dangerous his behaviour was, and how best to manage that danger.  I do believe that the call to shoot Harambe wouldn’t have been an easy one, from what I know keepers often form close bonds to these animals.

Even though I feel the zoo should take the lion-share of the responsibility here, I really hope the backlash I am seeing online doesn’t affect the zoo and the important conservation work of zoo’s worldwide.  It is easy for someone to stand behind a computer or in a picket line and say wild animals should not be cages, I used to be one of these.  The saying about ‘a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing’ really does apply here, when you look further into it you realise the situation is far more complex.  And yes in a perfect world no animal would ever be imprisoned in a man made habitat. But we are not living in a perfect world.  Far from it.  We screwed up that a long long time ago, and without the work of zoo’s in captive breeding programs we would likely have said good bye to many species by now.  Even if you don’t like it, what they do is help preserve species in the hope that their natural habitats can be protected and extended so that they can live on.   But they can’t do that without visitors, the visitors bring in much needed money to help keep these animals, to build enriched environments for them.  Lets face it how many governments are going to be happy to pay in, and, how many of the average tax payers would be happy to pay an extra ten pounds or so out of their wages to keep them?  There is also the fact that we as humans often don’t care about things we don’t see…out of sight out of mind.  If you have animals where people can go and visit and learn about them, they are more likely to want to donate and do better ecologically for them.

As for the parents and child in this situation, I’m deeply worried for them.  Their pictures and names have been blasted over the internet.  I can’t even begin to imagine what life will be like for that little boy.  We were all little once, we were all little shits once too.  But he witnessed an animal being shot in front of him, that is going to have a big impact on that child.   He will grow up to have that hanging over his head, that he was the reason Harambe died.  Imagine one of your dumb mistakes as a 4 year old forever haunting you.    His parents too will live with it.  But I dare any parent to say they watch their kids 100% of the time, that they don’t have accidents, they don’t do stupid dangerous things.  To say things like the child should’ve been allowed to die as we are over populating the earth is just so naive.    The ramifications of such an act would be catastrophic to zoo’s around the world and to conservation, not to mention that animal would’ve been shot anyway.  We can blame the parents and the zoo, and with the virtue of social media, turn it into a witch hunt.  Relying on tiny snippets of third hand information.  Will it bring Harambe back?  No.

We should make a concerted effort to learn from this, making sure that it never happens again.  We should visit zoo’s and campaign for better enclosures and enrichment, by raising money and awareness.   It is my hope that the death of Harambe raises further awareness of the plight of his species. That it highlights that none of us are guilt free when it comes to their situation or any other endangered creature.  That it empowers us to learn how we can help to alleviate the suffering of these creatures, be that recycling our mobile phones, using sustainable resources, not being so quick to throw things away but to reuse.  And to donate where possible to charities that work to help educate people from the area to not hunt these animals for food or to destroy the habitats.

Too many deer, not enough venison.

The mighty stag with his six tined antlers is a majestic sight to behold.  The embodiment of strength and beauty, regal in every way is this King of the forrest.  So much so that he is featured in Disney films and in the case of the red deer even the tines have regal names, such as sur-royal and crown.  In his prime a red deer stag could also be called a royal stage if he has 12 points, a monarch if he has 13 or more and an Imperial if he has 14 or more.  Go out on a frosty early morning and see a heard of deer or a stag in the distance and they have an almost ethereal appeal.  But is there ever a time when a good thing is too much?


The United Kingdom is home to 6 species of deer, two of which are native; red deer (Cervus elaphus) and roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) are the native deer whilst fallow (Dama dama), muntjac (Muntiacus reevesi), Chinese water (Hydropotes irmensis) and sika  (Cervus nippon) are non-native.   Recent reports in various media outlets suggest that the numbers have risen sharply to the detriment of the countryside, and this can be somewhat backed up by data from recordings held by the National Biodiversity Network.

Red deerroe-deer-5220fallow_deer_1muntjacchinese water deerSika


The species from left to right on each line are red deer, roe deer, fallow deer, muntjac deer, Chinese water deer and sika deer.


The Forestry Commission states that species such as fallow deer are so difficult to count that it’s almost impossible to get an accurate number of how many there are but that they must be in their tens of thousands, whilst they estimate that roe deer must exceed 500,000 in number.  The Telegraph reports that the introduced muntjac has increased in number by 181%.  The NBN gateway (National biodiversity network gateway) shows similar trends with the recordings.

So what do the records show us? Red deer and Sika data are very similar in that they rise sharply during the period of the 1990’s and although still high in the 2000’s their recorded numbers are somewhat less. The British Deer Society tells us that these two species readily interbreed, this means that their numbers may well be falling for each individual species although growing in general. Muntjac records were up to nearly 7,000 during the period of 2000 to 2009, and in the period 2010 to 2013 the records are approximately 1,500 which is greater than the whole period of the 1980’s. Chinese water deer, fallow, and roe deer follow a similar pattern to the muntjac where their numbers seem to be steadily increasing with a sharp rise around the 2000’s. There are several factors that could be contributing this, but one of the most likely would be the increase of woodland cover over recent years. This coupled with milder winters, and better animal corridors this makes it more favourable for deer species. Add to this the fact we do not have any natural predators for the deer on this Island since the 1700’s when the last wolf was shot, and many years before that the Eurasian lynx was hunted to extinction; it becomes glaringly apparent that with all the food available their numbers are bound to increase with nothing to check the population.

Muntjac graph

Muntjac graph

With an unchecked population comes various problems, such as decreased welfare of the deer, increased risk of transmission of tick born diseases such as lime disease and tick born encephalitis as deer are known for carrying ticks. Some diseases can also be transmitted to livestock via an ever moving herd of deer. This doesn’t even take into consideration the knock on effect on the ecosystem of an unchecked population. Flora from the smallest plants to the trees and their new shoots and bark, to arable crops can be vulnerable to deer attacks. The deer are not the only species that rely on the vegetation that they consume, invertebrates, other herbivores such as rabbits and hares may suffer from a lack of ground flora, and then there are the animals that rely on the vegetation for camouflage to help them escape predation. However this all then has the effect of lessening the number of predators in the area as there are less prey species to eat. Eventually it can drive out many species from a woodland. The National Geographic ran a story on ‘Wolf Wars’and used this info-graphic in their story that shows how devastating deer can be if populations continue to grow.


So what can be done to help to ease the situation? Culling has to take place if we do not re-introduce natural predators. However this will not be an easy task as these are so numerous, and they are very beautiful creatures that the general public will care about more than the rare primrose, or the habitats for a caterpillar species being destroyed. Our love of mammals and especially these creatures is exceptionally evident in our society. How much venison is there ever sold in any supermarket. If a national cull programme was put into place we could use the meat to flood the market and drive down prices, especially if celebrity chefs were to be convinced to do a drive on using this meat which is actually good for us. There is also something that is quite reassuring knowing that the meat on your plate had a good life, was roaming free and wasn’t miserable in an intensive farming environment. Deer stalking could help increase job sectors across the board, shooting itself is already multi-billion pound industry, it could be expanded. This could also increase the market of things like antlers, skins etc too. In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to shoot these animals but we have already upset the balance, and these animals and others will suffer if they are not brought back under control.

Ultimately the ideal situation is one where we could have a natural predator taking down some of these animals too, whilst continuing to increase our woodland areas so that all species can benefit.

Reflective blog

Part of my module for Communications for Conservation is to make a reflective blog; this will highlight where I have grown skills and enable me to revisit areas of learning.

17th March 2014

This is my first posting for this particular item.  It is my aim to review this at least weekly and to repost after each review.  This is now week six with six more teaching weeks to go.  So far I have learned how to use Skype mainly for conversations with family as had just used other video calling software before, and have used a Adobe Connect.  We have had webinars on various aspects of communication from using social media to targeting the right audience.

I have blogged before using Blogger but wanted to create a new space for this module and for it to be more conservation based.  I have created this wordpress blog account and have published 4 blogs, this being my fifth.  I have learned how to insert links into this account on blogs and am using them more frequently to help build a better picture for the reader.

I have completed two formative assessments, marks are as yet unknown for each piece, although I do not feel very confident about the second assessment as I am not sure the graphs were right, or showed the level of detail required.

I already had a Facebook and Twitter account, both of which I have used for some time, the former being far more used than the latter.  I am using Twitter far more frequently now and have relinked it to my Facebook page so that I can use it as a catch all for the tweets I send out.  I have increased my Twitter followers by just over 70 so that I have over 550 followers. I aim to tweet original material or relevant news at least twice a day, and retweet others a couple of times a day from now on.  I also have tumblr and instagram accounts which I should use more to help promote any conservation messages/images.

I am now one of the FST bloggers and am now on the CCF committee as one of their communication managers and one of their social media managers. I hope to launch a twitter account for CCF this week.

Since when does wanting to conserve a species make you a nazi?

In a world where wildlife crime is becoming ever more lucrative, how do we address someone who wants to take a stand against it?  Is there any way of tackling the ivory trade that is workable?

In this country it seems that we are happy to lump our future King in with the Nazi’s and the Taliban. His crime?  He apparently told Dr Jane Goodall that he’d like to see the royal collection of ivory destroyed.  However this is all here say as this wasn’t an official statement from him.  Since then there has been an outcry by art critics, historians and antique collectors about his ludicrous suggestions.  But is this really fair?

The royal family has amassed a collection of over 1,000 pieces of ivory over the years.  Most were gifts from other countries and includes Queen Victorias Ivory Throne that she sat on for her coronation and a painting of Queen Elizabeth II as a child.  These are argued, quite rightly that they represent times in history, times that accepted the distraction of an animal for the collection of an item that could be turned into a piece of art, or a functional item that could be used.  It is a reminder of our riches, our empire and our greed; the best and worst of our past when it comes to our casual usage of animals for our own gain.

The royals are not the only owners of ivory, it is seen in museums and various places of antiquity up and down the country. But why stop at destroying just ivory, why not destroy pelts, many of the taxidermy collections, various pieces of jewellery that are in both public and private collections?  I feel that the labelling of Prince William as being akin to a Nazi or a member of the Taliban is a bit extreme, but I do think ‘if’ he said these things he hasn’t given it the full force of forethought.  I really do not think destroying ivory collections will do a damned thing to stop illegal poaching, but in a counter productive way, actually push up the price making hunting animals for their ivory and the trading of such being so much more lucrative.  One only has to think about the thefts and attempted thefts of museum collections of ivory.  However it could be argued that keeping the stockpiles, particularly in areas where corruption could be rife in poor countries, that those in charge of the stockpiles may well illegally trade bits at high prices.  Neither would flooding the market with the stockpiled ivory stop the illegal trade, as again this could actually cause more poaching, as more people buy it and want it as a commodity.

So what is the answer?  Is there ever going to be an end to this barbaric trade?  Ivory isn’t a new fad, it’s been used for millennia, and not just from elephants but from other mammals tusks and teeth; it’s the precursor to what most of our plastic piano keys etc were made of, containing dentine it was at one point the preferred material for sculptors and for dentures.  It’s durability (even being good for electronic components), beauty and more so it’s rarity to be just for the upper classes making it so expensive is the driver for the trade.  Today, ivory is mainly bought in China, but also sold to unknowing tourists in Africa and other countries such as Thailand and it’s then made into a variety of items such as combs, chopsticks and probably many more decorative items than that.  If destroying the ivory doesn’t stop the end of the poaching, and the jail sentences doesn’t stop it, or the flooding of the market, then what?  Legalising the killing of the elephants for ivory is not likely to happen, these animals cannot be farmed in the sort of numbers needed and as the numbers are declining so fast it’s gone beyond that point.  Plus there is the waste of a life of an animal for one piece of it… not like the killing of cow for example where most of it’s body will be used for meat and other things.  The Chinese market is the biggest, and has grown with the increasing riches of the country with a booming upper middle class that have expensive taste.  But China is also know for its adoration of western culture, particularly it’s celebrities like film stars, singers and footballers; rather than trying to force bans that don’t seem to be plugging the huge gaping hole that is ivory trade, why not make it unfashionable to buy it by using clever advertising from western celebrities?  Lets face it, the older people you are probably not going to change their perception of ivory being a status symbol, but with younger more impressionable people you just might stand a chance. That with better education on where ivory comes from, how it is sourced and why it’s immoral to buy it and how to spot it if you are a tourist on holiday could stem to flow.

His Royal Highness, may not have the best answer to the crisis, but at least he recognises that there is one and is willing to go to some lengths to highlight the plight of the elephants and other animals stricken by the human greed for ivory, and I for one applaud him for that.  I would also encourage others to rather than dismiss him and his ideas, to get him on board as he is one of the new ‘celebs’ that many people around the world will respect just for being who he is and if he can help stop one elephant from being killed just by making it unfashionable then it is an avenue that for those truly interested in long term conservation strategies should explore.

Japanese whaling and whaling in general – separating the facts from the fiction in media.

Killing any animal in the name of science is an emotive issue.  It can illicit severe reactions from the general public  and always entices the view of the media that produce provocative images.  Whilst these can be useful to get a conservation message out to the general public such as used by the WWF or Flora and Fauna International, it can also be used to politicise issues such as those surrounding the killing of zoo animals when they are not needed for the gene pool.   It can also become desensitising, as we become more and more bombarded by such images.  As the whaling season ends at the end of this month, one will have seen lots of images of the whaling by the Japanese on the television, in the newspapers and in social media, and thus has to question some of the issues of whaling and how it is viewed by us the public, and controlled if at all by those within the International Whaling Commission (IWC).  Japan has continued it’s normal schedule of scientific whaling, whilst Iceland has announced it will increase it’s whale catch in 2014, with minke whales being hunted increasing by 6%.  They will be selling the meat to Japanese commercial markets, however whilst both Icelandic and Japanese residents will consume the meat there is a growing number against it, and the numbers of those consuming the meat are dwindling.  

All marine mammals including whales are protected by  CITES (Convention on International Trading in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and the IWC.  However under loopholes  and  allowances for such things as aboriginal hunting within the regulations imposed by the IWC countries such as Japan and Iceland have  interpreted  these regulations and used them under the auspices of ‘scientific whaling‘.  Under these allowances hunting may be carried out for the study of whales and the effect of the marine environment on them; Japan has published quite a lot of scientific papers on the study of whales, particularly those of the Mysticetes and in particular the family Balaenopterdae within their JAPRA/JAPRA II program.  However when looking at these papers many of them are the study of the migratory patterns, fertility, abundance and feeding behavious; some are concerned with genetics and other aspects but the majority of the tests carried out were via lethal methods rather than taking samples of live whales.  Also the majority was carried out by Japanese scientists rather than foreign.  What is interesting when looking at the journals is the number of L-J journals, which denotes the whales were killed by Japanese scientists, that could have been done possibly without the need of lethal means such as population monitoring and segregation; with these one has to question whether simple counts would suffice. The Japanese can also explain why they are able to sell the whale meat as under scientific whaling it is expected that whales  ‘shall so far as practicable be processed and the proceeds shall be dealt with in accordance with directions issued by the Government’.  This causes many people confusion until you actually read the guidance on the IWC pages, and this is seldom mentioned in media outlet.  Infact I would expect most scientists would actually argue that if you are going to kill an animal it is probably the best outcome for the meat to be used and not wasted, however there is media speculation that there is a lot of offal and discard of whale meat going back into the ocean.  This is also not taking into consideration the possible toxic overload of whale meat of things such as mercury and organochlorines, particularly in the case of odontocetes such as dolphins and other toothed whales but also to a lesser extent in the mysticetes such as minke whales.  Distinctions also need to be made for public accessibility on what aboriginal hunting means such as is done in the Faroe Islands, it’s certainly not pretty and maybe could be done better but it isn’t commercial hunting nor is is it scientific in any way shape or form and as such the media should display these facts without misrepresentation that draws parallels with the dolphin drives in Japan.

More recently in 2006 Iceland declared that they were commercially hunting whales because they had reservations about the ban that was imposed on hunting whales.   Whales that are taken can involve endangered species such as fin whales Baleanoptera physalus as well as those of least concern on the IUCN Red List such as minke whales Balaenoptera acutorostrata.  Norway and Iceland are the only two members of the IWC that commercially hunt whales, whilst Russia is the third country to launch and objection to the moratorium on whaling, although they do not act on it.  All other members of the IWC are bound to the moratorium, but it seems that any one in that group can launch an objection and not be bound.   This is where as someone interested in conservation I cannot understand how this can even be allowed, and where any thing can actually be done to stop harvesting of endangered animals.  I can as a scientist justify taking a small portion of mammals for testing of mercury levels, but many of these do not necessarily need to be slaughtered for those reasons.  I can reason with the justification of aboriginal hunting, however commercial hunting seems crude at best when the majority of those people from Japan and Iceland do not eat this meat.

However, it is important that to be taken seriously on this issue we use facts and figures of what is happening with the whales, why we need to capture some and test and even more so if they are to be killed, and to only use the provocative, emotive stances when we are absolutely sure that the reasons for the whaling are not justified and not for things such as the Faroe Island hunts; as this is not helpful to the cause of conservation in the long run.

Maybe the government should employ scientists to do scientific jobs


As a fresh faced 19 year old I had places at university to read English language and political history, both subjects that I am really quite passionate about and both that I felt ‘safe’ in doing.  I loved art, I love drawing and painting but never took exams and felt very self-conscious about my lack of training.  I loved science, especially biology but due to a variety of reasons I didn’t study it at A level let alone degree level.   I didn’t take my university place up as I decided to stay in my home town and get married and have babies, not realising at the time I could have realistically done both.  It took till I was 36 to start my degree in a biology based subject, with the aim that eventually my qualifications will lead me into a job where I use what I have learned.  I know skills are transferable and that there are many skills you can carry over by being a mother in to jobs where organisational skills are required.  I’ve held jobs such as barmaid, sales assistant, tutor, development worker, manager and everything in-between.  But one thing I have really learned in the last four years is that when doing a job that requires scientific knowledge, you really do need some training on it.  It’s not something that one can easily just run with and blag their way through.  However when it comes to science, that is exactly what our government seems to do; remember BSE and the politician feeding his child a beef burger?
Lets take the situation with the bovine tuberculosis eradication program in the UK.  I read the news yesterday that Bovine Tuberculosis (BTB) had fallen 24% in Wales following a vaccination program.  24% may not seem big to you, but believe me, that’s huge, especially when you compare it to Englands figures, who haven’t got the vaccination program and who piloted culls against badgers Meles meles in an attempt to stop herd infections.  The figures of infections were over exaggerated, like the original counts of how many badgers there were.  Whilst unsurprisingly this hasn’t made headline news in most tabloids, it certainly made news on the Ecologist and in the Independent.  It also seems apparent that whist Wales had a dramatic drop in their number of non-OFT (number of ‘not officially free from tuberculosis herds’), Scotland too had a drop from 35 o 24 herds, but England actually had an increase of 1.7%.   Is this sheer coincidence, or could this be that DEFRA who gave out these false figures and gave licence to this cull under leadership of Mr Owen Patterson, should have listened to scientists who said a cull like this would most like serve to spread the infection?  Badgers are territorial animals… clear a set and you have widened another families territory. Should we be shocked at this?  I think we should but undoubtedly we won’t be as this will not be the first time figures have been mixed up.  However, this is DEFRA, these are the people who deal with the biosecurity of our food etc.  These are the people who are supposed to be keeping tabs on the environment, the livestock in case of spread of infections and so many other things.   Yes it’s a government organisation, but you’d hope it would be one that was on top of it’s game.  It should be after all, it’s a scientific thing isn’t it?  Well maybe not.  Mr Owen Patterson, the Secretary of State for environment, food and rural affairs is no scientist. He is an historian and leather salesman.  When this man is quoting that the Bovine TB crisis is going to cost the UK £1billion, did he think to really check the figures.  Did he even really seriously consider that the scientists may be right?  How much did this pilot cost and how much are we now going to pay for the 1.7% increase of TB?  Why did DEFRA not publicly apologise for selling the public false figures.  Why did they chose to go ahead when all the scientific information showed this was not the best idea. These are questions I want answered.  These simple observations that a cull of what is normally a protected native species without thorough scientific grounding and without accurate statistics, and all at a cost to the tax payer is to me extremely shocking.

This brushing off of science seems to be becoming entrenched.  This is something I don’t understand, as it wasn’t very long ago that funding in university stopped except for those doing physics etc.  If you want to become a teacher you can get decent bursaries if you teach maths, physics computer science, chemistry and foreign languages but not for those teaching biology, English and the other ‘priority subjects’ which basically means all the rest .  So all sciences are not equal in the eyes of this government…  and it gets even worse.  Where as once upon a time year 6 SATS consisted of English, maths and science it now consists of English,  grammar, punctuation and spelling oh and maths (is it mere coincidence that we have this huge emphasis on English when the Secretary of Education is himself an Oxbridge graduate of English?).  What happened to the science?  Is it me or is this in conflict to attracting people into science?  If we want to improve chances of errors being reduced by using science, then you need to get young people interested and wanting to study science from an early age.   Yes figures are up on those taking sciences as separate science subjects as opposed to combined sciences GCSE’s now but what about in 4 or 5 years time when these same children haven’t had that emphasis of science being introduced?  I can imagine that children will be less inclined to get involved in something that they have had limited experience of. I can only guess that future governments will blame teachers for lack of enthusiasm in science, which says more about our government’s misunderstanding of science because they aren’t involved themselves;  one only needs to look at the fact we don’t employ scientists to be Secretary of Environment or Secretary of Energy and Climate Change.  In fact when looking at members of the Cabinet, the majority are Oxbridge graduates in PPE, Economics on it’s own or History, with a few from UCL and similar and about three or four law graduates.  The closest we get to scientists are Nick Clegg with his social anthropology and Vince Cable who started out with Natural Sciences and then moved to Economics.  Hell, even America’s head of Department of Fish and Wildlife Services is a marine biologist and the Department of the Interior is a conservationist!  So, how can we possibly expect our British government to make any decent scientific judgements when there are no scientists in charge?  Yes they rely on scientific advisors, but do they as the ones making the over all decisions look at the wider picture and do they understand or even read scientific literature to help them be informed?

So when do we say enough is enough?  Do we wait for more protected species to be culled in the name of ‘science’ by people who don’t ‘do science’? Do we wait for ancient woodlands to be ploughed over to make way for luxury homes that the average Joe can’t afford, because you know the ecologists and conservationists just don’t seem to be that plentiful in the government offices? Do we wait for more coal stations to be built, whilst ignoring investing in renewable energies, as who really knows or cares if there is actually anthropogenic reasons behind global warming?  How do we decide on when we stop putting up with having people make stupid decisions without decent scientific backing on our behalf?  Maybe we have to look at it a bit more like applying for a job and it really does just come down to qualifications.   If you or I applied for a job where we were not suitably qualified, would we expect to get the job or be able to do it to the best of our ability?  Moreover would you actually hire someone to do that job; when you go to the polling stations next time maybe you should bear that in mind when putting your X in the box.


Lessons to be learned?

As someone who is studying conservation, I found the news about the killing of the giraffe in Copenhagen and the lions in Longleat quite a depressing story.  Just like any member of the public, I felt saddened by these deaths, and as a scientist I wanted to know why there was the need to cull these creatures.

It was said that the giraffe was culled as he had reached 18 months old, and the zoo under guidance from the European Association of Zoo’s and Aquaria (EAZA) decided that culling was the only option as they wanted to avoid interbreeding at all costs.  This I can completely understand.  One doesn’t want to set out to conserve a species, and only serve to ensure the deleterious genes are represented by irresponsible breeding.  However, I would question why the animal was allowed to come into being in the first place.  If his genes are so well represented then why was the mating allowed, surely even if they want to avoid contraception to allow for as natural a setting as possible as the zoo states, then these animals must be separated, or in the next two years we could see this situation repeated.  I also have a problem rationalising with myself as to why the animal was not neutered and given to another institution if genetics was the overriding factor in his demise.  Then there is the question of his being dissected and fed to the lions.  This I don’t have a problem with as such, better that his carcass did not go to waste and that another animal benefitted from it, and you could argue better a giraffe that had a good life than an intensively farmed cow or sheep.  However this was a public dissection, and it seemed to attract a fair number of people, some of whom were young children; as a scientist I see the value of dissection, it is invaluable for teaching us the physiology of an animal and yes children do need to learn this in my humble opinion.   The way this was done however, seemed more a of a public spectacle of just dismembering the body to feed to the lions rather than a decent scientific look at the animal.   In this respect, I find myself questioning was this done really for the public good and education, or as a poorly thought out PR stunt to attract attention to the zoo.  What’s the old saying?  There’s no such thing as bad press.  Let’s face it, even the least cynical amongst us can see that Copenhagen is now going to be known all around the world as the zoo that killed a giraffe, and fed it in the most public way possible to a pride of lions.

Marius was culled because his genes were over represented. Copyright of the BBC.

Marius was culled because his genes were over represented. Copyright of the BBC.

As for the lions of Longleat, this seems to have attracted even more rage amongst the general public.  One neutered male, a lioness and her cubs were euthanised.   This was done during the closed season of the park, it is reported that the keepers from the park were angry, upset and confused as to why this happened.  21 lions is a big number of large cats to be held in captivity in a relatively small space compared to what a group like that would need in the wild.  It is also reported the male had to be put to sleep as he had been attacked and that they were concerned for the safety of the lioness and her cubs; so much so they put them to sleep too.  This again seems to be a problem with the breeding policies.  There were too many and they became violent is the reason that is given for this euthanasia of healthy animals.  The reports for this, unlike Copenhagen seem quite clandestine for the time being, and this makes it harder to really judge what is going on.  However, it still begs the question, why were so many allowed to breed to begin with and why was contraception not used to control it?

With both these cases one may look at it with what could be considered ‘rose tinted glasses’ where we want to have animals behaving as naturally as they possibly can be, going from well studied wild animals.  But these are not in the wild and we do have a responsibility to ensure that they are bred responsibly and with great care.  When they who make the decision to euthanise are worried about the safety of the sedation used as they might die, or that you take away the prospect of the gene pool having potential genes taken away or that the animal loses the will to procreate and therefore makes for a less happy animal, I feel I have to question these ideals.  If you are worried it will die from the sedation,  you surely wouldn’t decide to euthanise it.  If you are worried about losing potential genes, you would not euthanise the animal.  The only acceptable argument I can see is that castration/contraception may make the animal less natural and less happy.  But surely we have to look at other alternatives and not allowing over breeding.  If the EAZA has such strict laws then maybe they should be revisited and made more robust to stop animals from being bred surplus to requirements, so that other zoo’s that may not be part of the same breeding club can take on unwanted animals.

It is said that the EAZA and Copenhagen zoo have expressed some surprise that people are outraged, and likened the killing to farm animals being slaughtered for the table.  Here is where I feel that scientists working in conservation have got it wrong.  Yes most people will not really think about a cute pig when they are tucking into their bacon sarnie, or the doe eyed expression of a cow when they eat their steak, or the poor little male calves being slaughtered so that one may have that bit of dairy.  No they just won’t, because we like to block images out like that, we like meat, we don’t necessarily want to think about what it was when it was alive.  That’s part of human nature.  But when we sit down to enjoy our sunday roast, that animal was in all likely hood bred just for it’s meat and not as part of a conservation programme.  Yes, there are rare breeds that are bred to keep those breeds alive for the purpose of becoming food, but lets be clear when you put your hand in your pocket to go to the zoo, that is not what you think you are paying for.  When we as scientists become so blaze about genetics  in saying a space should have been left for an animal ‘genetically more important’, and that animals had to euthanised because they became too big a group.  It annoys the general public.  The very people that put much of the funding into conservation efforts in the first place.  In the couple of days since the killing episodes, there is now on line evidence to show that Copenhagen euthanises 20 to 30 animals per year, and that the EAZA have records of all recent euthanised animals from zoos because of breeding but they don’t like to publicise it.   This very notion of expendable animals because of their genetics is causing a backlash.  If for example a dog breeder or cat breeder euthanised various animals because it wasn’t good for their breeding regime there would be outrage.  Does a zoo really expect to be treated differently because they are housing exotic animals from around the world?  Of course culling will happen, of course breeding that you don’t want to occur could happen but it should be controlled as much as possible.  As should the PR around these issues.  Zoo’s need to show empathy and sadness if they are to be liked at all by their general public, and rather than belittling the sentimentality they should be wanting to soothe it as it’s exactly that sentimentality that puts the money into the zoo’s conservation coffers.  Even without the issue of money, as someone who wants to work in conservation, this PR nightmare has tarnished all people who work in conservation with a nasty brush and damages all the good work that zoo’s do do for those animals that rely on the help of zoos to continue to have a presence in the world.  One can only hope that zoo’s and the EAZA take on board the massive outcry these killings have caused and start to work together more cohesively and with much more empathy.