Anthropomorphism, And How Animal Rights Activists Are Born

While observing the critically endangered Sumatran Tigers at the Toronto Zoo (reviewed here), I heard about a half dozen visitors independently exclaim how “it’s sad that the tigers are by themselves” and how they must feel “lonely”.

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This is anthropomorphism, or the attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a something non-human. Or, as Josh Clark puts it:Anthropomorphizing is the point at which human curiosity meets human laziness…It’s a lot easier to explain a prancing goat as being ‘happy’ than it is to study the behavior further and determine that the dance is part of a mating ritual.” Basically, the speakers felt that they would be lonely if they lived by themselves, and so the tigers must surely be lonely too.

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The problem is, this is how zoo-hating animal rights activists are born: the uneducated acting on sudden emotion, and screaming “foul!” or “abuse!” as they assume the animals are not being properly cared for because they, personally, don’t like (or more accurately, don’t understand) what they see.

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The reality is that tigers are naturally territorial and solitary creatures, generally only coming together during the mating season. And even then, this can still lead to one animal mauling another. It is not uncommon for zoos to keep their tigers apart except for the purposes of mating (often as part of a species protection program), and even that isn’t always foolproof.

Animal behaviour is complex, and what works for one species doesn’t necessarily work for another.  Even individuals within a population may exhibit traits which may seem “abnormal”, but are in fact normal to that individual.  The average zoo visitor averages less than 1 minute at each exhibit, while the animals’ carers dedicate their lives towards the animals’ wellbeing.  The keys are education, observation, and more education (no, reading The Dodo doesn’t count).  If you have questions or concerns, the zookeepers (or other zoo staff or volunteers) will most likely be happy to answer them — after all, they arguably know the individual animals best.  To assume the worst could harm the animals themselves, and even set back conservation efforts.

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Remembering Qila and Aurora Through Those They Inspired (Vancouver Aquarium)

November 26: 2016 Original blog post from 2 days ago has been amended to reflect updated events.

After the recent loss of Qila, a beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium (who in some ways I watched grow up alongside my evolving view of belugas from “boring” to “beautiful”), shortly followed by the news that her mother Aurora passed from the same illness following heroic efforts to save her, I was reminded of a Skytrain ride conversation I overheard in which someone had clearly been inspired by these two animals.

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A very young Qila with her mother, Aurora

On this commute a small child was gushing to his grandfather about beluga whales. How cool they are, how their home is melting, how pollution makes them “poisonous” (toxic), how he’s going to write about belugas for school and tell his classmates, and how he wants to raise money to help them. His grandfather smiled and asked if he knew the Vancouver Aquarium had beluga whales. “YEAH!!! Auntie took me! That’s how I know this!” and on and on he went.  If he paused to take a breath, I would be surprised.

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Qila breaching. Photo available here, here, and here.

Qila and Aurora played a direct role in inspiring the child above. Although many people do visit zoos and aquariums to be entertained, connecting with these animal ambassadors provides a tactile experience that can touch both mind and heart in ways books and television often can’t.

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And for those who aren’t inspired, the money they spend on admission, food, and souvenirs still helps fund conservation and research projects, of which the Vancouver Aquarium has many.

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Up close with Aurora

So like Jack the Harbour Porpoise, may Qila and Aurora live on through those they touched and inspired, and the wild belugas whose lives may be saved as a result.  They will without doubt be dearly missed by their dedicated carers, and aquarium visitors as well.

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Rest In Peace Jack, and May Your Legacy Live On. (Vancouver Aquarium)

Saddened by the news out of the Vancouver Aquarium that harbour porpoise Jack has passed away.

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Jack was found washed up on a beach in 2011, when he was about 5 weeks old. He was taken in to the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre for intensive care. Later deemed non-releasable by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (not by the aquarium itself, as is commonly believed in these cases), he was introduced to Daisy, another harbour porpoise who was found and saved under similar circumstances.

Together, these two animals became ambassadors for their species and reinforced in my mind the importance of zoos and aquariums. Although I have loved whales and dolphins since I was a child, porpoises never crossed my mind… until “meeting” Daisy for the first time. A new porpoise lover was created. And I’m not alone — I know countless people who came to love these animals only after watching the playful, interactive antics of Jack and Daisy at the aquarium.

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Harbour porpoises are BC’s most abundant cetacean, and yet little is known about them (if anything, you are likely to catch only a fleeting glimpse of one’s back-end as it swims away). What the aquarium learned from caring for Jack and Daisy helped in the re-release of another porpoise named Levi, and will also help future animals in need.

RIP Jack. You will be missed by many, but your legacy will live on through people you inspired.

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Vladimir Putin is a Hairless Cat

I recently heard a story about Vladimir Putin visiting the Primorsky Aquarium — a controversial yet once seemingly promising aquarium in the Russian Far East, plagued with delays due to embezzlement and allegedly shoddy construction — and effectively yelling at staff, demanding they finish building it already.  Although this is undoubtedly at least part fabrication, Putin has visited Primorsky, and has demonstrated that he doesn’t mess around when sh*t needs doing.  But with stories of more orcas being caught in Russia and sent… to where exactly? I started thinking about the larger article in there somewhere.

And then I found something *much* more noteworthy: apparently, people think Vladimir Putin looks like a hairless cat.  How did I not know this?  And now you do too.  You’re welcome.

(only the top two comparisons are my own, and I take no credit for any images posted below)


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epa03257832 Two hairless Sphynx purebred cats are pictured at the Dog Show with Purebred Cats Show in Erfurt, Germany, 10 June 2012. About 17000 visitors attended the show featuring about 4000 breeds of dogs and pedigree cats. EPA/MICHAEL REICHEL
Because I started this blog post thinking about Russia’s cetaceans, I figured I ought to finish with something appropriate to that theme, especially since the Russian president may or may not be in command of an army of “spy dolphins”.

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