Monday, June 25, 2012

Bulldog Adopts Litter of Orphaned Kittens

Molly, a two-year old American Bulldog, is one busy pooch. She gave birth to a litter of puppies only six weeks ago, and now she has a bunch of hungry kittens to look after too. Related: Kitten Takes 412-mile Ride in Car Bumper According to the Dothan Eagle, when mother cat "Kitty Kitty" was hit by a car, Molly allowed her four orphaned kittens to nurse. Both dog and cat were raised by Elbert Bristow, 84, of Columbia, Alabama. They gave birth only a day apart. "I've had dogs all my life. I've trained bird dogs and coon dogs," Bristow told the Eagle, "but this is the first time I've ever had a dog take a litter of kittens." Bristow says the kittens, which include one orange, one white, one grey and white, and one with Siamese-type markings, follow Molly around just like she was their mom. She spends 5 to 10 minutes with them at a time, and lies down and lets them eat. Bristow keeps the puppies separated on another part of his property. "It is unusual, very unusual," says Bristow. Still, it's not the first time a dog has adopted a kitten. Dogs have been documented mothering cats, piglets, and even baby tigers. By Sarah B. Weir, Yahoo! blogger | Parenting

Animal smarts: What do dolphins and dogs know?

It's not just man's closer primate relatives that exhibit brain power. Dolphins, dogs and elephants are teaching us a few lessons, too. Dolphin brains involve completely different wiring from primates, especially in the neocortex, which is central to higher functions such as reasoning and conscious thought. Dolphins are so distantly related to humans that it's been 95 million years since we had even a remotely common ancestor. Yet when it comes to intelligence, social behavior and communications, some researchers say dolphins come as close to humans as our ape and monkey cousins. Maybe closer. "They understand concepts like zero, abstract concepts. They do everything that chimpanzees do and bonobos can do," said Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University who specializes in dolphin research. "The fact is that they are so different from us and so much like us at the same time." In recent years, animal researchers have found that thought processes in critters aren't a matter of how closely related they are to humans. You don't have to be a primate to be smart. Dolphin brains look nothing like human brains, Marino said. Yet, she says, "the more you learn about them, the more you realize that they do have the capacity and characteristics that we think of when we think of a person." These mammals recognize themselves in the mirror and have a sense of social identity. They not only know who they are, but they also have a sense of who, where and what their groups are. They interact and comprehend the health and feelings of other dolphins so fast it as if they are online with each other, Marino said. Animal intelligence "is not a linear thing," said Duke University researcher Brian Hare, who studies bonobos, which are one of man's closest relatives, and dogs, which are not. "Think of it like a toolbox," he said. "Some species have an amazing hammer. Some species have an amazing screwdriver." For dogs, a primary tool is their obsessive observation of humans and ability to understand human communication, Hare said. For example, dogs follow human pointing so well that they understand it whether it's done with a hand or a foot; chimps don't, said Hare, whose upcoming book is called "The Genius of Dogs." Then there are elephants. They empathize, they help each other, they work together. In a classic cooperation game, in which animals only get food if two animals pull opposite ends of a rope at the same time, elephants learned to do that much quicker than chimps, said researcher Josh Plotnik, head of elephant research at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Thailand. They do even better than monkeys at empathy and rescue, said Plotnik. In the wild, he has seen elephants stop and work together to rescue another elephant that fell in a pit. "There is something in the environment, in the evolution of this species that is unique," he says. By SETH BORENSTEIN | Associated Press

What was he thinking? Study turns to ape intellect

The more we study animals, the less special we seem. Baboons can distinguish between written words and gibberish. Monkeys seem to be able to do multiplication. Apes can delay instant gratification longer than a human child can. They plan ahead. They make war and peace. They show empathy. They share. "It's not a question of whether they think — it's how they think," says Duke University scientist Brian Hare. Now scientists wonder if apes are capable of thinking about what other apes are thinking. The evidence that animals are more intelligent and more social than we thought seems to grow each year, especially when it comes to primates. It's an increasingly hot scientific field with the number of ape and monkey cognition studies doubling in recent years, often with better technology and neuroscience paving the way to unusual discoveries. This month scientists mapping the DNA of the bonobo ape found that, like the chimp, bonobos are only 1.3 percent different from humans. Says Josep Call, director of the primate research center at the Max Planck Institute in Germany: "Every year we discover things that we thought they could not do." Call says one of his recent more surprising studies showed that apes can set goals and follow through with them. Orangutans and bonobos in a zoo were offered eight possible tools — two of which would help them get at some food. At times when they chose the proper tool, researchers moved the apes to a different area before they could get the food, and then kept them waiting as much as 14 hours. In nearly every case, when the apes realized they were being moved, they took their tool with them so they could use it to get food the next day, remembering that even after sleeping. The goal and series of tasks didn't leave the apes' minds. Call says this is similar to a person packing luggage a day before a trip: "For humans it's such a central ability, it's so important." For a few years, scientists have watched chimpanzees in zoos collect and store rocks as weapons for later use. In May, a study found they even add deception to the mix. They created haystacks to conceal their stash of stones from opponents, just like nations do with bombs. Hare points to studies where competing chimpanzees enter an arena where one bit of food is hidden from view for only one chimp. The chimp that can see the hidden food, quickly learns that his foe can't see it and uses that to his advantage, displaying the ability to perceive another ape's situation. That's a trait humans develop as toddlers, but something we thought other animals never got, Hare said. And then there is the amazing monkey memory. At the National Zoo in Washington, humans who try to match their recall skills with an orangutan's are humbled. Zoo associate director Don Moore says: "I've got a Ph.D., for God's sake, you would think I could out-think an orang and I can't." In French research, at least two baboons kept memorizing so many pictures — several thousand — that after three years researchers ran out of time before the baboons reached their limit. Researcher Joel Fagot at the French National Center for Scientific Research figured they could memorize at least 10,000 and probably more. And a chimp in Japan named Ayumu who sees strings of numbers flash on a screen for a split-second regularly beats humans at accurately duplicating the lineup. He's a YouTube sensation, along with orangutans in a Miami zoo that use iPads. It's not just primates that demonstrate surprising abilities. Dolphins, whose brains are 25 percent heavier than humans, recognize themselves in a mirror. So do elephants. A study in June finds that black bears can do primitive counting, something even pigeons have done, by putting two dots before five, or 10 before 20 in one experiment. The trend in research is to identify some new thinking skill that chimps can do, revealing that certain abilities are "not uniquely human," said Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal. Then the scientists find that same ability in other primates further removed from humans genetically. Then they see it in dogs and elephants. "Capacities that we think in humans are very special and complex are probably not so special and not so complex," de Waal said. "This research in animals elevates the animals, but it also brings down the humans.... If monkeys can do it and maybe dogs and other animals, maybe it's not as complex as you think." At Duke, professor Elizabeth Brannon shows videos of monkeys that appear to be doing a "fuzzy representation" of multiplication by following the number of dots that go into a box on a computer screen and choosing the right answer to come out of the box. This is after they've already done addition and subtraction. This spring in France, researchers showed that six baboons could distinguish between fake and real four-letter words — BRRU vs KITE, for example. And they chose to do these computer-based exercises of their own free will, either for fun or a snack. It was once thought the control of emotions and the ability to empathize and socialize separated us from our primate cousins. But chimps console, and fight, each other. They also try to soothe an upset companion, grooming and putting their arms around him. "I see plenty of empathy in my chimpanzees," de Waal said. But studies have shown they also go to war against neighboring colonies, killing the males and taking the females. That's something that also is very human and led people to believe that war-making must go back in our lineage 6 million years, de Waal said. When scientists look at our other closest relative, the bonobo, they see a difference. Bonobos don't kill. Hare says his experiments show bonobos give food to newcomer bonobos, even when they could choose to keep all the food themselves. One reason scientists are learning more about animal intellect is computers, including touch screens. In some cases, scientists are setting up banks of computers available to primates 24-7. In the French word recognition experiment, Fagot found he got more and better data when it was the baboons' choice to work. Animal cognition researcher Steve Ross at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago agrees. "The apes in our case seem to be working better when they have that control, that choice to perform," he said. Brain scans on monkeys and apes also have helped correct mistaken views about ape brain power. It was once thought the prefrontal cortex, the area in charge of higher reasoning, was disproportionately larger than the rest of the brain only in humans, giving us a cognitive advantage, Hare said. But imaging shows that monkey and ape prefrontal cortexes have that same larger scale, he said. What's different is that the human communication system in the prefrontal cortex is more complex, Hare said. So there are limits to what non-human primates can do. Animals don't have the ability to communicate with the complexity of human language. In the French study, the baboons can recognize that the letters KITE make a word because through trial and error they learn which letters tend to go together in what order. But the baboons don't have a clue of what KITE means. It's that gap that's key. "The boundaries are not as sharp as people think, but there are certain things you can't overcome and language is one of them," said Columbia University animal cognition researcher Herbert Terrace. And that leads to another difference, Ross said. Because apes lack language skills, they learn by watching and mimicking. Humans teach with language and explanation, which is faster and better, Ross said. Some of the shifts in scientific understanding of animals are leading to ethical debates. When Emory University researcher Lori Marino in 2001 co-wrote a groundbreaking study on dolphins recognizing themselves in mirrors, proving they have a sense of self similar to humans, she had a revelation. "The more you learn about them, the more you realize that they do have the capacity and characteristics that we think of as a person," Marino said. "I think it's impossible to ignore the ethical implications of these kinds of findings." After the two dolphins she studied died when transferred to another aquarium, she decided never to work on captive dolphins again. She then became a science adviser to the Nonhuman Rights Project, which seeks legal rights or status for animals. The idea, Marino said, is to get animals such as dolphins "to be deemed a person, not property." The intelligence of primates was one of the factors behind a report last year by the Institute of Medicine that said the National Institutes of Health should reduce dramatically the number of chimpanzees it uses in biomedical research. The NIH is working on new guidelines that would further limit federal medical chimpanzee use down from its current few dozen chimps at any given time, said NIH program planning chief James Anderson. Chimps are a special case, with their use "very, very limited," he said. But he raises the question: "What happens if your child is sick or your mother is dying" and animal research might lead to a cure? The issue is more about animal welfare and giving them the right "not to be killed, not to be tortured, not to be confined unnecessarily" than giving them legal standing, said David DeGrazia, a philosophy and ethics professor at George Washington University. Hare says that focusing on animal rights ignores the problem of treatment of chimps in research settings. He contends that for behavioral studies and even for many medical research tests they could be kept in zoos or sanctuaries rather than labs. Animals performing tasks in near-natural habitats "is like an Ivy League college" for the apes, Hare said. "We're going to see them do stunning and sophisticated things." By SETH BORENSTEIN | Associated Press

World loses species with death of Lonesome George

Lonesome George has died, leaving the world one species poorer. The only remaining Pinta Island tortoise and celebrated conservation icon passed away Sunday, the Galapagos National Park Service said in a statement. Estimated to be more than 100 years old, the creature's cause of death remains unclear and a necropsy is planned. Lonesome George's longtime caretaker, Fausto Llerena, found the tortoise's remains stretched out in the "direction of his watering hole" on Santa Cruz Island, the statement said. Lonesome George was discovered on Pinta Island in 1972 at a time when tortoises of his type were already believed to be extinct. Since then, the animal had been part of the park service's tortoise program. Repeated efforts to breed Lonesome George failed. "Later two females from the Espanola tortoise population (the species most closely related to Pinta tortoises genetically) were with George until the end," the park service said. In honor of Lonesome George, the park service said it was convening an international workshop in July on management strategies for restoring tortoise populations over the next decade. The Galapagos Islands, situated about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) off Ecuador's coast, is considered a haven for tortoises. By AFP

Monday, June 18, 2012

Dog herds tigers in South Africa

To view video: Border collies were bred to herd—sheep. But what's a herding dog to do without a flock? Easy. Round up a pack of tigers. Meet Solo, the tiger-herding dog. The 4-1/2-year-old pooch grew up at Seaview Lion Park in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and has had to make due with a litter of big cats to boss around. The video shows the black pup with white paws running circles around the Siberian tiger cubs while managing to keep a safe distance from their claws or jaws. The collie's instincts come in handy for wrangling his charges on to a truck that takes them to a watering hole and back. "You can see that when we come to the dam and the tigers stray away out of their little area, then he'll go and bring them back into position and bring them back towards the water," Ashley Gombert, the manager of the wildlife park, told Gombert added that the canine is comfortable around the cubs since it has known the cubs since their birth. Solo also plays and herds hyenas and jackal pups. What, your dog sits on command? That's…great. By Claudine Zap

Monday, June 11, 2012

Turtle Couple Calls it Quits After 115 Years Together

Bibi and Poldi have been together longer than most humans have been alive: both are 115 years old, and have known each other nearly since birth. The two giant turtles share a cage at a zoo in the Austrian town of Klagenfurt, where they have been living for the past 36 years. But it looks like that time might be coming to a close, and Bibi is ready to move on. In recent weeks, Bibi has started attacking her partner (how’s that for a sign that the relationship is over?), biting off chunks of Poldi’s shell and carrying out “several further attacks” — prompting the two to be physically separated. Zoo officials say that the giant turtles, weighing over 220 pounds each, could kill each other if they wanted to Apparently, it’s quite rare for turtles to separate after having been paired for so long. It’s certainly not for lack of effort: zoo workers have tried marriage counseling through the form of bonding games and creating good feelings through food. Nothing has worked. But maybe the underlying tension between the two is pretty simple. The zoo’s director, Helga Happ, told the Austrian Times: “We get the feeling they can’t stand the sight of each other anymore.” By Erica Ho

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Chimpanzee Sanctuary Gives Former Research Chimps a Happy Retirement

We recently visited Save the Chimps. It's a very unique chimpanzee sanctuary in Fort Pierce, Florida. Most of the chimps there are former research chimps who endured difficult living conditions in harsh facilities where they were often confined to cages. Today, their lives are very different. There are no cages at Save the Chimps, just twelve islands, separated by moats and filled with tall grass and platforms for them to climb. The chimps live in family groups of 20-25 on the islands, where they are free to interact with each other. They play with each other, groom each other, and hug each other. It's a great place to be a chimp. If you want to find out more about Save the Chimps, you can visit their website at By Bridget Marquardt | Animal Nation –

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Community, officials at odds over free-roaming dog

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Blue the dog doesn't have a home. And he apparently doesn't want one. But the blue-eyed Australian cattle dog has $1,800 in savings, a Facebook page and an air-conditioned dog house. He also has a lawyer, who is working to get him an exemption from local leash laws so he can continue his free-wheeling lifestyle in southern New Mexico's lakeside community of Elephant Butte, where he was abandoned as a puppy a decade ago. The City Council has scheduled a June 13 meeting, where supporters of Blue, who is also known as Bluedog, hope to end an impasse over his fate. Janice Conner, co-owner of Butte General Store and Marina, says it all began about 10 years ago when the dog was abandoned at Casa Taco, where Blue was cared for by the owner until he died two years ago. After that, Blue made his way to the general store, where he was fed and peacefully coexisted until last spring, when a 48-year-old woman was fatally mauled by pit bulls in nearby Truth or Consequences. After that, Conner says a woman started complaining to the city when Blue would follow her and her dog on a nearby walking path. And this spring, Conner's husband, Bob Owen, was cited for having Blue off-leash, prompting the legal skirmish that caught the attention of Albuquerque attorney and lake property owner Hilary Noskin. Noskin says she is working pro bono, trying to win an exemption for Blue so he can live out the rest of the years in front of the store he now calls home. "He's one of my favorite clients," says Noskin. "He is a sweet, sweet dog. He doesn't meet any vicious dog standards. Somebody said he snarls ... but I am not sure I believe that." City Manager Alan Briley says the city hopes to reach a compromise on Blue, but he noted that the safety of the dog and the community comes first. He says the city has received complaints about Blue snapping and growling and almost being hit by cars crossing the street. Conner says Blue has rebuffed several attempts at adoption, always making his way back to the store where he has become a community mascot of sorts. She says residents have dumped more than $1,800 in a jar for his care — funds she says she keeps for legal bills or medical issues. Residents have also built him a dog house with heating pads for the winter months and air conditioning for the summer. "Everybody just loves this dog. People who can't afford a dog bring their kids here to play with Blue. ... He is the only dog I know who got four plates of Thanksgiving dinner at his dog house," Conner said. Conner says she has collected more than 1,100 signatures in support of Blue, who is on Facebook as Bluedog EB-Mascot. She says she just wants to find a way for Blue to "remain the way he always has. He was here before we became a city, so all we are asking for is for the city to grandfather him in as a representative of the community." By JERI CLAUSING | Associated Press

Three rare elephants found dead in Indonesia

Three critically-endangered Sumatran elephants have been found dead in an oil palm plantation in western Indonesia and are believed to have been poisoned, an NGO said Saturday. Villagers found the dead animals on Thursday in a government-owned oil palm plantation in the eastern part of Aceh province. They were estimated to be four and five years old, local environmental group Fakta said. "We suspected that they died after consuming bars of soap laced with poison we found near the carcass," the group's chief Rabono Wiranata told AFP. "It seems that the elephants have died around one week," he said. The animals are usually either killed by villagers, who regard the beasts as pests that destroy their plantations, or by poachers for their tusks. Early last month, two other Sumatran elephants were found dead in the west of the province. There are fewer than 3,000 Sumatran elephants remaining in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, marking a 50 percent drop in numbers since 1985. WWF changed the Sumatran elephant's status from "endangered" to "critically endangered" in January, largely due to severe habitat loss driven by oil palm and paper plantations. Conflicts between humans and animals are increasing as people encroach on wildlife habitats in Indonesia, an archipelago with some of the world's largest remaining tropical forests. AFP