For Their Own Good

The last big extinction event on earth was around 65 million years ago, when a giant asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs along with much of the rest of life on earth. During the last few centuries, however, hundreds of species have vanished as a direct result of human activity, and the rate is accelerating. While not as messy or sudden as an asteroid, our hairy ape species seems hell-bent on creating the next big wave of extinctions.

According to one website, the total number of species known to be threatened with extinction is nearly 17,000. Since we still don’t even know how many species of plants and animals there are on this planet—it could be three million or ten million—this number likely represents only a tiny fraction of the true number.

Some animals are so critically endangered that it’s hard to see how they’re going to make it. Take rhinos, for example. According to the website “savetherhino.org,” black rhinos have plummeted from an estimated population of 65,000 in 1970 to just 5,055 today. Asian species are even worse off, with numbers only in the hundreds.

But try telling this to the millions of people who still believe that powdered rhino horn can cure everything from cancer to foot fungus, despite there being not a shred of scientific evidence that it serves any medical purpose at all. Powdered rhino horn is still an integral part of traditional Chinese pharmacy, and can fetch tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram. Against this irrational belief the rhinoceros stands little chance.

Desperate times require desperate solutions. Merely creating new regulations or preserves won’t cut it anymore. Namibia, for example, was the first country to use “dehorning” as a means to protect their rhinos from poaching. On the face of it, it sounds pretty disgusting. What’s a rhino without its horns? But maybe it’s for their own good. Indeed, ever since Namibia began its program, no rhinos have been poached, though other countries have been less successful with this approach. Since the horns grow back over time, the rhinos have to be regularly monitored and dehorned every 12-24 months. For the Namibians, however, a rhino without horns is better than no rhino at all.

Recently a turtle conservancy in California employed a similar technique with two of its rare ploughshare tortoises, valued by exotic animal collectors for their beautiful golden domed shells. So essentially they disfigured their shells by branding them with identification markers that will make them both easier to track and less appealing to collectors, who will often pay tens of thousands of dollars for an unblemished tortoise. In all, they hope to brand all of the less than 700 specimens still alive in the world. Other rare tortoise species are likewise being uglified.

Perhaps this idea of removing the source of the problem, be it a horn or a beautiful shell, could be applied to other animals. Simply remove the tusks from elephants, for example, to keep them from being poached for ivory. They won’t like it very much, but it’s for their own good. Similarly, animals killed for their horns or antlers, such as the Saiga antelope, Asian red deer, and certain species of wild cattle, might just have to lose those appendages in order to be saved.

Unfortunately, such an approach wouldn’t work with some species, such as endangered tigers. Since each of their body parts right down to the bones are valued for traditional folk medicine, it would be difficult to know where to start. On the other hand, with musk deer, which are killed for their musk glands, surgical removal of the gland in question just might work. And animals killed and threatened for their fur, such as spotted cats, fur seals, and South American otters, could be regularly sheared, which is probably a lot more difficult than it sounds. While the prospect of a bunch of naked jaguars and otters running around is not exactly appealing, again it is for their own good.

Of course, if we wish to remove the real source of the problem, perhaps we should start with us. Our human population of over 7 billion is projected to reach 9.6 billion by the year 2050. This means that an additional two and half billion people will require more land, food, water, and other resources, with less room for other living things. If you think things are bad now, just wait. Ironically, this is not only bad for other species, but for us as well. As species go extinct, we will lose a host of natural products used for real medicines, food, and building materials, along with the vital services that wild plants and animals provide, including air and water purification and pollination of our food crops. So I propose that every fertile human being on the planet undergo a little operation—a much simpler one than removing musk glands or rhino horns—to keep each of us from reproducing again. Maybe someday, when human numbers have returned to less harmful levels, we could allow a few of us to breed under carefully controlled conditions—just enough to maintain the gene pool. Some of us might not like it very much, and achieving this goal will not be easy. But it’s for our own good.
                                                    ©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses June 2014  http://www.5ensesmag.com/for-their-own-good/

 

Party Animals

These days, when branding is so important to any major enterprise, political parties need to be more thoughtful in their choice of mascots.Yet all we get are donkeys and elephants.

For this we have to blame political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who first popularized the negative qualities of these animals in portraying the two parties. Today, though Democrats and Republicans try to stress the more positive qualities of their mascots, they are still slaves to the past. We need some new animals.

Considering the diverse range of animal species on the planet, both parties need to align their core principles with mascots that more accurately reflect their message to the public.

Republicans, for example, generally like to view themselves as more conservative than Democrats. Thus they might well choose a tortoise. It is estimated that desert tortoises have been in existence for 15-20 million years, far longer than we humans. Their plodding, low-energy lifestyle is the epitome of conservative. And they make sure to get plenty of rest during winter and summer months, just like members of Congress. What better way to show that your party is still going to be around in the future? And except for Cliven Bundy, who doesn’t like a cute desert tortoise?

Or maybe the GOP could choose a lone wolf to stress the party’s rugged individual, go-it-alone philosophy. Then again, maybe not, since wolves are none too popular these days in many GOP-controlled states. On the other hand, a wolverine—one of the most solitary animals on earth—would be perfect. And when it comes to the Republican hard stance on military issues and projecting world might, well, you just don’t mess with a wolverine.

Democrats, on the other hand, generally consider themselves more liberal. If by liberal we mean a certain broadminded and unorthodox view of things, then there’s probably no more liberal animal Dems could choose than a green sea slug. Actually it’s considered part animal, part plant, since the progressive little creature has found a way to use some of the chloroplasts from the algae it consumes to make its own energy just like a green plant. I can think of no other animal that would typify the Democratic Party’s emphasis both on seeking new sources of alternative energy and welcoming under its tent creatures of every stripe. Sea slugs can be quite colorful and would fit right in at any party gathering. I suspect some Democrats might object, however, claiming that a sea slug just doesn’t have the right cachet.

The Dems might also consider the African meerkat, whose altruistic behavior and complex social interactions could symbolize the party’s historic emphasis on community responsibility and the well-being of the group. Again, there may be some objections to choosing such a weird-looking critter, especially when a group of them is often referred to as a “mob” or “gang.”

Even the Libertarians have chosen a mascot, more or less. Some are now favoring the peaceful, don’t mess with me porcupine as their symbol. Other folks have toyed with the idea of adopting the penguin. Adopting such cute little animals could backfire on the party, however, since it’s hard to take a porcupine or penguin seriously. Personally I don’t think Libertarians as a group will ever go for limiting themselves to one animal. The loss of individual liberty would be too great.

And what about the “Tea Party?” I’m not sure they’ve officially chosen a mascot, though Sarah Palin still seems to be getting a lot of attention. Tea Party folks do seem to like the Gadsden flag, which shows a nice coiled rattlesnake. There is the matter, however, of the snake’s generally unfavorable image throughout history as a symbol of Satan, sex, and all that’s evil. So they might want to find another animal.

Considering the less centralized nature of the Tea Party, I would suggest a starfish as the perfect mascot. Lacking any head or brain, the starfish’s arms still manage to function well, and will even generate a whole new starfish from a severed limb.

Mascots proposed for the Green Party include the turtle, frog, otter, and even the bee. I do think they’re on the right track with the bee, though I’d suggest a dung beetle instead. What other creature better epitomizes the party’s respect for diversity and ecological sustainability? Without dung beetles the earth would soon be covered in feces. Just one dung beetle can bury hundreds of times its own weight each day. Or how about an earthworm? Just like the Green Party, the worm may be lacking in visibility, but it’s a real mover and shaker of the underground. Talk about grassroots democracy.

As for the Independents, what’s the point? They’re not exactly party animals. Even if they did go to the trouble of choosing some possible mascots and putting them up for a vote, there’s no guarantee Independents would show up.

Note: This is a slightly longer version of an op-ed essay originally published by the Arizona Republic. You can read their interactive version, complete with animal photos here:   http://www.azcentral.com/story/opinion/op-ed/2014/05/20/political-party-mascot-animal/9338853/

Rhino in a Hatbox

Rhino 1During school and library visits I’ve been performing the story “How to Stuff a Rhino” from my new book Dragon Daily News. I thought wouldn’t it be great if I had a little rhino in a hatbox that I could show kids after the program. Only trouble is, I have to keep a close eye on him. Everyone wants to take him home.

The Unspeakable

A writer must follow the truth wherever it might lead, even at the risk of losing all self-respect. It was never my intention to write about this subject, but it is one that cannot be ignored. I speak here of a simple unit of speech that can never be spoken in polite company. Yet it is a playful word that causes me to smile whenever I say it. Ripping off the tongue in the same delightful way it emanates, it is so much more fun to pronounce than other words of harsher sound and meaning that still intrude upon even the politest of conversations.

While it never made it into George Carlin’s famous “Seven Dirty Words” list, the word is still considered vulgar by Webster’s. It refers to the expulsion through the anus of intestinal gas or flatus. (Flatus, on the other hand, is perfectly acceptable to say in most social gatherings, though you don’t hear it a lot).

I find it curious that a word, whose alternate definition—“to break wind”—sounds almost poetic, could ever be labeled vulgar.

Of course, that which is deemed unspeakable readily becomes the butt of our jokes. As Carlin noted, “Anything we all do—and never talk about—is funny.” Such jokes pale in comparison, however, to the actual physical process. Nothing can so up end a discussion and set people to tittering as the unexpected, noisome release of a little flatus. A former teacher colleague used to deal with this problem whenever it erupted among his seventh grade students (who, as a group, are particularly susceptible to fits of tittering and releases of flatus) by stating in a casual voice: “What’s the big deal? It’s only air!” But as we all know, this is simply not the case.

The air we breathe today is composed primarily of nitrogen and oxygen, with lesser amounts of argon, carbon dioxide and water vapor. Billions of years ago, however, the earth’s atmosphere more closely resembled that mixture of gases—hydrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide—produced in our bowels as a result of bacterial decomposition. Presumably, if there had been anyone around back then to pass judgment on such matters, the expulsion of this flatus would not have been considered unspeakable. No more so than the release of marsh gas that bubbles up without so much as a titter from the rotting vegetation of countless pond and lake bottoms.

But human bottoms are not supposed to bubble like the rest of nature, at least not in public. We humans have never been comfortable with this rotting business. We prefer not to acknowledge any connection between the foods we put in our mouths and those horrid, gas-producing beasties that lurk within our guts. Far better to ignore the incessant whispering of a darker and cruder nature hidden from our view.

I have always suspected that this is what inspired horror story writer H.P. Lovecraft to create one of his most loathsome supernatural monsters: Hastur the Unspeakable. An elemental creature of the air, it was always breaking out unexpectedly upon this sane and proper world of ours with most regrettable consequences.

Cosmic monsters aside, however, in every mortal being a little flatus must form. When the level becomes excessive, the condition is referred to as flatulence. Some of us, because of heredity or diet, can produce quantities of gas bordering on the supernatural. The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy mentions one study that “noted a patient with daily flatus frequency as high as 141, including 70 passages in one 4 hour period.” Hastur, I presume?

Like death and taxes, flatulence is impossible to avoid. Some might try to avoid eating foods high in indigestible cellulose, such as cabbage, beans, whole-grain products, and many fruits and vegetables, which result in large amounts of hydrogen being generated in the intestines. Yet many doctors are now recommending such high fiber foods in order to help prevent colon and rectal cancer, diverticulosis, and even constipation. We might finally have to admit that, in essence, our species is still tied to crude chemical and biological processes, and that which we now call unspeakable by any another name would smell as sweet.
©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses May 2014   http://www.5ensesmag.com/not-so-ghastly-emanations/

How Not to Become Extinct

Despite one of his best known works How to Become Extinct, Will Cuppy’s books show no sign of ever going the way of the dodo. His pithy, curmudgeonly style of satiric humor influenced many writers, myself included. He died in 1949, but his works are still funny and relevant today. I find his 1931 classic How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes especially useful at parties and reunions. Fortunately most of his books are still in print and available at Amazon  http://www.amazon.com/Will-Cuppy/e/B001H6IZDU/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0