World Science Festival 2009

Sixth Mass Extinction

Christian the Lion

ChristiantheLion.jpgThis is a true story about a couple of guys who found a lion cub for sale in a department store in London in 1969. The brought it home and raised it until it became too big to keep. During the time they had the lion, which they named Christian, they played with him and took him for rides in their car, they treated him much the same as they would have a dog or cat. He was a pet.

Eventually they got help from a conservationist who introduced animals back into the wild. They took Christian to Africa where he was gradually and carefully reintroduced. He had been born in captivity, so he'd never known what it meant to be free. After a year's absence, the two men who had raised him returned to Africa hoping for a reunion. The video shows the story of what happened. The whole story has been turned into a documentary.

Cheetah's Are Far Closer To Extinction Than We Realized Huffington Post, Dec 27, 2016

“We need to come back to the potential of cheetahs to coexist with people.”

Joy with A Broken Wing

Hummingbird.jpgYears ago, my cat came bounding into the house gripping a small creature in his teeth. I jumped up and got to him just as he let go of a preciously-minute, ruby-throated hummingbird. The bird lay inert at my feet. Instantly I pushed the cat away and swept the little creature into my hand, feeling its racing heart. My first thought was to try to make it safe and warm. I put this miniature creature into a small straw basket that happened to be handy. I tucked some cloth and a few twigs around it and covered it, creating darkness, and what I hoped was a warm, nest-like world. I hoped the bird was stunned and would gradually come back to itself and want to fly away, at which point, I could carry it back out into the cold outdoors.
When I looked in on my patient a few minutes later, I found him lying awkwardly on his side. Distressed by his unnatural demeanor, I took a small piece of branch from a houseplant and attempted to help him up onto it. In the process, this incredible creature, whose eyes were open wide and staring, looked deep into my mine and climbed, not onto the branch, but onto my finger, wrapping his miniature feet tightly against my skin. The feel of his toes griping my flesh filled me with emotion. I lifted my hand slowly to my eyes, and we looked at one another.
Later, I tried to equate my feelings with motherhood, but in truth I experienced emotions I am still reaching to explain. All I know is that, if I have ever experienced union with another, I experienced it in that rare and remarkable moment. As we eyed one another, I felt the absolute and radical difference in our size and in the nature of our species. He was so small; by comparison I was gigantic. The differences were extreme, yet there is no doubt in my mind that we communicated. He spoke with the grip of his toes on my finger, and with the penetrating awareness in his bright eyes as they squarely met mine. He spoke in the fact that he chose to perch on my hand. What radiated from his being was not fear, but something more akin to grace or tranquility. (Hummingbirds are so fast they have little innate fear of predators; they have been witnessed chasing off eagles.) His message was something like, “I am in your hands. I trust that. I want to live. Do with me what you will.”
He surrendered himself into my keeping. I realize these words are my projections, and I am not saying this bird was thinking such “thoughts.” What I am saying is that there was sentience in this creature and an obvious exchange between us, a communication that felt something like the meaning of those words. Cosmologist Brian Swimme names communion as one of the organizing principles of the universe. “To be,” he writes, “is to be related. . . . Nothing is itself without everything else.”
In that moment it is fair to say that two sentient beings were touching one another, and that I, at least, was being changed through an enigmatic sense of relatedness that transcended kith, kin, and all previous experience of communion. Certainly, I had never in my life been that close to a hummingbird, and it’s likely he’d never been so close to a human before either. Whether the hummingbird “understood” that I longed for him to live is irrelevant; he surrendered himself into my keeping. What seems remarkable in retrospect is how very deeply I did long for him to live. In that moment, the intensity of my desire knew no limits. A potent, unequivocal passion to save this fellow traveler’s life arose unbidden in me as I looked into his eyes and felt the stunning reality of our shared existence.
hummingbird3.jpgI believed he wanted to live and was requesting my assistance. Again, I’m not claiming this little bird was thinking, “I want to live.” Rather, I am pointing to his beingness, which held within it the knowledge of what living is, and saying that knowledge moved him in ways that were directed toward sustaining his life and he communicated that to me.

Anthropologist Gregory Bateson wrote of the difference between kicking a rock and kicking a dog. The rock, Bateson explained, reacts. It reacts in relationship to the force the kicking foot has transferred to it; it moves with, and as a result of, that energy. The dog, on the other hand, responds, and its response is dependent on a large number of variables. So, too, the hummingbird.

In my youth I trained as an emergency medical technician. One of the first things I was taught was how to distinguish serious injury. The measure of peril is reflected in the behavior of the injured. When the injury is truly life-threatening, pain is not the victim’s main concern; preserving their life force is. Consequently, they are extremely still. The more still someone is and the more truly surrendered, the more serious their injury is likely to be. Perhaps the moment resonated with some deeply ingrained learning I had garnered from my previous training. In any event, I realized I needed help with this delicate creature. I recognized that he was hurt beyond my capacity to aid him, and that I was deeply invested in keeping him alive. I put him back into the warm dark of the little nest I had created for him. He attempted to fly a little, if only to gain his balance, but could not. I covered the basket, got out the phone book and hunted down a wildlife rescue service who, when I called, told me to bring him to them immediately. “Hummers,” they warned me, “stress (and die) easily.”

Later, as I was driving home from my journey to the rescue compound, I burst into tears. I cannot adequately explain my emotions. They were a little like the feelings which drove me so quickly out of my job as an EMT—the terrible fear that I’d acted too slowly, too dully, or too awkwardly to actually bridge the difference between life and death. I feared the bird would die because I had dallied too long with my own version of rescue before getting him to professional aid. Guilt, regret, wonder, concern—no word adequately captures the tangle of emotions that worked through my body, except to say that I knew I loved that little bird. His struggle to live had taken me totally and timelessly away from the importance of my own life. At the same time, his entrance into my life perfectly reflected what I was trying to articulate. My experience with the hummingbird embodied the reason I was preparing myself to stand up in front of a group of excessively-educated human beings and defend the contention that the consciousness of other life forms was as important to humanity, the Earth and, ultimately, the Universe as that of our own species.

Being a woman, I am perhaps hard-wired for nurturance. Classic prejudice would suggest I am susceptible to maternal instinct gone awry and less-than-logical leaps of anthropomorphism. Nevertheless, what that little hummer called out of me is more than what can be explained by the genetic drive to procreate or assist in the preservation of my own species. One might call it non-reciprocal or selfless altruism, that is, a selflessness that moves beyond all obvious concerns for one’s own reproductive value or the reproductivity of one’s kind. According to most evolutionary theorists, such altruism is impossible.Hummingbirds represent joy

When I called the wildlife sanctuary later in the day to see how the hummingbird was doing, they reported he was stable, having survived the initial dangers of the trauma, but his wing was broken. They were bringing in a hummingbird specialist and were cautiously hopeful, they said, but the prognosis depended upon whether the break was one that could heal. Hummers, they explained, cannot walk; they die if they cannot fly. Their aerial wizardry, I learned, not only allows them to hover in midair but also to fly backwards and sideways—something no other bird can do. On occasion, they hibernate overnight, fluffing up their feathers and letting their body temperature drop so low they appear to have died on their perch. They do this to conserve their resources. That’s probably what was going on when my cat attacked.

The hummingbird he caught was likely migrating south for the winter. Ruby-throated hummers fly for days on end when they migrate, making the journey from Alaska to Central America—some 2500 miles or more—in more-or-less one haul. I also learned that hummingbirds cannot live without flowers and that there are flowers that can not live without hummingbirds. According to Native American tradition, hummingbirds represent joy; their mission is “to spread joy or be destroyed.” The wildlife volunteer advised me to check back in a couple of days. When I hung up the phone, I cried again, astonished that there was someone on the planet who had decided to become a “hummingbird expert” instead of a Wall Street lawyer or even, like me, some other kind of human-oriented specialist.

That little hummingbird did die. It lived on bravely for a number of days, hand-fed by a wildlife volunteer, but the break in its wing was not one that could heal. The fact of its death was grievous to me. It still brings tears to my eyes—tears of gratitude, because I see that, without the sacrifice that brought that little hummer into my life, I would have never known what it feels like to commune with such a lovely and delicate expression of beingness. Perhaps for a moment I was like one of those flowers who cannot live without hummingbirds. All I know is that, through that encounter, I had the good fortune of awakening to an expression to something new in my own being. I believe what I experienced hurrying and worrying my way to the wildlife refuge that day is not unrelated to what the firemen rushing into the World Trade Center towers experienced on September 11, 2001. If we lived on the moon or spent our lives isolated in Plato’s cave, we would have no way of knowing what it is to be human, no capacity for knowing ourselves, or, perhaps even more importantly, for experiencing the very jewel of our own gift—our capacity to reflect upon it all—the wonder of self-awareness.

—From Strange Attraction: Toward a New Cosmology, Molly Dwyer, 2001

The "Mark" Test

The mirror test was developed by psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. in 1970 as a method for determining whether a non-human animal has the ability of self-recognition. It’s also known as the “mark test” or “mirror self-recognition test (MSR)." When conducting the mirror test, scientists place a visual marking on an animal’s body, usually with scentless paints, dyes, or stickers. They then observe what happens when the marked animal is placed in front of a mirror. The researchers compare the animal’s reaction to other times when the animal saw itself in the mirror without any markings on its body.

Animal Rescue: Los Angeles Non-Profit, Hope for Paws

Animals Being Their Glorious Selves

This is the clip that made Christian famous on the internet.

Here's video footage of a cat playing with a dolphin. The dolphin is obviously in living in captivity. Some years ago, I swam with wild dolphins in Hawaii and one of the most amazing experiences of that trip was when a mother and her calf, rolled over beneath me and looked up, making eye contact. Dolphins are one of the few animals, who like humans, recognize themselves in a mirror.

This silly video went viral a couple of years ago. I'm a cat lover so I couldn't help myself.

Underwater near Figi and Tonga in the South Pacific.

Here's a very intelligent mouse, and here's a link to a number of videos that show the work being done with this and other mice.

Crows can perform multi-step processes to solve a problem. How smart are they?

This looks rather amazing, but alas it's not true. It's a promo for a BBC documentary.

Some Resources

Washington Post: Killing Chickens
Ten smartest animals
CNN Dolphin Intelligence
CNN Dog Intelligence
Alex the Parrot—Nova
Do Trees Communicate?
BBC Documentary: The Mind of Plants
Owl & Cat Being Friends
Dog & Deer Friendship
Horses Know How to Read Human Emotions, Ask for Help
The Natural History of Chickens
Story of Liza, the White Silkie Bantam that saved her chicks from hawk (at 43:30min)
Written summary of the story: Call Me Chicken By L. Joseph Tauer