Jaz Brisack: January 2011 Archives

Do You Know What Veal Is?

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A few days ago, we were in a health food store. In the frozen section, they were selling eggplant cutlets. Not only did this seem a little far-fetched as a substitute for what might normally be veal cutlets, it also brought up the question: What exactly is veal?

calf002.jpgVeal comes from male calves, as the cattle industry has little use for them (they are not raised for meat as commonly as females are). These calves are penned separately from the other cows so that their mothers cannot feed them. Often they are given only a milk-based formula. Many farms keep the calves in small, solitary "veal crates" where they cannot move around so that their muscles do not develop properly. Finally, some slaughterhouses bleed the calves to death to drain the meat of color. When an animal is given food, its meat is darker and tougher. But veal is supposed to be light-colored and tender, a result achieved by this starving, confining and bleeding.

There are, of course, problems with free-range meat. But at least the animals are allowed to move and eat while they are alive. Even people who do eat meat can stop supporting the production of veal. If there is no demand for it because people refuse to eat it, the farmers will have no reason to continue these practices.

But back to the eggplant cutlets... Being a vegetarian or a vegan means that a person cares about animals and does not want to hurt them. Why would these people intentionally imitate such an industry -- especially if they have to eat eggplant to do it?

Black-footed Ferrets

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blfofe.jpgBefore 1851, no one had heard of a black-footed ferret. That was the year in which John James Audubon and John Bachman wrote a book together titled The Quadrupeds of North America. This was the first work to mention the species, but it was still more than twenty-five years before their existence was proven. (Audubon, who sometimes killed fifty birds of one species to produce one painting, only got to see one ferret while working on his book, which was not enough evidence to prove that the black-footed ferret was a new species.)

Although they lived throughout the Great Plains, the ferret population has been falling ever since we first knew about them. One reason for this is that the ferrets are so dependent on prairie dogs, a species of ground squirrel. Not only are these rodents their staple food, the ferrets also cannot dig their own burrows and are squatters in prairie dog towns. When settlers moved west, many became farmers. They plowed under the prairie dog towns and hunted or poisoned many of the animals. Both the prairie dogs and the ferrets grew increasingly fewer.

Then, in 1981, a Wyoming dog named Shep found a ferret. Eventually, the animal was identified and its colony -- of about 130 animals -- found. However, this population quickly plummeted due to canine distemper and sylvatic plague. In 1986, the remaining 18 animals had to be removed from the colony. The ferret was extinct in the wild.

At this time, there were only fifty captive black-footed ferrets in the world. After years of captive breeding, the first place to reestablish a small colony was Wyoming in 1991. Now, there are fifteen established fesnyngs (or businesses: the name for a group of ferrets) in the wild, in eight US states as well as Mexico and Canada.

There are, however, still threats to their survival. Their close relationship with prairie dogs does not aid their recovery. Prairie dogs are often viewed as pests because they prevent farmers from growing crops in certain areas by rooting up the plants around their burrows. Their tunnels also make the ground less stable and more prone to collapse if animals are turned out to graze.

Because of these things, many people dislike prairie dogs. Even today they are hunted, both commercially and privately. To eradicate colonies, they are poisoned, which indirectly affects many other species. Two of the popular poisons, Rozol and the recently approved Kaput-D, contain chemicals that thin the prairie dogs' blood until they bleed to death. Not only is this horrible for the prairie dogs, any animal that eats them will encounter the same fate. Black-footed ferrets, swift foxes, American badgers, ferruginous hawks, and golden and bald eagles all prey on prairie dogs. An infected animal is easy to catch because it becomes unable to move quickly or control its motions, so many of these predators are suffering secondary poisoning. Additionally, mountain plovers and burrowing owls live and nest in prairie dog burrows and can also become infected.

Another threat to ferrets is disease, particularly sylvatic plague. Luckily, the animals can be immunized against the disease, and all ferrets born in captivity are required to be given two shots of the medicine. Although prairie dogs are also susceptible to this, it has been found more difficult to protect all of the wild colonies from the bacteria. One widespread method was to spray each burrow with flea-killing pesticides, but scientists realized that this was probably too expensive and hard to do and maintain. There had to be an easier way to accomplish this. Finally, they developed a medicine that could be mixed in with food left for the prairie dogs to eat. This also proved more efficient than the pesticides. Additionally, these studies will benefit other species susceptible to the sylvatic plague, both wild rodents and some pets.

There are now more than 1,500 ferrets throughout the established colonies, so the species has been upgraded from extinct in the wild to endangered. Although the number is low, it is still a success considering how few animals lived at one point. Black-footed ferrets are considered the most endangered mammal in North America, but the numbers are still rising to the extent that they may become relatively common over time. The current ambition is to establish ten breeding populations in the wild. When this is met, the ferret can be listed as threatened, instead of endangered. When this happens, the ferret will have returned.

Earthquake Myths From Around the World

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jaguar-sketch.jpgPrior to modern science, scientific phenomena still happened. Volcanoes would erupt, storms would break, and earthquakes would shake the ground. But people didn't know why. So they invented stories to explain these occurrences. Some of the stories they thought up are very elaborate and some are very funny.

In many cultures, an animal living underground jumps around and shakes the ground. In Mexico, it was thought that this animal was a jaguar. In Crete, it is the Bull of Knossos. Russia also had a bull. In Kamchatka, an Asian peninsula, it was a dog. An Indian story included a romping elephant.

The theme of animals that carry the earth is a common one. Siberian folklore says that a god named Tuli carried the earth on a dogsled. Unfortunately, the dogs had fleas and often scratched, causing the earthquakes. Some Native Americans thought that the earth was carried by a large tortoise. Whenever he took a step, the earth shook. Mongolians once believed that the world sat on the back of a frog. The frog would stumble, rattling his load. In West Africa, it was popularly thought that a giant carried the earth on his head. All of the plants were his hair, and all of the people and animals were insects that crawled through his hair. The earth shakes whenever he turns his head.

Other cultures have enlarged this type of story to include many animals that share the burden of carrying the earth. In India, four elephants hold the earth. A turtle holds the elephants. A cobra holds the turtle. If any of these creatures move, there's an earthquake. In East Africa, a fish carries a stone on its back. A cow stands on the stone, holding the earth on one horn. When the cow's neck starts hurting, she tosses the earth to her other horn, starting the quake.

earthquake2.jpgOther countries developed more complex stories. In Japan, a giant catfish thrashing about was responsible for starting earthquakes. Usually, the fish was pinned down by a huge boulder, but when the gods went away in October he could get loose and cause disaster. When the gods came back, their leader carried a big rock to hold the catfish down again. In Chile, earthquakes were attributed to two snakes. One snake dug holes in the earth to store water in, but the other snake filled them in with stones. This caused the reptiles to fight, which caused the tremors. In Norse myth, the naughty god Loki was punished for killing Baldr by being tied to a rock. Overhead, a poisonous snake dropped poison onto his head. His wife stood next to him with a bowl to catch the poison when it fell, but occasionally she would have to empty it. When this happened, the snake's venom would drip onto him and he would struggle to free himself, beginning the earthquake.

Now we know that earthquakes are caused by tectonic plates rubbing together. Although these plates are always moving, when the stress on the rock overcomes the friction, the energy travels in waves along the earth's surface. The lines where the plates meet are called faults, and most earthquakes happen along them. In California, the line is called the San Andreas Fault. (If you're visiting California and get in trouble, a good excuse is "It's not my fault -- it's San Andreas' Fault!" But that's rather off-topic.) If you were living in ancient times and couldn't use science to prove things, what legend do you think you would have come up with?

Harboring Harbor Seals

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harborseal.jpgThere's a good reason why the harbor seal is also called the "common seal." They're found all over the northern hemisphere's coastlines, in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and throughout the North and Baltic seas. They are also the most widespread pinniped, a term which refers to true seals, eared seals (sea lions and fur seals), and walruses. (Neither true seals nor walruses have ear flaps, known as pinnas.)

Harbor seals are true seals. They have small flippers that do not rotate and consequently have a hard time moving around on land. They rely on layers of blubber for warmth, buoyancy, and extra energy. The blubber also allows the seal's skin to be the temperature of the water surrounding it, while their core temperature, or how warm they are inside, is 100° F. They have large eyes, but most scientists think that their color vision is very bad, if existent. Harbor seals have better eyesight than humans underwater, but worse on land. Since blind seals have been found with pups in the ocean, scientists believe that sight is unimportant to harbor seals. Although they usually stay closer to the surface and come up for air once in ever three to seven minutes, they can dive 1,500 feet underwater and stay submerged for 40 minutes! Mostly, these seals catch fish, but sometimes when they've gone that deep they'll eat shrimp, crabs, mollusks, octopods, and squids.

Harbor seals spend approximately half of their time in the ocean, and the other half on land. Although they typically stay in the water only when feeding, they have been known to sleep in the water, too. Places where they regularly rest on land are called "haulouts," and the process of a seal climbing up onto the land is called "hauling out." Unfortunately, if people repeatedly disturb them they will abandon their haulouts or even their babies. Sometimes, seals dart into the sea as soon as they see or hear people. That's why beaches often post signs warning people to stay at least 100 feet away from the seals and use binoculars or cameras. Goat Rock Beach suggests 150. The Point Reyes National Seashore website advises visitors to come no closer than 300 feet.

To attract a mate, male seals will form a group, put their heads together and call the females. It is thought that the females select the strongest males. Although they can be seen at any time of the year, the best time to view harbor seals in California is probably from February to April, when they are having their babies. In the Arctic, they may wait until July! Young seals are called pups and usually born with a spotted coat. If you see a pup with a white coat, called a lanugo, it was born prematurely. (In the Arctic, the pups are born with the white fur but molt soon afterwards.)

sealsgoatrock2.jpgHarbor seals haul out on many beaches. We saw them in February on California's Goat Rock beach. (The origin of Goat Rock's name is disputed. There is a very large rock connected to the beach by a thin strip of land, and the most popular theory states that goats used to be permitted to graze on the rock because they were the only species surefooted enough to climb it.)

The Californian or Pacific harbor seal is a subspecies of harbor seal found along the entire coastline of California. In the San Francisco bay, some seals appear reddish. This unusual coloration is thought to result from tiny quantities of elements, such as iron or selenium, in the water.

Some field guides make it sound like it is very difficult to tell a harbor seal from a sea lion, but it is actually very simple. Harbor seals are usually light gray, and sea lions are dark brown. The sea lion is able to flip its flippers forward so that it can walk on land. For the most part, the seals lie on the beach, while the sea lions sit up on their front flippers and grunt. Additionally, studying a photo of any animal beforehand will help you identify it in the field.

The worldwide population of harbor seals is five or six million. Hunting seals is illegal throughout most of their range, but certain subspecies are threatened. Besides people disturbing them on beaches, the seals are caught in fishing nets and hit by boats. They are endangered by chemicals dumped in the water or released by power plants. Diseases such as the phocine distemper also threatened them. And while it is illegal in the United States to hunt harbor seals, if a seal is thought to endanger a fishery it can legally be killed. Happily, however, the numbers of harbor seals have been rising on the east coast of the US, and some have even been spotted in Florida. With care, these seals will continue to haul out throughout their widespread range.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by Jaz Brisack in January 2011.

Jaz Brisack: December 2010 is the previous archive.

Jaz Brisack: February 2011 is the next archive.

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