Thursday, April 11, 2013

The First Female Astronaut

No, it wasn't Sally Ride.

The honor belongs to two canine cosmonauts, Desik and Tysgan, who made a sub-orbital flight on July 22, 1951. Both dogs returned safely, Although Desik was killed on another flight a few months later.

Desik & Tsygan, First Dogs in Space
All the canine astronauts (29 of them) were female because it was easier to make a space suit that would allow normal excretion. since the exit points for pee and poop are close together.
Original Space Module for Soviet Space Dogs

They were all strays. The space scientists thought that dogs who'd  already been living rough on the streets of Moscow would be better able to cope with the rigors of space flight than a pampered house pet. (19 of the 29 dogs survived and returned safely to earth.)
Doggy Space Suits
All but one of the dogs was "trained" for space flight. The training consisted of being confined for long periods in progressively smaller containers, wearing space suits, and being spun in centrifuges. They must have been running around loose at least part of the time, as two of the dogs ran off just before their scheduled flights. Smelaya was recaptured and sent into space on schedule, but Bolik made good her escape. She was replaced at the last minute by an unnamed and untrained street dog who was given the acronym ZIB (Substitute for Missing Bolik). Despite her lack of training, she survived the trip. I hope they at least gave her a name afterwards.

The first dog actually sent into orbit (and the only space dog whose name is commonly known), was Laika. She flew on Sputnik 2 on November 3, 1957. It was not planned that she would survive, and she didn't.

Laika, who died in the first orbital flight.
The year after that, Belka and Strelka, wearing red and green space suits, spent an entire day in orbit aboard Sputnik 5. Belka didn't enjoy the flight. By the fourth, fifth, and sixth orbits, she was barking trying to break free of her restraints. and vomiting.
Belka (on right) & Strelka, safely returned to earth
Because Belka had suffered so much distress, the first human spaceflight (Yuri Gagarin in 1961) was limited to a single orbit.

Both Belka and Strelka lived for many years after their adventure in space. After their deaths, both were stuffed. Strelka went on tour, while Belka remains at the Memorial Museum of Aeronautics, in Moscow.
Strelka in Australia in 1993
Strelka had many puppies. Nikita Kruschev presented one puppy, named Puchinka, to Caroline Kennedy in 1961. She went on to have "pupniks" of her own with First Dog, Charlie.
Puchinka with her puppies
Every article about Puchinka asserts that she has living descendants in the U.S. today. I believe it, but no actual living dog that I could find is being put forward as an example.

Too bad. I'd really love to know for sure that descendants of the space dogs are still among us.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Golden Retriever Lifetime Health Study

If you have a Golden Retriever under 2 years of age, The Morris Animal Foundation invites you to enroll in a study of your dog's health over its lifetime:

This is the email I received from them today:

In September of last year, Morris Animal Foundation launched the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, the largest observational study ever conducted in veterinary medicine. The study seeks to recruit 3,000 purebred Golden Retrievers, their owners and their veterinarians into a lifelong observational study to evaluate the influence of genetics, diet and environment on the development of cancer and other important diseases.
“This is the most exciting study to ever happen in veterinary medicine,” said Morris Animal Foundation’s chief scientific officer, Dr. Wayne Jensen. “We will collect data as these Golden Retrievers age and be able to associate events that happened early in their life with the development of disease later in their life.”
Owners of purebred Golden Retrievers under 2 years of age who live in the United States (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) can apply for the study by registering at After registering, you will receive an email invitation to apply for the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. 
Betty White, a big MAF supporter, with friends
The Morris Animal Foundation is a non-profit dedicated to funding research for the benefit of animals worldwide. Since their founding in 1948, they have invested over $30,000,000 in projects that have led to
     Improved treatments for several different canine cancers
     The development of the vaccine for parvovirus
     Diets to manage canine kidney disease
     The first vaccine for feline leukemia
     A successful therapy for eye cancer in horses
     Veterinary care for mountain gorillas
     ...and many other important projects.
I have enrolled Caitlin in the Canine Lifetime Health Project, so I get updates on what they are doing, and, should they have an appropriate project to which she can contribute, I will certainly apply for her to participate.

They are hoping for 3000 Golden Retrievers to participate in the current study. The owners and their vets will provide information on the dogs' diet and health and other information, in the hope of finding causes and cures for cancers and other diseases. About 300 Golden Retrievers are enrolled so far.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

In Praise of Nose

A dog's nose is a wondrous thing.

It can locate a missing child:

Or a missing pet: 

It can tell if you have low blood sugar.

Or whether you are about to have a seizure.

It can detect many types of cancer.

It can help monitor endangered species.

And catch criminals.

A dog's nose helps and protects us in countless ways.

It's cold and wet.

And it's attached to someone who loves you unconditionally.

For life.

Monday, April 8, 2013

What Were They Thinking?

He passed the rigorous swimming and fitness tests and, in 2006, Bilbo, a chocolate Newfoundland, became an official member of the Penwith District Council Lifeguards, the first and only dog lifeguard in Britain.
He was named after a surfboard brand
He performed all his duties faithfully for over 2 years. He saved 3 people's lives, and kept many others from getting into trouble in the first place, once swimming in front of a woman who had entered a dangerous current despite his attempts to keep her from the water. He got a mention in the paper for that.
 Boomerang Pet Hero Award Recipient
On Bilbo's watch, the average number of rescues fell from 20 or 30 every summer to 12 in his first year, and only one in his second year (the last year he worked).
Sennen Cove Beach, a popular surfing destination where Bilbo worked.
He made school visits to teach children about water safety. The children adored him, and he had fans as far away as Japan.
With owner, Steve Jamieson
But he ran afoul of the bureaucracy--and in 2008, he was fired. When the Royal National Lifeboat Institute took over the running of the beach, they said that Bilbo's services "were no longer required," that he was not a professional lifeguard, that he presented a health and safety risk to the beach-goers, and that he would be liable for a £75 fine if he set a paw on the beach again.

The decision didn't go down well.

Bilbo supporters immediately began a petition to the Queen and Prime Minister for his re-instatement. It garnered over 10,000 signatures. A petition on the No. 10 (Downing St.) website got another 2275 names., and 7000 people joined Bilbo's Facebook group.

Finally, in 2009, Bilbo was allowed to return to his life-guarding duties.

I'm actually a bit surprised that the Lifeboat Institute didn't want Bilbo. Newfoundlands are powerful swimmers, often swimming long distances in icy waters and heavy seas. Courageous and intelligent, they also seem to have an instinct to rescue people. The breed has been credited for the rescue of hundreds of people in boating accidents and shipwrecks. They are the breed favored by most water rescue organizations.
They even do helicopter rescue.
What sort of tunnel vision would have led the Institute to spurn the services of a dog who not only was already living the Institute's motto, but whose celebrity would surely have benefited them, had they chosen to make him one of their own.
This is exactly what Bilbo had been doing
Whatever were they thinking?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Genius of Dogs

Brian Hare is interested in how dogs think.

He started researching dog cognition (He calls it dognition) while observing that his own dog could do things that chimps and bonobos could not--things that scientists thought were the province of humans alone.
Brian Hare
Prof. Hare believes that intelligence comes in many flavors and that each species has its own genius.

Clark's Nutcrackers, for instance, are industrious birds who hide as many as 10,000 seeds during the summer and  can remember where every seed is hidden months later. They take no notice of where another bird might hide something.

He has 10,000 hiding places, and know them all.
Scrub jays, on the other hand, are extremely good at remembering where other birds have hidden their seeds, which they later steal and then furtively hide somewhere else.

Once, on a camping trip in the Cuyamacas, we amused ourselves by watching the competition between the local squirrels, who would beg food from us and the jays who were lurking a few feet away. A squirrel would hide a cookie, and as soon as its back was turned a jay would swoop down, snatch the treat from its hiding place, and fly off with it. The squirrels couldn't win. The only cookies they got to keep were the ones they ate on the spot.
Stolen fruit is sweetest.
You'd think stealing other animals' food would take at least as much effort as finding your own--but I have the impression from watching jays, and from everything I've read about them, that  pulling a fast one on somebody is as pleasurable for them as having the food.

Which brings me to something I believe about intelligence: its exercise brings pleasure, not only to us, but probably to all intelligent animals. More about this in another post.

In all animals, Prof. Hare believes, real intelligence is defined by the ability to make inferences. He cites the well-known story of Chaser, a border collie who, not only had learned the names of over 1000 different objects, but was able to infer the names of objects she had never seen before. I watched on t.v. as the astronaut Neil deGrasse Tyson put Chaser through her paces. He put 9 toys behind the couch, one of which she had never seen before, and asked her to fetch them. Her score: 100%. Not only could she fetch the toys whose names she knew, when he asked her to find "Darwin," she quickly figured out that he must be referring to the one toy whose name she didn't know, and she promptly brought it to him.
VIDEO: Neil Degrasse Tyson introduces you to one amazing K-9.
Prof. Hare's research has led him to the conclusion that this inferential ability isn't limited to a single dog or a single breed. He thinks all dogs can do it.

He believes that, not only have dogs been our friends and helpers for millennia, but that they may have been crucial to our own evolution as human beings.

Dr. Hare is the director of the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University. His book is both well-researched and highly readable, with lots of clearly marked references at the end for the benefit of those who want to do further research.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

One Dog at a Time

I thought I had already written about this book, but apparently I confused the intention with the fact.

I got it from the library last year. Reading it brought both Rob and me to tears.

Pen Farthing, who wrote the book was a British Royal Marine stationed in Afganistan. He was so disturbed by the plight of the dogs there that, against orders, he began taking care of them at their military compound.
Pen Farthing with Nowzad
Although he had to leave most of his dogs in Afghanistan when his deployment ended, he was determined to bring at least a few back to England, including Nowzad, the first dog he had rescued.

He then founded a charity in Nowzad's name, dedicated to finding safe homes in the West for Afghanistan's dogs and cats (over 400 so far).

In 2011 he set up the only officially sanctioned animal rescue shelter and clinic in Afghanistan. The shelter does school visits to educate schoolchildren about animal welfare, and has also launched an animal adoption program.

The exact location of their shelter, somewhere near Kabul, is not publicized for fear of being targeted by the Taliban.

Pen Farthing has just been shortlisted for an International Volunteer Award given by CEVA, a global  veterinary phamaceutical company.

He certainly deserves it.

Dog Hats

Linda suggested this morning that I should do some research on hats. Here are some of the results:

And there are thousands more where these came from.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Dog Who Protects Australia's Penguins

The birds are tiny, barely a foot tall and weighing only a two pounds. The last remaining colony on the mainland of New South Wales is at Manly, just north of Sydney, and their numbers have been dwindling--down to just 60 breeding pairs in 2011.

They are tiny, barely a foot tall.
Predators are largely responsible for their decline: the main culprits being foxes, cats, and domestic dogs. Residents of Sydney are asked to become "penguin protectors" by keeping their pet indoors at night.

One dog, however, is sworn to protect them. She is Eco, an English Springer Spaniel, trained by Steve Austin, who has already had success training sniffer dogs for wildlife protection.
Steve Austin with Trainee
Penguin nests are well hidden and difficult for humans to locate. Eco has been taught to sniff out their burrows without disturbing the birds. As previously unknown nests are found, park rangers can map and monitor their locations and, they hope, do more effective predator control.
Eco at work
It takes her only about 40 minutes to cover over half a mile of beach.

A Little Penguin
She has also been trained as a fox and cat detection dog, and when she isn't looking for penguins, she will look for their predators, both at Manly and at other national parks in New South Wales where wildlife is under threat.
Penguin Cove opened in 2012