Friday, September 25, 2015

Is Doing the Wrong Thing Better than Doing Nothing?

The animal rights movement got it wrong 175 years ago. 
Present day politicians are getting it wrong now.

Donald Trump thinks the solution to an "epidemic" of autism is to stop using vaccines.

Officials in India think the solution to an epidemic of dog bites and rabies is to kill dogs.

Lots of people (including me) think they're wrong in both cases.

Both cases have sparked widespread outrage and protest.

On the other hand..

Winston Churchill once said, "It is better to do the wrong thing than to do nothing."

My mother relayed that bit of wisdom to me when I was a young girl, only she attributed the quote to a famous big-game hunter.
Image result for charging lion
It made perfect sense to me. If you're facing a charging lion and you do nothing, you're dead.
If you shoot and miss, you might have time for another shot.

But there are some critical differences between a charging lion and an epidemic:  whether the epidemic is autism, rabies, plague, ebola, gun violence,..

or anything else where there may be multiple causes
some or all of which may not be well-understood
and the effectiveness of the solution may not be known for some time.

In the case of the charging lion, you have only a split second to decide whether to shout and wave your arms, run, shoot, play dead, or just stand there.

The outcome of your decision will be clear within a few seconds. If the lion abandons his charge or drops dead, you'll know you probably made a good decision. If he kills you, everyone will know you got it wrong. In either case, there won't be much doubt.

Your decision may have unintended consequences (The muzzle flash from your rifle ignited a grass fire. You shot Cecil, the beloved celebrity lion--You are buried under a tsunami of global outrage.)

but these consequences are relatively limited in scope
clearly linked to your actions
and you'll be made aware of them quite soon.

In most other cases, things are a lot murkier
For instance..

In 19th-century England, small street vendors, most of whom couldn't afford to buy a horse, used  dogs to haul their wares,
A Dutch or Belgian Milk Cart

At that time, the animal rights movement was just beginning to gain some traction. In 1822, Bill Burns became the first person put on trial for cruelty to an animal. (He beat his donkey.)
Image result for trial of bill burns
The Prosecution of Bill Burns
The newly minted Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had as its aim," not only “to prevent the exercise of cruelty towards animals, but to spread amongst the lower orders of the people ... a degree of moral feeling which would compel them to think and act like those of a superior class.”

The SPCA could hardly risk losing their influential donors by calling for a ban on fox hunting. 

Banning dog carts carried little risk--and still allowed them to take the moral high ground. 

After vigorous lobbying and an emotional press campaign, and despite a few protests that poor folks' lives depended on their dogs, Parliament passed the Dog Cart Act in 1842. In order to give the law some teeth, they also passed a tax on the dogs themselves.

Undoubtedly, Parliament and the SPCA truly wanted to stop dogs from suffering.

Instead, in the next few months, thousands of poor people either killed their dogs or turned them out to fend for themselves. A thousand dogs were slaughtered in Birmingham--and thousands more across the country. So many dead dogs littered the streets of Cambridge that the High Constable had to arrange a mass burial for them to mitigate the health hazard.**

SPCA got it wrong.  I think for some of the same reasons that Donald Trump and the government of India are getting it wrong.

The SPCA had plenty of evidence that cart-pulling was a dismal and sometimes cruel life for a dog.

Donald Trump probably has plenty of evidence that autism is a big problem. When other Republicans confronted him over his stance on vaccines, he simply reiterated his concerns about autism.

When authorities in Kerala were confronted with outrage over the culling of dogs, they repeated the scary statistics: "more than 23,000 people were bitten by dogs last year, and nearly half of them contracted rabies."

Anytime people face a dangerous or frightening situation, the gut response is, "We've got to do something!"

Anything seems better than nothing.
Usually, whatever intuitively seems right.
And whatever fits in with what we already believe..
Image result for there ought to be a law
The Solution to Every Problem
Doing the wrong thing might be a reasonable strategy if we're unsure of what to do..
And are willing to consider the possibility of being wrong, and ready to change course if necessary.
But we rarely are
There ought to be a law against that..

**Coren, Stanley, The Intelligence of Dogs, Bantam Books, New York, 1994, pp. 155-156
(source of link above),+victorian+england&source=bl&ots=2iyukQcLql&sig=V7KTEGTlPExbAtqt4LS_KsvWMfA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CD0Q6AEwBWoVChMI0fTIy-SSyAIVx5yACh0vUQxw#v=onepage&q=banning%20of%20dog%20carts%2C%20victorian%20england&f=false

Thursday, September 24, 2015

4 Reasons You Should Be Glad Dogs Love to Sniff Poop

Dogs have amazing noses. They sniff everything--especially, it seems, things that most of us humans find disgusting--such as rotting corpses and poop. They revel in the symphony of smells, appreciating every nuance, identifying every "note" of the complex mix of aromas with a precision far beyond the skill of any master perfumer.
Image result for dogs sniffing poop
Mmmm...Heart notes of skatole, with subtle undertones of flatulatus!
Lucky for us that they do!

Here are some of the reasons the world should be glad that dogs like excrement:

1. Dogs can count grizzly bears at a fraction of the usual cost.

In 1999, Sam Wasser, a scientist at the University of Washington wanted to learn how human activities were affecting bears in the Canadian Rockies. He thought that dogs sniffing out bear scat might be able to do a better job than radio-telemetry and hair-snag stations.
Image result for canadian grizzly bear
A Canadian Grizzly
Despite skepticism from most biologist, Wasser's dogs proved him right. The dogs' noses found 4 times more grizzly bears in each square mile of the project than hair-snag stations did. Nineteen bears who had been trapped and collared provided lots of information, too--but after 3 years, showed the same bear distribution as the dogs had found. Moreover, the radio collaring cost a million dollars. Wasser's dogs cost $30,000.
Grizzly Being Collared

Another downside to radio collars-- the trapping killed two grizzly bears and badly injured another. "High stakes for a population of only 100 threatened animals,"*

Analysis of the dog-nose data showed evidence of grizzly bear poaching.. The scientists recommended keeping off-road vehicles out of remote areas as much as possible so the poachers would find it harder to get in.
Feeding them causes all sorts of problems
They also concluded that tourists in Jasper National Park were probably feeding the black bears (but not grizzlies)--to the detriment of the bears' health. They recommended more stringent monitoring of tourist behavior in the park.
Image result for conservation canines
Conservation Canines
Wasser's bear study was the beginning of Conservation Canines, Here's another project his poop-sniffing dogs dogs are currently working on:

2. Dogs can monitor whale populations without traumatizing the whales.

As of July 1, 2015, only 81 killer whales were resident in the waters of Washington state and Alaska. No babies were born last year, and 2 whales died. In 1997, 97 killer whales made these waters their home. The decline has scientists worried. In order to find out what was happening to the whales, they need whale poop and they need to get it without traumatizing the whales. 

Who'd have thought that dogs would be good candidates for such a job?
Black labrador dog leaning over the bow of the motor boat,
Tucker on a Whale Hunting Expedition

Tucker, a black lab (who, ironically, is afraid of water), started his training by sniffing out whale poop on land. Then the trainer floated the poop on a styrofoam platform and took Tucker out in a canoe to find it. Now Tucker can smell whale poop over a mile away from the research boat. No styrofoam required, since luckily for the study, whale poop floats--at least for a while..
Killer Whales in Puget Sound
Early indications are that the whales aren't getting enough to eat, probably because their favorite food, Chinook salmon, is also in decline. Another likely culprit--whale-watching boats.

The big question: Can the researchers find a way to bring the whale numbers back up to a healthy level? If they do, dogs like Tucker will have been key to their success.

I'd need an entire book (probably several) to name all the ways that poop-sniffing dogs are helping wildlife and the environment.

They're also helping human beings directly.

3. Dogs can detect colon cancer more accurately than any standard test.

Colon cancer is the third most common cancer other than skin cancers. In 2015, over 93,000 people are expected to learn that they have it, and 700 are expected to die from it. A trained dog who sniffs your poop can detect it with 95% accuracy.  

    Image result for canine cancer sniffers
    A medical detection dog at work

That's way more accurate than a colonscopy (60% - 70% accuracy). Another bonus. You don't have to drink a gallon of nauseating liquid the day before and you don't have to have anything stuck up your rear end! Unfortunately, canine cancer detectives aren't going to be checking your samples anytime soon. but scientists hope to isolate the exact molecules the dogs are sniffing and use them to come up with a more accurate screening test of their own.

Dogs can detect many (maybe most or all) human cancers by sniffing breath and various body fluids They provide an exciting avenue for new research into this terrible disease.

4. Poop-sniffing dog projects are saving lots of dogs who would otherwise be killed.

Almost all the dogs who sniff poop for a living came from shelters.
These three were at-risk shelter dogs
They got there because they were hyper-dogs--obsessive, way too energetic to settle down comfortably in a family, and so ball-crazy that they drove their owners nuts.
They probably weren't going to leave the shelter alive.

But those are the exact traits needed for some kinds of working dogs, and especially for poop-sniffing conservation dogs. They must be able to endure harsh conditions and difficult terrain and still stay focused on the job at hand.
Looking for caribou, moose, and wolves in Alberta
Dogs who sniff poop are helping wildlife and our environment all over the world. They're helping manage human disease. And they're helping provide a second chance and a meaningful life for many dogs who otherwise probably wouldn't make it.

We should all be glad that dogs like to sniff poop.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Can dogs really sniff out child pornography?

At any given time, an estimated 750,000 child predators are trolling the internet for victims. Can a dog smell them?

Perhaps not directly. But they can smell the evidence.

Predators who enjoy watching or participating in the sexual abuse of children prefer to keep the records of their depravity on small media such as thumb drives or micro-sd cards that can be easily hidden from the prying eyes of spouses or law enforcement.

But a dog trained to sniff out electronic devices can find them whether they're taped under a mattress or buried inside a shoe at the back of a closet.

Thoreau, a golden lab,  flunked out of Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York.