Friday, July 31, 2009

The Cove

If you are up for the gruesome reality it portrays, the award winning documentary, The Cove, shines a movie camera into the behind the scenes world of the not so "theme park-esque" reality associated with capturing the dolphins regularly used for those marine park dolphin shows. Filmed in the genre of a thriller, the film-makers sneak into the locales where dolphins are culled from the wild and the picture is not too pretty.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the documentary packed them in at Sundance where it won the audience award for documentaries. The WSJ notes some of the film's highlights:

--the rounding up of the dolphins in the wild which involves planting metal poles in the water and hitting them, sending the noise sensitive dolphins into a nearby cove, where nets are waiting for them
--fishermen and divers sort through those rounded up, looking for the easy-to-train bottlenose dolphins and moving the others into another hidden location where they are killed for their meat

Like I said, it is not pretty, but the action takes place in the Japanese fishing village of Taiji and features Ric O'Barry, who trained the dolphins for the television show, Flipper. After he saw the animals he worked with die in captivity, he became an advocate for releasing dolphins from marine parks around the country.

Not a bad mission, if you ask me, who admits to having gone swimming with dolphins in Florida at a marine mammal facility as well as watched many others participate in theme park shows. The swimming was incredible--but nothing compared with actually swimming with them in the wild, in New Zealand. The shows were fun but those dolphins should have been performing those tricks in the wild for each other.

Go see the movie if you need any more convincing.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Miami International Racino?

So have you ever flown through or to the Miami airport? Better yet, have you ever tried to drive to or from the Miami airport? It is a nightmare, even for those who know it well and live there. Under construction for at least the last decade or so (at least it seems that way), every entrance or exit is a traffic accident waiting to happen--and that is before you even try to find your gate or check your luggage. Trust me. Most people find a way to fly around Miami even if it means driving a little farther to their ultimate destination.

But now comes word of a reason horse lovers might actually want to fly to Miami--the plan by county administrators to add slot machines to the airport. Trouble is, there is a provision in the state law that requires horse racing to accompany the slots. Which means that somehow, county administrators would have to operate horse races at the Miami airport!!

Truly, the concept is only totally absurd if you have ever flown to or from the Miami airport--if not, it is simply completely ludicrous. Ideally, the state law that ties slot machines to horse racing would permit the two activities to take place in two different locations, but just in case it doesn't, county administrators have proposed the creation of race track on a section of Miami International's employee parking lot!!!

Mind you, they're not thinking thoroughbreds--they require too much room--but Quarter horses. "The site is sufficient to accommodate a J-loop track that will allow for races of distances generally conducted at quarter horse race meets," reads the application on file with the state's Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering states, according to the Miami Herald. In all honesty, could I make this up?

I get it that the slots might be able to bring in the cash needed to finally finish the construction to the airport, but can't you just see it now? "Ladies and gentlemen, we are delayed until after the fifth race. You still have time to place your bets." Or better yet, "Your flight has been canceled but if you hang around and play the slots for a while, we can probably get you on the next one."

But wait, there's more. Marc Dunbar, a lobbyist for Gulfstream Race Track (which loves the idea, especially if some of those days required to obtain slot machines at the race track are run at their facility up the road), notes that in Lexington, Kentucky, the airport is directly across the street from Keeneland.

Which somehow is all the more reason to place one in a parking lot.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Del Mar Highs and Lows

Opening day at Del Mar, Wednesday, July 22, featured the highs and the lows of racing on one card. First the highs: record attendance which was an all-time Del Mar record with 44,907 in the house. Beautiful weather; beautiful track; beautiful card...What could go wrong?

Lots. In the third race, 8 year old gelding Mi Rey, stumbled, veered to the right and lost his rider, Rafael Bejarano. Bejarano was then trampled by the horse behind him and suffered multiple facial fractures. The horse, Mi Rey, pictured above, fractured his ankle (reminiscent of Barbaro's fracture although it was a front ankle not a rear one) and was euthanized on the track.

The events happened early in the stretch run of the six furlong race, in plain view of many of those 44,000 plus spectators. Need I say more?

"It was an emotional rollercoaster," concluded Del Mar Turf Club President and CEO Joe Harper. "You hate to see something like that happen any time, but especially when you have a crowd that includes so many people who may come to the races only once a year."

The jockey is expected to recover, though he will face multiple surgeries to put his face back together again. Not so many of those "once a year" fans who may never come back again.

No finger pointing or blaming--just the continual story of what the sport entails. Nobody likes to see it happen or be reminded of the danger inherent in every race, but there it is, front and center when you least expect it. Trainer Vladimir Cerin put it into whatever perspective there is on the situation with this remark: 'Things just happen. Thousands of people die in car accidents every year in this country and not all of them from people drinking. This is an exciting sport, but sometimes things just happen. And people get hurt as well as horses."

Just a reminder of everything the sport is racing for and against every single day.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Capstone Presentation

For those of you who have 23 minutes to kill or who are just curious about my Capstone presentation for my MLA, here it is.

Thanks for watching.

Oh, and the missing parrot, has been returned--see Saturday's post.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Lowdown on the Low-down

My daughter, who recently graduated with an undergraduate degree in biology, explored the genetic components of one aspects of the dog's anatomy--the shape of its nose. The premise behind her theoretical experiment was that by changing the one gene that is responsible for the shape of a nose, she could induce either "pug" or "snout" noses in lab rats.

The research was, of course, hypothetical so we will never know if she is right but recent research on the gene responsible for short legs in dachshunds may provide a clue. It turns out there is a single extra copy of a gene that is responsible for the breed's short legs.

According to a post of the TierneyLab blog of the New York Times, Heidi Parker, a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health's National Human Genome Research Institute, recently reported in Science, that the extra copy of the gene was acquired by mutation at least 300 years ago.

This extra gene causes overproduction of a protein that actually stunts the growth of the legs of such breeds as dachshunds and basset hounds. Once the gene appeared, breeders could select for it when looking to breed dogs with short legs. The basset hound was intentionally "designed" with short legs, according to Parker, so that people on horse back could keep up with it during hunts.

The dachshund's long body and short legs are, of course, ideal for burrowing into holes to flush out vermin--the job for which they were bred--but also have created the tendency in the breed for members to develop spinal issues. Ironically these issues are often related to those short legs--back injuries resulting from jumping on or off furniture.

Owners of short legged breeds usually adore their pooches just for this trait, so it is interesting to note that those low slung profiles are really developmental disorders.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Find That Bird!

Missing from the Philadelphia Zoo: a sun conure parrot that made its escape at the end of the "free flight" performance on Wednesday, July 22. Apparently this parrot figured out the difference between the great outdoors and the aviary in which it lives (although I will say the aviary is brand new, very spacious and beautiful) and took off for the great beyond.

Now zoo officials are trying to track it down. This particular species of bird is hard to miss. It has a bright yellow head, an emerald green rear and orange around both eyes. Zoo officials believe that it got lost at the end of the show but we will, of course, never know if the parrot chose freedom over stardom.

The birds that participate in this free flight show go through months of training, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, and "are supposed to come back." Not so this particular parrot who is young, about five or six months old. "We want to do everything we can to search for it and bring it back safely to its zoo family," said zoo spokesperson, Bill Larson.

Meanwhile, the bird should be fine on its own in the "wild" until the winter. Richard Farinato, senior director of animal-care centers with the Human Society of the United States speculates that the bird could survive on seeds, bugs, bark and even bird seed from a bird-feeder. It has a band around one leg but no other identification and no implanted GPS.

So, depending on your point of view, either wish him a safe trip to the southern hemisphere or hope he lands on the grounds of a birder who will alert the animal rescue team at the zoo. So far, no parrots to report on the dog-infested borders of our backyard!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Cruella de Ville in Real Life

Glenn Close, as in the actress, is a true dog lover. In fact, she is one of the brains behind the catalog fetchdog that features lots of nifty devices for the canine set. The summer catalog came recently and the Glenn Close charitable pick caught my eye.

Made by the footware company, Vibram, the toy in question is a "chewy shoe" and it was created in honor of the veterans who actually rely on their products. It is called DogTags Chewy Shoe and can be ordered on their website. $2 from every purchase goes to support veterans.

And here's another inspired way that pets are helping veterans. trains prison inmates to train service dogs that are provided to veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Service dogs are used by many veterans who have been either emotionally or physically traumatized during their tour(s) of service.

To learn more, check out and read Glenn Close's interview with Bill Campbell and his service dog, Pax. It seems that the Cruella de Ville role was truly just that!

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Whale of a Story

Have you ever seen a whale? I mean, eye to eye, up close and personal. I have, in New Zealand and it is one of those experiences that truly changes your life, as cliche as that sounds. Being that close to something that large, wise and almost pre-historic makes you feel both insignificant and privileged at the same time. You know you are in the presence of something special and knowing.

Which may be why the recent Charles Siebert article about whales in the New York Times struck such a chord with me. Siebert does his usual masterful job of detailing the presence of the grey whales in the Baja lagoons where they have returned to give birth and interact favorably with humans after years of conflict. It is quite a remarkable story.

In fact, the entire bifurcated history of human-whale interaction is but one more paradox in the litany of complicated and complex scenarios we have created in our overall relationship with animals. Alternating between awe and assassination, the human whale history is fraught with duplicity and it is only recently, say within the last 50 years, that we have come to view these splendid creatures as the gentle, wise souls that they are.

Please search out the article and settle in for a good read. And let me know if you feel inspired to hop a plane to Baja and experience the miracles he describes for yourself!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bo's Turf

Did you watch the presidential news conference on health care reform last night? I did, on ABC, and the best moment came when the camera panned back for a long view of the White House as they were signing off. What was clearly visible on the White House lawn? The white flags of the Invisible Fence System! Bo is going leash-less!

We are veterans of the system having inherited it when we bought our house and as I have written before, I do not think we could have kept our two earliest dogs, George and Lucy, without having that invisible boundary. George, in particular, could leap the eight foot wooden fence that surrounds our property from a complete standstill!

He also was known to challenge the electronic boundaries but at least we had a fighting chance of keeping him contained. Lucy, too, was known to "fly" over fences but she had less interest in wandering too far from the food source.

It seems as if Bo too will be contained by electronic boundaries, reinforced, for the moment, by the white flags that grace the White House lawn. During the training phase, the dog is walked on a leash up to the flags and when he gets a warning buzz (no shock), he is told, "No" and walked away. Gradually he learns not to go any further. Eventually the flags disappear and the dog is "magically" contained. Given the huge parameters of the White House lawns, my guess is that this system is also going to be a blessing for the Obamas and from the looks of those white flags, Bo is going to have quite a lot of room to run free.

Mark my words, we are going to hear about the Invisible Fence from PETA and all those who think the shocking system is harmful to pets. What they do not realize is that the idea is for the pets NOT to get shocked--hence, no harm. What, might one wonder, would they say about confining Bo to a physical "pen" marked by wooden fence sections that were covered in chicken wire? Can you just imagine the uproar a dog run would have caused on the middle of the south lawn?

My guess is that Bo is being gently guided away from the fountains and the gardens and that the cost of keeping him contained electronically is far less than any associated with repairing the damage he could create if left to his own devices. Not to mention, it is a good lesson for those girls to train their dog.

I think it is a perfect solution for a family that is trying very hard to integrate their pooch into some kind of normal family routine. Give them credit. They are making the same decisions that many of us face when a dog enters our homes for the first time: how to contain them and keep them safe without spending a fortune to build a fence.

Not a bad model of fiscal responsibility if you ask me.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Animal Morality

In this article from The Telegraph (UK), Marc Bekoff, an ecologist at the University of Colorado, espouses the theories from his new book, Wild Justice. His basic premises is that animals have moral codes, a trait previously thought to only apply to humans. "The belief that humans have morality and animals don't is a long standing assumption, but there is a growing amount of evidence that is showing us that this simply cannot be the case," he said.

He goes on to cite examples from numerous species including wolves, coyotes, elephants, Diana monkeys, chimpanzees, rodents, bats and whales. Some of the wild members of the dog family exhibit behaviors that sound like those seen in domesticated dogs, including "play" biting to initiate integration into a pack, even by a dominant member of the pack. Packs of wolves and coyotes exhibit fairness, similar to that displayed by domesticated dogs who "share" treats with their pack members.

Monkeys exhibit this same type of "fairness" concept. A male laboratory Diana monkey who was trained to insert a token into a slot to receive food, "helped" an older monkey with the behavior when it proved to be too difficult for her. Likewise, chimpanzees treated the chimpanzee known as Knuckles who has cerebral palsy, "differently" than they did the other chimps in the group. He is rarely subject to intimidation or aggression from older males.

The most remarkable example of moral behavior came from elephants, however. In 2003, a herd of 11 elephants "rescued" antelopes who were being held in an enclosure in a South African game reserve. The matriarch of the herd used her trunk to unlatch the gate and hold it open so that all the antelope could escape. This, according to Richard Gray who wrote the piece, "is thought to be a rare example of animals showing empathy for members of another species--a trait previously thought to be the exclusive preserve of mankind."

My own dogs actually exhibit remarkable pack behavior, including me in their group. When we are in the dog park, one or more of them always circles back to check on whatever straggler (human or animal) is lagging behind. Interestingly enough it is often the youngest, Sammy, who adopts the role of "pack-watcher," taking the older dogs under his wing. I know Amos has the instinct to herd all of us but goldens are more prone to chasing than herding. Did he learn from Amos or did he take on this responsibility all by himself? And is he doing it to "take care" of us or to make sure we are "watching" him?

Who knows? But I do think that Bekof's suggestions are not human projections of our moral code on the animals we observe. I do think each species abides by its own code of conduct that includes ethics that may or may not jive with ours.

What do you think?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Bill Smith's Continued Campaign

Bill Smith, who heads an organization based in my neck of the woods called Main Line Rescue, made headlines when he got Oprah to dedicate two episodes of her show to showing behind the scenes footage of his volunteers rescuing dogs from puppy mills. In fact, Smith has dedicated most of his life to fighting puppy mills which seem to be especially prevalent in Lancaster County, Pa.

The July 20 issue of Newsweek has a follow up to this fight and the article about it that Suzanne Smalley had written in April (Newsweek, 4.13/2009. Vol. 153, issue 15, p. 52-55), in the form of a short article by the same author. In it, she writes that Smith had noticed that many of the farms near Main Line Rescue, which is close to Lancaster County, had signs announcing that they were organic dairies. A little digging later, and Smith discovered that one known puppy mill operation that had already been cited for keeping dogs in filthy cages was supplying milk to Horizon Organics. If you shop at Whole Foods, you will find Horizon products in their dairy section.

Before Smalley printed her April piece, she contacted both Horizon Organics and Whole Foods to notify them that Newsweek was publishing an article that would reveal they were purchasing milk from an "organic" farmer who had received citations for mistreating dogs. Horizon subsequently suspended the farmer from their list of suppliers. This farmer, who no longer peddles or raises dogs, has recently been reinstated as a Horizon supplier.

But there's more. Smith demanded that Whole Foods notify all of their chains that they should not do business with farmers who have dog breeding/selling operations on the side. They did. According to Smalley, this was a huge request on the part of Whole Foods and shows, as Smith puts it, that "consumers have always had the power to close these facilities."

Now Smith is making the same demands of all other businesses who do business with farmers that operate dog breeding/raising operations on the side. "If other companies follow Whole Foods' lead, farmers everywhere who are operating puppy mills as side businesses will either clean up their acts or stop breeding dogs altogether," he notes.

As they say, one small step for responsible business practices; one giant step for animal welfare.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Horses with Strings Attached

These incredible photos are from the New York Times article about the play that is packing them in in London, War Horse. It is the story of a British boy named Albert whose horse Joey is sold to a British officer during world War I. Albert is heart-broken at losing his best friend and he enlists, hoping to track down Joey. I won't give away the ending but suffice it to say the Times reports there are few dry eyes when the final curtain goes down.

Aside from the magic of the story, there is the incredible magic of the puppets that bring the horses in the story to life. Each horse requires two puppeteers to manipulate it, one inside and one outside, many of whom undergo incredible physical stress to make the horses come to life. Most receive deep tissue massage once or twice a week and many have been to physical therapy. Yet few would trade their jobs for the privilege of making the horses come to life.

"In my audition, I was quite awestruck at being able to even touch Joey," says Laura Cubitt, who is in charge of the horse's hind legs and tail. "Becoming part of him, I just feel a huge responsibility to make him fully alive."

Another, Finn Caldwell, who plays another horse's chest, legs and breathing motions (yes, they breathe) puts it this way: "when you give so much physically, when your knuckles are bleeding, when you have to commit to the pain you have to ask yourself, 'What is it for?' I know what it's for. I love these horses."

Makes me want to fly to London to see for myself but plans are afoot to bring the show to Broadway in 2011. If you can't hold out that long, you might want to check out these additional photos, also from the Times.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

What's In Your Vitamin Pill?

I am sure you are just as guilty of it as I am--adding supplements to your pet's diet. Glucosamine, in particular, is always on the menu chez Feldman in the form of treats loaded with it and vitamin supplements that all the dogs receive.

Trouble is that not all supplements are created equal. According to a recent article in the Inquirer, in a recent study by the National Animal Supplement Council, 28% of the 87 brands it tested did not contain what was claimed. In addition, "four of the six joint supplements for animals tested by lacked the amounts of glucosamine or chondroitin promised on their labels, or had other flaws such as lead." Yikes!

Human and animal supplements are not regulated by the FDA so there have always been discrepancies in brands. And animals, of course, cannot tell you if the supplements are working, like humans claim they are. Some vets will prescribe certain brands because they know they contain the amounts of ingredients they feel are safe, but not everyone agrees on what is indeed considered safe.

Currently, according to the article, up to one third of the dogs and cats in the U. S. are given supplements, most likely operating from the premise that if it is safe for mommy and daddy, it is safe for their pets. Sales of pet supplements, in fact, have almost doubled since 2003, according to the Nutrition Business Journal and now account for near $1 billion a year.

So what's the bottom line? Supplements may indeed work for some animals just like the may work for some people, but there is no hard core scientific evidence to prove their efficacy. In other words, glucosamine is not hip replacement in a bottle.

As for me, well I am going to continue because it does not seem to be doing any harm and I might at well use up the bottles I have! Let me know what supplements you use and whether or not they seem to be working.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A New Take on Barbaro's Derby Performance

I am working on another article for Penn which means I am spending a lot of time on campus, in the library and occasionally, in the bookstore. The other day on one of my forays through the animal section, I happened upon a new book entitled The Dog By the Cradle, the Serpent Beneath by Erika Ritter. To be honest, the title caught my eye but so did the sub-title, Some Paradoxes of Human-Animal Relationships.

The Canadian author is fascinated by our paradoxical relationship to animals: how it is that we can kill what we claim to love, for one, all captured in the themes of the ages-old story about the dog left to guard a baby's cradle by well intentioned parents. While they are away, a servant enters the room and discovers the dog splattered with blood, the cradle overturned and the child missing. When the parents return, the father immediately slays the dog. Only then do they turn the cradle over, discover the child, unharmed, sleeping peacefully and a venomous snake, dead and bloodied, flung into the corner by the loyal dog.

How quick we are to blame those animals we love and trust! And how we assuage that guilt by elevating some members of their species to a privileged existence. Interesting conundrum to be sure, and one that I feel is embodied in our relationship to race horses in particular.

While Ritter does not pick up that exact trail, she does explore the Barbaro phenomenon in some depth and I was pleased to see that she even touched on the "hero" concept. She goes on to explore the Eight Belles tragedy as well as Big Brown's failed campaign for the Triple Crown. Both of these horses, in her opinion, were exploited by their ability to run on, as she puts it "hard turf track for a living."

First of all, there is the problem of her terminology. None of the Triple Crown races are contested on turf tracks so she is inaccurate in her choice of words. What I believe she meant to say was hard dirt tracks and a careful editor should have picked that up. But there is another hypothesis that she posits that I hadn't considered: that Barbaro's "spectacular Derby performance very likely contributed to the fracture that not only hobbled him in the Preakness two weeks later, but led to his death."

Does she mean to suggest that if Barbaro had won the Derby less convincingly he might not have broken down in the Preakness? Or that the races are run too close together? Or that horses should not run fast at all? Or that they just shouldn't run fast on dirt surfaces?

Anyone who watches the replay of Barbaro's Kentucky Derby victory will see a horse being hand ridden down the stretch, pulling away of his own volition. Remember that when Gretchen Jackson led him into the winner's circle, she noted that he wasn't even damp--hadn't broken a sweat. The whole event was like a romp in the park for him, she has mentioned.

I don't think Ritter should be so sure of her claim that Barbaro's Derby performance was at the root of his Preakness breakdown without scientific proof of such. And of course, that is impossible. But short of x-raying every race horse after every race, we have no way of knowing whether breakdowns are cumulative, structural or just plain bad luck. My guess is that it is a little bit of each.

Ritter has ventured into murky areas where controversy reigns and while I am delighted that she gives the Barbaro phenomenon the scholarly attention it deserves, I don't feel she has the racing knowledge to make unsubstantiated claims.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Llamas on the Lam!!!

My brother created quite a stir at one of the golf courses he manages in North Carolina by using llamas as caddies. Turns out they are remarkably cooperative when it comes to toting golf bags and they certainly are a marketing sensation.

This story from the Louisville station WLKY website made me sit up and wonder whether the refugees in question were some of his brood who had migrated off course. Turns out the llamas belong to Kentucky llama farmer Dale Hill. Felicity, the llama who led the great escape, noticed an opening in the fence and decided to check it out.

No harm done, other than a few startled neighbors who thought they were seeing things when a llama appeared in their back yard. According to Hill, the three escapees had an "all-nighter," on the road. All were eventually safely captured and returned to life on their farm.

Makes you wonder what they thought of the open road or maybe they were just looking for a wayward tee shot.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Virigina Derby

Nicanor has his work cut out for him on Saturday in the Virginia Derby, which CBS is broadcasting (check your local listings). He is facing a talented field in the Grade 2 Race, but he is the morning line favorite.

Having drawn the #4 post position, with Jose Lezcano aboard, Nicanor will have to face experienced 3-year olds, including Battle of Hastings, a British-bred gelding. He is coming off a win in the Colonial Turf Cup. Hold Me Back, who finished 12th in the Kentucky Derby, is also in the race. It will be his turf debut.

Who knows how Nicky will fare but I don't think we are looking at a 15 1/4 length victory by anyone. I also know that Michael Matz would not enter a horse unless he thought he was A) ready and B) had a legitimate chance. There will also be legions of fans to cheer Nicky on and some might say, a certain brotherly presence watching from above.

The other factor that might come into play is the weather. There is a chance of thunderstorms predicted on Saturday on the East coast which may or may not include Virginia. If it rains heavily, they may either delay the race or move it off the turf. Who knows what would happen in that case.

All in all, a typical horse racing day--when anything can happen. That's what makes it fun and exciting!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Hatching a Food Safety Plan

OK, they're trying but it's still not enough. I'm talking about VP Biden's recent announcements about improved safety measures his administrations is taking with regard to the nation's food supply. For starters, eggs will now have to be refrigerated on the farm as well as in transit to the store and the Food Safety and Inspection Service is working on developing new tests to reduce salmonella in chickens and turkeys.

Great ideas for sure--and long overdue--but what about the archaic practice of separating the tasks of food safety inspection between two government entities: the FDA and the Department of Agriculture? Which is one of the reasons that the Department of Agriculture (responsible for meat) inspects pepperoni pizzas while the FDA inspects cheese ones.

But hey, one has to start small and baby steps are better than no steps. The mandate to refrigerate eggs on the farm and in transit is estimated to to cost producers $81 million per year but at the same time is estimated to reduce food borne illnesses by 60%. We are sure to hear moans and groans from some farm lobbies but many of the suppliers are already refrigerating their eggs at the source.

In addition, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is also promising to increase their enforcement efforts at meat-processing plants in an effort to reduce e-coli. At the same time, the FDA has promised to issue to new guidelines for the handling of fresh fruits and vegetables.

No mention of combining the efforts into ONE Food Safety Office BUT instead promises to beef up staff at both government agencies, including the commitment of the FDA to hire a new deputy commissioner of foods and the FSIS to hire a new medical officer.

That might be too easy.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

When the Bed Bugs Bite

Bedbugs have become a serious problem. No laughing matter, they can inflict hundreds of tiny, itchy bites in minutes and many people have allergic reactions to their bites. Enter Heidi the beagle, one of 50 dogs trained nationwide to sniff out and detect bed bugs.

Heidi happens to be located in Philadelphia and is the bed bug sniffing dog of Martin Overline, owner of Aadvark Pest Management located in the Frankford section of the city. She was trained at J & K Canine Academy in High Springs, Florida and is rewarded with food when she sniffs out bed bugs. "That is how she is trained, reinforced and fed," Overline told the Inquirer. "She is fed at no other time."

Overline paid $10,000 for Heidi, a large expense for a small company, its owner acknowledges. But for Overline it is a small price to pay for accuracy. "I can only find bedbugs 30% of the time, and she can do it 90% of the time," Overline admitted.

DDT was used to eradicate bedbugs after World War II but it is not illegal. According to Overline, nothing in their current arsenal works as well. Combined with an overall increase in international travel and bedbugs seem to have made their return with a vengeance. In fact, once Overline finds them, he eradicates them in a homemade device that resembles an oven for bedbugs.

"I take everything the bedbugs may have been in contact with and put them in a box I made from 2-inch thick-hard-insulated foamboard," he explained. "Then I add space heaters and fans to boost the temperature. . . to 113 degrees or higher." At this temperature, the bedbugs die.

All of which is made easier by the presence of Heidi who sniffed them out in the first place.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hop To It!

About two weeks ago on one of our tromps through the soggy June woods, a huge toad leaped right in our path. The dogs were absolutely nonplussed. I, however, was not. The toad was about six inches long and all puffed up and completely harmless. In fact, as it turns out, I should have taken note of the exact location of that toad and sent it in to Frogwatch USA.

It turns out that counting frogs and toads is incredibly important to scientists. Amphibians with their semi-permeable skin are very sensitive to changes in the environment and can help indicate where environmental pollutants are especially prevalent and potentially deadly. Indeed, more than 2,000 amphibian species from around the world are endangered and raise many questions about the state of the environments in their native habitats.

Frogwatch USA, currently under the auspices of the National Wildlife Foundation but soon to be the province of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is undertaking its yearly summer count of frogs and toads around the country. Anyone can participate by signing up at their website, which is filled with helpful information about the best places to count and watch frogs in your neck of the woods.

It turns out that amphibians have also contributed to our understanding of anatomy. We have also discovered antibiotics and some analgesics from amphibians and they have long been important cultural symbols around the world.

So hop to it!! Go out and count the frogs in your neighborhood--especially if you have had as soggy a Spring as we have had in the East, they should be especially plentiful. You'll be doing backyard science and contributing to our understanding of climate change.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Writers on Writing

There is a fabulous interview in the July 13 edition of Newsweek with six writers discussing the state of the industry. They include two of my favorites: Robert Caro and Susan Orlean as well as Lawrence Block, Elizabeth Strout, Kurt Anderson and Annette Gordon-Reed.

Some themes are prevalent: the worry about the state of the industry, the worry about who will read (buy) their books and the common thread that for all its uncertainly, none of them can think of anything else they would rather do. Which may be the point: great writers have no real choice about whether or not to pursue their craft. Their craft pursues them.

And about that craft. None of them say that it's easy or terribly difficult but that it is arduous. So you better like what you are saying because you are going to be working on saying it for some period of time. as lawrence Block puts it: "If you set out to please yourself, then maybe you will."

As for the future of the industry, Susan Orlean is a big fan of the Kindle and in fact, admits that she just finished reading Madame Bovary on her i-phone: "The book is the book, and the story is the story. But it has certain advantages. You can make the font bigger. You can turn it sideways if you want to read it like that. It was actually probably better than reading it in a cheap paperback."

The point, once again, is that electronic publishing is not going to change the concept of sharing written stories; just the ways in which they are read.

And here's the animal connection, in case you were wondering. Susan Orlean compared the new wave of publishing to trading a horse for a car, way back when.

Her point: "Somebody made this analogy, which I think is extreme, but when cars were developed, people began keeping horses for pets, or if they were really beautiful, they had a beautiful horse for the sake of having a beautiful horse, but they drove a car. I think you're going to continue buying very visual books..."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Make Way For Elephants

So the remaining two elephants in the Philadelphia zoo are packing their trunks (pun intended) and getting ready to hit the road. After much debate and publicity surrounding their current habitat, which animal activists deemed too small and out of date, the pair of African elephants is being transferred to the Pittsburgh Zoo's 724 acre International Conservation Center.

Although these conditions are certainly better than their present accommodations, they are not meeting with the approval of the Friends of Philly Zoo Elephants. According to Marianne Bessey, who heads the group, the concern is that Kallie (age 27) and Betty (age 28) will be bred, a practice they feel is a health risk because of the elephants' advanced ages.

The Philadelphia Zoo dismisses those fears. "At this time, no one is even thinking about whether or not the elephants will be bred," countered Bill Larson, Director of Communications. If indeed the decision is made to go forward with a breeding plan, it will only be after consultation with experts in the field.

Friends of Philly Zoo Elephants also question the size of the facility in Pittsburgh as well as the methods used by the staff to manage the pachyderms. To demonstrate their committment to the elephants' welfare, the group has been staging protests outside the zoo for weveral weekends. They would prefer that the aging elephants be transferred to a 2,300 acre refuge in California run by the Performing Animal Welfare Society. It is presumed that were they to end up there, they would have the opportunity to live out their days without the possibility of being bred.

Personally, I am delighted that the elephants are being relocated from their "antique" habitat and can only hope that whatever facility does ultimately end up caring for Kallie and Betty will not want and adverse publicity related to their health. I also have a feeling that this group will continue to monitor the welfare of Kallie and Betty after they leave Philadelphia and will be the first to let the press know if anything is amiss.

For now, I wish these dignified beasts "Bon Voyage."

Friday, July 10, 2009

Dog Flu

A few weeks ago, Phoebe came down with a mysterious illness. For starters, she turned her head away from food. For Phoebe, this is serious. As a golden retriever who lives to eat, turning her head away from food is a big clue that something is most definitely amiss.

Then she started sneezing, wheezing and coughing. Her nose was even running. Off to the vet we went, where she rebounded, as usual and ate a treat that was offered, but did indeed let loose a few hacking coughs. She also was running a slight fever. My vet suspected a virus, maybe even kennel cough (although she had been vaccinated against it) and sent her home with antibiotics just to be sure. That was Monday.

By Thursday, she still wasn't eating (trust me she is far from wasting away but clearly something was still not right), so we went back to the vet for some blood work. All of which turned up nothing remarkable. By Saturday, she had started to sniff at food, but it took a full week before she resumed eating with her usual enthusiasm.

Turns out Phoebe was suffering from a type of canine flu, most likely HSN8 dog flu. As reported in the NY Times, "the virus, scientists believe, jumped from horses to dogs at least five years ago, but is has never infected a human."

Just last week, the FDA approved the first vaccine for this dog flu, which apparently is fairly rampant in the following areas: Florida, New York City's northern suburbs and Philadelphia!! And it is indeed fairly dangerous.

Dr. Cynda Cawford of the University of Florida veterinary school estimates that it is lethal to about 5% of the dogs that contract it, most of them the short-nosed variety that often have difficulty breathing to begin with. Vets believe that the virus is most prevalent in areas where dogs live closely together and that it can be spread nose to nose. "Probably over 10,000 dogs have been infected," says Dr. Crawford. "In a population of 70 million, that's a drop in the bucket."

No word yet on the effectiveness of the vaccine--obviously much too soon for that data, but I might consider it especially if I had a pug or similar breed. If it took out Phoebe for a week, this is tough bug.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Women in Racing

So here's some news for the women in racing. And it's not about Rachael Alexandra!

In an effort to get female jockeys, owners, agents, trainers, and track staff together, sports marketing executive Catherine Masters has created the Women's Horse Industry Association.

"There are a lot of women who are involved in the sport of horse racing and our mission is to bring them all together under one roof so that they can connect with one another and do more business," she announced.

Leave it to a savvy female with a background in sports association management as well as sports marketing to put together this association which, in my humble opinion, is long overdue! Women marketing to women is a natural and women helping each other out is an age old concept.

For more information, check out the website: and join quickly while it is still free!!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Around the World in 730 Days

Basha and CuChullaine O'Reilly are the Founders of the Long Riders Guild, dedicated to exploring the world on horseback. It is in this capacity that they are planning for the adventure of their lives: a journey around the world!

The two year adventure will take them to 11 countries and cover 12,000 miles. But riding around the world is only part of the goal. En route, they will be working with scientists and horse owners to collect hair samples from every known horse breed. The goal is to create the first complete equine DNA chain.

Even though the project is still in the planning stages, Basha has already received samples from such remote areas as Mongolia and Afghanistan. The Master List of Breeds will be updated daily and posted on their web site,

In addition, while en route with the use of GPS technology, CuChullaine will link their locations with a Long Rider map of the entire route so that children from around the world can follow their progress. Ultimately, the goal is to link humans and horses via the saddle and the internet, to demonstrate the power of the common language of "horse."

No strangers to adventure, Basha and CuChullaine have completed numerous long rides and all the details of their adventures can be found on their web site. But this epic journey will be the first continuous around the world equestrian expedition and represents the merging of the spirit of adventure, long associated with the horse, and modern technology.

The route as it now stands begins in Paris and heads east through Germany and Austria and Hungary via the Steppes. From there they will travel through the Ukraine, through Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan and then head to Siberia. From Russia the plan is to fly to Canada (with their horses) and follow the Trans-Canadian trail. They will then fly back to Scotland, through England and ultimately back to Paris. They each plan to use one horse for the entire trip.

I urge you to read more on their web site, especially about how to contribute to the DNA project. This is an exciting project to follow!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Anna Rose Napravnik

I had the good fortune of meeting jockey Julie Krone when I was much younger and she was making a name for herself in the racing world. She got her start riding horses in her backyard and learned to do such "circus tricks" (as she called them) as riding barefooted, standing up on the back of a horse,when she was a young girl. She was a fierce competitor, about a tough as they come and yet totally focused on her goal which was to be a world class jockey. Which she, of course, became.

Along the way, she also destroyed a lot of stereotypes about female jockeys and broke down barriers that today, seem almost second nature. In the masculine world of the backstretch, however, Julie Krone paved the way for a lot of the next generation's female jockeys and they all know it.

One of those currently breaking in to the big time is Nicanor's jockey of late, Anna Rose Napravnik. Take a look at this video here and see why she is a perfect match for Nicanor. In a nutshell, they share the attitude of "can do" as well as the determination that seems to run in the blood of Dynaformer-La Ville Rouge offspring. I love it that she also tips her hat to Julie.

We all stand on the shoulders of those who come before us, especially those who opened doors, and it's great when the next generation acknowledges their debt to the first. I hope Michael Matz does not feel compelled to change jockeys mid-stream. These two seem like a perfect match.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Metropolitan Mounted Police

I know the 4th of July has come and gone, and I know this is a British show--the London International Horse of the Year Show, 2006--(I also know we won that war!) BUT this is about as good as it gets with regard to a great display of stand up and cheer! Pay careful attention to the end. How do they do that?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Holiday Hiatus


Between the auto-post function on the fritz and the holiday weekend, I have decided to "go fishing" for a few days and hope all is repaired after the fireworks.

Have a great 4th and see you Monday! Hopefully, bright and early....

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Pass on the Seal, Please

Yuck! The New York Times ran an article about a new "fish" that is appearing on the plates of some diners in Canada: seal. French chefs, in particular, are serving up all sorts of cuts and preparations of the "meat" and diners, especially tourists from France, seem to be gobbling it up.

All of which does not sit too well with this writer who has seen some of the brutal videos of the seal hunt in Canada. And while the Canadian government does permit two distinct seal hunts per year, I cannot imagine eating anything worse. And that pronouncement has nothing to do with the taste.

The first seal hunt permitted in Canada is one undertaken by the Inuits in the Arctic. It is characterized as a "small one" and its goal is to provide food for this native tribe. The second is a larger commercial one driven predominantly by the fur trade. Norway, Greenland and Nambia are the other countries that still permit commercial seal hunts. They were outlawed in the United States in 1972.

I actually have no problem with the Inuit hunt. Sustenance is legitimate and those who subsist on what they hunt are usually very judicious in their pursuit, realizing that they need to hunt again the following year. Commercial seal hunting, however, is cruel and inhumane and we certainly have an abundance of food in North America from which to choose. It seems to me we don't have to add seal to the menu.

Some of the chefs who have served it have indeed received hate mail. All have received notoriety, which certainly does not hurt in this tight economy. Still, it seems to me that we shouldn't be encouraging this practice in any way.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tempting Fate or Creating a Dynasty?

Nicanor seems to be on everyone's mind these days, including those in the breeding industry who are marveling at the possibility of the proverbial lightening striking twice. According to The Bloodhorse, a study which analyzed the dams of 199 Eclipse Champions through 2007, found that they produced 233 full siblings to 144 winners, 53 stakes winners and 33 graded stakes winners. That's 61.8%, 22.7% and 14.2% respectively.

In other words, we shouldn't be as surprised (as many of us are) that the pairing of La Ville Rouge and Dynaformer has come through yet again in Nicanor. Granted he has only two wins, neither of them stakes wins, but hopes are high in the Jackson camp for his future. Rumor has it that his next start will be in the Virgina Derby at Charlestown in mid-July.

It does appear, however, that the Dynaformer era may be coming to an end. He is getting older and may well be coming to the end of his reproductive career. La Ville Rouge is once again in foal to him (and will presumably be bred back once again if all goes well), but it is clear that the pairing is not going to continue forever. Wouldn't it just be amazing if she bore enough siblings to replicate the fox hounds in the famous lithograph and not one more?

There are of course many schools of thought with regard to breeding back to the same sire. "Why not breed to a stallion with whom the mare has had a major runner?" asks Rick Abbott of Charlton Bloodstock in Cochranville, PA. Then again, why tempt fate? "Someone gave me breeding advice that you should never send your mare back to the same stallion again and again...because the likelihood of getting repeat success is slim," counters Pennsylvania owner and breeder, Toni Kirwan.

As for the Jacksons, well they are apparently of the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of thought. "It worked once with Barbaro, why not again?" notes Gretchen Jackson. "Nicanor ran well in breaking his maiden and he looks very promising. We are really reluctant to leave Dynaformer."

The Jacksons also have the benefit of breeding for themselves, not for profit, so there is not the pressure to "try the new hot stallion" as Gretchen puts it. For them, upsetting the status quo is a risk while with Dynaformer, they have a"proven commodity."

And that, as they say, is what makes horse racing such a fascinating game. Because one strategy is often just as good as another. "Breed the best to the best and hope for the best" goes the adage. Let's hope Nicanor keeps proving the naysayers wrong!