Some years ago I wrote about a childless Texas ranch couple who wanted children back around the beginning of the 20th Century, but where they lived in ranch country there were very few children to adopt. One morning the rancher drove a team to the nearest town to pick up some supplies. At the local general store the owner told him about an orphan train from the East that was parked at the local station with a few orphans left. The rancher went to the station, talked to a few orphans, and then asked two young boys if they wanted to go home with him. When he reached the ranch, he rushed into the house and told his wife, “We finally have a family!” She burst into tears and welcomed the two boys.
Much later in life the two men were interviewed on radio about their good fortune. Fascinating stuff. In April of 2013 Christina Baker Kline published “Orphan Train,” which has sold well over a million copies. According to USA TODAY, Kline got the idea while visiting her in-laws in Fargo about a decade ago. Her mother-in-law told her about her father who came to Jamestown on an orphan train. Kline researched the subject for years, discovering that over 200,000 Eastern children were placed on trains and sent West between the years 1854 and 1929. Kline called it an “indentured labor program,” but in the end the orphans were placed in families who provided for them. Her book is a historical novel about a young Irish girl who rode an orphan train from New York to Minnesota before being selected. A good read.
With all of the stories about lost pets in the media lately, I just wonder if our society has made the big leap from caring for orphans to caring more for our pets. Here we are, surrounded by poverty-stricken, homeless children who remain in very dark places while pets are kept in the sun. A New Yorker cartoon seems to emphasize our conundrum. A lonely-looking dog on a sidewalk has his leash tied to a parking meter. The caption reads: “Someday I’ll look back on this and bark.”
Some religious leaders say that without God there would be no morality. One of the world’s greatest primatologists, Professor Frans de Wall of Emory University in Atlanta, writes in his latest book “The Bonobo And The Atheist” that moral behavior preceded the human millions of years before we came into being. He attempts to answer the question: “Are we moral because we believe in God, or do we believe in God because we are moral?” That’s a question each one of us has to answer sometime, but De Waal believes from his studies of primates that bonobos, chimps, apes, and many other animals have morality that is displayed by empathy for other animals that are suffering. They also exhibit a sense of fairness, help take care of animal friends in need, and share food with others who are less fortunate.
He worries a little about the morality of chimps because he says they are too ready to kill rivals and bite off the faces of humans who feed and shelter them. But that’s why we worry about some humans, too. We call them Boobus Americanus Youngus. He uses the example of Lody, a bonobo in the Milwaukee Zoo, who accidentally bit off a finger of a vet who was feeding him vitamin pills. Lody looked up after severing the finger and immediately released the hand missing the finger.
Days later the vet came back to the zoo and showed her bandaged hand to Lody. Lody immediately went to the farthest corner of his enclosure, wrapped his arms around himself, lowered his head, and showed signs of grief—and guilt. But the amazing thing about this story happened 15 years later. The same vet showed up at Lody’s enclosure. Lody rushed over and tried to see the hand he had bitten, but it was hidden by a rail. The vet lifted up her incomplete hand and Lody spotted it, looked at the vet’s face, and then moved his eyes back to the hand. De Waals said the ape had realized he had done something wrong and was showing “the seeds of moral behavior.” Agree?
Perhaps we can learn something from another one of his observations about bonobos. He has seen bonobo males prepare to do violent battle with neighboring male bonobos. But just when the bonobos are about to deal deathly blows, female bonobos charge to the opposing battle line and start to have sex with both genders of the enemy. Quickly the war has turned into an exciting bonobo orgy, followed by grooming of each other and watching their children play. Perhaps we can learn something about war and diplomacy from that observation.
I have been hooked on the National Geographic magazine since I could afford a subscription. The research on humans and nature is extensive and the photography is spectacular. The magazine started a new five-part PBS TV series in February called “Earth: A New Wild.” When asked to elaborate on this title, the host of the series explained: “The new wild is the realization that we humans are part of nature and that saving nature is really about our saving ourselves. Nature isn’t something out there, far away. It’s living, breathing. It’s part of us.” I hope it isn’t too late.
As a farm boy I grew up with all of the domesticated animals we raised: dairy cows, beef cattle and assorted horny bulls, horses, pigs, rabbits, chickens, geese, ducks, dogs, and cats and established good relations with most of them. Cows walked over for a head scratch or chased me up a tree in pastures. Horses usually returned respect with respect — even without the bribe of a bucket of oats. Pigs were generally the most independent with the attitude: “Give me some cobs of corn and some slop and then leave me alone to wallow in the mud on a hot day.” Pigs to me always seemed to be a helluva lot smarter than they let on. Momma Goose was temperate unless she had little goslings to protect. Then watch out for a bite in the butt.
We fed the rabbits in their warrens with veggies and would take one out of the cages to play with on occasion. But later on we ate all of those animals except the horses. It just wasn’t the style in this country, but my French ancestors still eat horse with great gusto—and I would have a juicy horse steak tonight off Trigger or Max. I stretched out the neck of the chicken so my mother could safely chop off the head with an axe. I skinned the same rabbits I played with. I held the basin to catch the blood from the pig’s throat so we could make blood sausage and pudding. I love head cheese, liver, and other private parts.
We also hunted the so-called wild animals — the beautiful mallard ducks and lowly coots, the flamboyant pheasants, muskrats and beaver, and the athletic gray squirrels that made terrific stews. We sold their tails for 50 cents each to fish decoy and artificial bait makers. That’s life and death in the real world. But real farmers who have raised stock don’t mistreat their animals. Only know-nothings involved in corporate and factory-farming do.
States and the feds are finally breaking the obscene strength of Wall Street factory farms and entrepreneurs who make fortunes in cruelty to animals. It may be a small beginning but corporations can no longer “raise” veal calves in stations so small they cannot turn around. Egg-laying chickens must be in cages large enough so they can spread their wings fully if they have a mind. Pregnant sows can no longer be confined in crates so small they cannot turn around. Geese can no longer have grain jammed down their throats to make their foie gras livers larger for the enjoyment of the rich willing to pay the price for such cruelty.
California has passed a law that Iowa factory egg-laying plants restricting the movement of their hens cannot sell their eggs in California. Iowa produces 14 billion eggs a year from 60 million hens but has only three million people. They will have to sell their eggs someplace. A California egg-laying chicken must have 116 square inches instead of 67 square inches to move around in. But shouldn’t a chicken ever have the pleasure of walking on grass and picking out a seed or insect from the gravel? Some think 200 square inches should be required for each chicken. But what’s important in the laws of these states is that it is beginning to say producers cannot torture animals to make a fast buck.
Aside from the Wall Street factory farms providing pork, beef, dairy products, chickens, eggs, and other products, we are beginning to realize that average Americans basically love animals but they have gotten used to cheap food. Americans live with 74 million cats, 70 million dogs, 3.7 million birds, 1.8 million horses, and millions of other creatures they consider pets. Look at the number of Floridians who had pet pythons in their homes until they threatened to swallow junior in one gulp. Now the pythons have eaten about 99 percent of the raccoons, rabbits, dogs, deer, and other small animals in the Everglades. Recently Florida wildlife employees caught a 17-foot python weighing about 200 pounds near Alligator Alley. I wonder when a small child will end up within a big python’s stomach ...
According to the New York Times of January 19, Wall Street factory farmers and their employees in the federal government have not given up torturing animals and attempting to breed the Frankensteins of the animal world. Out on the remote Nebraska plains there is a fed research center that is still trying to help the factory-farm meat growers in this country. It is truly the Gitmo of the animal world, where torture takes place in a casual manner on animals instead of on humans. This is where sows have been bred to have as many as 14 piglets instead of the usual eight. The problem is hundreds of these “excess” little piglets, too little and too weak to move, are crushed by their mothers in birthing crates too small to turn around in.
I don’t remember that any of our 20 dairy cows ever had twins in my years on the farm, but this research center tried to get twins or triplets born from each cow pregnancy from “intensive” breeding. They often emerge from cows in a weakened or deformed state, dying in such numbers that even producers are horrified. The center also works on breeding hardier sheep who could survive without costly shelters. Ewes give birth unaided in open fields where the newborns are often killed by predators or by harsh weather and starvation. So far, the effort to breed tougher sheep has failed.
Both elephants and whales have significant memory retention capacity. Both species remember offspring in their herds and pods. They both use verbal communications that we have not totally solved yet to comfort friends and yell at enemies. If a member of the family is “under the weather,” so to speak, friends comfort and console while performing physical touching to calm them down.
Elephants are known for hugging and greeting each other with shakings of their trunks together. Elephants can recognize themselves in mirrors — and so do killer whales. The tiniest animals we know about are just getting interesting because of electro-magnification improvements.
Our face mites are so tiny a dozen can dance on the head of a pin. But right now they are dancing all over your face and head. At night they mate on our faces and then crawl into our hair follicles to eat. Female mites give birth within follicles. When they’re full size they eat “stuff” on the face. But they lack an anus, so when they fill up with feces they die and decompose all over our heads. It takes a few weeks. Only two species of face mites have been discovered—so far. I can’t wait to read about the next species. Mites do provide us a service. They eat our dead skin that drops off all the time. Bon appétit!
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