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SeaWorld Putting Trainers Back in Water with Killer Whales

moreton-bay-dolphins-ina-asmann-073112Since the day six-ton orca Tilikum dragged his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, into the pool, savaged her and killed her, SeaWorld has kept all trainers out of the water. Now they're starting the slow process of putting humans and killer whales back together in the water. It's a risky business.

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Dolphin Societies Reunite

A population of dolphins that split into two societies in Moreton Bay, Australia, in the 1990s has come back together. Dolphins are known to engage in very complex shifting alliances, but this was the first known case of an apparently permanent division into two separate societies that never  interacted with each other. And now, just as suddenly as the "falling-out" took place 20 years ago, everything is now back the way it was.

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Bird Flu, Pig Flu, Now Seal Flu

harbor-seal-073112A new strain of bird flu has adapted to harbor seals. The H3N8 strain was discovered after 162 seals were found dead on the beaches of New England last September. Five of them were examined post-mortem, and a new study shows that all five died of a flu infection.

H3N8 has been circulating in birds across North America since 2002. But this is the first known case of the strain adapting to other animals.

This particular virus has the ability to target proteins that are found in human lungs and that could cause the immune system to go into overdrive and attack itself, leading to pneumonia and serious bacterial infections.

Something similar happened with the swine flu outbreak three years ago and which turned out to be more dangerous to young people with strong immune systems than to older people.

"There is a concern that we have a new mammalian-transmissible virus to which humans haven't been exposed yet," said Dr. Anne Moscona of Weill Cornell Medical College, who led the investigation. "It's a combination we haven't seen in disease before."

While it's well-known that pigs are good at mixing up avian and human flu viruses. They can be infected by both at the same time, and the two kinds of virus can combine to produce a hybrid. That's what happened with the 2009 swine flu. But few scientists have considered the possibility of seals doing the same thing.

"Flu could emerge from anywhere and our readiness has to be much better than we previously realized," Dr. Moscona said. "It's important to realize that viruses can emerge through routes that we haven't considered. We need to be alert to those risks and ready to act on them."

The new research is published in the journal mBio.

NIH Funds Major Alternative to Vivisection

The National Institutes of Health is funding a major new project to replace vivisection experiments with "organ chips" – silicon chips that can contain real human tissue and provide faster, cheaper and more accurate results for testing diseases, toxins and pharmaceuticals.

In its announcement, the NIH admits what anti-vivisection organizations have been arguing for years: Nonhuman animals are not good models for seeing how a drug or procedure will work on humans. Almost one in three that appear successful when tested on other animals turn out not to work on humans.

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Papua People Insist: ‘We Are Not Animals.’

baining-people-2-073012It’s often assumed that indigenous peoples think of themselves as being closer to nature and not as involved as the rest of us in trying to prove that they are not as mortal and finite as all other animals. But that’s not the case. A great example is the Baining people of New Guinea.

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Scientists Declare: Nonhuman Animals Are Conscious

Science leaders have reached a critical consensus: Humans are not the only conscious beings; other animals, specifically mammals and birds, are indeed conscious, too. The official decision was reached in late night discussions two weeks ago during the prestigious annual Francis Crick Memorial Conference.

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Climate Change Denier’s About-Face

One of the major climate change skeptics, Richard A. Muller, has taken another step in reversing his position. Much of Muller's work has been largely funded by libertarian petrochemical billionaire Charles Koch's foundation, which has consistently supported organizations that deny climate change.

Muller's Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project has for years questioned the fact of global warming. One of his claims has been that the appearance of warming might come partly from the fact that weather stations are often located in or near cities, where heat from buildings, rooftops, roads and cars can cause artificially high temperatures in the vicinity. But last year, Muller concluded that the Earth has indeed warmed, by about 1.3° F since 1900.

And today, in a New York Times column entitled The Conversion of a Climate-Change Skeptic, he goes a major step further, saying his own studies are confirming not just that the planet is heating up, but that humans are the prime cause:

“Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause.”

Other scientists hope that this will give conservative members of Congress a face-saving way to change their own positions and start taking action. On his Facebook page, Michael E. Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, writes:

There is a certain ironic satisfaction in seeing a study funded by the Koch Brothers – the greatest funders of climate change denial and disinformation on the planet – demonstrate what scientists have known with some degree of confidence for nearly two decades: that the globe is indeed warming, and that this warming can only be explained by human-caused increases in greenhouse gas concentrations. I applaud Muller and his colleagues for acting as any good scientists would, following where their analyses led them, without regard for the possible political repercussions.

Muller's about-face is still evolving quite slowly. He says that polar bears, who are becoming ever more desperate to find seals, are not dying from receding ice. And he writes that "the recent warm spell in the United States happens to be more than offset by cooling elsewhere in the world, so its link to 'global' warming is weaker than tenuous." This is really playing with words, since most scientists are reluctant to ascribe single events to "global warming", talking more about how climate change creates an increasing number of extreme events: hotter in one place, colder in another; wetter here but dryer there; and so on.

But it's an important evolution in one of the icons of climate change denial.

Weekly Recap, July 28 2012

Stunning verdict in elephant case … SeaWorld video released … Brits argue over kitten experiment … best book on climate change … Rick Warren’s weird remark … how to have faith when the world is going to hell … what’s happening to the ice in Greenland … what’s under the ice in Antarctica … and lots more.

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Lisa’s Video Pics

Beachgoers in Brazil rescue a pod of dolphins … sugar glider enjoys a nosh …. kitty carried away by the Olympic spirit … the cat who says no … the cat who says yes … and the humpback whale who says Hi (and high five).

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Pork Council: "Ask a Pig If She’s Happy"

Why is the National Pork Producers Council worried that new laws may give chickens a few inches more space? Because it may be the thin end of the wedge for pigs. Their latest argument (from the National Journal):

"So our animals can't turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets," said Dave Warner, a spokesman for NPPC. "I don't know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around.... The only real measure of their well-being we have is the number of piglets per birth, and that's at an all-time high."

More on what's worrying the pig factories here.

Pastor Rick Warren Explains His Tweet

Rick Warren has clarified his comment from a few days ago, which was apparently taken out of context – including by us. He wasn't talking about violence; he was talking about sex. Nonetheless, everything we wrote about it still stands. First, here's what the pastor said:

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Brits Divided Over Experiment on Kittens

kitten-experiment-cardiff-1-072612Is it OK to sew up the eyes of kittens, open up their brains, and then kill them? What about if it might lead scientists to better understand a disease that occasionally affects children?

After news broke of a vivisection experiment at Cardiff University in the U.K., people who care about animals, led by celebrity Ricky Gervais, expressed outrage. But in this “nation of animal lovers,”  when the tabloid Daily Mirror conducted a poll online, almost half of the 10,765 voters who took part said it was OK.

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Should We Be Alarmed by Greenland Ice Melt?

greenland-melt-event-072612Answer: yes and no. Yes, Greenland is already melting much faster than in recent history. And yes, this will cause sea levels to rise two to six feet in this century. But no, the latest discovery that 97 percent of the ice sheet has been melting this year does not necessarily mean that this event is a product of global warming.

We're learning that for the past 10,000 years, a melt like this has been happening every 150 years or so, and it's about that long since the last one.

Weather patterns fluctuate.

But then again, when so many weather patterns are in fluctuation, as they are currently, and as climate change is affecting so many weather systems all at once, all around the globe, we just don't know what to expect next – especially with a 46-square-mile huge chunk of glacier breaking off Greenland at the same time.

Andrew Freedman explains what's happening on Greenland at Climate Central.

You’d Never Guess What’s Under Here


Two men surveying the Antarctica's Ferrigno Glacier, which is rapidly melting, have detected something so awesome they could scarcely believe it at first. But it's there, under the surface: a vast canyon that rivals the Grand Canyon.

The steep walls that frame the canyon are nearly a mile tall – just like the Grand Canyon. It's about six miles across (the Grand Canyon is wider in some places, narrower in others) and at least 62 miles long, possibly far longer if it extends into the sea. The main difference is that while the Grand Canyon was formed mainly by erosion, the one in Antarctica was created by the tectonic forces of continental rifting.

The full story is on Our Amazing Planet.

Video of SeaWorld Trainer’s Narrow Escape

This is the video of a killer whale trainer being dragged underwater in 2006 by one of the orcas at SeaWorld San Diego. It was released this week through a Freedom of Information request.

You'll see trainer Ken Peters being taken down by his foot by Kasatka, held underwater until he's almost drowning, then brought back to the surface. Kasatka continues to hold him by the foot, but she refuses to let go and, instead, takes him back down a second time and then once more, finally pinning him to the concrete bottom under her whole, huge body before releasing him. The whole episode lasts almost 15 minutes.

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Judge Rules For Elephants Against L.A. Zoo

billy-elephant-1-072512"All is not well at the Elephants of Asia exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo," wrote Judge John L. Segal in his judgment against the Los Angeles Zoo yesterday.

"Contrary to what the zoo's representatives may have told the Los Angeles City Council in order to get construction of the $42 million exhibit approved and funded, the elephants are not healthy, happy, and thriving."

It is a stunning indictment against a zoo that had built a $42-million new enclosure for the three elephants on display there, most of which was to enhance the viewing experience of visitors, rather than the lives of Billy, Tina and Jewel, its three inhabitants. The judge continued:

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Best Simple Book on Climate Change

Pound for pound, I’d rate Global Weirdness, the new book from the folks at Climate Central, the best book I’ve come across for a simple, objective, science-based explanation of what climate change is and how it’s affecting the planet.

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Cat Finds His Way Home from Six Miles Away

Barbara-Oliphant-Wollie-cat-072312It took Wollie three days to find his way home.

His mom, Barbara Oliphant, had rescued him as a stray last summer, but when her husband suffered a stroke, she felt overwhelmed and took Wollie to the Animal Rescue League of New Hampshire in Bedford.

Then her daughter went to the shelter to adopt Wollie herself so she could give him back to Barbara if and when she felt ready. But in the parking lot, Wollie got out of the zippered carrier and couldn't be found.

Three days later, he reappeared – at Barbara's house, six miles from the rescue center. How did Wollie find his way home from a place he'd never even been to?

“Only he knows the story, where he went, what he was doing,” Laura Montenegro of the rescue league said.

Barbara says Wollie isn't going anywhere now.

“I just felt it was a miracle,” Barbara said. “I felt the cat wanted us.”

Pig Factories: ‘We’re Humane’

Old McDonald had a farm. But those kinds of farms are long gone. In today's world, McDonalds has factory farms that it contracts with. And what goes on at the pig factories has been so well documented in undercover videos by Mercy for Animals, the Humane Society of the U.S. and others that McDonalds, Burger King and the other major fast food restaurants have been scrambling to insist on new protocols for the pigs. So have the big grocery chains like Costco, Wal-Mart, K-Mart and others.

But the factory farms are not taking this lying down. (At least they can lie down, unlike the mother pigs themselves who are condemned to live their lives in a crate so small they can neither turn around or even lie down.) One industry publication, the Pig Site, which offers what it calls "free, easy, anytime anywhere access to global pig news items that influence decision makers," insists that the videos are lying.

Providing humane and compassionate care for their pigs at every stage of life is one of the ethical principles followed by America’s family hog farmers, who know better than anyone what’s best for their animals, says the National Pork Producers Council.

According to NPPC, the undercover video from a Minnesota hog farm released on 18 July is from an animal rights group that, along with the Humane Society of the United States, has as a goal ending food-animal production in this country. Both groups repeatedly have grossly misrepresented what is shown in such videos and not told the truth about how farmers raise and care for their animals.

Such groups have used videos, including the one today, in an attempt to link alleged abuse to the use of gestation stalls for sows. Such housing systems, which allow hog farmers to provide the best care to sows, have nothing to do with abuse, says NPPC.

NPPC reports that the video released does not show abuse of animals. An independent panel comprised of animal-care experts who reviewed the video agreed, concluding that the “there were no signs of animal cruelty, abuse or neglect. The sows were clean, free of lesions, calm and in good condition.”

So, as Groucho Marx might have said, you can either believe the pork producers council is saying ... or what your lying eyes are telling you.

Young Gorillas Dismantle a Trap

For the first time, gorillas have been seen freeing each other from traps set by hunters. People from the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda watched as two young gorillas worked to free one of their family from a snare.

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