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Archive for January, 2011

It is one of the traditions of this blog to honor those animals of exceptional abilities.  Paul the octopus was one such animals.  Though short-lived, he had a remarkable record of accurate prediction when it came to the last World Cup.

The New York Times’ Jack Bell does a nice encomium below.  The video above featuring the Paul The Octopus song sung by the what sounds like The Chipmunks reminds Yours Truly why it’s better to keep a lid on your intelligence if you’re not human –humans get giddy whenever they find intelligence in other creatures.

Paul the Octopus: A Cephalopod Out of Water


Patrik Stollarz/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images Stefan Porwoll, manager of Sea Life aquarium, at the memorial of Paul the Octopus on Thursday in Oberhausen, Germany. He predicted the winner in all seven of Germany’s World Cup games.

The ode to Paul the Octopus is complete. Talismanic is certainly an overused word (have you ever seen it used more than in soccer stories, mostly from across the sea?), but it seems it applies to Paul, at least in the mind of soccer-crazed Germans.

On Thursday in Oberhausen, Germany, the tentacled star of last summer’s World Cup was immortalized, so to speak, with the unveiling of a six-foot high plastic replica of the octopus engulfing a soccer ball.

The cephalopod gained nearly worldwide attention last summer when he correctly predicted the result of all seven of Germany’s games at the World Cup in South Africa. He also correctly picked Spain over the Netherlands in the World Cup final. He even inspired a song.

It was serendipity under the sea (actually in an aquarium tank in Oberhausen, Germany) when Paul was presented with two boxes that each had a mussel inside with a team flag. His first meal was anointed as Paul’s pick.

Paul died three months ago. His remains were cremated and are part of the “memorial” exhibit at the Sea Life aquarium.

So if Germany had its octopus, which critter should the United States latch on to?

Or how about Major League Soccer, which drafted a dolphin named Chesapeake at the National Aquarium and had it attempt to predict the No. 1 overall pick in last week’s SuperDraft in Baltimore. Chesapeake settled on A.J. Soares as the top pick, but probably will not end up with his own TV show … because New England picked Soares with the sixth pick over all!

Chesapeake the dolphin (above) predicted that A. J. Soares would be the top pick in last week’s M.L.S. SuperDraft. He wasn’t. No crill for you Chessie.

January 22nd, 2011
4:00 am

It is not Yours Truly’s habit to mention cats on this blog.  I have nothing against cats only very little to say about them.  Until now and Sal, the jury cat, pictured doing his civic duty above.

Here is the story (apparently Sal likes crime shows and needed a vet’s letter to get out of serving):

A pet cat has been ordered to report for jury duty, despite being “unable to speak and understand English”.

If the matter was not resolved, Sal the cat would have to report to Suffolk Superior Crown Court in Boston, United States, on March 23.

Owner Anna Esposito said she had told authorities that Sal could not speak or understand English. The cat’s vet had even written a letter explaining that Sal was a “domestic short-haired neutered feline”.

“Sal is a member of the family so I listed him on the last census form under pets, but there has clearly been a mix-up,” Mrs Esposito said.

“When they ask him guilty or not guilty? What’s he supposed to say - meow?”

Mrs Esposito said Sal was not suitable for jury duty because he could not understand English, one of the 10 statutory disqualifications preventing people from serving.

Her husband, Guy, said the summons for juror service was a surprise.

“I said, ‘Sal, what’s this?’ I was shocked,” Mr Esposito said.

“He likes to sit on my knee and watch crime shows with me but even so he’s still under-qualified for jury duty if you ask me.”

It is understood that Sal was inadvertently included on the juror list when paperwork was misread at the last census.

January 18th, 2011
3:30 am

Please forgive the gratuitous posting of the Italian cover of A Dog At Sea –I’ve been told I look distinguished (also, the Garzanti softcover is coming out soon).  The image has nothing to do with the post which has to do with just how good dogs are at tracking down scat for naturalists.

The article from the Times is below and linked here:

January 14, 2011

Four-Legged Investigators Sniff Out Wildlife Data

Scat-sniffing dogs are becoming increasingly popular among scientists as assistants that can gather data about a wildlife area.

The dogs can be trained to sniff out the scat of other animals and to help researchers estimate population statistics.

But according to new research in The Journal of Wildlife Management, a dog’s ability to sniff scat could vary based on a number of factors, including air temperature and precipitation.

“We really wanted to understand what some of the factors were that limit dogs’ abilities to detect,” said Sarah Reed, the study’s lead author and a conservation biologist at Colorado State University. The study was part of her graduate research at the University of California, Berkeley.

Dr. Reed and her colleagues found that precipitation had the greatest influence on the dogs’ abilities. Dogs are more likely to find scat between May and October, when it is drier, since the scat has a chance to accumulate.

Air temperature also seems to have an effect, since dogs can’t smell as well when they are overheated and panting. The exact effect depends on a specific dog’s heat tolerance, Dr. Reed said.

She hopes that other researchers will create calibration tools that measure how optimally their detection dogs perform in different conditions.

Regardless of their handicaps, dogs are much more capable than humans at scoping out scat.

Trained dogs can detect scat up to 33 feet away about 75 percent of the time, the researchers found.

Humans, on the other hand, can see scat only within three to five feet.

January 17th, 2011
10:37 pm

The dog above is apparently very, very smart (and she’s not keeping it to herself like Yours Truly).

Here’s the story:

WASHINGTON (AFP) - She just might be the smartest pooch ever.

A border collie has learned more than 1,000 words, showing US researchers that her memory is not only better than theirs, but that she understands quite a bit about how language works.

Chaser learned the names for 1,022 toys, so many that her human handlers had to write on them in marker so that they wouldn’t forget, said study co-author Alliston Reid, a psychology professor at Wofford College in South Carolina.

With that repertoire, Chaser has far outpaced another dog, Rico, found by German researchers to be able to grasp about 200 words, according to a study published in 2004 in the journal Science.

As a border collie, Chaser comes from a breed of herding dog known for its intelligence, energy and strong work ethic.

Reid said she might be able to learn even more words, but her keepers stopped at 1,022 after three years of training simply because of time constraints.

But identifying objects by name was just the beginning of the research, conducted by a pair of American psychology professors who became curious about the upper limits of a dog’s learning abilities after seeing the German study.

Study co-author John Pilley was also a master animal trainer and just happened to be getting a young border collie as a pet at about the same time as the research on Rico came out.

By the time the pup was five months old, language training began in earnest.

“John Pilley and I would go to second-hand stores and just buy huge numbers of stuffed animals and balls and children’s toys and so forth,” said Reid.

“And we would give each one a name and write down the name on each item in permanent marker so that we could remember what the name of it was and use it systematically with Chaser.”

Over the course of three years, in sessions of four to five hours per day, Pilley and other trainers found that Chaser could identify every stuffed animal, frisbee and ball out of a colorful and growing pile of fun doggie toys.

She could also differentiate toys by categories, such as her 116 balls, and she could perform specific commands with select playthings, such as touching her paw to a certain ball, or fetching a particular frisbee.

And they trained her to do all this without offering any tasty treats.

“Chaser really, really likes playing with her toys and the social interaction of one of us taking one of her toys and throwing it up in the air and having her catch it,” said Reid.

“It is much more rewarding for her than a morsel of food.”

The study, which appeared this week in the journal Behavioural Processes, published by the Amsterdam-based company Elsevier, shows Chaser has abilities that were left in doubt by the earlier work with Rico, such as the ability to discern commands from nouns and how to identify toys versus non-toys.

“Her learning and retention of more than 1,000 proper nouns revealed clear evidence of several capacities necessary for learning receptive human language: the ability to discriminate many nouns phonetically, the ability to discriminate many objects visually, a sizable vocabulary, and a sufficient memory system,” it said.

“Chaser understood that names refer to particular objects, independent of the activity requested involving that object. Thus, (the) concern that Rico may not have understood the difference between ’sock’ and ‘fetch-the-sock’ is ruled out in this study.”

Scientists who raised questions about the earlier studies on Rico and the extent of his abilities did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the study involving Chaser.

Meanwhile, Reid said that he and Pilley are continuing to study Chaser, who is now six and a half years old.

“We would like to know for example, does she really understand syntax, the order of words in a sentence? One experiment has to do with if we asked Chaser to pick up one object and place it on top of another object, will she always get that correct?”

But for Reid, who has no dog at home since his daughter took their Labrador-mix off to graduate school, a bursting-with-energy border collie is not in his future.

“They are high maintenance dogs,” he said with a laugh. “John Pilley often says that he goes to bed really early at night just to get away from his dog.”

January 10th, 2011
2:04 am

Yours Truly does not watch much television, but he does read and this curious article on a seeming epidemic of neurotic TV dogs has just crossed his desk.  I’m not sure if dogs are actually neurotic but the writer of this New York Times piece, who suggests a sinister canine-anarchy campaign of international dimensions, seems to be:

January 7, 2011

There’s a Canine Conspiracy! Television Reveals It!

What in blazes is wrong with this country’s dogs? Such a collection of neurotic, insecure, bitchy, bullying creatures hasn’t been seen since whenever the latest episode of “Real Housewives” was broadcast.

I do not own a dog and never have, but I do own a television, and from the evidence it emits, the whole danged species needs to go on a lengthy timeout. On the National Geographic Channel, Cesar Milan is now in his seventh season of grappling with ill-behaved mutts on his “Dog Whisperer.” On Saturday on Animal Planet, Victoria Stilwell returns for a third season of unprovoked barking and biting on “It’s Me or the Dog.” Even the Hallmark Channel got into the act this week; on Monday it rolled out a fresh incarnation of “Petkeeping With Marc Morrone,” which isn’t limited to problem dogs but certainly had plenty of them in the premiere.

Watch enough of these shows and you come to suspect that they are treating the symptoms of an epidemic, not the causes. For instance, a superficial analysis might suggest that Ginger, the Chihuahua in Saturday’s “Me or the Dog,” is unbearable because her owner, an Upper East Side caricature (and “Real Housewives of New York” alum) named Jill Zarin, has lost the ability to distinguish normal human-dog interactions from abnormal. (The episode becomes unwatchable about the fourth time Ginger is allowed to stick her doggie tongue up Ms. Zarin’s nostrils.) But Ginger isn’t yapping, biting and inappropriately licking just because she happened to be paired with a permissive human. This kind of misbehavior takes generations of breeding to perfect.

The same is true of Phoebe, a recent “Dog Whisperer” poodle who attacked anything male on two legs; Sydney, a Jack Russell terrier whose hostility toward another dog puts her on Ms. Stilwell’s “Top 10 Difficult Dogs” list; Shayna Punim, a German shepherd in the “Petkeeping” premiere who can’t take a simple car trip without incident.

It’s tempting to write these cases off to reality television’s penchant for focusing on the absolute worst of a species, be it humans or animals, but apparently there is dog trouble all over the land, and multiple kinds of it. Start typing “dog behavior problems” into Google, and it helpfully offers you these suggestions:

¶dog behavior problems dominance

¶dog behavior problems anxiety

¶dog behavior problems biting

¶dog behavior problems chewing

¶dog behavior problems barking

¶dog behavior problems aggression

¶dog behavior problems urinating

¶dog behavior problems marking

¶dog behavior problems licking

In contrast, start typing “dog behavior good” into your search box, and Google is baffled. “Dog behavior good bad,” it says, sounding like a desperate guess. No “dog behavior good rescuing Timmy from a well” here; apparently, since the invention of Google sometime in the last century, no one in the entire world has had occasion to inquire about good behavior by dogs. Because there hasn’t been any.

All our dog experts seem to be tied up trying to fix this mess one televised dog at a time, an impractical approach, given that according to a news release I just received promoting — no kidding — a weight-loss contest for pets, there are 77.5 million dogs in the United States. So it’s left to a nonexpert like myself to try to figure out the root causes of this orgy of misbehavior. It seems to me that it can all be traced to three familiar bugaboos:

1. THE MEDIA Specifically, television. Dogs, stuck in the house all day, probably watch more of it than kids do. That was fine in the early days of the medium because the role models they would see were, basically, Lassie and Rin Tin Tin, the two finest dogs in history.

Lassie never barked unless a tree had fallen on some family member eight miles away and certainly never required the kind of dog therapy loose in the land today. And it’s a good thing that TV’s Rin Tin Tin — a German shepherd, like the aforementioned Shayna — wasn’t around to see Mr. Morrone’s prescription for Shayna’s travel problems in “Petkeeping”: he suggested an “anxiety wrap,” a tight-fitting garment that supposedly has a soothing effect.

“An anxiety wrap?” Mr. Tin might say. “For riding in a car? Are you arfing kidding me? You want anxiety, try rescuing Rusty from 50 armed Apaches. I did that three times a day, and nobody ever wrapped me.”

Anyway, by the late ’60s those paragons were going or gone, and there were new dogs in town. The neurotic Scooby-Doo arrived in 1969; yes, the title beast would eventually help save the day, but what the dogs in the viewing audience noticed was that he could also, say, eat his master’s triple-decker sandwich and not be punished.

Then came the slobbery “Beethoven” movies, which turn up on TV a lot because they’re family-friendly, and the even more slobbery “Turner & Hooch,” which turns up on TV a lot because it has lengthy scenes with Tom Hanks wearing nothing but black underpants. And now there’s Brian, the more-human-than-the-humans dog on “Family Guy.” It’s no wonder your postmodern mutt, after spending hours watching this kind of stuff, thinks there are no rules.

2. LIBERAL DEMOCRATS The “barking chain” scene in the 1961 film “101 Dalmatians” taught dogs how to spread news far and wide, and one of their first chances to do so was provided on April 27, 1964, by the nation’s No. 1 liberal Democrat, Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson pulled his beagles, Him and Her, up on their hind legs by yanking their ears; a photograph of the president demonstrating the stunt with Him appeared far and wide. Him yipped, and dog lovers howled. (“White House Gets Protests on Dogs,” read a headline. “Telephone Callers Deplore Pulling Beagles’ Ears.”)

We can safely postulate that word of the ear pulling reached every dog in America within a few days and that retaliatory planning began almost immediately. Mid-’60s dogs were smart enough to realize that a direct attack on a nuclear power like the United States could not succeed; instead they chose a guerrilla campaign of accelerating misbehavior, calculated to produce within a few generations — i.e., now — dog anarchy.

3. OVERREGULATION Let’s state the unpleasant but obvious: the balance of power between dogs and humans shifted when we started ordering ourselves to clean up after the beasts. In New York that took place on Aug. 1, 1978; that’s when the city’s Canine Waste Law went into effect. One man interviewed that day called it “the stupidest thing in the history of the city,” but now it’s considered standard operating procedure — by both us and our dogs. Is it any surprise that dogs don’t obey us when they view us as their personal hygienists?

So that’s my guess as to what has given rise to the kinds of behavior now rampant on dog-whisperer TV: the confluence of bad role models, an image of subservience and a long-held grudge. Possible solutions: play “Lassie” DVDs in a continuous loop, limit dog ownership to landowners with at least 10 acres and have President Obama issue one of those apologies for historical grievances that have become popular in recent years. It’s either that or get used to dog tongues in your nostrils and dog behaviorists every time you turn on the TV.

January 7th, 2011
4:25 pm