Cats Who Cache!

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Hello Friends, and happy weekend!  I hope this finds you and yours well in all ways as we are in full swing of winter.  Here in the northeast we are preparing for a major winter storm, so this will be a (relatively) short post.

🎙For those who prefer to listen to this blog post, you can access the audio version here.🎙 

Let’s get to it!  It’s Caturday! So let’s talk cats.


If you are fortunate to be the guardian of a feline, then you are blessed beyond measure.  Being “owned” by a cat does have its benefits; albeit frustrations and confusions, too. But any confusion and frustrations are easily mitigated when we understand the WHY behind behaviors.

If you have been flowing with this blog for a while now, you know that house cats are:

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If you have been paying attention, then you now know that all house cats need:

  • Proper, positive socialization to a variety of sights, sounds, and scents
  • Vertical space
  • Daily exercise
  • Daily mental stimulation
  • Ability to exercise their natural instinct to hunt
  • Acceptable outlets for their natural behaviors
  • To feel safe in and around your home
  • Litter boxes that are spacious, clean, and the right fit for each feline’s lifestage
  • Appropriate and species-specific nutrition
  • Regular, species-specific veterinary care
  • Basic positive (fun) training time
  • Choices

Knowing all of this is only part of the pussycat puzzle.  Innate Behaviors are often at the heart of these needs.

‘People have forgotten this truth,’ the fox said. ‘But you mustn’t forget it. You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed. You’re responsible for your rose.’  ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

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All in the Instincts!

 Many of the behaviors we observe our feline family members displaying are closely controlled by genes. These behaviors are called innate behaviors.  They are behaviors that are inborn; naturally occurring in all members of a species.  Within each species, Innate behaviors are predictable. These behaviors can be performed in response to a cue (changing of the seasons, daylight, etc.) without prior experience /exposure to a particular cue. 

Think of them as reflex responses/actions.  Unlike behaviors such as learning to ride a bike, tie your shoe, or brush your teeth, Innate behaviors do not have to be learned or practiced.  

  • Innate behaviors are instinctive.
  • They are controlled by genes and always occur in the same way.
  • Innate behaviors do not have to be learned or practiced.
  • Innate behaviors generally involve basic life functions, so it’s important that they be performed correctly.

These kinds of behaviors are also called instinctive behaviors.  An instinct is the ability of an animal to perform a behavior the first time it is exposed to something that causes a response, within their body.  

 Examples:

  • courtship
  • mating
  • mothering
  • escape
  • defensive maneuvers

Our cat committee is currently creating a book for families that will discuss more of this in detail. But that’s the basics of what you need to now about today’s topic.

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Hard-Wired Needs

There is one innate behavior I would like to talk about today that really fascinates me about felines. And I really think you’ll enjoy it.  It’s called Caching. 

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Have you ever noticed your cat trying to cover his/her food? All of our cats do it after they have finished eating if there is leftover food.  Well, let’s be honest: Knox never leaves any food. -Pretty sure he’s a direct descent of Garfield.

 

Cats who cover their food are not unusual critters.  Many more species do this behavior than most realize!

Critters Who Cache

Many animals practice the behavior of caching. Here are a few examples:

  • Squirrels
  • Chipmunks
  • Foxes
  • Hamsters
  • Rooks
  • Woodpeckers
  • Scrub Jays
  • Mountain Lions

Caching behavior is the storage of food in locations hidden from the sight of both conspecifics (animals of the same or closely related species) and members of other species.  For some species, the function of caching is to store food in times of surplus for times when food is less plentiful. However, there is evidence that some caching behavior is done to ripen the food.  Foxes and squirrels tend to spread out their food in small caches (“scatter hoard”) so that, although one may be discovered by another animal, enough will remain.

Scrub Jay Chaching

Why Cats Cache

Cats are predators and prey.  Cats who live in the wild, (feral cats, cougars, panthers, etc.) often attempt to bury uneaten food or cover a recently killed carcass.  It’s believed wildcats do this to:

  • avoid attracting any predators to the area
  • attempt to not alert potential prey that a feline hunter is in the vicinity

Once the wildcat has eaten his/her fill of their prey, the cougar will cover their prey with substrate (grass, leaves, or other ground material) to protect it from spoiling or from being eaten by other animals. The cougar will usually remain in the area near his/her cache for several days, occasionally returning to feed on the carcass.

Bobcats will cover the remains of a large kill with debris such as snow, leaves, twigs or grass. The bobcat will revisit the carcass and eat again. Panthers will rake leaves and twigs over a carcass to hide the carcass from scavengers. This behavior is very common and is part of a natural and healthy wildcat. Check out these fascinating felines caching their food in the wild!

F99, an orphaned cougar kitten, caching an elk carcass she discovered. Photograph by Mark Elbroch / Panthera nationalgeographic.org/author/melbroch/

A Caching Cougar In Action!

Below is a time-lapse video an adult female mountain lion who has been followed by Panthera’s Teton Cougar Project. This cougar is in northwest Wyoming, caching a mule deer she killed:

In winter, it’s common for cougars to lose access to at least half of every elk they kill. Cougars tend to feed on one side of an elk at a time, and by the time they are finished with one side, the other can be wedged beneath a solid layer of compressed snow and ice, and completely inaccessible. 
-Mark Elbroch, Teton Cougar Project

This is important to realize because it helps us understand the foraging ecology of cougars. Cougars need to kill a specific amount of meat to meet their energetic demands for living, but they kill much more than this. In summer, bears steal their kills, and in winter, cold weather and snow steal their food. Thus, cougars are often unable to consume all of what they kill, and so they must kill again more quickly. -Mark Elbroch



On Nov 2, 2015 a hunter spotted a cougar caching her prey:


The hunter states, “Came face to face with a mountain lion while out hunting in the Swan Valley (Montana). After some investigation, I found a deer cached under a large amount of debris. Instead of hunting, I went back home and grabbed a game camera and set it up on the cache site.” – Adam Lieberg


A mountain lion burying a deer carcass. The new study shows that such caches provide important habitat and food for hundreds of species.
CREDIT FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS/JON NELSON

Mountain lions typically cache their kills beneath a mound of snow but when temperatures drop precipitously at night, this behavior frequently backfires.  Unlike foxes, coyotes, and wolves, cougars lack the strong feet and stout claws for intensive excavation. Thus, when snows become thick ice that hinders their ability to feed, cougars abandon their kills to hunt again.


Habitats Created from Caching!

Most people think of beavers as ecological engineers, building dams, and creating new habitats from their creations, but a new study shows mountain lions modify their environments in a similar way.

Unlike wolves, mountain lions leave large intact pieces of dead meat on the landscape that draw lots of species that then distribute those nutrients far and wide. It is so important to ecosystem health to maintain carrion on the landscape which supports a huge diversity of wildlife through supplemental feeding, through maintenance of invertebrate community. It just goes on and on. – Mark Elbroch, the Director of the Puma Project

Napping & Caching!

I love this video below.  It’s rare footage of a subadult female cougar.  In the video she’s just waking from a long nap, and is slightly disoriented …  A bit later she is caching the elk carcass she discovered and claimed as her own.

House Cats Who Cache

Caching behavior is also quite common in house cats. A lot of folks think this is because their cat doesn’t like the food, but in fact, it’s an innate behavior inherited from their ancestors.

Even the comfy couch cats who have never set paw outside retains this feline instinct.  A feline’s natural instinct is to cover food from scavengers or potential threats that might be tracking the scent. Unlike their wild cousins and dogs, House Cats are not scavengers; they are both predator and prey, so they don’t bury their leftover food to consume later; with house cats, it’s for protective purposes. But because all cats are individuals within the species, the degree to which the cat attempts to hide/bury the food depends on the individual cat’s comfort level and concern for exposed uneaten food.

What Caching Behavior Looks Like In House Cats:  The cat is burying something.  The cat is pawing at the carpet, kitchen tile, or dragging her front paw on the floor around their food mat, puzzle feeder, or bowl.  The cat may become so focused on burying the food that he/she pushes the food mat/plate around. Some cats may pull a blanket, tissue paper, or food mat over their leftovers, if these items are nearby.



Become the Observer of Behavior.

Frustrating felines, puzzling pussycats, and bewildering behaviors common in homes with house cats. But all behavior has roots. Either it’s learned or innate. Caching is just one example of how we so often misunderstand cats and mislabel cat behavior. We label the behavior, make it wrong, or make fun of it. But this particular caching behavior works for cats; it serves an important purpose. Once we begin to understand that all behavior serves a purpose, we gain a new perspective.

We gain compassion.

We know that wildcats and house cats are learning all the time. We can choose to learn as well. It’s up to us as stewards of Mother Earth, and guardians of house cats to learn how to show respect, better communicate with them, listen better to them, and to learn something new from them every day.

“Reality is always kinder than the stories we tell about it.” – Byron Katie

Now when you see your cat at home doing this behavior, you’ll have a greater appreciation and understanding of WHY!

Cougars, like house cats, are often misunderstood. The video below is a rare and intimate glimpse into the family lives of America’s second-largest cats. The film debunks long-held perceptions of cougars as solitary, anti-social animals and reveals their social and caring side: This footage was gathered by the conservation group Teton Cougar Project, revealing a family who is playful, affectionate, and interdependent.
The footage also shows that sometimes, adult female cougars adopt orphaned kittens that would otherwise perish.

It shows how behaviors are passed down from one generation to the next, how young kittens learn from interactions with their mother and siblings, exhibiting behaviors such as stalking, caching and sharing meals.

I invite you to watch this short film, “The Secret Life of Mountain Lions”:

Use your voice for kindness, your ears for compassion, your hands for charity, your mind for truth, and your heart for love.


Recommended Related Reading


This blog post is intended for educational purposes only. Please visit Panthera’s Teton Cougar and Panthera’s Puma program sites for more info!


Learn more about the fascinating felines with whom you share a home, at our Website! 

Honoring a King, Whose Death Sparked Outrage Around the World

All things are connected like the blood that unites us. We do not weave the web of life, we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. – Chief Seattle

Cecil the Lion

I was deeply saddened and angered today when I learned of another senseless and preventable death.  His name is Cecil. He was a 13 year young African male lion (Panthera leo).  Cecil was a regal male who was breeding and helping to increase Africa’s lion populations.  Cecil was -and remains- a symbol of strength, beauty, and courage. Cecil was in the prime of his life just weeks ago.

His body was found decapitated and skinned outside of his preserve earlier this month.

This Was Not an Honorable Death

According the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF), a charity which focuses on the conservation and preservation of wildlife in the southern African country, Cecil was lured from the safety of the private safari across an old railway line, which acts as an invisible boundary, onto hunting lands.  It was here where the hunters were waiting to take advantage. They used a goat carcass to bait Cecil onto their land -an all too common and dirty practice seen throughout Africa.

Cecil was then shot with a crossbow in the Gwaai concession about 1,100 yards from the protection of the national park. Cecil did not die immediately; it took two days to track the lion and kill him with a rifle.  Cecil was then skinned and his head was removed as a trophy.  They left his body there to rot.

Hwange conservation consortium says this hunt was illegal.

Although it is legal to kill Big Game such as lions, giraffe, elephants in some of these areas, the hunters claim they had not realized who this lion was: “It was a magnificent, mature lion,” they said.  “We did not know it was well-known lion.  I had a licence for my client to shoot a lion with a bow and arrow in the area where it was shot.”

Apparently, there were other irregularities in the hunt which are being investigated, including the fact that in the Gwaai Conservancy no lion hunting quota was issued for 2015, and the GPS collar on Cecil was destroyed by the hunters.

Cecil was wounded by a crossbow and arrow, and then killed, skinned and decapitated 40 hours later


Cecil Was a Part of a Conservation Research Program.

When he was killed, Cecil was wearing a GPS-collar.  A team of researchers in Hwange National Park have been conducting an ongoing study on behalf of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University since 1999.  It’s been an ongoing ecological study of African lions in Hwange.  They are measuring the impact of sport-hunting beyond the park on the lion population within the park, using radio-telemetry and direct observation.  The research they have gathered to date is startling.

34 of 62 tagged lions died during the study period; 24 were shot by sport hunters.  These sport hunters killed 72 percent of tagged adult males from the study area. This caused a decline in numbers of adult males in the population.


Cecil’s Prides

Conservationists are concerned that by killing Cecil, his death leaves as many as 12 cubs vulnerable to infanticide by male lions who will assume leadership of Cecil’s prides. (Males commonly kill the cubs of ousted pride leaders so that they may sire their offspring with the females they inherit.)  Cecil was in coalition with another male lion, Jericho.  Between them they had two prides that consisted of six lionesses, and about a dozen cubs.

Cecil lion cubs pride

Cecil’s death is a tragedy, not only because he was a symbol of Zimbabwe, but because now his cubs will die too; a new male won’t allow them to live, to encourage Cecil’s three females to mate.  Hunting predators on the boundaries of national parks such as Hwange causes significant disturbance and knock-on effects such as infanticide when new males entered the prides.  As a single male, Jericho will be unable to defend the two prides and cubs from new males that invade the territory. This is what we most often see happening in these cases. Infanticide is the most likely outcome.

 -Dr. Andrew Loveridge


 Cecil the African Lion in Hwange, Zimbabwe

The video below shows Cecil, like many of the species in the area, enjoying life on the preserve with his family.

Footage of Cecil with one of his prides

Tourists from only one lodge collectively pay $9,000 per day. Zimbabwe could have brought in more in just five days by having Cecil’s photograph taken, rather than being shot by someone paying a one-off fee of $45,000.
Tourists from only one lodge collectively pay $9,000 per day. Zimbabwe could have brought in more in just five days by having Cecil’s photograph taken, rather than being shot by someone paying a one-off fee of $45,000.


Lions Are Complex.

A recent study conducted on the socio-spatial behavior of lion population following the perturbation by sport hunting shows that there’s growing evidence that lion populations which are socially disrupted may be more prone to coming into conflict with human communities on the boundaries of protected areas.  They believe this is largely because movement patterns become erratic and lions are more likely to leave the park.

“These cats are complex, which is why disturbance of their social system has such far reaching knock-on effects.” – Dr. Loverage


Lions By the Numbers

  • 600 lions are killed by tourists each year.
  • Lions have vanished from over 80% of their historic range.
  • Lions are listed as “Vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
  • In West and Central Africa, the species is now classified as Endangered.
  • Lions exist today in 29 countries, including 28 countries in Africa and 1 country in Asia.
  • Illegal killing, relentless habitat loss, and over hunting of wild prey by humans have left lions precariously close to extinction.
  • Kenya loses 100 of its 2,000 wild lions every year due to killing by humans.
  • At this rate, lion experts believe there will be no wild lions left in Kenya by 2030.
  • 100 years ago there were 200,000 lions living in the wild in Africa. Today there are fewer than 30,000.
  • Lions are extinct in 26 countries.

The premature death of this lion highlights a sobering reality: lion populations are in catastrophic decline across Africa. A century ago, more than 200,000 lions roamed the continent; yet recent surveys estimate that in the last two decades alone, lion numbers have decreased from approximately 30,000 to around 20,000. –Panthera

Africa’s Lions Face a Tri-Fold Threat:

  1. Retaliatory persecution by herders and farmers
  2. Dramatic loss and fragmentation of habitat
  3. Scarcity of wild prey due to overhunting by hu­mans.

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Graphic from Panthera

Lions have slipped under the conservation radar for too long. If we do not act now, lions will find themselves in the same dire predicament as their Asian counterpart, the tiger. – Dr. Guy Balme, Panthera’s Leopard Program Director


Weighing In

Below are recent statements from sport hunters and conservationists in the area where Cecil resided.

Zimbabwe Professional Hunters and Guides AssociationJuly 23 at 10:33am ·

“Zimbabwe Parks Wildlife Management Authority, are currently still conducting an investigation on the legalities of the hunt that took place and for which they are the appropriate authority to do so. We therefore can not and will not comment on the legal aspect, whilst this investigation is ongoing. ZPHGA are working together with ZPWMA and Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe (SOAZ).  ZPHGA confirms the Professional Hunter in charge of the Safari is a member of ZPHGA. Therefore ZPHGA can make a ruling on the aspect of ethics and his membership at this time.  ZPHGA in the follow up of the investigation concludes that in regarding the responsibility of his membership, the PH was is in violation of the ethics of ZPHGA.  ZPHGA therefore with immediate effect, suspend his membership indefinitely.  The professional hunter and company he works for have been co-operative in the investigation.  ZPHGA re-iterates it will not tolerate any illegal hunting or any unethical practices by any of its members and their staff. ZPHGA will await the completion of the current investigation by ZPWMA before commenting any further.  We ask all members of ZPHGA, as well as the general public, to please respect the ongoing investigation underway by the appropriate authorities ZPWMA.”

——

Bhejane Trust  July 23 at 1:58am · An update on the killing of Cecil, the famed Hwange lion.

“The PH, Theo Bronkhurst, and the concession “owner”, one Honest Mpofu, were arrested and appeared in Hwange Magistrate court on the charge of illegally killing a lion. According to sources, there was no permit for lion on their hunt, and the concession area (Antionette) does not have any lion on quota. They have been remanded out of custody until August 6th. so Parks can continue their investigations.  Cecil was shot at night, no doubt after being blinded with a spotlight, undoubtedly over a bait which would have been dragged along the Parks boundary (supposedly for a leopard!) – indicative of the poor ethics and the poor quality hunter that we see too often these days. Undoubtedly, the PH intended to do a “quota transfer” where Cecil would have been recorded as shot in another area which had a quota and permit – the satellite collar blew the plan ( although Bronkhurst apparently tried to destroy the collar and all evidence of the dead Cecil). Had this lion not been collared, Bronkhurst probably would have got away with this crime, and I very much doubt this is the first dodgy episode in his hunting career.   Lets hope that corruption does not prevail and the full force of the law falls on both these characters – we do not need these types operating in Zimbabwe.”

Latest update on Cecil’s killing, July 28:

JOINT PRESS STATEMENT BY ZIMBABWE PARKS AND WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT AUTHORITY AND SAFARI OPERATORS ASSOCIATION OF ZIMBABWE ON THE ILLEGAL HUNT OF A COLLARED LION AT ANTOINETTE FARM, HWANGE DISTRICT ON 1 JULY 2015 IN GWAYI CONSERVANCY BY BUSHMAN SAFARIS

“Theo Bronchorst, a professional hunter with Bushman Safaris is facing criminal charges (VIC FALLS Police CR 27/07/2015) for allegedly killing a collared lion on Antoinette farm in Gwayi Conservancy, Hwange district on 1 July 2015. The lion named ‘Cecil’ was well known and regularly sighted by tourists in the Main camp area of Hwange National Park. It is alleged that the hunter connived with the Antoinette land owner, Mr. Honest Trymore Ndlovu to kill the lion. Ongoing investigations to date, suggest that the killing of the lion was illegal since the land owner was not allocated a lion on his hunting quota for 2015. Therefore, all persons implicated in this case are due to appear in court facing poaching charges.  Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management as the Regulatory Authority and custodian of all wild animals in Zimbabwe issues hunting permits and hunting quota for all hunting areas in Zimbabwe so that only animals on quota are to be hunted. In this case, both the professional hunter and land owner had no permit or quota to justify the offtake of the lion and therefore are liable for the illegal hunt.   Both professional hunter Theo Bronkhorst’s licence number 553 who was involved in the hunt and the owner of Antoinette farm, Mr. Honest Trymore Ndlovu are being jointly charged for illegally hunting the lion. The two are due to appear in court on Wednesday, 29 July 2015. Efforts are being made to interview the other professional hunter, Zane Bronkhorst, licence number 558, who was also involved in the illegal hunt. The Professional Hunter Theo Bronkhosrt’s Licence has been suspended with immediate effect. The lion trophy has also been confiscated. The relevant stakeholders have been informed and are being updated about this matter.”

Cecil the Lion
Cecil in his prime


Cecil Is Not the Exception. 

The premeditated killing of Cecil is tragic and heartbreaking.  People all around the world are in shock.  But be aware, friends: This situation is not the exception, but rather the rule all around the world.  American hunters kill hundreds of African lions each year. – 600 in fact. That’s almost 2 per day.  Poaching, sport hunting, illegal animal trade, and everything between happens every day.  Most people don’t know about it until a story like Cecil’s strikes a deep nerve.

The loss of Cecil is absolutely reprehensible, and sadly, this case is not an anomaly. Many people around the world are unaware that what happened to this lion is happening all over Africa, dozens of times a day. Illegal killing of lions is a real threat to the species’ survival. If we are to save the lion, the international community must come together, as it has in support of Cecil, to fund conservation initiatives that are mitigating the species’ greatest threats. -Panthera’s President, Dr. Luke Hunter

A 19-Year-Old Cheerleader Who Hunts Endangered Species
A 19-Year-Old Cheerleader Who Hunts Endangered Species

We are all outraged today because an iconic animal and protected species was lured out of his sanctuary and murdered for sport, but this kind of business has been, and continues to happen in every country in the world.  And what’s really happening is a much greater problem than we are willing to recognize and admit.  Killing for sport, trophies, profit, and fun is happening within younger generations.  We are even seeing young girls being encouraged to hunt and kill for the thrill of taking life.

Cecil’s story has gone viral within hours, but there are countless other species whose lives have ended for much less profit; species far less iconic and less “attractive” than Cecil.  Whether it’s critically endangered species such as the Blue Iguana, Pangolin, or Northern white rhino, people are treating all species as if their lives don’t matter.

The team of hunters who killed Cecil are going to be prosecuted, but honestly, I am not focused on blaming this guy and his hunting team in particular, because there are a thousand more rich Americans who are willing to do what he did, and they do it legally every day.  In fact, while we all mourned Cecil’s death, 5 of Kenya’s endangered elephants were killed.  This is insanity to me.

I have to ask,  Where is the disconnect?  

When did honor and dignity of life become so undervalued?  

How did we become so disconnected from the other lives with whom we share this planet?  

How are so many of us behaving unconsciously?  

Where is the compassion and connection? 

Big 5: Jones says her first kill was a rare African white rhino, part of her quest to bag the Big 5 African game animals (rhino, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and lion)
Jones says her first kill was a rare African white rhino, part of her quest to “bag the Big 5” African game animals (rhino, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and lion)


May Cecil’s Death Shed Light On Our Darkness …. and Our Ability to Love.

Conservationists are heavily involved in working to stop this illegal (and legal) activity.  These people and organizations are incredibly passionate and dedicated, but they have their work cut out for them.  I know because I have been involved with various conservation projects for decades.  In the process  I have witnessed incredible people doing amazing things to save species and conserve lands, but I have also witnessed more ugliness, greed, disdain, complacency, and tragedies than I care to recall.

Along the way I learned something: When we are disconnected from ourselves, each other, and the world that surrounds us, people can easily do what we have witnessed with Cecil.

Understanding this fact has helped me to rise above the disgust, anger, and judgement that I initially feel.   When I see blatant disregard and respect for life I am urged to look at the situation from a broader perspective.

Once I get the anger and sadness out, I am free to be able to ask, What can be learned from this?  How can we grow from this?  How can we guide and inspire others to respect all life?  It’s not enough to be angry and judge “the people who did this”, or merely want things to change.  We have to do more.

Change Begins with Each of Us.

If you want to see change, look within.  Once we look within and are honest with ourselves we are better equipped to make a real difference out there in the world.  This current situation with beloved Cecil is an opportunity for that.

If we want to end this kind of heartless and disconnected behavior around the world, we must ask ourselves tough questions:

What are we looking away from that needs to be discussed?

Are we idly sitting by and allowing this to happen?

Where can we take productive and meaningful action?

Have I done something like this to another species?

How can we remove the hate and prejudices that blind us?

Am I  withholding love to anyone or any form of life?  

Have I taken any specie’s life without forethought?

Am I disconnected from others?

Am I disconnected and from nature?

How can we maintain and enhance our connection to all life?

How can I become more connected?

How can we remove judgement and blame and find solutions?

How can we infuse Love into situations like these?

How can we do our part to protect species and the Earth?

How can we encourage children to appreciate all people and all species of life?

What are we teaching our children?

Before we judge anything outside of us, before we throw hate, anger, and blame at others, we must look within.  


Honoring Cecil

Cecil’s death has inspired millions of people to see things from a different perspective, and to take action around the ongoing global issue of animal abuse. His death has shined light on how disconnected so many are from our fellow travelers on planet Earth.   Cecil, thank you for bringing awe, joy, and awareness into countless people’s lives while you were here with us.  Thank you for the lessons that you continue to teach us.  May your soul be at peace.  May the circumstances of your death be the catalyst for change.  May all nations learn from this.  May one day, we all see every living being as our kin.

Cecil the Lion
Be at peace, brother.

I see a world in the future in which we understand that all life is related to us and we treat that life with great humility and respect.  -David Suzuki 


Recommended Related Reading

As the world mourned Cecil the lion, five of Kenya’s endangered elephants were slain 

Rich American tourists kill hundreds of lions each year, and it’s all legal. 

The State of the Lion.

–> Project Leonardo: Saving Africa’s Lions

–> How you can help Lions right now

–> Panthera and WildCRU Call for Global Efforts to Conserve the African Lion

Petitioning CEO, Delta Air Lines and 4 others to End the Transport of Exotic Animal Hunting Trophies

The Secrets and Splendor of Squamata

People fear what they don’t understand and hate what they can’t conquer. ― Andrew Smith

snake eye

My heart is so happy right now.   My social media news feed has been overtaken with posts about snakes!  These post are not snake-hating posts; they’re posts from snake savvy people who absolutely adore these magnificent, valuable, and misunderstood species.  They’re posting about snakes today because it’s World Snake Day!

Snakes (like most reptiles) are one of the most misunderstood and least researched animals in the world.  Before you decided to disengage from this article, please give me just a few minutes of your time.   It’ll be worth it.  And one thing is for sure:  You’ll learn something new!  And, if you are lucky enough, you might see snakes in a new light by the time you are done reading this.


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In my watershed/wetlands class my students found a juvenile Queen snake (Regina septemvittata) 🐍 We said hello then released her back into the water.

If you have been following this blog, you know that I usually discuss companion animal topics, but I have a secret: Reptiles are my passion.  When I see a snake, toad, frog, turtle, or lizard my entire being lights up with glee.  While others are screaming and running away, I am trying to figure out how I can get closer to the animal without freaking him/her out!  I know that might seem crazy to many, but if you have been in my shoes you would feel this way, too.

I have worked with snakes for nearly 20 years.  I was indifferent to them prior to this, but things change after 20 years of educating and research.  After working with exotic and domestic snakes, venomous and nonvenomous, boas and pythons, constrictors and prey chasers, common and critically endangered, captive and wild, I saw every species of snake in a new light.  Each snake taught me something new and captured my imagination.

I would like to share some of this with you.

During my career with snakes one of the most amazing things I was able to coordinate and witness still warms my heart. Youth and adults (many who were once afraid of snakes) learned to love and respect them.  Then, if that wasn’t amazing enough, I watched these youth and adults share their love and appreciation of snakes with strangers.

These mini miracles happened at The Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Me and my amazing volunteers and inters on Discovery Walk
Hanging with my amazing volunteers and inters on Discovery Walk

In a very special area of the Audubon Zoo, called Discovery Walk, we focused on educating the public with facts not fear. And since most people are scared of anything that slithers, snakes were the perfect teachers. Some snakes were common snakes you could find in your backyard, and some were critically endangered.   Our collection of public education snakes were animal ambassadors. They were the voice (and face) for snakes all over the world.

My volunteers and interns learned how to care for each snake in our collection, they learned each snake’s temperament, and learned how to safely handle the snakes. They learned how to transport snakes on outreach programs, how to recognize when the snake was stressed, and when the snake was having a really good time!

Yes, you read that right; snakes can have good times!  In fact, snakes are very sensitive to our emotions, our moods, how we are feeling one day to the next, and our scents.  Some of our snakes even had a favorite handler!

Snakes are not the mindless creatures that many believe them to be.  In a word, they are spectacular.

Below is a slideshow of images that capture fun-filled education and appreciation of the species of snakes in our ambassador program.
(Note: You can see the images & captions better from your computer, not on your mobile device).

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“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”― Marie Curie

There are so many ridiculous myths out there about snakes.  And honestly, fear is at the heart of these misconceptions. The initial reaction when someone finds a snake is to kill it.  People do this because they are afraid.  So I am going to share a few snake facts with you today, in honor of World Snake Day, to help people to not be so afraid.

Let’s Remove Fear and replace it with Facts!

anaconda_
Anaconda researchers in the field with a live specimen – Notice the snake is NOT trying to eat the humans (another myth perpetuated in the movies).

Snake Stats:

  • “Squamata” means scaled reptiles.
  • Squamata is the largest order of reptiles, comprising all lizards and snakes.
  • Worldwide, there are about 3,000 species of snakes.
  • Snakes are on almost all continents except Antarctica, Iceland, Ireland, and New Zealand.
  • At least 50 % of Americans are afraid of snakes.

    snake skeleton
    Snakes have a beautiful skeleton
  • A true fear of snakes is known as ophidiophobia
  • Only about 15% of snakes worldwide can do actual harm to humans.
  • Only about 1/4 of all snakes are venomous.
  • There are hundreds of snake species in the U.S. but about 90% of them are non-venomous. Only 10% have venom!
  • Snakes are not “poisonous”.  Snake can be venomous.  Poison and venom differ in the method of delivery.  Poison is ingested orally or absorbed; venom, is injected. There are no “poisonous” snakes.
  • The venom gland is a modified salivary gland, and is located just behind and below the snake’s eye. The size of the venom gland depends on the size of the snake.
  • Venom is a protein. In fact, it is a very precious resource to snakes. This protein exists to subdue their prey (not to inject into humans!) Snakes do not want to waste this precious resource on us.
  • This is why over half of the snake bites that people receive from native venomous snakes are “dry bites”, meaning no venom is injected into the person.
  • Venom delivery is voluntary — snakes squeeze their venom glands with muscles to deliver venom. All venomous snakes could deliver dry bites.
  • Some snakes, like the Coral snake deliver venom to their prey (other snakes) by chewing on the snake. They use teeth in the back of their mouth to deliver the venom.  Coral snakes are extremely reclusive and are not aggressive towards anything except their prey!  In fact, no deaths from coral snake bites have been reported in the U.S. since 1967.
  • You are 9 times more likely to die from being struck by lightning than to die of venomous snakebite.snakebite_death_stats
  • A snake will bite a person (and other perceived threats) as an absolute last resort. They depend on camouflage and retreat as their preferred method of avoiding threats. When someone is bitten by snake, it is always the persons fault.  Always. And many times it could have been avoided.  I have worked with hundreds of snake species over the years, but have only been bitten 3 times.  Every single time it was my fault.
  • Snakes try to avoid human contact. Wild snake bite incidents occur when humans inadvertently step on or otherwise disturb the peaceful creatures.
  • Snakes (and other reptiles) allow more energy to remain in the food chain compared to mammals and birds. Snakes can convert 10 times more of their food to actual biomass (instead of losing it through metabolism).
  • Snakes’ presence is important for healthy ecosystems as they are predators as well as prey for other species.
  • One of the most vital roles that snakes hold is their position in the food chain. As voracious predators, snakes provide an indispensable contribution to human survival. If snakes were to disappear, we would be besieged with vermin, pestilence, plague and crop destruction within a matter of months.
  • Snakes are important to our medical advancements: Medicines for heart disease and diabetes were derived from snake venom. And new treatments for cancer, autoimmune diseases, and pain management are currently being developed using proteins and peptides in venom toxins.
  • Copperhead venom has cancer-fighting abilities and is being tested to treat breast cancer and other forms of cancer: The vemon has a protein that inhibits the growth of tumors and growth of blood vessels into tumors without damaging healthy tissues.
  • The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) estimates that about 28% of snakes are threatened.
  • 1 in 4 snake species are threatened worldwide.
  • 12 snake species are listed as Threatened (9 species) or Endangered (3 species) in the U.S.
  • Sea snakes are now critically endangered due to over fishing and habitat loss.
  • 1.5 – 2.5 million snakes are killed for the skin trade yearly.  Even with their skins removed, they can live on in agony for days and days before dying. ~ Eden Bio-Creations, LLC © 2015
  • Conservationists believe that habitat destruction and climate change are to blame for snakes’ declining numbers.

Indy, the endangered Indigo snake, one of our snake ambassadors.  Indy was so gentle. He would sit calmly as I removed eye caps - parts of his snake skin that were stuck on him after she had an incomplete shed
Indy, the endangered Indigo snake, one of our snake ambassadors. Indy was so gentle. He would sit calmly as I removed eye caps – parts of his snake skin that were stuck on him after he shed incompletely


Snakes are not the malevolent creatures portrayed in the Bible. Over time, they have become convenient victims of superstition, bad movies and the anthropomorphic misassumption that animals can be evil. It is entirely possible that if Satan had appeared to Adam and Eve as a squirrel, humans today would try to justify an irrational fear of squirrels.

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Snakes Need Compassion and Conservation.

Snakes deserve much credit for the invaluable role they play within ecosystems, including the ones in our backyards!  Focusing on facts –not fear, can help raise awareness and support to better understand these misunderstood species.  Jul 15, World Snake Day, is a opportunity to see these animals in a new light, and to gain respect for them.   Let’s remove our fears and illusions about snakes.  Let’s help our fellow travelers of this Earth gain recognition as a spectacular species.

An Indian girl from a snake charmer community plays with a local snake on World Snake Day
An Indian girl from a snake charmer community plays with a local snake on World Snake Day

If you want to join the conversation, please share and use the hashtag ‪#‎WorldSnakeDay and ‪#‎CelebrateSnakes365!  And Thankssssssssssss for helping to ssssssssave snake speciesssssssss!

Related Recommended Reading

world snake day education kids

This is dedicated to every snake I have ever met.  Thank you for teaching me what I did not know.  Thank you for showing me that you are to nothing fear, but a species to be understood and respected. Thank you for showing me that within each species, each one is an individual; each having his or her own personality, preferences, and abilities.  May your beauty and gifts be seen by all men one day.  May we loose all fear of you and see you with eyes of love.

And thank you, to all of my volunteers, interns, and colleagues. You all were the greatest, most powerful voices for the voiceless.  You affected thousands of people’s lives. You were the compassionate educators. You literally saved species.  This is dedicated to you as well. All my love.

Why Did The Turtle Cross The Road?

We are facing a turtle survival crisis unprecedented in its severity and risk. Humans are the problem, and must therefore also be the solution. Without concerted conservation action, many of the world’s turtles and tortoises will become extinct within the next few decades. It is now up to us to prevent the loss of these remarkable, unique jewels of evolution. ~ Turtle Conservation Coalition

turtle crossing road
Turtles on the road are on a mission! Help them accomplish their turtle mission!

World Turtle Day is May 23, so I wanted to remind everyone to be conscious of these very special animals that share the roads with us!  Where we live, we are surrounded by natural wetlands. But there are highways and roads that also surround these wetlands. This often means that native turtles do not fare well when they need to cross the busy roads.  I have seen far more than my share of injured and crushed turtles in the three years that we have lived here, and every time I find one, my heart breaks.  Many of these turtles are endangered or threatened species. Yet, most people don’t seem to know this, or don’t even care. This is where we come into play!  Helping one turtle across the road can be the difference between life and death for the animal, and for future generations.  Educating our friends and family is how we can save species.

Turtles and tortoises are among the world’s most endangered vertebrates, with about half their more than 300 species threatened with extinction. Only primates—human beings expected—are at greater risk of being wiped off the planet. 

April through October are the months that you will see many turtles actively crossing roads in the United States.  They do this for many reasons; in the spring, males are looking for females and territory to call their own.  May and June is nesting season.  At this time egg-bearing, female aquatic turtles leave the water to find terrestrial nesting sites, and this often requires crossing a road.  During late summer and fall, hatchling turtles are digging up from nests, looking for water.  Then later in the year males and females are heading to safe places for winter hibernation. Other times they will migrate to find a more suitable spot to live.

turtle road
Be a conscious driver and slow down for turtles such as this common snapping turtle!

 

The worst threat to snapping turtles is vehicle traffic. Each year many females get killed in their search for nesting sites. Often vehicles will not stop or even deliberately hit turtles because snapping turtles are disliked by many people. Nests on road sides and in gravel pits are often destroyed by vehicles and road grading. Hatchlings on their way back to the water are frequently run over. ~Tortoise Trust 

 

Our modern roads cut off generations old nesting grounds.
Our modern roads cut off generations old nesting grounds.

Although pre-dating dinosaurs by several million years, turtles everywhere are fast disappearing today. The “hide in my shell and wait it out” strategy that has enabled turtles to weather the geologic changes leading to the extinction of countless other species, however, has proven of little use in surviving the peril posed by fast moving trucks and cars. ~Dept. of Natural Resources

You can literally save a life – and even an entire species – by taking a few minutes out of our day to help them safely cross the road!

turtle crossing

How to help turtles safely across the road:

  • Safety First!  Busy roads and highways are dangerous for humans and animals.  Turn on your hazard lights and carefully pull off to the side of the road.  Make sure other drivers see you, before stepping onto the road.
  • Determine if the turtle is injured.  If he or she is injured, call your veterinarian to see if they will take it.  They may refer you to another vet that does accept injured wildlife.
  • Injured turtles:  If you see a turtle on the road that has been hit, PLEASE STOP to help it! He/she may not be dead!  Reptiles, especially turtles, have an extraordinary capacity to remain alive, even with severely injured.  They can do this because of their slow their metabolic rate.   The benefit of a low resting metabolism is that it requires far less fuel to sustain bodily functions.  This enables them to survive for long periods of time, even when injured!  Turtles can often survive, even if their shell is crushed, if they are given medical treatment in time. I have saved countless turtles who had been hit on the road by getting them to a vet in time.  Don’t let him/her just lay there suffering and baking in the sun!  Take them to a veterinary clinic near you.  Call the vet to let them know you are coming.  If the veterinarian does not have the ability to help you, they will send you to a veterinarian who specializes in reptiles and exotics, or wildlife specialist.  More about What to do if you find an injured turtle.   Check out some pictures of an injured turtle being repaired! 
  • When picking up a small to medium turtle, grasp it firmly and confidently on both sides of its shell between the front and rear legs (along its side).  Turtles have long legs and claws, so they might be able to kick at you, but don’t freak out.   Most will choose to stay safely tucked in their shell, during the brief time that you are moving them.
  • Keep the turtle low to the ground when moving them. Even small turtles have surprising strength.  If a turtle pushes free of your grip, you do not want it to fall and injure itself.
  • If it’s a very large turtle, it may be a snapping turtle, or a softshell turtle.  Both species can be large, heavy, and quite feisty.  They have a very wide reach with their neck and powerful jaws, so be careful.  I would not advise picking it up, but you can still help it cross the road by staying nearby – out of its way – while it continues to cross.  Let the passing cars see you and the turtle so they can safely go around you and the turtle. Learn more here about how to help snapping turtles and softshell turtles here. The video below demonstrates how to use your car mat to move one of these turtles safely across the road:

  • NEVER EVER PICK UP ANY TURTLE BY THE TAIL. This can severely injure them.
  • Place the turtle in the direction it was heading.  NEVER TURN THEM AROUND!  The turtle is on a mission and if you turn it around, it will just head back across the road when you are out of sight.
  • Do not move the turtle to a “better spot.”  Many people are tempted to relocate a turtle.   Turtles have a home range and females often return to the same general area to lay their eggs.  When relocated, they will often search for ways back to their “home base”.   Not only do these relocated turtles risk more road crossings, but if they cannot find their way back, will wander far and become lost.
  • Don’t be a Turtle-Napper!  Do not ever remove a turtle from its habitat.  They are not pets.  They belong in the wild.
  • Report turtle sightings to your local Fish and Game’s Reptile and Amphibian Reporting Program.
  • Work with land trusts and town officials to help conserve important natural areas in your community.
  • Recommended Resources:  

—>  You can save a turtle! A project by Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre

—>  Help a Turtle Across the Road [ Help A Turtle ] by the Minnesota Herpetological Society

—>  Roadways and Turtles: Solutions for Safety_flyer

—> Discover turtles and tortoises in your state!

—>  Turtle & Tortoise Species Specific Sites

—> A Field Guide to Turtles: Eastern and Central North America

 

 

Whatever the reason a turtle is traveling, their destination can take him or her miles away from where they live.  As humans continue to encroach upon their habitats, turtles will be crossing more roads.  Research has shown that aquatic turtle populations across the United States have uncommonly high proportions of males because so many female turtles are being killed on roadways.  Turtles have a long lifespan, take a long time to reach sexual maturity, and have low survivorship when newly hatched.  Because of these attributes, turtle populations cannot compensate for losses due to adult mortality without experiencing long-term consequences.  With turtle populations requiring high levels of adult survivorship, every individual is important to a population’s stability.  This concern is even greater in recent years because many U.S. turtle populations are becoming fragmented, isolated, and progressively smaller.

It’s up to each of us to ensure that turtle species stay abundant, healthy and safe!

Sammy the turtle crossing road

“For if one link in nature’s chain might be lost, another might be lost, until the whole of things will vanish by piecemeal.”– U.S. President Thomas Jefferson

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

“Pull a thread here and you’ll find it’s attached to the rest of the world.”
― Nadeem Aslam

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

 Plant a tree.  Hug a tree.  Kiss a frog.  Save a toad.

Get your Earth Day groove on!


Today, on Earth Day, I invite you to watch Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s film, “HOME“:


“Humankind has not woven the web of life.  We are but one thread within it.  Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.  All things are bound together … all things connect.” —Chief Seattle

animal footprints