Dogs, Mice, Cats, Rats


Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Do dogs understand their suffering and pain more acutely than mice? Do cats grieve over forced isolation and cruel treatment more than rats?

Does it matter?

Yes, it matters, because how we view an animal can have a big effect on how we treat it.

Which brings me to my real question:

In framing the law that was passed in 1966 on the treatment and care of laboratory animals in this country, were the policy makers  influenced by their belief in the presence or absence of an animal’s capacity for subjective feeling and experience, its sentient abilities?

If the provisions of the Law, the United States Federal Animal Welfare Act of 1966 (AWA), and its amendment of 2002 are to be taken at face value, then the answer to that question is yes.

In both the AWA and its amendment, mice and rats, along with birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians, are explicitly excluded from federal protection against abuse during scientific research. In fact, it appears that they were considered non-animals, not even worthy of consideration. Those animals specified for protection in the AWA are dogs, cats, monkeys, non-human primates, guinea pigs, hamsters and rabbits.  In other words, cuddly pets and cousins.

According the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), ninety-nine percent of the millions of animals currently undergoing laboratory study in this country are those that have been excluded from protection under the AWA. It seems that this could only have come about if laws were written with the assumption that these animals do not have the capacity to suffer, or at least cannot grasp what is happening to them.

We need to take the pain and suffering of ‘less intelligent’ animals very seriously, wrote Marc Bekoff , co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. As a cognitive ethologist, Bekoff studies the influence of conscious awareness on an animal’s behavior in its natural environment. It is possible that some animals experience pain and suffering in ways that we cannot yet imagine, Bekoff stated. They may act differently than we do, but still can feel pain.


I’m including here some links that might be of interest to readers:  Details about alternatives to animal testing.  Interesting article refuting alternatives to animal testing.    This is Marc Beckoff’s Op-Ed Piece


This Will Be Short

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Last week I got derailed by an article I received about abuses in some primate research laboratories around the country. Three days of searching the Internet, watching horrendous videos and slogging through the morass of information related to abusive animal research left me disheartened and downright exhausted.

I’ve mulled over how to write about this, and have decided I won’t. The whole question of using animals for research is extremely complicated and fraught with controversy. There are animal rights groups and advocates out there working to right this terrible wrong. As an example, the investigations discussed in the article I cited above were brought about by pressure from such groups.

For me, if there is to be animal research, the solution to the problem of cruelty lies in ethical and moral behavior, in our recognition of our connection to all living beings, and in our capacity for empathy and compassion.

In a future post I will write about laboratory animal caregivers who are compassionate and caring, sometimes to their own detriment.

 2018 theme: End Plastic Pollution

Here’s an article about eliminating single use plastic containers.

Albatross at Midway: Battle 2

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

There is a battle going on at Midway’s Sand Island. It’s different from the great military battle of the Second World War. And, this one may not be winnable.

It’s a battle against an unpredictable enemy, one with unlimited reinforcements, which replenishes itself when cleared away, and which attacks from several fronts.

The enemy in this modern day war is plastic, and it comes to the island from the ocean, some of it simply washing up onto the shore.

Plastic bags and plastic bottle caps. Cigarette lighters. Plastic food packaging. Candy wrappers. Tooth brushes. Tossed into the sea from cruise ships.  Dumped into streams and rivers, offering a direct route to the sea.

Some face washes and body scrubs, even tooth pastes, contain tiny dots of plastic called microbeads that are able to pass through water system filters.  Before the law banning their use was passed in 2016, three hundred million tons of microbeads of plastic had been washed annually into waterways in the United States. They may be banned, but they are still floating around out there in the ocean.

Another, and inadvertent, source of plastic on the island is the Laysan albatross parent returning to feed his young chick. The albatross cannot know, but when he flies out to sea in search of food, there is a good chance that the highly nutritious liquefied oil he will carry back to feed his chick will be laced with some object – or multiple objects – of plastic that he ingested with his meal of squid or fish eggs.

What the albatross also cannot know is that he will pass the plastic on to his baby.

Examination of the boluses expelled by Laysan chicks to clear out undigested food prior to fledging has revealed the existence of plastic objects that were inserted during feeding.

According to EPA marine debris expert, Anne Marie Cook, an estimated ten thousand pounds of plastic debris is brought onto the island in this feeding manner.

Sometimes the plastic will cause no harm. But sometimes the chick will become ill.  Many die. Anywhere you see a big pile of plastic, but nothing else, that’s where an albatross has died, Dave Wolfe, the deputy manager of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge told author Carl Safina.

So you might ask why they don’t just pick it all up. Plastic is ubiquitous on Midway, Wolfe explained to Safina. If I picked up every bit of plastic I found on Midway, I would not do anything else. Even then, a new crop of it would appear with the next high tide.

As a solution, plans for cleaning up the ocean have been put forward. But none of the ideas could be implemented in any practical manner. No surprise there. I imagine it would be like trying to scrub an elephant with a toothbrush.

It also seems to miss the point. The ocean didn’t pollute itself with plastic. It wasn’t just an isolated spill. Oops. Let’s clean this mess up and go on our way.

People did this, and people are going to have to become involved in the solution.

As Aldo Leopold suggested, this is an ecologic ethical issue that will take a complete reversal of attitudes, from viewing the ocean as a source of entertainment and amusement to understanding that the sea and all its life are essential to our health and wellbeing. It will entail our giving up our exploitative behaviors.

(You can read Leopold’s concept of an ecologic ethic in my post of December 20, 2017.)

According to Leopold, an ecologic ethic, by encompassing all of life, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence.

Can we limit our freedom of action? This film by Chris Johnson asks the same question:



Laysan Albatross at Midway: Battle 1

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

On December 7, 1941, after engaging in the attack on Pearl Harbor, two Japanese destroyers sailed thirteen hundred miles to the tiny atoll of Midway and bombarded the U.S. military outpost there. Within two months Midway would be attacked three more times. And four months after that, in a battle that lasted four days, the Americans would defeat the Japanese in the Battle of Midway, considered one of the most decisive naval battles of the Second World War.

During the six months this was going on, midst the noise, the death, and the destruction, added to that, the hostility of personnel who found them a menace to military operations, the millions of Laysan albatross who call Midway their home were going about their usual December to June business: finding their mates, building nests, laying and incubating eggs, fledging.

I try to imagine this colony of birds co-existing with military personnel and equipment. I wonder how they were able to keep their cool. I wonder how they were not overtaken by fear and confusion. How they were able to carry on with their lives, in all the chaos.

You cannot detonate the devotion out of an albatross, wrote Hob Osterlund in her book Holy Mōlī [Hawaiian for albatross).

Devotion is what albatross are about.

They are devoted to their birthplace.

When they are ready to be on their own, fledglings teach themselves to fly, then soar out to sea. They will travel four years, never setting down on land. When it’s time to begin an adult life, with no landmarks to guide them, they fly home to where they were born, and will continue to do so throughout their lives.

You wonder how they do it, how can they fly for years without touchdown. The albatross is an aerodynamic expert. When flying, he remains in constant, seemingly effortless motion. He exploits the wind’s energy, catching its waves with his flexible wings that span eleven or twelve feet. The adult albatross can fly fifty thousand miles in a year, reaching speeds of fifty miles per hour.  During his lifetime, an albatross might travel three million miles.

Albatross parents are devoted to their young.

They take turns incubating the one egg the female will produce.  They co-parent.  They take turns searching for food, sometimes having to travel four thousand miles over a period of two weeks.  They share the feeding of the young chick. They preen their young.  Nuzzle him.  Even before the chick begins pipping, the parents will talk to it inside the egg.

Osterlund, who has spent many years observing and documenting albatross behavior, describes albatross as talkative. Parents speak to their egg. Chicks peep while chipping away inside their eggs. Mates murmur. Courting birds whinny. Adults shriek.  They are always talking to another bird. Sometimes they talk to themselves.

Osterlund observed one youngster – named Onipa’a – talking to an umbrella she had dug up from among layers of pine needles and twigs. When she fledged and came back four years later, she returned to the umbrella, even though it had become buried once again, and even though she had to dig it out.

Albatross are devoted to their mates.

Though the adults will leave each other and fly out to sea after completing the parenting of their chick, when they return home two years later, they will seek each other out from among all the returning birds and begin the breeding process once again.  Albatross couples normally produce one chick every two years.

It is commonly believed that Albatross mate for life, and some couples do stay together for many years.

Osterlund’s book is full of stories where this is not exactly so, however. For example, she tells about two couples who switched mates, about two females sharing a nest, both with fertile eggs, males absent from the scene.

It made me wonder what mate for life really means to an albatross, she wrote. Maybe it means passing on excellent genes. Maybe it means a rock solid commitment for the survival of the kids.  Maybe it means a rollicking reunion dance once a year.  Maybe it means being punctual with meals. Maybe it means an occasional divorce, dalliance, or team-switch.

…..If we must classify others, why not create categories for qualities vital to our continued existence on this planet…….like willingness to work hard, like authenticity and compassion, like unflinching devotion to the welfare of children and animals?

A Conservation Effort Gone Awry?

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Wild turkeys are creating havoc in urban neighborhoods all over the country.

It’s not that they do anything weird or un-turkey-like. They peck. They scratch.  They dig. They climb trees.  They poop – chicken manure the size of golf balls!

The problem is that, in built up areas they peck and scratch at cars and roofs and outdoor furniture. Dig up vegetable gardens and flower beds. They climb into trees and munch on unripe fruit, drop the uneaten portions to the ground. They poop all over the place.

Also, wild turkeys are known to be aggressive towards people at times. For example, when they feel threatened or during mating season. Although such incidents are rare, these huge birds – weighing up to 20 or 30 pounds – can be intimidating as they strut around, usually in a flock of eight or ten. Fearsome.

This seemingly untenable situation – wild turkeys and humans coexisting – can be viewed as the legacy of a decision made almost a hundred years ago.

In the early years of the twentieth century the wild turkey, a favorite prey of game hunters, was on the verge of extinction. The U.S. Department of Fish and Game [Fish and Wildlife today], recognizing the economic potential in wild turkey hunting, decided to replenish the population of these birds within the United States.

Fast forward to the present. There are six million wild turkeys in the United States, and they can be found in every state of the union, save Alaska.

And the economic advantages appear to be solid. In California alone, with the twenty-five thousand game hunters in the state, revenue from wild turkey hunting has been estimated at twenty million dollars in a season.

This could be touted as the greatest act of conservation of the twentieth century, bringing about recreational and economic boon.

Except it appears there was a flaw in the program. When Fish and Game designed the repopulation of the wild turkey, they neglected to look down the road and take into consideration the possibility of disappearing habitat. Fire, logging, urban sprawl, these are some of the events that have contributed to the loss of habitat over the years, a condition that has sent the wild turkey searching for food amongst people.

And food they have found. Cat food. Bird seed. Fruits and vegetables. And, commonly, their own bowl of food offered by humans.

Despite all the warnings against feeding wild turkeys, that this invites them to take up residency and use the land as they wish, that it would cause them to lose their fear of humans, that if they do not receive their expected meal they could become aggressive, and that the best way to get rid of them is to hold back the food, despite all this information, we continue to feed them.


Because we enjoy them and want to keep them close. They are funny. They are audacious. They are beautiful, with their dark, bronze-green iridescent feathers shining in the sun. We are intrigued by the male, puffing himself up, his tail flared out.

We feed them because we crave connection to all wildlife. We feed them because contact across species strengthens us and expands our knowledge of who we are as living beings. Because having them nearby helps fill the separation we feel between ourselves and the natural world, and, as Dawn Starin wrote, for many, a flock of wild turkeys openly feeding on a lawn or strutting down a sidewalk offers a glimpse into the unknowable wild.

And we feed them because that’s what humans do.

POSTSCRIPT: Somewhere along the way you might come across the idea that after the Continental Congress of 1776 Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were asked to design a seal to represent the new country, and that Benjamin Franklin chose the turkey over the bald eagle.

This is not true. The story goes as follows:

In January of 1784, two years after the Great Seal of the United States was finally approved, with the bald eagle as its symbol, Franklin wrote a letter to his daughter, Sarah, in which he said,

For my part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our County. He is a Bird of bad moral Character.  He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and take it from him.

 I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America….He is besides,……..a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.

The story began to circulate in the newspapers around America, and the idea that Franklin proposed the turkey in lieu of the eagle has somehow endured.

On November 24, 1962, for its Thanksgiving issue, the New Yorker magazine ran a cover photo of a United States seal with a turkey.

Image result for new yorker magazine cover november 24 1962



Collateral Damage

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

A hunter shoots a deer, guts it and takes the useful parts. The rest remains.

A farmer shoots a coyote that is decimating his flock of sheep. The carcass stays where it goes down.

A hunter wounds a rabbit, who dashes under a tangle of bushes and succumbs. His body lies undetected by the hunter.

Whether they are aware or not, the farmer and the hunters have left food behind for wildlife, notably raptors, which are birds such as hawks, falcons, eagles, condors and vultures. These ‘birds of prey,’ aside from being hunters in their own right, also feed on the flesh of the dead animals.

Also, possibly unbeknownst to the farmer and the hunters, if lead-based bullets are used, the leavings potentially could cause harm to the birds, could actually kill them if lead bullets, shot or fragments are ingested with the carrion.

It’s not uncommon for this unintentional damage to raptors to occur. A couple of stats: The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota reported that in the last twenty-four years over 500 eagles that had been admitted to their clinic either died or had to be euthanized due to lead poisoning. The Center for Biodiversity has reported 90% of the condors of California have suffered lead poisoning at least once and that 85% of the 120 injured eagles taken in by the Minnesota Raptor Center in 2011 had elevated blood lead levels.

It’s not uncommon, either, for intense efforts at rehabilitation to result in the healed birds being returned to the wild.

Why the heroic measures to save these animals? It’s not only that raptors are startlingly beautiful and powerful, that the speed and agility with which they soar and dart and dive fill you with awe.  It’s not only that these birds have evoked religious inspiration, and have been the subject of legends and myths.

It’s because, as predators, raptors play a major role in helping maintain the balance among all the members of a habitat. As part of the top of the food chain, they help keep the population of smaller, more prolific reproducers, like mice, from overrunning their neighborhood and outcompeting other species for limited food supplies.

So, why has there been no law to protect raptors by banning the use of lead bullets? After all, the danger of lead exposure has been known for some time. Lead has been removed from paint and from gasoline. But establishing laws regarding lead use in bullets for hunting has not been so straightforward. It has been an ongoing process for over twenty years and is fraught with controversy.

Where? Under what conditions? Which targets? These are all questions that have been bandied about in regards to passing legislation on the use of lead bullets.

Perhaps the increasing awareness of the unhealthy situation of the endangered raptors will energize the move to outlawing lead bullets for big and small game once and for all. Although just recently this administration has reversed a ban on lead ammunition in U.S. wildlife reserves.

Oh, well.

Hawk Species at Hawk Mountain | Hawk Mountain Sanctuary: Raptor Conservation, Education, Observation & Research














My Idea, Mr. Muir: Part 3


Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

Part 3: If one pine were placed in a town square, what admiration it would excite! Yet who is conscious of the pine-tree multitudes in the free woods, though open to everybody.  (John Muir. John of the Mountains, the Unpublished Journals of John Muir, p. 220)

John Muir was facing a challenge – in fact several challenges – in 1875 when he wrote those words.

He had been living in Oakland and was gaining respect as a naturalist and scientist through his many published articles about Nature. But it was early in his development as the conservation activist he would become, the one who would found the Sierra Club and serve as its president for twenty years. The one who would lobby successfully for the establishment of Yosemite as a national park and influence the direction of conservation and preservation legislation for years to come.

During that early period, despite his successes, Muir had been languishing in the city in what he described in a letter to Mrs. Ezra Carr as that strange Oakland epoch.

When I first came down to the city from my mountain home, he wrote in his journal, I began to wither, and wish instinctively for the vital woods and high sky. Yet I lingered month after month, plodding at duty. (John of the Mountains: the Unpublished Journals of John Muir, p. 192).

A major challenge for Muir was how to make a living and not lose himself. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get into the mountains to learn the news.

Besides magazine writing, Muir held many odd jobs that helped get him through this early period. The solution to his financial woes came after his marriage in 1880 when he went into partnership with his father-in-law and spent ten years managing their large and profitable fruit ranch.

A second dilemma for Muir was how to hold on to himself as a writer. As Michael P. Cohen pointed out, …working in and through a medium, with its own conventions, has a way of shaping the mind of the creator…..By falling into the occupation of a popular writer, [Muir] could endanger the very message he had a sacred mission to convey (The Pathless Way: Muir and American Wilderness, p. 132).

In other words, Muir was challenged, perhaps to rein in his effusiveness, to temper his tendency to anthropomorphize nature or to refer to trees and rocks, and all of nature as communicators with God, lest he offend, or simply turn off, his readers. In the end, Cohen writes, Muir wished to be as wild and immoderate as Nature. In practice, he had to compromise.

In an ironic turn of events, Muir would be faced with another challenge, the job of confronting what always had been a source of pleasure for him; efficient machinery. Muir was an inventor. He was ingenious at devising time-saving machines. This was the age of industrialization and urbanization, which championed efficiency and ingenuity, but which also brought with it pollution and weariness and social ills.

I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found. If the death exhalations that brood the broad towns in which we so fondly compact ourselves were made visible, we should flee as from a plague. All are more or less sick; there is not a perfectly sane man in San Francisco. (John of the Mountains, p. 191).

Muir understood the connection between health and wellbeing and experiences in Nature, and he  could be very clever about tying this relationship to the need for preservation and conservation.

As he does in this quote from Our National Parks, Chapter 1 (1901)…

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity and that mountains, parks, and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains for life.





My Idea, Mr. Muir: Part 2

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

The year is 1861.

John Muir is 23 years old. He is attending the University of Wisconsin, where he will develop an interest in botany.

In California, photographer Carleton Watkins, a contemporary of Muir, straps his 40-pound camera and accompanying paraphernalia to his mules and ventures into Yosemite Valley.

At some point Muir and Watkins will meet and become friends, connected by their love of Yosemite, their avid environmentalism, and photography.

Why Yosemite? Watkins will publish a book of his Yosemite photos that will prompt President Abraham Lincoln to pass a law designating Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove as a California state park.

Muir, as his career develops, will direct much of his advocacy towards establishing Yosemite as a national park.

Why photography? Watkins will create a portrait of Muir. Muir will walk the photographic route of Watkins book.

           Portrait of John Muir (c. 1875) by Carleton Watkins

Which brings me to part 2 Muir’s quote.

Part 2: Who reports and works the ways of the clouds, those wondrous creations coming into being every day like freshly upheaved mountains? And what record is kept of Nature’s colors – – the clothes she wears – of her birds, her beasts, her live-stock? (John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, pp. 220-221).

By asking these questions, was Muir commenting on the state of wilderness photography in 1875?

While Watkins was able to record great detail in his landscape photographs, clouds, and any sky detail, are conspicuously missing from his work.

This seems typical of photographs of this era, which hints at a limitation in the capabilities of the cameras at that time.

Example:  Photo taken by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904)

And then there is Muir’s question about Nature’s colors.

Color photography was in an experimental phase in 1875 when Muir wrote those words. Techniques had not yet evolved that could reliably capture and preserve color in a photograph.

For Muir, nature’s colors, all the tones nameless and numberless, as he once described them when writing about the Grand Canyon, (John of the Mountains, p. 363) were essential to the authentic wilderness experience. (I wonder how he would respond to the photos of Ansel Adams.)

And then there was Muir the inventor. In addition to his gift as chronicler of nature, Muir was endowed with mechanical prowess and imagination. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that he would lament the lack of technological advancements in photography that could have opened up the possibilities for recording clouds and displaying Nature’s colors.

When I think of Muir’s desire for technological advancement, however, I think of the expression, be careful what you wish for.

Now that we have the technical skill to capture images of nature in a way that Muir might possibly never have imagined, there is the danger of the virtual experience replacing the natural, ironically, deepening our disconnection from nature.  But that would be the subject of a future blog.

In the meantime, watch this film of starling murmuration (thank you Joe Frank) and ask yourself, does this make you want to experience this live, or is this enough.  How do you think Muir would respond to this?  (Here’s some information about murmuration.)

My Idea, Mr. Muir: Part 1

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

In 1875, environmentalist John Muir wrote:

How little note is taken of the deeds of Nature! What paper publishes her reports? If one pine were placed in a town square, what admiration it would excite! Yet who is conscious of the pine-tree multitudes in the free woods, though open to everybody? Who publishes the sheet-music of winds, or the written music of water written in river-lines? Who reports the works and ways of the clouds, those wondrous creations coming into being every day like freshly upheaved mountains?  And what record is kept of Nature’s colors—the clothes she wears—of her birds, her beasts—her live-stock? (John of the Mountains: the unpublished journals of John Muir. P. 220. 1938.)

When I first came across this quote, I copied it into my file titled, Quotes to Use in the Future. Most of the items in that file have languished there, forgotten. But this quote, this single paragraph, stayed with me and kept drawing me back.

I have read and reread the quote many times and have come to the conclusion that it is a giant complaint, Muir venting about popular culture (sheet music), city life (the pine tree in the town square), and man’s indifference to the wonders of nature.

This seems strange to me.  While Muir had strong opinions in all of these areas, and while he had no problem expressing them, and while he sometimes verged on preaching and telling folks what they should do, it was not his usual style to vent, especially about everything all at once, in one long string of questions.

Maybe it had something to do with the effects of his having lived in the Bay Area during this time, earning a living writing magazine articles.

In any event, my interest has been stirred. So, in the next three posts I will take a look at these three sources of Muir’s annoyance.

Part 1: Sheet Music as Popular Culture

The period we are talking about is roughly 1870-1880, the post-Stephen Foster (d. 1864) era, and before Thomas Edison’s record player would become a household fixture. This was a time when sheet music was being churned out by the thousands, mostly by a group known as Tin Pan Alley. These were New York publishers, songwriters, and composers who virtually dominated the sheet music market.

Sheet music had become big business during this time. The artistic cover designs appealed to the tastes of the growing middle class. Parlor music, a form of home entertainment using sheet music, became popular, allowing people to sing their hearts out about things that mattered to them.

The compositions dealt with topics of every kind, reflecting the complexity and richness of American life.

War. Religion. Cowboy life. There were songs about love and temperance, prairie life and mining. A song titled The Mill is Closed speaks of the logger’s plight.  The song, Should Women Vote?, enabled women to make a statement about their civil rights.

            Cover Art 1870s

In 1874, J. L. Truax composed Falling Waters, a piece of sheet music that is supposed to depict the sound of waterfalls – thus the title.  The piece sounds classical, rather than purely popular.  Perhaps that is because it represents an abstract theme – cascading water – as  opposed to something more concrete, like lassoing a horse or marching to war.

The question raised by Muir in his 1875 lament, Who publishes the sheet-music of winds, or the written music of water written in river-lines?, seems to imply that he was unaware of the existence of Truax’s piece. One wonders whether his statement would have been tempered a bit, had he heard it.  Possibly not, as his complaint seems to be about the popular culture that surrounded the sheet music and not the music per se.

Here is a YouTube performance of Falling Waters.












You can do it! Maybe

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

In 1993, in an article in the New York Times, naturalist Natalie Angier wrote, Even the most elite human athlete is thoroughly pathetic compared with nature’s other aerobic masters. She goes on to give examples: the cheetah’s seventy miles per hour sprint; the hummingbird’s twenty-four hour migration vigil powered by wing beats of thousands per minute; the pronghorn antelope’s ability to maintain runs of sixty miles per hour over long periods of time.

We enjoy these comparisons. It’s also fun to compare the records of elite Olympic athletes to animals’ skills.

  • The Sprint: The Jamaican runner, Usain Bolt, 27.4 miles per hour vs. sprinting animals, the cat at 29.8 to the Cheetah at 61 miles per hour.
  • The Lift: Soviet/Belarusian weight lifter, Leonid Taranenko, 586.4 pounds vs. the elephant, 661 pounds.
  • Swimming: Brazilian swimmer, Cesar Cielo, 5.34 miles per hour vs. water animals, 22-80 miles per hour.
  • The Long Jump: American jumper, Mile Powell, 29.4 feet vs., snow leopard, 49 feet

These are impressive numbers for both the humans and the animals. What is missing in these comparisons, however, is the recognition that, while an animal can excel in one ‘event,’ human athletes can excel in all, aerobic as well as those where length or height or strength is the basis of achievement.

Now the Olympics are upon us.  Unlike animals, who  compete for food, water, shelter, and safety, Olympic athletes compete for status and for being the best in their event. And in that regard, the athletes of today are facing some challenges that did not exist twenty or thirty years ago.

Recent analysis of all of the Olympic records set between 1896 and 2016 has lead researchers to believe that Olympic athletes can expect fewer opportunities to set new records in the future. These data show that the pace at which sports records are being set has slowed, and might have even plateaued during the 1980s. In addition, records that are being set are happening in smaller increments.

As an example: in the 2014 Olympics, Joseph Schooling bested record holder Michael Phelps in the butterfly event by a mere two tenths of a second.

Can an athlete feel pride and accomplishment by overtaking a world record by  two tenths of a second? Or muster up the courage and dedication to train for such a small margin of gain?  Can the loser avoid cynicism and disillusionment?

Then there are big questions which have arisen from all the number crunching:  Is there a finite level of physiological capacity, both for humans and animals? Are Olympic athletes at the end point of skill building?

In his research, biologist Mark Denny asked those questions regarding speed in race horses, greyhounds, and humans, all having been trained to run. Horses and dogs had been racing competitively for centuries. Humans, for millennia.

In dogs and horses Denny identified limits to the speed they were able to cover over a given distance. Also, even when an intensive program to enhance performance was initiated, race speeds in horses and dogs have not increased in the last forty to sixty years.  These animals appear to have reached their limit.

In humans, the analysis of the hundred-year historical data suggests that a limit exists, and that the speed is only a few percent greater than observed to date. But Denny claims that humans have not reached a plateau in running speeds.

Which brings me to my conclusion. Humans and animals, and animals and animals, must not be compared for evidence of superiority of one or the other species. All are a part of one family and, like all families, there are differences among its members.  Yet, each brings something valuable to the mix. Each adds to the whole.

Please enjoy this video that looks at the connection between humans and animals.