Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 6. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 15-17.

Animal Antics

Alcoholic Elephants & Rioting Polar Bears

1. Officers of North Yorkshire Police have been defeated by an unexpected enemy - half a million starlings with a penchant for carpet bombing. The birds have roosted at Newby Wiske Hall, the forces headquarters near Northallerton, alarming resident peacocks and prompting a petition from villagers. They whirl around raining droppings for an hour or so before they roost. Bird muck on your car has become an unofficial indicator of which officer works late, said police spokesman Tony Lidgate. The sound of the droppings is like rain, said villager Dennis Pullan, who covers his cottage window with sheets at 6pm.

- Guardian, 23/3/94

2. The second largest stock market in the U.S. was halted for 34 minutes on the 1st of August when a squirrel chewed into power lines near the Nasdaq Computer Centre at Trumbull, Connecticut. Though Nasdaq never lost power completely, automatic systems tried in vain to switch over to a standby generator.

- Guardian, 4/8/94

3. A Russian bear was bought from a Russian circus by a tourist agent after he was asked to provide an American visitor with a wild bear hunt. The tourist was set up in Moscows Perdelkino forest and the bear was released. As the hunter closed in on his prey a postman passed by on his bike and tumbled off in surprise, according to the local newspaper, Vecernaya Moskva. The bear, recalling his big top training, grabbed the bike and pedalled off. The American was suing for fraud.

- The Sun, 21/6/92. Quoted in Fortean Times #71

4. Jakarta, Indonesia - Termites that can tunnel through concrete and metal are devouring Indonesian buildings at the rate of $145 million a year. The domestic news agency Antara Wednesday quoted researchers as saying the country was home to about 200 different types of termites. They said the insects not only ravaged wooden structures but could break through concrete, brick, metal plates and plastic pipes.

- Reuter 5/5/93

5. A herd of thirsty elephants have broken through Indian army defences to steal the soldiers winter rum rations. The animals regularly break into an army supply depot in the jungle area of Bagdogra, in Northern Bengal, to get to the stores of food and spirit. Soldiers have tried to keep them at bay by lighting fires around the base and putting up electrified fences. But the crafty creatures have learned to hose out the flames with water stored in their trunks, and to flatten the fences by dropping uprooted trees on them. Once inside the depot, the huge raiders have no problem smashing down thin steel railings and wooden windows to get to the rum, sugar, flour and bananas inside, said an army spokesman. An officer recently posted there explained that the elephants broke the rum bottles by cleverly curling their trunks around the bottom. Then they empty the contents down their throats. They soon got drunk, he said, and swayed around. They enjoy themselves and then return to the jungle. But woe betide any soldier on duty who confronts one of the partying pachyderms, said the officer. One elephant never forgot the man who poured hot water on him one night - and has returned regularly to demolish his hut.

- Daily Telegraph 14/12/91

6. A few years ago the cousin of a Sumatran friend of ours was killed by a singularly persistent elephant. He came across it raiding his fruit garden, unwisely wounded it with buckshot, and was chased up a tree for his trouble. He remained there for what must have been an anxious day and a night while the elephant returned to and from a nearby stream with trunkfuls of water with which it was finally able to loosen the roots of the tree, push it over, then trample its victim just as his belated rescue party arrived on the scene.

- Ring of Fire, Lawrence and Laura.Blair, Bantam 1988.

[This example does not mean that we take a malicious glee in the tragic situation in India, Africa and elsewhere, whereby poor humans are thrown into a desperate struggle with other creatures (tigers, elephants etc.) for diminishing resources. How is it that a tradition of thousands of years of (relatively) stable co-existence has been turned on its head in less than a century? A story such as the one above is instead intended to give the lie to the scientific myth that animals are little more than instinct driven automata.]

7. Millions of tiny fish forced nuclear power station bosses to shut down two reactors. Sprats blocked underwater screens on a cooling water system at Dungeness power station, near Rye. Dr. Andy Spurr, station manager, said: The shoals have to be seen to be believed. This isnt the first time we have suffered through the problem - about the same time in 1994 we again lost both reactors. The sprats are drawn towards the shore at this time of year at particularly high tides. They block screens on pipes used to pump in cooling water. Officials stressed there was no hazard and the reactor shutdown was a routine procedure.

- Sussex Evening Argus, 16/2/95

8. On Alaska's North Slope in November 1993 the village of Kaktovik suffered some bizarre vandalism. Dozens of lights illuminating the village airstrip were destroyed - knocked out by polar bears. Tracs in the snow showed the bears were methodically moving from one light to the next. On another occasion, witnesses saw them punching the lights one by one. Was this aggression, or were the lights just playthings glowing irresistibly in the night? Will any scientist ever know? Sometimes animals seem to play even with them.

- National Geographic, Dec 1994

9. In Ceres, California, a gopher was found on school grounds by a student, who turned it over to three school janitors. The janitors attempted to kill the gopher by freezing it to death with the spray from several cans of a freezing solvent used to clean floors. After the attempted extermination, one of the janitors tried to light a cigarette, which ignited the solvent and blew the janitors out of the utility room. Nineteen people were injured by the explosion. The gopher survived, and was later released to a field.

- EF! Journal, Brigid 1996.

10. The blackbirds of Guisborough, Cleveland, have learned how to imitate car alarms. They mastered the knack after an individual bird suspected his territory was about to be invaded. His wailings were taken up by other birds, and now the towns dawn chorus is driving many residents up the wall. I started hearing this irritating noise outside at 5am every day, said journalist Mark Topping, 32. It certainly seemed to be a car alarm, but there wasn't one close enough to be making such a row. Then I saw this one particular blackbird sitting in our alder tree, outside the bedroom window. It was giving it everything, but instead of the usual pleasant song of the blackbird it was recreating the din made by a car alarm. After I heard that one bird I began to realise others had picked it up as well. David Hirst, a spokesman for the RSPB, explained that the birds had incorporated the sound into their song on the assumption that they were fellow birds requiring a response.

They are very good imitators and very adaptable to urban conditions. In the past Ive known them imitate trim-phones and even cats. Liz Taylor of Melrose, Borders, suggests that the blackbirds are enjoying a good joke at the expense of their sleeping neighbours. When I lived in Bombay, she said,We had a trio of large crows in our garden, one of which could imitate exactly (and in a Scots accent) my voice calling out for the bearer. When he arrived in response to the summons, they would jump up and down on the wall, cackling horribly.

- Daily Telegraph 16 and 22nd May 1996, Daily Mail 16/5/96, quoted in Fortean Times #90.

11. On a number of occasions I have played a botanical version of the parlour game called Murder. Six subjects are chosen at random and told the rules. They draw lots and the one who receives the marked card becomes the culprit, but keeps his identity secret. Two potted plants of the same species, are set up in a room and each of the six subjects is allowed ten minutes alone with them.

During his period, the culprit attacks one of the plants in any way he likes. So at the end of the test hour, the foul deed has been done and one of the plants lies mortally wounded, perhaps torn from its pot and trampled into the floor. But there is a witness. The surviving plant is attached to an electroencephalograph [EEG] or a polygraph and each of the six subjects is brought in briefly to stand near the witness. To five of these, the plant shows no response... but when confronted with the guilty party, the plant will almost always produce a measurably different response on the recording tape.
It is entirely possible that the machine, or the combination of the plant and machine, are responding to an electrical signal produced by the culprits knowledge of his own guilt... But on one occasion there was a result that seems to show that these are not the answers. During that particular experiment the potted cyclamen accused two of the six subjects. I called these two back and discovered that one was indeed the culprit, but that the other had spent an hour earlier that same morning mowing his lawn. He came in, with no guilt feelings, but to the plant it was apparent that he had blood on his hands.

- The Biology of Death, Lyall Watson, Sceptre 1987.

12. And Finally... an example of how NOT to do it - Cops in Chimps Clothing, apeing Jack Straw: take this case of law enforcement, noticed among the chimps of Arnhem Zoo: when two young females refused to come indoors for the night, zoo rules meant that the entire colony had to wait more than two hours for supper. Next day the miscreants received a thrashing from their companions, ensuring they obeyed the rules in future.

- From Frans de Waals Good Natured, in BBC Wildlife July 1996.
- Those who do not learn from [human] history are condemned to repeat it.
(With thanks to the shadowy Dr.H, late of Lyonesse, and of course not forgetting The Duchess)

Symbiosis 2: Who needs Detox!

Symbiosis is an ecological relationship where various organisms co-exist and co-evolve for mutual benefit. As the 19th century anarchist, geographer and evolutionary theorist Kropotkin argued, mutual aid is as important a factor in evolution as competition.

"Bluebottles (Calliphora erythrocephala) and Blowflies (Calliphora vomitoria) are the large-eyed flies that can often be found around dustbins and near animals. The female lays her eggs on decaying matter of all kinds (animal corpses, tainted meat or fish); anything that will provide food for the developing larvae. One of the places most favoured as an egg laying site is a festering wound. When the larvae hatch they feed only on dead tissue and pus, not on the healthy tissue surrounding the wound. They require the rich source of plasma and red blood cells found in dead tissue. The excretions of these larvae act in a similar way to a disinfectant and so also help to clean out the wound. By eating infected tissue and disinfecting the wound these grubs provide the host animal with a valuable service and could often save the host's life by preventing the infection spreading all over its body."

- Taken from 'Symbiosis: Nature in Partnership', Nicolette Perry, Blandford 1983 & 1990, London, p61.

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