Friday, May 11, 2018

Letters to America

A while back I was honored to be invited to contribute to the endeavor entitled "Letters to America." My letter appeared today on their web site. The link is:

Monday, April 23, 2018

Essay on the death of a beetle

For a reason that doesn't need to be disclosed, I needed to find this particular essay, written as a result of designing a lab exercise involving parasites of grain beetles (and their mealworm larvae) for a university course entitled "Biodiversity." After searching through everything I could find relative to a course I last taught in the spring of 2011, I was able to find this essay. So here it is:

Essay on the death of a beetle

John Janovy, Jr.

            In his truly magnificent best-seller book, Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas, nationally acclaimed cancer researcher and president [at the time] of Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, included a chapter entitled “Death in the Open.”  He begins this chapter with a discussion of road kills: “Seen from a car window they appear as fragments, evoking memories of woodchucks, skunks . . . etc.”  His essay addresses death as a natural phenomenon, and ends with a comment on humanity: “Less than half a century from now, our replacements will have more than doubled the numbers.  It is hard to see how we can continue to keep the secret, with such multitudes doing the dying.”  The secret he is talking about is that of the death of our fellow human beings, a truly “vast mortality” of some 50 million a year.

            Whenever I develop an undergraduate laboratory exercise that involves death of an animal, even a beetle or an earthworm, and especially one in which students are assigned the task of doing the killing, Thomas’ words come back to me, along with those of E. O. Wilson (On Human Nature) and Paul Fussell (Wartime).  In his chapter on aggression, Wilson talks about the dehumanization of fellow humans as a prelude to violence, especially in times of social conflict.  Fussell is more explicit, using WWII as an example, and citing ways in which we dehumanized our enemies, thus desensitizing not only our soldiers, but also our citizens back home.  In my Field Parasitology course at Cedar Point, in which we routinely sacrifice animals in order to discover “who’s infected with whom,” the basic observations necessary to analyze any parasitic relationship, I often end the semester with an extended discussion of Thomas, Wilson, and Fussell, as well as some more modern cases involving massive human destruction (Rwanda, Kosovo, Persian Gulf War, etc.)  There is a simple reason why I often feel that such a discussion is necessary: when you come to know an insect, snail, or “minnow” rather intimately, and build your reputation on the scientific study of their parasites, then it is not so easy to dehumanize these lowly creatures.  These organisms with which your do your first real research project, show someone you are truly capable of conducting an original scientific investigation, earning your guaranteed-get-in letter of recommendation to med school, suddenly become valuable to you.  They are no longer worthless trash, they are no longer repulsive, they are no longer something you have absolutely no feelings whatsoever for, but instead they become a part of your emotional and intellectual library.  They’ve given their lives, yes, but they’ve also given you analytical powers, the irreplaceable power of experience, and the intellectual sophistication that comes from doing research, that you would never have been given had you not set about to study their parasites.

            We choose beetles, this week, because we grow them in large numbers, they are not endangered, no permits are required for their use, and they are not like us [furry, warm, with large eyes].  For most of you, this week’s lab will be the first, and perhaps the only, original experience you will have with the distribution of infectious agents in a population until you graduate from medical school, get into practice, and deal with a flu or head louse epidemic.  If this prediction turns out to be true, then I hope you remember your lessons well.  And if, as a “health care professional,” you find yourself caught up in a military adventure, then you will probably find yourself wishing you had studied the biology of infectious organisms over and over again and been somewhat less enamored of reproductive physiology, cancer, and cardiovascular function. 

This discussion leads, of course, to my rather smart-aleck comments about dead birds at the base of city buildings, and my perhaps unwise advice to simply pick up a stunned bird and kill it.  Those comments were intended to accomplish one thing and one thing only: to vastly increase your sensitivity to death at the population levels, and put into some kind of rational perspective our use of beetles this week in lab.  Actually, I was a little bit shocked at the class’s reaction to those comments; I did not expect laughter.  By way of comparison to the migratory bird situation, about 32,000 Americans die each year of gunshot wounds.  Another 42,000 die in automobile accidents.  From a biologist’s perspective, especially a biologist who studies small organisms, the clearing of tropical forests at the rate of 50-100 acres a minute for the past 20 years, results in the death of uncountable, but truly beautiful and wondrous, organisms.  14,000 deer were struck by automobiles in Iowa last year, at a cost of about $3000 per incident ($42 million a year in damage).  A friend of mine who regularly rode a bicycle along a country highway and counted road kills, then extrapolated that sample to the national level, estimated that at any moment there would be 75 million birds lying dead on America’s highways.  I read a report (unconfirmed) that house cats in Great Britain killed an estimated 60 million song birds a year.  The Kearney arch has cost one human life, and not too many years ago the Omaha World-Herald reported that the increase in speed limits from 55 MPH to 65 MPH on I-80 resulted in approximately one additional human life a month.  The speed limit is now 75 MPH.  A visit to a packing plant makes your hamburger and bacon look quite different than before the visit.  And, of course, I have not addressed the issue of quality of life for those still living who, for various reasons, do not have access to the humanizing influences of quality education, a safe place to sleep at night, adequate health care, and meaningful employment.  Into this latter category fall millions of Americans and billions of other human beings around the world.

I’m not condemning anyone for contributing to the above figures; I am, however, simply reminding us that just by living our normal, 21st Century, human lives, we contribute to the death of vast numbers of organisms and generally ignore the deaths of vast numbers of human beings, all except, that is, the ones closest to us.  Thus it does not bother me very much to use beetles to provide young people, many of whom will become physicians, with their first scientific experience with infectious organisms [we all have non-scientific experiences with infectious organisms].

On a more personal level, I do appreciate the fact that an intimate encounter with death, as when you cut the head off a meal worm, or separate a beetle’s head from its body, can produce an emotional reaction.  In this particular case, you have chosen to terminate a life in order to study something that most people find repulsive (a parasite), even though that repulsive organism is living the most common way of life on earth.  I only ask that you remember this week’s lab when your kid comes home from day care with lice or pin worms and you wonder how to cure the infection (it’s not terribly difficult, at least in the case of pin worms).

Finally, as a philosophical aside, as part of your overall education as a biological sciences major, I strongly recommend a personal examination of your own reasons for reacting as you do to the welfare of other organisms, be they insects or fellow humans.  I’m guessing that the closer an organism is to you personally, or the closer in appearance and demeanor to humans in general, or the younger the organism, then the stronger will be your reaction to its death.  This principle figures prominently in politics and government regulation surrounding the use of animals in research and teaching.  Thus the death of a baby cocker spaniel has an infinitely higher emotional content than the death of a mosquito or cockroach, at least to the average person.  And if you contribute to that death, then the puppy’s will probably linger in your mind for a lifetime, whereas the mosquito and cockroach will be forgotten as soon as you get over the pleasure, and probably smug satisfaction, of having killed them.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Tenth in a series of short writings about our ecotourism trip to Costa Rica

10. Tenth in a series of short writings about our recent ecotourism trip to Costa Rica

You don’t have to go to Costa Rica to see black vultures, Coragyps atratus. There’s a pretty good population of them throughout much of the New World, including Oklahoma, where I first learned their scientific name under the tutelage of George M. Sutton, famous ornithologist at OU. There’s also one at the Wild Bird Rescue, Inc., headquarters at 4611 Lakeshore Drive, Wichita Falls, Texas, where it displays what the average person would consider some rather un-vulture-like behavior, for example, preening the hair of its handler and jumping from window to window to check out visitors walking along the wooden deck outside its building. In Costa Rica, late February, among our traveling companions, C. atratus quickly became the “black-headed vultures” as opposed to “red-headed vultures” which were Cathartes aura, turkey vultures, also a common species in the United States, although commonly occurring further north than do C. atratus.
So why do I finish this series of short writings about an ecotourism trip with comments on vultures? That’s a pretty good question for which I have no answer, except that two of my previous contacts with New World vultures were pretty memorable, and in preparation for our other ecotourism trips, to Botswana and Tanzania, I studied my Old World vultures, hoping to see several species up close. Old World vultures are not closely related to New World vultures, thus provide a pretty good example of convergent evolution. Evidently, if you’re digging around in carcasses, head feathers are an evolutionary liability, thus the baldness of vultures in general.
What made those previous encounters with vultures so memorable? One, in the Arbuckle Mountains of southern Oklahoma, was with a really small chick. I crawled into a hole and there it was, beautiful, looking up, maybe asking for a piece of dead rabbit. I was on a field trip with George M. Sutton at the time, and we passed the “nestling” around before returning it to its crevice. The second encounter was also on a trip with Sutton, to western Oklahoma, where he knew about a nest in an abandoned chicken coop. I crawled in between the boards and was confronted with an adolescent turkey vulture who stood up and slowly regurgitated, about an inch from my nose, the most putrid mass of stuff I’ve ever smelled. Sutton thought that was pretty funny. I still get nauseated just thinking about that event from back in the 60s. My encounters with African vultures were all via camera, although for a book that’s coming out in April, I did a drawing of one to introduce a chapter entitled “A Warning.” No, in that chapter, if you read Africa Notes: Reflections of an Ecotourist, you won’t be attacked by a vulture, but by the mental impact of foreign travel and what that travel does to your sense of what’s happening in our nation today.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Ninth in a series of short writings about our recent ecotourism trip to Costa Ri

9. Ninth in a series of short writings about our recent ecotourism trip to Costa Rica

Two-fingered sloth on the ground. I was told that “two-fingered” is the best name because the digits being counted are on the anterior limbs, thus on the hands instead of feet. Later, at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica, at Cahuita, we also got a lesson on sloth urination and defecation, bodily functions in which this one was obviously involved, or it would not have been on the ground. If you go to Costa Rica as an ecotourist, somebody will make sure you see sloths. Nobody in their wildest dreams, however, can guarantee you’d see one on the ground in the wild, near a relatively popular beach, on a Sunday. Needless to say, among the crowd that watched this one make its way across the sand and gravel to a nearby palm, in a swimming-like crawl that can only be called “agonizing,” there were hundreds of smart phone photos taken and probably sent, instantly, to friends around the world. I’m wondering how many of those pics were accompanied by the biology lesson: Hoffmanns’ two-toed sloth, Choloepus hoffmanni, on the beach after pissing and taking a crap.

Prior to this ecotourism trip to Costa Rica, my only encounter with sloths was in a village along the Amazon a couple of days downriver from Iquitos, Peru. I was with a group of students from two eastern prep schools, their teachers, including Jim Serach, a Cedar Point Biological Station alum, and one of my own doctoral students, Alaine Knipes, now with CDC. We’d stopped in this village to buy stuff. One girl was holding a baby sloth. Immediately I asked to hold it, too. Somebody took some pictures. That little sloth clung to my arm and hand; that’s the only way I can describe it.  I don’t remember ever falling in love with a wild animal as completely, and quickly, as I did with that little sloth. We asked the girl what she fed it; she answered “leaves.” We asked her what she was going to do with it when it grew up. She answered “eat it.”

A few days after the Sloth Sanctuary visit, Karen and I were having breakfast with another couple. The conversation turned to sloths, and the rationale for spending all that time, money, and human energy on the rescue of so many that were either injured or otherwise damaged in a way that prevented their return to the wild. The only answer I could provide was the emotional impact of being close to these creatures, hearing details about their biology, and staring into their faces. I was not allowed to hold any of the sloths at the Sanctuary. I am convinced, from handling many different kinds of creatures, that any kind of a close encounter changes the way we view those organisms, whether they be beautiful, soft, and brown-eyed ones like that Amazonian one eventually headed for the dinner table, or those gorgeous, but microscopic, ones seen in the intestine of some other animal. Meaningful interaction destroys fear and stimulates curiosity—no matter the participants. The big time take-home lesson from biology.