Friday, November 24, 2017

Lessons from last year's fire

Smoke rising from the direction of my home
One year ago today we had to evacuate our home due to fires in our area. Here are some of the lessons I learned from this experience.

People sometimes ask hypothetically: "What would you rescue if your house was on fire?" I faced this situation in reality, and the answer was that I just took my cat, Eleni, in her carrier, and my everyday backpack. I didn't think about saving any valuables, or any items of sentimental value, or even about taking practical things like a phone charger. When I heard that we had to leave, I just took Eleni and left. Since then I have prepared an emergency backpack, which I keep near the front door. It contains things like a change of clothes, food and water, cat food, toiletries, and a spare phone charger. I'd like to hope that there won't be a "next time", but if there is, I'll be better equipped.

The experience showed me something about my personal coping mechanism. When bad things happen, I tend to shut down emotionally and react practically. It's my way of protecting myself from becoming overwhelmed. During the entire experience, I was mostly just thinking about getting through the next few hours and not about the chance that our home and all our possessions might be destroyed. I don't know if this is necessarily a good response, but it seems to work for me.

I learned that Eleni is adaptable and flexible, provided she knows we are with her. During the 4 km. walk to the evacuation centre, the wait there all afternoon, and the night we spent with friends, she didn't panic the way she does when we go to the vet. In retrospect, I later realized that she must have already been deaf, so at least she wasn't bothered by the unusual sounds during this experience. I did realize, though, that things would have been more difficult if I'd had more than one cat! If this had happened a couple of years earlier, I would have been carrying both Eleni and Pandora, in two cat carriers as they wouldn't be willing to share. It did make me wonder if we'll ever have more than one cat again, considering the difficulty of escaping with them in emergencies!

I discovered who my friends are. Throughout the day, I got phone calls and messages from family and friends, and also from people who know me professionally. It was gratifying to know that so many people care about me. We received many invitations to stay at other people's homes overnight. In the end, we chose to stay with Maia and Ben. I'm very grateful for the welcome we received. They took their dogs to stay with relatives because Eleni was uncomfortable with them, borrowed a litter box for Eleni, made us dinner, and were great company, distracting us from worrying about our potential loss. I'm sure other people would also have been similarly helpful, and it's good to know that at times of need we're not alone.

Another lesson was that even the thought of losing everything we own didn't upset me as much as I would have expected. I thought to myself: "we're strong enough to overcome this", and decided that if we'd lost everything, this would be a good chance to start from scratch and live a more minimalistic lifestyle. The biggest loss, of course, would have been all our books. I don't know if we'd ever have replaced the vast majority of them, but perhaps it would have given us the opportunity to repurchase only the most important books. We own so many things we never use and may never use again. This got me thinking about decluttering our life and reducing the amount of possessions, and while we haven't done much of this yet, it's certainly on our to do list.

Finally, the experience of the fire added to my overall anxiety. I've lived through wars, rocket attacks, waves of terrorist bombings and stabbing attacks, other fires, and minor earthquakes. This was the event that came closest to having a major impact on my life. The feeling that something life-threatening could happen at any moment has never really left me, and each traumatic experience just reinforces the sense of fragility of my everyday reality. I don't let it control me, but it has changed my outlook on life. This is just something that I have to accept and live with.

Friday, September 15, 2017

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

This week our vet clinic, Medi-Vet, organized a different sort of customer event. Instead of the lecture evenings they have held before, with animal-related topics, this time they arranged a special screening of the documentary film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.

The film addresses the issue of climate change, focusing on the lead-up to the Paris Climate Agreement signed in 2016. I haven't seen the 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth, and I was expecting this film to present further evidence for human-caused climate change. It did some of that, but mainly focused on Al Gore and his efforts to educate about climate change and influence policy. While Mr. Gore is obviously sincere and committed to his cause, and could be considered a hero, I find hero-worship and personality cults distasteful and sometimes counterproductive, and would have preferred to see a bit less of this aspect.

Climate change has its opponents, who deny that it's happening at all, or deny that human activity has had any impact on the climate. These deniers seek to discredit the scientific proof. It seems that their reasons for this are disingenuous. In some cases these people have a vested interest in the polluting industries, while others consider it hubris to believe that humans could have such a profound influence, sometimes due to their religious beliefs that place humans as subordinate to deities.  However, the scientific consensus is unanimous, and choosing to reject and ignore it seems much more hubristic than accepting it and trying to mitigate the self-evident problem before it gets worse.

Also, many of the climate deniers have an ideological opposition to any government regulation, seeing it as a restriction of industry's freedom. But when the choice is between granting companies the freedom to make the world a worse place for the current population and for future generations in the name of short-term profit, and forcing them to do the right thing and care about humanity and our planet, I think regulation seems to be absolutely justified.

The film presented one of the ethical dilemmas facing the struggle for clean energy. Before and during the Paris Climate talks, the Indian government argued that in order to bring India (and other third world countries) out of poverty and into prosperity, they would have to use the tried and tested fossil fuel economy rather than the new renewable energy model. They argued that western developed countries had used fossil fuels for 150 years, and that the third world should be given a chance to catch up instead of being accused of polluting the planet. This is a flawed argument. Once you know that something is bad, you stop using it no matter what its benefits might be. One could similarly argue that some of the US economy's early progress was based on slavery, and therefore other countries should be allowed to use slavery to catch up.

In all ethical arguments, justice lies on the side of what benefits the community as a whole. In this case, the community is the entire human race and the whole planet. The problem is that the issue is being addressed on a country level and the human race has yet to achieve the cohesion required for a global consensus. I would have expected the whole of humanity to unite in the face of this global threat, but instead we still see governments thinking in narrow national terms. I hope this sort of thinking will change.

The film showed how Al Gore was instrumental in getting India to sign the Paris Climate Agreement. He achieved this by obtaining favourable conditions for the construction of solar power facilities in India instead of the polluting fossil fuel power plants that India had been intending to construct. Ultimately, the use of renewable energy is a win-win situation. It does create jobs and does contribute to economic growth, despite what the deniers argue. It is particularly suited to third world countries, where there is a lot of sunshine and wind that can be converted into clean energy. And, as the film pointed out, installing renewable energy in third world countries is similar to the "leapfrogging" effect of third world countries adopting cellular phone technology instead of emulating the past path of western development by starting with land-line phones.

As the film drew to a close, we all knew what was coming. After the hope inspired by the Paris Climate Agreement came the disappointment of President Trump's decision to withdraw the US from it. It seems that progress is always two steps forward, one step back. This short-sighted ideological stupidity, which is either incredibly ignorant or incredibly malicious (or both) will have a devastating effect on the planet we all share. We can only hope that this withdrawal will be short lived, and that the next US administration will do what it can to redress the balance. In the meantime, individuals, companies, and governments should do what they can to reduce their carbon footprints and contribute to educating the public on the importance of science and progress.

This was a thought-provoking film, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to watch it and think about the issues it raised.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Living with a deaf cat

Our cat Eleni, aged nearly 18, has recently become deaf. We don't know exactly when it started, and presumably it was a gradual process. It took us a while to be certain.

The symptoms of deafness include, obviously, not reacting to sounds. Eleni stopped responding when called, and also stopped being startled by loud noises like she used to. She also started meowing really loudly, because she can't hear herself.

Deafness is common in senior cats, and there's nothing to do about it. When we told the vet, he just shrugged. But while we can't change her condition, we have had to adapt our interactions to this new situation.

First, we obviously can't call her. We have to get into her field of vision and make hand gestures at her. She is learning to come when beckoned. We also can't comfort her by talking to her when she meows in another room, and have to get up and go to her, see if anything's wrong, and help her get settled.

We have to accept the loud volume of her meows, which have often made people talking to me on the phone to comment on my "crying baby"!

We have to be careful not to startle her when we approach. It can be disconcerting when we walk up behind her and she doesn't realize. So we have to try to move gently into her field of vision so she sees us. I've also tried treading more heavily on the floor, hoping that she'll feel the vibrations of my footsteps, but this doesn't seem to work. Perhaps our tiled floor doesn't pass the vibrations as well as a wooden floor would.

One advantage of her condition is that she is no longer upset by loud noises, including dogs barking outside and things like sirens and thunderstorms. In fact, she now sleeps more deeply, sometimes for many hours.

Eleni has also become more interested in watching the computer screen, where we watch kitten cams, live safaris, and various films and series. She seems to recognize cats on screen, and particularly enjoys watching birds.

I wonder what it felt like to have her hearing gradually weaken and disappear. Does she feel isolated? Does she feel threatened by not having this important sense? The only thing I can compare this to is my frustration as my eyesight became imperfect before I got glasses, but that is nothing like losing a sense entirely.

I miss seeing her swivel her ears around to hear sounds coming from different directions. Her ears are now almost permanently in the relaxed, front-facing position.

I still talk to her. This is partly because it's a habit and I do it for my own benefit, as part of treating her as a person. I also hope that perhaps when she's sitting on or next to me she might sense the vibrations of my speech.

To make up for the lack of vocal communication, we spend more time stroking and holding her. She's always been a very tactile cat, and now that she's elderly and less active, she demands and receives even more physical contact. I hope that this makes up for the loss of her hearing as much as possible.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Happily Married

Today we celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. To mark this occasion, I want to share some thoughts on what makes a happy marriage, along with some of our wedding photos.

To have a happy marriage, you have to choose the right person. I strongly believe in choosing someone similar to you, and dislike the phrase "opposites attract", at least when it comes to stable relationships. Partners should share the same values and should agree on important matters like religion and politics, whether to have children and how to raise them, and what lifestyle they want to share.

In order to find a suitable partner, you have to understand yourself and learn what is important to you. You also have to learn how to be authentic and communicate your true self when entering an intimate relationship. The early days of falling in love involve taking some risks. At first, you may not be sure that your love is reciprocated, and you may fear rejection. Ideally, both partners share their feelings for each other early in the growing relationship and learn how to talk openly and honestly.

Marriage is the most intimate form of friendship. Friends understand each other and want what's best for each other, and married friends have a vested interest in each other's happiness and well-being. You want to do what's best for your partner, and to be the best person you can, both for yourself and because it benefits your partner. You want to support your partner's development and help them be the best person they can. There's some sort of mutually beneficial altruism in being part of a committed couple.

As one of the few people whose first relationship turned into a happy marriage, I am unable to compare relationships that eventually end with those that last, at least from my personal experience. One of the important things is to form a sense of "us" early on, and to make that the centre of your life. People around you may not see your partner the way you do, or may not understand the strength of your relationship. Once you have decided to make the commitment to spend your lives together, your priorities are decided.

People sometimes ask "why get married?". I think that making a public commitment to each other, a declaration of intentions, can strengthen a relationship. The fact that most societies have a system of formalizing relationships indicates that this is a human need. There are also legal advantages to being a married couple, which is why I think all countries should have full equality for adults to marry their partner of choice, and a range of options, including both civil marriages (like ours) and various religious ceremonies.

I see marriage as a commitment of two individuals to share their lives and form a household or family. Within this formal arrangement, each couple has a relationship based on the partners' personalities and behaviours. A good marriage allows each partner to grow and develop, knowing that their spouse gives them support and trust. My visual image for a marriage is of two trees planted next to each other. Over the years, the roots and the branches become intertwined, holding and supporting each other, but the trees are still separate individuals and can develop in their own way.

Successful marriages are those where the partners respect, trust, and even admire each other, along with the expected love, affection, warmth, and compassion. There should be no power struggles within a marriage, and both partners should know that what benefits one of them benefits both, rather than coming at the expense of the other partner.

Ultimately, happily married couples grow old together, sharing the memories and accumulated wisdom of their long, shared experience. Knowing that someone knows you so completely and has chosen to share a lifetime with you must be one of the most satisfying feelings possible.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Pixies Live at Caesarea

Last night I saw the band Pixies play live at Caesarea Roman Theatre.

This was the first time I've watched a show at this venue, an ancient theatre seating about 4,000 people, right by the sea. We sat right at the top and enjoyed the sea breeze after a very hot and humid day.

It was a nostalgic concert for me. I enjoyed the Pixies' music in the late eighties and early nineties, and it both informed my subsequent musical taste and influenced some of the other bands I love.

I was familiar with the older songs, and found that the newer songs were consistent with their signature sound. Their style can best be described as distortion guitar rock with weird lyrics. The songs are quite short, and the concert moved quickly from one song to the next.

The performance was polished and professional, with good acoustics and lighting, but it lacked any personal interaction with the audience. People who come to see bands play live crave the appreciation of the musicians they enjoy, and it seemed strange and perhaps even hostile that the Pixies didn't even say "good evening", let alone acknowledge what country they were in.

It seemed that the audience wanted to enjoy the show regardless of this coldness and despite some of them, like me, not being familiar with the band's entire repertoire. The atmosphere might also have been slightly muted by the venue not selling any beer, which tends to be standard at rock concerts. Also, although smoking was prohibited in the theatre, many people ignored this and smoked, which reduced the enjoyment of non-smokers like me.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Radiohead Live in Tel Aviv

Last night, I was one of the 47,000 people who watched Radiohead live in the Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv.

Radiohead has been one of my favourite bands from the beginning, and their music is a regular part of my life. I've always admired both their creative genius and their artistic integrity. I'm not a fannish person and tend not to display my taste in art as part of my identity, but my phone's ringtone is Radiohead's "High and Dry".

A music critic might describe their style as layering complex rhythms with both melodious and dissonant tones to create lyrical soundscapes. To me, their music is sophisticated, beautiful, interesting, and a particular flavour of weird that appeals to me. It sends shivers down my spine.

The concert included songs from all the stages of Radiohead's development. They say it was their longest show for a long time, and they played several beloved favourites. Listening to their recorded music is intimate, but hearing the loud, live performance was a much more visceral experience.

From where I was standing, I couldn't see the stage itself, and the screens were not much help. The side screens mixed the close-ups of the band members with the video art shown on the central screen. But I didn't mind too much as I was there to hear the music more than to see the performers. The visual effects were spectacular.

The band's decision to play in Israel has been controversial since it was announced, with BDS proponents trying to persuade them to cancel it. Thom Yorke commented on stage, somewhat obliquely: "A lot has been said about this, but in the end we played some music".

BDS supporters single out Israel for criticism, ignoring other countries that commit much worse atrocities and human rights violations. Israel is far from perfect, but supporting its right to exist does not imply endorsing its current government and all its policies, as many Israeli citizens can attest. In the song "No Surprises", the lines "Bring down the government / They don't speak for us" received the loudest mid-song applause I heard all night.

I enjoyed this experience and wish that everyone who loves music gets a chance to see their favourite artists perform live.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Jill Pickford - Sing to the Moon

Jill Pickford, Sing to the Moon: Tales from the Kitten Cam, Greater Circle Productions, 2017.

This is a book of short stories, poems, and illustrations relating to the livestreaming kitten cams I have been watching online for about five years. I read some of the stories on the author's blog, KittenKamKattery, when they first appeared. It is good to see them collected and published in a format that, I hope, will reach an audience beyond the cams' dedicated viewers.

The stories revolve around the lives of cats and kittens living in foster care and later in their forever homes. They create a whimsical fantasy of the cats' internal lives and social interactions through two main devices: first, the Great Circle, a way that cats can communicate with each other over great distances through the magic of the moon. Second, the feline afterlife the follows crossing the Rainbow Bridge. These concepts embody two desires of cat lovers: to believe that their cats can communicate with each other, even remotely, so they can keep in touch with relatives adopted elsewhere, and learn from each other; and to believe that their deceased cats have gone to a better place full of pleasure.

The stories are vividly written, charming, and full of emotion. To use the term "sentimental" would imply that they were somehow superficial or exploitative, while in fact they serve a real purpose for the reader, helping to process the genuine emotional impact of loving (and eventually losing) cats. Whether or not readers choose to believe in a feline afterlife or enjoy anthropomorphism of cats, the world created by these stories feels true to something authentic about the nature of cats and the love between humans and their pets. The personalities portrayed, the interactions, and the poignant feelings and lessons are in tune with how we would like to think about our cats.

I recommend this book to cat lovers everywhere, whether they watch online kitten cams or have yet to be introduced to this pleasure.

The kitten cam that started it all is Foster Dad John's Critter Room.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Rescuing foxes from fur farms

Screenshot from Mikayla Raines's Periscope channel
A few months ago, I came across a Periscope channel that broadcasts live videos of foxes at a sanctuary. I immediately became a regular viewer of these videos.

Mikayla Raines rescues foxes from fur farms and provides them with a better life at her fox sanctuary in Minnesota. Most of the foxes come to her as young cubs who have been rejected by their mothers in the fox farm, where conditions are harsh. Mikayla bottle-feeds the cubs and raises them to adulthood. They live in spacious enclosures and have daily exercise and playtime in a large fenced area of woodland. All her foxes are spayed or neutered, receive regular vaccinations and parasite treatments, and are fed on grain-free cat and dog food, fresh meat, and fruits and vegetables. Some of the rescue foxes are eventually adopted as pets by suitable, responsible owners, while others remain in the sanctuary and are sponsored.

Foxes are members of the canine family, but in some ways are more similar to cats. They are not pack animals like wolves or dogs, so it is difficult to train them, as training depends to some extent on an animal's instinct to obey the pack leader.

It is illegal to release foxes born on fur farms into the wild, because they are descended from many generations of foxes raised in captivity, and therefore would probably have trouble surviving in the wild. They lack the experience and instincts to live wild, and their dependence on humans creates two dangers: an inability to fend for themselves and at the same time the risk that their trust could lead them to be harmed by humans who view them as a threat. This is why the rescued foxes need to continue living with humans, either in a sanctuary or as pets.

I have always found the idea of wearing fur abhorrent. The use of animal furs may once have been necessary for survival, but we now have a wide variety of warm materials to use and no longer need to breed and slaughter animals for the sake of clothing. The conditions in which the foxes are kept on fur farms only make this worse. They spend their entire, short lives in tiny cages, never able to run free. Of course, I also oppose fox hunting.

Mikayla is an inspiring role model of an animal rescuer. She started working in animal rescue as a teenager, and currently lives very modestly in a cabin with no electricity on the grounds of her sanctuary. She runs her rescue on donations from followers around the world. Her Periscope broadcasts show her devotion to foxes, her expertise in raising them, and her patience in answering viewers' questions and educating the public about foxes.

In the next few weeks, Mikayla plans to rescue additional newborn fox cubs from the fur farms and raise them in safety. She will devote hours to bottle feeding the cubs, gradually training them to use the litter box, to play and interact with other foxes and with dogs and cats, and to walk on a leash. She sometimes has volunteers helping her, but usually she works alone, maintaining a large rescue by herself. Readers who would like to help can donate money or even sponsor a fox regularly.

Watching this Periscope channel has taught me about another aspect of human-animal relations. Foxes are not domesticated animals, and ideally they should live in the wild and be protected. The public needs to be educated about foxes and how to interact with them. If fur farms eventually become illegal, the foxes that remain there will need to live out their lives in sanctuaries like Mikayla's, or as pets, and eventually there would be no need for humans to breed foxes for any purpose (including as pets), and they would revert to their natural status as wild animals, more like the various species I watch on SafariLive.

In contrast, cats have been domesticated and ideally all cats would live as pampered pets. Until that can happen, feral cat colonies should receive regular feeding and medical care, and be spayed and neutered through TNR programs to reduce their numbers and prevent the suffering of unwanted kittens born in the wild.

The various animal-related channels I have been watching have taught me so much about animal rescue, welfare, and conservation, and about the compassion and empathy of the people involved in such work. I would like to hope that the work of Mikayla and other animal rescuers can inspire others to greater compassion.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

International Women's Day 2017

Today is International Women's Day. I have written about this day in the past, but have a few further thoughts to share.

It seems that recently opinions on many issues have become more polarized and people are more divided. The struggle between progress and traditionalism is becoming more acute, and several aspects of this have implications for women.

While women have been justifiably outraged about the attitudes expressed by US President Trump toward women, to me the most shocking suggestion came during the election campaign. It was reported that some Trump supporters suggested taking away women's right to vote following a projection that without women voters Trump would win the elections, while with women voters Clinton would win. Less than a century after women in the US were finally given this right, it should not be taken for granted.

Those who believe that women already have equality and there is no need for feminism should realize that rights that have been granted can be revoked. The sudden removal of women's voting rights, property rights, and the right to work as described in Margaret Atwood's seminal novel, The Handmaid's Tale, seems to me less unlikely than ever. The so-called "post-factual" and anti-science atmosphere makes it easier for those in power to implement their policies without needing to justify them.

Optimists like the quotation "The arc of moral universe is long, but it tends toward justice" (Martin Luther King). I do believe that there is progress and things are improving, but the arc is not a smooth progression, and there can be setbacks. Just as progress in the West was interrupted by the Dark Ages, moral progress toward justice can take a few steps back, under the influence of traditionalism and religion.

While feminists like to talk about female solidarity and sisterhood, this does not seem to me to reflect reality. Recent trends within feminism have changed the focus from equality of women and men to other issues, such as supporting religious freedom even when those very religious beliefs remove women's equality and freedom, or accusing certain women of being "bad feminists" instead of accepting a diversity of feminist voices and expressions within the overall movement.

I would like to see a return to the basic principles of supporting equality, cooperation, and diversity. This means opposing traditionalism (including religions), the cult of competition, and divisive ideologies (racism, nationalism). We should celebrate what makes us individual, seek out what unifies us all in our shared humanity, and try to minimize the impact of what divides us into groups and categories.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

2017 ITA Conference

This year the ITA Conference was held at ZOA House in Tel Aviv.

On February 14th, the plenary session of the conference was opened by ITA Chair, Danit Ben-Kiki. Her opening greetings mentioned the surveys conducted by the ITA in the past, which revealed that over half the members are female, and that half are aged over 50 and half under 50. The ITA plans to conduct further surveys in the future so the members can contribute their ideas and preferences for its activities.

We then heard Angela Keil, President of AIIC. She stated that translating and interpreting are sister professions, which seemed like a good way of looking at it. She introduced the interpreting track at the conference, which would address various questions about interpreting, including: why is it still needed if everyone speaks English?

The first lecture was by author Yannets Levi, who told us about how his children's book series was translated into various languages, and how each culture addressed various issues in a different way. This demonstrated the different roles children's fiction plays in various cultures. Most of the translations chose to "localize" the books, using names and descriptions that would be familiar to local children, while the Korean translation chose to maintain the Israeli names and features, and also added work sheets at the end of the book. He described how Korean culture admires creativity and holds Israel as an example of a society that produces creative thinkers.

Ifat Israel Kfir spoke about collection, stressing the importance of having a written agreement, and encouraging translators to seek payment in advance. The audience remained skeptical about the possibility of changing business practices, despite being told that our self-perception influences the behaviour of others toward us.

I then attended the Cultural and Literary Track. Shakhar Pelled spoke about translation and theological worldviews. After discussing the approaches of Jerome, Luther, and Cady Stanton, he made some suggestions for translating the Bible in a way that expresses gender equality. For example, he suggested that Elohim is plural rather than masculine, but since Judaism is monotheistic, the word could be expressed as "one-Gods". His approach seemed to me rather idiosyncratic, where his desire to square the Biblical text and theology with his support for gender equality led him to interpret the language in a manner that seems anachronistic and unlikely to reflect the ideas at the time of its writing. This approach would not be helpful for translators working on texts that express a different ideology, and the translator's role is usually seen as expressing the most likely understanding of the original text rather than trying to fit it into their personal worldview.

Alan Clayman discussed the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as a work of "transculturation", since the English translation of the poems from the Persian, published by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859, is far from literal and represents 19th century Romanticism.

The next lecture was a debate between translator Jessica Setbon and her colleague Shira Leibowitz Schmidt. Jessica translated into English the book From Sinai to Ethiopia, by Rabbi Sharon Shalom, which describes the halakhah as practiced by Ethiopian Jews. Shira presented some arguments for not using the term "halakhah" to describe the practices of the Ethiopian community, since they are far from those accepted by mainstream Judaism. Since the author advocated accepting the practices of the older generation while gradually assimilating the younger generation into the mainstream (for those who choose to remain religious), I found the arguments against using the term "halakhah" in this context to be unconvincing and divisive.

Temima Fruchter talked about language as determining our worldview. She mentioned the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (linguistic relativity), and gave some examples from research and some anecdotes showing what seems to me self-evident, that the language people use shapes their view of reality. As bilingual or multi-lingual people, translators have a rich way of viewing reality through various languages and their associated ways of thinking, and can serve to bridge potential misunderstandings between monolingual speakers.

At this point, unfortunately, I felt unwell and had to leave the conference, and was unable to attend the following day. I enjoyed the few lectures I managed to attend this year, and look forward to future conferences.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Watching live safari online

Leopard sleeping in tree. Screenshot from SafariLive.
For the past four or five years, I have been watching live streaming kitten cams that broadcast the lives of foster cats and kittens 24 hours a day. This has taught me a lot about cats, about compassion, about rescue, and about human-cat relations. Recently I have expanded my viewing to another type of live cam.

Safari Live broadcasts live safaris twice a day from the Greater Kruger National Park in South Africa. This is not a 24 hour a day camera in a fixed location, but a live broadcast with presenters every day around sunrise and around sunset. The broadcast is featured on two platforms, YouTube and Periscope. It can be viewed on computers (in any browser) and on mobile devices (in a browser or each platform's app). Each broadcast is three hours long. I don't usually watch the sunrise safari live, but try to watch the sunset broadcast, and if I miss them I can watch later to catch up, skipping through the video to see the parts that interest me most.

Every day at sunrise and in the late afternoon, two teams go out on vehicles and one team walks on foot. Each team includes an experienced safari guide who is the presenter and a camera operator who films the experience. Viewers get to watch live as the guides find various interesting animals and plants to discuss. Unlike nature documentaries, these broadcasts are not edited and not censored, so you get to see what happens in real time, just as if you were there yourself, or better, considering the camera's ability to zoom in on distant animals. Viewers are able to ask questions on twitter or by email, and the guides answer them live. This provides an organic learning experience, where you can learn about nature in context, as you watch it, rather than in the abstract.

The safari guides are both knowledgeable and entertaining, and regular viewers get to know them, their areas of expertise, and their personalities. The camera operators also make their contribution to the experience through their skilled camera work and their assistance in spotting animals. Sometimes a drone provides an aerial view, and sometimes one of the presenters is in a tent where small specimens can be viewed under a microscope.

At the moment, the sunrise safari of Monday mornings is being broadcast live in the US on the Nat Geo Wild television channel on Sunday nights for eight weeks. The first 50 minutes of the sunset safari on weekdays is often broadcast in various elementary schools in North America during the morning there, and the children are able to ask questions. The guides are skilled at explaining nature to people of all ages and levels of knowledge. It always gives me satisfaction when they mention evolution during the time when schools are watching, as I understand that this subject is not taught properly (or at all) in many US schools.

As an animal lover, I welcome this opportunity to see wild animals in their natural surroundings. The animals in the Kruger Park roam freely in a vast area, with minimal intervention by humans. They get used to seeing the vehicles. The staff do not feed the animals or provide veterinary care, except in very specific situations, such as when an animal has been injured as a result of human actions. This means that nature takes its course, with some animals being hunted, or getting injured by accident, or becoming sick, or starving to death. The safari shows all aspects of the circle of life, from birth to death. Viewers learn about the social structures of various species. In some cases, individual animals are given names and followed more closely, so they become stars of the show in a way that is similar to the cats on the kitten cams.

Being a cat person, I was at first particularly attracted to the big cats: leopards, lions, and cheetah. I love watching them and seeing the similarities and differences between these species and domestic cats. I also enjoy seeing the mega fauna: elephants, hippopotamus, and giraffes. There are also canines: African wild dogs and jackals, and other predators such as hyenas. Reptile species include crocodile, monitor lizards, and chameleons. Primates: baboons and vervet monkeys. Other smaller mammals: wart hogs, dwarf mongoose, squirrels, and bush babies. Ruminants such as impala, wildebeest, buffalo, and zebra. Of course, there are many species of birds for bird lovers to admire, and also frogs, tortoises, and terrapins. The guides, especially those walking or in the tent, like to show various insect species and plants.

I enjoy watching the safari for some of the same reasons I enjoy the kitten cams. It is live, uncensored, and unedited, and I can watch the same animals and habitats over many weeks and get to know them in depth. This sort of long-term viewing experience is, for me, the equivalent of reading a novel, while watching short video clips is like short stories or songs. The safari guides are like the foster care providers on the kitten cams, in that they provide insight and education about the things we are watching. The difference is that the broadcasts from the safari always include commentary, while the kitten cams, which are on 24 hours a day, often feature the cats and kittens on their own without human interaction.

However, the safari is in some ways the opposite of the kitten cams, due to the difference between wild animals and domestic pets. The safari is aimed at observing nature without intervening, while the foster care providers work with the kittens and cats to socialize them and make them adoptable, and of course ensure their health and wellbeing. Because cats are domestic animals, humans have a responsibility to give them the best lives possible, as indoor pets where possible, and in non-breeding feral communities for those who cannot be socialized. In contrast, humans' responsibility toward wild animals is to give them back as much of their original habitat as possible, to prevent poaching, and to let them continue to live free as nature intended. The compassion we feel toward cats should lead us to intervene in their lives and help them, while the compassion we feel for wild animals should guide us in the opposite direction, to reduce our intervention in their lives and encroachment on their habitat and to accept them as they really are instead of trying to impose our way of life on them.

One of the reasons for watching the safari is to experience all the aspects of the natural lives of wild animals. It is easy for us humans to romanticize or become sentimental about animals, especially if we think about wild animals as being similar to humans or to domestic pets. I consider myself a sensitive person, but I want to be realistic and rational about nature. This is why I have to learn to accept that life includes death, and predators hunt and kill.

Today I saw a rather upsetting event that tested my resolve to learn about nature and accept wild animals for what they really are. The safari vehicle was following a pack of African wild dogs, a very beautiful and endangered species. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a lioness appeared and killed one of the dogs. This was somehow worse than seeing a big cat hunt a prey animal like an impala, and it upset the safari guide who witnessed it, as these dogs were his favourite species. It took me some time to process my reaction and learn to accept it, and the discussion from the three safari guides helped put things into proportion. The lioness who killed the dogs was the mother of two young cubs, and dogs often hunt lion cubs. So while it was sad to see a dog killed by lions, it would also have been sad to see a lion cub killed by dogs. Such things happen in nature, and it is pointless to become emotional about such deaths. The dogs quickly ran to another area and continued their hunt, and life goes on.

In the same way, I have tried over the years to accept that some of the cats I get to know on the kitten cams might not make it. There have been several kittens who have died, while others have been saved from the brink of death and nursed back to health. With all the best medical care and love and devotion that foster care providers can give, in nature not everyone gets to live a full life. I believe that sensitivity combined with rationality gives us the best outlook on life.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Abigail Tucker - The Lion in the Living Room

Abigail Tucker, The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World, Simon & Schuster, 2016.

This book studies how cats became such a popular animal, and in doing so takes a step back and examines our accepted ideas as objectively as possible. The author is, like me and like most of her readers (presumably), a devoted cat lover. This does not prevent her from uncovering some uncomfortable truths that may make many readers view their love of cats in a different light.

The book first examines the evolution of cats. Unlike the other animals humans have domesticated, cats are completely carnivorous hunters and scavengers. Cats are solitary and independent by nature, and it seems that the only reason they became domestic is that those with a more friendly, confident nature were fed by humans. The book argues, based on research, that cats "domesticated themselves". One change that happened in domestic cats is a reduction in the size of their forebrain, leading to a reduction in fear. Less fearful cats had a survival advantage in human communities, so this trait became reinforced and passed on through the generations.

Traditionally, people have said that humans domesticated cats in order for them to hunt rodents. This utilitarian approach to domestication mirrored the way dogs were bred to serve various purposes in human society, from hunting to guarding to helping disabled humans. However, research has shown that cats are not the great hunters of rodents that people like to think they are. While they do hunt rodents, it was probably never a significant enough contribution to human society to be the main explanation for domestication. There is even a widespread idea that the killing of cats by Catholics in Europe in the middle ages led to a rat-spread plague, when rats multiplied without being culled by cats after their population was reduced. But there is insufficient evidence that enough cats were actually killed to make a difference to the rat population, and new research shows that the Black Death might not have been spread by rat fleas, but by human fleas and by people coughing. Another recent theory suggests that the bias against cats during the middle ages may have resulted from people being allergic to cats, which would have seemed to them like an evil influence.

Cats seem to have become popular with humans because they are similar to human babies. Their faces, with their large eyes, and their size, and even their vocalizations trigger human parenting responses. This is how cats, as a species, became loved despite their questionable utility and their requirement for meat rather than just any leftover food we could offer them.

One of the most controversial issues for cat lovers around the world is the issue of cats hunting various species, often to the point of extinction. While cats may not have hunted rats as successfully as people used to believe, this may be because European rodents co-evolved with them. As cats became popular and followed humans around the world, they adapted to hunt prey animals that had never encountered cats and therefore never learned to fear them. While cat lovers may instinctively prefer cats to other species, it is our responsibility as humans, who have had such an enormous impact on the world, to consider the spread of cats as part of our "meddling" with the biosphere. Reading about the impact of cats on other species has reinforced my support for keeping all pet cats indoors and for humanely reducing the vast population of feral cats through TNR (trap-neuter-return) projects. I feel more ambivalent about actually culling outdoor cats (which is very difficult to achieve), though in some cases I can understand the justification.

Cat lovers around the world are often outraged at any suggestion of restricting cats' freedom of movement. From those who believe pets should be allowed to roam free to those who are upset at anyone even discussing a reduction in the feral population, cat people believe "every cat matters" (the slogan of Purrfect Pals, the shelter for whom Foster Dad John of the Critter Room 24-hour kitten cam volunteers). We are outraged at the very idea of euthanasia for "unadoptable" cats, and prefer to support no-kill shelters that house special needs cats for life. Some of us donate significant amounts to these causes, while others volunteer their time in various ways. It has been argued that TNR can only be effective if around 90 percent or more of a feral colony is spayed and neutered. TinyKittens recently achieved this percentage with its feral colony in the Happy Forest. I have been thrilled by every case where a former feral became adoptable. But when I am honest with myself, I know that cat overpopulation requires a much greater investment of resources. I am also aware that by spaying and neutering feral cats, we provide them with longer, happier, and healthier lives, during which even those who are fed by humans are free to hunt. It is hard to think of a solution that can be humane to both cats and other species.

The book discusses the possible influence of the parasite toxoplasma on human behaviour, and on other species that had not encountered it prior to the arrival of cats and humans. Research even suggests a possible connection between toxoplasma and schizophrenia, though this does not seem to be conclusive. It is worth reading about such research in reputable sources, as the media often misreport such stories in a sensational way.

After a discussion of the ways in which humans have adapted their homes to the needs of indoor pet cats, the author turns to the breeding of domestic cats. To me, this is a slightly distasteful subject, first because selective breeding reminds me of eugenics, and secondly because cat breeds focus on external appearance rather than personality. As cat lovers become increasingly aware of cat overpopulation, it seems frivolous to breed cats for their looks and sell them, sometimes at great cost, to owners who could otherwise have rescued a shelter cat. Then there are the hybrid cats, descended from a crossbreeding of domestic and wild cats. The human desire to have the beautiful fur patterns of a wild cat has unfortunately created domestic cats with wild personalities. The creation of domestic cats unsuitable for domestic life, just for their looks, seems to me a typical example of hubris. I would prefer cat lovers to focus on "normal" cats and to give their love to rescued and perhaps former feral cats.

The book concludes, fittingly, with a discussion of cats and their online presence and celebrity status. As a cat person, I was happy to discover the popularity of cats online, but as time went on, I tired of the silly photo captions in LOLspeak. I discovered kitten cams, and over the past five years or so have received an extensive education in all things cat-related from watching these 24-hour, uncensored webcams. I also find it offensive when some celebrity cats are exploited to give their owners lives of luxury. If you want to make your cat famous, the least you can do (as some owners of celebrity cats indeed do) is donate generously to help cat shelters, fund research into feline diseases, and educate the public about cats.

This is one of the most enlightening books about cats I have read, and it is always good to see authors relying on recent research. It is written in the style of investigative journalism, with the author taking us on her journey of discovery as she interviews experts. It raises questions that cat lovers may find unsettling, and that is a good thing. We need to see reality as it is, and understand that our love of cats has wide-reaching implications throughout the world. What we can do about it is a complicated question, which I hope many readers will keep in mind.