News in Brief - Fall 2007

Feline Predicts Elderly Deaths

Oscar the cat seems to have an uncanny knack for predicting when nursing home patients are going to die, curling up next to them during their final hours - Stew Milne/Associated PressOscar, a 2-year-old cat living at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, R.I., has an unusual ability: he can predict when its residents are about to die. The cat has correctly identified 25 patients in their final hours, curling up on their beds when they generally have fewer than four hours to live. Recently awarded a wall plaque commending his work, Oscar has been said to be better than the center's employees at making these predictions. Families are grateful for the ability to say goodbye to their loved ones before it is too late, reports a recent New England Journal of Medicine article on the still-unexplained phenomenon.


Sharks in the Atlantic Ocean May Get a Chance to Recover

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is considering a proposal to limit shark fishing in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. It gives special attention to porbeagle and sandbar sharks, common victims of wasteful and cruel finning—whereby fins are sliced from the live animals, who are then tossed back into the sea to die. The measure would severely restrict the taking of sandbar sharks, overfished for their large, valuable fins.

Shark carcasses are often brought to shore with their fins cut from their bodies. Despite the enactment of the Shark Finning Prohibition Act in 2000, some fins continue to be taken from protected species, and/or fins on board fishing vessels do not correspond with the carcasses. Species valued for their fins differ from species valued for their meat. Enforcement is complicated, as it can be hard to identify the species merely by looking at the fins.

By mandating that all sharks arrive on shore with their fins attached, the proposal would help stop shark finning in the region and improve the enforcement of the law. However, while this initiative may give Atlantic sharks an opportunity to recover from years of depletion, the NMFS should extend the same protections to sharks in the Pacific Ocean.


Cockfighting to Stop in Louisiana

The last state to allow cockfighting has finally approved new legislation to stop the bloodsport in August 2008. In the meantime, another newly enacted Louisiana law bans the practice of gambling at cockfights, intending to stop it from drawing spectators and making money. The Animal Welfare Institute hopes that in light of the recent dog fighting case involving football star Michael Vick, people will open their eyes to the cruelty associated with forcing animals to attack each other.


Lovesick Elephants Elope

In August, Savitri, a female circus elephant in the West Bengal state of India, ran away to a nearby jungle with a wild bull elephant who had broken into her enclosure. Three other female elephants attempted to follow the duo, but they were led back by circus workers. Savitri spent more than a week with the bull, who wildlife officials believe was in a period of musth and seeking to mate. The circus contemplated ways to lure the elephant back to captivity, but perhaps due to hunger, Savitri returned on her own.


Endangered Wildlife Skin Smuggling Case Uncovered

Following a three-year undercover operation by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, famed boot maker Martin Villegas has been charged with money laundering and conspiring to illegally smuggle protected animal skins into the United States to make exotic footwear.

With two other Mexican nationals and two residents of the United States, he has allegedly made 25 shipments of skins since 2005 that were prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Villegas, who is currently being held in a Colorado jail, has fashioned boots for world leaders such as President Bush and former Mexican President Vicente Fox—who may be connected to the operation. Prior to his arrest, a raid of Villegas's warehouse revealed goods made from endangered species including sea turtles, crocodiles, lizards and cobras.


Pets and Planes

The loss, injury or death of a companion animal used to be reported to the US Department of Transportation (DoT) as "mishandled baggage." Though Congress told airlines to start filing separate reports for this live cargo in 2000, it took five years before the DoT issued regulations to enforce the requirement and airlines finally started complying. A review of the incidents documented since that time reveals dogs and cats who have been left sitting on the tarmac for hours and even days. They have been abandoned in dangerous cargo areas, put on the wrong flight or no flight at all, and escaped, never to be recovered.

The DoT gives its Air Travel Consumer Report, containing the information provided by the airlines, to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)—the agency charged with enforcing the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The AWA stipulates handling and care requirements for live animals transported by air. Clearly, the USDA oversight does not prevent animals from suffering, getting lost or dying at some point after their human companions have left them in the hands of the airline industry.

We strongly advise against flying with your dog or cat unless he or she is small enough to be placed under your seat in a carrier. If your pet must be placed in the cargo hold, please ensure the animal is healthy enough to endure the stressful conditions and is checked on during the trip. An animal should never be shipped unaccompanied. Take your companion animal to a vet immediately if you have any doubts about his or her condition after a flight. If seriously injured or killed during air transport, your animal must be returned to you, so that you (and not the airline) can seek out treatment or a necropsy. If necessary, file a complaint with the airline as soon as possible, and contact us so that we may ask the USDA to investigate the matter.


Breaking the "Bird Brain" Stereotype

A 31-year-old African grey parrot named Alex (an acronym for Avian Learning EXperiment) died on Sept. 6. As the subject of a 30-year experiment by animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, he proved birds are intelligent animals capable of reasoning and using words creatively. Alex could identify 50 different objects, as well as seven colors and five shapes. His vocabulary contained about 150 words, and he was particularly talented at showing an understanding of the things he said, instead of merely mimicking. African greys typically live to the age of 50 years; Alex's premature death was unexpected, and its cause is still unknown.

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