Purpose: To heighten awareness of the natural environment, including the relationship of an individual to, and the effects of human activities upon, the natural environment.To carry on other charitable and educational activities associated with the goals of protecting, restoring and preserving the natural ecosystems.

Goals & Objectives: To educate the general public and create greater awareness of the importance of protecting and preserving the natural ecosystems.

The Year of the Dog is Here!

February 16th marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year also known as the Lunar New Year, a 15-day festival that gives families a chance to gather and celebrate the passing of another year. Unlike Western New Year festivities, which take place at the stroke of midnight on January 1st, the Chinese New Year is centered around the lunar calendar and begins on the second new moon after the Winter Solstice (sometime between January 21st and February 20th).

Chinese culture is rich in beliefs, customs, and superstitions that vary from those in the West. Writer ShaoLan Hsueh believes that the philosophies of Chinese culture are deeply rooted in the Chinese zodiac (Sheng Xiao). When combined with the principles of yin and yang and the five elements— metal, wood, water, fire, and earth— Hsueh explains how the Chinese Zodiac can assert a remarkable influence over people’s decisions and beliefs.

According to Chinese tradition, each year is named for one of the 12 animal signs associated with the Chinese zodiac. Legend has it that before leaving earth, Buddha held a grand race among all of the animals in the kingdom. The rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig showed up to the race and crossed the finish line in the aforementioned order. Today, they are the animal signs that make up the Chinese zodiac. Like the western astrological symbols that correlate to a person’s specific birthdate, the animal sign of one’s birth year is said to provide insight about their personality, career, love prospects, and future good (or bad) fortune” (Hsueh, 2016).

2018 is the year of the earth dog (translated in mandarin to 狗 – gǒu) and those born under the sign are said to possess such character traits as loyalty, trustworthiness, and kindness, qualities often associated with dogs.

Photo of a giant dog sculpture made of snow to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Shenyang, capital of northeast China's Liaoning Province, 2018.

Photo of a giant dog sculpture made of snow to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Shenyang, capital of northeast China’s Liaoning Province, 2018.

Dogs in Ancient China 

In China, dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) have been domesticated for more than 12,000 years.  The exact origin of their domestication is unknown, but written records and ancient art depict early domestic dogs as agricultural assistants, hunters, and companions to the wealthy. In ancient Chinese history, large breed dogs like the Tibetan Mastiff (pictured below) were increasingly domesticated as hunting companions and watch dogs. Able to withstand extreme cold, guard livestock, and groups of people living in hostile landscapes, the Chinese revered Mastiffs as protective deities. Recently, DNA sampling has determined that  the English sheepdog, Rottweiler, and Saint Bernard share lineage with the Tibetan Mastiff. In Northeast China’s colder climates, muscular dogs with thick fur coats (Chow Chows and Huskies) were often used to pull sleds through snow covered mountains. Today, the world governing body of dog breeds—the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI)—recognizes around 340 dog breeds. Dogs have more variety in shape, size, shape and behavior than any other living mammal, yet most experts agree that all dogs originated exclusively from a single species: the gray wolf (Canis lupus) of central Asia.

Artistic rendering of a Tibetan-Mastiff.

Artistic rendering of a Tibetan-Mastiff.

Around 700 BCE, small breeds, like the Pekingese—a dog who resembles a lion—enjoyed the ultimate affection and special treatment by members of the Chinese Imperial Court, including the emperor. Despite their toy-like appearance—flattened faces, large eyes, short legs, and a mane of fur around the neck— the Pekingese retains a dominant, somewhat wolfish personality. Though the Pekingese can now be found throughout the world, there was a time when ownership of a Pekingese was strictly prohibited by anyone outside of the Chinese Imperial Palace.

Pekinois-British-Airways

Photo of a contemporary Pekingese.

Ancient Chinese Mythology

The respect for dogs is perhaps most pronounced in the mythologies of China’s ethnic groups Yao, She and Maio.  Though details from each culture’s story vary, the general framework remains the same. According to legend, when Emperor Ku’s people came under attack, his dog Pan Hu snuck into the enemy’s military camp and returned with the head of the enemy’s general in his mouth. As a reward, Pan Hu (who became part man and part dog) was given the emperor’s daughter as his wife. The dog carried the princess to the mountains in southern China, where they had many children. Panhu beings are still worshipped as ancestors of the She and Yao ethnics.

Dogs—A Person’s Best Friend

For many around the world, the value of a dog is found in more than their ability to offer protection— though a barking dog is undoubtedly a wonderful deterrent for break-ins. So the beginning of the year of the dog is a perfect time to celebrate some of the most fiercely loyal animals on the planet! I share my life (and often, regrettably my bed) with two furry pups who are some of my most beloved companions. If you too are a self-proclaimed dog lover, then perhaps you echo the same feeling of joy when you see a dog happily sniff every last inch of dirt and grass in search of the perfect pee spot, or bound through a grassy field with insatiable curiosity, or sleepily tip-toe through your home to greet you after you’ve called their name. Dogs are extraordinary companions who find joy in the simple things— a new ball, a warm blanket, table scraps, and head rubs. In their short lives, dogs remind us to appreciate the little things, to practice empathy and responsibility, and with the wag of a tail, to get outside and explore the world.

Happy year of the dog everyone!

Margot and Olive on an adventure!

Our dogs, Margot and Olive out exploring the world!

Bees Mean Business: How Honey Bees Shape Our Food System

Here in California, an unusually warm winter delivers the illusion of Spring. Though March 21st officially marks the Spring equinox, honeysuckle flowers have already put out their sweet blossoms and the air is alive with the humming of the honey bee. Honey bees herald the coming of luscious fruit and longer days, and their gentle song announces the promise of new life. Our world revolves around the industrious schedules of these little creatures. Without the honey bee’s pollination, strawberries, peaches, and melons would virtually cease to exist!

Honeybees and honeysuckle. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Honey bees and honeysuckle. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

 

Bees, A Popular Pollinator

Though birds, bats, butterflies, moths, beetles, and the wind are great examples of pollinators, bees are the world’s number one pollinator. According to Cornell University, honey bees are responsible for pollinating around 70 percent of the world’s crops— which when you think about it, translates to a HUGE amount of food.

What is pollination? When a worker bee collects nectar and pollen from the flower of a plant, some of the bright orange pollen from the male reproductive organ of the flower sticks to the hairs of her body. As she visits the next flower, some of this pollen is rubbed off onto the female reproductive organ of the flower and fertilization occurs.   There is disturbing evidence that pollinating animals worldwide have suffered from loss of habitat, chemical misuse, diseases, parasites and climate change. Currently, neonicotinoid pesticides (commonly used in US agricultural)  are one of the largest contemporary threats to bee colonies. The wide scale use of these pesticides has been reported to kill a hive’s queen and thereby decrease the reproduction rates of a colony.

A Bee, whose honey-colored hairs are sprinkled with bright orange pollen. Photo Source: Wiki Commons

A bee, whose honey-colored hairs are sprinkled with bright orange pollen. Photo Source: Wiki Commons

 

Understanding Their Role

Honey bees are social insects that live together in large, well-organized colonies. The advance communication and organizational skills  of the honey bee have been of interest to entomologists (bug experts) for decades.  Bee colonies typically consists of three kinds of adult bees: workers, drones, and a queen.

Workers: Workers are the smallest and most common bees occupying the colony.  All worker bees are females; yet unlike their queen,  worker bees are unable to produce offspring. They are responsible for cleaning the hive, collecting pollen and nectar, building beeswax combs, ventilation, and feeding the queen. The lifespan of the worker bee is anywhere from six weeks to six months.

Drones: Drones (male bees) are the largest bees in the colony and are charged with the task of fertilizing the virgin queen during her mating flight. Since drones require three times as much food as the rest of the colony, their numbers are scarce. When cold weather begins in the fall and pollen/nectar resources become threatened, drones usually are forced out into the cold and left to starve.

Queen: Each colony has only one sexually developed female, known as the queen bee. The queen is responsible for populating the entire colony and during peak production, a queen can lay up to 1,500 eggs per day! Queens are larger in size than other females in their colonies and have a lifespan of 2-5 years (some bees only live for 30 days). Research has found that queen bees can actually vaccinate their colony against diseases.  Though queens rarely leave the nest, their forager bees pick up environmental pathogens while gathering pollen and use this same pollen to create “royal jelly” — a food made just for the queen that contains bacteria from the outside environment. The queen ingests the bacteria, stores it in her “fat body” (similar to a human liver), and transfers it through her blood to her developing eggs, essentially “vaccinating” her babies.

A Road Trip to California—That’s Nuts! 

There’s one crop that demands more bees than any other—almonds. Eat an almond anywhere in the world and there’s a good chance that almond was grown in California. As of 2017, the Golden State produces approximately 2.2 billion pounds of almonds each season. This time of year, billions of honey bees across the US embark on road trips to assist the California farmers who need the bees to pollinate their crops. As consumers buy products like almond milk and almond butter, the demand for the already popular nut (and the bees that make that nut possible), continues to rise. Currently, it is estimated that this year alone, close to 30 billion bees will travel from out-of-state to meet the pollination needs of Central California’s almond industry.

Crates of honeybees on the back of a flatbed truck.

Crates of honey bees on the back of a flatbed truck.

Honey—How is it Made? 

Aside from being pro pollinators, honey bees manufacture a liquid that has been touted as the “elixir of the gods”—honey. Honey has an extensive history around the world, the oldest remains of which have been found in a tomb in the country of Georgia, dating from 4,700 to 5,500 years ago. It is used to sweeten food and drink, soothe sore throughs, and can serve as an antibacterial for wounds.  Though humans have enjoyed the consumption of honey for millennia, honey’s natural purpose is to feed the bees. As bees collect nectar, they use their long tongues (called proboscis) like a straw to help them suck nectar out of flowers. They store the nectar in a second stomach and transport it back to the hive where it is converted to honey and capped with beeswax for later consumption.

Honey bees are hardworking masters of communication and planning and their existence is vital to our own. So next time you’re in the path of a honey bee, think twice before you swat it away.

In-Flight Fight: Eagles Used to Take Down Drones

The use of animals in combat is not a novel concept. Horses, pigeons, and dogs have have worked in fields of transport, delivery, and detection for centuries. However, times have changed and so have the tactics of war. As the illegal use of aerial drones increases, The Netherlands, France, and now Russia are using eagles to provide a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem.

Eagle training to capture a drone

Eagle training to capture a drone. Photo Source: Wiki Commons.

Three years ago, strategists in The Netherlands were searching for a safe, inexpensive, and effective way to attack aerial drones. The answer came in 2015 when the Dutch National Police Agency recruited four bald eagles to take on the trouble in the sky. It took almost a full year of daily training to teach the eagles to locate illegal drones, approach them safely, and dismantle them.  But by the end of 2016, they succeeded and word of their success traveled through Europe.

The French air force has enlisted eagles to bring down remote-controlled drones when they stray into unauthorized airspace. According to the Washington Post, the French have been concerned with terrorist-modified aircrafts since early 2015, when drones flew over the presidential palace and a restricted military site.  Drones— which can be bought from toy stores and packed with explosives— have been seen as a potential threat to residents and military landmarks following the 2015 terrorist attack that claimed the lives of 130 civilians.  In the wrong hands, drones can be extremely dangerous.

In 2016, French trainer watched as four golden eagles— named d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis, after heroes from The Three Musketeers— hatched on top of a drone. From the second they broke free of their shells, the birds were raised  to interact with their nemeses. The qualities that assist wild eagles in catching their prey —flight speeds of up to 80 miles per hour and razor-sharp talons— make them ideal candidates for aerial combat. When ready to fly, trainers incentivize the eagles to take down the drones by rewarding them with meat— which they ate off the backs of the drones.   Nearly a year and a half into the program, d’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis are full grown and weighing in at around 11 pounds. In the hopes that they continue to fight against machines,  the eagles have been outfitted with high technology equipment to protect them from drone blades and explosives.

Recently, it has been reported that like France and The Netherland’s, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has his own flock of specially trained birds guarding his official residence in the Kremlin from intrusive drones.

Golden eagle from Hungary (budakeszi). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Golden eagle from Hungary (budakeszi). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Animals In Combat

Horses

Before armored vehicles and B42 bombers, soldiers rode into battle on horseback.  Though horses were used to pull chariots into battle as early as 1500 BC, the earliest evidence of fighting on horseback can be traced to Eurasia some 5,000 years ago. Prior to being replaced by tank technology during World War I, horses were the primary mode of wartime transportation.

Pigeons

Throughout the first and second World Wars, homing pigeons were employed to carry messages between generals and officers. Their job was anything but easy as nearby enemy soldiers often tried to shoot down pigeons and prevent important messages from being received. The use of carrier pigeons was fazed out in 1957.

Dogs

Dogs have been helping civilizations fight wars since ancient times. Greek and Roman warriors once strapped spiked armor to their canines and sent them to attack their enemies. Today, trained dogs work with police and military forces to sniff out drugs and explosive devices.

Comical photo of a dog dressed in battle armor. Note: this is not a real battle dog.

Comical photo of a dog dressed in battle armor. Note: this is not a real battle dog.

The Hunt For Rhino Horns: Wildlife Protectors Dehorn Rhinos to Save Their Lives

The war for rhino horns has nearly wiped out entire population of black rhino. Wildlife crime—in this case, the black-market trafficking of rhino horn—continues to plague the species and threaten its recovery. In one year’s time, poachers in South Africa managed to kill over 1200 rhinos. This is their story:


In Africa’s wildlife preserves, rhinoceroses are being slain for their horns which have become more valuable than gold. Today, horns can sell for up to $76,000 a kilogram and the stakes for poachers to deliver horns to the market is higher than ever. Though it is possible to remove a rhinoceros’ horn without fatality, the poacher’s pursuit most commonly ends in the rhino’s death. According to reports from CBS news, over 1,200 rhinos were slaughtered in 2016 to meet the mounting demands of the black market.

Black Rhino. Source: Creative Commons Zero

Black Rhino. Source: Creative Commons Zero

 

The trade of rhino horns is driven primarily by Vietnam and China, where horns are perceived to cure cancer, enhance virility and prevent hangovers. However, no evidence has ever verified that rhino horn has any healing power at all.  In fact, a rhino’s horn is composed primarily of keratin, the same substance found in your nails and the hair on your head.  Some have argued that based on composition, a remedy made from the hair and nail clippings could have the same “healing properties” as the horn of a rhino. The hype over the remedial influences of horns has gotten so out of control that at least three rhinos are killed every day in South Africa. This ongoing poaching crisis calls for efforts to save rhinos to move at an increasing rate.

Less than 2,300 black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) remain in the wild, making them one of Africa’s most endangered species. During the height of their population, black rhinos numbered in the hundreds of thousands of animals roaming throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. In the 20th century, European settlements and unregulated hunting reduced the population dramatically. Between 1960 and 1995, black rhino numbers declined by an overwhelming 98%, to less than 2,500. Like Africa’s white rhino, whose populations total somewhere around 20,000- black rhinos have between two and three horns that line the bridge of their face. Unlike the white rhino— which uses its square jaw to feed on grass, the shape of the black rhino’s rounded jaw allows them to feed on fruits from trees as well as grasses.

Black Rhino. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Black Rhino. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

 

As the unfounded belief in the healing properties of rhino horn continues to swell, rhino populations are increasingly jeopardized.  At the Phinda Game Reserve in South Africa, veterinarians, pilots, and game capture specialists are working to save the rhino by cutting off their horns before the poachers can get to them. This seemingly unconventional method removes the bounty from the rhino’s head by taking what the poachers want most before they have a chance to snatch it.  To remove the horns, specialist track the animals in an aircraft, shoot them with a tranquilizer dart, blindfold them, and saw through the thick layers of their horns. Veterinarians performing the procedures insist that the animals are well sedated and cannot feel the removal, likening it to the clipping of a toenail.  The 3,000 pound mammals are then airlifted to secret locations in Botswana where they are monitored and protected by a team of environmental defenders.  Over time, the rhino’s horns will grow back, but skeptics are left wondering whether removing the horn does more damage than good. For dehorning to be effective, it must be coupled with extensive anti-poaching security and monitoring efforts. Yet since dehorning began, poachers have continued to target the rhino and have been known to kill over the small stumps that remain.  It seems that as long as there is a demand for rhino horn, the poachers will find a way to fill it.