Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Animal of the Week September 18, 2006 -- The great white hope

Hello Ani-freaks

Those among you who know me well know that when Sleater Kinney ( US , post-riot-grrl, bassless, les-rock trio) does something, I tend to follow. So when they announced earlier this year they'd be on indefinite hiatus, I saw the future of Animal of the Week. But whereas their's is an indefinite hiatus of probably forever, mine is an indefinite hiatus of 2, 3, maybe 4 weeks, just while I realign my life. So, don't consider this my farewell tour...more of an "au revoir mailout".

And just as this onset of the inter-regnum of AOTW will likely be recorded as a legendary event in the history books, so this week's animal of the week marks a remarkable occurrence, a good omen for all the nations of the world. For this week's Animal is the male white bison born a few weeks back on the Heiders' farm in Wisconsin, USA. In several First Nations religions, typically those of plains tribes, white bison are sacred and considered to have mystical, magical, and healing properties. Lakota Sioux legend has it that PtsanWi (White Buffalo Calf Woman) appeared to two scouts sent to look for food in a time of famine, although she seemed to be a beautiful young woman clad in white, she was really a white buffalo in disguise. One scout tried to embrace her, she turned him into a pile of bones, the other tried to shoot her, but she told him "Don't even bovver me wiv your arrows, I'm a god innit", and then she went and helped out the tribe, gave them some scran, smoked a peace pipe, and taught them music and rituals. Which just goes to show that it's better to threaten a god than to get amorous with one. In another legend, a male white buffalo will be born that will reunite all the nations of the world, turning from white, to red, to yellow, to black, and to brown representing the races of people. Seems like this bull calf is right on time, eh?

This is the third white bison to be born on the Heiders' farm since 1994; the meaning of this birth for many people is quite profound. For cynics, it is a sign that the Heiders' bison have interbred with European cattle.

The American bison (Bison bison) was once the most numerous large mammal species in the world, there were about 100 million of them roaming the prairies and forests of North America in the middle of the 19th century. However, they became an enemy of "progress" for the USA, not only could the massive herds obstruct construction of railways and hold up trains for weeks, but also the Native Americans—who relied on the bison for clothing, food, tools, and housing—could be killed, weakened, and dispossessed by eradicating the bison. At the height of the slaughter (right year, right season), European American hunters may have been killing as many as 100 000 animals per day. Don’t believe me? Check out the pile-of-skulls picture! “ Buffalo ” Bill Cody was said to have killed 100 animals in one session, and one hunter claimed that in his years as a professional he had shot 20 000 bison. By 1890, there were just 200 or so animals—that's 99 999 800 animals killed in about 50 years! Presently there are about 350 000 bison. Only a few hundred purebred animals exist, and the only continuously wild population of purebred bison lives in Yellowstone Park . Between 1978 and 1992, bison caused more injuries or deaths than bears did in Yellowstone (56 vs 12), rates of pickernick-basket theft are not reported.

Since the birth of the third white calf on the Heiders' farm, Native Americans have been making donations of tobacco and dream catchers at the Heiders' farm and have been holding drumming vigils to honour the auspicious arrival. Bunch of tree-huggers! Visit Heiders' farm shop for all your cigarette and dream catcher needs.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Animal of the Week September 11, 2006 -- Blessed are the cheese mites

"Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!"

Sorry, have been working like a llama on coca for the past three days and just not had... ach, you don't want my excuses, you just want Tyrophagus casei (cheese mites).

Well you may not actually want them, they can cause contact dermatitis (affectionately referred to grocer's itch) and ruin your double Gloucester. These tiny arachnids reach no more than 0.7 mm long, and can be found all over your groceries, in damp flour, and even in honeycomb, but they have a particular affection for cheese. Several grocery mites live in a variety of environments, flour mites can be found (quite literally) all over the shop, and prune mites (I kid you not) are also partial to life in other dried fruits and jam. I want to live in jam, I really do...

Although they can cause food spoilage and a mild allergic reaction, cheese mites do have their uses. In Saxony-Anhalt (central Germany) there is an ancient tradition of making Spinnenkäse, also known as spider cheese, or more correctly Milbenkäse, mite cheese. Raw curd is salted and flavoured with caraway seeds (mmmm minty), rolled into balls, and put in a box full of mites. The mites burrow into the cheese, and their various waste leads to fermentation which imparts a piquant, bitter flavour. The cheese is eaten either early when yellow, later when reddish brown, or by the brave when black (completely coated in a layer of dust, made up of mites, their skin, and their faeces). Altenburger is another cheese made with mites (or possibly the same cheese, my German is not so good).

Cheese mites featured in at least two poems by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, here is one, sadly not called The Adventure of The Dusty Cheese:
A Parable
The cheese-mites asked how the cheese got there, And warmly debated the matter;The Orthodox said that it came from the air, And the Heretics said from the platter.They argued it long and they argued it strong, And I hear they are arguing now;But of all the choice spirits who lived in the cheese, Not one of them thought of a cow.
I always feel guilty when I'm late with an animal, so next week's will also be late to give the cheese mites a fair shot. And next week's, animal will have an as yet undetermined tenure while I take a break to reorganise my life—more on that then. Must dash, the King and Queen of Hearts will be wondering where I've got to.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Animal of the Week September 04, 2006 -- RIP Steve Irwin

RIP Steve Irwin,

I heard the news as the half-light of dawn crept around the the edges of my curtains, with sleep still gooing up the corners of my tired little eyes, I couldn't quite believe it, but it's true. Steve Irwin, all-round Australian, crocodile harasser, and conservationist has been killed by a stingray sting to the chest. Although I prefer a less intrusive tv presenter to show me animals, as a populariser of conservation issues and advocate for maligned reptiles, Irwin was hugely successful and popular.

As a mark of respect, this week's animal of the week is Dasyatis brevicaudata (smooth stingray, bull ray, short-tail stingray), reportedly the species that did for big Steve. There are about 70 species of stingray, some living in freshwater in Asia, Africa, and South America, but most living in marine environments. The smooth stingray is the largest marine species reaching 430 cm in length and weighing up to 350 kg.

All rays are, like sharks, cartilaginous fish; but unlike sharks, because their eyes are on the top of the body and the mouth on the bottom, they never see what they eat, rather they use smell and electro reception to locate prey beneath them. Most eat molluscs, crustaceans, and small fish. The spine is used in defence and the raising of the tail is an automatic reflex to a threat or attack, there is no intent to harm.

Stingrays have one or more razor-sharp spines on their tails, in large species the spines can reach over 180 mm in length. These barbs are coated with fierce toxins that cause substantial pain. Generally stingrays are not aggressive and avoid confrontation, it is very rare for people to be stung, usually this only happens if someone treads on a concealed fish, typically a resulting sting to the leg will be uncomfortable for a couple of days, but rarely fatal. In very rare cases, as in Irwin's, a sting to the heart or chest can puncture a vital organ or cause severe toxicity sufficient to kill.

The producer of the show he was filming at the time of the incident says that, if Steve were here, he would say, simply "Crocs rule!". A bit of a downbeat topic today. But he died doing what he was best known for and something he loved. So big respect to Steve and his family and friends.