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The Clippings File. Creature Features

Animal stories from the urban jungle.

New York Rat Photo by Ksnap

RATS

"In New York City, as in all great seaports, rats abound. One is occasionally in their presence without being aware of it. In the whole city relatively few blocks are entirely free of them. They have greatly diminished in the last twenty-five years, but there still are millions here; some authorities believe that in the five boroughs there is a rat for every human being."

Joseph Mitchell. story from 1944

The Modern Library edition of Joseph Mitchell's The Bottom of the Harbour is small enough to carry around as if it were a pocket bible. I treat it as if it were one. Joseph Mitchell was a creature running around the same kind of neighbourhoods as rats. He could be found in waterways, back alleys, saloons, flophouses. But, unlike the brown rat which was a vicious vandal, going on destructive rampages and soiling and chewing on things it never intends to eat, Joseph Mitchell's gaze and attention was reverent. Luc Sante, who has covered the same kind of waterfronts in more recent times called Mitchell's writing "clear and strong and rich," writing in the New Republic that he possessed a quality "too seldom found in most writing of any sort: it is unreservedly generous."

There are entertaining analogies in Joseph Mitchell's story about the rats of New York: "They live to be three or four years old, although now and then one may live somewhat longer; a rat at four is older than a man at ninety." He quoted an exterminator who said "Rats that survive to the age of four are the wisest and the most cynical beasts on earth." Mitchell has a sense of inner life of a rat: "The rats of New York are quicker-witted than those on farms, and they can outthink any man who has not made a study of their habits. Even so, they spend most of their lives in a state of extreme anxiety, the black rats dreading the brown and both species dreading human beings. Away from their nests, they are usually on the edge of hysteria."

Joseph Mitchell arrived in New York on Friday, October 25, 1929, the day of the stock market crash that eased in the Great Depression. He's best known for "Talk of the Town" pieces for the New Yorker, that gathered up portraits of the city, but the profile in the Everyman Library's collection of his journalism says that his first job was as "a kind of bottom-depths apprentice crime reporter at Police Headquarters for The World". He was from North Carolina and frequently returned to spend months at a time in the swamplands looking for wildflowers and woodpeckers and hawks. "Once, deep in the swamp, looking through binoculars, he watched for an hour or so as a pileated woodpecker tore the bark off the upper trunk and limbs of a tall old dead blackgum tree, and he says he considers this the most spectacular event he has ever witnessed."

Taxidermy Tasmanian Tiger

WILD ANIMALS IN THE BRONX

Margaret Mittelbach and David Crewdson are nature writers reporting to the city desk. For the New York Times they cover wild animals in urban settings. In 2002 they wrote about an expedition they made through the Bronx.

Along with typical urban fauna like pigeons, squirrels and sparrows, the Bronx is visited by coyotes, wild turkeys, deer and the occasional bald eagle. In fact, the Bronx is so crowded with furred, feathered and finned species that the New York City Parks and Recreation Department posts a full-time wildlife manager there. Earlier this year, we had vaguely considered taking a trip to a wildlife hot spot like the Cloud Forest of Costa Rica. But when we learned about the Bronx's abundance of wildlife, we decided to save our money. A quick phone call to the Parks Department led us to David Künstler, the Bronx wildlife manager, who offered to guide us on a Bronx safari....As we neared the trail head, an Eastern cottontail rabbit hopped out of the brush and tried to hide from us in a clump of ferns. Its fur was pale brown and its ears were still rather stubby, suggesting it was a juvenile. Suddenly, we were O.K. with not having seen a coyote, which might have wanted to eat this rabbit. Though we hadn't encountered the fiercest animal that stalks the borough, we were content to end our safari with this furry Bronx native.

New York Times. August 2, 2002

In 2005 they went to Tasmania with the painter Alexis Rockman to hunt for the (alleged) extinct Tasmanian Tiger. It's a trip deep into the soul as much as across land.

When we first stumbled across a stuffed Tasmanian tiger at the American Museum of Natural History, we were spellbound. This killer, carnivorous marsupial was one of the most extraordinary creatures on the planet. But it hadn't been seen since the 1930s, and most scientists considered it extinct. Undaunted we headed for the island of Tasmania in search of this elusive beast. Journeying through the island's intoxicating landscapes, we encountered an array of odd characters: screaming Tasmanian devils, fervent tiger hunters, trickster botanists, and scientists trying to resurrect the tiger through cloning. The result of our travels is Carnivorous Nights, the story of a safari gone slightly unhinged.

Carnivorous Nights website.

Polar Bear in Nuremberg Zoo

HUMANS BEHAVING BADLY AT ZOOS

In Nuremberg in Germany a polar bear cub has been removed from its mother after she began to act strangely after a photographer climbed a fence to take photographs within the man-made cave where the cub had been born.

The intrusion had "probably made Vera feel that she had no secure habitat" for her cub, it added. She had begun to pace endlessly around her enclosure carrying the cub in her jaws.After the cub was separated, vets said it was strong and healthy and had been "brought up very well" by its mother before she became disturbed, the statement said.

AFP. January 9, 2008

The Calcutta Telegraph reports that a chimp began throwing rocks at people after it had been taunted in the Allipore Zoo.

The chimp kept pelting stones at the visitors for half-an-hour since 9.15am, prompting them to run for safety, ducking the missiles all the way. Fortunately, no one was injured in the brick-batting between the distant cousins.

The zoo authorities have deployed keepers around the cages and enclosures to protect the animals, but on Tuesday, they were far outnumbered by the record count of heads — 62,000 — the highest in recent years on Christmas.

“It is only normal that the chimpanzee got irritated when visitors threw stones at it. It may have chucked back a few stones, but we have not received any complaints in this regard,” said zoo director S.K. Chaudhuri. “Such incidents are quite common.”

Calcutta Telegraph.

elephant in Bangkok Photo by Patrick Brown for the International Herald Tribune

POLITICAL ANIMALS

New York Times science reporter Natalie Angier wrote a book called The Beauty of the Beastly looking at questionably violent acts and aberrant behaviour by animals that we consider peaceful and warm and stir our hearts -- dolphins, for one -- and found complimentary things to say about scorpions and snakes and spiders. In a story from January 22 this year she writes about the political manoeuvres of animals.

Among elephants, it is the females who are the born politicians, cultivating robust and lifelong social ties with at least 100 other elephants, a task made easier by their power to communicate infrasonically across miles of savanna floor. Wolves, it seems, leaven their otherwise strongly hierarchical society with occasional displays of populist umbrage, and if a pack leader proves a too-snappish tyrant, subordinate wolves will collude to overthrow the top cur.

Wherever animals must pool their talents and numbers into cohesive social groups, scientists said, the better to protect against predators, defend or enlarge choice real estate or acquire mates, the stage will be set for the appearance of political skills — the ability to please and placate, manipulate and intimidate, trade favors and scratch backs or, better yet, pluck those backs free of botflies and ticks.

Over time, the demands of a social animal’s social life may come to swamp all other selective pressures in the environment, possibly serving as the dominant spur for the evolution of ever-bigger vote-tracking brains. And though we humans may vaguely disapprove of our political impulses and harbor “Fountainhead” fantasies of pulling free in full glory from the nattering tribe, in fact for us and other highly social species there is no turning back. A lone wolf is a weak wolf, a failure, with no chance it will thrive.

Black Sumatra Chicken

ENDANGERED FARM ANIMALS SAVED

The US Fish and Wildlife Services list of endangered animals doesn't include domesticated animals but Jennifer Cermak wants to save endangered family farm animals.

A fourth-generation farmer with a PhD in pathology and who works by day at a biopharmaceutical company in Cambridge, Cermak owns rare farm animals that are believed to be on the brink of extinction, including Sumatra chickens, Southdown sheep, royal palm turkeys, and a Friesian horse. She is hoping her rare birds and livestock will bring what she calls "agritourism" to her 24-acre property. Her work, experts say, is crucial to keeping alive memories of America's rural past and protecting food supplies in an era when deadly diseases like Asian bird flu threaten to wipe out segments of the food chain....The animals most in danger of extinction on Cermak's farm are the Sumatra chickens, black birds with long tails originating from their namesake island in Indonesia. Brought by sailors to the United States centuries ago as souvenirs, fewer than 500 Sumatras exist in the country today, according to the conservancy. Another member of a rare species on the farm is Quincy, a majestic black Friesian horse whose breed was imported to the United States from Holland in the 1600s....Other endangered animals at Berlin Farms include royal palm turkeys, of which around 10,000 exist in the country, and Southdown sheep, which the conservancy recently listed as "recovering," no longer on the brink of extinction but their numbers still need to be monitored. Cermak's speckled Sussex chickens are among 1,000 in the United States, according to conservancy figures.

Boston Globe. John Dyer. November 1, 2007

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