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Wildlife in the Urban Jungle

Living La Vida Incognito: New Bird Discovered in Plain Sight

Lo and behold, the Cambodian tailorbird had been living large in Phnom Penh all along.
Living La Vida Incognito: New Bird Discovered in Plain Sight

We live in a great age of species discovery, with scientists describing new and spectacular creatures at a rate that would fill the explorers of the Victorian era with sheer envy. The usual explanation is that modern researchers get to explore remote forests and mountaintops that used to be inaccessible. But sometimes a sensational species can turn up even in our own backyards.  

Something like that happened to Simon Mahood, an ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, who has just described a colorful new bird species found less than a half-hour from his home, in the heart of Cambodia’s crowded capital city Phnom Penh.

The new species is a wren-sized gray bird with a cinnamon cap, white cheeks, and a black throat, and it’s one of just two bird species that are found only in Cambodia. Hence its new common name, the Cambodian tailorbird.

In an article published in the Oriental Bird Club’s journal Forktail, Mahood and his co-authors have given it the scientific name Orthotomus chaktomuk. Mahood explains that Phnom Penh was historically known as “krong chaktomuk,” meaning “city of four faces.” It’s a reference to the low-lying area where four rivers come together downtown.  


The new species first turned up in January 2009, when a team of field researchers was doing routine sampling for avian flu. Following standard practice, they carefully untangled birds that got caught in their mist nets, took blood samples, then photographed the birds and let them go.

At first, the team mistakenly identified the new tailorbirds as members of another species commonly found in coastal areas. Then early last year, another similar specimen turned up at a construction site in the city and was at first also misclassified. But something about the photographs caught Mahood’s interest and further investigation revealed that these birds belonged to a species that had never before been described.

“Finding any new bird species is special,” says Mahood, “but to find one so close to my home and the homes of millions of people is particularly special.” As is often the case with newly discovered species, the Cambodian tailorbird faces grave threats to its survival, from hydropower developments on the Mekong River and other factors.  

So how did the species manage to remain unknown for so long—especially given that one of the earlier specimens came from just south of the city, on the grounds of the Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Center itself?


Mahood and his co-authors attribute the tailorbirds’ long anonymity to their “skulking” behavior, combined with a small geographic range, and a habitat, dense floodplain scrub, that’s inhospitable to humans. That habitat also holds little interest to ornithologists because other species living there are commonplace.

All that makes the Cambodian tailorbird a good reminder that it’s possible to discover nature even in the heart of the busiest cities. Sao Paulo, Brazil, for instance, is home to more than 11 million people, but ornithologists there recently discovered a new marsh antwren in wetlands just outside the city.  

And outside of Sydney, Australia, botanists belatedly recognized that a 130-foot-tall tree belonged to a completely new genus. The moral: Look where nobody bothers to look. And even if you are looking at what everybody else thinks they see, look carefully, and you may discover that it is in fact something quite different.

Can DNA Barcoding Really Save Endangered Fish?

Preserving Nemo’s future might be one barcode scanner away, it turns out.
Can DNA Barcoding Really Save Endangered Fish?

There’s always been a kind of zen, a sense of serenity and connection to nature, about watching ornamental fish. That’s one reason more than 10 percent of American households keep fish tanks, ranging from goldfish bowls to vast, meticulously maintained saltwater ecosystems. But according to a new study in the journal Biological Conservation, this popular hobby may be causing some of the most beautiful species on Earth to become extinct.

The study looks at the trade from just one country, India, from 2005 to 2012, and it reports that dealers there exported 1.5 million freshwater fish in at least 30 threatened species, including a dozen that are endangered. Just within the red line torpedo barbs, a colorful species complex, more than 300,000 individual fish were shipped to the United States and a half dozen other countries.  

Dealers probably took many times that number from the wild, the study suggests, counting those that died before they could be exported. Uncontrolled harvesting of these charismatic fish “during the last two decades is associated with severe population declines, and an ‘Endangered’ listing” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.


Part of the problem with the trade has to do with limited or misguided regulation in India. When the Department of Fisheries in the southern Indian state of Kerala set out in 2008 to control the trade in red line torpedo barbs, the new study reports, it did so with little scientific advice. So it closed the trade in June, July and October, to allow the fish time to breed in peace.

But these species actually breed from October to March, when about 90,000 of the exported fish were taken. The regulations also encouraged collection of large spawning adults instead of juveniles. To compound the problem, the government of Kerala itself participates in a trade partnership with private industry to export the red line torpedo barbs.

Enforcement of existing regulations is often lax or nonexistent. The study notes, for instance, that exporters in April 2012 shipped to the United States hundreds of specimens of a rare species, the new Malabar loach (Mesonoemacheilus ramadevii), “known only from a single location inside the highly protected Silent Valley National Park,” also in Kerala. Kerala bills that park as “probably one of the most magnificent gifts of nature to mankind.” But dealers in the United States were soon offering some of its endemic species for sale at $3.58 apiece.

Co-author Michael F. Tlusty, of the New England Aquarium in Boston, says the new study is not intended as an attack on the ornamental fish trade, which gets 90 percent of its sales from captive-bred stock. Nor is it an attack on trade in wild-caught fish. If properly regulated, he says, that trade can be a way of “creating value for intact functioning ecosystems.”

The aquarium’s own Project Piaba encourages the trade under the slogan “Buy a fish, save a tree!” Cardinal tetras are abundant in the Brazilian Amazon, Tlusty explains, and catching them from the wild provides “69 percent of the local economy in an area the size of Pennsylvania in the middle of the Amazon.” They are a renewable resource. 


But the conditions for a wild-caught trade vary from country to country, and species to species. India, in particular, has an abundance of small, fragmented habitats where it would be relatively easy for uncontrolled trade to wipe out an endemic species. (It’s also a sore point in India that where captive breeding programs for its species exist, they are generally concentrated abroad in Singapore, Hong Kong, and other centers of the ornamental fish industry.)

To clean up the business, the new study recommends a better system of digital data-tracking, with every shipment including the species name, capture location, size of the specimens, and the names of the collector and exporter. That system should also include communication between countries on both ends of the trade.

Right now, says Tlusty, overwhelmed customs inspectors in the United States tend to get a 70-page paper invoice and a few minutes to make sense of a large shipment that may include any of 1,800 fish species now commonly traded. Even a trained ichthyologist would struggle to make some of the finer species distinctions. Inspectors just get frustrated, or give up.

What’s needed, says Tlusty, is an electronic system that can compare the species listed on an invoice with a database of threatened and endangered species. That kind of system could also tip inspectors off to a problem. “This box says it contains 40 goldfish, but it’s too heavy to be just 40 goldfish.” The system could also alert inspectors to companies or countries that have caused problems in the past. So even if only a small percentage of shipments gets inspected, those inspections would be targeted to likely trouble spots.


Misidentifications and deliberate mislabeling are frequent problems (some shipments are simply labeled “ornamental fish”). So one recent study proposes using DNA barcoding to identify species quickly and economically. But barcoding can require killing a sample fish. So another study out this month in the journal Biological Invasions suggests instead that it’s possible to get a genetic identification for the species in a shipment just by sampling the water in which they have been swimming. Those kinds of inspections could take place on a highly automated basis.


One hitch for all of these proposals is that government inspectors, like other federal workers, are feeling intense budget pressure. On the other hand the aquarium fish trade continues to prosper, doing a $15-30 billion business annually worldwide. In keeping with the zen image of the hobby, trade associations frequently talk the talk about environmentally responsible practices. So maybe now the industry will step up and walk the walk.

Alternatively, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could begin to encourage compliance by prosecuting pet stores and dealers. (It would be a relatively easy high school or college science project to get barcoding samples from the fish sold by local retailers, the way students now do barcoding studies to identify mislabeled species in the edible fish business.) The penalty under the Endangered Species Act for selling an endangered species can be as high as $50,000 and a year in prison per infraction—and that could make for some very expensive pet fish.

This Hideous Creature Could Hold the Key to Curing Cancer

Researchers believe they know why naked mole rats are impervious to the disease.
This Hideous Creature Could Hold the Key to Curing Cancer

Question: What happens when a hairless, bucktoothed rat secretes goo that clogs a vacuum in a research lab at the University of Rochester, New York? 

Answer: Two scientists accidentally stumble upon a chemical that may prevent cancer in humans. 

According to the journal Nature, a lab tech mentioned those excretions to the researchers who were investigating why mole rats are so resistant to cancer; the hideous-looking creatures live an average 30 years cancer-free.


When one of the study’s authors, Andrei Seluanov, learned about the goo, he told the tech that they should examine it because it could be related to the rats’ resistance.

They did, and discovered that it was a high molecular substance called hyaluronan which, when removed from the mole rats’ cells, made the rats more susceptible to tumors.  

Upon further examination they also discovered that the gene responsible for producing the chemical is different than the ones found in any other animal.

While hyaluronan itself is found in other mammals, including humans, study author Vera Gorbunova says that the molecules in hyaluronan in mole rats are significantly longer. Their length creates an environment that prevents the rats’ cells from bunching together, which would allow for the growth of cancerous tumors.

Meanwhile, the much shorter molecules found in human hyaluronan do allow cell bunching, she says. 

“Naked mole rats need good elasticity in their skin, because they don’t have any fur,” Seluanov told LiveScience. “When they move through their tunnels, it’s important that they do not rupture their skin.”

The demands of their subterranean lifestyle may explain why naked mole rats developed higher levels of hyaluronan in their skin in the first place, the researchers told LiveScience


Gorbunova says that she and her team are now looking at ways to “manipulate enzymes to increase the length of hyaluronan in humans.”

The substance is already used as a replacement to Botox to fill wrinkles, and some doctors use it as a way to relieve arthritis in knee joints. So far, Gorbunova says, no significant side effects have been reported. 

The scientists’ next project is to see if a gene responsible for mole rat hyaluronan is effective in mice, and if that works, they plan to test the effectiveness in human cells.

“If we can figure out a way to manipulate enzymes to increase the length of hyaluronan, we may soon be able to not only prevent cancer but cure it in patients,” says Gorbunova.

“Our hope is that one day we’ll be able to not only stop the growth of primary tumors but to stop metastasis throughout the body.” 

Gorbunova adds that she and her fellow researchers have also found a kind of beauty in the hideous mole rat. “When you look at them in still pictures, yes, they’re ugly. But when they’re very busy, and in motion, there is some beauty to them,” she says. 


Why Baja’s Baby Sea Turtles Are at Risk Now More Than Ever

Threats to the species are accelerating at an alarming rate.
Why Baja’s Baby Sea Turtles Are at Risk Now More Than Ever

Any day now, hundreds of endangered loggerhead sea turtles may be fighting for their lives in the waters off the Gulf of Ulloa, Baja California, Mexico. That’s because each summer, fleets of small-scale fishermen flock there for halibut season.

On arrival, they’ll drop huge gillnets into the waters, anchoring them to the ocean floor. These nets—some which can almost be a mile long—are set to catch giant halibut, but also catch endangered sea turtles, seals, and other non-target fish as well.

By far their most critically damaging bycatch are juvenile loggerhead sea turtles, which swim from Japan across the Pacific to this special spot and feast on protein-rich red crabs. They park there for nine months before turning around and swimming back to Japan—now as full-grown adults.


According to Chris Pincetich of the California-based Sea Turtle Restoration Project, loggerheads will repeat this cycle over time as adults, returning to Baja’s rich seafloor to feed on crab. But not if Mexico’s government doesn’t put a stop to the unlimited gillnet fishing in these critical waters.

As Pincetich told TakePart today, if this summer is anything like last year’s, loggerheads will be in a lot of trouble. Because in July 2012, a shocking 483 loggerheads washed up dead on a 40-kilometer stretch of beach along the gulf. 

Pincetich and other scientists are alarmed because that’s a 600 percent increase over sea turtle deaths last year.

That has SeaTurtles.org and other conservation groups alike now struggling for answers and action. He says that last year, “Something happened with the halibut fishery where a bunch of new boats came in.” Observers were not on-hand last summer to confirm whether or not they were local Mexican boats or other, illegal international fishing vessels. Either way, two months later, close to 500 loggerheads turned up dead on the beach. 


“It was a wakeup call for the conservation community,” says Pincetich, “which thought, up until then, that it was making enough progress for loggerhead protection through local fishermen. They thought they were getting through to local communities and had seen local populations begin to climb.”

But scientists estimate that at least 2,5000 loggerheads died in just this small area of Baja, Mexico as a result of commercial fishing last year, says Pincetich, and that most were juveniles. The culprit seems to be a combination of poor management of the fishery and disregard for sea turtle protection laws in place. So SeaTurtles.org and others are on a mission to convince Mexican fisheries that they must reform their operations to comply with international sea turtle protection laws.

How will they do it? Pincetich says the Mexican government is already at least starting to get on board, by promising to place observers on boats to document where fishing vessels are coming from and whether or not they have the correct permits to use the deadly gillnets. Discussions from the conservation community also include establishing a new marine-protected area where juvenile loggerheads are known to be in highest densities, yet so far government officials have not taken this seriously.


And as evidenced by the recent death of  26-year-old Costa Rican sea turtle conservation worker Jairo Mora Sandoval, speaking up for sea turtles and challenging local fisheries, which sometimes operate illegally, can lead to danger.

Pincetich says tensions are rising between sea turtle conservationists and fishermen on the Baja Peninsula. Recently, for instance, they have been targeting a man who walks the beaches counting all the bycatch that washes up dying or dead. Pincetich says that last summer, thugs spraypainted messages telling sea turtle conservation workers to leave town.

“This issue of conservation in Mexico is that we’re working hard to make sure people know the truth and make sure the government knows [and acknowledges] there’s a problem,” says Pincetich. “The next step is to protect sea turtles and begin to implement meaningful changes in fisheries.” 

Halibut season in the Gulf of Ulloa is open now. Sign the petition below to tell a Mexican official that you want more protection for the loggerhead sea turtles.


The California Condor Versus Renewable Energy—Whose Side Are You On?

A wind operator gets permission to injure or kill one of the state’s most endangered birds.
The California Condor Versus Renewable Energy—Whose Side Are You On?

It’s a tough issue: Expand renewable energy, or protect, without exception, the endangered California condor. 

Since its near extinction in the early 1980s, the iconic bird has begun repopulating California, while wind energy development has also exploded. It would seem that the two could coexist peacefully.

But this May, in a decision that outraged several environmental groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, partnering with the Bureau of Land Management, announced that it won’t penalize a California wind operator if its turbines kill or injure an endangered California condor.

The operator is a company called Terra-Gen, and its project is called Alta East Development. According to the website Rewire, the turbines sit on mostly public lands near the intersection of state routes 14 and 59 in Kern County.

When operational, Alta East will generate a maximum of 318 megawatts of electrical power with 106 wind turbines, each with 190-foot-long blades. What’s created so much controversy is that in granting Terra-Gen a permit to go forward with the project, the USFWS has also, in effect, allowed for the legal, lethal “take” of one endangered condor in a 30-year period.


According to Rewire, “incidental take” of a protected species is a “term of art” covering any kind of injury, harassment or disturbance to the species, while “lethal take” means the species in question dies. In the FWS’s “biological opinion” for the Alta East project, FWS included an incidental take statement that allowed for one lethal take of a California condor.

According to the FWS spokesperson Stephanie Weagley, the “incidental take” rule in this case is a protection both for the Condor and for Terra-Gen, which is in the process of creating a wind turbine system that could potentially further protect all condors from dying or becoming injured by turbine blades.

In an interview on Monday, Weagley told TakePart that the decision is a “good step forward in the protection of condors” because it will allow Terra-Gen to test a new condor detection system within wind farms over the next 30 years.

The company, according to Weagley, has created a system to both track transmitter-fitted birds and to detect birds without transmitters flying near wind turbines.

If a bird is detected by Terra-Gen’s system, the turbines will begin slowing, thereby reducing the risk of injury. To date, no condor has ever been killed or injured by a turbine, says Weagley. “But this system will reduce the chances even more,” she says.  


What’s more, says Weagley, should a condor die in an Alta East wind turbine, the BLM would immediately step in and reevaluate the project. The only thing that won’t happen, under the new provision, is that should the company’s turbines kill a condor, the company will be protected from prosecution by the federal government.

So what’s the big deal if one condor, in a 30-year period, is sacrificed for the good of all condors? According to the American Bird Conservancy, that’s not the issue. The issue, say they and organizations like the California chapter of the Audubon Society, is that by allowing a legal lethal take, the federal government is setting a new precedent for the killing of endangered species, and diminishing the work of numerous conservation groups who’ve helped bring the bird back from the brink of extinction in the past three decades.

In a statement on ABC’s website, wind campaign coordinator Kelly Fuller wrote: “The massive recovery effort [for California condors] has cost millions of dollars and been the life’s work of many talented people. But why should the privately funded zoos and other conservation groups that raise the majority of the money necessary for this work continue doing so when a condor’s life can be thrown away with the stroke of a pen by the federal government?”

Fuller then added that, “The Department of the Interior signaled today that it is willing to sacrifice the money and hard work that are spent on private conservation efforts to recover endangered species in order to build wind farms.”

Which side are you taking? Let us know in the Comments.


Back From The Brink Of Extinction, This Little Warrior Is the Size of Your Thumb

Researchers at the San Diego Zoo may have just successfully bred the diminutive ‘pocket mouse.’
Back From The Brink Of Extinction, This Little Warrior Is the Size of Your Thumb

The first critically endangered pocket mouse bred in captivity should be giving birth within the next week at the San Diego Zoo’s Pocket Mouse Breeding Facility.

In an in-field interview this morning, pocket mouse researcher Debra Shier, Ph.D., told TakePart that the mouse, named Female #13, mated with another captured pocket mouse, Male #25, back on May 29. On her blog from that day, Shier wrote:

“I was crossing my fingers anticipating the first interaction. Female #13 came out of her tube first and started sand bathing. Male #25 emerged about a minute later. They approached each other a couple of times and then immediately began following each other in a tight circle. They were moving so fast that they looked like a spinning pinwheel with their little tails flying behind them. After only 30 seconds, they were mating. SUCCESS! The whole event was over in about eight minutes, and the next time the male approached the female, she tried to bite him on the head and ran away.”

If the mating is successful—and it appears that it was—it will be a boon for both the zoo and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.

According to Shier, from a genetic perspective, the pocket mouse more closely resembles gophers or squirrels than the invasive house mice. A typical pocket mouse weighs just seven grams and is the size of half of a man’s thumb.


No one knows exactly how many live in the wild, but the few they know of inhabit a three- to five-mile swath inland of the Pacific Ocean between Los Angeles International Airport and the Mexico border. Shier says that humans “like the same habitat as the mice do,” which is why their homeland has been so overdeveloped.

In the 1980s, they were considered extinct. But in 1993, they were discovered—in Dana Point, California, and in two areas on the Camp Pendleton Marine Base.

They’re crucial to the environment, says Shier, for several reasons, including that they’re “primary seed dispersers” for disappearing coastal sage scrub, and that their burrows provide habitat for many different species.

But to Shier, who also studies kangaroo rats, the most amazing thing about them is how their “enlarged inner ears” may mean that they communicate through “foot drumming.” So far, no one has been able to study them enough to know this for certain. But in addition to trapping them for breeding, Shier is also conducting a study about foot drumming.

“We really know very little about them,” Shier adds, “because at their size, they’re so difficult to watch in the wild. I was out the other night with my nightvision goggles, and I could barely see them.”

But two and a half weeks ago, Shier and her assistants captured several mice from the three different areas. They brought them to the breeding facility and began trying to matchmake. Female #13 and Male #25 hit if off.

Since then, Female #13 has “gained weight and her nipples have bared (shed their fur, for lactation).” says Shier. For the past few weeks, she and another impregnated female have had food supplemented with powdered milk and have been given larger-than-normal cages.

“They’ve been treated like queens,” says Shier—which, with luck, will help Female #13 give birth next week.

Shier and her colleagues are anxiously awaiting the outcome. But after three weeks, a wild pocket mouse weighs just three grams. “No one knows how tiny the babies are when they’re just born,” says Shier, because they’ve never been seen. But she—and everyone else—will soon know.

What other tiny creatures do you hope are the next focus of conservation efforts? Let us know in the Comments.


Forget ‘Snakes on a Plane’—How Do You Prevent Snakes in Your Home?

Summertime is snake season, but there are humane ways to keep these unwanted guests from paying you a visit.
Forget ‘Snakes on a Plane’—How Do You Prevent Snakes in Your Home?

It was a sight I hoped I’d never see: a writhing ball of baby snakes on my property. This wish—born of a deep, primal phobia—is one of the reasons I live in the mountains at 8,000 feet. Black bears, fine. Mountain lions, okay. But snakes, giving birth to more snakes, under a pile of boulders near my front porch? I swear I’d rather swim with a school of sharks.

At least my snakes—good old garters—aren’t poisonous. And they do make short work of our perpetual mouse problem. But in Waco, Texas, in the past month, bigger, uglier legless reptiles have been winding their way into people’s houses. In one instance, a woman walked past a three-foot-long rat snake curled around the lamp on her nightstand.


She told reporters from the Waco Tribune that she thought the snake was a “belt.” Cops from the local sheriff’s department came out and removed the “tightly wound” reptile.

Not long after, another family reported hearing “screeching” in a bedroom closet, after which they opened the door and saw another three-footer squeezing the life out of a rat.

In both instances, police said the snakes slithered inside after emerging from hibernation with the warm spring temperatures. They came through open doors and windows, when no one was looking. Already in the past month, police said they responded to “10-to-15” reports, including ones of snakes hiding behind stoves and TVs, snakes curled in the corners of windowsills, and snakes perched on top of car gas tanks, riding around, one presumes, to the mall.


I have no idea why I find it strange that any creature would seek out a cool, dry shelter that also happens to be a human dwelling. But in case you live in one of the states where snakes are becoming habituated to urban development, here are a few tips from the Humane Society of America for how to “snake proof” your dwelling.  (Warning to snake fearers: This may gross you out.) 

According to the Humane Society website, snakes usually enter buildings at ground level, some fitting through tiny cracks or holes no more than one-eighth inch wide. (Are you kidding?!) So if you do embark on a snake-proofing project, start from the ground up.

  1. Closely inspect the foundation. Snakes like to slither in through unsealed wire or pipe conduits, or basement windows or doors that do not seal tightly. Seal these openings—plus others at or near ground level—immediately. (If you’ve already found a snake in your house, remember what size he was and look for openings large enough for the snake’s head to pass through.)
  1. Some snakes are also good climbers, and trees, shrubs, stone walls or chimneys may provide access to the roof. So be sure to check for openings around the eaves and roof. Inspect the space behind concrete porches, steps, and decks, which all attach to the house.
  1. Once the entire exterior has been inspected and one or more openings have been discovered, decide which opening is likely to be the main snake entrance.
  1. Seal all the openings except the suspected main entrance. On that opening, install a one-way door for snakes.

In the Waco Tribune story, a police officer Sanchez theorized that much of the fear of snakes is rooted in the element of surprise.

Snakes blend in to their natural environment, and once seen, the startle factor can be high — injuries involving an encounter with a snake frequently involve people hurting themselves in their haste to get away from them, Sanchez told a reporter.

“City snakes,” meanwhile, may just be more noticeable because of the urban background.

“They’re still here, they just don’t have a place to go,” Sanchez said. “So you see them more often.”

Do you live in an area affected by snake season? Tell us about your most memorable encounter in the Comments.


How to Haze a Coyote the Nice Way

After two attacks on kids in Colorado last week, it’s time to tell coyotes to get on back.
How to Haze a Coyote the Nice Way

Colorado wildlife experts say people are getting complacent when it comes to coexisting with coyotes. In an incident on May 16, two pre-school age girls were attacked on the same evening at a busy playground near Colorado Springs. Both were supervised by their mothers, and both were bitten in broad daylight. When the unnamed four-year-old suffered a “nip on the behind,” Colorado Parks and Wildlife investigated, and left without finding the offender. But within the hour, the coyote was back, attacking a tiny, blonde two-year-old and leaving gaping bite wounds on her forehead, skull, and temple.

The two-year-old received stitches at a local hospital and began a series of rabies vaccinations. And on May 21, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials euthanized two coyotes from a pack that frequents the area. But according to the northeastern Colorado division’s public information officer Jennifer Churchill, the incident underscores the rise in human-coyote conflicts not just in Colorado but across the United States. In Colorado, says Churchill, coyote on human attacks have risen from one per year to five annually since 2007. And in the greater U.S., coyote attacks are also on the rise.


Once, coyotes primarily lived on the Great Plains and in the Southwest, but they have since expanded their turf to every state except Hawaii. After generations of urban living, some coyotes now navigate subdivisions as easily as the high desert. Churchill says that through urbanization, humans have created the “perfect habitat,” complete with pathways, water features, flowering shrubs, berry plants, and even shelter. In her region, she adds, officers frequently see coyotes denning in people’s yards and even under their sheds and outbuildings. “There is another main reason coyotes are so comfortable around humans,” she says. “In addition to providing fantastic habitat, we’re giving them no reason to fear us. In the old days, coyotes were shot by ranchers on a regular basis to protect livestock. Coyotes in urban areas experience no such negative conditioning and have lost their healthy and natural fear of people.”

Coyotes have become too comfortable, as evidenced by the brazen stalking of the two little girls in a crowed playground. There, the offending coyotes reportedly came from a pack that had been troubling a nearby mobile home park. Back in January, one resident watched a “big black alpha” jump his fence, lope up, and snatch his 18-month-old Yorkie pup.

Frank Ver Hay, 84, says he chased the offending coyote through his neighborhood, yelling and screaming, before the coyote dropped his dog, “Joey.” Ver Hay then sounded the alarm to wildlife officials, expressing “fear that the coyotes were unafraid of humans and folks were in danger unless authorities trapped and removed the coyotes,” according to the Colorado Springs Gazette that went on to say, “But Mike Seraphin, the public information officer for the southeast Parks and Wildlife District said the best he could suggest was for folks to harass coyotes whenever they spot them. Squirt them with a hose. Scream at them. Throw rocks or sticks at them. Make them feel unwelcome and prompt them to relocate. And don’t feed coyotes or any wild animals.”


Seraphin’s answer aggravated Ver Hay, who scoffed at the idea that instructing the public to haze coyotes was the best the agency could do to help. But Churchill says that it’s now become a matter of public safety for citizens to take part in coyote management. “As an agency, we believe coyotes belong in open space,” she says, “and that there are enough good coyotes out there. But we can’t have them biting people, especially children.” So she asks everyone she talks to to help out.

To keep coyotes at bay, Churchill stresses three main points in her “elevator speech” about them: 

  1. Never feed them, or leave food where they can get it.
  2. Protect your pets, meaning keep them on a leash when outside walking with them. If your house backs up to open space, don’t ever leave them unattended—either on a leash or off of one. If you must leave them outside, put them in a fully enclosed kennel.
  3. Like Seraphin said, haze all coyotes when you see them. “Yell, scream, be super obnoxious,” says Churchill. Carry a coke can full of rocks or pennies, or carry an airhorn that you can blow at them. “We don’t encourage people to hurt them,” she says, “but if they’re in your yard, make a point of being as nasty and rude as possible. Hazing coyotes is good for animals and for people—it retains the wildness in our wildlife and keeps the public safe.”

Surprise! A Happy Ending for Kali the Orphan Polar Bear Cub

Expert insight into Kali’s journey from Alaskan ice to a Buffalo Zoo.
Surprise! A Happy Ending for Kali the Orphan Polar Bear Cub

Inupiaq Alaskan James Tazruk didn’t mean to orphan a polar bear cub when he killed its mother on Alaska’s Chukchi Sea coast in March 2013. He didn’t even know he’d done so until he snowmobiled up to the dead bear, rolled it over, and realized it was a nursing female. Thinking to himself, “Got a cub somewhere,” he followed the female’s tracks back to its den 1,500 feet away.

There, he told the Anchorage Daily News, he saw the small snow-white cub, which he and his villagers later named Kali (pronounced “Cully”).

Polar bears are going to disappear off the face of the Earth if we don’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

As a tribal subsistence hunter, Tazruk is allowed under federal law to hunt polar bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. And because the cub would have been unable to survive on its own, he could have chosen to shoot the cub, too.

Instead, when he saw the approximately four-month-old cub cowering in its three-chambered den, he said, “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not going to take you home. Just don’t bite me.” Then he “scooped it in his arms like a puppy.”

On the snowmobile ride back to his village of Point Lay, above the Arctic Circle, Tazruk says he stopped at a cabin, grabbed a pair of ski pants, and wrapped the young bear in them. When he got home, he took Kali to the village police station. Kali spent the night in a big, white dog crate, and, the next day, was flown to Barrow and later to the zoo in Anchorage, where he remained until Wednesday, May 15, when he was transported again, via UPS cargo plane, to another zoo in Buffalo, New York.

Kali came to the Buffalo Zoo because another orphaned polar bear cub, Luna, lives there. Luna’s mother, Anana, failed to care for her, and officials said that raising orphaned cubs together is good because it helps keep them from becoming “too attracted to their human keepers.”

According to a story on Livescience.com, Randi Meyerson, coordinator of the Polar Bear Species Survival Plan, said in a statement, “At the Buffalo Zoo, both cubs would benefit from each other’s company during this important period in their development. Peer-raising animals is generally preferred over human-rearing whenever possible.” But once this important period is over, the St. Louis Zoo—currently in the process of building a state of the art polar bear exhibit due to be completed in 2015—may be Kali’s final destination.

To find out if this was, in fact, the best-case scenario for Kali, TakePart talked to Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bear International, one of the world’s leading polar bear conservation groups.

TakePart: Why fly an abandoned polar bear cub thousands of miles only to put it in captivity?

Steven Amstrup: It comes down to a matter of alternatives. If a cub in the wild loses its mother, it’s going to die. Many critics think that it’s unfair to put an animal like a polar bear in a zoo. But it’s well documented that animals in zoos live longer, are typically healthy, have all their nutritional needs met, and have access to medical care unavailable to those in the wild. An animal like Kali is guaranteed a good life promised by all of these aspects of zoo animal care. Additionally, Kali will become an ambassador for the wild polar bears that currently are losing their sea ice home to climate warming. Polar bears can catch their food only from the sea ice and that vital habitat literally melts as temperatures rise. So providing a good home for this orphan and an opportunity to let him speak for the problems faced by his wild kin seems far better than simply letting him starve out on the sea ice or shooting him.

What’s your response to people who say they can “tell” bears are unhappy in zoos?

First, I have to say that I know of many bears who seem quite contented in zoos. And I am not sure what symptoms these people use to “tell” a bear is not happy. Bears and other large carnivores sometimes develop what scientists call a stereotypical behavior in captivity. They may pace back and forth or swim in a repetitive pattern, making people worry because it looks unusual. Existing studies of the topic have failed to elucidate all the causes or the possible effects of such behavior. But despite absence of a complete understanding, stereotypic behaviors are much less common now than they used to be. Enrichment activities and better animal care have dramatically reduced such behaviors from modern zoos. And, despite what may be sometimes distracting behavior, these animals can live long healthy lives in zoos. To me, a long and healthy life is more compelling evidence of a bear’s welfare than someone’s subjective assessment that the bear seems sad. 


Okay, but why can’t the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just keep Kali in captivity for a while and then reintroduce him back into the wild?

If you get an orphaned bear at a very young age, they haven’t learned all of their life skills yet. Mother polar bears keep cubs two and a half years before weaning them. That extended period of parental care is because they have to teach their young things like seal hunting and how to navigate sea ice. If a bear hasn’t learned these things in its formative years, it would be very difficult to pick them later in life-after an extended period in captivity. So, a re-introduced polar bear is unlikely to know how to make a living on the sea ice. Additionally, and for polar bears in particular, their habitat is rapidly disappearing. So if you take a bear that is orphaned and try to place it in a locale that is already being challenged by climate change, you’re facing that bear with a losing battle. On the other hand, if you took that same bear and tried to introduce it to a place where habitat is not yet in jeopardy, you’re probably placing it in habitat that is already full of other polar bears as competition. Either way, reintroducing an orphaned cub is unlikely to be successful and the most probable fate would be starvation.

Earlier this morning I spoke with Susan Gallagher at the St. Louis Zoo, who declined to offer any statement about their possible acquisition of Kali. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on why that will be the zoo he is transferred to next. In other words, why will the St. Louis Zoo be the best place for a polar bear, over all other zoos in the U.S.?

Well, I would not want to comment on the relative merits of one zoo over another. But I can tell you that the new St. Louis exhibit will have one of the most advanced polar bear facilities in the country when it’s completed in 2015. This “state of the art” exhibit will make it possible for Kali to have the best possible animal care. The St. Louis Zoo also is a leading research institution and the people there are skilled in the challenges of managing small populations. It’s also a brand-new polar bear exhibit with, currently, no polar bears. But there are lots of really good zoos out there and many quality polar bear exhibits. Ultimately the decision of where to place an orphan like Kali rests with the USFWS, the Taxanomic Advisory Group that operates across zoos, and the long-term polar bear species survival plan. Together, many professionals work hard to keep track of the lineage of bears in captivity, as well as the zoo environments in which bears are being kept and cared for.

It’s also a matter of practicality. Right now, there is more space for polar bears in zoos than there are polar bears. When an orphan or other at-risk bear is available, where to place it depends on who has and doesn’t have bears, and their position in the line. Ultimately, what you need to know is that no polar bear is going to be placed in a low-quality zoo. And it is important to remember that polar bears, more than anything else, are the best ambassadors for their species. Polar bears are going to disappear off the face of the Earth if we don’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.


Okay, last question. What are the odds, given their ages and the fact that they are getting to know one another, that Kali and Luna will one day breed.

Given these are both young bears, it is possible they may one day be put together in hopes they might breed. However, the final decision will be made after analysis of which part of the Arctic each bear represents, and how beneficial mixing their genes might be to the population of polar bears in zoos and ultimately to the remaining populations in the wild. Importantly, we must keep in mind that polar bears don’t reach sexual maturity until they are several years old (usually five for females and at least three or four for males), so we still have some time to think about that question.