Where the Wild Things Are: An Ode to Small Creatures


Spring has sprung, and I have been out en force with my camera.  Mostly, I take pictures of bugs, as I find waiting for that shot of the majestic moose or bugling elk to be an intrepid waste of time. Not that I wouldn’t take advantage of the situation if it arose…

Let me preface this by saying that I have been mostly devoid of opportunities to work with, what we call in the biology biz, “charismatic megafauna.”   By and large, I’ve been okay with that.  Studying insects has made me keenly aware that there is an entire hustling and bustling world available to me whenever I step out my door, so long as I am patient enough to look, and flip over a few rocks.

Yesterday, I found myself up Slate Creek flipping rocks in terrible weather.  While there were no herps (reptiles and amphibians)

Big fuzzy spider under a rock.

Big fuzzy spider under a rock.

lurking in the rocks, there were plenty of spiders, beetles, and crickets.  I love these little adventures because I learn lots of stupid things that I would have never thought to ask about.  For example, the kinds of crickets you buy at the pet store are not the same kind you find in the wild in Idaho.  Wild crickets are smaller, jet black, quiet little bugs (at least until night time).  Spider mothers that make nests under rocks must do so upside down if they have any intention of attaching their web to said rock.

On a similarly timed hike I took last weekend I got luckier.  I was especially pleased, though my dog was not, to happen upon a basking Sagebrush Lizard that didn’t mind me taking about a hundred photos.

Basking female up Cusik Creek.

Basking female up Cusik Creek.

The dog wanted to get on with the hike, as we had just left the parking lot. The Cusick Creek parking lot is located next to the wild and scenic “Pocatello Women’s Correctional Facility”, and the road leading to it is adorned with a sign instructing motorists to avoid hitch hikers.  I don’t know what used to be near the trail head, but there’s lots of old concrete and a large overgrown building foundation.  I found this lizard, and one other that ran off, in one of these concrete piles.  Their pile was poking up in the Sagebrush, perfect for catching the afternoon sun.  I think it must be akin to a lizard mansion in the Hamptons. If you take the time to watch lizard behavior, it can get pretty entertaining.  Lizards often defend the best basking spots with emphatic head bobs.  Now that I know where this pair lives, I will visit them again.

Later on the same hike, I came around a bend and was poking around some logs hoping for a snake to come out. Instead of a snake, I found some snake food.  A Deer Mouse poked its

Poking out from inside a log.

Poking out from inside a log.

head out from inside a log and gave me a long hard look.  This is exciting because I only ever get fleeting glances of rodents, shrews, and voles in the wild.  I hear a rustle of leaves, and they’re gone.  This little fellow took a long time to check me out, and I was able to observe him in his log.

If I were primarily concerned with getting the big “million dollar photos” and once-in-a-lifetime wildlife encounters I would miss so much.  On just two hikes I got some awesome photos and learned a few things, just as a naturalist is supposed to do.

In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold indicates that he is so familiar with the animals on his property, that he knows if a single Chickadee is missing.  He knows when and where they’ll be on his property during each season too.  As an avid hunter, he knew all the game birds and exactly what they liked to eat, and when each food was in season.  When I am out on my hikes I secretly hope that I am slowly gaining the same kind of knowledge Leopold did about his stomping grounds. Maybe when I am old my naturalist ways will seem like the sort of sage wisdom you read about in Tolkien books.

There is something about hiking that makes me nostalgic for naturalists I read about.  In biology, we consider old-time naturalism to be kind of a dead art.  It’s no longer enough to find an animal, sketch it, take some detailed notes, and publish a paper.  The art has been replaced by rigorous empiricism.

While this shift has given science a boost, I think that the tradition of good naturalism has gotten lost in the shuffle, and it was one of the best ways to get people interested in all the common things out in their backyards.  It’s too bad because that’s where conservation ethics start. Children and adults that make the time to look for the little plants and the little creatures in spite of this fact have a particular and highly admirable character trait.  To spend time looking for these small and common things in nature, begets a certain kind of empathy in a person.  It begets the kind of empathy that extends to, not only plants and animals, but all of our fellow men and women.   It’s the kind of empathy the world needs more of.

With that I will leave you with a quote from my favorite naturalist:

“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.” -Charles Darwin

Taken near the mouse in the log.

Taken near the mouse in the log.




Last Chance to See – the Sixth Extinction?


High Plains Skeptic

Per the advice of my fiancé, I recently took the opportunity to read Douglas Adams’ and Mark Carwardine’s book Last Chance to See. I undertook the task a little reluctantly, not because of any particular lack of interest, but because my graduate research leaves me with very little time for recreation reading. This, of course, is my excuse whenever I’m disinclined to do anything. In this regard, it has been extremely useful, since it generally relieves me of the burden of the sort of careful introspection that might be involved in actually articulating and justifying my actual motives – whatever they may be.

So, after several months of careful procrastination, I finally cracked the cover. Until that time, I was only familiar with Douglas Adams by virtue of his reputation. This is probably a boarder-line heretical confession for anyone even marginally interested in science fiction, humanism, conservation, science, and…

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Stereotypic Behavior in Zoo Animals: What is it?


Recently, the public has been more engaged that ever in politics regarding the treatment of captive animals.  In this blog I discuss stereotypical behaviors, what they are, and common methods of trying to fix them.

Below you will find a video of a Polar Bear engaging in some stereotypic behavior.  The bear walks forward, sways its head up and down, and the takes a few steps backward. For the purposes of this blog I am defining stereotypic behavior as abnormal, predictable, and repetitive behavior in animals.

I would like to note that it was actually pretty difficult to find a video that wasn’t made by an anti-captivity group.  I couldn’t find much info on the video author, but he seems to be visiting the zoo and making videos without any agenda.  For this post, it was important to me to find a video that did not have an obvious political affiliation as I want to focus more on the science than the politics.

Before proceeding I should note that there is a lot of debate in the scientific literature about the exact definition and which behaviors should be considered abnormal or not with regard to stereotypy.  Often, these behaviors include things like pacing, licking objects, self-grooming to the extent of injury, and swaying.  In domestic animals you see similar behaviors like spinning in dogs and cribbing in horses. There is some evidence to suggest that wide ranging carnivores are art particular risk of developing stereotyped behavior in zoos.

Stereotyped behavior is difficult for zoo guests and employees to watch, as it is intuitively unnatural.  An animal that is otherwise healthy but pacing will produce an emotional response is zoo guests and staff that a sickly, but lounging animal wouldn’t because it is so obvious.  Keep in mind that, while stereotyped behavior is often associated with a welfare problem, there are instances where the affected animal scores high on other welfare measures.  In addition, some animals that do not display stereotyped behaviors score very poorly on welfare assessments as stereotyped behavior might actually be a more effective coping mechanism in terms of stress than no behavioral coping at all.  So, it is very important to understand the context of stereotyped behavior before writing angry letters to zoo officials and donating your hard earned cash to PETA.

So, what causes stereotyped behaviors?  There are lots of explanations out there that focus on the internal motivations of the animal (ex. Tigers pace because they have a compulsions to patrol large swaths of territory).  Motivational explanations are problematic because they focus on internal states of the animal, which are very difficult to study using scientific methods.

Personally, I subscribe to a more behavioral philosophy.  Behaviorists, frustrated with non-empirical methodologies in Psychology, decided to only study observable behavior and ignore the internal states of their human and animal subjects.  While impractical in some cases, behaviorist philosophy has produced some of best methods in animal training, therapy for autism, and addiction therapy. Behaviorism, as a philosophical standpoint, peaked in the 1960’s and fizzled out by the end of the 20th century.  Today, the philosophy of behaviorism has been meshed with cognitive approaches to produce a more holistic approach to analyzing human and animal behavior that doesn’t treat the brain as a unfathomable “black box.”  Still, a lot of what we know about captive animal behavior comes from these early behaviorist studies.

Back in the day, behaviorists did a lot of their work on pigeons in particular.  One particularly interesting phenomenon they described is called “superstitious behavior.”  Have a look at this short video below.

Zoo enclosures, unfortunately, often function as operant chambers like the one in the video.  Even though zoo enclosures are designed more and more to look natural, they tend to be behaviorally sterile. There are very few rewards with the exceptions of water, sunlight, and physical comfort.  I define a reward as something that increases the likelihood that the animal will engage in some behavior other than the one it was doing previously.  In the wild, a carnivore might have all sorts of little rewards during the day like food, scent of a potential mate, scent of food, and the list goes on an on.  They encounter all sorts of things that elicit exploration, climbing, marking, etc.  In captivity, the chances of having any of these rewards delivered at random and in variety decreases.  There is no “behavioral biodiversity” in their day to day life.  Stereotyped behavior might actually be a series of elaborate superstitious behaviors where the animal “thinks” their behavior is linked to some of the few rewards they get throughout the day.

Some of you have probably figured out that this phenomenon doesn’t just occur in zoos. Many pet owners have animals that are the worst offenders.  Do you have a dog in your neighborhood that goes through some kind of repetitive ritual every time someone walks by the yard?  Does your dog have a specific “dance” that they do before they come out of their kennel or get their leash on for a walk? How about a friend who owns a parrot that pulls out their feathers?  Personally, I have a loach in my fishtank that superstitiously swims up and down the side of his/her tank for a few minutes at a time (behavioral enrichment for fish, I suspect, is a wide open scientific field). Superstitious behaviors are everywhere in the captive animal kingdom.

The good news is that scientists are pretty good at reducing the frequency of time animals spend engaging in stereotyped behaviors in zoos and at home.  A meta-analysis of enrichment studies by Swaisgood and Shepherdson (2005) indicated that typical zoo interventions work to improve stereotyped behaviors a little over half the time.  Some of the solutions involve toys or apparatuses that make animals work a little bit to get their daily meals, or training the animals to do certain behaviors as training is enrichment on its own.

One of the main points I want readers to understand is that most species of captive wild animals are adapted to work very hard and solve lots of problems in order to acquire food, find mates, and have a social life.  Getting fed breakfast, lunch, and dinner from a bowl is a disservice to the Psychological health of any captive animal.  Requiring zoo animals to exhibit natural behaviors to get their food every day goes far beyond getting them to “do tricks” for guests.  If the Orcas featured in the move “Blackfish” were not constantly learning new behaviors for shows, any stereotyped behaviors they exhibit would likely get worse.

Another issue I’ve heard concerned zoo guests bring up is that animals undergoing training and enrichment are sometimes food deprived/calorie restricted so they will “work” for a food reward. In a laboratory setting, rats are typically maintained at around 80% of their free feeding weight when undergoing any kind of behavioral training with a high degree of success and safety.  Similar calorie restrictions, in many animals, have been shown to increase lifespan.  Kind of makes me want to diet.

Calorie restriction can improve animal welfare under the correct conditions, and when food deprivation is not possible or ethical, some captive animals will still “work” for treats without any calorie restriction.  The point is that “tricks” and working for food are unnecessarily demonized by animal rights activists, and are some of the best tools for reducing the frequency of stereotyped behaviors and giving captive animals’ brains a job to do.

In a nutshell, calorie restriction is not the same as positive punishment.  It is not the same as using “force fetch” methods to train hunting dogs or using bullhooks on elephants.  Behaviorists have two techniques at their disposal, reinforcement and punishment.  Reinforcement and punishment both can be positive or negative.  Reinforcement is anything that increases the chances of a behavior occurring and punishment is anything that decreases the chances of a behavior occurring.  Positive training teachniques add something to the environment like a treat or a shock, and negative techniques take things out of the environment like withholding food or cessation of a shock.  So delaying feeding until after training sessions doesn’t really fall into any of these categories.  Withholding food until the animal preforms the correct behavior, however, can be classified as negative punishment.  However, withholding food in these situations does not involve the introduction of unpleasant (aversive) stimuli.  No pain, no shocks, just the potential for some frustration when learning something new, and the animal is always given the proper amount of calories by the end of the day regardless of their performance during training.  Good trainers, as you can see in any dog obedience class, will scale their efforts to the ability of the animal and minimize the need to withhold rewards, and give frustrated animals breaks or easy tasks to do.  We use these same techniques on our own children when they are in school, but we use language in lieu of food.

In a nutshell, stereotyped behavior in captive animals is not a “mental-illness” or “psychosis”, but a preventable and treatable behavioral problem.  Demonizing the best tools trainers have to improve the lives of captive animals and companion pets gets us nowhere as a society. Many zoos do not have the training or the staff to implement enrichment programs for all their animals, and there is still lots of research to be done on enrichment in less charismatic animals like reptiles and fish.  The public has the power to change this by demanding enrichment for all animals in the same way that veterinary treatment is required, and by not visiting for-profit institutions with low quality of care.




Teaching Evolution: State Standards Miss the Mark


Here are some state standards for teaching evolution in high school.


Goal 3.1: Understand the Theory of Biological Evolution

9-10.B.3.1.1 Use the theory of evolution to explain how species change over time. (652.01a)

9-10.B.3.1.2 Explain how evolution is the consequence of interactions among the potential of a species to increase its numbers, genetic variability, a finite supply of resources, and the selection by the environment of those offspring better able to survive and reproduce. (652.01a)



9-11 LS3A Biological evolution is due to: (1) genetic variability of offspring due to mutations and genetic recombination, (2) the potential for a species to increase its numbers, (3) a finite supply of resources,and (4) natural selection by the environment for those offspring better able to survive and produce offspring.

Explain biological evolution as the consequence of the interactions of four factors: population growth, inherited variability of offspring, a finite supply of resources, and natural selection by the environment of offspring better able to survive and reproduce. Predict the effect on a species if one of these factors should change.



H.2L.4 Explain how biological evolution is the consequence of the interactions of genetic variation, reproduction and inheritance, natural selection, and time.



STANDARD 5: Students will understand that biological diversity is a result of evolutionary

Objective 1: Relate principles of evolution to biological diversity.

a. Describe the effects of environmental factors on natural selection.

b. Relate genetic variability to a species’ potential for adaptation to a changing environment.

c. Relate reproductive isolation to speciation.

d. Compare selective breeding to natural selection and relate the differences to agricultural practices.

Objective 2: Cite evidence for changes in populations over time and use concepts of evolution to explain these changes.

a. Cite evidence that supports biological evolution over time (e.g., geologic and fossil records, chemicalmechanisms, DNA structural similarities, homologous and vestigial structures).

b. Identify the role of mutation and recombination in evolution.

c. Relate the nature of science to the historical development of the theory of evolution.

d. Distinguish between observations and inferences in making interpretations related to evolution (e.g.,observed similarities and differences in the beaks of Galapagos finches leads to the inference that they evolved from a common ancestor; observed similarities and differences in the structures of birds and reptiles leads to the inference that birds evolved from reptiles).

e. Review a scientific article and identify the research methods used to gather evidence that documents the evolution of a species.

As someone that’s worked very hard to get her M.S. in Biology, all I can say is “Whaaa…?”  The definition of evolution, according to my Biology 101 textbook:

Organic evolution, often referred to as evolution, is any resulting phenotypic change in organisms from generation to generation.

…or according to Biology 102 professor, Dave Delehanty PhD,

Evolution is a change in allelic frequency in a given population over time.

Take your pick, but both definitions say pretty much the same thing. So, everything from lots of red heads in the British Isles to hobbyist Siamese Fighting Fish breeding is evolution. So, where do state standards like this one, from Washington, come from?

Biological evolution is due to: (1) genetic variability of offspring due to mutations and genetic recombination, (2) the potential for a species to increase its numbers, (3) a finite supply of resources,and (4) natural selection by the environment for those offspring better able to survive and produce offspring.

Not only is it convoluted, parts of it are plain wrong.  Biological evolution is most certainly not due to “the potential for a species to increase its numbers.”  A species can evolve with a population of 10 individuals so long as there is some kind of change in the frequency of trait expression over generations.   Say we have 9 grey colored Pupfish and 1 blue colored Pupfish in a pond.  Over the course of 5 generations the population actually decreases to 8 individuals total, let’s say a predator visited our pond and ate a few fish, but now we have 6 blue fish and 2 grey fish.  That’s evolution folks.  Over 5 generations more fish that had blue scales reproduced, and a larger percentage of their offspring were blue even though their population size decreased to 8 individuals.  Evolution has nothing to do with whether or not the population size of a particular species increases or decreases.

Where the Washington state standards are getting their information is quite beyond my comprehension, and the other states don’t fare much better.  Blatantly absent from each of these standards is a requirement that students actually know the textbook definition of evolution.  They are, however, expected to explain some rather complex aspects of how evolution might occur, which is pretty difficult considering they aren’t required to know what evolution is in the first place.

In college, where I am sure these students will be woefully unprepared, students learn a few specific things about evolutionary theory:

Evolution is a change in allelic frequency within a given population over time.

Evolution requires three things:

  • Reproduction
  • Variation
  • Selective Pressure (Natural, Sexual, or Artificial)

Selection requires another three things:

  • Heredity
  • Differential Reproduction
  • Variation

College students are expected to give definitions to all these terms, and explain why each of the requirements for evolution and selection must be met.  In addition, they must be able to define the three kinds of selection (natural, sexual, and artificial) and that evolution can also occur via genetic drift.  Each state standard ONLY mentions natural selection as a requirement.

Okay, so are some of the better written state standards prepping college students?

Snap back to high school in Oregon and you get this:

Explain how biological evolution is the consequence of the interactions of genetic variation, reproduction and inheritance, natural selection, and time.

Okay, the concepts are in there, but there’s no requirement for students to learn the terms used in college classes and the task requested of them is very broad.  It should be revised to reflect what they will need to know for college level biology.  I would change it to something like this:

Explain how evolution cannot occur unless a population of organisms can reproduce, shows variation in traits, and has some selective pressure placed upon it.  In addition, explain how selective pressure is dependent on variation, inheritance of traits, and differential reproduction.

So.. why aren’t evolution standards written that way? After some digging I figured out that it’s actually really hard to find out exactly who writes what for state education standards. Often the tasks are given to committees composed of educators, or, in Washington’s case, the ominous sounding “Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.”

This leads me to believe that there are two problems with writing evolution state standards:

1) Politics

Evolution standards leave out the actual definition of evolution to avoid lawsuits from groups that may adhere to less scientific definitions.

2) Poorly Educated Professionals

K-12 educators, and not college professors, are writing these standards.  There is some evidence to suggest that many K-12 teachers do not understand evolution properly, and should not be writing education standards concerning evolution.

Kind of a bummer right?  If this is what’s happening to standards for teaching evolution, what other scientific concepts are getting hijacked by politics and the scientifically illiterate?

Low pay, lack of tenure, and crappy state standards drive some of our most qualified teachers away from K-12.  K-12 education should attract teachers with higher degrees in science, but it doesn’t.  Tedious certification requirements in addition to a higher degree make getting into K-12 a non-option for many scientists. Personally, evolution is one of my favorite subjects.  I would pitch a fit if I had to teach it from most of the standards I quoted above because they would be so difficult to execute and, in some cases, blatantly inaccurate.

One of the best ways to get good science standards is to have the standards written by scientists themselves.  Until then K-12 science standards will continue to be written by politics and Ed D’s.  Welcome to remedial college classes kids.

Cliven Bundy, the Nevada ‘Ranch War’, and a victory for militant jackasses everywhere


A history and critique of the current grazing fiasco in Nevada. Worth the read.

High Plains Skeptic

Last week, long standing tensions between a Nevada rancher and the Bureau of Land Management began to escalate toward a good old fashioned ‘Merican dust-up. Like Gary Cooper facing down the gang of outlaws in High Noon, ranch Cliven Bundy stood alone to defend life and liberty and against the forces of evil.

First, a little history.

Cliven Bundy is the rancher at the epicentre of the fracas. According to Cliven Bundy, in the latter half of the 19th century a group of Latter Day Saints (Bundy’s progenitors included) settled parts of the inter-mountain west. It would seem this was done under the divine instruction and direct supervision of God, the infinite and almighty Creator of the Universe and ghost writer of the United States Constitution. Thanks to divine dispensation, Bundy’s ancestors have been grazing cattle on a sizable swath of the Nevada desert since the 1870s, peaceably and…

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To Sea or Not to Sea: Why we Should be Viewing Orcas in the Wild and Not at Marine Parks

9 year old Becky touching Kalina's pectoral fin

On my 10th birthday my grandmother died of breast cancer after a long bout with chemo. I remember being in the hospice and whispering in her ear, even though she was unresponsive and on life support, that it was my birthday and if she had been waiting to let go it was okay now; she could go. That afternoon she did.

My family had known for a long time that the chemo wasn’t working, and that we needed to spend as much time together as we could. So, before my grandma was too sick to go, we packed everyone up and went to Orlando, Florida to visit DisneyWorld and SeaWorld. Before leaving, a friend of a friend had arranged a backstage tour at SeaWorld after the Orca show, explaining that my grandmother was terminally ill and it would be very special for my family.

The Orca show went off without a hitch.  After the show we met some of the trainers, and went backstage.  I remember meeting one male and one female whale trainer.  The man asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up.  I proudly answered him, “Marine Biologist!” We came to a pool with a few female Orcas in it.  The trainers explained that the whale we were meeting was nursing her calf, which leads me to believe that it was a whale named Kalina, and that sometimes her baby would come up for with a mouthful of milk during training. The trainers love their whales, and they care for them in the best ways the know how.

Kalina was instructed to roll over on her back, and each of us got a turn to briefly touch her pectoral fin. The trainers were very professional, and the event was as non-invasive for Kalina as could be.  We didn’t get to sit on her or pat her face; just a quick touch of the flipper.

9 year old Becky touching Kalina's pectoral fin

Becky in 1996 during a family trip to SeaWorld Orlando.

One would think that touching a member of the species Orcanis orca in the flesh would have been the most memorable thing I did at SeaWorld, but it wasn’t.

Before going to the whale show we stopped at the Dolphin Cove at feeding time.  During these feeding sessions, guests can purchase fish to give to the dolphins.  I was really excited about this because I had seen dolphin shows in Chicago at the Shedd Aquarium and Brookfield Zoo for years, and seen dolphins on countless television documentaries.  I was enchanted by anthropomorphic stories of how friendly and smart they were.  Before feeding time the dolphins swam around in circles, mostly ignoring the guests.  When feeding time finally came they approached us with much gusto, pushing and shoving each other out of the way.  While feeding one of the dolphins I briefly pulled back the fish and touched its chin when it swam forward after the fish.  The dolphin jerked its head away from my hand but remained with mouth agape, begging for fish.

It was not what I had been expecting.  Clearly, these dolphins didn’t care if they interacted with me, and they weren’t that keen on being touched either.  The fish were reinforcing, not contact with me. These were not the creatures I heard about on TV, and I was disappointing upon realizing how unrealistic my expectations had been.

Fast forward to 2002.  My mother picked me up from summer camp with a surprise.  We were going to Alaska.  Not only were we going to Alaska, we were going the following week!  During our Alaska adventure we stopped in a town called Seward to go whale watching.

We checked in at the boat dock and left the harbor.  The boat captain took us to see a glacier that was busy calving itself into the ocean.  Harbor Seals lounged on some of the ice chunks floating near the glacier unperturbed by the massive pieces of ice falling into the ocean behind them.  We spotted Puffins, Bald Eagles, and distant Humpback Whales. The last half of the trip was spent observing Orca whales.  Once he spotted the Orcas, the captain swung the boat around many yards in front of them, presumably so they would pass by the boat.  Pass by they did.  The Orcas spy hopped, breached, and played in the wake.  When an Orca whale is right by your boat, they seem a whole lot bigger than on TV.  In all honesty we got lucky, and not everyone who goes whale watching will get such a spectacular show of behavior.

Orca swimming in Seward, AK.

Orca in Seward, AK. Photo from Flickr user zombienate.

So, that brings us to the point of my narrative. I have laid out two very different encounters I’ve had with Orca whales, and I have been puzzling over my experiences in light of the documentary “Blackfish.”  Turns out I’m not the only one. Two state bills have been introduced attempting to ban captive Orca shows, and just today OSHA won in court, preventing SeaWorld from allowing their trainers to work in the water with the whales.  As an aside, I encourage anyone who has seen “Blackfish” to do their own research, and to read statements made by more current Orca trainers than the ones interviewed for the film. The range of opinions and ethical positions among the professionals in the industry is fascinating, and there’s a lot more to learn out there.

While “Blackfish” got me thinking, it specifically got me thinking about a topic I’d already thought about before. Before seeing Orcas up close and personal I saw them on television.  I distinctly remember the narrator on one of the documentaries mentioning that Orcas do not live as long in captivity as they do in the wild.  I asked my mother why we keep them in captivity if they don’t get to live as long?  She told me, in a very matronly way as I was still very young, that:

“many kids, unlike you, live in cities. Children in big cities that don’t have parents who like to go outside will probably never get to see very many animals in the wild. So, they go to places like SeaWorld and get to see animals they would never get to see otherwise.”

Becky' mom taking her for a hike at an early age.

Becky’ s mom taking her for a hike at an early age.

Her conclusion was that it is important for everyone to see these kinds of creatures because everyone needs to understand how important they are.  If a few whales don’t get to live out their full lifespans it’s okay because they are helping their wild counterparts in the long run.

For a long time, I accepted this wisdom.

As I have aged, however, the wisdom has gotten muddled up for me in two ways:

1) The Chicken and the Egg:

Children and adults that get meaningful experiences from zoos and aquariums might already have a concern for animals and the environment.  Therefore zoo and aquarium attendance is a byproduct, and not a cause, of inspired children and adults.

2) Circus Act or Once in a Lifetime Educational Opportunity?:

Whale and dolphin shows may not actually provide significant educational experiences, but primarily entertainment for children and families that already love animals.

I think that humans care about things they have meaningful experiences with, but that whale and dolphin shows are becoming increasingly meaningless.  Caring about Orcas means more than caring about the whales themselves. It means caring about their habitat.  It means caring about their prey. It means caring about global climate change. SeaWorld patrons don’t get meaningful experiences with these other major aspects of Orca Biology by attending whale and dolphin shows.  When was the last time you heard about climate change and disease transmission in wild cetaceans (whales and dolphins) while visiting an aquarium?

To illustrate my point I would like you, the reader, to try something.

1) Visit https://www.flickr.com/

2) In the search box type in “Orca SeaWorld”

3) Write down something you were able to infer about Orcas and their habitat from scrolling through the photos.  How many other non-Orca species did you see? Don’t google anything and don’t read the captions.


4) Repeat you search, but instead type in “Orca Seward”

5) Write down something you were able to infer about Orcas and their habitat from scrolling through the photos.  How many other non-orca species did you see?  Don’t google anything and don’t read the captions.

6) Leave me a comment explaining what you learned.


I leaned that:

  • Orcas live in the water.
  • Orcas like to jump.
  • Orcas live in groups.
  • Some of them have floppy dorsal fins.
  • They eat fish.


I learned that:

  • Orcas live in the ocean near the coast.
  • Orcas live in groups, and there is a lot of size and age variation among individuals.
  • Sometimes the groups are really big.
  • Most Orcas do not have floppy dorsal fins.
  • Humpback whales live in the same places Orcas do.
  • It is likely cold, there is snow on the mountains in the background, where Orcas live.

You might say, “Becky that is all fine and good, but there is no way most people can go see whales in the wild.”  Actually, it would cost most families less to go on a whale watching cruise than to go to SeaWorld for a day.  The only reason to see whales in a marine park is because you’re already in town for something else, and it’s convenient, not because it’s cheap.

A chart displaying the costs of seeing live whales for a family of four.

A chart displaying the costs of seeing live whales for a family of four.

Thought exercises aside, what is the next step?  Personally, I would like to see an industry based shift towards eco-tourism and away from captive Orca shows that may, or may not, provide truly educational experiences that are scientifically proven to increase more eco-friendly behavior in families.  It is likely not a prudent course of action to free all captive Orcas, but the industry can stop breeding them.  The industry can take the high ground and make this the last generation of captive animals, and re-brand itself as a set of educational institutions rather than family entertainment.

Amendment 4/13/2014:

Holding a snake at a zoo.

Becky holding a Speckled Kingsnake at the Land Between the Lakes Nature Station

I wanted to state that I personally enjoy visiting zoos and aquariums, and I think that they can provide truly educational and inspiring experiences for their guests.  The difference, however, between cetaceans and other animals is that even the very best institutions cannot give them the care that they need to live a full life span, and they are used for, what I think, are minimally educational performances.

Predators Prey and Habitat


Yesterday evening the Idaho State University Department of Biological Sciences was visited by some of the best in the conservation biz.  The four speakers, pictured below, gave 30 minute presentations on their work and fielded questions from the audience. Historically, public seminars on biological topics at the university have been hit or miss, but this was a full house thanks to the efforts of Keene Hueftle with the South East Idaho Environmental Network.




From left to right: Louisa Wilcox, Dr. David Mattson, Dr. Terry Bowyer, and Dr. Doug Smith

Dr. Mattson studies mountain lions, Dr. Bowyer studies ungulates (deer, elk, moose, big horn sheep, etc.), Dr. Smith studies wolves, and Ms. Wilcox works as a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Dr. Bowyer kicked things off by explaining some common myths concerning wild game management.  Two myths, out of many, that he mentioned were that common sense wisdom like “removing predators always leads to increase in prey population” and “habitat improvement always leads to an increase in ungulate population” are context dependent, and game managers need to get particular kinds of data before choosing what kind of management strategy is appropriate.

Next, Dr. Mattson discussed research on mountain lions and their effect on prey populations.  Turns out, it’s really complicated with lots of apparent competition between ungulate populations.

Second to last came Dr. Smith, who pointed out some of the difficulties in managing Yellowstone elk and wolves.

Last, Ms. Wilcox gave a engrossing talk on Grizzly Bears.  Some points in her talk suggested that climate change is going to impact/already impacting Yellowstone’s bears, particularly mothers, in a negative way.

There was a break during these talks, and I went to the bathroom.  While in line I overheard some young women talking about Dr. Smith’s talk.  One girl said, “I liked his talk, but I’m not sure I agree with his opinion.”  I didn’t say anything to her but I thought to myself, “What opinion?”  Dr. Smith had primarily presented data, only interjecting major opinion at the end of his talk.  He, in a nutshell, said that he would rather live in a West with wolves than without.

The opinion of this young lady epitomizes why these sorts of forums are so important.  At the end of the talks a few people made comments like, “the wolves were forced on us in this state [Idaho].”  Some other common sentiments spouted off in Idaho public forums are as follows:

  • Predators negatively impact ungulate populations in Idaho, making hunting less profitable as a tourist industry, a local tradition, and harm families that must supplement their grocery budget with wild game.
  • Predators are detrimental to the farming industry because they kill livestock.
  • Wolves kill people’s pet dogs.
  • The wolves in Idaho/Yellowstone were imported from Canada and are not adapted for life here, so the decimate prey populations like an invasive species.

Aside from killing livestock and domestic dogs, each scientist put to rest the idea that predators alone commonly cause population crashes in prey species.  Mainly, they illuminated the fact that teasing apart the causes of ungulate population increases and decreases is really really complicated, and pointing to one single cause of a decline is most often an exercise in intellectual fallacy.

So, why is that, after being presented a MOUNTAIN of data, do people still cling to their old beliefs, or offend the data by classifying it as opinion?  If I could answer that question I’d be in politics, and I’d be rich.

I think part of the reason people have trouble with events like these is that it is really hard to translate some of the science into layman’s terms.  I do not mean that in a derogatory way; the audience last night was plenty smart enough to understand the concepts presented.  The message gets lost when scientists use specialized terms which, to us scientsits, don’t seem so special.  For example, Dr. Smith made the point that beaver populations have gone through the roof since wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone, but didn’t explicitly point out the mechanism scientists think is causing the increase.  One of the first questions from the audience at the end of the talks were “what do beavers have to do with wolves?” Dr. Smith did a great job of explaining how elk and beavers utilize similar forage, and elk can out-compete beavers in a variety of ways.  The relationship of elk to beavers, I mistakenly thought, was pretty obvious without explanation.  It’s very hard for scientists to predict what their audience will understand intuitively, and what they won’t. Improving this particular aspect of scientific communication would go a long way to get people more interested in what the data tell us, and less concerned about everyone else’s “opinion.”

All in all it was a wonderful event. There was very little hostility in the room and there were clearly members of the audience on both sides of the political fence, which is a great place to start when it comes to bringing all sides to the discussion table.