Thursday, April 2, 2020

Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood

Bat meat and wings for sale
By now we all know the COVID-19 virus (or SARS 2) infecting the world originated in bats and spread to humans either directly or via another host animal most likely a civet cat or a pangolin. Once the virus had established itself in humans it then evolved to being able to spread within the human population. Bats are not a domestic animal but they have been used for traditional medicine and as a source of food in many parts of the world including of course China. However they are also a natural reservoir for many pathogens including rabies and can readily spread disease so you wonder why anyone would want to eat them.

Civet cats in cages
At the live animal markets throughout China and other parts of Asia, a wide range of creatures ranging from bats, rats, dogs, snakes, peacocks, chickens, rabbits, porcupines, and pangolins to name a few are kept together in crowded cages ready for slaughter once they have been purchased. Under these stressful conditions it isn't hard to understand how easy it is for viruses to spread from one animal to another. The first SARS epidemic in 2003 came from civet cats being sold for meat that were carrying the virus they got from horseshoe bats. But it's also worth noting that until 1998 Chanel was harvesting the glands of civet cats for the musk used in its perfume.

Perhaps the most pitiful animal in all of this is the lowly pangolin, a scaly anteater ranging from 12-39 inches in size that is the world's most trafficked animal and responsible for 20% of all illegal wildlife trade.  A luxury food item for the Chinese, the pangolin is even more valued for its scales which are used in traditional Chinese medicine and trades for $3,000/kg on the black market. Among the many claims, pangolin scales are used to promote blood circulation, cure infertility in women, help lactating women secrete milk, treat gynecological disease, and cure anorexia in children.

Traditional Chinese Medicine ingredients
Traditional Chinese medicine has been gaining popularity throughout the world including in North America where herbal supplements like ginseng and acupuncture treatments help maintain a balanced chi. While there may be some perceived benefits in the various herbs and plants being used there is also concern about the levels of toxicity and lack of standardization. But the greatest concern is when exotic animal products from endangered species are being used to promote unsubstantiated health claims such as using tiger bones or rhino horns for their supposed healing and sexual enhancement properties.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Shop
The links between exotic wild animals and the SARS, Avian Flu, and now COVID-19 pandemics are clear, and fortunately the Chinese government has for now banned the buying, selling and eating of wild animals. But will this ban last or will it simply move underground as it did in 2003 for the SARS outbreak and in 2013 for the H7N9 Avian flu when the government implemented a temporary ban? Old customs and superstitions don't die out quickly and the wildlife-farming industry is valued at $74 billion with over 20,000 farms now affected by the ban. Pushing this underground could prove to be an even greater risk to public and global health.

As repulsive as both the live and wet markets in China may appear to Westerners there really isn't much difference between them and us on how we treat the animals we eat. In the west we do all the mostly inhumane raising and slaughtering of pigs, cattle, and chickens behind closed doors and sell the dead animals nicely packaged in the grocery store. We also eat wildlife such as moose, deer, lobster, and salmon. But we have learned how to prevent the contamination of one food source by another and to rely on proper science to determine if something truly offers a cure. China needs to educate its people and more rigorously regulate the sale of animals for food. We may have to agree to disagree on our food choices but we don't want to be misunderstood on how to prevent these new pandemics from constantly re-appearing.

Sunday, March 1, 2020


If there is one thing clear about all the Wet'suwet'en protests that have sprung up around the country it's that the First Nations people have had their agenda completely hijacked by all the climate change alarmists, pseudo-anarchists, and left wing radicals masquerading as their supporters.  Oblivious to any argument that fossil fuels are here to stay for quite some time, that the only real alternative is nuclear power not wind or solar, and that natural gas is at least an improvement to burning coal, these self-righteous people are only comfortable when their collective heads are stuck in the sand.  In spite of their complaints about capitalism and colonialism they don't care if they create disruption for the working class people going back and forth to work and home and they certainly don't care about improving the lot of First Nations folks.

In spite of unanimous agreement by the various bands along the pipeline route for the project to proceed, the argument made by the hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en people is that they haven't granted approval for this pipeline where it goes through unceded territory that is not part of the reserves. What this is really about is who controls the decision making process, the elected bands or the hereditary chiefs, and the First Nations people have not been consistent in resolving this issue.  In Canada we have reconciled our hereditary ruler known as the King or Queen of England with our elected rulers that form the various levels of government and, while the hereditary ruler is welcome to provide advice, they certainly cannot overrule a decision made by the elected government.

The hereditary chiefs of the Wet'suwet'en, and certain other tribes, don't want to acknowledge the power of the elected bands because they say this is part of the hated Indian Act but they are going to have to convince the majority of people living on the reserves of their supremacy or else find a place for themselves in the decision making process. This of course is only something the First Nations people can decide amongst themselves but, like so many other issues, it should have been worked out years ago. These internal rivalries are only adding to their misery and delaying any effort to improve their well being.

The federal government, which is responsible for all First Nations people, has been woefully neglectful in improving their well being. From the residential school debacle to the drinking water fiasco and now the acute housing shortage on every reserve, 80% of the reserves in Canada are living below the poverty level which is set at an income of $22,000.00 per person, and a disproportionate number of them are filling up the country's prisons. Projects like the Coastal GasLink pipeline will provide well paying jobs both during construction and afterwards that will help lift at least some of the Wet'suwet'en out of poverty as will the TransMountain pipeline the federal government will be eventually selling to another group of First Nations people.

If the protesters were really interested in supporting the First Nations people they would be campaigning for a more efficient way of providing modular housing to First Nations communities combined with water purifying systems and greenhouses to grow fresh vegetables, and providing support for better economic opportunities wherever they can find them. In other words true reconciliation. Instead they are using the First Nations internal grievances to promote their own myopic agenda that is completely divorced from reality. Even worse, the general public will soon be thinking the First Nations people are behind all these demonstrations and, fueled by right wing racists, turn against them just when sentiment is finally starting to be on their side. The sooner the First Nations people realize these protesters are nothing more than backstabbers to their cause the sooner they can start to move forward with resolving their real issues.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The In Crowd

Murmuration of Dunlin over Boundary Bay
I'm sure everyone has at some point in their life seen a large flock of birds clustered close together, flying in some sort of strange formation that defies logic, and wondered how they managed to do it without crashing into one another. I'm not talking about the orderly V-shaped procession of migrating Canada geese that skillfully allows each bird to change positions as they tire or take the lead. I'm talking about hundreds or even thousands of a particular bird species that suddenly band together and act as a single entity in some strange organized pattern.
Murmuration of Sandpipers in Semiahmoo Bay
Turns out there is a name for this behavior and it's called a murmuration and it can occur when the birds are migrating, being chased by a predator, or simply going about their daily business. One of the daily murmurations  takes place on Still Creek Ave. in Burnaby where 3,000-5,000 crows come home to roost every evening just as the sun sets.
Murmuration of Crows at Still Creek Ave Burnaby
Murmuration of Starlings
It's not just birds that form these swarms or murmurations, they can also be seen with insects and fish. As we all know, bees in particular live in incredibly organized and tightly structured communities that quickly mobilize into swarms when they are moving to a new home. Locusts or grasshoppers are another insect that can form swarms numbering in the billions when suitable climatic conditions exist.
Bee Swarm

Locust swarm in East Africa
Small, ocean going, fish that travel in schools often form what is referred to as a bait ball as a defensive mechanism to protect themselves from predators and is another example of murmuration.

Sardine bait ball

Sardine bait ball
What all these birds, insects and fish have in common is the ability to move in concert as if they had a single mind and do it without bumping into one another. By simply keeping an eye on their closest neighbours, moving in the same direction, and staying close together they are able to move as one giant organism. In the case of birds, scientists have determined that each one keeps an eye on a maximum of seven others and this allows them to maintain perfect synchronization.
Swarm of bats
Vancouver Marathon
Caribou migration
Warm blooded creatures such as bats, ungulates, and humans also form swarms or murmurations though humans are more successful when they are walking or running rather than operating a vehicle. But thanks to studies of birds in particular and mathematical models of fish, new advances in artificial intelligence and robotics may start to make vehicle murmurations safer. There is also evidence of plants and algae using swarming techniques to optimize growth.

But while being part of the crowd can perhaps offer some measure of safety, the herd instinct also discourages independent thinking and as humans this makes us particularly vulnerable. With social media and skillful advertising shaping the way we think and the choices we make, our "group thinking" society is making it all too easy to behave like lemmings. Perhaps before we rush off to join the latest in-crowd we should take a closer look at where it's going.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Madmen and Women Across The Water

January 1st 2020 was a special morning for Vancouver along the English Bay waterfront. After a week of heavy rain the sun magically reappeared with perfect timing for the 100 year anniversary of the Polar Bear Swim. Originally organized in 1920 by Peter Pantages, along with 10 fellow swimmers, the annual event has continued ever since with an ever increasing number of swimmers braving the cold water and an even greater number showing up to watch and cheer them on. In 2014 a record 2,550 swimmers registered for the swim but in 2020 that record was shattered by the 6,500 who officially registered and the more than 45,000 spectators who came to watch.

Prepping in some cases for hours in advance, the crowd patiently formed a line all along English Bay beach sipping warming beverages and waiting until the last possible moment to remove their clothing There were plenty of costumes, entertainers, and even a live band to keep everyone in a festive mood.

At precisely 2:30 PM the horn signaled the start of the event and then as fast as it started it ended with everyone running screaming into the ocean (this year a balmy 7 degrees celsius) and then came running right back out to pose for the obligatory photo. A few hardy souls tried to pretend they were as tough as polar bears and more than a few went back for a second or third dip but generally the swim or rather plunge lasted less than a couple of minutes.

It was all good fun of course and a great way to clear any lingering cobwebs from the Xmas season as yet another decade comes to a close. It also proved that men and women were equally mad when it comes to Polar Bear swims.