Tag Archives: Animals

Inmates and the Mustang Border Patrol

A full moon rises behind U.S. Border Patrol agent Josh Gehrich as he sits atop a hill while on patrol near Jacumba, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake SEARCH "WILD HORSE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

A full moon rises behind U.S. Border Patrol agent Josh Gehrich as he sits atop a hill while on patrol near Jacumba, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Photo-essay by Reuters
January, 2017

Long before the desert sun has had a chance to heat the dusty prison yard, some 20 inmates at an Arizona state prison begin quietly tending horses.

The men – many with violent histories – gently manoeuvre bits into the mouths of mustangs still unaccustomed to human touch; they remove caked mud from hooves and tighten girths against bulging bellies. And the horses, which just weeks ago roamed free, mostly comply with what is asked of them.

Both the men and the horses are still learning how to live behind fences.

An inmate trains a wild horse as part of the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP) at Florence State Prison in Florence, Arizona, U.S., December 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake       SEARCH "WILD HORSE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

An inmate trains a wild horse as part of the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP) at Florence State Prison in Florence, Arizona, U.S., December 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 

Prisoners participating in the Wild Horse Inmate Program train mustangs that will eventually be adopted by the U.S. Border Patrol, providing the agency with inexpensive but agile horses, and inmates with skills and insights they hope to one day carry with them from prison.

For Brian Tierce, 49, who has served about five years of his seven-year sentence for domestic violence and assault, the horses have taught him “a lot of things I didn’t know I had in me – patience, perseverance, kindness, understanding.”

“I’ve got to be a compromising person, otherwise I’ll never get this job done.”

Wild horses attempt to escape being herded into corrals by a helicopter during a Bureau of Land Management round-up outside Milford, Utah, U.S., January 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart          SEARCH "WILD HORSE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

Wild horses attempt to escape being herded into corrals by a helicopter during a Bureau of Land Management round-up outside Milford, Utah, U.S., January 8, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart 

At least 80 percent of the U.S. Border Patrol’s current stable of 400 horses come from inmate training programs in Arizona, Colorado, Kansas and Nevada. The horses are critical for patrolling the rugged and remote stretches of the Mexican border to detect illegal crossings by migrants and drug trafficking.

And, at $500 to $800 for a saddle-ready horse, the price is right.

Some 55,000 mustangs roam the Western U.S., more than double the number public land can support, said Bureau of Land Management spokesman Jason Lutterman. Those that do not end up in adoption programs face an uncertain future.

U.S. Border Patrol agents from Boulevard Station look out over a ridge after sunset near Jacumba, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake        SEARCH "WILD HORSE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

U.S. Border Patrol agents from Boulevard Station look out over a ridge after sunset near Jacumba, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 

At the prison in Florence, a cactus-dotted town about 140 miles north (225 km) of the Mexican border, participating prisoners round up their horses before dawn and work all day under the watchful eyes of Randy Helm, the third-generation rancher, former narcotics officer and self-proclaimed “cowboy preacher” who supervises the programme.

Over the course of four to six months, the men train their horses – with names like Billy, Rocky and Patches – to tolerate bridles and saddles, respond to commands to trot and canter and perform footwork that will come in handy on the uneven desert terrain along the border.

U.S. Border Patrol horses Hollywood (L) and Apache roll in the dirt at their patrol station in Boulevard, California, U.S November 12, 2016.  REUTERS/Mike Blake        SEARCH "WILD HORSE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

U.S. Border Patrol horses Hollywood (L) and Apache roll in the dirt at their patrol station in Boulevard, California, U.S November 12, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 

Helm, 62, teaches the men not to “break” the horses, but to “gentle” them. The method relies on incremental steps and rewarding the horses for good behaviour. Any inmate that raises a hand to a horse gets booted from the programme.

“It’s more working on us than on them,” said Rick Kline, 32, who has served five years of a seven and a half year sentence for stealing cars. “It’s a new understanding of calming down.”

He hopes to apply that skill of staying calm to parenting his two kids when he gets out of prison.

U.S. Border Patrol agents prepare their horses for patrol at their station in Boulevard, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake        SEARCH "WILD HORSE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

U.S. Border Patrol agents prepare their horses for patrol at their station in Boulevard, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 

Bret Karakey, 35, who is in prison for identity theft, recently broke his hip when he was thrown from a horse. But he came back without hesitation.

“I kind of need this,” he said.

Most prisoners who apply for the programme don’t have experience with horses, and Helm prefers it that way. They tend to be gentler with the animals.

Florence began its horse training programme in 2012, and while it is too early to assess the long-term effects on participating inmates, of the 50 or so who have gone through it and been released, none has returned to prison, Helm said. The national recidivism rate is about 68 percent within three years of release.

An inmate rides a wild horse as part of the Wild Horse Inmate Program ( WHIP) at Florence State Prison in Florence, Arizona, U.S., December 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake       SEARCH "WILD HORSE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

An inmate rides a wild horse as part of the Wild Horse Inmate Program ( WHIP) at Florence State Prison in Florence, Arizona, U.S., December 2, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 

Helm says he sees real transformations in inmates who stay with the programme.

“A lot of them haven’t really bonded with a person, let alone an animal,” he said. “It’s been really interesting to observe these guys’ lives change.”

U.S. Border Patrol adoptions are key to the government’s effort to stem the nation’s growing population of mustangs. A federal law passed in 1971 tasked the Bureau of Land Management with managing wild horse and burro populations in the American West, both to protect the animals and to ensure that vegetation was not overgrazed and water sources depleted.

But with the soaring cost of hay and dwindling public interest in horse ownership, the BLM can place only about 2,000 into adoption each year, severely limiting the number it can capture from the open desert and plains, Lutterman said.

A wild horse is herded into corrals by a helicopter during a Bureau of Land Management round-up outside Milford, Utah, U.S., January 7, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart        SEARCH "WILD HORSE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

A wild horse is herded into corrals by a helicopter during a Bureau of Land Management round-up outside Milford, Utah, U.S., January 7, 2017. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart 

Fifteen years ago, the BLM was rounding up more than 10,000 mustangs and putting about 6,000 into new homes each year.

Border Patrol is the biggest single purchaser of mustangs from the inmate programs.

On horseback, the agents can navigate desolate stretches land that vehicles cannot. The mustangs are sure-footed on steep terrain, crossing creekbeds without hesitation and stepping spryly over rattlesnakes.

U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback patrol along a beach just north of the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, California, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake        SEARCH "WILD HORSE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback patrol along a beach just north of the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, California, U.S., November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 

“It really feels like the Wild West out where we patrol for sure,” said Bobby Stine, supervisory agent of the San Diego Sector Horse Patrol Unit. “There’s just not a lot of law enforcement presence, except for us.”

The border is an unforgiving place; just 654 miles of fence exist between the United States and Mexico, accounting for about a third of the border. The rest is defined by mountains, rivers, private ranches and wild country – terrain more suited for horses, which all agents had back when Border Patrol was founded in 1924.

The San Diego border patrol unit has 28 horses, and the Tucson unit more than 130. Fifteen horses from the Florence prison were adopted in 2014 and 2015.

U.S. Border Patrol supervisor Bobby Stine frisks a man a few hundred meters from the U.S.-Mexico border fence near Jacumba, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake         SEARCH "WILD HORSE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

U.S. Border Patrol supervisor Bobby Stine frisks a man a few hundred meters from the U.S.-Mexico border fence near Jacumba, California, U.S., November 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake 

The task of the Florence inmates who train the horses is, at times, thick with irony: Some are Mexican nationals, apprehended on the border for drug-related offences.

The inmates, though, say they don’t mind that the horses help law enforcement. They are simply happy the animals no longer face thirst and starvation in the drought-stricken West.

“All the ‘inmates against cops’ stuff – that’s not true,” said Kline. “They’re just doing their job. And we’re doing our job. These horses depend on us.”

Copyright Reuters 2017

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Land of the Strays: Costa Rica’s Lucky Dogs

By Juan Carlos Ulate
April, 2016

In a lush, sprawling corner of Costa Rica, hundreds of dogs roam freely on a hillside – among the luckiest strays on earth.

Fed, groomed and cared for by vets, more than 750 dogs rescued from the streets of Costa Rica inhabit Territorio de Zaguates or ‘Land of the Strays’, a pooch paradise.

152-hectare sanctuary in the centre of the Central American country is funded by donations. Around 8,000 dogs have passed through the refuge.

There are more than a million stray dogs in Costa Rica, where the government outlawed putting animals down in 2003.

Copyright Reuters 2016

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F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Why cats are fussy, and dogs will eat most anything

By Hannah Rowland, University of Cambridge
November, 2015

"Feed me." © Deborah Jones 2015

“Feed me.” © Deborah Jones 2015

Anyone who’s watched a cat throwing up after munching on grass knows that our feline friends aren’t natural plant eaters. So you might be surprised to discover that these carnivorous animals share some important genes that are more typically associated with herbivores. And this might help explain why cats aren’t always easy to please when it comes to food.

New research suggests that cats possess the genes that protect vegetarian animals from ingesting poisonous plants by giving them the ability to taste bitter. Animals use their sense of taste to detect whether a potential food is nutritious or harmful. A sweet taste signals the presence of sugars, an important source of energy. A bitter taste, on the other hand, evolved as a defence mechanism against harmful toxins commonly found in plants and unripe fruits.

Evolution has repeatedly tweaked animals’ taste buds to suit various dietary needs. Changes in an animal’s diet can eliminate the need to sense certain chemicals in food, and so receptor genes mutate, destroying their ability to make a working protein.

One example of this comes from strictly meat-eating cats, who can no longer taste sweetness. But if bitter detection evolved to warn of plant toxins, then it stands to reason that cats, which (usually) eschew plants, shouldn’t be able to taste bitter either. Humans and other vegetable-munching animals can taste bitter because we possess bitter taste receptor genes. If cats have lost the ability to taste bitterness, we should find that their receptor genes are riddled with mutations.

Geneticists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia scoured the genome of cats and other carnivorous mammals like dogs, ferrets, and polar bears to see if our carnivorous cousins have bitter genes. They were surprised to find that cats have 12 different genes for bitter taste. Dogs, ferrets, and polar bears are equally well endowed. So, if meat eating animals are unlikely to encounter any bitter morsels, why do they boast genes for tasting bitterness?

Taste test

To find out, Peihua Jiang, a molecular biologist at Monell, put cat taste buds to the test. He inserted the cat taste receptor gene into human tissue cells in the lab. When combined, the cell and the gene act as a taste receptor that responds to chemicals dropped onto it.

Jiang discovered that the cat’s taste receptors responded to bitter chemicals found in toxic plants and to compounds that also activate human bitter receptors. The cat bitter taste receptor, known as Tas2r2, responded to the chemical denatonium benzoate, a bitter substance commonly smeared on the fingernails of nail-biting children.

So why have cats retained the ability to detect bitter tastes? Domestic cats owners know how unpredictable cats’ dietary choices can be. Some of the “presents” cats bring to their owners include frogs, toads, and other animals that can contain bitter and toxic compounds in their skin and bodies. Jiang’s results show that bitter receptors empower cats to detect these potential toxins, giving them the ability to reject noxious foods and avoid poisoning.

But how often do meat-loving cats actually get exposed to bitter and toxic compounds in their diet, compared with the plethora of plant toxins that their vegetarian counterparts have to contend with? Jiang suggests this is not enough to explain why cats have retained such an arsenal of receptors.

Instead, cat taste receptors may have evolved for reasons other than taste. In humans, bitter taste receptors are found not only in the mouth, but also in the heart and in the lungs, where they are thought to detect infections. It remains to be seen if feline bitter receptor genes also double-up as disease detectors.

The discovery of feline bitter receptors might explain why cats have got a reputation as picky eaters. But their unfussy canine counterparts have a similar number of bitter taste receptors – so why are cats so finicky? One answer might lie in how the cat receptors detect bitter-tasting compounds. Research published earlier this year by another team of researchers showed that some of the cat taste receptors are especially sensitive to bitter compounds, and even more sensitive to denatonium than the same receptor in humans.

Perhaps cats are also more sensitive to bitter chemicals than dogs, or they may detect a greater number of bitter compounds in their everyday diet. Food that tastes bland to us or to a dog could be an unpleasant gastronomic experience for cats. So rather than branding cats as picky, perhaps we should think of them as discerning feline foodies.

The ConversationCreative Commons

Hannah Rowland is a Lecturer in Ecology and Evolution & Research Fellow at Zoological Society of London, University of Cambridge.  This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Humans naturally nasty? Research suggests not

Research shows that human “morality” is grounded in science. Whether our societies can transcend tribal affiliations is another matter.

By Deborah Jones 
February 2012

Vancouver, Canada (AFP) —  Biological research increasingly debunks the view of humanity as competitive, aggressive and brutish, says biologist and author Frans de Waal.

“Humans have a lot of pro-social tendencies,” said de Waal in a plenary speech at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting.

New research on higher animals, from primates and elephants to mice, reveals a biological cause of behaviour such as cooperation, targeted helping of others, and synchronization of actions such as yawning, said de Waal, author of The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society.

Until some 12 years ago, the common view among scientists and policy-makers was that humans are “nasty” at our core, but have developed a veneer of morality — albeit a thin and brittle one, deWaal told scientists and journalists from some 50 countries.

But human children — and most higher animals — are “moral” in a scientific sense, because they need to cooperate with each other to reproduce and pass on their genes, he said.

Research has disproved the view, dominant since the 19th-Century, exemplified by biologist Thomas Henry Huxley’s argument that morality is absent in nature and something created by humans, said de Waal.

And common assumptions that Huxley’s harsh view was also promoted by Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, are also wrong, he said.

“Darwin was much smarter than most of his followers,” said de Waal. Quoting from Descent of Man, de Waal cited Darwin’s argument that animals that developed to have “well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience.”

He showed videos from laboratory experiments revealing the dramatic emotional distress of a monkey denied a treat that another monkey had received; and of a rat giving up chocolate in order to help another rat escape from a trap.

Such research shows that animals naturally have pro-social tendencies for “reciprocity, fairness, empathy and consolation,” said de Waal, a Dutch biologist now at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Human morality is unthinkable without empathy.”

Asked if wide public acceptance of empathy as natural would change the intense competition on which capitalist economic and political systems are based, de Waal quipped, “I’m just a monkey watcher.”

But he told reporters that research also shows animals bestow their empathy only on  animals in their “in-group” — and that particular trait is a challenge in a globalized human world.

“Morality” developed in humans in small communities, he said, and attempting to stretch the human capacity for empathy morality around the globe is a challenge.

“I’m not saying it’s impossible, I think it should be tried to the fullest extent, but it’s a challenge … it’s experimental for the human species to apply a system intended for (in-groups) to the whole world.”

Copyright © 2012 Deborah Jones

Originally published by Agence France-Presse, February 2012

References and further reading:


Frans de Waal’s page at Emory University

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