Sochi’s Stray Dogs: Is there anything science could or should do to help?

 Stray dogs at a crosswalk in Bucharest. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Columbo222)

Stray dogs at a crosswalk in Bucharest. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Columbo222)

Thanks to the international press, social media, and some questionable comments from the head of a Russian pest control company, Sochi’s stray dog population made headlines over the past couple weeks. The controversy over what to do about the city’s strays has drawn criticism and activism from animal rights groups. Thankfully, some have stepped in and even set up shelters for dogs on the outskirts of the city to save some dogs from rumored culling. That’s all well and good, but as the spotlight fades, it’s important to note that this problem isn’t new, and it won’t end with the Olympic Games.

Beijing and Athens had similar problems. In the US, local animal welfare projects struggle to manage stray populations under limited resources. Moscow has a steady population of 35,000 stray dogs, and in the US, Detroit is reportedly home up to 50,000 strays roaming the city (though those numbers may be off). Stray dog populations are responsible for 99% of the world’s rabies cases. They can also spread other zoonotic diseases and attack humans.

The standard protocol for humanely handling urban stray dogs is capture, neuter, release. Almost a mantra, the tactic became the focus of urban animal control over the past two decades. Before that, the strategy was capture and kill, and still obviously is in some places around the world. Not all cities have trap-neuter release programs. That’s not to say they’re not searching for other solutions. The Hong Kong police department trains some homeless dogs for their canine unit. In Norway, the focus is also on training instead of neutering, for better or worse.

To some degree trap-neuter-release works, but there are a lot of studies out there with conflicting results. Because spay and neutering surgeries can also become impractical and expensive, those in the animal welfare field have been searching for alternatives that don’t involve surgery. Zinc neutering is a birth control option that has many animal welfare activists excited, and is already being implemented in the US and Europe. The FDA approved Zeuterin, a zinc gluconate drug, causes the testicles to atrophy, renders the dog irreversibly sterile, and reduces testosterone by 40-50%.

But, what of other alternatives, unrelated to reproduction. The whole Sochi situation reminded me of an email I got from a friend from college. She works on regional government projects in Texas, and was wondering if I had heard of any scientific solutions for keeping stray dogs out of neighborhoods and away from mail carriers (no joke, this is a legitimate issue). It’s not something I’ve ever covered, so I googled it. The only thing that seemed remotely useful was a project focused on wild African dog populations (Lycaon pictus). By mimicking scent signals in their urine, the researchers hope to keep wild packs off farmland and out of villages. But, domesticated dogs produce hormones at different levels than wild dogs, not to mention, they’re different species (domesticated dogs are a subspecies of wolves). So, applying something like that in an urban environment seems like a stretch.

A surprising amount of stray dog research has come out of another Russian city: Moscow. Known for their intelligence, Moscow’s stray dogs have their own Wikipedia page, and famously take the cities metro trains, like any other commuter. Andrei Poyarkov, a researcher at the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, classifies the dogs in four distinct behavioral types: guard dogs who follow and rely on security personnel for food, scavengers who roam for garbage, wild dogs who hunt cats and mice, and beggars who depend on Moscow residents and commuters for meals. The last group, according to Poyarkov, consists of dogs capable of riding the subway, and leadership in beggar dog packs is based on brains, not brawn. Poyarkov believes Moscow’s stray dogs have been evolving since the 1800s and subsequently lost key traits common in domesticated breeds. They’re not wolves, but they’re not totally the same as a pet.

If Moscow’s dogs are a natural urban evolution experiment, are packs of stray dogs in others cities also evolving, as well? It’s probably safe to say they’re experiencing some sort of evolutionary pressure, depending on their environment. Perhaps such studies aimed at understanding the animals could point to a more humane and innovative way of controlling stray populations, beyond the reproductive strategy. I honestly don’t know.

This problem isn’t new, so why don’t we have some better alternatives, or at least more innovative ideas? Stray dogs may not be the sexiest of scientific topics – it’s not black holes, it’s not climate change, and it doesn’t carry the threat to human lives that cancer and bird flu do. Research is expensive, and stray dogs don’t rank very high on the priority list — perhaps rightly so. But, Sochi seems to shed light on a global problem that requires a more creative solution.


To Squat, or To Sit: That Is the Question

Credit: Mark Buckawicki, Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Mark Buckawicki, Wikimedia Commons.

Let me apologize in advance, this post is about poop. Or rather, pooping.

My college suitemates and I always get together every Halloween. This year, my friend Kathy hosted us at her apartment outside New York City, and I happened upon a very interesting contraption in her bathroom. I believe the correct term is squatty potty? A platform specifically designed for toilet users to perch upon it and, well, squat instead of sit. The device belonged to one of her roommates, and I have to say I found it both fascinating and hilarious.

Squatting has gained more of a following in recent years, as scientists become more interested in how our bodies cope with the sedentary lifestyle of industrialization. Of course, there are also millions of people around the world who squat out of necessity because they don’t have Western toilets. Doctors have been suggesting we squat instead of sit since the 1960s. Their rational? It’s just better or more natural for our physiology. Sitting, they say, puts the passage from the rectum to the anal canal at the wrong angle. A 2010 study published in the journal Lower Urinary Tract Systems suggests that squatting produced a 126° angle, compared a 100° angle when sitting. When one squats, the rectoanal angle is straighter, so pooping requires less effort.

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Operation Cat Drop: history or hoax?

Many accounts of Operation Cat Drop were accompanied by comics, so this seemed appropriate.(Sketch by HT)

Many accounts of Operation Cat Drop were accompanied by comics, so this seemed appropriate.(Sketch by HT)

Once upon a time in Borneo, everybody was dying of malaria, so they sprayed a lot of the insecticide DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which killed the mosquitoes that transmitted the disease. Cases dropped, but inexplicably, peoples’ roofs started caving in. DDT had also killed wasps that kept the caterpillar population in check, so the caterpillars ate the roof thatch. Geckos ate the wasps, and cats ate the geckos. Cats started dropping dead, and the rat population flourished, which lead to an outbreak of the plague. So, to solve the problem, health officials parachuted cats into Borneo.

Or, at least that’s how the story goes.

I first heard of this ecological fable — nicknamed “Operation Cat Drop” — from a friend who liked to break it out at dinner parties. Frankly, it sounded a bit ridiculous. So, ridiculous in fact, that somebody could very well have made it up, and some have argued that the tale is just that: fiction. The cat story started popping up in print in the 1960s, making appearances in The New York Times, Time, and Natural History magazine. In the late 1960s and early 70s, biomagnification and the ecological impacts on avian species took center stage in the public debate over the safety of DDT. But, I’ve always wondered whether there was any truth to the cat story, which did come up in congressional hearings on DDT use. Turns out, there’s more than you’d think. Patrick O’Shaughnessy, an environmental engineer at the University of Iowa, did some digging and found kernels of truth from which the cat drop myth probably grew. His work was published in the American Journal of Public Health. Here’s what we know…

In the 1950s, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a global effort to eradicate malaria, following successful campaigns in the United States, Europe, and Venezuela. Resistance to the insecticide had popped up in some mosquitoes, but they were very optimistic. Perhaps a little too optimistic. From 1952-55, in the Sarawak region of Borneo, malaria control teams sprayed DDT, benzene hexachloride, and briefly dieldrin twice a year inside local long houses with thatch roofs. At first, the program enjoyed some success. From 1953 to 1955, the fraction of local mosquitoes carrying the disease fell from 35.6% to 1.6%.

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Bad archaeology, the Queen of Sheba, and a water park

Lazy rivers are the best (Wikimedia Commons/Christine Schmidt).

Lazy rivers are the best (Wikimedia Commons/Christine Schmidt).

I love water parks. The slides, the wave pools, the smell of sunscreen, the funnel cakes, and above all the lazy rivers. A good water park will always have a soft spot in my heart.

That’s why when I first learned of a water park in South Africa called Sun City that seemed to be propagating a myth that an ancient civilization of European origin had built a great lost city in the region, I was a little shocked. In my 10th grade world history class, we watched a documentary about the real ancient ruins of Great Zimbabwe, an archaeological site with a controversial past. It’s final images were of children frolicking at Sun City. The innocence of my childhood spent in inner-tubes clashed with this bizarre message that frankly sounded…kind of racist.

The myth begins with bad archaeology. Built between 1200 and 1400 CE, Great Zimbabwe once served as the capital of a complex local civilization in southeastern modern Zimbabwe. Its stone enclosures with walls up to 30 feet high were built without mortar and adorned with soapstone bird sculptures. The hilltop palace and surrounding city covered about 1800 acres, and could have housed more than 10,000 people. Untouched by European influence, Great Zimbabwe probably looked pretty impressive, rising above the grassland.

These people weren’t isolated. Excavations of the site turned up gold working equipment, ironware, pottery shards, Arab coins, Chinese porcelain, and Persian beads. Second hand stories from Arab traders eventually made their way to the ears of Portuguese explorers. Some thought it was Ophir, a biblical city built by the Queen of Sheba, or the seat of a mythological Christian ruler called Prester John…or even the location of King Solomon’s legendary mines.

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