Friday, May 12, 2017

Jill Pickford - Sing to the Moon

Jill Pickford, Sing to the Moon: Tales from the Kitten Cam, Greater Circle Productions, 2017.

This is a book of short stories, poems, and illustrations relating to the livestreaming kitten cams I have been watching online for about five years. I read some of the stories on the author's blog, KittenKamKattery, when they first appeared. It is good to see them collected and published in a format that, I hope, will reach an audience beyond the cams' dedicated viewers.

The stories revolve around the lives of cats and kittens living in foster care and later in their forever homes. They create a whimsical fantasy of the cats' internal lives and social interactions through two main devices: first, the Great Circle, a way that cats can communicate with each other over great distances through the magic of the moon. Second, the feline afterlife the follows crossing the Rainbow Bridge. These concepts embody two desires of cat lovers: to believe that their cats can communicate with each other, even remotely, so they can keep in touch with relatives adopted elsewhere, and learn from each other; and to believe that their deceased cats have gone to a better place full of pleasure.

The stories are vividly written, charming, and full of emotion. To use the term "sentimental" would imply that they were somehow superficial or exploitative, while in fact they serve a real purpose for the reader, helping to process the genuine emotional impact of loving (and eventually losing) cats. Whether or not readers choose to believe in a feline afterlife or enjoy anthropomorphism of cats, the world created by these stories feels true to something authentic about the nature of cats and the love between humans and their pets. The personalities portrayed, the interactions, and the poignant feelings and lessons are in tune with how we would like to think about our cats.

I recommend this book to cat lovers everywhere, whether they watch online kitten cams or have yet to be introduced to this pleasure.

The kitten cam that started it all is Foster Dad John's Critter Room.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Rescuing foxes from fur farms

Screenshot from Mikayla Raines's Periscope channel
A few months ago, I came across a Periscope channel that broadcasts live videos of foxes at a sanctuary. I immediately became a regular viewer of these videos.

Mikayla Raines rescues foxes from fur farms and provides them with a better life at her fox sanctuary in Minnesota. Most of the foxes come to her as young cubs who have been rejected by their mothers in the fox farm, where conditions are harsh. Mikayla bottle-feeds the cubs and raises them to adulthood. They live in spacious enclosures and have daily exercise and playtime in a large fenced area of woodland. All her foxes are spayed or neutered, receive regular vaccinations and parasite treatments, and are fed on grain-free cat and dog food, fresh meat, and fruits and vegetables. Some of the rescue foxes are eventually adopted as pets by suitable, responsible owners, while others remain in the sanctuary and are sponsored.

Foxes are members of the canine family, but in some ways are more similar to cats. They are not pack animals like wolves or dogs, so it is difficult to train them, as training depends to some extent on an animal's instinct to obey the pack leader.

It is illegal to release foxes born on fur farms into the wild, because they are descended from many generations of foxes raised in captivity, and therefore would probably have trouble surviving in the wild. They lack the experience and instincts to live wild, and their dependence on humans creates two dangers: an inability to fend for themselves and at the same time the risk that their trust could lead them to be harmed by humans who view them as a threat. This is why the rescued foxes need to continue living with humans, either in a sanctuary or as pets.

I have always found the idea of wearing fur abhorrent. The use of animal furs may once have been necessary for survival, but we now have a wide variety of warm materials to use and no longer need to breed and slaughter animals for the sake of clothing. The conditions in which the foxes are kept on fur farms only make this worse. They spend their entire, short lives in tiny cages, never able to run free. Of course, I also oppose fox hunting.

Mikayla is an inspiring role model of an animal rescuer. She started working in animal rescue as a teenager, and currently lives very modestly in a cabin with no electricity on the grounds of her sanctuary. She runs her rescue on donations from followers around the world. Her Periscope broadcasts show her devotion to foxes, her expertise in raising them, and her patience in answering viewers' questions and educating the public about foxes.

In the next few weeks, Mikayla plans to rescue additional newborn fox cubs from the fur farms and raise them in safety. She will devote hours to bottle feeding the cubs, gradually training them to use the litter box, to play and interact with other foxes and with dogs and cats, and to walk on a leash. She sometimes has volunteers helping her, but usually she works alone, maintaining a large rescue by herself. Readers who would like to help can donate money or even sponsor a fox regularly.

Watching this Periscope channel has taught me about another aspect of human-animal relations. Foxes are not domesticated animals, and ideally they should live in the wild and be protected. The public needs to be educated about foxes and how to interact with them. If fur farms eventually become illegal, the foxes that remain there will need to live out their lives in sanctuaries like Mikayla's, or as pets, and eventually there would be no need for humans to breed foxes for any purpose (including as pets), and they would revert to their natural status as wild animals, more like the various species I watch on SafariLive.

In contrast, cats have been domesticated and ideally all cats would live as pampered pets. Until that can happen, feral cat colonies should receive regular feeding and medical care, and be spayed and neutered through TNR programs to reduce their numbers and prevent the suffering of unwanted kittens born in the wild.

The various animal-related channels I have been watching have taught me so much about animal rescue, welfare, and conservation, and about the compassion and empathy of the people involved in such work. I would like to hope that the work of Mikayla and other animal rescuers can inspire others to greater compassion.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

International Women's Day 2017

Today is International Women's Day. I have written about this day in the past, but have a few further thoughts to share.

It seems that recently opinions on many issues have become more polarized and people are more divided. The struggle between progress and traditionalism is becoming more acute, and several aspects of this have implications for women.

While women have been justifiably outraged about the attitudes expressed by US President Trump toward women, to me the most shocking suggestion came during the election campaign. It was reported that some Trump supporters suggested taking away women's right to vote following a projection that without women voters Trump would win the elections, while with women voters Clinton would win. Less than a century after women in the US were finally given this right, it should not be taken for granted.

Those who believe that women already have equality and there is no need for feminism should realize that rights that have been granted can be revoked. The sudden removal of women's voting rights, property rights, and the right to work as described in Margaret Atwood's seminal novel, The Handmaid's Tale, seems to me less unlikely than ever. The so-called "post-factual" and anti-science atmosphere makes it easier for those in power to implement their policies without needing to justify them.

Optimists like the quotation "The arc of moral universe is long, but it tends toward justice" (Martin Luther King). I do believe that there is progress and things are improving, but the arc is not a smooth progression, and there can be setbacks. Just as progress in the West was interrupted by the Dark Ages, moral progress toward justice can take a few steps back, under the influence of traditionalism and religion.

While feminists like to talk about female solidarity and sisterhood, this does not seem to me to reflect reality. Recent trends within feminism have changed the focus from equality of women and men to other issues, such as supporting religious freedom even when those very religious beliefs remove women's equality and freedom, or accusing certain women of being "bad feminists" instead of accepting a diversity of feminist voices and expressions within the overall movement.

I would like to see a return to the basic principles of supporting equality, cooperation, and diversity. This means opposing traditionalism (including religions), the cult of competition, and divisive ideologies (racism, nationalism). We should celebrate what makes us individual, seek out what unifies us all in our shared humanity, and try to minimize the impact of what divides us into groups and categories.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

2017 ITA Conference

This year the ITA Conference was held at ZOA House in Tel Aviv.

On February 14th, the plenary session of the conference was opened by ITA Chair, Danit Ben-Kiki. Her opening greetings mentioned the surveys conducted by the ITA in the past, which revealed that over half the members are female, and that half are aged over 50 and half under 50. The ITA plans to conduct further surveys in the future so the members can contribute their ideas and preferences for its activities.

We then heard Angela Keil, President of AIIC. She stated that translating and interpreting are sister professions, which seemed like a good way of looking at it. She introduced the interpreting track at the conference, which would address various questions about interpreting, including: why is it still needed if everyone speaks English?

The first lecture was by author Yannets Levi, who told us about how his children's book series was translated into various languages, and how each culture addressed various issues in a different way. This demonstrated the different roles children's fiction plays in various cultures. Most of the translations chose to "localize" the books, using names and descriptions that would be familiar to local children, while the Korean translation chose to maintain the Israeli names and features, and also added work sheets at the end of the book. He described how Korean culture admires creativity and holds Israel as an example of a society that produces creative thinkers.

Ifat Israel Kfir spoke about collection, stressing the importance of having a written agreement, and encouraging translators to seek payment in advance. The audience remained skeptical about the possibility of changing business practices, despite being told that our self-perception influences the behaviour of others toward us.

I then attended the Cultural and Literary Track. Shakhar Pelled spoke about translation and theological worldviews. After discussing the approaches of Jerome, Luther, and Cady Stanton, he made some suggestions for translating the Bible in a way that expresses gender equality. For example, he suggested that Elohim is plural rather than masculine, but since Judaism is monotheistic, the word could be expressed as "one-Gods". His approach seemed to me rather idiosyncratic, where his desire to square the Biblical text and theology with his support for gender equality led him to interpret the language in a manner that seems anachronistic and unlikely to reflect the ideas at the time of its writing. This approach would not be helpful for translators working on texts that express a different ideology, and the translator's role is usually seen as expressing the most likely understanding of the original text rather than trying to fit it into their personal worldview.

Alan Clayman discussed the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as a work of "transculturation", since the English translation of the poems from the Persian, published by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859, is far from literal and represents 19th century Romanticism.

The next lecture was a debate between translator Jessica Setbon and her colleague Shira Leibowitz Schmidt. Jessica translated into English the book From Sinai to Ethiopia, by Rabbi Sharon Shalom, which describes the halakhah as practiced by Ethiopian Jews. Shira presented some arguments for not using the term "halakhah" to describe the practices of the Ethiopian community, since they are far from those accepted by mainstream Judaism. Since the author advocated accepting the practices of the older generation while gradually assimilating the younger generation into the mainstream (for those who choose to remain religious), I found the arguments against using the term "halakhah" in this context to be unconvincing and divisive.

Temima Fruchter talked about language as determining our worldview. She mentioned the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (linguistic relativity), and gave some examples from research and some anecdotes showing what seems to me self-evident, that the language people use shapes their view of reality. As bilingual or multi-lingual people, translators have a rich way of viewing reality through various languages and their associated ways of thinking, and can serve to bridge potential misunderstandings between monolingual speakers.

At this point, unfortunately, I felt unwell and had to leave the conference, and was unable to attend the following day. I enjoyed the few lectures I managed to attend this year, and look forward to future conferences.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Watching live safari online

Leopard sleeping in tree. Screenshot from SafariLive.
For the past four or five years, I have been watching live streaming kitten cams that broadcast the lives of foster cats and kittens 24 hours a day. This has taught me a lot about cats, about compassion, about rescue, and about human-cat relations. Recently I have expanded my viewing to another type of live cam.

Safari Live broadcasts live safaris twice a day from the Greater Kruger National Park in South Africa. This is not a 24 hour a day camera in a fixed location, but a live broadcast with presenters every day around sunrise and around sunset. The broadcast is featured on two platforms, YouTube and Periscope. It can be viewed on computers (in any browser) and on mobile devices (in a browser or each platform's app). Each broadcast is three hours long. I don't usually watch the sunrise safari live, but try to watch the sunset broadcast, and if I miss them I can watch later to catch up, skipping through the video to see the parts that interest me most.

Every day at sunrise and in the late afternoon, two teams go out on vehicles and one team walks on foot. Each team includes an experienced safari guide who is the presenter and a camera operator who films the experience. Viewers get to watch live as the guides find various interesting animals and plants to discuss. Unlike nature documentaries, these broadcasts are not edited and not censored, so you get to see what happens in real time, just as if you were there yourself, or better, considering the camera's ability to zoom in on distant animals. Viewers are able to ask questions on twitter or by email, and the guides answer them live. This provides an organic learning experience, where you can learn about nature in context, as you watch it, rather than in the abstract.

The safari guides are both knowledgeable and entertaining, and regular viewers get to know them, their areas of expertise, and their personalities. The camera operators also make their contribution to the experience through their skilled camera work and their assistance in spotting animals. Sometimes a drone provides an aerial view, and sometimes one of the presenters is in a tent where small specimens can be viewed under a microscope.

At the moment, the sunrise safari of Monday mornings is being broadcast live in the US on the Nat Geo Wild television channel on Sunday nights for eight weeks. The first 50 minutes of the sunset safari on weekdays is often broadcast in various elementary schools in North America during the morning there, and the children are able to ask questions. The guides are skilled at explaining nature to people of all ages and levels of knowledge. It always gives me satisfaction when they mention evolution during the time when schools are watching, as I understand that this subject is not taught properly (or at all) in many US schools.

As an animal lover, I welcome this opportunity to see wild animals in their natural surroundings. The animals in the Kruger Park roam freely in a vast area, with minimal intervention by humans. They get used to seeing the vehicles. The staff do not feed the animals or provide veterinary care, except in very specific situations, such as when an animal has been injured as a result of human actions. This means that nature takes its course, with some animals being hunted, or getting injured by accident, or becoming sick, or starving to death. The safari shows all aspects of the circle of life, from birth to death. Viewers learn about the social structures of various species. In some cases, individual animals are given names and followed more closely, so they become stars of the show in a way that is similar to the cats on the kitten cams.

Being a cat person, I was at first particularly attracted to the big cats: leopards, lions, and cheetah. I love watching them and seeing the similarities and differences between these species and domestic cats. I also enjoy seeing the mega fauna: elephants, hippopotamus, and giraffes. There are also canines: African wild dogs and jackals, and other predators such as hyenas. Reptile species include crocodile, monitor lizards, and chameleons. Primates: baboons and vervet monkeys. Other smaller mammals: wart hogs, dwarf mongoose, squirrels, and bush babies. Ruminants such as impala, wildebeest, buffalo, and zebra. Of course, there are many species of birds for bird lovers to admire, and also frogs, tortoises, and terrapins. The guides, especially those walking or in the tent, like to show various insect species and plants.

I enjoy watching the safari for some of the same reasons I enjoy the kitten cams. It is live, uncensored, and unedited, and I can watch the same animals and habitats over many weeks and get to know them in depth. This sort of long-term viewing experience is, for me, the equivalent of reading a novel, while watching short video clips is like short stories or songs. The safari guides are like the foster care providers on the kitten cams, in that they provide insight and education about the things we are watching. The difference is that the broadcasts from the safari always include commentary, while the kitten cams, which are on 24 hours a day, often feature the cats and kittens on their own without human interaction.

However, the safari is in some ways the opposite of the kitten cams, due to the difference between wild animals and domestic pets. The safari is aimed at observing nature without intervening, while the foster care providers work with the kittens and cats to socialize them and make them adoptable, and of course ensure their health and wellbeing. Because cats are domestic animals, humans have a responsibility to give them the best lives possible, as indoor pets where possible, and in non-breeding feral communities for those who cannot be socialized. In contrast, humans' responsibility toward wild animals is to give them back as much of their original habitat as possible, to prevent poaching, and to let them continue to live free as nature intended. The compassion we feel toward cats should lead us to intervene in their lives and help them, while the compassion we feel for wild animals should guide us in the opposite direction, to reduce our intervention in their lives and encroachment on their habitat and to accept them as they really are instead of trying to impose our way of life on them.

One of the reasons for watching the safari is to experience all the aspects of the natural lives of wild animals. It is easy for us humans to romanticize or become sentimental about animals, especially if we think about wild animals as being similar to humans or to domestic pets. I consider myself a sensitive person, but I want to be realistic and rational about nature. This is why I have to learn to accept that life includes death, and predators hunt and kill.

Today I saw a rather upsetting event that tested my resolve to learn about nature and accept wild animals for what they really are. The safari vehicle was following a pack of African wild dogs, a very beautiful and endangered species. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a lioness appeared and killed one of the dogs. This was somehow worse than seeing a big cat hunt a prey animal like an impala, and it upset the safari guide who witnessed it, as these dogs were his favourite species. It took me some time to process my reaction and learn to accept it, and the discussion from the three safari guides helped put things into proportion. The lioness who killed the dogs was the mother of two young cubs, and dogs often hunt lion cubs. So while it was sad to see a dog killed by lions, it would also have been sad to see a lion cub killed by dogs. Such things happen in nature, and it is pointless to become emotional about such deaths. The dogs quickly ran to another area and continued their hunt, and life goes on.

In the same way, I have tried over the years to accept that some of the cats I get to know on the kitten cams might not make it. There have been several kittens who have died, while others have been saved from the brink of death and nursed back to health. With all the best medical care and love and devotion that foster care providers can give, in nature not everyone gets to live a full life. I believe that sensitivity combined with rationality gives us the best outlook on life.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Abigail Tucker - The Lion in the Living Room

Abigail Tucker, The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World, Simon & Schuster, 2016.

This book studies how cats became such a popular animal, and in doing so takes a step back and examines our accepted ideas as objectively as possible. The author is, like me and like most of her readers (presumably), a devoted cat lover. This does not prevent her from uncovering some uncomfortable truths that may make many readers view their love of cats in a different light.

The book first examines the evolution of cats. Unlike the other animals humans have domesticated, cats are completely carnivorous hunters and scavengers. Cats are solitary and independent by nature, and it seems that the only reason they became domestic is that those with a more friendly, confident nature were fed by humans. The book argues, based on research, that cats "domesticated themselves". One change that happened in domestic cats is a reduction in the size of their forebrain, leading to a reduction in fear. Less fearful cats had a survival advantage in human communities, so this trait became reinforced and passed on through the generations.

Traditionally, people have said that humans domesticated cats in order for them to hunt rodents. This utilitarian approach to domestication mirrored the way dogs were bred to serve various purposes in human society, from hunting to guarding to helping disabled humans. However, research has shown that cats are not the great hunters of rodents that people like to think they are. While they do hunt rodents, it was probably never a significant enough contribution to human society to be the main explanation for domestication. There is even a widespread idea that the killing of cats by Catholics in Europe in the middle ages led to a rat-spread plague, when rats multiplied without being culled by cats after their population was reduced. But there is insufficient evidence that enough cats were actually killed to make a difference to the rat population, and new research shows that the Black Death might not have been spread by rat fleas, but by human fleas and by people coughing. Another recent theory suggests that the bias against cats during the middle ages may have resulted from people being allergic to cats, which would have seemed to them like an evil influence.

Cats seem to have become popular with humans because they are similar to human babies. Their faces, with their large eyes, and their size, and even their vocalizations trigger human parenting responses. This is how cats, as a species, became loved despite their questionable utility and their requirement for meat rather than just any leftover food we could offer them.

One of the most controversial issues for cat lovers around the world is the issue of cats hunting various species, often to the point of extinction. While cats may not have hunted rats as successfully as people used to believe, this may be because European rodents co-evolved with them. As cats became popular and followed humans around the world, they adapted to hunt prey animals that had never encountered cats and therefore never learned to fear them. While cat lovers may instinctively prefer cats to other species, it is our responsibility as humans, who have had such an enormous impact on the world, to consider the spread of cats as part of our "meddling" with the biosphere. Reading about the impact of cats on other species has reinforced my support for keeping all pet cats indoors and for humanely reducing the vast population of feral cats through TNR (trap-neuter-return) projects. I feel more ambivalent about actually culling outdoor cats (which is very difficult to achieve), though in some cases I can understand the justification.

Cat lovers around the world are often outraged at any suggestion of restricting cats' freedom of movement. From those who believe pets should be allowed to roam free to those who are upset at anyone even discussing a reduction in the feral population, cat people believe "every cat matters" (the slogan of Purrfect Pals, the shelter for whom Foster Dad John of the Critter Room 24-hour kitten cam volunteers). We are outraged at the very idea of euthanasia for "unadoptable" cats, and prefer to support no-kill shelters that house special needs cats for life. Some of us donate significant amounts to these causes, while others volunteer their time in various ways. It has been argued that TNR can only be effective if around 90 percent or more of a feral colony is spayed and neutered. TinyKittens recently achieved this percentage with its feral colony in the Happy Forest. I have been thrilled by every case where a former feral became adoptable. But when I am honest with myself, I know that cat overpopulation requires a much greater investment of resources. I am also aware that by spaying and neutering feral cats, we provide them with longer, happier, and healthier lives, during which even those who are fed by humans are free to hunt. It is hard to think of a solution that can be humane to both cats and other species.

The book discusses the possible influence of the parasite toxoplasma on human behaviour, and on other species that had not encountered it prior to the arrival of cats and humans. Research even suggests a possible connection between toxoplasma and schizophrenia, though this does not seem to be conclusive. It is worth reading about such research in reputable sources, as the media often misreport such stories in a sensational way.

After a discussion of the ways in which humans have adapted their homes to the needs of indoor pet cats, the author turns to the breeding of domestic cats. To me, this is a slightly distasteful subject, first because selective breeding reminds me of eugenics, and secondly because cat breeds focus on external appearance rather than personality. As cat lovers become increasingly aware of cat overpopulation, it seems frivolous to breed cats for their looks and sell them, sometimes at great cost, to owners who could otherwise have rescued a shelter cat. Then there are the hybrid cats, descended from a crossbreeding of domestic and wild cats. The human desire to have the beautiful fur patterns of a wild cat has unfortunately created domestic cats with wild personalities. The creation of domestic cats unsuitable for domestic life, just for their looks, seems to me a typical example of hubris. I would prefer cat lovers to focus on "normal" cats and to give their love to rescued and perhaps former feral cats.

The book concludes, fittingly, with a discussion of cats and their online presence and celebrity status. As a cat person, I was happy to discover the popularity of cats online, but as time went on, I tired of the silly photo captions in LOLspeak. I discovered kitten cams, and over the past five years or so have received an extensive education in all things cat-related from watching these 24-hour, uncensored webcams. I also find it offensive when some celebrity cats are exploited to give their owners lives of luxury. If you want to make your cat famous, the least you can do (as some owners of celebrity cats indeed do) is donate generously to help cat shelters, fund research into feline diseases, and educate the public about cats.

This is one of the most enlightening books about cats I have read, and it is always good to see authors relying on recent research. It is written in the style of investigative journalism, with the author taking us on her journey of discovery as she interviews experts. It raises questions that cat lovers may find unsettling, and that is a good thing. We need to see reality as it is, and understand that our love of cats has wide-reaching implications throughout the world. What we can do about it is a complicated question, which I hope many readers will keep in mind.