Friday, March 23, 2018

No, It's Not a Garbage Patch

An ex-Angeleno, I once lived in Silverlake, and I thought the story was interesting.

Ivanhoe Reservoir Covered With 400,000 Black Plastic Balls

In 2007, the Department of Water Protection in Los Angeles detected high levels of bromate, a carcinogen that forms when bromide and chlorine react with sunlight, in Los Angeles’s Ivanhoe Reservoir. Bromide is naturally present in groundwater and chlorine is used to kill bacteria, but sunlight is the final ingredient in the potentially harmful mix. The 102-year-old facility serves about 600,000 customers downtown and in South Los Angeles. When the Department of Water Protection realized the problem, they began construction of a new underground reservoir in Griffith Park, but while the new facility was being built they had to determine a way to keep the sunlight out of the water. 


The possibility of tarps and metal coverings were explored but they were either too expensive or will take too long to install. So one of the DWP's biologists, Brian White, suggested "bird balls," commonly used by airports to prevent birds from congregating in wet areas alongside runways. The balls are made of polyethylene and cost only 40 cents each. The coating contains carbon and black is the only color strong enough to deflect ultraviolet rays. 

400,000 balls were dropped into the reservoir on June 2008, where they will remain for the next four to five years until the new underground reservoir is completed.

[via LATimes]

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Ivanhoe Reservoir’s shade balls are going away very soon

Crews could take them out this week
A 2008 photo of the balls rolling into the reservoir.
Irfan Khan/Getty Images
The Ivanhoe Reservoir is having its balls removed, perhaps as soon as this week, the Eastsider LA reports. The floating “shade balls” were dumped into the reservoir in Silver Lake in 2008. They were added to keep sunlight from hitting the water and to help stop potentially harmful chemical reactions.
The balls were also nicknamed bird balls, since they have the added benefit of keeping birds and their poop out of the water. Because the Ivanhoe Reservoir’s water was being used as drinking water, that was an issue. 

The four-inch balls were introduced into the reservoir in a grand display almost nine years ago. At the time, it was expected they’d stay in place for about three to five years, when the water was expected to be moved to Griffith Park’s Headworks, an underground water storage facility that would replace the open-air Ivanhoe and Silver Lake storage. 

An LADWP spokeswoman told Eastsider that the reservoir has been drained, and there’s only about two feet of water left in it now. The water was used to refill the Silver Lake Reservoir. That reservoir should be refilled way ahead of schedule, thanks to a surplus of snowmelt in the Eastern Sierras. 

The drained reservoir. Photo by Gary Leonard.
Courtesy of Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell
Before the balls go, some Silver Lakers, including Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, jumped into the reservoir like it was a Chuck E. Cheese ball pit and had a grand old time.
Photos by Gary Leonard.
Courtesy of Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell
The Ivanhoe isn’t the only shade ball repository in LA. In 2015, the city put about 96 million of the little plastic balls into Sylmar’s Los Angeles Reservoir.  

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Hundreds of Angelenos Celebrate Opening of Silver Lake South Dam Walkway  (LA Dept. of Water & Power)  February 10, 2018

Los Angeles-The Silver Lake Dam Walkway was officially opened to the public on Saturday, February 10, in a ceremony at the south end of the Silver Lake Reservoir Complex that featured Mayor Garcetti, Congressman Adam Schiff (28th District), Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell (CD 13), Board of Water and Power Commission President Mel Levine and LADWP’s Chief Operating Officer Marty Adams, and other staff and guests.

The event drew hundreds of enthusiasts from the community who gathered in cool temperatures to enjoy a walk across the new Walkway, and then onward for about 2.2 miles around the inside perimeter of the Reservoir Complex which, ordinarily, is not open to the public.

The new Walkway is a component of the Silver Lake Reservoir Complex Improvement Projects, a series of measures that are being implemented after feedback from local residents. Construction on the walkway itself began in Fall 2017 and was completed in late January. The Walkway stretches across the south dam between two existing gates and will be open to the public every day from dawn to dusk. Another Walkway across a dam at Ivanhoe Reservoir is scheduled to be completed in Fall 2018.

Yezo Deer

Spring in Yezo deer’s step after hard winter, but danger never far

The Asahi Shimbun  by Masatoshi Narayama/ Staff Writer  March 23, 2018

A herd of Yezo deer graze peacefully in Wakkanai, Hokkaido, at sunset on March 21 with Mount Rishirizan, nicknamed Mount Rishiri Fuji, seen in the background. (Masatoshi Narayama)

WAKKANAI, Hokkaido--After making it through a bitter winter, a herd of wild Yezo deer graze peacefully in a field here where the snow has finally thawed.

An estimated 700 to 800 deer in numerous groups of between 10 and 30 were seen dispersed in spots along tens of kilometers of road in the Sarobetsu wilderness on the Sea of Japan coast on the evening of March 21.

Some of the graceful creatures strolled on the beach on the edge of the wilderness, which is in the Soya district, northern Hokkaido.

It snowed so much this winter that the deer were forced to eat tree bark to survive.

Although spring has arrived, the graceful animals cannot get too comfortable. They are doomed to be targeted through March 31 as hunters move through the Soya district after pursuing deer on the coast in the season there that ended Feb. 28.

Even after the hunters have departed, Yezo deer will remain exposed to the risk of being killed as authorities and farmers seek to control their numbers to protect crops and the natural environment, and to lower risks of road accidents.

A herd of Yezo deer move to a beach searching for grass to graze on in Wakkanai, Hokkaido, on the evening of March 21. (Masatoshi Narayama)

Yezo deer graze in a field where the snow has just started to melt in Toyotomi, Hokkaido, on March 21. (Masatoshi Narayama) 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

California Baldies

‘These Eagles Are More Than Just a Symbol’

A bald eagle near Big Bear Lake, in the San Bernardino National Forest, in 2016. Credit Robin Eliason/United States Forest Service
Visitors at six lakes in the San Bernardino National Forest and two California state parks come with notebooks, cameras and spotting scopes. The forest service keeps the public about a quarter mile away from nesting sites; land adjacent is closed off, so that eagles won’t feel threatened and abandon their young.

On a recent cool morning here, mallards flew overhead, pelicans swam on the lake, coots picked bugs out of the mud, and a lone doe sauntered through tall grass. A half dozen birders looked on as a pair of nesting eagles traded places before stretching their wings over the misty waters, snagging a fish.

At nearby Big Bear Lake, elementary students and skiers and snowboarders often turn up for the count. Workshops and slide shows mix education with entertainment, and participants get a chance to assist in the field.

This year, 15 bald eagles were spotted: 10 adults, three juveniles and two chicks, month-old youngsters who hatched live on a webcam in February. While 15 eagles may not sound like a lot, this species has been a surprising conservation success in a state suffering droughts and sprawling metropolises.
Federal Forest Service workers reviewed eagle counts in the San Bernardino National Forest in January. Credit United States Forest Service
Fifteen years ago, most bald eagles were winter residents, arriving inland during the January through August mating seasons, eagles follow the paths of migratory waterfowl.

But lately, eagle numbers are a bit down. “In a typical winter, I usually see three to four eagles between my house and work,” said Robin Eliason, the forest service biologist who has led the overall program since 1989. But lately, “I haven’t seen any of those eagles.”

The decline could be due to warmer winters, she added. Eagles find more prey on these lakes when it’s colder. An onslaught of severe weather hasn’t helped, either: the state has suffered a long drought sandwiched between torrential rain and inland flooding, plus the worst wildfires in California’s 167-year-history.

Bald eagles are historically more Californian than most Hollywood stars. They were brought to the brink of extinction in the 1970s, victims of the pesticide DDT, which killed thousands of birds.
California’s population hung on in the Channel Islands, a rocky archipelago off the coast of Los Angeles, where dozens were relocated for breeding and release programs throughout the 1980s. Nesting pairs have since spread across the state. In 1977, bald eagles nested in eight of the state’s 58 counties. Today, they are found in 41 counties.
Bald eagles nesting at Big Bear Lake, Calif., earlier this year. From left: on Jan. 7, Feb. 13 and March 7.Credit Friends of Big Bear Valley, via United States Forest Service
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s main recovery goal was a minimum 800 breeding pairs in seven Western states. The agency believes it has achieved twice that amount, roughly 1,000 in California and 10,000 such pairs in other Western states.

California’s bald eagles have been seen as far as Northern Canada, 2,000 miles away, before returning home. It’s hard for a bird to pass up the state’s temperate clime and stable prey sources. Weighing between 4 to 8 ounces at birth, bald eagles can reach 40 years old in the wild. (In 2015, a tagged eagle died at 38 years old in New York State.)

Many of the birds here are residents, while others fly in every year to escape winter elsewhere and then leave, which makes them truly snowbirds.

Removed from the threatened and endangered species list in 2007, although still endangered in California, these eagles continue to be protected by federal and state agencies. It’s illegal to own so much as a bald eagle feather.

For bird nerds and eagle maniacs interested in seeing these living symbols of American, Dr. Bowers suggests simple tips.

“Remain at a respectable distance,” she said. “Bald eagles do become agitated when people are close and they’re in breeding season. Have binoculars. It wouldn’t hurt to not wear bright clothing.”

“And bring a lawn chair. People love these birds.”

Green Burial

Thinking About Having a ‘Green’ Funeral? Here’s What to Know

Credit Gerry Melendez/State of Columbia, via Associated Press
A typical American funeral usually involves a few hallmarks we’ve come to expect: an expensive coffin, lots of flowers, an embalming for the deceased and a number of other add-ons.

But how necessary are those embellishments? Enter the “green burial.”

The specifics of a green burial vary widely, but typically they require far fewer resources for the care of the body and skip a number of the traditional steps, making them better for the environment. Plus, they can save families on funeral costs.

Interest in these pared-down, eco-friendly options has grown as people look for ways to cut their carbon footprint. Nearly 54 percent of Americans are considering a green burial, and 72 percent of cemeteries are reporting an increased demand, according to a survey released earlier this year by the National Funeral Directors Association.

Death planning may not be at the top of your mind, but if you’re curious about looking into a green burial, here’s what to know.


What exactly is a green burial?


The Green Burial Council’s steps for minimizing negative environmental effects include forgoing embalming, skipping concrete vaults, rethinking burial containers and maintaining and protecting natural habitat. Choices can be made at each step of the death care process to limit waste, reduce the carbon footprint and even nourish the local ecosystem.

Embalming, vaults and coffins can be expensive, with the national median cost of a funeral reaching upward of $8,500, according to the N.F.D.A. Replacing them with other options or scrapping them altogether can save money as well as the environment, since you’re not spending on extraneous items or putting them into the ground.

The extent of how “green” a burial can be is up to the individual; the service can be as simple as wrapping the deceased in a cotton shroud before lowering them into the ground. The services can also become more complicated, involving a memorial ceremony and burial in a conservation park like Washington’s Greenacres, where families can choose to plant a variety of plants, flowers and shrubs on the grave.

These aren’t entirely new ideas — the funeral traditions of many religions, for example, are in line with these steps.


Why would I want one?


Death planning is a deeply personal and often unpleasant topic, so reasons for choosing one type of burial over another are as varied as you can imagine. But for many people who opt for a green burial, it can come down to cost, environmental impact and legacy.

Since burial costs vary not just state to state but cemetery to cemetery, hybrid cemeteries — or those offering both conventional and green burials — offer a balanced look at the financial aspect of death. According to the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit that encourages environmentally sustainable death care, most hybrid cemeteries report that graves intended for green burial cost “the same or somewhat less” than their conventional counterparts; after the costs of vaults, coffins and embalming are factored in, the savings a green burial offers are “significant.”

The reason others choose green burial is right in the name: It’s environmentally friendly. Green burials do away with both the embalming chemicals and the extraneous cement, steel or other non-biodegradable materials conventional burials put into the earth, and lack the carbon footprint of cremation, which has been calculated to be the equivalent of a 500-mile car journey.

Perhaps the most personal reason of all is one where the idea of green burial simply speaks to a person. They might find comfort in their body “returning to nature,” or want to take part in a conservation burial, where burial fees are also used to cover land protection, restoration and management. “Not only does conservation burial help protect land, but the burial area becomes hallowed ground, restored to its natural condition and protected forever with a conservation easement,” explains the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery. “Citizens who support conservation are offered a more meaningful burial option with the certainty that protected land is the ultimate legacy to leave for future generations.”


But isn’t embalming necessary?


Generally speaking, no. Embalming — the preservation of human remains for public display through the use of a chemical mixture that delays decomposition and makes the body “look natural” — is more of a cosmetic procedure than a public health safeguard.

“The easy elimination in traditional funerals is embalming,” said Amber Carvaly, a service director at California’s Undertaking LA, referring to how to lessen a funeral’s environmental impact.

“It’s almost exhausting at this point to argue with people in the industry on whether it is good or bad,” she said. “You took a body that would have decomposed naturally, you put chemicals in it and a huge part that is left out is that most of the chemicals don’t stay in the body: They are flushed down the drain when they are let back out of the body’s arterial system.”

Still, popular culture tends to reinforce the idea that embalming is a necessary step: Just about 48 percent of people are aware that embalming isn’t needed for a cremation service, according to the N.F.D.A.’s consumer survey.

Jeff Jorgenson, who owns Elemental Cremation and Burial in Washington, said forgoing embalming is a crucial part of green burials.

Instead, he suggested asking for dry ice or Techni-ice, a refrigeration unit, or a nontoxic embalming agent. You can also keep (or bring) the body home and cool it with fans, cooling blankets or open windows.

“Traditional funeral directors will frequently talk about how mom or dad won’t look very good” if the bodies aren’t embalmed, Mr. Jorgenson said. Instead, he has found that families are thankful that his company doesn’t perform embalming “because it feels like there is more room for closure.”


Cremation or burial?


Here is what Americans put in the ground each year through traditional burials: 20 million feet of wood, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluids, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete, 17,000 tons of copper and bronze, and 64,500 tons of steel, according to the Green Burial Council.

Green burials eliminate much of this waste by leaving out almost all of those materials; most bodies are simply wrapped in shrouds made from a biodegradable material like cotton and placed in the ground. And although cremations often have the reputation as being an eco-friendly option, they tend to have an outsize carbon footprint.

(A third option, called alkaline hydrolysis or aquamation, in which water pressure accelerates the decomposition of soft tissues, uses less energy than cremation but is only legal in 14 states.)

Each option has its pros and cons, and it’s important to consider your situation. If you’re attentive to your carbon footprint, cremation in your hometown might still be a better choice than using a green cemetery hours away, and certain funeral homes have ways to offset the environmental hit, like working with organizations on strategic reforestation processes, Mr. Jorgenson said.

Should you go with cremation, there is one final factor to consider: What to do with the remains.

“Even scattering small amounts can be hazardous in a delicate environment such as an alpine environment or vernal pool,” said Michelle Acciavatti of Ending Well, a service that guides families all over the country through their end-of-life options.

Instead of scattering, try Let Your Love Grow, a product that turns ashes into plantable soil for a memorial flower or tree. Another option is Eternal Reefs, which hold cremated remains in an underwater cement ball and create new marine habitats for fish and other sea life.


A ‘green’ burial by any other name


While cremation is a straightforward option, a green burial encapsulates a wider range of decisions, from how to where. If there aren’t green cemeteries where you live, there are still plenty of ways to minimize the burial process’s environmental impact.

Substitute concrete vaults and toxic burial containers for coffins made with sustainably harvested wood and organic liners, and check if products or components were transported over long distances, which can increase the carbon footprint.

You also shouldn’t feel limited by what a funeral home is selling you — by federal law, they’re required to accept a coffin provided by the customer at no extra charge. Or skip the coffin altogether. A shroud made from organic, biodegradable cotton can be purchased through your funeral home or online, or even at the local fabric store.


A growing movement


When it comes to green burials, funeral professionals say the biggest challenge is a lack of awareness and resources.

“Thinking about the impact of disposition on the environment is a new idea,” Ms. Acciavatti said. “And, I would say the other big issue is access: Even though there are over 150 green cemeteries in the U.S. and Canada, there still aren’t enough.”

Ms. Acciavatti and many others in the industry believe that educating the public as well as continuing to invest in green practices helps not just the environment, but humans, too.

“It’s always really rewarding when someone says, ‘I’d really like to return to the earth.’” she said. “And I get to say, ‘I can help you do that.’”


Interested? Start here


The Green Burial Council’s website has information, a list of providers and additional resources for people interested in green burial.

The Order of the Good Death, a collective of funeral professionals, academics and artists, has an informative page about green burials.

Looking for a green burial for you and your pet? Visit the Green Pet-Burial Society.

The Nature of the Beast

from: The Times Literary Supplement  Jennie Erin Smith  Mar. 20, 2018

© Dollia Sheombar/Getty Images

Cows with character

A quarter of a century ago, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas wrote a gripping account of spying on her dogs as they roamed free in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her book The Hidden Life of Dogs, which described the pack’s surprising doings when humans weren’t in the picture, became a durable bestseller. Its author was not shy about what she felt she had accomplished. “I have always wanted to enter into the consciousness of a nonhuman creature”, she wrote.

There’s been no abatement since then of popular books that purport to expose the secret or hidden lives of animals. Thomas went on to write about cats and deer, but there are owls, octopuses, elephants, toads, bees, flies and even lobsters among recent offerings.

While the newer books tend to hang their cases on a growing body of scientific findings in animal behaviour, evolutionary biology and neuroscience, they all touch on age-old questions about consciousness and subjective experience. And because the invitation to journey into an animal’s mind requires at least a minor leap of faith, most writers will attempt to frame, or pre-empt, any concerns about anthropomorphism. Thomas brushed those off on evolutionary grounds, arguing that it is unscientific to draw too bold a line between our own mental experience and that of other animals, especially mammals, because our neural and hormonal networks evolved along similar pathways. That out of the way, she pronounced one dog pair husband and wife.

Rosamund Young’s The Secret Life of Cows, originally published in 2003, has overtones of Thomas’s classic, relying more on its author’s intimacy with her subject than on scientific scaffolding. “I have told the stories exactly as they happened but of course the interpretation of the actions of the ‘characters’ is mine”, Young writes in her introduction, challenging readers to take it or leave it.

Young’s characters are her cows, which she raises for meat on an organic farm in the Cotswolds. These Ayrshires and Herefords have long enjoyed privileges that modern factory farming would deny them. They have ample pasture, and express distinct preferences as to where to roam, what to eat, and whose company to keep. They seek out certain plants, especially willow, to eat when they’re feeling ill; they are “siblings, cousins, friends or sworn enemies”, Young writes. They are named after poets, royals, clergy and emperors. They are, above all, individuals who make choices all day long.

Young believes that the appearance of behavioural uniformity among cows, pigs, even chickens, is an upshot of factory farming. Animals and people can seem to lose their identities if forced to live in “unnatural, crowded, featureless” or boring conditions, she writes. On her farm mothers remain with their calves, sometimes enlisting female relatives as babysitters. (One cow named Charlotte did not take naturally to motherhood, Young writes, and her calf, Calpurnia, “was not permitted to suckle milk from her debutante-type mother who announced straight away that the nanny could bring up the brat”.)

It doesn’t really matter that Young’s depictions of her cows as expressing such complex cognitive states as bafflement, gratitude, or feigned ignorance when she’s scolding them fall outside the scope of the empirically demonstrable. Through decades of close observation, Young has uncovered many fascinating and unknown behaviours. As she acknowledges, however, these can be hard to separate cleanly from her imagination, or ours.

The German forester Peter Wohlleben shares Young’s conviction that animal beh­aviour is often rooted in individual character and choice. In The Inner Life of Animals, a follow-up to his book on trees, Wohlleben’s subjects are woodland creatures: red deer, squirrels, boar, mice and ravens, along with domestic animals he has raised. He has seen courageous fawns, depressed does, conniving roosters. Unlike Young, he is anxious to show that his observations are objectively valid. To give them heft, he highlights findings from the past decade or so, many of them by German and Austrian researchers.

Writing about bees, Wohlleben recalls his experience as a keeper to attest that “there’s a lot more going on inside their little heads” than the conventional wisdom would have it. Bees will attack people who have annoyed them in the past, while allowing trusted ones to approach, he says. He cites research by a Berlin neurobiologist that subverts the old notion that a hive of bees acts as a collective super-organism. In fact, individual bees are capable of a limited form of decision-making and planning, Wohlleben writes, and they are “self-aware”.

Wohlleben is especially sensitive to how certain species perceive hunger and cold, and to their pain and trauma. He reports encoun­tering on his winter walks the nests of wood mice that have been plundered by martens, which steal the rodents’ food and often help themselves to a mouse or two in the process. “What must that have been like for the other mice?” he wonders. Were they simply afraid of the marten, “or did they also realize that its activities caused one of their own to suffer?” He turns to a Canadian study showing that, as he suspected, mice become highly stressed when suffering is inflicted on another member of their group.

It requires a certain cognitive dissonance to cite scientific paper after paper in support of your own conclusions, then to malign scientists. According to Wohlleben, scientists write in dry, academic language that “rarely leads to a better understanding of the subject”; they demand “proof” of animal feelings that cannot reasonably exist. Even the term “mating” to describe the sex life of animals seems cold and inadequate to him.

It is not a fair characterization. Ever since Charles Darwin argued for seeing mental experience across a continuum in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), biologists have had to navigate between reading too much into an animal’s actions and ascribing everything to conditioning or instinct. The pendulum has swung many times between generosity and parsimony, but the evidence now supports an ever-richer range of emotional experience, even as some canards get debunked (dogs don’t look at you pathetically because they’re feeling guilty; it’s because you’re yelling at them).

Creationists, too, are often accused of diminishing animal experience, just as they did when Darwin first made his case for it. The naturalist and broadcaster Lucy Cooke, taking a longer historical view, finds that Christians paved the way for many egregious anthropomorphic projections. In The Unexpected Truth about Animals, each of Cooke’s thirteen breezy yet fact-stuffed chapters traces the origins of a long-standing myth about a species or class of animal. Cooke identifies a pattern. An ancient observer, such as Aristotle or Pliny the Elder, described the animal in a way that may have been inaccurate, but at least attempted to be truthful. The reported traits were later seized on by writers of medieval bestiaries, who were only interested in allegory. When natural history began its comeback in the eighteenth century, naturalists such as Linnaeus and the Comte de Buffon tried to separate received wisdom from what they were observing, and often simply couldn’t.

In some cases, Cooke finds, ancient distortions have persisted into recent history. The spotted hyena, whose females have penis-like genitals, was deemed a coward and a herm­aphrodite by the Greeks. The hermaphrodite rumour stands to reason, but the coward part came not from the hyena’s behaviour – it is a skilled hunter – but from Aristotle’s theory that size of an animal’s heart determines its bravery. Christian writers rendered the hyena not merely a coward but a “dirty brute”, a pervert, and a cadaver-eating fiend that lived in sepulchres. These slanders were promoted as late as the nineteenth century by celebrated naturalists, and a textbook on mammals from the 1960s still described hyenas as cowards.

Cooke’s chapter on beavers shows an especially knotty trajectory. Once hunted for their musk glands, which look like testes, they were alleged by the Greeks to castrate themselves when cornered. 

Christian writers took from this a handy lesson: man must cut off the source of his vice to live in peace. During the colonization of North America, which was full of beavers, allegations of wise self-castration gave way to reports of utopian beaver societies. Buffon extracted from colonists’ accounts to laud the beavers’ “moderate appetites”, “simple taste” and aversion to “blood and carnage” in an essay with the hallucinatory qualities of a secular bestiary.

And then came the backlash, when later French naturalists, more deeply influenced by the mechanistic philosophy of Descartes, deemed the beaver to be no more than a living automaton, acting entirely on instinct. It has since taken a lot of time, and experiments, to untangle what motivates a beaver. Behaviourists have revealed beavers to be instinctive in certain ways – they start to build whenever they hear running water, for example – while also being learners and problem-solvers. Cooke concurs with the late researcher Donald Griffin, a more liberal interpreter of animal cognition, who argued that the beaver “thinks consciously in simple terms about its situation, and how its behaviour may produce desired changes in its environment”.

The author praises the scientists who, in the wake of pioneers like Griffin, have revealed “tool-wielding octopi [sic], problem-solving pigeons, counting crows and communicative parrots” – redefining how we think about how animals think, and making us less dependent on the philosophical and theological constructs that have hamstrung us in the past. With each new discovery, she writes, “the boundaries we have created around our uniqueness, century after century, continue to fade”. But Cooke is adamant that the anthropomorphising tendency remains “our major undoing”.

The old moral codes and allegories are perpetuated, Cooke alleges, in the popular press and on natural history programmes. A documentary about penguins (March of the Penguins, 2005) was seized on by evangelical Christians who saw in it a lesson about sacrifice, fidelity and family when really, Cooke says, a penguin will have sex with the frozen head of a dead compatriot if it must. Painting animals with an “artificial ethical brush” denies us the astonishing diversity of life.

Another creature’s experience is different, and we do not know how it is different”, writes Daisy Hildyard in The Second Body. This playful and original essay touches on the limits of our ability to imagine that experience. Hildyard, a novelist who was trained as a historian of science, tries to find the ways we intuit boundaries between our bodies and our ecosystems, between ourselves and other animals.

To be an animal, Hildyard writes, is to be in possession of a physical body that can eat, drink and sleep. That body “makes individual choices and has individual thoughts”. The other is entirely without boundaries, integrated with other forms of life and whole ecosystems near and far. To be a living thing, then, “is to exist in two bodies”. Nonetheless, she notes, “this is not how it feels on the ground”.

Hildyard describes a sort of horror in having to view the body and its components as intertwined, permeable, shared. Even scientists, she finds, have a tough time getting to grips with humans as a bona fide part of an ecosystem; ecology textbooks describe us as like a “climatic or divine” force – we disturb, we damage. But where, she wonders, do we belong?

The author attempts to integrate insights from experts she interviews – evolutionary biologists, microbiologists, in one case a butcher – with her own lived experience with what she calls “the collective global animal body”. She remembers that as a child she got a pheasant to respond to her calls, giving her a welcome sense of belonging to its world, even if she was unsure what the bird was communicating. On another occasion, she found herself recoiling after discovering the dried-up tail of a fox, instantly knowing that “its flesh was not my flesh”. She felt a similar apprehension decades later when a nearby river rose and flooded her house in North Yorkshire, bringing “the whole of animal life” inside: fish, bacteria, strange slug-like creatures. The second body colliding with the first.

All this seems to prompt the question of why, if so much of life is transferable and shared, the consciousness of another creature is so hard to access. In lieu of conclusions Hildyard leaves us with paradoxes. Species boundaries are an illusion. Individual life is an illusion. Animal bodies circulate uncontained. Our cells have more in common with fungi than we’d care to admit. All that said, she writes, “let’s not waste time posing philosophical questions about whether you are a dungfly”.

It has long been thought that the urge to get inside an animal’s head, however incompletely or inadequately, is innate to humans. In his wonderfully clear-eyed book The Animals Among Us, the behaviourist John Bradshaw presents a trove of evidence for anthropomorphism as a hard-wired compulsion, and not merely a sentimental expression. He finds it in the relationships between people and our pets.

The mentalizing trait that allowed humans to become good hunters some 50,000 years ago came with a corollary desire to relate to animals on other levels, including by taming wild individuals and bringing them into the home, Bradshaw says. While the pet-keeping tendency has waxed and waned according to economic, religious and cultural norms, some form of it has existed nearly as long as we diverged from our hominid ancestors. We’ve recruited many of the same species all the while, especially cute, furry ones.

Bradshaw is a researcher who has worked for much of his career on questions of dog and cat welfare. His field, anthrozoology, looks specifically at the relationships between people and a handful of domestic animals, mainly dogs, cats and horses. He is, as they say, an animal person. Even so, he takes a deeply sceptical view of a huge range of claims that have been made (and are now widely accepted by society, if not by science) for the physical and mental benefits of pet-keeping. “The belief that pets are not simply companions but have the power to educate us, console us, and even to prevent us from becoming sick has become all-pervasive”, he writes, and then goes on to show how little of it holds water.

Cats and dogs don’t make us better people. Children who are violent to pets do not have a higher likelihood of becoming violent to people as adults, studies have found, and those who are kind to animals will not necessarily be kind to humans. Some types of childhood allergies are exacerbated by pets, while others can be prevented. Petting a dog or cat will cause a temporary drop in blood pressure, but having one in the house has not been shown to reduce strokes or heart attacks. It is far from certain whether the psychological benefits seen with therapy dogs in nursing homes is because of the dog or its cheery handler.

Only for narrowly defined circumstances is there evidence that a pet can enhance human health and well-being, Bradshaw finds. A pet acquired specifically for a child with autism can prompt him or her to communicate better with family and peers, while a pet that was in the child’s home all the while may not do the trick.

Why, in an age of supposed reason, “have a few kinds of domestic animals become imbued with almost mystical powers?” What in human nature wants so desperately to believe in the healing powers of pets? Bradshaw asks. His answer is that we’re not behaving rationally at all, but instead are engaged in mental gymnastics around an innate adaptive urge, one that would have benefited our ancestors’ survival. Precisely how pet-keeping could be adaptive is difficult to pin down, and Bradshaw’s case rests on a few big assumptions, some of them derived from studies of modern hunter-gatherer cultures. Were women who behaved in a motherly way towards pet animals really preferred as brides, as he suggests? Regardless of how it first took hold, the anthropomorphic tendency means that we are stuck “with brains that our ancestors evolved in a world in which wild animals played a huge part”, and, by extension, with emotional support pigs.

Elena Passarello’s Animals Strike Curious Poses is an arresting book of essays, which might better be called short stories, imagining the moments in our history when animals got into our collective neocortex, and how they transformed us and we transformed them.

Each chapter spins a yarn around a single, iconic animal, beginning with a 39,000-year-old mammoth found just a few years ago in Siberia. The frozen animal, named Yuka by its discoverers, showed marks not only of a fight with a lion, but also of opportunistic butchering by humans. Here is how Passarello envisions the hunter: “To be a human on the steppe was to hold a codex of every muscle in a lion’s neck, a bison’s spine, a caballine flank running to safety. Before it became anything else, a human brain was first an almanac of living shapes changing in the passing light”. To steal the injured mammoth from the lion, “he becomes the lion”, Passarello writes. “He finds the rhythm of the lion inside him and brings it forward.”

All these millennia later Yuka is not extinct. She “reinflates inside the humans that touch her as a circus pachyderm or an elephantine nursery toy”, an ancestral memory “buried not in the brain, but in marrow and fiber and peptide”. There are many evolutionary and anthropological arguments swirled into a breathless narrative here.

Over seventeen chapters modelled, like Cooke’s book, after a medieval bestiary, Passarello treats Jumbo the Elephant; Clever Hans; Mozart’s beloved pet starling; Harriet, the Galapagos tortoise that returned on HMS Beagle; Cecil the Lion. Her writing indulges some tortured constructions now and then, and every so often a whole chapter falls flat.

But no human or animal figure in these stories is beneath the author’s sympathetic attentions, not even the much-maligned bestiary writers who in her telling were “learned men” who had “kept track of the nature of things since the time of their amphitheater”. Their versions of events are not irrational, she finds. 

The sins of the wolf are “the sins of rogues, apostates, and highwaymen”, because that’s quite how the wolf lurking at the gates of Gubbio behaved before Francis of Assisi came to reason with it. “Choose one creature to honor, the books said, and one to hope you’ll never let inside yourself. Be the pilgrim, not the highwayman. Be the lamb and not the wolf.”

Passarello sees in Clara – the rhinoceros that toured Europe in the eighteenth century – an animal whose reality could not dislodge the memory of Albrecht Dürer’s 1515 engraving of one. Dürer had of course never seen a rhinoceros in the flesh; his came with an extra horn and looked as if it was covered in armour. When a French artist painted the docile, soft, pink-tinged Clara from life, the image failed to excite, Passarello finds, because it “amplifies a basic limitation: the barrier that a natural animal body presents to human understanding. We humans can only go so far toward another ‘real’ creature”. Better suited to us, she says, is the ill-executed beast of Dürer, an image “twisted by the facts of human anxiety and awe” that retained its appeal long after Clara came and went.

In her chapter on Mozart’s starling, Elena Passarello takes a side trip into modern neuroscience, weighing humans’ ability to relate to a class of creatures whose brains evolved on a separate track from ours. She recounts with a healthy sense of divine weirdness the twin mysteries of Mozart’s brain and the starling’s. Three years after buying the bird, seemingly for its compelling, changing song, Mozart organized an elaborate funeral for it. It was an honour he did not extend to his own father, who had died just weeks before.

“Why buy a bird? Why bury it and not your father?” the author asks. “Is it even possible to bond with a creature only by the sound it makes? We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.”