MAD DOG: Talk to the Animals
As humans, it's our God given right to look down on the so-called lower forms of life such as animals, vegetables, and the people who approved this year's batch of new TV shows. After all, it's a scientific fact that our brains are more highly developed, our culture is more sophisticated, and we don't sit around picking lice off each others' heads. Well, unless you have children in grade school. But that doesn't mean we can't learn something from those species which are less fortunate than ourselves.Take Keiko the whale. Go ahead, he'll be needing a new home soon and you do, after all, have that spare room. Keiko, in case you've been too busy trying to sell your stock in Roger Maris' How to Hit a Home Run video company to read a newspaper, is the whale that starred in the movie Free Willy which, contrary to what Siskel and the other guy may have led you to believe, wasn't about President Clinton's propensity to drop his pants at a moment's notice.Keiko's movie career was a short one because he unfortunately found himself typecast as, well, a whale. That made it difficult for him to find parts, being passed up for roles like the iceberg in Titanic, a pig's best friend in Babe 2, and the lead in The Roseanne Story.As happens to all has-beens, Keiko's being put out to pasture, which if you're a whale is the ocean off Iceland. They flew him to an enclosed pen there so they can teach him how to live on his own -- kind of a halfway house for whales. Once he's ready they'll release him in -- get this! -- the only part of the world where they still hunt whales. That's right. These are the same people who wouldn't think twice about turning Bambi out in the woods during open season.Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Some people think spending millions of dollars flying Keiko to Iceland in a UPS plane is a waste of money and that he could be put to better use by being slaughtered and fed to starving people in Sudan. Steinar Bastesan, a Norwegian legislator who used to be the head of his country's whaler's association says, "We don't need another whale up here; we have plenty." Bastesan obviously believes in the sanctity of the food chain. Unlike here in the United States where maintaining the food chain means going to McDonald's, in Norway they still use the traditional definition: every animal has a natural enemy and predator which eats it. Well, except humans. No one eats us. No one other than, say, Jeffrey Dahmer, but we like to think of him as a mutation rather than the next step in evolution.We can also learn a lot from birds. For years scientists believed many birds mated for life and were faithful to their partners. Of course, being scientists, we took what they said to be true. Just because in the past scientists told us that the planets revolve around the earth, bloodletting can cure the common cold, and Tang was related to orange juice doesn't mean we shouldn't trust everything that comes out of their mouths. Unless it's the Tang they tried to choke down.Well, a new study from the respected journal Science (motto: "ZZZzzz") says that only about 10 percent of socially monogamous birds are sexually faithful to their spouses. In other words, birds of a feather flock with whoever catches their fancy. Even among primates it turns out that only two species of monkeys are truly monogamous. This brings up another thing that separates us from animals: no bird or monkey has ever been threatened with impeachment because they lied about their sexual indiscretions. Then there are the male fish in Britain which are being born with female characteristics, like ovaries, eggs, and the ability to put on make-up while driving on the interstate. Scientists -- remember them? -- think this is happening because of estrogenlike chemicals dumped in the river by sewage treatment plants. Social scientists -- defined as scientists who can get a date -- think it's happening because society is more permissive so the fish are more prone to come out of their watery closet. If this was confined to Britain there would be no need for concern. After all, English men have a long tradition of flaunting their feminine side. Just look at Benny Hill, Monty Python, and Queen Elizabeth. But apparently this phenomenon has also been found in other countries, including the United States, where similar hormonal havoc has been seen in alligators, birds, otters, and Ellen DeGeneres.In our final lesson for today, there's a rare tortoise in Australia which breathes through its mouth while on land and through its backside when under water. This points up another striking similarity between animals and humans -- these tortoises, like members of Congress, have a hard time telling their heads from their asses. At least the tortoises understand their place in the food chain.