UTSpeaks: Week 167

UTS campus on George Street: Sydney, Australia

Upon entering the room I locked eyes with an old scholarly-type standing next to an hors’ doeuvre platter. He was sheepishly raking an enormous pile of cheese and crackers onto a napkin in the palm of his other hand. Yes I thought, universities are the same the world over.

Instead of my old Alma mater I was outside the Aerial Function Centre of the University of Technology, Sydney. It was on the seventh level and had a balcony overlooking the glittery lights of the Sydney CBD. My friend had invited me to the lecture on animal culling and from the looks of the foyer, it was a popular topic. I’m sure the open bar played no small part in that.

Professor Rob Harcourt and Dr Daniel Ramp were both interested in how people responded to ‘inconvenient animal populations’ and how we could ‘devise more compassionate solutions’.

Trapping and poisoning have almost always been the go-to methods for dealing with ‘pests’ and invasive species. One of the main problems with this mentality is that food webs are extremely intricate and the effect of removing or adding species are not necessarily straightforward.

For example, at its zenith Macquarie Island had 2,500 cats killing 60,000 seabirds per year. The cats were eliminated in the year 2000 which in turn increased the rabbit and mice population. Rodents ate the younger chicks and rabbits removed grass layer which lead to soil erosion and cliff collapses which further destroyed more nests.

The rabbits and mice where then poisoned, which worked, but the young doctor with a skinny mod tie and a mohawk was quick to ask, “was that ethical?”

It was an interesting question that Dr Daniel Ramp proposed. I have to admit I didn’t feel too bad for the rats, but I had also never thought about them as sentient beings suffering a slow death by poison. Dr Ramp also pointed out that to make a significant dent in the rat population a large percentage of them would need to be exterminated at once. If this didn’t happen then a lot of money and time were being wasted to needlessly kill rats.

While I disagree that absolutely no ‘pests’ should be harmed for the sake of conservation, I do believe that to kill as a matter-of-course would be a disservice. The world has changed and so has our environment. Perhaps it is time to realize that these ‘invasive species’ are here to stay and that we should adopt new methods to work around this premise instead of futilely enforcing old boundaries.

Or maybe we should just let Maremma guardian dogs run the world.

What do I know? I just went for the cheese and champagne like all the other nutty academics.

About: UTSpeaks

About: The Centre for Compassionate Conservation

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Newcastle & the Morisset Mental Health Hospital: Week 156

Bar Beach in Newcastle

Bar Beach is surprisingly beautiful and I only say that because Newcastle was once a heavy industrial port. This was confirmed by my guidebook and by a woman with eyeliner pooled under her eyes and a throaty cough. She was walking her dog with one hand and clutching her cigarette in the other.

“It used to be dirty.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, really dirty.” She squeezed a squeaky yellow ball; her dog did not pay attention.

“It’s much nicer since the steelworks closed. The ride up the coast is also beautiful.”

She was right. The three hour train ride from Sydney wound through eucalypt forests and along wooded lakes. The only drawback was that the Sydney metro system was not made for bicycles. In the older carriages, a narrow door leads into a small antechamber with a cabinet. It looks like it should hold an ironing board, but it has a hook for one bicycle.

Fernleigh Track tunnel, Newcastle

Barret hung up his bike and I tied mine to a metal railing. I hoped people wouldn’t complain too much as they traveled between compartments.

Despite the odd grumbling stroller pusher on the train, it was definitely worth it. Saturday was a beautiful sunny day and we couldn’t wait to ride down Fernleigh Track, an old railway line.

Redhead Beach, Newcastle

We stopped at café along the route before continuing on to Redhead Beach. It was named after a giant sea-facing cliff that cast a large, cool shadow in the late morning sun.

By the end of the day we had cycled about 30 kilometers: from Redhead Beach to Bar Beach, down hip Darby Street, past the Newcastle Ocean Baths, and around Fort Scratchley. Downtown was mostly empty, but the bars were beginning to open like night flowers.

Street art in downtown Newcastle

The ride on the train back down to Sydney was even more crowded with two-wheeled devices. Barret and I got off the train with the rest of the bicyclists at Morisset, a town on the skirt of Lake Macquarie. Instead of heading for the lake, we went in the direction of the Morisset Mental Health Hospital.

Small groups of tourists were walking in both directions down the forested road and a few locals ran parallel to the road on motorbike tracks. Their noisy engines were the only disturbance.

At the end of the 4km road was a compound of red brick buildings reminiscent of a small military outpost. There was as administration center for visitors, trade shops, a rec hall, a Grease Tank, and a Doctors Cottage. It was a Sunday afternoon and no one was around. I imagined all of the residents packed inside the small chapel that overlooked the lake, a cloud of mosquitoes waiting in the cool recesses.

Wallabies at the Morisset Mental Health Hospital

It was an odd place for tourists to make a pilgrimage to, but then it was also the best place to have a close encounter with wallabies. They were all over the place, sleeping, lounging, and scratching their backs like they were doing the limbo. More wallabies poured out of the woods like water draining from a sieve.

I was so excited when I saw a wallaby with a baby in its pouch. Finally, an opportune moment to stalk the animals using the technique I learned at the Great Barrier Reef! I was “browsing” the perimeter like a confused shopper when a large family got out of their car.

Wallaby with baby at the Morisset Mental Health Hospital

As the family encroached, little furry ears pricked up. The wallabies began to hop away from me and towards the family with their hands full of white bread.

I walked past the one of the adults holding the bag of bread. “That’s bad for them you know.” It was the third time today I had told someone that. There were didactic signs tacked to several of the trees: bread + wallabies = death.

The guy with the bread shrugged and I walked back to my bike.

About: Newcastle

About: Morisset

How to get to the Morisset Mental Health Hospital: Cnr Silky Oak Drive & Acacia Avenue, Morisset NSW 2264

Taronga Zoo: Week 113

Polaroid of the giraffe enclosure at the Taronga Zoo: Sydney, Australia

When my brother was little, his favorite bird was the pigeon. It wasn’t the only bird flying around suburban Las Vegas, but perhaps it was the most identifiable to his little blue eyes sans vision correction. Actually, it was probably a good thing he hadn’t discovered glasses yet- because then he never saw the neighbor targeting pigeons with his air rifle whilst jumping on a trampoline.

Anyways, my brother must have known something we didn’t because one of the most surprising discoveries I made at the Taronga Zoo was the Victoria Crowned Pigeon.

Due to the demise of the Dodo (which was also considered a type of pigeon) the Victoria Crowned is the world’s largest pigeon and a surprising stunner at that. It’s the size of a rooster, has electric blue feathers, a mauve chest and a peacock-like spray of feathers atop its head.

Unsurprisingly, it was not a star attraction. However I felt that if the zoo let something this cool pass under the radar, then they must have some really good stuff in store. Besides, even the journey itself to the main entrance was an adventure. We started with a ferry ride across the beautiful Sydney Harbour before transferring to a cable car ride to the top of the park. Since the Taronga Zoo is built on a hill overlooking the Opera House and Downtown Sydney, the view from above was stunning.Polaroid of the chimpanzee enclosure at the Taronga Zoo: Sydney, Australia

Aside from scheduled animal performances, there were also several Keeper Talks throughout the day. While picnicking across from the chimpanzee enclosure, a zookeeper informed us we shared 99% of our DNA with the chimps. It was quite a sobering thought to realize that the real barrier between the chimps and I was not the fence, but a 1% difference in DNA. Had things worked out differently I’d still be hanging from a tree with butt cheeks the shape of a giant lumpy red doughnut, ripe for mating. I have never been more grateful for genetic divergence.

Polaroid of the Komodo Dragon at the Taronga Zoo: Sydney, Australia

Australia is also home to a disproportionate amount of poisonous animals- and all Most Deadly lists are likely to have a native Aussie. In fact, depending on how the poison is measured, Australia is home to 5-10 of the 10 most deadly snakes in the world.

The one thing the scientific community has agreed on though is that the Inland Taipan is the most poisonous snake- just one drop of venom is strong enough to kill 100 adult men. However, they are so reclusive that there has only ever been one recorded death. In fact, in 2012 when authorities heard a 17 year old boy was bitten in NSW, the first conclusion they reached was that he had kept it as an illegal pet.

So although we were face to face with some of the most poisonous, fastest, and powerful animals in the world, our pathetically feeble human bodies still had the upper hand. Because of this, I was so irritated at all the people tapping on the glass- disrespectful!

Aside from scaring the animals, it didn’t make them pose for photos any better, and it was completely unnecessary to remind them of our dominant place in the evolutionary scale. It’s like insulting someone on the internet. They can’t do anything about it, but if they ever ran into you in the real world they would eviscerate you with their specially adapted raptorial claws.

You’ve been warned.

Don’t tap on the glass.

How to get to the Taronga Zoo: Purchase your combo ferry/Sky Safari/entrance tickets at the ferry terminal in Circular Quay

Wentworth Greyhound Park: Week 112

Wentworth Greyhound Park: Sydney, Australia

It began with an electric twang, something like the buzzing and snapping wires which power San Francisco trams. Although instead of a large vehicle, the springs catapulted two florescent orange rabbits around a loam race track. When they hit the straightaway in front of the grand stand, eight metal gates cracked open releasing an equal number of muscly lightning bolts.

As the greyhounds arced around the track, the hastily assembled crowd of punters began yelling and cheering. It was easy to tell the locals from the visitors. The latter arrived in large groups and wore tucked dress shirts and tight dresses. The former wore sweat suits and passed their kids picnic platters.

Twenty seconds later the race was over as quickly as it had begun.  The crowd retreated back under the stadium to spend the next ten minutes buying beer and placing bets. The cold outdoor stand was now empty and only one elderly man remained at the end of my row.

“Who do you think is going to win?” I asked eying the stat booklet folded on his lap. “You look like you know what you’re doing.”

He flashed a generous smile. “No I don’t, but my friend brought down Saigon Su, number eight. She really likes racing from the eight box and did well on her last race.”

I liked the name so I thanked him for the advice and left to place my bet.

“Cross fingers!” He called as I walked away.

It’s not just the punters that arrive at the races with stars in their eyes. Out of the entire state of NSW, Wentworth Park offers the largest cash prize for winning dogs. Which means that as the greyhound owners are catching their dog’s bowel movements in silver soup ladles, they are dreaming big dreams.

Poor Saigon Su didn’t even come close to winning. However my next bet, Compass, did.

With a winning ticket in hand I strolled back under the stadium to a small betting window built into a staircase. “Big money!” I grinned at the elderly woman behind the window. She had permed white hair and wore a vest over a white short-sleeved shirt. On her right-hand side was a plastic tray filled with rows of coins.

“Not really,” she flatly replied. “For every dollar your place bet pays ten cents. So you won…” she paused to process my paper ticket, “twenty cents.”

Unimpressed with my earnings she advised me to stick around for the bracelet. It was some expensive promotional gift they were giving away for Mother’s Day. Remembering the prize to be won, her red lips drew into a frown. “We aren’t allowed to enter because we’re employees.” Unfortunately I hadn’t fared much better on that front either.

“They already called the winner and it wasn’t me,” I replied with a matching frown. She shrugged her shoulders in shared disappointment.

“Well at least you had fun and learned how to play.”

I appreciated her maternal gambling advice- moms are always right about that kind of stuff.

About: Wentworth Greyhound Park

Lamb Tailing: Week 84

You should wear old clothes you don’t mind getting blood on.

This is very good advice.

The first thing you notice when you pick up a Merino lamb is its oily wool. It’s not dry or smooth or clean. It leaves your hands slightly tacky, slightly moisturized and after handling a few hundred there is a coffee-colored grease spot on your shirt.

That was the first job Barret and I were given. For several hours we stood knee deep in lambs and just picked them up. The trick was to grasp them under their two front legs with one arm while using the other arm to grab the bottom legs. If it worked out, the lamb pressed against our chests in a U-shape; a rear leg in each hand. Then we placed the lamb in a reclined booster seat where a thin metal bar pinned the rear legs up by its ears; probably the most uncomfortable gynecological position possible.

As fast as a Nascar pit stop, there was a rush to inject B12 and Lambvax into its neck. Then, like with the cattle, we used a heart-shaped punch to clip its ears. The marks were a quick gender reference: top of the right ear for the boys and top of the left for the girls.

When I made a clean ear punch it felt like a satisfying round of cookie cutting; my perfectly-formed furry hearts fell to the ground.  However if my grasp was weak or I didn’t use enough power, the lamb thrashed from side to side and its ears began to bleed before I was finished. Usually the blood seeped, but sometimes it squirted; like a fountain of thin embroidery threads and it was very difficult to dodge.

At the same time as the shots and the ear punches, the person on the other end of the lamb administered blue scabies shots and constrictive rubber bands. The bands, as small as Cheerios, were placed on the tail right where the wool meets a soft pink triangle of skin.  Even though it was an inch away from the rectum, the skin texture reminded me of the inside of a bird’s beak. The same bands were also placed around testicles, those lucky boys.

With the blood flow gone, the tail was ready to be cut off. This was the step I anticipated the least, but I decided to try it as well. With my left hand I firmly held the tail while I clenched the knife in my right. I slowly pressed the knife into the oily wool until the blade grazed the skin. I quickly glanced at the lamb and it surprisingly looked calmer than I, so I carried through with my momentum. Aside from the wool’s fluffiness, the tail bone was slender and had the same consistency as a carrot. Once the tail was removed it felt completely extraneous, like I had cut off unwanted split ends.

The last step was a few squirts of a bubblegum pink fly spray to repel flesh-eating blow-flies. Wrinkly skin (which is a Merino trademark) and undocked tails tend to collect more fecal matter, which attracts blow-flies. These insects lay eggs in the folds of the sheep’s rear end and, if left untreated, maggots hatch and devour the live flesh while producing a poisonous ammonia secretion.

The flies are also the reason why some people perform a surgical procedure to remove wool-bearing folds of skin from around the anus, known as mulesing. However, there has been so much international pressure from activist groups (PETA) that the procedure is being phased out of New Zealand. PETA sponsors, like the singer Pink, might take comfort in knowing that somewhere in the world sheep have furry buttholes, but many Kiwi farmers do not. I don’t know how much Pink actually knows about sheep, but she might be surprised to know how many rural farmers know about her.

Cup of tea?

Don’t mind if I do. After handling 1,063 lambs (and sorting their tails into piles of ten), I was ready for a break. I had learned a lot, but the most surprising thing I learned was to never forget the milk. No matter how tough-looking and blood covered sheep-tailers are, they take their tea-time seriously and their breakfast tea milky.

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