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Friday, December 28, 2012

Top 10 Animal Stories of 2012

10. Fukushima’s Mutants

A few months after the devastating Japanese tsunami of March 2011, researchers started examining butterflies near the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. In the first batch of 100 studied, 12% exhibited mutations. As those butterflies then mated, the mutation rate skyrocketed to 34%, demonstrating that the deformed genes were passing down to offspring. A few months later, the researchers analyzed 200 more young butterflies and, in a report released in August, divulged that more than 50% now carried some form of mutation. While any radiation-based mutation is cause for concern, experts say humans are unlikely to experience similar effects. “Humans are totally different from butterflies and they should be far more resistant” to radiation, said Joji Otaki, an associate professor at the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa.

9. Luck Runs Out for HBO

A second season of the horse racing drama Luck had already been ordered up by HBO when three of the show’s equine stars died on set, prompting the network to axe the series altogether. Bowing to pressure from groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), HBO released a solemn statement: “It is with heartbreak that executive producers David Milch and Michael Mann together with HBO have decided to cease all future production on the series Luck…we are immensely proud of this series, the writing, the acting, the filmmaking, the celebration of the culture of horses, and everyone involved in its creation."

8. Uggie, Dog Artist, Retires

Was there a more adorable movie surprise this year than the emergence of Uggie? If the Oscars gave out awards to furry co-stars, surely this would have earned a nod for Best Canine. In case you didn’t make his acquaintance, the Jack Russell Terrier made his indelible mark in the multi-Oscar winning The Artist, as the faithful friend to Jean Dujardin, an actor coming to terms with silent movies being usurped by talkies. As for Uggie (who also cropped up in Water for Elephants), it was proof that every dog has his day, as his trainer Omar von Muller later confirmed that the pup retired after The Artist wrapped. “He may do a couple of little things here and there because he enjoys them, but I don’t want to put him through long hours anymore. He’s getting tired,” von Muller said.

7. A Panda Dies Too Soon

The flood of emotion was obvious when the National Zoo took to its Facebook page in September, to announce that its new, week-old panda had died: “We are broken-hearted to share that we have lost our little giant panda cub.” The unnamed cub’s mother, Mei Xiang, raised the initial alarm with a distress call and although CPR and other measures were attempted, the cub still passed away. The birth of the panda cub had captured the imagination of Americans – understandable when one considers there are only 300 pandas left in breeding zones and zoos around the planet. And there’s more at stake when you add Panda diplomacy to the mix: the Chinese have been sending pandas to other nations as a sign of gratitude ever since the Tang Dynasty, dating back to A.D. 618. In the U.S., the first panda couple arrived after President Richard Nixon’s landmark 1972 visit to China. Famously, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing lived at the National Zoo for over 20 years.

6. A Canine War Hero

The horrors of war are documented all too regularly, but it’s not just human lives that are affected; in one notable case, it was an animal as well. Theo, a springer spaniel mix, worked for five months in Afghanistan alongside Royal Army Veterinary Corps Lance Corporal Liam Tasker, as they hunted for roadside bombs. But in March 2011, Tasker was killed during a firefight with insurgents in Helmand Province and it’s believed that Theo died from a seizure just hours later, likely caused by stress. The pair returned to Britain on the same military flight. In October 2012, Theo was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal, which has been recognizing wartime heroics by animals since World War II.

5. Zoo-Icide?

Every year, it seems, at least one misguided zoo visitor decides to take the plunge into an animal’s den. When that den belongs to a tiger, however, the result can be tragic.  Case in point: David Villalobos, who came face-to-face with a Bronx Zoo tiger after hurling himself from an elevated train. Incredibly, despite the 400-pound tiger (a male Siberian called Bashuta) dragging the 25-year-old real estate agent  around by his foot, he survived – though Villalobos did suffer serious injuries. When asked what he was thinking, Villalobos said that “he wanted to be one with the tiger,” according to police detectives. Apparently, he even got to pet the tiger before being rescued (zoo officials used a fire extinguisher to chase Bashuta away). In the aftermath, based on his admissions and a complaint from the zoo, the police charged Villalobos with misdemeanor trespassing. The story became perfect fodder for the New York tabloids; the front page of the New York Post went with “MAULED!” while the Daily News came up with “ZOO-ICIDE."

4. Kansas vs. Toto

PETA has had a busy year. The animal-rights group took umbrage with the makers of Luck and also weighed in on the proposed bill to make Toto the official state dog of Kansas. The cairn terrier achieved worldwide fame by starring in The Wizard of Oz back in 1939. Now more than 70 years later, Representative Ed Trimmer and Brenda Moore, of the South Central Kansas Kennel Club, were keen to endorse a permanent reminder of Toto’s role as Dorothy’s sidekick in the classic movie. PETA’s counter-argument was based on the potential effect such a designation would have on Kansas puppy mills. If the cairn terrier became the state dog, it could cause the mills to “churn out litter after litter of the breed,” said the animal rights group. Sure enough, a Kansas House committee turned the bid down but that hasn’t deterred Trimmer from reintroducing the bill in 2013. If he gets his wish, the cairn terrier will join the state’s roster of having an official reptile, bird, insect and amphibian. Navigating the yellow brick road was never easy.

3. The Great Penguin Jailbreak

Yes, life imitates art sometimes, and in the case of several penguin chicks residing in Suzaka, Japan, the muse might have been Madagascar. Much like that animated movie trilogy, which featured animals escaping zoos to embark on worldly adventures, the Suzaka penguins succeeded in breaking out of their habitats – three different times. Attempt number one: Two 3-month old chicks used a waterslide to escape their enclosure, after which the zookeepers wised up and closed off the slide. Attempt two: A chick crawled under an adjoining fence. Attempt three: The same chick found a way to clear the top of the fence, and was discovered later by zookeepers swimming in a nearby pond. The ultimate solution? The zoo moved the penguins to an indoor cage, complete with concrete walls and nets.

2. Putin-Chavez Puppy Diplomacy

A 3-month-old black terrier puppy; that was the unlikely gift given to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez by Russian leader Vladimir Putin in September. Ironically enough, the breed in question is often referred to as “Stalin’s dog,” a term that was originally coined during the 1950s when these terriers guarded prisoners during the Russian dictator’s regime. Chavez didn’t seem to mind the connotation, telling a Russian delegation in Caracas that “He is a good dog and beautiful. I’m going to call him ‘Russian.’” And presumably, Chavez won’t care that he’s not the only leader to have received a dose of puppy diplomacy; in fact, Putin himself has been the recipient of a couple canines. In 2010, the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov gave the then Russian Prime Minister a Bulgarian shepherd called Baffi. More recently, he received a 3-month old Akita Inu puppy from a Japanese governor. Putin promised to return the favor by sending “a Siberian cat, a bigger one."

1. A Dog’s Best Friend

It’s often said that man is a dog’s best friend. But it’s abundantly clear that the animals care, and look out, for each other as well. Consider the extraordinary story of the black Labrador in La Puente, California who stared down oncoming traffic to protect her companion, a yellow Labrador, after she was fatally hit by a motorist. Thankfully, a member of the public placed traffic cones on the street around the animals, before calling animal control workers (and taking photos and video). The loyal companion didn’t have an ID tag nor a microchip to identify her owner, which is why she was called Grace by workers at the Baldwin Park Animal Care Center. Once the story went viral around the world, her owners contacted authorities and were reunited with their pet.

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