Steve Irwin, 1962- 2006: RIP

Sure, he could be annoying. But in an age when cool trumps all, I can’t find it in me to disapprove of enthusiasm. He may have inspired more children in the love of all of nature, including “creepy- crawlies” than anyone in his generation or even mine. My little nephews are fascinated by insects and reptiles. I’ll help them with facts, but their model was the crocodile man. I’d have hated to be their mother the night his death was in the news. He was the anti- PETA, Gerald Durrell on steroids. He will be missed.

The biology blogosphere, full of people who understand mad biophilia, was full of tributes. Darren was eloquent as usual, and pointed out someting often missed when Irwin was described as a mere “showman”.

“There is also no doubt whatsoever that his knowledge and experience of wildlife was considerable, and he knew the herpetofauna of Australia and other countries down to the subspecies level. He published at least some technical articles and could easily turn his hand to the dissemination of academic information: he wasn’t only a populariser. Sure, he was a character, but then that’s pretty much the only way of making a name for yourself on TV today it seems.”

Pharyngula has another good tribute, as well as some gruesome medical details. (I do wish a few of the commenters had refrained from what amounts to politics at the funeral; apparently Irwin was some kind of a political conservative as well as a conservationist, something a few people cannot accept).

Off the “Evo- Bio” patch, Austin Bay wrote a post that generated MANY comments, from “He had a splendid life and died doing what he loved” to “He had kids so he should have commuted to a job in a cubicle”. I am at #71 I think– care to guess which side I favor?

(An aside– some insist on comparing him to California dude/ self- deluded ninny Timothy Treadwell, eaten by bears in Alaska. One significant difference might be that Irwin understood that crocs and tiger snakes were not his “friends”).

Finally, courtesy of Jonathan: formerly- sometimes- interesting Aussie feminist Germaine Greer celebrates Irwin’s death as the revenge of the animals. In a story on The Age (no direct link) she is quoted at length:

“The animal world has taken revenge on self-deluded animal tormentor
Steve Irwin, according to expatriate Australian academic and writer
Germaine Greer.

“Writing in the British press following Irwin’s sudden death, Greer
said she had “not much sympathy” for the naturalist if he was
grappling with the stingray that killed him on the Great Barrier Reef.”


“”The animal world has finally taken its revenge on Irwin, but
probably not before a whole generation of kids in shorts seven sizes
too small has learned to shout in the ears of animals with hearing
ten times more acute than theirs, determined to become millionaire
animal-loving zoo-owners in their turn.” “

Yeah, that’s what biophilia is about alright. I said rudely to Libby that she was more interestiing back when she was f*****g rock stars. Totally unfair, but why is it that everything I have seen from her in years has been embarassingly bitter? Is it a symptom of the disappoinment inherent in being an aging utopian whose dreams have not been realized?

Blogging From Q.

Rebecca here.

We always have such aspirations for my visits…deep writerly conversation that leads to literary masterpieces, long stimulating discussions that lead to ultimately solving the problems of the world… instead we babble on and drink. Still, I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend. The drive here was phenomenal. The monsoon has changed the landscape here into a wonderous watercolor of small ponds and wildflowers. The company is always fabulous and a couple of drinks at the Spur are enough to keep me entertained, head buzzing with local stories for months. I’m already planning to come back for duck hunting though. How could I not? The standing water and greenry promises an incredible migration through this area. ..and despite falling short of our conversational aspirations, the company here just can’t be beat.

Guest Post: Dog Whispering

My friend Gregg Barrow trains championship protection dogs and has a soft spot for unwanted “hard case” hounds. A German police unit recently sent him a dog they couldn’t handle, a monsterous, muscled-up, sulking giant schzauzer who savaged several handlers. Gregg has also been, in past years, a case worker and counsellor for criminal teens. He carries the big frame of a former college football player and looks a natural for tough guy roles. But Gregg’s thoughtful comments and quiet demeanor defy typecasting.

I asked Gregg to comment on the recent critique of controversial “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan in this article forwarded by Reid. In the mean time, Patrick Burns posted on the same story with a logical defense of Millan’s main premise: Dogs are not children and do respond positively to an assertive “pack leader” owner.

Gregg writes:

I thought Mark Derr’s column was insightful, a tad sensational, and long overdue, but, the Buddha he’s attempting to kill on this particular roadside is already going the way of Barbra Woodhouse: Our local grocery store has stacks of Dog Whisperer videos in the $1.99 bin and the companion book has already been discounted twice.

Cesar, quite simply, brought back compulsion to dog training. And in all honesty, it needed to be returned to the companion dog trainer’s mental bag of techniques. Strong, willful dogs that eat up (pun intended) the food-motivated foundation training require a firmer hand when it’s time to take the next step and start working for real world reliability.

This is the wall the “click and treat” crowd runs into when working with this type of dog. Unwilling to admit the shortcomings in their training programs or the limits to their experience, these purely inducive trainers quickly label the dog as “un-trainable.” Unfortunately, many of these dogs end up being cast off when salvation was only a well-timed leash pop away.

Compulsion, or punishment, has its place in training; a dog trainer is hard pressed to set boundaries and consequences for misbehavior without it. But it has to be fair. It has to be the next logical step in a well-thought-out training sequence. When the pressure of correction comes, the dog must understand instantly how to escape this pressure ( i.e. obey the command.) This empowers the dog and teaches him that he is in control of his actions.

David Deleissegues, a friend of mine from California , is an international competitor in Schutzhund and has assisted as a trainer on movies such as Turner and Hooch. The dog rescue organizations are keeping David booked because, in the Land of Fruits and Nuts [no offense to Reid and Rebecca], where cookie training is king, he is one of the few trainers willing to use compulsion. And he gets results where others cannot. Dogs are being saved that would otherwise be put down and the rescue groups for the working breeds are flocking to him. David’s success lies in his ability to use motivational instruction, ignoring (or extinguishing) negative behaviors in the early stages, followed by creative distractions and fair punishment. David’s form of compulsion looks nothing like Caesar’s. The dogs that come out of his program look nothing like the dogs I have seen roller blading with Mr. Millan [looking for that picture: Millan lording over a dozen cowed, crouching Beta dogs]. David’s dogs, in contrast, “get it,” and they respond enthusiastically—yes enthusiastically—when punishment is necessary.

A pastor once told me “you gave thirty years to the devil, now give the Lord equal time.” The analogy is this; most behavior problems, aggression in this case, are created, fed and nurtured over a period of time. And it could take the same amount of time, if not longer, to cure them successfully. It can’t be worked out during prime time minus commercial breaks.

Cesar’s methods appear to include fatigue, deprivation and domination. The results are not easily transferred to the owner. And with certain dogs, these methods create the proverbial time bomb.

In all fairness to Cesar, I’ve only watched his program once, but he lost me when he was discourteous to the owner and rolled his eyes and smirked at the camera as if to say…..”Loser”.

This is a service industry. Call me old-fashioned, but there’s no room for attitudes in training or when working with the public

The media has made him into a modern day Horatio Alger and his irreverent attitude toward his clients endears him to the “wink and nod” crowd. Unfortunately, he meets the needs of the quick fix microwave society in which we live and he will be quoted as gospel for some time to come.

Relationship or lordship, training or domination, companion by the hearth and in the field or slave?

Mr. Millan’s message is not new; it has simply come full circle and it’s just as out of balance as it was on the first, second and third go-round. The turn and crank, drill and kill instruction found in the AKC obedience class, Schutzhund field or retriever club twenty years ago has given way to motivational techniques. Dogs that would have earned perfect scores back then would be criticized for lack of drive and animation today. The problem, which Mr. Millan has capitalized upon, is that the pendulum has swung so far to the opposite extreme that today’s motivational trainer is just as inadequate in the use punishment as his predecessor was in the use of positive motivation.

Training comes down to a little common sense, the ability to be introspective, a hand full of sound techniques, a simple blue-collar work ethic and patience. Unfortunately, these are qualities that appear to be lacking in a significant portion of the dog owning community today, and Cesar knows it.

If you’ve already paid full price for the books and video, hold on to them, like fashion and music trends, these methods will be back in style again.

—Gregg Barrow

Sandburg’s City

It’s too late to be the first to read Sandburg’s fine poem in lament for Chicago. We made this rather obvious connection here, way back in May. Yesterday Reid spotted this LATimes editorial by Nick Gillespie, who chimes in with a feature-length razzing of the Windy City’s accelerating nanny-fication. As Steve says, “Unfortunately, we animal people get wind of this stuff first.”

Gillespie opens by recounting a trip to Chicago of twenty years past and his viewing at the Sears Tower a promotional film with the memorable line: “Chicago ain’t no sissy town!”

“But,” continues Gillespie,

“it turns out that Chicago is a sissy town because that ‘stormy, husky, brawling— City of the Big Shoulders,’ in Carl Sandburg’s evocative 1916 poem, seems hellbent on putting a chokehold on just about everything that makes a city a city. Namely, fun.”

“…Over the last year, the Associated Press recently reported, Chicago snuffed out smoking “in nearly all public places” and pulled the plug on using cellphones while driving. This April, the ‘Hog Butcher for the World’ (Sandburg again) became the first city in the country to ban the sale of foie gras, on grounds that force-feeding geese to make the tasty treat is more cruelty than Al Capone’s adopted hometown can bear. ”

Steve wonders how Gillespie could forget the Chicago handgun ban and the fact that it’s now illegal to own pigeons there! He does mention the city’s moves to make microchipping dogs a mandatory practice, and to outlaw pitbulls altogether. Gillespie concludes with this, depressingly true, observation:

“The worst part about Chicago’s clampdown on seemingly every urban excess is that it’s not even original. One need look only to America’s two biggest cities, New York and Los Angeles, to see similar buzz-killing rules firmly in place, with more in the pipeline.

“In years gone by, people poured into cities to escape the conformity and monotony of life on the farm or in the small town. Now they go there to frown at aberrant behavior and pick up after their dog. In this, alas, Chicago is truly America’s third city— and sadly, not the last. “

I was tempted to desecrate Sandburg with a retelling of CHICAGO. I succumbed to that temptation, but thankfully not very far:


DOG Catcher for the World
Rule Maker, Tracker of Fat,
Banner of handguns and the Nation’s Pigeon Police;
Whiny, spying, fining,
City of the Big Brothers:

Maybe someone else should finish this dirge…?