Redgrave and Lopham Fen, East Anglia

A large open-water area at the fens. This rare and sadly significantly declined habitat supports an abundance of life. (Credit: John Went CC-BY-SA-2.0)

I have a history with East Anglia. I have previously lived in the region, worked in the region and studied in the region. I’ve sat on struggling old single-carriage diesel trains commuting from home to university across the flat lands. I learned to drive on the somewhat perilous lanes of the region.

Sadly my personal life during that time led to many negative memories and yet my love for this part of the UK transcends that memory. I’ve visited places like Colchester and Southend in recent times but that isn’t quite the middle-of-nowhere, flatland fields that I associate with East Anglia. Sorry Essex. So spending a few days chilling near the Norfolk/Suffolk border, only a short drive away from places I used to live, places I used to visit and places I used to raid the car boot sales of for retro videogames, is absolutely amazing.

There are conflicting maps and discussions as to what, exactly, comprises East Anglia but I generally perceive it as roughly the area in and around the red ring. Definitely the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire are included. I also put Essex in there, and some people also add Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. It’s an area rich in quite unique habitats and ecosystems as well a significant portion of British history – at one time being an exceptionally wealthy area and thus being absolutely full-to-bursting with gorgeous churches and stunning historic market towns. (Credit: Google Maps)

There was, oddly, a sensation of ‘coming home’.

I have always talked up the bio credentials of East Anglia. As one of only a few places in the UK with no major motorway and one of the last places to give up traditional farming and land management methods for more modern, intensive ones, it has habitats few other places in the UK can match up to. Hanging like the builder’s-bum of Britain jutting out into the North Sea it gets some remarkable migratory birds and insects, too. It all adds up. You might think you know East Anglia, but there is a stark contrast between the Southern coast of Essex and the North Norfolk Coast. It is not a place with one important habitat, but rather it is a patchwork of them and I happened to visit one. The Redgrave and Lopham Fen, around the Norfolk/Suffolk border near Diss.

So what the hell is a ‘fen’? It sounds like some kind of hip-hop slang. Well it isn’t.

A fen is a sort of boggy wetland habitat generally characterised by the growth of tall wetland grasses and sedges. A natural fit for the near-sea-level soggy flatlands of East Anglia. If we were able to cultivate rice in the UK we would probably have left the fens as they are. Unfortunately our agricultural staples do not grow well in flooded fields! As a result the natural fen lands were mostly drained for crops. Drainage ditches, canals, dykes, drains and even pumping stations all maintain a drier land ripe for farming (particularly so since the fens produced very fertile, peaty soil) but they also decimated this unique habitat.

A windmill on Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, another incredible area for fenlands. (Credit: Valerian Guillot, CC-BY-2.0)

This wasn’t a modern practice. Draining land for agriculture in Britain likely dates back to the Roman era (considering Rome was once a mosquito infested bog itself they were good at draining wetlands!) or possibly earlier. But the practice didn’t stop! As time went on, the population of Britain grew, and farming practices changed, so more and more of the fens were drained.

Sadly there were two consequences of this. For one, those who relied heavily upon the fens for their trades, especially thatchers who would gather and use the sedges and reeds, were basically put out of work. Secondly, this was a unique habitat, a water-rich patchwork of soggy soils and small pools. There were a remarkable number of species that relied upon these unique habitats that now didn’t have it. Thirdly, of course, there’s flooding, always a potential problem.

Redgrave and Lopham Fen is a valley-fen on the Norfolk-Suffolk border near the Waveney and Little Ouse Rivers. It is the largest river valley fen in England and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This is because of the remarkable numbers of plants, invertebrates, birds and other species it supports.

Now, this might be unusual for an arachnophobe like me but I went in the hopes of seeing the great fen raft spider (Dolomedes plantarius). As far as I am aware Redgrave and Lopham fen is one of only three areas in the UK that they can be seen – There’s this fen, there’s the Pevensey Levels in East Sussex, and there’s the old Neath and Tennant Canal in South Wales.

The Great Raft Spider (or fen raft spider, or great fen raft spider – it has lots of names!), Dolomedes Plantarius, in the water pools at Redgrave and Lopham Fen. There is a special ‘spider trail’ there if you specifically want to see these awesome arachnids. (Credit: Helen Smith, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Besides rarity though, what makes these spiders so special? Well, they’re semi aquatic, reasonably large (a female can be 70-80mm in legspan) and known to eat fish – what more do you want to know about them!? If you’re not impressed by a near 10cm spider that goes fishing We Lack Discipline is not for you!

Unfortunately the fen raft spiders do prefer a warm, baskable day with little wind. Whilst we had the still air, we did not have the sunshine and so they escaped my ever-ready camera.

But, if an environment is perfect for rare invertebrates it is often a haven for others and there was a blessing of butterflies, a bombardment of bumblebees, a draught of dragonflies and a furious flurry of flies (both regular and hover). A few wasps were spotted, too. Vespids were particularly active but I saw one or two shy ichneumonids and there was certainly evidence, small holes in the sandy soil, of solitary bees and wasps.

Despite there not being the mind-boggling number of species that other invertebrates have I’m still not really studied up on my dragonfly IDs. I would say this is definitely a hawker, and to me it looks most like a female common hawker (Aeshna juncea) but I wouldn’t quote me on that! (Credit: Me)

Deeper in the reeds there were visible waterfowl, ducks and coots and the like, as well as audible signs, calls, from warblers, woodpeckers and even the incredible, low-pitched “Boom!” of a bittern, a bird I have only ever heard (and seen) once before.

Only permanently resident in about 7 areas of the UK, with the East and Southeast having 5 of those, the bittern (Botaurus stellaris) is a true gem for British birdwatching and sadly one of the rarest birds. Effectively a buff heron, in both colour and body shape, they patrol the reeds looking for fish, amphibians and invertebrates to eat. They also have a low, distinctive booming call. (Credit: Nick Goodrum, CC-BY-2.0)

All four of the widely dispersed native UK reptiles are alleged to be breeding there, common lizards (of which we saw one), slow worms, adders and grass snakes. Aside from the amazing raft spider I had hoped to see a grass snake. I didn’t, but mercifully I’m versed enough in the perils of looking for particular species to know you should make the most of looking at everything rather than be disappointed you didn’t see one thing.

This is not the little lizard seen on the day at Redgrave and Lopham Fen but it was one very similar, perhaps just a little smaller. The UK’s common lizards are awesome and one of my favourites to see. You can read my article about them here. (Credit: Me)

In terms of the other life, within the waters themselves water voles and otters are not uncommon. There are also a few grazers used to manage the more untameable plants and grasses and make management of the whole ecosystem a bit easier. It was cattle and Konik ponies (a Polish breed of very hardy pony better suited to grazing in soggier places) but apparently sometimes the hardy Hebridean sheep are used as well.

The European water vole (Arvicola amphibius), the inspiration for ‘The Wind in the Willows’ character Ratty. Sadly another very rare and elusive species in the UK this shot was taken in Arundel in West Sussex. They can be seen at Redgrave and Lopham fen as well as other fenlands and riverbanks in East Anglia. (Credit: Peter Trimming, CC-BY-2.0)

It’s not just the fen environment there, though. There are areas of scrub, larger open-water areas, woodlands and heathlands.

It makes for an exceptionally diverse habitat in a relatively condensed area and that just means bustling biodiversity everywhere you look. There were definitely buzzards in the sky, dragonflies fighting (and/or fucking) and I did get to watch a gorgeous spider perform the rotisserie-fly manoeuvre. I’ve no idea what the spider species was but they were gorgeous and there were many of them about.

These were the gorgeous spiders which were numerous among the sides of the paths through the fen. Absolutely stunning and with the air thick with flies, moths, bees and other bugs, they were very active. If anyone has an ID for this please let me know on Twitter @WLDiscipline. I have looked, a lot (and as an arachnophobe googling for spiders can freak me out!) but I cannot find any clue. (Credit: Me)

I could spew superlatives for hundreds more words but honestly, enjoy some photos and consider paying a visit if you’re in the area. The trails were relatively accessible such that some of them could probably even take a wheelchair. There was a lovely little coffee place there, as well as toilets and a visitor centre where I understand they put on regular activities and guided walks for the kiddos. It’s very definitely worth a visit if you like a good walk in nature.

There’s nothing quite like the magical feeling of gazing across the tops of reeds and sedge and it seeming to go on forever into the horizon. I have often heard people say that they do not like East Anglia because it is ‘flat’ or ‘featureless’.

Almost certainly a boy dragonfly (females of species with bright red males tend to be orange) I suspect this is a ruddy darter (Sympetrum sanguineum) one of the most common and the one that most resembles this. However, again I could be wrong and there are 4-5 other red dragonfly species in the UK. Sadly this was as close as he’d let me get so I couldn’t see any more detail. (Credit: Me)

Much of East Anglia may be flat, but a visit to the incredibly special habitats; the fens, the woodlands and the coastal dunes and beaches, will very quickly teach you what utter tosh the supposed ‘featurelessness’ is. It doesn’t have rolling hills or snow-capped mountains but it has something far more impressive and far less inert.

It has life.

Want to read more tales of my travels?

Learn about the Victorian seaside resort of Eastbourne and the Beachy Head Woman

Read about Noviomagus Reginorum, Roman Chichester, and The Novium Museum

Or check out how AMAZING Fishbourne Roman Palace, near Chichester, is!

Folkestone Museum, full of details of the town’s maritime, wartime and ancient past!

Dungeness – Nuclear engineering nestled in Lovecraftian natural beauty.


My Life and Insomnia

If my bedroom was a dull blue void full of miniature flying sheep I think I’d have a sleepless night or too, as well! (Credit: Fanette via Pixabay)

I am 33 years old and I have lived with disturbed sleep for, as far as I can remember, around 29-30 of them.

As a child I was prone to waking up, disturbed, in the middle of the night.

As an adult, not only are there regularly nights where this disturbance is pretty much par for the course but there are times when my brain just outright refuses to shut off at all!

Anyone who has been there will know the struggle. Sleep problems are believed to affect around one in three of us at any given time. It’s a widespread and massive problem.

What’s more, poor sleep is not just bad for the brain that needs the rest. There are knock-on effects. A few nights of bad sleep, for example, can delay your regular sleep phase, indicating problems in melatonin production and processing. Melatonin is one of the neurotransmitters involved with sleep.

Another is GABA, gamma-aminobutyric acid. Now I hate the “This is the X-Hormone” where X represents a particular trait but this is the relaxey-hormone. It’s a neurotransmitter that literally dulls yours nerves, making you feel calm, comfortable, relaxed and sleepy.

This a stick-and-ball model of the GABA molecule. gamma-aminobutyric acid. This is the closest I can find to a hormone with a one-track name, the ‘relaxey’ hormone! GABA is synthesised inside our own bodies to help us feel calm and relaxed. It is heavily linked to our sleep system. It’s also mimicked by the actions of other analogues or chemicals that affect the receptors for GABA that make us feel nice, e.g. alcohol, which binds to GABA receptors. It’s why alcohol makes you feel all warm, fuzzy and relaxed.However some people already seem to struggle with GABA production in their bodies. In autistic people, for example, it is believed they either have low production of serum GABA or fewer GABA receptors. (Credit: Jynto, Public Domain)

So the truth universally acknowledged is that bad sleep makes you upset, grumpy and anxious, with dysfunctional GABA systems the likely culprit.

Well, half of the likely culprit. You see we also have cortisol. Cortisol is an endogenous (from inside your own body) anti-inflammatory, your body releases it when you are under stress. Unfortunately, sleep is one of the key means of regulating it and studies show when you don’t sleep well levels of this hormone build up in your body. What does that mean? Well, high cortisol usually indicates high stress, high stress usually indicates danger and danger would necessitate panic.

So when you don’t sleep well you are more prone to irritability, anger, anxiety and panic.

Evidence also seems to link poor sleep with dysfunction in the insulin/blood sugar balance systems too. Combined with the tiredness it can lead to people not only eating badly during periods of poor sleep, but increases in likelihood of weight gain.

And poor sleep has been linked with increased risks of cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease and stroke.

Some complications to expect from persistant disturbed sleep! Honestly I did giggle at “Severe Yawning” until I remembered literally a few days ago having a yawn day where EVERY SINGLE YAWN caused my temporomandibular muscles – the muscles around your jaw – to lock. I don’t love it. Anyway the point of this image is to highlight that regardless of whether it’s their own fault or not patients with sleep trouble (particularly chronic like mine) NEED HELP! Sleeping pills are cheap, dog. Type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease, severe mental and emotional breakdown? That’s a lot more costly to any health service! (Credit:
Mikael Häggström, Public Domain)

Basically if there’s one thing in your life you should keep as a pretty solid, regular pattern it’s having a nice kip! Yet, again, around 1 in 3 of us at any given time is experiencing sleep problems. Why?

To answer that we’d have to know what sleep is so let me give you the best, medical definition of what sleep is.

Sleep is, err, well, your brain, erm, just, like, shuts down, but not completely! Because if it did that you’d be dead. It’s more of like a standby mode. It works by, umm, mechanisms and…shit…and the main function of it is, I dunno, to render you vulnerable to attacks by predators?

I kid! We know more about sleep than that, I’ve already talked about hormonal pathways, neurotransmitters, sleep seems to play a huge role in memory and information processing but the fact is for all the study and knowledge we have on it we still don’t know exactly what it is, how it is or why it is.

I find it surprising, then, that all the advice about sleeping poorly is so fucking judgemental, as if everyone’s a damn expert on the topic!

I get it if you’re some 20 year old, just cut the apron strings and you’re trying to fall asleep in front of a phone blasting blue-spectrum light into your eyes. Blue spectrum light is known to mimic natural light for our bodies, delaying or preventing the appropriate production of melatonin – again for want of a better term the ‘sleep’ hormone. Although it doesn’t quite make you fall asleep as much as it makes you drowsy and regulates your body’s sleep rhythm, taking a lot of cues from light.

The modern face of insomnia is ALWAYS someone with their full-blue-light phone screen beaming into their face. Whilst there is evidence that increased screen time has decreased sleep quality in some people pinning all of the blame on personal habits is an easy cop out. What’s more an increasing number of manufacturers are including night-modes in their devices that shift the colour spectrum of the screen to red in order to prevent the negative effects of blue spectrum light on melatonin production.
Consider, for example, the year and a half we’ve just been through. Everyone’s dead or dying of a novel virus sweeping across the world, the United States has seen record temperatures, Greece and Turkey are now one giant barbeque, we’ve seen floods, fires and untold misery and yet I bet there are people who still want to blame sleeplessness on people looking at their damn phones too much! Get the fuck out! It’s a serious problem, and even where it is a personal failure in understanding the routines of good sleep those people need education, not judgement.
(Credit:https://www.myupchar.com/en CC-BY-SA 4.0)

People like that may need some help or advice on ensuring healthy sleep.

But I’m an autistic, lifelong sleep wrestler, in his thirties, who is quite biologically literate. Telling me to turn off my devices at an appropriate time, use apps or settings for night (phones and computers tend to have these night-modes where they shift the colour spectrum they are putting out to the red-end. This is a lot more conducive to melatonin production). Most of the time I’m getting advice about how best to sleep you can bet your arse I’ve been there, done that and still got the sleepless night. So what’s going on?

Well, welcome to the weird and wonderful world of individual physiology! Something that has long been touted as ‘the future of medicine’ with promises of individually tailored doses of individually selected medicines to cure all your ills, except it never really comes to pass, does it? Especially since many GPs can’t even be bothered to check your notes or keep up to date with research regarding your specific, life-long states such as – you know – autism!

Let me explain my bitterness, a bitterness I have explained numerous times to numerous doctors only to be met with a familiar one-size-fits-all approach.

Autistic people are fucked when it comes to regulatory hormonal systems. They just work differently and not necessarily well! Co-morbidity (two conditions that often go together) of autism and sleep disturbance is probably as close to 100% as you can get! As well as the regular associated nervous, repetitive behaviours we’re already looking at a guaranteed messed up management of cortisol, so welcome to the world of stress.

It is so nice to be born with a condition that makes me susceptible to all these wonderful things! Of which I expect I’m only untouched by epilepsy, mercifully. I haven’t been diagnosed ADHD but when I had my autism assessment they recommended I also go through the diagnostic channels for that too. I never bothered! Very autistic of me! (Credit: MissLunaRose12 CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Studies have also shown that melatonin production in autistic individuals can be a little messed up and so is GABA regulation.

So what you’ve got is a group of people whose endogenous hormonal regulatory systems for sleep and relaxation are just FUCKED. I’m not even ‘We Lack Disciplining’ this language! If I was a high profile professor giving the most important lecture of my life about this topic I would still use the descriptor ‘FUCKED’. It genuinely is fucked.

People with autistic spectrum conditions or neurodivergent conditions suffer and struggle constantly to maintain the same kind of baseline of relaxation and sleep pattern not because they’re a bunch of uppity, annoying  special snowflakes – but because their bodies innate regulatory mechanisms just do not work like neurotypical peoples’ do. There is a wealth of evidence to support this.

People who sleep badly tend to die younger of conditions like heart disease or stroke. They probably would be likely to self-medicate, drinking or taking drugs to help them sleep, and giving themselves the complications of being a habitual user of those substances. People are literally dying 10-20 years too soon because of a collective failure to recognise that sleep problems are not a moral failing but likely a complex collection of physiological and psychological symptoms.

So how do we deal with these problems? Surely doctors must be tripping over themselves to prevent this health menace akin to smoking?

Based upon World Health Organisation data of ‘disability adjusted life years’ – that’s a measure of how many years of life are lost due to a specific illness or disability, in this case insomnia. Basically areas in red are losing approximately 70-80 years of life per 100,000 people due to insomnia. Insomnia is literally killing people! GLOBALLY! Our attitudes toward sleep and sleep problems need a dramatic shift! (credit: Lokal_Profil CC-BY-SA 2.5)

Nope.

I’ve expressed to every medical professional my issues with sleep, how my disturbed sleep is directly implicated in my prior problems with drugs and alcohol. Do you think they sent me to a sleep clinic or an addiction group?

I use my GP as a last resort (always – I’m autistic, I don’t like using phones, asking for help or having to meet strangers – a doctors surgery is like hell to me!) so by the time my surgery gets a call from me to discuss sleep issues I am already at the end of my tether. Yet they seem to take it as ‘Night 1’, the first disturbance.

Because of my prior addiction issues doctors are hesitant to prescribe me the drugs I know work – the ones that are so effective at working they can immediately halt the dependence on substances I was allegedly ‘addicted’ to. It is almost as if sleep, not addiction, is the problem! But I’m being bitter. I have also discussed the research about autistic people and their sleep-system regulatory hormone issues.

I’m not fit to give prescription advice but in my opinion a healthy supply of low dose melatonin, and controlled access to hypnotic drugs can make a huge difference. I’ve been there and done it so many times. I know I can reset my body clock in three days by using a solid routine, supplementary melatonin and zopiclone – for example.

So surely it’s easy for me to ask my GP for this?

Nuh-uh! Hypnotic drugs, any drugs that act upon the GABA systems – the key relaxey-system in our bodies, is pretty much a no-no for any GP in the UK thanks to NICE guidelines that basically boil down to ‘if people could use it for fun don’t prescribe it ever.’

A lot of biochemistry in this. The ball-and-stick model of Zopiclone, it is a sedative that increases transmission of GABA. GABA is a neurotransmitter (basically a nerve messenger) that binds to its receptors to communicate the need to reduce neuronal excitability. IT LITERALLY CALMS YOUR NERVES! Studies have shown people on the autistic spectrum have GABA systems that are not as effective as the rest of the neurotypical population. So effectively every single neurodiverse person is walking around, tredding on eggshells, feeling nervous all the time because we lack either a) serum levels of an endogenous drug other people have a decent amount of or b) sufficiently high numbers of receptors for the serum neurotransmitter to bind on to and take effect. How are we dealing with this issue? With the fact that everyone but autistic people gets to feel naturally relaxed? We deny them medication that can help because people might abuse it. NOT OF IT’S PROPERLY MANAGED THEY WOULDN’T! Oh, it frustrates me so much. Careful management of GABA systems in neurodiverse individuals who choose such a path could significantly improve their quality of life but, uh oh, at one time doctors gave out sedatives like candy and created a problem for themselves so we’d better deny them access to the medications that could improve their quality of life! It’s ridiculous and speaks to a ludicrous, anachronistic relationship with drugs. That’s an article for another time! (Credit: MarinaVladivostok, Public Domain)

Despite my records stating quite unequivocally that I do not have drug seeking behaviour, I have genuine, regular sleep issues that I have a pretty effective system for using these drugs to deal with, doctors are loathe to prescribe them.

This is despite me having a condition, autism, that is co-morbid with dysfunction of our natural GABA production and absorption systems! I like to use the metaphor of water. Imagine if a solid 98% of the population NEVER got dehydrated. Their body’s systems just worked, they were efficient in their water processing. Then you, poor little 2%er, turn up at your GP and you’re like “I’m thirsty doc!” and your GP was like “Nah you ain’t, 98% of people aren’t! You’re just here because you’re a water addict!” (side note: we’re literally all water addicts. Definitely do not try quitting that shit cold turkey!) But this person isn’t some liquid junkie. Their body’s water processing systems are broken. You’re denying a person dying of dehydration a prescribed drink because their physiology is minority. It’s fucked! This is what we do with people on the spectrum and GABA agonists.

Back when I had my GP, a doctor who knew me, knew my family – he’d even been my grandfather’s GP – this was not a problem. There was a relationship. Once, this was after he had ‘retired’, so I had been used to arguing with various other GPs who were recommending me yoghurt (something he tutted at) or prescribing me those awful anti-histamines, anyway in the midst of all this he returned, briefly, to fill in for staff shortages and I was lucky enough to get an appointment He practically showered me in the prescriptions like a ticker-tape parade!

He said it was quite clear that I suffer with persistant sleep problems, I’m sensible in my use of the drugs and there’s no reason I shouldn’t be prescribed them. Effectively he said these other doctors were being a little precious about it, which I found quite heartening.

And I think, as a society, we’re precious about it.

Have a sleepy cat! Most of these images have been rants against the medical cartels who want so desperately a one-size-fits-all model of medicine that is just practically and biologically impossible. Sometimes you just need to chill with a sleepy cat. (Credit: Public Domain via Piqsels)

“How do you sleep at night?” We ask of people who do horrible things.

For us sleep is a moral issue, a virtue. Those who sleep well must be happy and comfortable in their own lives, they must be good people.

We bury people in nonsensical suggestions of things that can help. We judge them for their inability. We call them ‘sleepyhead’ or ‘lazybones’ when they drag themselves from what seems like less of a bed and more a temporary coffin, in which they got a light drizzle of sleep compared to your downpour of rest and relaxation.

We see their lethargy and inattention and instead of being concerned for someone struggling we tell them to get their act together. Piling stress upon stress to give them more things to fill their head chock-full of so they can struggle to sleep the very next night.

I can tell you, no matter how much you know about the biology of sleep, by the time you’ve had 2-4 weeks on a reduced sleep you WILL feel like it’s your fault, your failure and something you’re doing wrong. It’s horrible.

dis me (Credit: Giphy)

So what’s the point of this article – there’s hardly any references, it’s basically just one long semi-informative rant.

Look, I’ve just spent a solid 2-3 months having my sleep slowly degrade in quality as I try to wrestle it back. I used every trick in the book, every technique I knew and I couldn’t stop it. As a result my thinking was affected, my work slowed to close to a halt and it upset me because I’ve loved nothing more than my walks in nature, writing articles about cats and feeling like a boss!

Recovery is not as simple as getting a good night’s sleep. I did that last night (MERCIFULLY!) but I still feel exhausted. You accrue what is known as ‘sleep debt’ and the longer your troubles continue the more you owe. It can take weeks to get back into a solid schedule – during which time you will probably be sleeping more. If you have kids, or a job that needs you to wake up early you’re basically screwed. Alarms are your worst enemy when it comes to recovering sleep debt!

I feel a lack of sympathy from people when it comes to sleep. Again, there is a heavy suggestion it is your own fault if you’re not sleeping well but that’s just flat bullshit! We need to be more compassionate about these issues. Not sleeping is as close to a genuine, horror-movie level curse as we get in real life. It’s literal torture (seriously, sleep deprivation is torture, I’ve hallucinated on a lack of sleep before – your brain gets fucking trippy!). It’s no joke, it’s no laughing matter and it’s a complex physiological and psychological issue that is going to require a significant effort to manage.

But we need to change the way we think about it.

Want to read about more horrible mind-states, conditions and stuff that affects me?

My Life and Learned Helplessness
My Life and the Halo Effect
My Life and Executive Dysfunction
My Life and Autism
My Life and Intolerance to Uncertainty
My Life and Rejection
My Life and Disappointment

Cats in Culture

The iconic Maneki Neko, originally of Japan but so wonderfully charismatic a cat that it is popular across Asia. There are legends about how this cat came to be, usually involving a cat beckoning a wealthy stranger away from danger (often a lightning strike) and into the safety of a temple. Suggesting that cats may be linked to the spiritual but also turning them into mascots of good luck and good fortune. I love these lucky arm-wavey cats. (Credit: Jakub Hałun, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

A bit of weird one, and a break from our usual bio-bios of the ‘Caturday Special’ series but on the day on which people celebrate the cat what could be better than to reflect on the representation of cats throughout human history and societies.

I explained in my domestic cat article that the humble little wildcat-turned-domestic was effectively a self-domesticating marvel. Little wonder, then, that they captured the hearts of many people throughout history. But the human journey with the cat does not begin with our friends in agricultural pursuits. Long before cats were our friends and co-habiting with us they are both a threat and an idol.

The Löwenmensch or Lion-Man – estimated to be between 35,000 and 40,000 years old it represent an exceptional feat of crafting and was clearly made with some reverence. What significance did big cats have to our prehistoric relatives? (Credit: Dagmar Hollmann / Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 4.0)

It’s clear early humans looked at large cats with some reverence. Do we have evidence of this? Of course! From cave paintings of lots of animals, including lion-like cats, to the Löwenmensch, the statue of a lion-man found in a cave in Germany.

The Löwenmensch is fascinating. Estimated to be between 35,000-40,000 years old based upon radio-carbon dating, and carved with stone tools out of mammoth ivory. It is a beautiful work of art in its own right. What’s even more amazing about it, though, is the task of creating this 30cm tall figurine would have been painstaking.

Whatever drove the artisan or artisans of these people to perform that undertaking, it was clear that this zoomorphic (human represented as an animal) depiction was important. What does it represent? Is it an embodiment, a desire for them to be more cat, to be successful hunters like lions? What did they see in lions, in big cats, what behaviours, what fear did they have of their abilities to inspire such reverence? The time, effort and resources to make such a sculpture for what we assume was a fairly subsistence culture is truly unbelievable! This carving meant something!

The cave paintings we have, probably the most famous of which are the Chauvet cave paintings in France, are likely a little more recent than the Löwenmensch. The Chauvet paintings are estimated to be around 30,000 years old, the famous Lascaux paintings around 17,000 years old. Unlike the Löwenmensch these also depict multiple animals, not merely focussing on one specific one.

A recreation of the Lions Panel of the Chauvet Cave Paintings. It is believed they likely represent the Eurasian cave lion (Panthera spelaea) and clearly observation of scenes such as these were important to the people who drew them. What did they think of these animals? What was their significance to them? Is this merely a representation of what was, or does it have some symbolic significance? (Credit: some artist/artists 30,000 years ago via Claude Valette, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

The depiction of what seems to be a group of, likely, Eurasian cave lions, in Chauvet, however shows that observing cats was important.

I talked in our lion article and our cave lion article about how humans and lions are sort of linked, radiating out of Africa at around the same time, both migrating and adapting to new conditions. Predators don’t tend to mess with other predators too much, but early humans would definitely have been a target for lions, and the same pride we see in humans today may have turned that from a fear into a contest. Hunter versus hunter.

I like to imagine humans and lions like two great boxers; Ali and Frazier or Tyson and Holyfield; bitter, embattled rivals. How can you look upon such a person, in hindsight, with anything like genuine hatred? They may be a competitor, even an existential danger, but they do what you want to do so well that they just make you want to be better.

Move forward a few thousand years and humans are starting to do some new and weird stuff, like ‘settling’. Previously considered to have been in small tribes, semi or completely nomadic and hunter-gatherers, humans instead realise that by staying put, cultivating the land and grazing livestock they can find a perfectly comfortable life in one spot. This itself leads to what we know of as ‘civilisation’ – larger groups of people, settled into communities, working together.

Cats would grow incredibly important in the midst of this increasing agriculturisation. One of the key aspects of an agrarian culture versus a hunter-gatherer one is cultivating one’s own food. This requires surplus. At the very least it necessitates keeping seed-grain in store so that it can be brought out next year for planting. This requires storage and storage is liable to invasion from ‘pests’.

This is how it is believed the relationship between humans and small cats developed the closeness it currently has. We did not bring cats to our settlements to control pests, they came to hunt the pests and domesticated themselves. It’s an incredible mutualism and it is not surprising to find that around 10,000 years ago, there is evidence of humans having close relationships with feline companions.

Until recently it was believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to domesticate small cats. There is huge evidence supporting domestic cats in Ancient Egypt dating back around 4,000 years or more. However, the discovery of a grave in Cyprus led to a massive revision in that date. This discovery at the Neolithic site of Shillourokambos was of a human skeleton and a feline skeleton (closely resembling an African wildcat, Felis silvestris lybica) presented at least some evidence of close human relationships prior to the Egyptians.

The infamous Neolithic skeleton from Shillourokambos, Cyprus (near modern Limassol) This is the oldest known example of a human seemingly buried deliberately with a cat. What does this mean? Is it likely that human had a domestic relationship, a pet-like situation, with the cat? It certainly seems likely. (Credit: Science Magazine, Used without Permission)

Why does it suggest this? Could it not merely be a native cat? No, because wildcats were not present in Cyprus at the time. It must have been brought over by human activity.

It should come as no surprise, then, that ancient cultures across the Fertile Crescent, Asia, the Middle-East, Europe and Africa that have left evidence of their past for us to inspect have also left evidence of their relationships with cats.

The lion-headed warrior Goddess Sekhmet. (Credit: Jeff Dahl by GFDL)

The Egyptians famously adored cats. The stories of their worship and respect for cats dominate. The idea that it was illegal to harm a cat, legends of defeats at the hands of Persians using the symbol of the cat, so feared by Egyptians, as a weapon, are easy to spin a sentimental web with.  By around 3000 BCE the Goddess, Bastet, appears, with her worship being centred on her main temple in Bubastis.

Bastet is an incredible goddess, initially being depicted with the head of a lion and associated with Sekhmet, the two ‘characters’ eventually diverged. Sekhmet became the lion-headed warrior Goddess, whilst Bastet morphed into a smaller-headed cat, more akin to a domestic cat, and came to represent the homely aspect, the domestic!

We see not only a remarkable evolution of deities and worship, but a shift in the consideration of the cat as a whole. For thousands of years the cats of Egypt were likely appreciated for killing crop and grain-store pests, helping maintain the full bellied prosperity of the Ancient Egyptian people. In time this protection, the killing of pests that cause us harm, of things like snakes, gave them a regal, hunter’s air. This was our divine warrior, our protector.

Bastet – Initially represented, as Sekhmet, as a lion-headed goddess, later on Bastet would come to be a goddess of hearth and home, of domesticity, and would have her lion-head replaced with that of a smaller cat. (Credit: Gunawan Kartapranata CC-BY-SA 3.0)

So those others who considered themselves divine, the pharaohs, took them in. Which led to a fashion of others taking them in. This created an entire culture of feline doting and also, presumably, showed to the ancient Egyptians the side of cats we know today.

As a hunter cats are seemingly sublime. Their form, movements, methods etc. are all incredible. However, once sated and with the right temperament the cat is a stone-cold darling! Cute little purry floofballs who you can just look at curled up on a cushion and stare at them for hours just admiring how adorable they are.

We softened cats, just not in reality! The sheer numbers of small rodents, birds and other fauna killed across the domestic cat’s habitat is a testament to the fact that they are still the lion-headed protectors of old! No, we softened cats in our minds. We came to understand them symbolically not as a hunter, but as a comfortable, settled creature.

What’s really remarkable, though, is the seeming universality of this.

It was not only ancient Egyptian culture that developed a homely Goddess of the humble cat.

Ancient China has skeletal evidence, from Quanhucan, of potential small cat domestication dating back around 5,300 years. Analysis of the bones to determine diet suggests these cats were getting a healthy dose of grain with their protein. Being obligate carnivores who seldom eat a significant amount of anything not-protein, and since cats do not naturally hunt millet or spelt it is likely they obtained this grain by eating China’s crop and seed pests.  

They also have a similar reputation and role as protectors of harvest and fertility.

They also have myths about their cuteness, playfulness and capriciousness!

A Ming Dynasty Guardian Lion – Believed to have been based on the Asiatic lion, this is a male (depicted with a ball) whereas the females are usually depicted with cubs. They are divine protectors and these sculptures would have been the reserve of people who could afford such divine protection! (Credit: Leonard G. CC-BY-SA)

Although I can find a significant amount of detail about the minor cat goddess Li Shou what I can’t find, unfortunately, is the source. The tale goes thus, however.

The Gods were seeking something to be in charge of the Earth, and after presumably having a formal interview process with the various candidates instead decided to give the role to the cat, Li Shou. Li Shou, however, was a cat. Instead of doing her due diligence she looked at the world, saw that it was good and so had a kip under a cherry tree. The world went to pot and the Gods were like “Cat, please!?” But Li Shou did it again, patrolling, finding a nice spot and having a nap. The Gods were displeased and said “Li Shou, up your game! The world’s going crazy! Stop falling asleep under cherry trees!” So she didn’t. Next time instead of falling asleep under cherry trees she was either distracted chasing a falling leaf or a butterfly, and played with it.

The Gods had finally had enough and we like “Li Shou, we love ya but you’re shit!” and the cat being a cat just shrugged and went “Eh, maybe I’m not good for the job.” So the Gods were in a pickle. Who was going to look after the Earth? Li Shou looked around at the first mugs who were available, who happened to be a human couple, and was like “Why not them?”

So the Gods put the humans in charge as custodians of the Earth, gifting humans the ability to talk but sadly robbing the cats of their ability to talk.

It’s a beautiful tale, it really is, and speaks so deeply to our observations of the small cat. They are lethargic during the day, to say the least. Cats are known to sleep up to 18 hours a day and this is reflected in the tale. But they are also delightfully playful and active.

What’s more the cat’s humility and independence, the fact that this cat doesn’t seem to have been afraid of the Gods, or afraid of her nature. Instead of feeling hard done by having lost the ability to speak the cat was happy to give the responsibility to the humans and just go cat about.

This strong-minded independence recognised by the ancient peoples of China was also one of the things the ancient peoples of Europe liked about them, specifically the Romans. To Romans a cat was a symbol of freedom and independence.

It’s why we don’t hear about them much in Roman culture. They were much more passionate about their dogs, or keeping birds than they were about ‘domesticating’ cats. Instead they respected them as they were. Cats, to them, were hunters, mascots, who would keep your grain or your equipment safe from potential nibblers.

One of surprisingly few representations of a small, domestic-type cat in Roman art. From the Triclinium (the dining room) of the House of the Faun in Pompeii it shows a tabby-colouration cat attacking a fowl. Given the fact that Romans did not often depict or talk about cats much there is some suggestion the mosaic artist may have originally been Alexandrian, from Alexandria in Egypt, where depictions of cats were more common. (Credit: Mary Harrsch CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In this sense there was, for no desire to come up with a better pseudo-Roman term, felinitas. Much as a person had humanitas, or humanity, and the culture set up for the pursuit of greatness by individuals, it seems as though the humans of that time respected cats not for their utility to them, but the utility they provided independently. The Romans respected cats for this independence and felinitas.

The Greek relationship, unsurprisingly, is complicated. It is unsurprising because Ancient Greece was not necessarily a unified culture, a common nation working to one goal. Rather it was a series of separate city states that would unite, forming leagues or alliances. As a result what passes as fashion in Athens may not pass in Ephesus. The opinion of cats in Epirus or Macedonia may not have been the same in Sparta or Rhodes. What’s more, when do you mean in Greek history? It’s all very situational.

Cats were almost certainly kept as pets or pest control in Greece. In some areas it is likely that Egyptian ideas of cat respect and worship were adopted. In other areas a more Roman attitude towards them was likely, it varied.

The Parthenon, the temple of Athena on Athens’ Akropolis, has likely seen many cats over the years (though few, like this one, led guided tours) however whilst it is almost certain the Greeks had cats, possibly kept cats or at least tolerated them, they do not have many dominant images, in text or art, of smaller cats. (Credit: ristok CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Of course Romans and Greeks weren’t the only ancient people with a healthy respect for cats in their role as independent hunters. A story in the Mahabharata (book 12) tells the tale of a mouse (Palita) and a cat (Lomasa).

Palita and Lomasa both lived around a massive banyan tree, the mouse in a hole and the cat lived among the branches hunting the birds. One day a hunter set up a trap and caught Lomasa in it, leaving some bait or meat behind. The mouse came to get the meat and found the mongoose (Harita) and the owl (Chandraka) waiting.

If Palita remained where he was the owl would snatch him up, if he scarpered back to the ground, Harita would hunt him down. As a result the mouse made an unlikely ally.

Palita made peace with Lomasa and said he would release the cat to pay back for his protection.

There’s a bit of back-and-forth but the upshot is the mouse won’t free the cat until the hunter is in sight. That way there is no danger to Palita as Lomasa will be more interested in running away from the hunter to kill the mouse.

Far from being a Aesopian exploration on ‘nature’ there is a huge amount about this story that is a lot more human and complex. It is not merely about a mouse distrusting a cat, but a mouse overcoming that fear to make a situational ally. Neither the cat, nor the mouse, deceive each other. As far as I can tell there is no betrayal, the cat does not get the mouse, the mouse does not turn into a Jerry and start terrorising the cat. Rather they find a mutually beneficial situation, negotiate a peaceful solution that benefits both of them and then both go their separate ways, mainly based upon the wisdom of Palita who is a surprisingly politically astute mouse.

The setting of the story of the cat and the mouse comes from the Shanti Parva, the Book of Peace, the 12th book of the Mahabharata. In this book the war has just ended and the new ruler of Pandava, Yudhishthira, seeks to understand what has happened and how best to lead his people. He consults with sages, including the dying former King and warrior Bhishma, who I believe tells the tale of the cat and the mouse. (Credit: Hindi Gita Press Mahabharata, Public Domain)

The whole tale is about trust and weirdly a philosophy that I find resonant. It’s a surprisingly psychologically astute observation of relationship behaviours. One can only ever be a situational friend or ally. Circumstances dictate the closeness of a relationship and those circumstances often rely on one or both parties obtaining some benefit. It’s not that a cat and a mouse can’t be friends. It’s that a mouse could never be friends with, say, a starving cat. How will you know if the cat is starving? Well if it is scoping to munch you, it doesn’t matter how friendly you are, the cat likely will say nothing.

There’re aspects of break-ups, fallings out with friends or family, politics and the whole she-bang of human social organisation in this little cat and mouse tale.

The most remarkable thing about this historical representation of the cat, this astute observation of complex human relationships? Whilst the Sanskrit text of the Mahabharata dates to around 400 CE, it likely traces its roots back to a much older oral tradition from the Vedic period (around 1,500-1000 BCE) and the Indus Valley cultures. For anyone who wants to suggest modern understandings of human behaviour are ‘more advanced’ I say you’re tripping and people have been musing on being people for a lot longer than we might suspect.

We go back to those representations of pre-history, the Löwenmensch, cave paintings etc. and it makes me wonder about the use of natural symbolism in human storytelling. That connection to nature, that respect that is so evident in the Löwenmensch figure is still present tens of thousands of years later in traditional stories.

It should come as no surprise then that a culture seemingly animal obsessed in which the main man Odin rides an eight-legged horse and has raven companions to find that Freyja, the Norse goddess, rode a chariot pulled by two grey cats, Bygul and Trjegul.

Yup, even Norse culture has its divine cats and Freyja’s cats are actually a fascinating study in the duality of feminine sexuality – something I’ve been thinking an awful lot about recently.

No, I’m not just horny, I’ve been writing chapter-by-chapter analysis of the novel ‘The Bet’ by author Vivienne Tuffnell, that deals a lot with female sexuality.

Freyja and her cat-drawn chariot (truly living the dream). Clearly a quite absurd image but what, then, does it mean? What is the significance of the cats being toms, male cats under the whip of this goddess of love and lust, of the unity of family and the division of warfare? Freyja is a many layered goddess and this scenario is, for all it’s silliness, actually incredibly layered and could be an article in its own right! (Credit: Emil Doepler, Public Domain)

For one thing Freyja’s cats are both toms, both male, yet they are very much ‘of the feminine’. They are slender, pretty, seen and not heard, tender, loving; every extant misogynist feminine expectation in the book. They embodied the essence of Freyja herself.

All the way down to be down-and-dirty fuckers and merciless killers. Freyja is not just the goddess of fertility, love and beauty. She is a goddess of sex, of war and of gold.

These cats reflect that. On the one hand the cat is a tender, fluffy cuddle-buddy. At the same time if you touch them the wrong way they’ll bite your fucking hand off and if you’ve seen one playing with a mouse you’ll know they’re cold! They don’t give a shit for the suffering of their prey, they just want to kill it.

But they reflect the changing roles of women, too. This is a dominant feminine goddess dominating two male animals. Particularly important in Norse cultures, where we have evidence of female warriors, we have documentation of shield-maidens, there is an acknowledgement of feminine strength and independence that is reflected so well by the symbol of the cat.

We see the cat becoming a symbol in a sense we could recognise it today. How many cat food adverts, when referring to the cat, use feminine pronouns? It’s a lot of ‘em, right!? We engender animals, objects, roles and symbols – rightly or wrongly.

Sheba cat food is one I particularly think of with regards to the feminisation of cats and keeping cats as pets. Their food is advertised very much as a luxury line and had ads that are like…weirdly similar to chocolate ads but presumably aimed at cat-mums! The cats are presented as demure, feminine, in need of pampering and luxury. In many ways an anachronistic stereotype they are probably going to have to move away from. (Credit: www.homejobsbymom.com, CC-BY-2.0)

You see, so much of how we consider cats is removed from the cats themselves. To an extent all cultural representation of cats is merely fabrication, the human imagination at work. That’s not to say the Löwenmensch is unimportant, Egyptian cat worship is not worth studying or Freyja’s noble chariot-pullers should be disregarded. Rather I am suggesting looking at these depictions of cats teaches us a lot more about our cultures, hopes, fears, expectations, values etc. than it teaches us anything about cats!

Speaking of which, let’s look at the reception of cats in the middle-ages of Europe.

They allegedly kinda hated them.

I’m not gonna say who was in real control of the Catholic Church at the time, but let’s just say Bishop Tiddles has a lot to gain by purging the world of his competition. (Credit: some amazing 15th century German artist!, via J Paul Getty Collection, Public Domain)

I’m not going to out-and-out blame Christians, although it’s definitely their fault. However they were being led by fucking superstitious idiots who, seeing evidence of so much pagan ritual symbolism of cats, decided they were definitely doing the devil’s work.

Pope Gregory IX issued the Papal Bull ‘Vox in Rama’ in June 1233. The intention was to damn Luciferianism, the worship of Lucifer associated with a huge amount of the Gnostic tradition purged out of Europe by supposedly righteous people committing the darkest, most evil of actions – funnily enough justifying a bit more Gnosticism in Christianity.

So why make a villain of the cat? Well, because apparently devil worshippers would make black cat statues come to life and shit. I don’t know, it’s mad superstitious nonsense, to be quite honest. I’m a harsh critic of Christianity, or organised religion in general, for the fantastical joyride of bullshit it tends to take people on. Basically people had to kiss a black cat’s arse to initiate themselves into the devil’s rites.

However this was not a Papal Bull issued specifically to encourage Christian persecution of cats. Rather it was a smear on their name that would likely lead to dismissive and cruel attitudes towards cats.

Erm, allegedly a wild cat being chased by dogs and hunters. Fairly certain that’s just a hairy, grey man, though! (Credit: Unknown 15th century French artist who’d never seen a cat, via J Paul Getty Collection, Public Domain)

Pope Innocent VIII of the 15th century would describe cats as “The Devil’s favourite animal…” continuing the hatred and persecution of cats in Christian Europe. How far would this go? Cat burnings – where people would just set a net full of cats above a fire and revel as they presumably howled in pain and died horribly. Dead cats were often placed in or around houses as some weird ward of evil and symbol of good luck. Sometimes they would be enclosed alive, built in, immured in the walls or under floorboards.

The same absurd lust for suffering that caused the pursuit of witch hunts, inquisitions and even full blown wars between nations was propped up, supported, by this ridiculous symbol – the cat as evil! Even today some countries and cultures maintain superstitions about cats, especially black cats.

A 1555 German woodcut of…a…cat…with…a dick…in it’s mouth. Being offered a fish as a replacement. WHAT THE FUCK WERE THEY DOING!? (Credit: Can’t seem to find any indication so assumed Public Domain and thanks weird German woodcut artist!)

It should be said that there is no evidence that this was done regularly or en masse. It is almost certain that there was not such a significant persecution of cats that it led directly to the Black Death and the spread of plague, as some suggest. Did it happen? Probably. Was it widespread? Possibly. Was it regular, organised and effectively an attempt to wipe out a species? Likely not. Did it cause plague? Absolutely not.

But what these stories provide for us is yet another tale in the role of cat symbolism in human culture and how the portrayal of an animal can lead to actual actions. Did the Catholic Church start a church-sanctioned campaign of killing cats? Almost certainly not. Did the Catholic Church publicising cats as suspicious, superstitious and of the devil cause some people to perform horrible actions? Probably. All of it, though, is entirely fabricated by people for people. The cat was merely a convenient symbol.

Sir Ian McKellen, only he’s given up on life and turned into a cat. I have no idea what’s going on here either. Apparently it’s a medieval era painting of a cat but I can’t find where it’s from exactly. To be honest, look at it! I think this poor kitto should just be left the hell alone to feel its misery in peace! (Credit: No idea…I literally have no idea who painted it, nor where the fuck they got the idea cats look like that. Presumed Public Domain)

What’s quite likely is that outside of urban settings, and despite the opinions of the Popes and the Catholic Church, in rural communities at least cats probably maintained their regard as solid hunters that help keep your shit in order.

Thankfully some of these people, artists in particular, were just as enamoured with cat pics as we are on the internet today and have provided many charming drawings of cats that I shall include to a) remind you that there was no universal hatred of cats in Europe and b) they’re just basically medieval cat memes!

I hear this was the most popular sitcom of its day. It was called ‘Weirdly proportioned cat people living an oddly human life for some reason’ – they didn’t need catchy titles or concepts back then. This was before ‘The Good Place’ revolutionised what situation comedies could be. (Credit: No one deserves any credit for this!)

Through the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment our opinions of cats in Europe shifted again. To an extent, during this time, cats became almost a symbol of the human dominance of nature. As art, science and industry progressed our opinions of both cats and our own place in nature, was changing. Cats and their instincts became a representation, perhaps, of the taming of humans themselves. The hunter brought in from the wild, whose natural instincts are turned to other pursuits like science, sports or invention.

Hmm, he does a better job than a lot of artists at the time but let’s be honest, even Leonardo da Vinci was a bit shit at drawing cats, though apparently he enjoyed studying them very much. (Credit: Da Vinci via Ωméga *, CC-BY-NC 2.0)

The world’s first major modern cat show was put on at Crystal Palace in 1871. The popularity of the cat spread and today the internet is basically propped up on a foundation of funny cats, from ‘I Can Has Cheezburger?’ through Lil’ Bub and Grumpy Cat, we are now elevating individual cats to the status of celebrity.

Whether we’re conforming to old legends like Meowth in Pokémon being a representation of the Japanese Maneki Neko – the wonderful cat of good luck who beckons people to safety and prosperity;

A Meowth! Pokémon number #52 (Did I look that up on Google, yes…Why? Because I thought it was 51! Yeah I’m a nerd!) from the original 151 Pokémon, the Meowth is based off of the Japanese Maneki Neko – the lucky cats you often see waving their arms. They became very popular across China and other Asian countries too. (Credit: Brian Miller CC-BY-2.0)

Whether we’re representing old prejudices, such as with Salem the cat from Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the typical, sarcastic witch’s black cat;

Salem Saberhagen; the teenage witch, Sabrina’s, sarcastic companion! Playing up to the pop-culture derived notion that witches had black cats that links all the way back to the idea of a black cat statue getting its arse kissed is in some way a Satanic initiation rite! It is amazing how tiny details like that can make it into a collective cultural symbology. (Credit: Copyright whoever the hell owns the OG Sabrina series, used without permission)

Whether their capacity for mischief and getting themselves into trouble leads us to consider how to “Hang In There, Baby;”

Seemingly dating back to 1971, motivational posters (that would set the tone for meme images to come decades later) like these ‘Hang in There’ cat showed up in various guises, usually featuring a cat clinging to a pole or a stick and the slogan “Hang in There, Baby.” (Credit: Ann Althouse, CC-BY-NC 2.0)
Sassy the cat from Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey – a highly controversial film for its use of, and the potential treatment of, its animal actors. (Credit: Copyright Disney, image exceptionally small so presumably they don’t sue arses off people, used without permission)

Or whether they’re just a begrudgingly loyal companion who, despite their attitude, just want to go home and have some food and some pets like Sassy from ‘Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey’ (itself a 1993 remake of the 1963 Disney movie ‘The Incredible Journey’ based upon a novel by Shiela Burnford);

The fact is that cats have always, and likely will always be important to human culture. In some cases we use the dark mystique (e.g. Le Chat Noir in Montmartre, Paris, with that iconic poster, that clearly uses the superstition of black cats to draw people to their theatre/entertainment venue), in some cases we use their power and majesty to manipulate children into eating an unhealthily carb-loaded breakfast (Tony the Tiger the Kellogg’s mascot for Frosties, or Frosted Flakes) and in some cases we just like cats doing cat stuff (the internet) – It all demonstrates the fabulous complexity, the layered structure of human symbolism.

I’m a biologist first and foremost. Cats are cats. They need to cat about doing cat things to keep being cats. They just cat!

Many of us in Europe and, likely, around the world will recognise this strinking image of a black cat by Théophile Steinlen. As well as the club for which it was designed this iconic poster, invoking the demonic mystique of the black cat, has also adorned bedroom walls and also quite a nice little French style café in Cardiff. Highly recommend their croque madame. (Credit: Son of Groucho CC-BY-2.0)

But the human mind doesn’t work that way and it creates densely layered meanings that are, much like the idea of friends and foes in the tale of Lomasa and Palita from the Mahabharata, very situational. What this or that cat means may be different between different cultures. The Christian suspicion of the cat is not matched by Islam, where the tale is that the distinct tabby ‘M’ marking on their forehead was bestowed upon them when the Prophet Mohammed touched a cat on the head. Japan has a literal cat island full of feral cats whilst other nations invest heavily in purging their towns and cities of ferals. The Lion King created a couple of generations of people who would grow to venerate lions whilst people who actually have to live side by side may struggle to hold a positive opinion when they snatch a cow in an opportunistic fit of hunger. It is not about ‘what do cats mean as a symbol?’ as it is ‘what cats mean what symbols to what people at what time?’. It’s a lot more layered.

I saw when I did my ‘Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals’ series just how incredibly important to conservation the recognition of an animal on its own terms was. So much of human understanding of the natural world is tied not to actual facts and observations but to myths, reputations and symbols.

This is something that will have to be educated out. Our cultures are foundational, they are the soil in which we plant roots and draw the most from, but that does not mean it is always good for us, or give us a solid idea of what the truth is.

The internet is made of cats. (Credit: RatherGood)

In terms of animals this means reputations based on little more than religious fashion and trend, the benefits of association or the perils of damnation. Humans are capable of a great deal of cruelty in the names of all sorts of beliefs, good or bad – regardless, those actions will be rooted in a foundational culture and the means by which that culture represents its animals will determine how those people consider or treat them.

What’s certain, though, is much as ancient cultures like the Egyptians left behind a solid legacy to the cat, the preservation of the internet is a future key aspect of ensuring the humans to-come understand our present relationship with cats, and the differences in those relationships between cultures.

This article was released on International Cat Day 2021! Happy Cat Day, Everyone!

You can CAT-ch up with our Caturday Specials here

Caturday Special: The Origin StoryProailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined.
Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats.
Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage!
Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster.
Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here.
Caturday Special: The Cougar – The second biggest cat in the Americas is actually more closely related to your domestic moggy than the lion! Learn more!
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Lynx – One of my continent’s most handsome predators and one that certain groups are looking to get reintroduced to the UK after a 1,000 year absence in the hope it will control rabbit and roe deer numbers. I’m all for it!
Caturday Special: Hybrids – Looking at the phenomenon of hybrid species, with focus on cats like the liger, the pumapard and the Kellas cat, as well as some talk about domestic hybrids like chausie, bengals and caracats.
Caturday Special: The Fishing Cat – It’s a cat that loves to fish. An adorable little kitto from Asia.
Caturday Special: The Marbled Cat – A beautiful Asian cat of the Bay-Cat lineage that completes a write up of a cat species from every extant cat clade and that discusses the smaller, little known cats and why they are worth study.
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Cave Lion – A prehistoric beauty, around 10-15% bigger than the modern, African lion and as fearsome as it was admirable. Lions and humans emerged from Africa together and have a strong, cultural bond as a result. Like competing brothers.
Caturday Special: Homotherium – Less well-known than their Smilodon cousins, these pre-historic, sabre-toothed beasties have some incredible evidence for intelligence, social behaviour and the evolution of butchery!
Caturday Special: The Rusty-Spotted Cat – Possibly the smallest cat in the world (it’s close between it and the black-footed cat) this tiny, elusive feline of India and Sri Lanka is surely one of the cutest little hunters on Earth.
Caturday Special: The Leopard – One of the most well-adapted, disperse and diverse of habitat cats on our planet and one whose various populations are sadly threatened by human activity. Of huge cultural significance to humans going back at least as far as Ancient Greece, the leopard is amazing.
Caturday Special: The Sand Cat – It started as a cute distraction from the world’s ills but became a lesson, from an amazingly well-adapted, resourceful desert cat, on how to better use resources.
Caturday Special: The OcelotThe cat, the myth, the legend, the meme, star of Archer, Metal Gear Solid and a weird little invisible dragon kid in Dark Souls 3? We look at the ocelot, a medium-sized cat from the Americas that is as cute as it is deadly.
Caturday Special: The Giant Cheetah – The larger cousin of our extant cheetah, if you think they’re impressive, wait until you read about these big boys!

Or read our Top Ten Cats List

Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.

We Lack Discipline Reads: The Bet – Chapter 3

(Credit: Vivienne Tuffnell)

CONTENT WARNING: Contains discussions on infant mortality, depressive behaviours, abusive behaviour and sex and gender roles.

“It was a long night; it seemed to be endless, minutes crawling by like years.” Is a sentence many people, pre-covid, would have had difficulty understanding. It’s a very depressive sentence, the psychological time-dilation that occurs in the mind of people caught in a mire of suffering to the point of numbness.

So starts Chapter 3 of The Bet and we are back in the present with Antony Ashurst.

He had fallen asleep, seemingly very briefly as it is still night, in the nursery, by the radiator. In Chapter 1 we had also seen a radiator and I mentioned how it was this human comfort, this artificial bastion against the ravages of nature, a technological marvel to combat the bitter cold and snow in the world outside and here it plays much a similar role. Ashurst is a man attempting to cling to his humanity.

He awakes in a state of confusion. We can assume, given his prior lack of sleep, the events that had occurred, the lengthy walk, the stress, and the lack of food that he basically passed out from tired. I am sure most of us have had situations where we have been so tired we just sleep; on the floor, in a chair, on a classroom desk. Situations where you just cannot stay awake, you do not intend to sleep but sleep becomes you. It’s yet another disconcerting invasion of the bestial, of the natural, of the inevitable into Ashurst’s life and his waking in confusion is almost a microcosm of his current situation.

He could “feel…the deep, bottomless emptiness of the crib” and what I really love about this crib imagery, later described as a “wooden abyss”, is this further blurring of the lines between life and death. It was already such a prominent theme in the first chapter. There, though, it was about Ashurst being lost between worlds. Ashurst wanted to comfort his child, be with his child but to do so would have meant a katabasis, a journey down that he is, as a living, mortal being, sadly all-too unable to make. A crib is supposed to house, nurture and nurse new life and yet, in this circumstance, we see it housing an abyss, a darkness, it is instead being used to nurse death itself. Like a massive star, Ashurst’s child has become such a dense ball of grief that now it is a black-hole, a singularity laid to nurse in this coffin-crib, this “wooden abyss”. It’s fucking poignant.

An antique crib, of the sort I imagine Ashurst would have had in his home, likely used in the Ashurst family for hundreds of years. The description of the crib, the “wooden abyss” also invokes ideas of coffins, of the death he has just experienced, transforming what is supposed to be a resting place for new life into a resting place for death. (Credit: Public Domain via PxFuel.com)

But Ashurst is alive, and not consumed by that black hole. He bites his lip until he draws blood, an act that is described as “the old talisman against tears” which I find incredibly interesting. There is a tendency, in humans, to take what are, effectively, either ‘instinctive’ or possibly conditioned, but either way unconscious behaviours and ascribe conscious significance to them. Biting one’s lip to fight outward expressions of emotions, e.g. crying or laughing, being described as a ‘talisman’, usually a manufactured or processed charm, an object, makes a conscious entity of this unconscious behaviour. It is another invasion of the natural, like his atavistic outburst in Chapter 1, into the mind of an otherwise seemingly well-grounded, intelligent man. As if to take ownership of those unconscious behaviours allows him to feel human again.

“He locked the door behind him, as if he could lock away the feelings, and went downstairs again to the bright kitchen, driven by a hated sense of self-preservation to seek food.”

The final sentence in the paragraph is another one of those Vivienne Tuffnell masterclasses in taking the mundane and soaking it in significance. He shuts and locks the door, a perfectly normal, everyday human thing to do but we are expressly told this time that it is as if he was locking away the feelings. Why are we told this? Isn’t the old adage “show, don’t tell!”? Well in which case is there some significance. To me, yes. If he merely locks the door behind him, and we are left to imply that he is locking away his feelings it is our reflection, our belief, that he is shutting himself off from this. The fact that it is mentioned in the text suggests, actually, Ashurst knows what he’s doing, too. He knows this is a denial, a blocking-out, a rejection of his true feelings. One of the most tragic aspects of this early part of the story is we are made very aware of Ashurst’s awareness. His intelligence is not hidden, his knowledge of what is happening to him is certain. So for every action, every struggle there is an aspect of himself that knows what he is doing, no matter how desperate, odd or painful.

We have the ‘bright kitchen’, from one man-made object, the crib, drenched in death, containing the very essence of abyss, we now have this contrasting human construct, the kitchen, which is bright.

And he is driven by a “hated” self-preservation. To some lucky people that might be a hard concept to grasp but to anyone who has ever been in a situation where they just wished they could fade away it’s very real, it’s fucking potent. Guiltily preparing food when you don’t feel at all like eating is something I’ve done. I could do myself the world’s best steak frites at that point and it may as well be tasteless nutrient paste. I don’t want to eat, but I am compelled. It’s another example of that natural invading the conscious space. The human organism’s needs controlling the human consciousness, the closest thing we could get to a ‘spiritual’ self. It feels as though Ashurst is willing himself into spirit. At this moment it may be that he has more business with ghosts than with the real world.

Humans are curious creatures in that we possess consciousness, which is generally considered an ability to think about think abouting. Personally it is my thought that humans ascribe far too much agency to consciousness when, actually, most of the time we are being dragged by unconscious desires. Our conscious actions can mirror those unconscious desires, and it seems we have mechanisms whereby we can unconsciously decide something, and then justify it to ourselves as a conscious decision. In reality we seldom think about many of the things that we do that we consider conscious behaviours. I like to use brushing teeth as a model.

There is no known natural, evolved mechanism for shoving bristles in your gob and rubbing them on your teeth. Various species have various ways of ensuring solid dental hygiene but none have gone to the trouble of inventing a special tool to do it, never mind an entire field of medical specialty. The thing is, though, I don’t actually think about brushing my teeth. I just do it. At one point I had to learn, sure, but eventually with enough learning it becomes habit and once it becomes habit it’s just some shit you do.

What’s more, I would argue rarely do people brush their teeth spontaneously. Rather it occurs at set times – We like to say it is part of our ‘routine’ but then I have to ask what the difference between routine and ritual is. We brush our teeth, usually, as part of the morning ritual and the bedtime ritual. When I think about all of the things that I do at these times to prepare myself very few of them are conscious. Ritual is important to all animals and disruption of that ritual can lead to discomfort but it’s not a conscious consideration of having not done all the right things, it’s an uneasy feeling in the pit of your gut, an intuition that something isn’t right.

I’m autistic so ritual is particularly important to me and there are some things I just feel wrong doing. I can’t, comfortably, leave my house without having had a shower, for example. If I am going out I have to shower. I can never be the guy who stumbles to his local corner shop in his dressing gown and slippers to pick up some milk in the morning because I would have go through my entire washing ritual before I felt comfortable leaving the house. There is no conscious interjection or consideration; it is just something that must be done.

Don’t think you’re prone to ritual? Consider bathing or showering. Do you have a set ‘routine’ – things you do and an order you do them in? What happens if/when you deviate from that order? Does it feel fine, does it feel like something exciting and spontaneous or do you not consider it at all? Perhaps you haven’t even considered the order of operations of bathing? Or washing dishes, driving a car, regular events like getting your hair done, regular activities with friends, eating, drinking etc. Yet we ritualise many of these ‘normal’ aspects of our lives. (Credit: Public Domain via OpenClipArt)

But the significance here is Ashurst is not just uneasy feeding himself. He hates the self-preservation. His unconscious self is driving him to perform a ritual – cooking and eating – and his conscious self, seemingly powerless, hates that his unconscious self is choosing to help him carry on when he presumably wants to climb into that crib and join his dead kid in the abyss, when consciously he probably just wants to melt away into the background. It’s a seeming nothing sentence but, again, Vivienne has managed to make it reflect a war in one man’s brain, Self vs. Self, this see-sawing power of conscious and unconscious minds.

This is going to be one of the major themes of this novel. Ashurst is a man on a journey many of us have to face. Yet many of us rely often on those talismans, those radiators, those human artifices to provide us the comfort through them. We lean upon the manifestations of consciousness to provide us comfort because what is the unconscious if not the reflection of an animal within, a wild, untameable beast. Humanity, our conscious, is art, culture, enjoyment, sacrifice, ingenuity, comfort and being able to make rational, reasonable decisions. The unconscious is anxiety, fretting, worry, reaction, instinct, it punches people in the face, it bleeds, it suffers, it dies, it’s constantly looking over our shoulders, it’s making emotionally charged, spontaneous decision, with little rhyme, reason or rationality.

Or is it?

I know all too many ‘rational’ people whose decisions are made solely upon their ‘feeling’ about an issue, rather than any conscious consideration, research, data gathering or the prerequisites of making a ‘rational’ decision. What’s more that unconscious self, the reactive part of us also has us snatch kids out of the way of oncoming traffic when they’re in danger, jumps into rivers to save people and gives us the response “I don’t know why I jumped in, I just felt I needed to do something!”. Whilst the rule of thumb might be a simple “conscious good, unconscious bad” many of the worst atrocities have been committed under the cold, ‘rational’ light of consciousness and much of the best of humanity is done by acting without thinking at all, entirely unconscious.

Ashurst is in an unfortunate situation whereby the warmth of a radiator, looking at a nice painting or going out for drinks with the guys isn’t going to mend the divorce between his conscious and unconscious selves. He’s a man truly divided, divorced of mind, almost. It is going to take significant cognitive couples-counselling to get any sense of ease back in his life and that is going to require the best of both of his selves. He is going to have to learn to trust his feeling, let his body drag him to the kitchen, let his unconscious prop him up whilst his conscious has no patience or impetus to keep living but also he will have to probe, investigate, learn, consider and process consciously.

Sorry! I know that’s a lot to take in. But, such is the level of human complexity in all of Vivienne’s novels that I’ve read, and yet go look at the words. She presents it all so simply that it could easily be ignored. I think that to skirt around it in order to avoid that complexity would be to completely miss the point of her writing, though. She is an ideas writer, a philosophical writer – she may not describe herself as such but she works so much of the human cognitive complexity, as well as the morals, ethics and balances of it, into her work that I can see no other means of describing it. There is clearly a particular focus, too, on this Jungian balance between the conscious and unconscious minds. Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with Jung I think he was a man with a big idea who was probably along the right lines for coming to some significant understanding about the human mind and Ashurst is almost a vessel for attempting to understand some of those things on the part of the author.

Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. He was very much a pioneer of psychoanalysis and coined many concepts still discussed today, such as the ‘collective unconscious’. His individuation of concious and unconscious minds is explored heavily in ‘The Bet’. (Credit: Public Domain)

So Ashurst’s brain tells his feet, much to ‘his’ chagrin, to go grab some food. What he eats is ridiculously Spartan, he has a bit of dry bread, some water and an apple. Hardly a banquet but the body wants what it wants and clearly what it wanted to do in that moment was consume whatever was available without preparation! I’ve been there!

At this point there’s almost a shift in the narrative voice. It is as if we are following Ashurst in his progression from his limbo, caught between sleep and wakefulness, life and death, and back to the groundings of what we might call ‘reality’. We get interjections in the text of his thoughts, even as he’s eating.

“A glass of water. OK, not too bad; even a bit better. Try an apple. That’s enough. What do I do now? What can I do? I can’t sleep, surely.”

It is as if the very unconscious and primal act of eating, sating the unconscious need, has allowed his conscious self to emerge from his cocoon of misery, look around and go “Oh, shit…Life!”

How often do we find this ourselves? How relatable is this? Being stuck in a rut, or mired in a funk and then you perform one act of basic self-care and it’s like a reawakening. I know I’m very prone to it but I’m an autistic person prone to anxious-depressive episodes but I’ve seen it in others with all sorts of situations of overwhelming emotion. This is what I was talking about earlier about how Ashurst is going to have to learn to marry his conscious and unconscious self, his conscious motivation is clearly linked to ensuring his unconscious desires are in some way satisfied. Whether you’ve just had a bad day, you’re experiencing grief or trauma, a breakup or just some other random extreme of emotion the unconscious can overwhelm us. Yet sometimes all it takes is eating one meal, getting something to drink, having a bath or a shower, getting dressed, tidying up – these little rituals! We’re back to rituals again! Sometimes all it takes is performing those little ‘normal’ rituals to ease the unconscious turbulence and suddenly find yourself ‘awake’, consciously, again.

A large part of the rest of this chapter is Ashurst and those rituals.

Before we get there, though, there is another conscious consideration of his. “I can’t sleep, surely.” Would imply to me that he’s absolutely knackered but too full of thought to sleep. He sees the sleeping pill left for him by the doctor, Gavin, and it is seemingly used as a means of introducing the character of his aunt, Sophie.

She had already been mentioned, if I remember correctly, but we didn’t get a good idea of who she is. This little passage gives us a lot more of an impression of her.

Ashurst’s doctor, Gavin, had wanted to call Sophie but Ashurst was hesitant.

“You know Sophie;” he says, “you know how she just takes over everything. She mustn’t have now. This is for me.” Ashurst tells Gavin.

This is a hint at another major theme of the book which is feminine dominance and given the goings on of the last chapter I get the feeling I’m about to go on another monologue of meaning!

There are very few female characters in the book who don’t come across like pieces of shit. I can think of two off the top of my head – perhaps we shall find more as I re-read and analyse the book deeper.

Now you could look at that situation as frighteningly misogynistic! You could ask why so many negative portrayals of women? What about their positive qualities? Why present the male as victim when, overwhelmingly, around the world, women are victims of masculinity and not vice versa.

For one thing, the fact that we are asking these questions is surely part of the point, right? If every portrayal of a female is drenched in a post-feminist positivism, or worse a deep sense of victimhood – is that not disempowering women?

It’s a truth fairly universally acknowledged that power corrupts, but I don’t necessarily think this novel wants to explore that. One of the main aspects of the whole journey is Ashurst learning his own potency, how to live with that power and what to do with it so that he can wield it responsibly. That’s where I think the purpose of the female presentations in the book is.

There is a character later on who, it could be argued, is just as domineering as Ashurst’s aunt, Sophie, but who does so with such compassion and care that it is evident she is not using her power to satisfy her own needs, or gloss over her own insecurities, but to assist others. We have met Judy and Jenny who I expressed in no uncertain terms were absolute pieces of shit who use their power in order to satisfy their own insecurities. Again it’s this balance of conscious and unconscious, of action and motivation, of understanding who you are, why you do what you do and trying to consider whether what you are doing is ‘right’, whatever that might mean to you.

I don’t think women are presented in a bad light because of any internal misogyny on the part of the author, nor do I think she hates women or thinks they’re all bad. I think it’s a presentation of a collage of women she has met, people she has experienced, who misogyny allows to misbehave by categorising women as powerless when, actually, they can wield much power even in a society that degrades them and attempts to strip them of their power.

To ignore the capabilities of a human to behave badly, to act in bad faith or to hurt others based upon nothing but their sex or gender is to ignore everything we know of anthropology, psychology and human behaviour. It is, in itself, an act of sexism to suggest women must be presented as either ‘good’ or victims.

Sophie represents a very interesting case. We will learn more about the relationship between Ashurst and his aunt as time goes on, but she is almost the archetype of the unease between conscious and unconscious selves. She is all about presentation, stiff-upper lip, being proper, doing right and yet – she rarely does the right thing, never mind for the right reasons. It’s a very human presentation and I know ‘Sophie’s! I know women for whom control and presentation are everything and any deviation is met with a harshness, a cruelty and a power that one could even describe as uniquely feminine, a raw, maternal power capable of taking the biggest, strongest man and making them feel like the smallest, scolded child.

Given how disempowered women have been, and the manners in which society, over time, has conditioned them to wield that power, a huge part of gender equality is going to be women gaining power. As mentioned, it is generally believed that ‘power corrupts’ but what about the power of life and death that doctors have? What about the power of female member of the RNLI to rescue people whose lives are at risk at sea? Sorry to use the Uncle-Benism but ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and those who learn to be responsible with their power often end up less susceptible to those corrupting forces.

Ah, 60s Spiderman, everlasting bucket of memes! (Credit: Used without permission via MemeGenerator.net)

A huge part of that incorruptibility comes from understanding, though. One of the first things you have to understand is that you are, no matter how much you may think you are good, always capable of doing bad things. Nobody is immune to this. Even Jesus Christ, whom many Christians hold up as the paragon of passivity and innocent, lambly virtue, got pissed off with some money lenders and flipped their fucking tables! One must be aware of one’s anger, one’s insecurity, one’s passion, one’s desires – One must, funnily enough given the themes we’ve already discussed, be aware of who one is as both a conscious human entity and a snivelling, angry, scared, desperate unconscious human animal to truly harness the good of one’s own potency and to utilise it in good faith.

This is not innate.

Regardless of sex, gender, religion, belief, colour, creed, favourite genre of music, football team you support or preferred ice cream flavour. There is no innate mechanism for goodness or badness in human beings – there are conditions that can give someone a lean in one direction or another, but no hard-and-fast, set-in-stone deciding factor that says this person is good and this person is bad.

I think that’s something Vivienne is trying to achieve with her presentation of women in this book. She has empowered her women, but to what end? How do they wield that power? It is a warning not merely to women but to all people (the use of women is almost an inversion device, we have an ongoing book about men using their power to oppress women, it’s called real fucking life – so by flipping it rather than asking the same questions of society it is asking different ones) to be careful as they move forward in a world where people are asking for power to be distributed more equitably. To ask the questions who are the kinds of people who are likely to appeal for that power, seek that power and desire to use that power? Are they going to be the incorruptible paragons of virtue who have undergone painstaking journeys in their lives to understand themselves such that they can use their power for good? Or is that power likely to be usurped by the people most likely to fight most vociferously for it? Do the kinds of people willing to fight that hard for power have the right attitude, the right self-knowledge and understanding to wield it?

Now for further clarification that’s not to say that I, or Vivienne, think that women are incapable of wielding power. Women are likely no more, or less likely than men to abuse power. The point is that the established social convention makes powerful women a much more compelling medium for the message Vivienne wants to deliver. Men have been wielding the majority of power for a long time and it’s quite clear they’re hardly incorruptible paragons of virtue, either, to put it fucking mildly. But that’s the point. Can we really engender misuse of power when history has shown powerful people, men and women alike, acting horrendously when in possession of it? Or do we need to look deeper and ask questions not of men and women but of people.

In that case, I maintain that the reason women are used as majority carriers and abusers of power in ‘The Bet’ is to provide that inverted perspective. It is a measure to ensure that it becomes impossible to make this just another story of men being dicks and encourage us to ask the questions as, and of, human beings in general.

What it also allows us to do is look at masculinity from the flipside, too. Masculinity as we know it is being eroded and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. There are aspects of conditioned, masculinised behaviour that are outright fucking destructive. But there is a risk that in framing the arguments in a ‘men bad, women good’ point of view we actually risk alienating a lot of would-be good men, tarring them with the same brush as actual pieces of shit. What’s more it is going to require reformulating what masculinity should be, a change in identity that many people may struggle with. We need to ensure we are giving them role models of what a positive masculinity can, or should look like.

If this isn’t the best stock image ever I don’t know what is. “Manly Big Shot Hat Beard” is how he is described and he represents a very present, yet anachronistic view of masculinity. Formal, severe and broad. Is this the view of masculinity we want projected forward into our future? (Credit: Public Domain via Maxpixel.net)

Masculinity is already presented in a very one-sided fashion, mainly by men who do not understand their conscious and unconscious selves who want to present a one-sided view of it so that they can deny their own vulnerability and insecurity! Men cry, men get scared, men break down, men suffer mental health problems – not every man is a strong and stoic perfect and chiselled demonstration of what ‘masculinity’ is supposed to be. The truth is men are human. Women are human. They are equally vulnerable sacks of meat, caught in a crazy evolutionary dance, aware that one day the music will stop, the ball shall end and they are absolutely addled with mixed feelings and emotions about the whole damn thing. I got the feeling this was Vivienne’s main point with it and as I have mentioned elsewhere, particularly in the introduction, as a somewhat non-conventional male this hits me hard. I can safely say when it comes to misuse of power I’ve been both a perpetrator and victim. I’ve been a perpetrator to people of all genders, I’ve been a victim of people of all genders. There’s no universal to it.

Whilst structure may imbue particular groups with an increased tendency to power, again, there is no innate mechanism for it! That tendency does not equal certainty. Despite the power imbalance in Western culture there are many incredibly powerful women and many incredibly powerless men. Determinism is bullshit! This world, to the best of our current models, is probabilistic. What do you do if those dice roll and give you power? Does it matter if you’re male, female or non-binary? How might that power, or the potential corruption thereof, manifest based upon these different circumstances?

These are questions Vivienne is asking and I honestly do not think I have read a more compelling presentation of gender roles, particularly masculinity (and particularly the pitfalls of the various social expectations of it), than in this book. Yet the main use of the device of having a male victim of female power is not to present women in a bad light, or men as hard done by. I think it’s to remind us that, circumstances being different, we can all be pieces of shit. We can all emit these negativities, these auras, we can all objectify, discredit, abuse, act without compassion because of our own prejudices, assumptions and neuroses.

None of us are immune to acting as villains and in presenting an alternative to what is a culturally dominant pattern of male dickheadery, Vivienne removes the veneer of cultural coding and makes it about something more fundamentally human and universal.

Lengthy sidetrack, let’s get back to Ashurst.

He wanders about his house, like a living ghost, haunting it. But his conscious mind is still racing. He heads to his bedroom, to the en suite in which his wife, Jenny, had died in labour for a child who would also die. The bedding is “twisted into a tangled shape, pillows dented and askew.” In a way the environment is a manifestation of Ashurst’s interior world so, what do we do? We ritual!

He tidies up.

Humans are conditioned early on to consider being ‘tidy’ a virtue. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” and all that. To the extent that this can become a ritualised behaviour, that tidying up one’s house can be a mirror of a need to tidy up one’s life. (Credit: Thibault fr CC-BY-SA 3.0)

It’s a return of personhood to a man stripped of it by tragedy. He’s a normal chap doing normal stuff. Of course there’s a touch of pain, rather than fully remake the bed he merely puts a throw on it. The energy to remove the bedding not matched with a readiness to truly ‘change’ it. It’s one of the things about human ritual is the depth of meaning we place in the inanimate. I have objects myself, a small Chinese style ornamental teapot, a clockwork mantel clock, which remind me of people since passed. They are of no functional value to me. If I’m honest with myself they merely take up space in an already cluttered living environment. But I couldn’t bring myself to put them in a box in the attic or donate them elsewhere because they mean so much to me. I, too, despite the minor inconvenience of these objects, cannot bring myself to change them.

He looks at his dead wife, Jenny’s, belongings and simply cannot touch them, and in fact Ashurst has to leave. Much like me and my mementos there is something very real to Ashurst about these inanimate objects, a power to them whereby moving them, changing them, acknowledging them just makes what has happened to him real. Despite the fact that in this moment he is very much in his real world, rather than the limbo he was before, there’s still a longing for that limbo, for that uncertainty. I don’t think it’s a wish for things to go back to how they were for reasons that will become obvious, but it is indicative of someone mid-process. He is not yet ready to move on.

There is discussion of how the house is dusty since Jenny offended the cleaning lady – since we’ve already met Jenny and you know my feelings on her as a character this comes as no surprise. It is another subtle character detail, though, that can easily slip through the net. Jenny is basically just a piece of shit! Not merely when chatting in the pub with someone equally shitty, she’s not trying to ‘fit in’, she just fits, she’s shitty with friends, shitty with loved ones and shitty with the house’s workers.

This also gives us an idea of some kind of stasis in Ashurst and his world even prior to the tragic events at the start of the book. His life has been on hold for clearly a lot longer than just that. Combined with the knowledge we gained of his mother being ill, her suicide, his father’s recent death and the fact that he is still a very young man we can fairly well surmise, in fact, that whilst this is a person who has been alive for 19 or 20 years, it is also someone who has ‘lived’ through very few of them.

He is now a man stripped bare of those stifling binds and whilst we can fetishise and get teary-eyed about wild animals being re-released into captivity the truth is that the wild life is full of dangers. It must surely be likewise for a human being, having been a captive of circumstance for so long. The freedom to do what thou wilt is, actually, a weighty responsibility for someone, like Ashurst, who knows pain as a closer friend than many of us do by his age. I find the use of a seemingly wealthy, privileged young man as the fulcrum of suffering is another deft use of inversion by Vivienne to render the message of universality a lot clearer. Suffering is inevitable, and cruelties can be inflicted by anyone on anyone.

Ashurst moves instead to his father’s room, another realm of stasis. It’s another Vivienne masterwork of turning the pedestrian into a champion sprinter. She simply describes the room and in so doing gives us an insight into this enigmatic figure of Ashurst’s father, simultaneously grand and domineering and yet vacant and Spartan.

A tudor four poster bed (this one in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London – from around 1590). Ashurst’s father has a bed similar to this. The description of his room suggests this is the grandest feature, otherwise his room is described as quite bare. Partly as a result of Sophie’s insistence on Ashurst getting rid of his father’s belongings after his death but he is also suggested to have not kept a lot there anyway. (Credit: Kotomi_ CC-BY-NC 2.0)

This whole segment, Ashurst moving from room to room as Vivienne describes the room could be looked at as mindless descriptive word-padding, but when you actually think about how it is presented, the seeming shift of the narrative voice from being third-person and disconnected to seeming to reflect Ashurst himself it becomes a lot more powerful of a thought.

“How can you feel like a stranger in your own house, a house his family had lived in for over five hundred years?”

That becomes the key point. This description is not for us. Although we are seeing these rooms, these objects, this furniture for the first time it, so, it feels, is Ashurst. He is a stranger in his own home, this dense museum of memories that he wanders through, seeking sanctuary. Every nook, cranny, corner, drawer, wardrobe and bathroom of the building is drenched in significance and meaning and in attempting to find a haven he ambles, like Dante in Hell, finding only the banshee wails of past sorrows, regrets and memories. Imagine what horrible things would have to occur, what tragedies you would have to accrue to make every room in your house a haunting reminder of all the terrible things that had happened to you, alienating you with their presence.

We get snippets of his life, his late wife’s voice creeping in, mockingly, to criticise the grandeur of his home – the power of belittling. Hers is an acerbic voice, not so much the mighty, small axe chopping down privilege as the boom of a Titan melting it, dissolving it and any sense of identity that may come with it. Jenny is powerful, Ashurst’s legacy is not. There are shades of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Tess’s encounter with Alec by the d’Urberville tomb. All the ancestral swords and shields of the past are long since rusted, the nobility of their great name dissolved in the present by the potency of the living. A so-called noble past means nothing.

Every room reminds him of someone with whom he has shared trouble, himself, his aunt Sophie, his wife, his father. Every object is soaked in significance, every room resonating with memories.

The kind of house I imaging as Ashurst’s family home. Not the biggest but of sufficient grandeur to impress. (Credit: Public Domain via Pxhere.com)

When you consider the meaning of a ‘home’, a supposedly safe, comfortable environment, your own space, to which you can retreat, it’s not just voices of the past that reverberate through this chapter. It is the inner turmoil of the present. Ashurst is a man lost amidst the familiar. He surveys everything familiar and finds only the estranged.

It’s really quite clever writing, the house comes to symbolise not merely bricks-and-mortar. We have already, in Chapter 1, had the reflection of Ashurst’s mind in the natural, his brain-fogged, grieving, confused state matched by weather, the cold, dead, snow and the moonlight. The focus was on him in this acting-without-thinking phase. It was primal, it reflected an unconscious.

Now the moonlight is dulled, we aren’t in the unconscious realm anymore. This house, the description of it and how it reflects Ashurst shows him at his conscious level, the identity he has, and the thoughts he has of himself and his life and what we find is a man who doesn’t know very much about himself. He is a stranger in every room he visits, an accessory in his own memories, constantly at the mercy of the power of others. He looks at every room and says “I can’t stay here.” He finds no comfort in any corner of his home and, by extension in any corner of himself.

He is a man who is a stranger not just in his house, but in his skin.

Little surprise, then, that he relents, knocks back the sleeping pill left for him by his doctor and elects, at least in the short term, to the mercy of escape.

Missed the other parts?
We Lack Discipline Reads: The Bet – Introduction
We Lack Discipline Reads: The Bet – Chapter 1
We Lack Discipline Read: The Bet – Chapter 2

Or buy your copy of the book, and read along, here!

Wicked Problems: Trophy Hunting

Elephants on the Maasai Mara. One of the most famous national reserves in the world. A WWF study found that the biggest cause of wildlife losses on the reserve in recent years has been human settlement, leading to land-use changes and human-wildlife conflict. (Credit: Matt Scobel CC-BY-3.0)

My article on Wicked Problems is probably one of my least read and yet I would argue most important. ‘Wicked problems’ are what occurs where science, technology, society and politics meet in the arena known as ‘social planning’ – i.e. how do we want to make our best world in the future, and what are the best means of doing so. Marriage rights, sex and gender, wealth disparity, transportation infrastructure, climate management – these are all wicked problems and so is trophy hunting.

There’s been a lengthy back-and-forth on twitter about trophy hunting, recently. Perhaps you’ve seen it, perhaps not. Perhaps like many others you have seen newspaper headlines about the UK attempting an outright ban on returning trophies from trophy hunting locations, supported by high-profile celebrity voices. It is being done as a measure to protect wildlife, however the issue becomes complex when large areas of habitat, and species, are kept on private reserves for game hunting.

These reserves depend upon the funding from hunting. They often have their own rangers, or else invest in local ranger services to protect their wildlife from poaching. They promote breeding, maintain the entire ecosystem to be conducive to this end and, unfortunately, yes, they fund it all because a few people feel big and powerful when they use a shooty-shooty to kill big, beautiful wildlife.

But it’s a messy issue. Hunting for sport is not something I agree with in the least, however the kills, as well as providing a trophy for the hunter, also often provide meat for the locals to eat, hides to work with, wear or utilise elsewhere. They provide an income that is used to support local communities. The IUCN have recognised the role of trophy hunting in the protection of wildlife and habitats and also agree it’s a complex issue. They also make a note in one report that the value of that land in terms of agricultural value is often somewhere on the region of 300-600 times more lucrative, financially, than hunting.

A diagram demonstrating the complex interdepencies that create ‘wicked problems’. Finding solutions in amongst all this social, scientific, political and emotional spaghetti is hard to do and one of the textbook issues wicked problems provide is a lack of easy consensus due to their complexity. (Credit: LoraCBR CC-BY-2.0)

Making trophy hunting no longer viable risks land owners deciding the best way to deal with their loss of one livelihood is to invest in the other, more profitable one. Most of the reserves, which are already suffering due to covid, would end up converted to farmland to significant detriment to wildlife.

Habitat loss, and human-wildlife conflict are just the leading conservation problems of our time. Whilst indiscriminate hunting has, in the past, led to, at the very least, dramatic reductions in some species populations, even outright extinctions, today it is not so open-and-shut a case.

I don’t want to bog people down in minutiae, the discussion is mainly being led by conservation scientists and science communicators and animal rights activists. There’s plenty of nuts and bolts if you want to go find them. I want to focus on the complexities. The things to think about that make it a ‘wicked problem’ with no easy solution.

I agree there is a ‘problem’ – I don’t like or support hunting for sport. I just don’t get it, I don’t think it’s necessary and it should, in time, fuck off.

But is an out-and-out ban the best way to go about this?

One thing to consider is that there is a fair amount of data out there but data from where?

Considering where your data comes from is an important thing. What one reserve in Zambia does, or how it operates, may not be the same in Kenya, Namibia or Tanzania, or across different reserves.

These can be private businesses, there are many private hunting reserves in South Africa, for example. They can also be huge areas of land (apparently potentially as large as multiple UK counties or the country of Luxembourg!) managed as hunting blocks. These areas of land are usually put out to bid by local authorities to be run by concession owners. For example in Tanzania the Tanzania Wildlife Management Authority, working under the national Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, puts their wildlife hunting blocks out to tender. They even have a copy of their tender application advertisement so you can see their standards and how they expect the land to be managed. In Namibia the Ministry for Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) allows communities to register as self-governing ‘conservancies’. Whilst the MEFT are relatively hands-off in these areas they do have the right to revoke conservancy status. It should be noted that not all of these conservancies allow hunting. You can get more details on Namibia’s conversancies here. Thanks to Professor Adam Hart for the clarification.

What becomes apparent is that each region of each country has a huge amount of difference in what can happen, how and where. There is a huge difference between them.

Consider your own local businesses. I am sure you’ve picked up a lunch somewhere and it’s been terrible and picked up a similar thing at even a different franchise of the same business, in a different city, and it’s been great! Now scale that up to the size of, say, A CONTINENT!

The mercator projection map commonly used has skewed our view of how big Africa actually is. It could fit the UK in it probably 300x over. It can probably fit 2-3 United States of Americas in it! It’s MASSIVE! (Go here for a perspective on that) When talking about conservation issues there is a huge focus on the Western-Southern regions; Kenya, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania etc. Probably only around 1/3 of the entire continent! With drastic differences in government, urbanisation, infrastructure, ecosystem etc. across all these countries, is a one-size-fits-all solution really ideal? (Credit: physicalmap.org CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Whilst some trophy hunting reserves may be outright corrupt and exploitative what they have to do, at the very least, is maintain an ecosystem for the wildlife to be able to breed in to sustain numbers so they don’t just run out of animals to be killed.

Even the worst practitioners have to maintain sustainability.

But the best practitioners may use that money elsewhere. Perhaps they invest in protected or controlled zones around their private reserves so that there can be a steady flow of wildlife between the two? Perhaps they pay for local communities to get involved as guides, trackers, employees, wait-staff, bar staff, cleaners etc.? Perhaps they maintain their wildlife on a constant upward trajectory, ensuring they’re growing their populations of animals?

It is different in each location – and thus so will the suitability of any particular scheme used to adapt that community from a dependence on hunting to one that can be sustainable and community led without hunting.

Consider the species, too. There are an estimated 1-1.5 million blue wildebeest in Africa (although numbers of some populations and subspecies vary) of these it is estimated close to 250,000 die per year in their annual migrations – from dehydration, hunger, predation, age, weakness, infirmity etc.

Taken by many to mean Dr. Dickman saying “hunting is good” what I believe she is actually arguing is that habitat loss, conversion of land-use and the inevitable human-wildlife conflict is a much more pressing issue. That banning hunting does not always equate to conservation ‘success’ where that success is determined as maintaing healthy, stable populations in well-protected, wild ecosystems. (Credit: Dr. Amy Dickman via Twitter)

Between 2005-2014, according to a Humane Society International report, around 52,000 wildebeest trophies were imported into the US (one of the prime locations for trophy hunters). Around one fifth as many as die by ‘natural causes’.

It is also an estimate as to how many wildebeest were killed in Botswana in 1983 when, thanks to a couple of harsh drought years, efforts were made to stop the wildebeest reaching water sources that were instead fenced off for use by humans and human-adjacent livestock.

This is a point that I think conservation scientists like Dr. Amy Dickman are trying to make! In one year, one human measure of wildlife control to support local human activity led to as many deaths in wildebeest as trophy hunters in the US claimed in a decade!

On the ground the picture is often very different to the clean-and-easy narrative presented in the Global North, in your newspapers and on BBC fucking breakfast! Reality, now that’s a lot crueller.

The aspect of neo-colonialism on the part of activists is also something to consider. A bunch of relatively affluent people in ‘the west’ telling African nations how best to manage their wildlife is all very well and good until they have zero consideration for the reality of living with that wildlife.

In Britain, the worst you have to deal with is a fox screaming at night or a seagull tearing open your bins. In Africa you have to worry about lions killing your cattle that you depend on for milk, meat and/or hides, leopards eating your kids on the way home from school or elephants trampling your village! We might see these species as beautiful and majestic but the reality is people and animals are dying because of these conflicts bred in white-dominated discussions in the UK, Europe and the United States.

Down on the ground it’s all fences, guns, poison and snare traps! Where wildlife, particularly harmful wildlife, encroaches on human activity both the people and the wildlife suffer. The kinds of measures that killed those 50,000 wildebeest in 1983 come back into play.

Who takes priority?

Do we protect the people or the wildlife?

To what end?

A lion that had been caught in a snare trap in South Africa. Snares are a common, and brutal, means of control of predators and problem wildlife by local communities across Africa. The wound on his foot is the result of him having tried to chew the snare off. This is a mild image of what snares, or attempts to control the wildlife, can do. Large predators like this can affect the local communities they co-habit with physically (by killing them), financially (by harming their livestock or crops) or even psychologically (how would you deal with a lion pride hanging around your back garden?). This is the danger! If hunting reserves have that land use changed to settlement and agriculture, more and more lions will suffer this fates similar to this or, given that this lion is alive and sedated, a lot worse. (Credit: Louise Joubert CC-BY-SA 3.0)

This is where it’s a wicked problem. It has no consensus, nobody truly knows what they’re doing, or what the end result will be, but we have to try. What we certainly have to do is put some faith in the people on the ground, the ecologists, biologists, conservation scientists and the local communities they painstakingly work with. They want what we want and have seen, first hand, the incredible complexities of these situations. If it was a clear-cut issue, we wouldn’t be having such intense debate about it!

What I know is there are people out there willing to devote their lives to these slow, difficult solutions. They are willing to see the suffering, suffering many people couldn’t tolerate witnessing, in order to understand it and figure out ways to prevent it. These people don’t like trophy hunting either, but they’ve seen the alternative.

The alternative is thousands of animals being persecuted, displaced, poisoned, starved of prey species or even just shot, speared or beaten with sticks or rocks by local pastoralists. The alternative is huge swathes of land currently managed to maintain wildlife to be shot being turned into farms, decimating the landscape and bringing its wildlife into conflict with the farmers. In this case, the non-hunting alternative could cause a bigger problem than the problem we are attempting to solve.

Poisoning is a particularly bad problem as that impacts the ecosystem of carrion feeders. Many of the large predators of Africa are known to feed on carrion, as well as vulture species that, as my article on them explains, are vital ‘cleaners’ in their ecosystems. Vulture guts are where botulism, tuburculosis and even anthrax go to die! Declines in vulture numbers in Africa and Asia have been linked to deliberate, or accidental, poisoning in carrion. This has a significant impact on ecosystem health, as well as the public health of the local populations!

An African white-backed vulture eating an elephant leg in Zimbabwe. Part of nature’s cleaners, helping protect the local ecosystems from many harmful pathogens, this species is now critically endangered with poisoning as the main culprit for their demise. Find out more here. (Credit:
Charles J. Sharp CC-BY-SA 4.0)

‘The road to hell…’ and all that!

There are many initiatives, in many places, that have worked but ‘location, location, location’. Whilst photo-tourism may be viable in some areas in others there may not be the requisite infrastructure to handle the number of tourists you’d need to sustain it. Hunting is a cash-crop! It’s obviously an affluent pursuit and the price-per-trophy is significantly higher, meaning you can often run a hunting reserve with minimum requirements for accommodation, infrastructure and comfort. Can the same be said of wildlife photo-tourism? Do people expect a different ‘experience’? These are things that MUST be considered.

To complicate matters further we must look at the bigger picture, too.

As mentioned habitat loss and exploitation and human-wildlife conflicts are two of the biggest problems in conservation right now.

Consider it like the Titanic. The whole ship is sinking. There’s a massive gash in the side of the boat and water is coming in at an alarming rate. One of the attendants is frantically trying to get people to the lifeboats when they are interrupted by someone.

“Excuse me, the tap is on in my room and won’t shut off.” They say.

“Please, if you could make your way to the lifeboats! The ship is sinking!” The attendant replies.

“Well if you shut off the tap in my room the ship’ll sink slower!” The complainant responds.

In terms of global loss of biodiversity (the Titanic) we (humans) are the iceberg! We’ve carved a hole (habitat loss) in the hull and our ship (global biodiversity and species population numbers) is sinking. The attendants (conservation scientists, researchers etc.) are desperately trying to get people to understand the magnitude of the situation but every individual (e.g. the tap complainant) has their own perspective of what may, or may not, be a pressing concern.

A map showing global biodiversity loss across the globe. The single greatest pattern is the increase of human activity in the red areas. As populations grow and land use changes, we see huge reductions in wildlife populations. (Credit: Newbold et. al, 2016, Has land use pushed terrestrial biodiversity beyond the planetary boundary? A global assessment, Science Vol. 353, Issue 6296 – Used without permission.)

The only undeniable fact is the ship is sinking and the biggest concern is to move as much human and wildlife activity away from the problem areas to give us the most amount of time to deal with the problem.

As much as I dislike the practice on a moral and ethical level in the real circumstances in the world right now trophy hunting is the tap that won’t turn off on the Titanic!

The problem is it is also very emotive. People killing animals to protect their family, community or livestock we can understand. People killing stuff for fun, those of us who love animals, cannot understand.

High profile animal killings, like Cecil the Lion, make for huge, headline news stories but the thousands of lions per year that die because they make problems for the humans they co-habit with just don’t. We see one image of a smirking git with their ‘trophy’ and we lose our heads.

If we want to ensure we are investing in the correct path to ensure as sustainable as possible a protection of the world’s wildlife we need to accept and acknowledge that this is the exception. We’ll get around to it, we’ll deal with it. But, back to the Titanic metaphor, let’s get all the people and animals we can out of the really big harm’s way first before we think about going around turning off the taps!

I have not seen a single person in this discourse on trophy hunting labelled by activists as ‘pro-hunting’ or ‘shills’ ever express an opinion in support of trophy hunting. No conservationist supports the arbitrary killing of animals. What they are arguing is for a recognition of the true messiness, the wickedness, of this problem.

You can’t just cut off a source of income to an entire community. It may only account for 15,000 people in the whole population of the country but if it is the only industry in that particular region that basically like making an entire village in the UK unemployed. How do they pay for shelter, food, resources, healthcare, education etc.? What do they then do to make money? Well, again, the IUCN gives us some idea, with agriculture, farming, being the most profitable path to take.

More from the Maasai Mara in Kenya. A lion pride. I love cats, if these ladies decided to hunt me I’d feel blessed! But not everyone is a predatorphile like me! It’s easy to see these guys on TV, in the wild, running free and see them as harmless, beautiful and majestic but is that just because they don’t live on your doorstep? What if they did? What if they killed your children? What if they ate your livestock? What would you do? There are local communities at stake in these decisions too, and failure to acknowledge them is neo-colonial if not full-blown racist! (Credit:
The Lilac Breasted Roller CC-BY-2.0)

This would turn huge areas of land currently cultivated, protected and dedicated to wildlife as a valuable resource into over-exploited areas, where prey species would be driven out, predators put under pressure, and human-wildlife conflicts causing more deaths to humans and animals. What do you do?

I wish I had the answers, I really do. I don’t. Patience, understanding, data, recognition of complexity – that’s the only thing I can appeal for. There are excellent scientists, conservationists, hands-on people in the field working on the solutions. But it’s slow going trying to transform so complex an issue into a community-led, sustainable solution. It can only be done in small increments. Africa is a fucking big continent with huge and drastic differences in infrastructure, ecosystems and wildlife populations. What works in one spot may not work in another.

I am opposed to the UK legislating a ban on trophy hunting. I do not support trophy hunting. But I do not support communities being forced into slapdash decisions to counter it should they need a new income. I believe the results of human-wildlife conflict and habitat loss would come into play in some areas if this were to be the case, and I believe that would have a significant detriment to species numbers and global biodiversity.

It’s wicked problem, sorry about that. But if we recognise it as such we can work towards patience, consensus and understanding for each other’s viewpoints that can help mediate practical, sustainable solutions rather than turning off a tap on the Titanic to find the ship still sinking.

For a harrowing opinion on the problem I recommened this appeal from Dr. Amy Dickman [CONTENT WARNING: Contains images of persecuted animals you may find upsetting]

Dungeness – Weird and Wonderful

‘The Old Lighthouse’ of Dungeness in the distance, the wall on the left side is part of the car park once used by the many power station employees, now mostly empty as it is decomissioned. In front of you, mile after mile of delicately vegetated shingle. (Credit: Me)

Most people who visit the region on the border of Kent and East Sussex do so by skipping by this curious peninsula. An area of arid shingles, dotted with islands of vegetation, where unusual lichens make a satisfying crunching sound in the summer, a crunch somewhere between sand and snow.

Smack bang in front of you is mile after mile of flat, pebbled terrain, the skyline dominated by a nuclear power station.

Between Folkestone to the East and Hastings to the West, not far from Winchelsea, Rye, New Romney and Lydd, Dungeness stands alone on this incredible peninsula of shingles that has been steadily changing, expanding and moving for hundreds of years. If you’re holidaying in or around Rye (as many do) and do not pay a visit to Dungeness you do yourself a disservice. (Credit: © Google Maps)

I say ‘a’ power station, it’s actually two. Dungeness A – joined to the grid in 1965, it’s two nuclear reactors helped generate thousands of Gigawatt hours (GWh) per yer. A Gigawatt hour is equivalent to one million kilowatt hours (kWh) and the average UK home today uses around 4,000 kWh of electricity per year. At peak performance, between 1967-1979, Dungeness A was producing enough electricity to power 1,000,000 homes, alone.

Dungeness A closed in 2006, entering the full decommissioning phase.

Dungeness B is a very interesting story. It is what is known as an ‘Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactor’ or AGR and was the first large scale station of this type to be built based upon a smaller design at Sellafield. It was run by a consortium of engineering firms known as Atomic Power Construction (APC).

The power stations. Incidentally that little strip of vegetation had the highest concentration of wasps of anywhere I found on the estate and a ton of butterflies and beetles, too. If you’re going for some invertebrate hunting, it’s an awesome, bug-busy but human-quiet spot. (Credit: Me)

Engineers encountered significant problems in this scaling up process. A clear example that engineering theory and engineering practice seldom walk hand-in-hand and an excellent demonstration of the expense of innovation!

The solution? The same solution private investors always come up with when their get-rich-quick schemes meet difficulties, they ended up caving under the financial pressure of having to pay for changes and dealing with the fact this power-producing cash cow was non-operational and ultimately backed out, leaving the government run Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) to foot the bill and complete the work.

A nod to how public/private initiatives would work in the UK long into the future, the ambitious and ill-considered plan of a group of private investors leant on the government for a bail-out. How very 2008 banking industry!

It worked out well for APC, as material flaws led to major redesigns and rebuilding with new, more consistent, materials. The project was finally completed in 1983, 13 years late and at around 4x the initial projected cost.

A small copper butterfly basking on a rock. (Credit: Me)

Since 2009 the station has been on shut-down due to a variety of problems. Multiple restart dates were scheduled but as of this year a decision has been made to move Dungeness B into its defueling phase, effectively starting the process of decommissioning, with the station having only produced power for only a short amount of it intended life-cycle.

So it might be hard to believe that this area is actually, in terms of its geomorphology, one of the most unique sites in Europe. This is the largest shingle expanse in the continent! Leading to a whole host of interesting nature-related letters! It’s a National Nature Reserve (NNR), a Special Protection Area (SPA), a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and part of the Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

A third of UK plant biodiversity can be found in the region, supporting a host of otherwise very rare UK invertebrate species. It was the site of the reintroduction of the short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus), a species of bumblebee last naturally recorded at Dungeness in 1988.

Whilst the reintroductions have not been as successful as hoped, with the short-haired bumblebee not thriving, the measures taken to attempt to get it to be fruitful and multiply have led to increases in populations of other rare bumblebess, such as the moss carder bee (Bombus muscorum), the brown banded carder bee (Bombus humilis) and the ruderal bumblebee (Bombus ruderatus).

I think this demonstrates one of the key things I’m always trying to talk about with ecology. When you are looking at an ecosystem and the niches within – G. Evelyn Hutchinson described it as an ‘n-dimensional hypervolume’.

Sea kale, in full berry. Interesting fact, this plant is edible and nutrient rich, however you should be careful if/when picking as it is protected in some areas (like at Dungeness due to it being an SSSI) and is prone to overexploitation. Many of these plants were in fruit on the day I visited. (Credit: Me)

Fancy words, I know, but what it basically means is ‘n’ is just ‘a number’ – indeterminate, often indeterminable, and the dimensions are conditions and resources. The ‘hypervolume’ is the space utilised by those resources, and how they are used; light, natural structures, plants, nutrients, etc.

In setting up measures to analyse the n-dimensions involved in reintroducing the short-haired bumblebee, however difficult or ill-fated the project might have been, they have improved the hypervolume to an extent that other species which exploit that ecological niche in a similar way are thriving.

Is it a win? Well the target species has not performed well, but other rare species have been given a boost by the actions intended to help the target species.

This is why a lot of modern ecological study and, particularly ecological conservation, takes on a lot more of a holistic role. It is not about “SAVE THIS SPECIES!” but rather improve the ecology of the species to minimise the number of conflicting dimensions in their hypervolume so they can save themselves. This includes working with local communities to establish sustainable, wildlife friendly enterprises and ways of life, and finding ways to minimise human-animal conflicts – two major problems in ecology.

This form of ecology recognises the levels of complexities and sensitive dependencies that life just lives with, until they become a problem.

A small, solitary bee assesses the sandy outcrop to see if it is a suitable place to dig. Other bee and wasp holes surrounding it. (Credit: Me)

Fictional example but it could be, say, that Jaguars in a particular area of the Amazon basin subsist on a diet of mainly turtles. We’ve noticed a decline in both jaguars and turtles. Which do we focus on?

Well using this model you’d look at why the decline in prey species? Perhaps a species of plant that the turtles like to eat is not doing so well.

So you look at why that? Well it turns out the local communities are pulling it all up because it makes fucking killer baskets!

Okay, so now we have to look at finding a means of transitioning these peoples from utilising wild resources vital to the turtles that are vital to the jaguars to help everyone.

So we either provide these people with alternative basket materials, perhaps some social enterprise scheme where they can sell their killer baskets to a wider market, perhaps find, and work to encourage sustainable growing and harvesting methods, we get the numbers of these plants back up but, oh no, the turtles aren’t coming back.

Then we realise that a species of invertebrate is eating these plants from the bottom up, and a predatory beetle once used to take care of that but their numbers declined too, so now we have to assess whether it is viable to reintroduce these predatory beetles to sustain the water plants.

If you’re asking “Is it realistic a decline in numbers of one beetle can so negatively impact an entire ecosystem affecting jaguars way up the trophic levels?” YEAH! It’s that mad, chaotic and interdependent!

It works, the turtles come back, the jaguars come back – but it’s taken 20 years of research, effort, study and work and in the meantime, right behind you, acres of the rainforest has been cut down for logs!

Welcome to ecology and conservation work! Long-sighted hard work is often dramatically outpaced by lucrative exploitation!

Back to Dungeness.

Abandoned huts litter the local landscape, like this one here. I know it might look like it, but it’s not a desert! Also I could hear a solid hum of bees inside this shed! Weirdly, ruined piles of human shite and rubble make excellent refuges for a lot of species. (Credit: Me)

Contrary to a lot of reports it is not Britain’s only desert. There is, as far as I am aware, no area of the UK that meets the classification of a desert. On a day like the one I visited it on, this vast, isolating shingle expense can very well feel like one.

Watching a fox dance across the shingles looking for unsuspecting rabbits under a hot, early-evening sun was the closest I’ve come to seeing a coyote in Arizona or New Mexico – this slinky canid dancing across the flat, desolate land. It was awesome.

I’m making it sound a bit Spartan but these shingle dunes and ridges are home to about a third of the UK’s plant biodiversity, making it an excellent place for invertebrates.

The fox watches me intently in the dimming light of a setting sun. Can you spot it? (credit: Me)

If you’re a fan of the lepidopterans, if you’re into your butterflies and moths, it is a must visit. Cabbage white (Small – Pieris rapae, large – Pieris brassicae – Yes there are two species of ‘cabbage white’) was all over the shop, I saw marbled whites (Melanargia galathea) a monochrome, stained-glass beauty of a butterfly, and small coppers (Lycaena phlaeas) were everywhere. It also gets a fair share of migratory butterflies like red admirals, clouded yellows, and long-tailed blues.

As far as moths go – take your pick! I mean, it is the most likely place to see a Sussex emerald (Thalera fimbrialis) but we’re talking over 600 recorded species of micromoths and macromoths. If they’re your thing, get down there during the day for some day moths and get your light box out at night, it won’t disappoint.

But I’m not about lepidopterans.

I’m a hymenopteran fan. I went to check out the bees and the wasps and it did not disappoint. Approaching any of the little islands of vegetation in this desolate shingle you will be met with the constant hum of the bees and flies around. Most of this is bumblebees, I saw more of them than anything else, although smaller solitary bees and a few honey bees were present.

A cabbage white butterfly rests on the blue-purple flowers of what I think is bugloss (not a plant guy!) (credit: Me)

As far as wasps go I found a high density in the wild carrot between the far wall of the power station and the big shingle defensive wall, as well as lots of them hanging around various apiaceae plants elsewhere. I found the highest concentration of ruby-tailed wasps I’ve ever seen, likely 5-6 individuals in one small area, indicating a healthy presence of solitary bees (which I heard, but did not see much). There were many Gasteruption (or skinny arse wasps if you prefer their scientific name), a lot of small black-and-orange ichneumons which are impossible for me to identify properly. I even spotted a couple I don’t think I’ve seen before or have seen very rarely.

A beautiful female parasitoid wasp feasts on the nectar of this wild carrot. That intimidating looking ‘sting’ is unlikely to sting you. It is an ovipositor, the egg laying apparatus of the female. It can be tough to identify these small, ichneumonid wasps – This may be a Pimpla rufipes or similar. They are known to lay their eggs in the caterpillars of cabbage white butterflies so seeing a few of them around here would make sense. (Credit: Me)

I saw the ashiest of ashy mining bees, I mean this thing was just a tiny, buzzing, floating mini old-man’s beard it was so fluffy and grey.

A couple of miles along the shingle beach will take you to the vegetated sand dunes near Romney Sands and here I, as expected, found a higher concentration of digging wasps, sand wasps that sort of thing. You can, if you’re lucky, watch these little wasps and bees digging and making their nests. Just look for areas where the sand is forming a solid wall and look for small holes. These are almost certainly bee and wasp burrows and I got to watch one little digger bee going in and out with petals from the nearby flower, as well as what I think is a wasp in full Minecraft mode (I only saw its arse as its back legs kicked sand out of the nest it was digging).

The sandy dunes near Lydd-on-Sea are another excellent habitat, only a few miles walk from the Dungeness Estate. When I went it was rich in fennel, wild carrot and ragwort and many solitary digging bees and wasps could be seen around here. (Credit: Me)

If birds are your jam there is a nearby RSPB reserve, a wetland made up from filling in the old gravel pits. Bitterns, smews, wheatears, grebes, cormorants, gulls and terns, and rare migratory visitors like collared pratincoles, rosy starlings, glossy ibis, cattle egret – I mean, it’s a fucking haven, man!

It’s easily accessible by car or bus and I just feel a little sad that generally it gets bypassed via the A259 as people make their way East or West to more ‘popular’ seaside areas, they bypass this beautiful, unique habitat to go sip pints on concrete or play fucking mini-golf!

The fact is there is not a lot of glitz and glamour to Dungeness but there is a ton of character. Some of it is amazing, as a wildlife spot it’s incredible. Some of it is creepy – It is distinctly Lovecraftian in vibe around there, I mean if a local asked you to go worship to them you wouldn’t have a clue what arcane Old God they’re praying to. Anyone who has played Bloodbourne, just think the Fishing Hamlet and that’s Dungeness!

The bored local adherents to the worship of the Old Gods often make sacrifices in the form of ritual gnomicide. Here is one such victim, proudly on display, a stark warning to any gnomes who may wander into this forgotten corner of civilisation. (Credit: Me)

But that’s what I like about it! It’s not like everywhere else. Most importantly it’s quiet. I was there on a busy day and I could walk with no one around me for miles with little trouble! There are a few nice little pub-restaurants about for your dinner, fish and chip joints and local seafood places for a little light lunch or it’s the perfect damn picnic spot. Parking is ample and mostly free on the Dungeness Estate itself.

If you’re an angler! Oh boy! The sea just off where the hot water outlet pipe of the power station is provides some of the best, weirdest fishing you can do. Expelling water that’s a good 12°C warmer than the rest of the water it creates a mini-reef like area. People love to fish down there.

The striking caterpillar of the cinnabar moth. One of our most beautiful night moths, with its bold grey-and-red colouring, has just as bold a caterpillar! I did hang around to see if any wasps wanted to come and have an egg-lay but they left these caterpillars alone. (Credit: Me)

So if you’ve never been, go. I know the temptation, as the world flings its doors open with welcome after a pandemic, is to go to the crowded spots you’ve missed. But why not play it safe, and go find a new quiet spot where you can appreciate everything you love.

Go to Dungeness, if you regret it, at least you tell everybody about how oddly creepy Dungeness is.  

Want to learn more of my South Coast adventures?

Learn about the Victorian seaside resort of Eastbourne and the Beachy Head Woman

Read about Noviomagus Reginorum, Roman Chichester, and The Novium Museum

Or check out how AMAZING Fishbourne Roman Palace, near Chichester, is!

Folkestone Museum, full of details of the town’s maritime, wartime and ancient past!

Caturday Special: The Giant Cheetah, Acinonyx pardinensis

A comparison of a modern cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus – foreground) and the giant cheetah (Acinonyx pardinensis – background) based on a sketch by Mauricio Anton – (Credit: Source unknown, used without permission.)

If you’ve been following my cat content you will know that my all-time favourite cat is the cheetah. I put domestic cat as number one in our Top Ten Cats list because, besides the lion, no other cat is as synonymous with human culture. As far as I am aware lions did not domesticate themselves by taking care of small rodent or bird species that would steal grain from our grain stores.

Without successful agricultural practices humans would not have blossomed to become the ever-growing boil on the arse of nature we are today – so we owe a small part of that success to our domestic feline friends.

Lions could easily top the list, having a lengthy history of association with human culture. Tigers are another close favourite of mine, and used to run cheetahs very close but…In a running race, you ain’t gonna beat a cheetah!

So they’re my favourite. Their adaptations, their attitudes, their behaviours, their history, their hunting! Oh my god, their hunting! Like a carnal, brutal, beautiful, balletic, athletic dance to the death – It’s fucking sexy, okay! I can’t apologise for being a child of the Brutal Beauty, I’m erotically embowered in this savage garden and I find it hot!

Yup, fucking sexy! The way it moves, responds and reacts. This is predation in all its beauty. Few are the species on this planet that can match the dancing sprint chase of the cheetah. The chase, the grip, the trip, the bite, the lethal kiss on the neck! It’s so good! (Credit: BBC via giphy)

But now is a good chance to talk about adaptation.

That shouldn’t be a foreign word to any English speaker – adaptation is just something changing. In biology it is usually referring to evolutionary changes that allow an organism to better suit its environment.

Just bonobos (Pan paniscus) doing bonobo shit. Bonobos fuck! They’re little fuckers. Want to say hello? Have a little fuck. Want to resolve a conflict? A good fuck’ll do. Saying sorry? Why not say it with your genitals! This type of sociosexual behaviour is absolutely fascinating. In many ways humans exhibit a lot of similar behaviours, albeit tangled up in the psychosexual mess that comes with consciousness, ethics and learning. (Credit: Rob Bixby CC-BY-2.0)

In your own case you can look at our nearest living relatives, chimps and bonobos. At one time in our evolutionary history it is likely human ancestors had a similar lifestyle. They had similarly long, lithe, tree-adapted limbs, those weird hand-like feet a lot of primates have, big swinging arms and generally built like brick-shithouses. If you’ve never seen a hairless chimp they’re fucking shredded! Like, even captive ones have got that weird, cut, Bruce Lee-muscle going on! They will fucking batter you!

But humans adapted.

This usually happens because of some kind of selection pressure, or opportunity. Perhaps there were too many large apes in our neck of the woods and resources were scarce? Perhaps there were just vast plains of fruits, roots and shoots going unexploited.

The exact circumstances of how humans adapted is a relative unknown, with multiple theories but ultimately we got this beast! Bipedal; compare the hip bones of a chimp to a human and you can see the way we hold our bones has moved to facilitate standing upright. Our feet are less dextrous, less hand-like, and have instead become supports for that bipedal stance. What this has done is allow us to free our hands. No longer the elongated branch-graspers they once were they became gathering tools, digging tools, crafting tools and weapons platforms.

Let some more time pass and now we use our hands to do all sorts of things but mainly scroll twitter on our smartphones and masturbate – That’s adaptation!

That’s a lot of words without even talking about a cat but I figured it’d be easier to describe adaptation to you with an example you’re familiar with because otherwise all I can say is “Like a cheetah but bigger” about the Giant Cheetah (Acinonyx pardinensis).

A size comparison to a human figure. It is an interpretation slightly different to the one in the opening image. The giant cheetah was likely only around 20-30cm taller at the shoulder than its living relative, however it would have been much longer and almost twice as massive (weighing around 80-100kg). That length is the major takeaway! Being nearly 2m from nose-to-rump with an extra 1.5m of tail this was a long cat! (Credit: Prehistoric-wildlife.com, used without permission)

And from all the fossil evidence we have that’s the long-and-short of it! It’s like a cheetah but bigger, adapted for all the same things, but bigger. Naturally since it was larger it is theorised it was slower. I’d argue that’s a difficult one to say for sure – Usain Bolt is one big, lanky bastard but he made a hell of a sprinter!  

Otherwise the same adaptations as the regular cheetah are there; Shorter muzzle, increased nasal cavity size for sucking in air (because cheetahs breathe as they sprint, unlike humans).

An upper skull of a giant cheetah. You can see the flat muzzle, giving it enlarged nasal cavities. You can also see the short, squat canine. The carnassial teeth – at the back – as well as the structure of the head and jaw seem to indicate this cat had a strong bite and would have been capable of crushing bone, but the conditions of a lot of the carnassial teeth seem to suggest they did not do this. Likely eating as much of their kill’s flesh as quickly as possible before it got scavenged or stolen. (Credit: Ghedoghedo CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Interlude:
I didn’t really cover this in the cheetah article so I’d like to go through it here. Cheetahs, like many ‘sprinter’ quadrupeds (four-legged animals) do not knowingly breathe whilst sprinting. That is to say it is not breathing necessarily via the same action it would use when just laying down or having a slow wander.

Instead, the very motion, the flexion, during the sprint forces the air in-and-out. Whilst sprinting, think of a cheetah as a big pair of bellows!

They extend outwards to a huge length, facilitated by their very flexible spines. This changes the forces acting upon their thoracic (chest) and abdominal (gut) cavities. When fully stretched out it effectively pulls on the diaphragm (the muscle used to control breathing) to force air into the cat.

Then, when they pull that stride in they bundle themselves up into a taught ball, ready to explode out again. As they do so they compress everything up, forcing that diaphragm again and pushing the air out.

A diagram showing the proposed ‘forced breathing’ mechanism of a sprinting cheetah. The skeleton is outlined in blue, the thoracic (chest) cavity in red, the abdominal cavity in green and the diaphragm is between the thoracic and abdominal cavities. (Credit: Coluberssymbol CC-BY-SA 3.0)

So, what’s the deal? Why cat so big?

Because everything was bigger! We have evidence of giant cheetahs from the Early-to-Middle Pleistocene, that era when mammalian life on planet Earth was being huge and doing weird shit. It was world of rhinos and mammoths on the European plains, South America had sloths the size of people carriers and beavers the size of small bears!

It’s an excellent demonstration of adaptation. Whether these giant cheetahs were hunting larger prey than their extant African cousins or not they would have still faced competition from wolves, Eurasian cave lions, cave hyenas and other cats like Homotherium – the scimitar-toothed cats – that we’ve covered before.

Modern cheetahs are very selective, preferring Thomson’s gazelle over other prey. Whether the giant cheetah was as fussy is not known but they were probably busy tackling species larger than a Thomson’s gazelle – but they may have been opportunists.

A recreation of the head of a giant cheetah. There is debate as to whether or not its features would have been more puma-like, reflecting its lineage in that clade. (Credit:
Dawid A. Iurino CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Either way the selection pressures are there. When everything around you gets BIG your adaptation is likely to take one of two ways – Either grow larger in turn, so that you can compete with the other big life around you, or else find a niche, fill an opportunity, for being a bit smaller.

Well there was already a species filling the smaller niche – The cheetah. Yup, our beloved sprinter-cat dates back to the Pleistocene too, with the oldest fossils being in the region of 3 million years old. There was also a species in size somewhere between the two – Acinonyx intermedius (yup, points for originality on that name).

The giant cheetah is an exceptional example of adaptation at work. In many ways little different to its smaller, extant cousin and yet at the same time altered and changed to suit a slightly different habitat, lifestyle and different prey.

If there’s one thing I absolutely love about biology it is piecing together these little puzzles. Trying to figure out why something does what it does, or is as it is. Looking at the clues, comparing skeletons, anatomies, body forms, changes, sizes, little claws, their teeth – It’s a fascinating journey to go on.

You can CAT-ch up with the rest of our Caturday Specials here

Caturday Special: The Origin StoryProailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined.
Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats.
Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage!
Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster.
Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here.
Caturday Special: The Cougar – The second biggest cat in the Americas is actually more closely related to your domestic moggy than the lion! Learn more!
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Lynx – One of my continent’s most handsome predators and one that certain groups are looking to get reintroduced to the UK after a 1,000 year absence in the hope it will control rabbit and roe deer numbers. I’m all for it!
Caturday Special: Hybrids – Looking at the phenomenon of hybrid species, with focus on cats like the liger, the pumapard and the Kellas cat, as well as some talk about domestic hybrids like chausie, bengals and caracats.
Caturday Special: The Fishing Cat – It’s a cat that loves to fish. An adorable little kitto from Asia.
Caturday Special: The Marbled Cat – A beautiful Asian cat of the Bay-Cat lineage that completes a write up of a cat species from every extant cat clade and that discusses the smaller, little known cats and why they are worth study.
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Cave Lion – A prehistoric beauty, around 10-15% bigger than the modern, African lion and as fearsome as it was admirable. Lions and humans emerged from Africa together and have a strong, cultural bond as a result. Like competing brothers.
Caturday Special: Homotherium – Less well-known than their Smilodon cousins, these pre-historic, sabre-toothed beasties have some incredible evidence for intelligence, social behaviour and the evolution of butchery!
Caturday Special: The Rusty-Spotted Cat – Possibly the smallest cat in the world (it’s close between it and the black-footed cat) this tiny, elusive feline of India and Sri Lanka is surely one of the cutest little hunters on Earth.
Caturday Special: The Leopard – One of the most well-adapted, disperse and diverse of habitat cats on our planet and one whose various populations are sadly threatened by human activity. Of huge cultural significance to humans going back at least as far as Ancient Greece, the leopard is amazing.
Caturday Special: The Sand Cat – It started as a cute distraction from the world’s ills but became a lesson, from an amazingly well-adapted, resourceful desert cat, on how to better use resources.
Caturday Special: The OcelotThe cat, the myth, the legend, the meme, star of Archer, Metal Gear Solid and a weird little invisible dragon kid in Dark Souls 3? We look at the ocelot, a medium-sized cat from the Americas that is as cute as it is deadly.

Or read our Top Ten Cats List

Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.

Caturday Special: The Ocelot, Leopardus pardalis

KITTEN TAX! Already! Yes! Because ocelots are the best and this young kitto knows it! Look at those big, round ears, the huge eyes, big nose and long, drooping whiskers. You can tell this is a night-cat by those features alone. What an unbelievable cute cat! (Credit: Valerie CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Have you got an ocelot?

I’ve got lots of ocelots.

I want lots of ocelots.

I’ve got lots of ocelots.

Gimme all the ocelots, ‘coz ocelots is what I want, and I like ocelots a lot!

If you don’t know what on earth I am on about I am reciting the lyrics to a short song from early internet meme machine ‘rathergood.com’ featuring Iggy Pop’s Ocelot Shop.

This was memes, back in the early 2000s, in the UK, along with B3ta and AlbinoBlackSheep. Yes, the internet has come a long way. (Credit: Rathergood.com)

Does it make any sense? No.

Should you watch it? Yes.

Will you ever be able to see an ocelot, ever, in your life, without singing to yourself “Have you got an oceloooot?” Fuck no! This one stays with you.

Honestly it’s a solid meme for a worthwhile meme cat. There is something about the ocelot where it gets the balance between wild and cute just perfect that we recognise it for a potentially dangerous medium size cat but want to hug it and love it regardless.

See Babou the ocelot owned by millionaire-heiress/Cowboy Country singer/BDSM fiend Cheryl Tunt in the animated TV series ‘Archer’, who has his own Twitter account.

Moreover this is a reference to millionaire-artist/Cowboy absurdist Salvador Dali and his pet ocelot, Babou.

One of these is a mad, poor unfortunate creature clearly driven to a point of near insanity by having been removed from its native, comfortable habitat and placed among the inanity and insanity of human life and the other is an ocelot named Babou. (Credit:
Roger Higgins, World Telegram staff photographer, Public Domain)
The incredible design of Revolver Ocelot (by Japanese artist Yoji Shinkawa) involves a lot of nods to Spaghetti Western motifs, and the character is allegedly designed around veteran Western actor Lee Van Cleef. Sporting a bandolier full of ammo for his Colt Single-Action Army revolver – he is an iconic (and important) character in Metal Gearl Solid. (Credit: © Konami, concept and design by Yoji Shinkawa and Hideo Kojima – Used without permission)

And any fan of Hideo Kojima’s mad, pop-culture reference crammed, anti-war, yet somehow understanding the complex socio-economic inevitabilities of war romps, the Metal Gear franchise, will know Revolver Ocelot.

We don’t know much of the origin of his codename ‘Ocelot’ but he was likely given it whilst working for the Russian GRU (who took him in and raised him as an ‘orphan’) to reflect his American origins (the Ocelot being a cat native to the Americas and his mother; The Joy (later The Boss) having been American and a founding member of the elite COBRA special forces unit).

Honestly there should be a whole series of We Lack Discipline article doing a full analysis of the Metal Gear Solid franchise because not only is it one heck of a socio-political anti-war set-piece but it’s bat-shit insane and so deeply, disturbingly image rich that there’s so much room for artistic interpretation!

But it’s more than just a modern phenomenon. The importance of Ocelots dates back to their native Central and South America in the Aztec and Incan civilisations that depict ocelots as an integral part of their mythology and artistic symbology.  

Although it should be noted the old Nahuatl word, the language group spoken by many Mesoamerican groups, for ‘jaguar’ was ‘ocelotl’ so we should be careful with many interpretations, in language, that refer to ‘ocelotl’ as they may mean jaguar.

So, before we even get to the cat itself we have an interesting, culturally significant species on our hands!

So what is an ocelot?

I pick this spot to place this shot of ocelot! Another beautiful shot by the same photographer as the title shot. Their faces are so telling, so incredible to look at. Their amber eyes, which often reflect orange when spotted in lamps in the night, are piercing, that muzzle is something else with that large nose. Oh they’re adorable. (Credit: Valerie CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It’s a slender, medium-sized cat, with a blotched/spotty coat. They can be up to 50cm at the shoulder, head and body length between 50-100cm, tail is usually quite short at 30-45cm. Weight is usually somewhere around 8-15kg, females averaging slightly smaller, but not by much.

STARING OCELOT! (Credit: Camera-man via Pixabay)

It is easily confused with the other small, slender cats in its genus, the margay and the oncilla – with the ocelot’s bulk being the main clue between them. They are significantly heavier. They have a small head, with a little, slightly pointed muzzle and small, rounded ears on the top of the head. They also have these big, soulful eyes that beg for you to pet them, but don’t! Ocelots are wild animals and a challenge to keep.

Whilst we associate the ocelot with a spotted coat the bulk of it is actually marked by blotchy rosettes, with pale lines in between. It tends to be spottier on the face, legs and belly. This gives it a special, marble-like pattern that make the ocelot particular prone to hunting for its pelts.

Of course its main threat (isn’t it always?) is habitat loss and fragmentation due to human exploitation. Increasing areas of ocelot habitat have been exploited to split to make way for modern roads, farms or other infrastructure. In areas of Argentina, for example, more ocelot deaths are being caused by traffic collisions. The logging trade is taking away huge areas of ocelot habitat and not replacing it fast enough.

This ocelot is a perfect example of how varied the coat colour and pattern, the pelage, can be. There is significant difference between the two subspecies – with the more northern subspecies being a greyer coat and often more spotted. This one from Brazil, however, has almost stripe-length blotches. They are incredibly beautiful animals and unsurprisingly were hunted for these gorgeous pelts. (Credit: João Carlos Medau CC-BY-2.0)

It’s got a hell of range to experience these problems in, too. In case you can’t tell by the pictures and description this is a forest cat, but it’s fairly well adapted for any kind of forest. The short tail should tell you whilst it can hunt in the trees it is probably not exclusively an arboreal hunter, so basically anywhere there’s dense vegetation an ocelot will fit. From Texas in the Southwest United States all the way down to the elevated forests of Northern Argentina and into the Amazon basin in Brazil these cats basically take in every country along the way as part of their territory.

A bottle, believed to be based on an ocelot, from the Moche civilisation of Peru, who lived between the 1st and 8th centuries CE. (Credit: Rama, MEG — Musée d’ethnographie de Genève CC-BY-3.0-Fr)

One of the reasons is they are very disperse. Female ranges tend to be a little smaller, estimated up to 6 square miles, whilst males can have territories wanting up to 20 square miles. Female ranges do not tend to overlap, male ranges definitely overlap with female ranges. It’s how we get kittens. But that doesn’t mean ocelots aren’t fiercely territorial, and fights can occur, sometimes resulting in death. However, ocelots have also been known, even during non-mating periods, to spend time together. It is unsure whether these are related individuals, but juveniles have been noted returning to their parents.

Given their wide range and, as mentioned, the wide range of habitats they can live in, it should come as no surprise that ocelots are relatively opportunistic hunters and seem to have different preferences depending on where they are. They only need around a kilo of meat per day to sustain themselves and so small prey of about 1kg are perfect. In the US/Central America this can include rabbits and hares, large rodents, armadillos, birds etc. In Mexican forests they seem to have a liking for iguana meat. In part of Brazil they prefer a bit of monkey. They really are a delightfully varied little cat, showing themselves to be highly adaptive.

KITTEN TAX! Another ocelot kitten. I have no words, just a series of squeaks and awws. (Credit: Mark Dumont CC-BY-NC-2.0)

They are mainly a crepuscular and nocturnal (twilight and night) species, active and hunting during those times and choosing to spend the day resting in trees or in dens.

Being a tropical/sub-tropical species there’s no real ‘season’ for breeding in ocelots and the peak time for it changes across their habitats. Usually it seems to come around Autumn/Winter time. They only gestate for two to three months and have small litters of 1-3 kittens, which can stay with their mother for up to two years! This is a relatively long time for parental investment in a cat!

There are two recognised sub-species of ocelot – that one could nominally call the ‘Northern’, Leopardus pardalis pardalis, and ‘Southern’, Leopardus pardalis mitis, ocelot, I suppose, with their territories basically divided by the Andes. The ‘Northern’ inhabits the space North of the Andes Mountains from Texas and Arizona down to Costa Rica, Panama. The ‘Southern’ Ocelot is more prevalent in South America in the cats’ range in Brazil, Guyana, Suriname – all the way down to the southernmost reach of their range in Northern Argentina.

There is no data on where this was taken or which subspecies it is but it is a beauty. You can see just how different the pattern on the coat can be, particularly compared to other cats that, whilst each specific cat’s pattern is unique they are uniform in their appearance. With ocelots you could get one big side blotch, you could get jaguar-like rosettes, you could mix the two. It’s amazing. (Credit: Ana_Cotta CC-BY-2.0)

Whilst being ‘of least concern’ to the IUCN, certain sub-populations are hugely at risk. The population in Texas, for example, likely only numbers around 50 adult individuals and is well into the inbreeding threshold putting increasing pressure on them.

CITES – The international law banning trade in certain wild animal parts certainly helped. Whilst illegal poaching for their skins and sometimes meat does take place it is a far cry from when they were being killed in high numbers to make fashionable furs. As a result the global population sits around 40,000 individuals, the bulk of which are in stable populations in the Amazon basin.

It is showing itself to be adaptable to human exploited sites such as oil palm farms and cattle ranches, with little danger to either palm trees or cows this could provide an excellent opportunity for peaceful, and beneficial co-existence as the ocelots could kill any bird or rodent pests that might cause problems for the agricultural communities.

Caught in a camera trap in the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas. Almost all of the US population of ocelots now live on this refuge, accounting for around 50 of the global population of 40,000. Hopefully some breeding programs can get those numbers up because it’s too beautiful a cat to have go extinct in even one of its territories. (Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters, Public Domain)

For want of a better term, ocelots’ got swag!

There’s a certain something and you can’t quite put your finger on it but ocelots have it. They are the perfect blend of wild and cute, they wear a coat you’d expect a flamboyant boxer to turn up at a press-conference wearing, soul-piercing eyes and a lithe body that looks like they could do anything with it. They don’t look real, they look like a kid designed a cat that looked like a teddy bear and some genius CGI artist just stuck it in our world. They’re special!

And for once I don’t have to cry foul, fall to my knees like Charlton Heston at the end of ‘Planet of the Apes’ and scream “God damn you all to hell!” It’s doing alright! This shy, elusive jungle cat is used to running and hiding from the most effective predators in the light-dappled darkness of the densest forests on the planet – dodging, ducking, dipping, diving and dodging between the trees and the shadows avoiding jaguars and caimans. Further north they have to avoid coyotes, cougars, bobcats and eagles.

Relax my little ocelot friend, the pressures on you are still there but not as much as they were 40-50 years ago. We’ll do our best to look after you, you adorable schleepy kitto. (Credit: gabi_mai_fuwa via Pixabay)

They’re great at doing what they do and staying the hell out of our way – and I think that stand-offishness is a little bit attractive in them.

Yeah, I like ocelots a lot.

You can CAT-ch up with the rest of our Caturday Specials here

Caturday Special: The Origin StoryProailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined.
Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats.
Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage!
Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster.
Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here.
Caturday Special: The Cougar – The second biggest cat in the Americas is actually more closely related to your domestic moggy than the lion! Learn more!
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Lynx – One of my continent’s most handsome predators and one that certain groups are looking to get reintroduced to the UK after a 1,000 year absence in the hope it will control rabbit and roe deer numbers. I’m all for it!
Caturday Special: Hybrids – Looking at the phenomenon of hybrid species, with focus on cats like the liger, the pumapard and the Kellas cat, as well as some talk about domestic hybrids like chausie, bengals and caracats.
Caturday Special: The Fishing Cat – It’s a cat that loves to fish. An adorable little kitto from Asia.
Caturday Special: The Marbled Cat – A beautiful Asian cat of the Bay-Cat lineage that completes a write up of a cat species from every extant cat clade and that discusses the smaller, little known cats and why they are worth study.
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Cave Lion – A prehistoric beauty, around 10-15% bigger than the modern, African lion and as fearsome as it was admirable. Lions and humans emerged from Africa together and have a strong, cultural bond as a result. Like competing brothers.
Caturday Special: Homotherium – Less well-known than their Smilodon cousins, these pre-historic, sabre-toothed beasties have some incredible evidence for intelligence, social behaviour and the evolution of butchery!
Caturday Special: The Rusty-Spotted Cat – Possibly the smallest cat in the world (it’s close between it and the black-footed cat) this tiny, elusive feline of India and Sri Lanka is surely one of the cutest little hunters on Earth.
Caturday Special: The Leopard – One of the most well-adapted, disperse and diverse of habitat cats on our planet and one whose various populations are sadly threatened by human activity. Of huge cultural significance to humans going back at least as far as Ancient Greece, the leopard is amazing.
Caturday Special: The Sand Cat – It started as a cute distraction from the world’s ills but became a lesson, from an amazingly well-adapted, resourceful desert cat, on how to better use resources.

Or read our Top Ten Cats List

Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.

Roman History in a Nutshell: The Pyrrhic Wars – Sicily and The Battle of Beneventum, 275 BCE

Beneventum, to the Southeast of Rome, was to to be the final fight of King Pyrrhus and his Epirot allied forces. After his ill-fated trip to Sicily his final battle would be here.
(Credit: Piom By GDFL)

We left off after the (potential) defeat of the Romans after the Battle of Asculum and the role of Roman/Carthaginian relations in proceedings.

Well those relations were about to be tested for the flimsy trans-Mediterranean partnership that it actually was.

We have spoken how it seems Pyrrhus may have had eyes on Sicily. The Greek city states there were already a part of his Epirot League, effectively a collaboration of a bunch of areas of ‘Greek’ control. As mentioned there is a notion of ‘Greece’ as a unified ancient civilisation when that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Much like the Gods they almost uniformly worshiped these were effectively a bunch of constantly squabbling kin, with similar cultures but constantly at each other’s throats.

Well, Pyrrhus did go to Sicily. Trouble stirred between the Carthaginians in the West and other Greek cities was enough to spark his journey there and, let’s be honest, whilst he was ‘winning’ against the Romans the phrase ‘Pyrrhic victory’ has not persisted for nothing. Pyrrhus’ fights against the Romans were sapping the shit out of troops, morale, patience and energy and a short stint of successful campaigns in Sicily could help win back a bit of public support, earn a few more troops and get him back on track with regards to bringing Rome to heel.

There are suggestions this was to be a stepping stone in itself, that Pyrrhus had eyes on Africa and Carthage. How much of that is true and how much bullshit will never be known.

The city of Erice, Sicily. Once upon a timed called Eryx, after the Greek hero, although this was not a Greek-founded city. It was founded by Phoenicians and was Carthaginian controlled when Pyrrhus came to the island. As you can see by its elevated position, it was an important fort and one which Pyrrhus was keen to capture. (Credit: Effems CC-BY-SA 4.0)

There are differing accounts of Pyrrhus’ time in Sicily.

I’m not going to go into too much detail but Pyrrhus was less-than successful in Sicily. After a blitzkrieg-like start to the campaign, taking multiple Carthaginian territories he successfully besieged Eryx and garrisoned it, using it as a base to take Panormus. Laetia surrendered with no fighting whatsoever.

Then came Lilybaeum. During the siege of this city the Carthaginians brought over reinforcements, not only man power but food and resources. This allowed them to strengthen the fortifications, bolster anti-siege troops and weaponry. This basically halted Pyrrhus’ progress.

Negotiations ensued but they did not go well, with the Greek city states on the island being unsatisfied with any concessions to the Carthaginians. Allegedly Pyrrhus had begun to behave in an increasingly tyrannical way and upset a lot of people and everything sort of took a turn for the worse for Pyrrhus.

Mercifully he received word from the Italic Greek states that they were up the creek without a paddle again. The Samnites (I told you in their article we weren’t done with them) were being forced out of their territories and struggling to defend their cities and needed assistance, through which they had reached Pyrrhus by going via the Tarentines.

It gave Pyrrhus the excuse he must have dearly wanted to leave the complicated conflicts in Sicily but far from having won hearts and minds, bolstered his resources and returned to Italy reinvigorated he was now even more depleted in troop and spirit.

What’s more, he left without saying goodbye to the Carthaginians and according to Plutarch they took great offence at this and fought him in the Strait of Messina as he made his crossing back. Against the well-drilled Carthaginian navy Pyrrhus lost many ships and personnel. Although Dionysius doesn’t mention this battle, he mentions a strong wind causing ships to stray off course and be lost. Either way, Pyrrhus lost a lot on his way back from Sicily.

One of the trademarks of Carthaginian naval warfare. What the Romans would call a Rostrum, or a ship’s ram. These would have been mounted at the front of ships for driving into enemy vessels, damaging the hull. Carthage’s infantry was often composed of mercenary forces, albeit from states who usually had some link to Carthage and thus a contract to supply troops if asked. Their navy, though, was almost exclusively Carthaginian and often lower-class. This provided political stability – giving those poorer people a chance of good work and success and preventing them from joining political movements to overthrow heads of state. (Credit: Sb2s3 CC-BY-SA 4.0)

The Romans, in the meantime, in case you hadn’t gathered by the begging letter from the Samnites, had been busy raiding Samnium with mixed results. Whilst they clearly took enough territory to cause the Samnites to ask for help, they lost many troops attempting to fight in the wild hills where Samnites were used to dwelling and Romans not so much.

When Pyrrhus finally got back to fighting the Romans their main armies were divided on two fronts. Lucius Cornelius Lentulus Caudinus was in Lucania and Manius Curius Dentatus was in Samnium. It was the force of Dentatus that would be Pyrrhus’ undoing.

According to Dionysius he rushed his forces to meet Dentatus’ in battle through trails in the woods that were “goat paths.” Thirsty, hungry and tired he ended up encamped in full view of the Roman army, who advanced on Pyrrhus’ position.

The multiple sources disagree about what exactly happened but they all agree on one thing. It was Pyrrhus’ own war elephants that were his undoing. An injury to either a calf, or a couple of larger, elephants caused panic and confusion among the rest of them. They turned from their intended target, the Romans, and trampled right through the Pyrrhic lines, causing them confusion and a mad scramble too. For the disciplined Romans this was a solid opening and whilst we do not have any solid figures of casualties it was a substantial enough defeat to send Pyrrhus back to Epirus.

A comic illustration by John Leech depicting Pyrrhus’ arrival in Rome. It was to be a far from comic venture for the Epirot king who would find an army fighting without fear, a situation in Sicily that was messy at best, victories that were more like defeats and would ultimately leave the whole mess behind and go and conquer Macdeon instead! (Credit: Andrew McCabe CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Pyrrhus would go on to fight the Kingdom of Macedon, defeating Antigonus II, attempting a war with Sparta and would allegedly die in a battle in the streets of Argos.

Rome, within a couple of years, had taken Tarentum and with it pretty much any hope of Greek independence in the Southern Italian peninsula. They would go on to take Brundisium, defeat Umbrians, bring various other tribes under their umbrella and effectively control the whole Italian peninsula.

Rome’s victory established them as a true, legitimate force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean region. Other Hellenistic Kingdoms, such as the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, established relations with them on these grounds.

It had been a troubled few years that saw Rome tested in the direst of circumstances.  But Rome held strong, defiant in the face of defeat and insistent on protecting Roman interests at all costs, this was an attitude they would carry forward into the future.

But they had also, now, opened up allegiance with Sicily, pulling the diplomatic strings with Carthage tighter and tighter. That tension was soon to break.

As simple as it gets but I like that. Ten years after the end of the Pyrrhic War and we see Roman territories (most of the Italian peninsula) in green and Carthaginian territories (most of the southern Mediterranean coast and Southern Spain) in orange. Can you guess what the spark for the first war between these two cultures would be? If you guessed Sicily, give yourselves a gold star! (Credit: Agata Brilli, DensityDesign Research Lab CC-BY-SA 4.0)

A small contingent of Greek might, who fought mostly on land, was one thing. How would Rome fare against the naval focussed Carthaginians? It wouldn’t be long before we get to find out.

Read the other parts in our ‘Roman History in a Nutshell’ Series:
Introduction
The Founding – 753 BCE and Before

The Kingdom – 753 BCE – 509 BCE
The Patrician Era and the Conflict of the Orders – 494 BCE – 287 BCE
Wars with Etruscans Pre-753 BCE – ~264 BCE
Wars with Sabines, Veii & Fidenae ~753 BCE – ~287 BCE
The Latin Wars 7th Century BCE – ~338 BCE
The Gallic Wars ~390 BCE – ~284 BCE
The Rest of the Med ~2,000 BCE – ~3rd Century BCE
The Samnite Wars ~343 BCE – ~290 BCE
The Pyrrhic Wars – The Battle of Heraclea, 280 BCE
The Pyrrhic Wars – Carthage and the Battle of Asculum, 279 BCE

We’ve got more on Rome, too!

The Mother of Rome: Livia Drusilla – Before the hit Sky TV series ‘Domina’ there was me espousing the life and works of Livia (Some might argue I did it better…), the canny politician, the Patrician, the Patron and the wife and mother of an Empire.
The Pleb who Built Rome: Marcus Agrippa – It is my belief that the right-hand-man of Augustus had a much bigger part to play in the building and management of the Empire than did his friend with the titles. Find out why.

Bad History: Boudica and Bullshit Nationalism – Looking at the use of historical figures for current political or social agendas.
Bad History: Did Rome ever Actually Fall? Questioning the ‘Decline and Fall’ narrative and looking at structures inherited from the Romans we have to this day.

A New Lease of Life? – A Discussion about the new floor in the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Colosseum, and what Vespasian, who initially commissioned the building, might think.

The Fan-TAS-tic Virtues of Rome – A look at the moral virtues of Roman life.

What are the ‘Ides of March’ – Because I envitably get asked by my dad every Ides, I wrote about it!

Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Introduction
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Easily available abortion (CW)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Drawing dicks on things.
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Energy Drinks
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Gender and Sexuality Liberation (CW)
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Travel and Tourist Tat.
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – AirBnB
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Bipartisan Politics
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Fast Food
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Pro-Wrestling
Top Ten Modern Things Romans Would Love – Social Media (Especially Insta and Twitter)

The Aspinall Elephant Controversy

A beautiful African bush (or savanna) elephant – We often talk of the ‘African’ elephant but they are actually recognised as two species, the bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). This was only officially recognised by the IUCN in their 2021 red list, as such the bush elephant is classified as endangered whilst the forest elephant is critically endangered. The reintroduction is of bush elephants, the least troubled of the two African elephant species, and it returning them to Kenya, an area with a large elephant population thanks to their own grass-roots conservation. (Credit: Andrew Shiva / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 4.0)

You may have heard on the news, read in The Guardian, seen in the full-page ad in The Sun *spits* newspaper or seen on BBC Breakfast the heartwarming tale of Damian Aspinall, the multi-millionaire animal lover, who is air-lifting, at great expense, an entire family of elephants raised at Howlett’s Wild Animal Park, near Canterbury in Kent, all the way to Kenya.

And you would probably have been left thinking that this is a wonderful thing. Wondering why people could be opposed in any way! But conservation is nothing if not messy and a lot of people elbow deep in the grime of conservation work have problems with this scheme.

So why could you possibly have a problem with the return of beautiful, wild, animals back where they belong?

Well – I’m going to try to explain.

For one thing I read often of the ‘success’ of the Aspinall Foundation for re-releasing other wild animals, specifically gorillas and rhinos, into the wild. Some successful re-releases have occurred but this is usually within Aspinall owned, and managed, reserves. Effectively these animals live a semi-wild kind of life, they’re in their native environment but still watched, monitored and managed.

A Western lowland gorilla in San Diego Zoo. This species has the best Latin name…Gorilla gorilla gorilla. Whilst the Aspinall Foundation has done excellent work improving gorilla numbers it is on their own, owned reserves in Congo and Gabon. Leading to the questions 1) are they truly wild? and 2) to what end? (Credit: Heather Paul CC-BY-ND 2.0)

But even with so much careful watching and management things are not without their problems. An attempt to return a captive black rhino from Aspinall managed Port Lympne Wild Animal Park ended with the death of the 17 year old male rhino mid-transportation.

Funnily enough large animals used to wandering around plains are…well, not used to planes!

A project to move 14 black rhinos from others National Parks in Africa (Lake Nakuru and Nairobi National Parks) to another (Tsavo East National Park) ended with the deaths of the 11 rhinos that were actually moved – not from poaching, not from some grim human activity. These rhinos were being moved to a managed, monitored space and they died from…being…rubbish at…living there?

The black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) – They’re gorgeous, to be honest and the truly terrible thing is…I live in the South East, Aspinall run parks are some of my nearest zoos. The families of gorillas at Howletts and Port Lympne, the rhino from Port Lympne – I knew them! I visited them regularly, saw them, I’m not a ‘wander-take-a-snap-and-move’ zoo visitor. I sit, I watch, I talk to the animals. I look at their behaviours. I feel distressed if I see they’re distressed. I mean, the captivity, it ain’t a perfect life for them but you can tell they seem happy enough. Happier than dead, that’s for fucking sure! I’d prefer no animals were in captivity but I prefer captive live animals to dead ones! (Credit: Yoky by GFDL)

I wish there was some other way to say it, the investigation by Save the Rhinos (who were involved in the project and naturally very upset by its failure) suggests they died of multiple stress syndrome. The multiple stresses were mainly related to making a living. They had stomach troubles due to their diet and likely not knowing safe and healthy food from stomach-churning garbage, many showed signs of starvation as if they hadn’t been eating at all, many showed signs of dehydration suggesting an inability to source good water in their new environment and most of them had salt poisoning, likely from drinking salt-water.

The media presentation focussed heavily on the ‘salt poisoning’ part which, unfortunately, does not inform the public of the reality of re-locating animals – and again, this was a group of Rhinos being moved from Africa, to another part of Africa. Not from KENT!

You’ve probably heard the stories of how many gorillas have been re-wilded by the Aspinall Foundation. Most of these go to Aspinall owned and managed reserves in Gabon and Republic of the Congo.

This has gone quite well at times but itself has not been without its problems. You may have seen the lovely videos on the news or on YouTube, of Damian Aspinall, his wife, and his daughter Tansy reuniting with a family they helped raise in Howletts before releasing them. They went to a special gorilla re-wilding training school, were moved to a specially managed island in the Aspinall reserve in Gabon to acclimatise and then a bridge was built to connect them with the ‘wild’ unmanaged part.

Only…

Well, experts, such as Tara Stoinski of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund warned this might not be such a good idea. The ‘wild’, even managed, is a savage eden – it’s the brutal beauty I so often talk about. Never mind the dangers of humans and their constant meddling, habitat loss, poaching, the bushmeat trade; there are predators, diseases, poisonous plants, injuries, infections. ‘The Wild’ is not paradise – It’s the most beautiful hell you can imagine!

And it’s believed one of the males killed, or is implicated in the deaths of, 6 of the others. Five adult females and a baby.

It’s the bit missing from heartwarming Youtube videos.

The family-tree of the gorillas released from Aspinall Foundation properties in Kent to a managed reserve in Gabon. Four females are confirmed dead, one female is missing, presumed dead, a baby was confirmed dead. It is believed that it is possibly Djala himself who killed the females, although there is no evidence and it may have been another rogue male. The suggestion does seem to be, however, that they sustained injuries consistent with a gorilla attack. (Credit: Willard CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I’ll play devil’s advocate for a bit here the Aspinall Foundation has done an awful lot on its reserves to help numbers of western lowland gorillas in Gabon and Congo.

But this is where we have to get to the other questions. Why?

Maybe it’s the piss-broke council tenant in me but I don’t trust millionaires. Damian’s father, John Aspinall, sold his stakes in casino businesses in order to help fund his – admittedly controversial – wildlife parks. Damian has bought those back. Damian Aspinall is also spending huge sums of money investing in land in Africa, has recently called for all captive animals to be returned to the wild (as if it is that easy!) and is paying to take out huge ads and running a PR machine to advertise it. Why?

I don’t trust that this is out of the goodness of his heart. It may be, and I might just be a cynical git who has seen too much corruption and misery, but millionaires do not become or stay millionaires by throwing their money away trying to make themselves look like wildlife Jesus.

The Aspinall Foundation’s wildlife parks, Howletts and Port Lympne, over the last few decades, have turned themselves from regular old zoos into glamping and luxury wildlife accommodation experiences. They’re a zoo-hotel now. I think this is a model.

The window at Tiger Lodge in Port Lympne. Prices? Around £1,100 per night. Just, you know, cheap family getaway! The Aspinall Foundations zoo parks have increasingly turned to these zoo-hotel models in the last few decades and I believe they set a blueprint for future wildlife tourism models. Unfortunately any money to wildlife tourism going to Aspinall reserves is money being taken away from reserves set up by native people in the native countries. (Credit: Ian Duffy CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I think the ultimate aim is to own and run wildlife tourism reserves in Africa, whilst running campaigns to end wildlife captivity, close other zoos and parks in the UK, such that the Aspinall Foundation can have an effective monopoly on seeing rhinos, elephants and gorillas ‘in the wild’.

Damian’s buying back of the casino businesses his father once sold is also another piece of the puzzle, we wouldn’t be talking mosquito-bitten wildlife-tourist pioneers in yurts. I suspect it would be luxury resorts. Their lodges at their parks in Kent are incredibly high-end and expensive. I suspect they would do similar in Africa.

Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, said at a conference that philanthropy was the future of marketing. And in an increasingly complicated, messy world it’s easy to see how charitable initiatives, greenwashing, planting trees or – spending a shit-ton of money moving elephants – could be used as a tool to promote yourself and your brand whilst the seedy underbelly of what you do goes unnoticed.

What’s more you, in the West, in the UK or the US or wherever, might think “Africa” and imagine a savage dustbowl full of starving children with protruding bellies and sad faces covered in flies.

Welcome to the PAST of marketing! Kenya is a surprisingly modern country and is growing and modernising rapidly. They’re also not dumb. A huge part of the Kenyan income is from wildlife tourism already so they’ve done a great job over the years of bringing elephant numbers up.

Hardly chock-full of half-naked starving children, Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, is a modern, built-up city in one of the top ten wealthiest African countries by GDP per capita. Kenya does not need wealthy, millionaire, white-saviours air-lifting fucking elephants to it. It’s own people, along with charities and NGOs, have done, and continue to do, a great job supporting their own wildlife because a lot of THIS modernisation has been built on a native wildlife tourism industry! (Credit: ninara CC-BY-2.0)

Back in 1989 it was estimated there were fewer than 16,000 elephants in the country. By 2018 that was up to over 34,000.

There are so many, right, that they’re a problem! Here’s an excellent impact study done in 2020 that goes into detail about how and why elephants can be a problem to the communities they co-exist with. It talks not just about the direct impacts – loss of crops, danger to human lives, but the psychological and well-being impact. Kids having curfews because of elephant movements, living in fear that elephants could ruin your livelihood and how all of that impacts the grass-roots conservation work because one of the fundamentals of conservation is making sure the people in the area of the species you are trying to conserve actually support it!

Elephants are fucking massive! They roam, and these animals are literal forest clearers! When elephants roam a track through a forest what they effectively do is trample the shit out of it, eat the vegetation, stomp the trees – Surely this is bad? Well that’s up for debate. There are suggestions that they clear old trees to encourage new sprouting which helps both the trees and the elephants, as well as other herbivorous species. There are suggestions that it’s a little excessive and causing problems. There are suggestions that in a human-free, ideal world these forests would be big enough to cope and that human effects make the elephant behaviour problematic because there aren’t enough trees. Like everything in nature; it’s complicated! One thing I can say for sure is they do significantly less damage to forests and trees than humans do!

The problem is they also do the same with human farms and villages! When they raid crops they’ll stomp, turn over and clumsily damage just as much, if not more, than they’ll eat! If they scratch their arse on the side of your house they may well take your roof off or break a wall! Like you going for a walk and accidentally snapping a small branch or stepping on a snail, there is no evidence of malice from the elephants. They’re just big and don’t register the small shit they damage.

A short clip of an elephant ( I believe an Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) – smaller ears, double-domed head) scratching itself on a tree and…almost breaking the tree! By scratching! Again, they’re not trying to destroy the habitat and the way elephants co-evolved with their environment means this kind of destruction, mixed with their eating and defecating habits, encourages healthy, new forest grrowth. But not when they do it in villages!

As I said, Kenya is quite modern and modernising fast. Urban centres, suburban centres, increasing agricultural needs, requiring more land for farms and elephants, those farms build communities around them for workers, who need houses and schools and hospitals and elephants – basically being an intelligent, hungry, thirsty battle-tank – they’ll just tread all over it.

Human-wildlife conflict is, outside of preventing habitat loss, possibly the BIGGEST problem in conservation right now. Increasing human populations, increasing populations of the species we are trying to save due to working initiatives, modernisation, increased need for land for agriculture for native populations, increased desire for agricultural land for export markets to make more money, it all adds up and complicates conservation.

There is no right for Western conservationists from wealthy, developed nations, to tell people not to change, adapt and enrich themselves because of wildlife. The UK, for example, has a significantly altered biodiversity from 1,000 years ago, 500 years ago, even a century ago, because of the species we have persecuted and made extinct. For us to now tell people in Kenya to ‘suck it up’ because we like elephants and don’t have to deal with the problems they bring when they’re on your doorstep is the kind of backwards, colonial thinking that caused a lot of these problems in the first place.

Africans are not all semi-naked starving children, many of them are ambitious people in business attire and they are entitled not only to have problems, as they grow and adapt, with the wildlife in their area, but to be part of the solution to those problems. In fact it is vital they are the leading drivers of the solutions to those problems – Not some millionaire whose main office is in fucking Central London!

These elephants kill people, and people kill elephants in retaliation as a result. Kenya has too many Kenyan elephants! We don’t need to introduce the Kent variant!

The amount of money that has been spent, that will continue to be spent, on what is a saviour-complex pseudo-conservationist project; if spent on the ground, in Kenya, could save many human and elephant lives.

It could even go to places outside of Kenya, that do have reduced elephant populations, that do need help to manage their wildlife.

When you see them in your zoos, behind bars or in sunken-in enclosures, or when you watch documentaries of them wandering the plains and forests – It is easy to see the charm, the beauty and the intelligence of the elephant. But now imagine one hanging around your back garden eating your petunias and dropping a shit the size of a boulder on your doorstep. Imagine a large male in musth, the aggressive, piss-dripping, horny phase males go through, trying to gore and/or hump your kids’ schoolbus. This is a reality of life in many parts of Asia and Africa and one of the biggest problems in elephant conservation. Learning how to manage populations, increase elephant numbers whilst reducing human-elephant conflict (HEC) is one of the key problems to be solved in elephant conservation and it is not helped, in any way, by a twat air-lifting 13 captive-born elephants from one continent to another. (Credit: Lynn Greyling via PublicDomainPictures)

This is money that could be given to true conservationists to research, to plan, to develop systems and schemes that promote healthy wildlife and biodiversity and minimise human-wildlife conflict, saving animal and human lives and setting a blueprint for inevitable projects in other developing nations into the future.

Instead it’s being spent advertising in the second shittiest newspaper in the UK and airlifting Kentish elephants to Kenya.

Many conservationists are begging for this not to go ahead and for good reason.

Like with the black rhino, some of these elephants could die of stress in transit.

Like the relocated rhinos these elephants will probably just die quite quickly while they’re in Africa, being unused to the vegetation, the climate, the water or even finding water sources (a very wild-elephant skill!)

Even if they survive, where will they survive? In ‘the wild’ free to roam? Or in ‘the wild’ a penned in, managed reserve?

Studies have shown that in parts of Africa the most significant natural cause of damage to trees over 2m in height is elephants. This boabab in Botswana is believed to have been damaged at its base by elephants. (Credit: dmitri_66 CC-BY-NC 2.0)

In which case what’s the point?

I haven’t even mentioned the investigation by The Charity Commission into potential financial misconduct at The Aspinall Foundation.

So, if you see people criticising this move please don’t think they’re just do-gooders who are never happy.

When the gorillas died Damian Aspinall himself said he reckoned people like me, other conservationists critical of what he does, would be “Jumping for joy.” While he was angrily ranting about others being the problem those conservationists were hanging their fucking heads in grief.

None of us want this.

No conservationist wants animals in captivity.

No conservationist wants animals to die.

No conservationist wants humans to have conflicts with animals.

No conservationist celebrates the failure of conservation related project, even the ones they disagree with.

The fact is conservation is messy work. There are compromises and trade-offs all over the place and they have to be made objectively, with research, with careful consideration of the tangled web of problems that they could bring, and often with a brutally utilitarian perspective.

There are no simple problems and there are certainly no simple solutions. There are people out there in labs, in universities and in the field, trying to figure out all the chaotic, messy variables that make up these problems and attempting to work at solutions.

Damian Aspinall is doing the equivalent of catapulting animals randomly into the wild and screaming “FREEDOM!” There’s a lack of thought, a lack of planning, a simplicity to this bullshit, ‘maverick’ pseudo-conservation.

Because the truth is…

Well it’s We Lack Discipline’s First Rule of Everything;

It’s always more complicated than that.

Usually I’d use this spot to advertise some of my other articles but I’d rather share some good, grass-roots, hands-on and in some cases local, charities dealing with conservation in elephants or wildlife conservation in Kenya and beyond. Feel free to check them out and donate if you can to help save elephants, other wildlife and promote peaceful co-existence of humans and wildlife across Kenya.

For some of these charities, the level of investment going into translocating just 13 elephants could fund them for a decade and help protect hundreds of elephants, people and acres and acres of habitat.

The Big Life Foundation – They partner with local communities across Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa working on initiatives to protect wildlife, protect habitats, reduce human-wildlife conflict and educate local communities about their wildlife and how to co-exist with it. Heavily involved in protecting elephants from illegal exploitation they employ hundreds of rangers to patrol the area and protect elephants.

SORALO – The South Rift Association of Land Owners – These are a smaller charity working in the South Rift Valley between the Maasai Mara and Amboseli National Parks on the border between Kenya and Tanzania. Their aim is to create an environment of peaceful co-existence between the native wildlife and the people of the South Rift region by working with local communities, including by managing issues of local governance and legal rights and by creating a sustainable living for people in the region that encourages cultural values of co-existence in the region.

Save the Elephants – Probably one of the larger and more well-known charities dealing with elephants they were established in 1993. Based out of Nairobi and doing a lot of their research in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, they also do significant grass-roots work helping to protect elephants, and encourage the peaceful co-existence of humans and elephants. Save the Elephants also invest a huge effort in international outreach, promoting cross-charity, multi-organisational initiatives as well as providing scholarships for elephant researchers to raise awareness of elephant conservation and encourage scientific solutions to problems from around the world.

Ewaso Lions – Not so elephant focussed but a small, local, “100% African”, grass-roots project aimed at working with local communities to conserve lions and large carnivores mainly in the Ewaso Nyiro River area (check out their website for more details because they work across multiple reserves and community conservancies). They are another charity that is heavily people-focussed, attempting to promote a sustainable lifestyle in local communities via an appreciation of, and a change in attitudes towards, their wildlife.

Lion Guardians – Working closely with local community members in the Amboseli-Tsavo area, this is another more lion focussed charity (lion numbers are signficantly down across Africa versus a century ago and are a predator vital to healthy ecosystems). Like Ewaso lions they attempt to involve local communities in investing in their lions, developing sustainable ways of living, and using local cultural values to enforce the culture of the value of wildlife and manage the issues of human-wildlife conflict that arise, particularly among pastoralist communities. This aspect of conflict mitigation is, as mentioned, one of the most important factors in wildlife conservation as we do restore numbers of potential conflict species and human-wildlife conflicts increase. By using local people, charities like Lion Guardians can ensure a community led, native-values led, approach to that conflict mitigation providing a sustainable model for the future that is not dependent on external, foreign intervention.

Lion Landscapes – As the name may suggest this group takes a literal ‘grass-roots’ approach, starting with promotion of a healthy ecosystem and conserving prey species to help ensure a healthy lion population. It may seem irrelevant to elephants but nature is chaotic and ensuring balance is good for all species in an ecosystem. By working with local groups, using a science-led approach and attempting to innovate to create sustainable models of living for local communities this charity is about so much more than just lions.

Wildlife Action Group: Malawi – Outside of Kenya this time, this NGO works in the Thuma and Dedza-Salima Escarpment Forest Reserves of Malawi to help protect the local habitats and ecosystems, protect their biodiversity and encourage sustainable community involvement and local educational schemes to encourage co-existence with wildlife. They work a lot to protect elephants and are partnered with Save the Elephants, above.