The Fine Art of Turkey Fiddling, Or, HOW did that meat get on my dinner table?

(This post may not be safe for your children. Mostly because you probably don’t want this to be the first thing they ever read about masturbation.)

When the Universe decides to behave like an angry monkey, and incessantly flings pellets of its utterly tragic shit at you, humor becomes necessary.

So it’s a good thing this happened last week:

That horny bugger.

“Randy,” as the staff at the animal sanctuary in Warwickshire, England, named the guinea pig following his crazed sex-spree, “managed to find his way into the female enclosure” when no one was looking. Children visit the sanctuary on a regular basis and are allowed to pet the guinea pigs, and the staff think it likely that one of the kids left Randy in the female enclosure by mistake. Once within the target area, and undetected by the authorities, Randy went to town on the ladies. Over the several weeks he spent in the female pen, a.k.a. The Horny Male Guinea Pig Edition of ‘Heaven is for Real’, Randy managed to impregnate not one, not two, not thirty, but a hundred females. I mean, “Dude, keep it in your pants” doesn’t even begin to describe the intervention this guy needs. If this were a few decades earlier, Randy would be a rock star high on psychedelic substances and losing count of how many women he had kids with. In the world as we know it today, Randy would be a fancy person with a fancy LA address, currently in rehab for sex addiction. (#FirstWorldRodentProblems?)

I suppose it ended well, though. (For Randy, not for the ladies – I mean, talk about unwanted pregnancies.) A few weeks in, the authorities found Randy lying “exhausted” in a pile of straw, looking “thinner” than he had been before. Yes, poor Randy. Must have been real tough for him, satisfying all those nymphomaniacal females. Bitches be crazy, yes?

Unsurprisingly, this is the only funny news item I’ve read all week, so I told Boyfriend about it last night, and we had a good laugh. And since Boyfriend has the tendency to find connections between topics that are otherwise only tenuously related, he said,

“Speaking of animals breeding in captivity, did you know that turkey farms employ people to masturbate male turkeys? Because they breed only through artificial insemination?”

Conclusion? Guinea pigs: Randy. Turkeys: Not.

We humans have done a number on turkeys by domesticating them, I think we can all agree on that. Domesticated turkeys lack the street smarts of their wilder brethren. They’re known to be dimmer than chicken, which, as the scale of intelligence in birds goes, rank pretty low themselves. They can’t fly, they’re fat, they’re scared of thunder but happy in the fog, and as demonstrated by the following video, they really don’t have the good sense to know when they’ve been had.

But this is perhaps the greatest revelation about them by far. All turkeys that are bred in captivity – even on farms that prefer “free range” practices – are bred through artificial insemination. The reasons for this depend on who you’re talking to: anti-animal cruelty folk, on the one hand, will tell you that because farmed turkeys are artificially fattened for their meat, their unnatural bulk makes it impossible for the males to sort through the layers of lard around their midriff and actually mount a female. Turkey farmers, on the other hand, will have you know that this is, in fact, the humane way of breeding turkeys, because if allowed to mate naturally, the process would be very tough on the females. The point, either way, is that turkey farms usually have a human working with the male birds, whose specific job description is to – well, how to put it delicately – buff the banana, as it were. Fiddle the flute, jerk the gherkin. Spank the monkey, you know? Choke the chicken. Or – my favorite, given the circumstances – toss the turkey.

The technical term is “milking,” if you must know. The males, who weigh about 50-70 pounds, are placed on the handler’s lap, who then goes ahead and gets the turkey’s “contribution,” by way of a small amount of manual stimulation. This “contribution” is precious material: it is efficacious for only about six hours. It needs to be rushed off immediately to where the females are waiting with anticipatory ovarian overdrive, blown (through a tube… sheesh!) into their terribly cooperative receptacles, and voila! That, darlings, is how the turkey gets in your sandwich.

Obviously, increased awareness about this procedure has ruffled a few feathers (Ha!) among animal rights activists. There are voices condemning the procedure as brutal, and as equaling bestiality (because, you know, human-handjob-turkey). Some activists have even gone as far as declaring that this is a feminist issue, because the females, when artificially inseminated, are essentially being raped. Turkey farmers, on the other hand, are bemused, and maybe even a little befuddled as to why a practice that has been going on for nearly a century has suddenly turned into such a big deal. Also confusing? Many animals bred in captivity for meat, including pigs and cows, are artificially inseminated, but that is somehow considered more acceptable by activists because the males are “not manually stimulated, and at least they have the capacity to mate naturally.”

I’m going to go ahead and throw in my two cents, okay? Is the breeding of animals in captivity problematic, because of reasons ranging from crammed and unhygienic living conditions to the chemically bulked up yield of meat? Yes. Is cruelty to animals (which includes bestiality) a bad thing? Unequivocally, yes. Is the production and consumption of meat bad for a planet folding up on itself because its smartest inhabitants couldn’t be bothered to make the smallest of sacrifices to ensure its health and longevity? A resounding yes.

Is the artificial insemination of female turkeys “rape?” No.

There are girls trapped in a west African forest, possibly being sold into sexual slavery, because they dared to go to school. There are women trapped on a mountain in the Middle East, facing the threat of rape, because rape is, and has always been, a weapon of war. There are girls on college campuses in what is supposedly the greatest nation on Earth, who are told to shut the fuck up and deal, when they bring sexual assault to the notice of authorities. There are academics in strife-torn parts of the world who make statements about the threat of rape being a deterrent for terrorism, even if they later claim that their words were taken out of context. There are countries that thump their proud, nationalist chests with their nuclear arsenals, but refuse to call marital rape, rape. There are intellectuals with great public following, who give the message that date rape is somehow okay, because at least it isn’t stranger rape. Rape is about self-determination and individual will. About choice, about power, about equality. And that is a feminist issue, not the artificial insemination of female turkeys.

And now I’m the angry monkey flinging pellets of tragic shit at you. I’ll sign off here.

Want to know more? Go here. And here.

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The Cold War and Ecological History: Why the Red Deer Won’t Cross the Long-Lifted Iron Curtain

Dearly beloved, I have missed you.

But I would also be a liar if I didn’t say I had the most wonderful ten weeks of travel in India. I played ceaselessly bemused voyeur at a friend’s wedding, soaked in the warm rains of Mumbai, picked tea in the Nilgiri mountains, and spent an afternoon socializing with Bollywood celebrities – an experience so bizarre and surreal, it belonged in a Luis Bunuel film.

I also went on a safari in the Mudumalai Forest Reserve in southern India, where I saw peacocks, bison, elephants, and langurs. And deer. I saw lots and lots of deer. Really, after the first thirty seven herds, I lost count. I mean, I understand the forest is full of spotted deer, and that’s fantastic. It’s magical when you spot that first herd: the stags with their majestic antlers, the doe grazing collectively in what I would like to believe is a wonderful show of female solidarity, and the fawns – Oh! The fawns tumbling in the undergrowth. It makes you feel like this little girl doing the rounds on the internet these days, utterly unable to get over her baby brother’s cuteness.

“Oh my gosh! I want him to stay little!”

But then you see another herd. And then another. And then another. And so forth, until the next time your sister pokes you in the ribs and says, “Look! Deer!”, your reaction is something like this:

Anyway, I am back in Berkeley. I’m soft from all the excessive eating, I’m nostalgic about the Indian summer but very, very happy to see the mist in the hills behind my apartment, I’m super-efficient at housework in the wee hours of the morning because my body hasn’t realized that it’s back on pacific time, and I’m eager to tell Boyfriend all about the trip – the tea gardens, the political developments, the trashy movies (of which I watched plenty), and the deer.

Now, he’s a big tea drinker, Boyfriend is. He is a politics junkie, he is even a fan of pop culture. But a wildlife person he is not. By the time I came to detailing my safari to him, Boyfriend had started to lose a little bit of interest in my stories. (And I don’t blame him entirely: at this point I’d been talking for four days straight.) So it surprised me when his ears perked up at the mention of the deer. Of course, I didn’t have to wait very long for the reason why he was interested in them – he held his silence while I meandered through my tales, and as soon as I was done, he said:

“Did you know the deer in the Bohemian Forest between Czechoslovakia and Germany do not cross the line that used to be the Iron Curtain? Even though there is no longer any physical barrier to prevent them from doing so?”

Oh, so that’s why deer interest you now. Because the very idea that some semblance of the Cold War continues today in a little section of the mammalian class, sends orgasmic pulses of electricity to your unabashedly nerdy brain.

But it is a fascinating story, for which you must first picture the Bohemian Forest in relation to the Iron Curtain:

Extent of the Iron Curtain. (Image source.)

Bohemian forest, south-west Czech Republic/south-east Germany. (Image source.)

In the decades following the Second World War, most eastern European countries allied politically, economically, and militarily with the Soviet Union, while most western European countries allied with one another, as well as with the United States. Marking the borders of Soviet influence were East Germany and Czechoslovakia, both bordering West Germany, which represented, at the time, truly deplorable values such as individual freedom and – gasp! – well-coiffed hair.

The Bohemian Forest, which lies at the border between the Czech Republic (formerly a part of Czechoslovakia) and West Germany, and extended the tendrils of a thriving ecosystem into both countries, was ripped right through the belly by the Iron Curtain. Physical barriers were erected along large parts of the Iron Curtain, and one such was a tall fence passing through the Bohemian Forest, marking the border between two countries, two ideologies, and two very different ways of life. Often put in place by the Eastern Bloc nations, which claimed that the barriers prevented western fascists (with their ridiculously sleek hair) from infiltrating their borders and preventing the socialist way of life, these barriers effectively acted as a detriment to large scale migration from the Eastern Bloc to western Europe. Points along the Berlin Wall, for instance, famously had nails lining the ground, so cars couldn’t pass. The fence passing through the Bohemian Forest, similarly, was electrified and heavily manned by Czech armed guards, and in the years before the end of the Cold War, nearly five hundred people were electrocuted or shot while trying to enter West Germany.

The animals of the Bohemian Forest were the undocumented casualties of the electrified fence. The Red Deer heavily inhabited the forest, and during the decades between the end of the Second World War and the disintegration of the Soviet influence, several of this species died at the fence. The ones that remained learned from the reinforced unpleasantness of venturing near the fence, and stayed away from it, thus separating the herds on either side for generations.

After the Iron Curtain was lifted, and its physical barriers brought down, Germany and the Czech Republic decided to work together to establish a transboundary wilderness refuge in the area, extending from the German Bavarian Forest National Park to the Czech Sumava National Park. The idea was for the animals to roam as they pleased, crossing the border at will, and making their habitat where they felt like.

Twenty years down, Czech and German Red Deer refuse to venture anywhere near where the fence once stood. They still live in separate communities, not even crossing over to graze. New generations of deer have been born in the last two decades, generations that never experienced the losses of the Cold War period. But they do not cross the line of ideological conflict that ended two decades ago.

Such is the fury of war. Such is the hatred and inhumanity unleashed upon the innocent babes born to mothers and fathers who hath suffered in woe, mothers and fathers who hath passed on these tales of suffering to their babes. Such is the fury of war, that even the innocent are no longer unsullied. The innocent bathe themselves in the blood of their forefathers martyred at the electrified altar of fascism, and vow to teach their children and their grandchildren that the Great Iron Curtain exists, even though the eye sees it not…

Ok, that’s bullshit. But it’s probably what you’d believe if you read the flurry of media coverage following the study, most of which fattened itself around the juicy angle, “Iron Curtain Still Exists for Deer in German and Czech Forests!” While seeded in the physical bifurcation of the forest, this behavior among the deer has little to do with the politics of the Cold War. It actually comes from migratory and parenting tradition.

Deer have “homebody” instincts, which cause them to migrate within limited areas. Migratory areas are traditional, in that the mother teaches her fawn where to roam. And these fawn, when mothers themselves, teach their children the same, and so forth. So when a two-year old fawn named Ahornia – who is being tracked by wildlife biologists via a GPS collar – mysteriously turns around and retreats when she approaches the area where the electrified fence once stood, it’s not because her mind flashes back to a vision of her great grandfather, Rádsetoulal “Little Deer” Jelínek* having his front right hoof burned to toast at the fence. No. It’s because her great grandmother taught her grandmother, who taught her mother, who taught her that she should graze within the constraints of a relatively small space.

There is, of course, the question of gender. (Isn’t there always?) Pavel Sustr, head of the Czech team studying the migratory patterns of about 1800 deer in the Sumava forest, found that occasionally, male deer venture beyond this ghost-line of the Iron Curtain. Most of them return, but at least they dare to cross it, which is a lot more than the females have been observed to do.

The reason for this too, is tradition. Female fawn remain under the care of the mother for longer than male fawn, who wander off a little earlier with the adult males of the herd. The migratory patterns, therefore, while learned by both, are slightly stronger in the females. So as per the lessons of Deer Survival 101, male deer sometimes venture far from the herd and cross the border not because they are inherently more courageous or adventurous, but because they don’t know better.

History nerds might be disappointed, I know, to learn that this continued separation of deer has nothing to do with Cold War politics. I mean, how mind-twistingly cool would that be, right? But I find this prevalence of tradition among herding animals fascinating too. While it is amazing how the same set of knowledge is passed from generation to generation, it is also interesting to see the complete lack of new knowledge, or even just exploration and curiosity. And it’s interesting mostly because it makes one realize that these are really just expectations we, as naive observers, have of animals in the wild, perhaps because we look for reflections of ourselves in everything. And reflections of our history. Therefore, I believe, the great urge to declare how “Two Decades Later, the Cold War Continues in the Animal Kingdom!”

*No, Rádsetoulal “Little Deer” Jelínek is not a real deer. It’s a name I made up as a (possibly very bad) joke – Rádsetoulal is a Czech name that literally means “liked wandering around,” and Jelínek is a Czech surname that means “little deer.” (Ahornia, on the other hand, was named by wildlife biologists. She probably doesn’t have prominent horns, or something. Don’t blame me for her name.)

Want to know more? Go here. And here. And if you’re seriously scientifically minded, here.

Neanderthals and the Addiction to Nicotine

As a writer I sometimes feel like I’ve committed to a lifetime of searching for a new story to tell. I am completely wedded to the plot I’m working on right now (“Oh yeah, Neha – weren’t you supposed to have finished writing the first half of your novel by now?” Shut up, it’s none of your business.) but that doesn’t keep me from thinking of new ideas, new stories, even new genres. The other evening, after a day of hard and frustrating work trying to connect the various narrative strains in my book, I sat down with some green tea (actually it was scotch) and picked up an article on our long-dead cousins, the neanderthals. And one of the things I read in it was that while homosapiens (our great, great, great gran-grans and pop-pops) developed the concept of living in large settlements resembling villages quite early in the game, neanderthals lived in tiny groups that were separated from and not dependent on one another.

Gods! I think there is an alternate universe story to tell here!

I immediately engaged Boyfriend, who likes pointlessly long drawn discussions about completely hypothetical situations more than anyone else I know. I shared some of my scotch with him (actually, he just made himself some green tea), and we plotted the world as it might have been 400,000 years ago, with the hypothetical situation that homosapiens and neanderthals had gone to war with one another. And every scenario we could think of, I ended with gran-gran and pop-pop wiping out the neanderthals.

For some reason, Boyfriend was disappointed by this; he really, really wanted the neanderthals to survive. Maybe the neanderthals fought back when they were attacked, he suggested.

Sure they did. But the homosapiens lived in bigger groups, and their interdependency had probably led to a sense of common identity. They had larger numbers – the neanderthals lived in tiny groups, remember? – and they were fighting for something bigger than just a bunch of strangers not putting out their campfire. (You think flint is easy to find, you motherf***er? [Of course, at the time I doubt motherf***er was really considered an insult. But I digress.])

Well, maybe they were stronger…? Boyfriend suggested feebly, knowing this was barely a possibility. Even in a universe not as hypothetical as the one we were constructing, homosapiens occupied sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia – regions with tropical to temperate climates. Neanderthals were scattered across Europe, struggling to fight the cold, hunt for food, and somehow survive. I doubt they were stronger.

At this point, Boyfriend was crestfallen. What’s the point of a hypothetical universe if everything’s the same. Hey – he brightened up – maybe they fought for a bit but then called a truce and lived in harmony ever after?

Haha! Called a truce. You’re funny.

Whatever. You’re right, they probably weren’t very strong, Boyfriend admitted with resignation, and then continued:

“Did you know the gene for nicotine addiction in modern human beings comes from neanderthals?”

Homo sapien sapien, Q.E.D. (Image source.)

Homo sapien, Q.E.D. (Image source.)

Scientists have known for a long time that about 2-4% of the genetic material of average modern human beings (not of African origin – sub-Saharan Africans are believed to have inherited little to no genetic material from neanderthals) comes from neanderthals, mainly affecting skin and hair. A recent study conducted at Harvard University and published in Nature has managed to shed some light on the microscopic aspects of this genetic mixing. It found that the alleles for nicotine addiction, Type 2 diabetes, and Crohn’s disease in the modern human being are a result of interbreeding between neanderthals and homosapiens.

Neanderthals and homosapiens shared common ancestors about 600,000 years ago. But for several thousand years after these ‘cousins’ parted ways, homosapiens lived in sub-Saharan Africa, where they hunted, gathered, and eventually settled and farmed. Neanderthals lived in hostile climates outside Africa, where the barren environment was not really conducive to farming. The study found that by the time the groups of homosapiens who left sub-Saharan Africa met and bred with neanderthals, the two species had already evolved in very distinct ways, and were on the brink of incompatibility. About 300,000 years ago, not very long after this interbreeding, the neanderthals died out.

While there have been indications explaining the neanderthal demise, the Harvard study is among the first to have found evidence across large areas of human DNA that suggest neanderthals may, in fact, have had genetic qualities that were harmful, and that were passed onto the first human beings through interbreeding, but were wiped out of the gene pool over time, through natural selection. The allele for nicotine addiction is among the few that persist in modern humans.

I guess this means all of you smokers out there can no longer be guilt tripped by your friends and family. I mean, you got the genes from the neanderthals. It’s not your fault, right? Right?

Eh. Wrong.

Of course, Fred's insight may be true in ways other than just the human desire to smoke. (Image source.)

Of course, Fred’s insight may apply to things other than just the human desire to smoke. (Image source.)

I am definitely among those people who get inordinately excited about evolutionary biology and genetic findings such as these. But as significant as the results of this study are, we have to bear in mind that considering just how long we (homo sapiens, not just humans) have been around, the ways in which our environment has changed, and the fact that Evolution (as I have pointed out before on this blog) is really slow to catch on, it would be erroneous to attach a relationship of direct causality between the findings of this study and the extinction of neanderthals 300,000 years ago, or diseases and addictions in humans today. While the allele for nicotine addiction can be traced back to neanderthals, that does not necessarily mean neanderthals were smokers or addicts of any kind. In its original carrier, the gene could have been part of a whole other DNA party altogether. Similarly, while the high incidence of Crohn’s disease in people of eastern European descent (considered among the closest to neanderthals) may suggest some causality, this reasoning is immediately challenged by the high incidence of Type 2 diabetes in African Americans, which is likely the result of modern environmental and socio-economic factors. And let’s not forget, we got some good things too, from the neanderthals. Neanderthal DNA is what gives us stronger keratin, which leads to stronger skin, hair, and nails. But again – while this helped the earliest humans survive extreme cold, it is still not strong enough evidence to suggest that the neanderthals had adapted well to the extreme cold they lived in.

So while each of these studies wipes clean a new piece of a jigsaw puzzle, the puzzle itself is so big and so complicated, I don’t know if we’ll ever really find all the pieces. Our species is becoming more enlightened and more informed with every passing minute, but in the words of one recently famous TV redhead, you (still) know nothing, Jon Snow.

Want to know more? Go here. And here, for the study published in Nature.