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Friday, December 30, 2011

This keeper should remember that elephants never forget: Calf is hauled by his trunk to get on the weighing scales

By Emma Reynolds

Ouch: The zookeeper pulls on the baby elephant's trunk as she resists climbing on to the weighing scales

Zookeepers in Germany appear to have come up with a novel way of getting reluctant baby elephants to behave.

These pictures, which some may find disturbing, show a young man dragging a resistant calf by the trunk to get it on to the weighing scales for a check-up at Wuppertal Zoo in Germany.

Uli is one of around 5,000 animals of 500 different species living at the park, who all have to be counted, weighed and measured each year to see if they are developing as they should.

Distress: The calf looks frightened as she rears away from the weighing scales during the annual check-up

Weighty problem: Uli's face is pressed into the ground as the man continues to pull her towards the scales

But whether this sort of treatment is likely to help is a matter for debate.

Dressed in khaki trousers and a green sweatshirt, the zookeeper grabs the little elephant by the end of its trunk and pulls.

The man even climbs on to the scales to get some grip on the animal, who appears distressed, her ears flapping wildly as she braces herself against the metal edge of the scales to avoid getting on.

As another zookeeper and a fully grown elephant watch, Uli's head drops to the floor and her face is pressed into the ground.

But no one intervenes, and the Wuppertal worker does not let go of the elephant's trunk for a second.

He finally successfully tugs her on to the scales, where he gives the downcast-looking creature a gentle pat.

Downcast: Another zookeeper and two elephants gaze at a miserable-looking Uli as she finally stands still on the scales

Ears flat against her head, the subdued animal trails her trunk against the blue metal, and weighs in at 480kg (1058 pounds).

The seemingly unhappy elephant is only small for her species, where an adult can weigh six to eight tonnes (12,000 to 14,000 pounds).

The photos have caused some concern over whether this is appropriate treatment to inflict on a young animal.

Uli's home, Wuppertal Zoo, opened in September 1881 and has steadily expanded ever since.

It has enclosures and zoo buildings for elephants and apes, a house for birds with a more spacious hall in which they can fly freely, and a small combined aquarium/terrarium.

A spokeswoman from Peta (People for the Ethical treatment of Animals) said: 'Handling a baby elephant by the trunk - an extremely sensitive organ - is cruel as it partially asphyxiates them.

Sympathy: The zookeeper gives Uli a reassuring pat - but it appears to come too late

'As a veterinarian with over 40 years of experience working with elephants and other captive exotic animals recently explained, “Trainers do this to enforce their dominion… by controlling the very air or life force of the baby.”

'The handler is also carrying a metal implement known as a "bullhook", the only purpose of which is to inflict pain and punishment by striking, hooking, and jabbing elephants in the most sensitive parts of their bodies.

'Their use is abusive both psychologically and physically. Methods of protected contact, based on positive reinforcement, makes this type of cruel and frightening handling completely unnecessary.'

An RSPCA spokesman added: 'There are extreme welfare problems involved with keeping elephants in zoos and are calling for an outright ban on importing more elephants into zoos in England and Wales.

'The welfare of elephants kept in zoos has been shown to be on a par to that of broiler chickens and dairy cattle from intensive farms - especially in terms of the level of lameness which results.'


Swooping to conquer: Dramatic shot of gull diving into a lake targets first prize in wildlife photography competition

By Charles Walford

Dramatic moment: Tom Hines picked up first prize in the wetland wildlife category with this stunning shot of a gull diving to catch a tasty morsel

A flock of flying black and white Barnacle Geese, an inquisitive duck staring straight at the camera, a gull scratching its leg and a fluffy black-necked swan.

These stunning wildlife images are among the shortlist of the The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s photograph of the year competition.

A gull diving head first into the water at London's wetland centre helped Tom Hines win the 'wetland wildlife' category.

A beautiful sunset picture, taken by Ian Cook was the winner of the 'wetland landscape' category at the Washington centre in Tyne and Wear, while a close-up of a man's and a duck's feet won Sally Sanford the 'people and wildlife' category at Arundel centre in West Sussex.

Schoolboy Ben Cullen's shot of a Shoveler duck looking down the lens won the 'young photographer' section at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire.

The category winners, who beat more than 2,500 entries in the autumn heat of the competition. will now go through to the competition final which will be judged next August once the winter, spring and summer heats are complete.

The remarkable shots have all been captured at the WWT's nine wetland centres in the UK.

Bottoms up: This trio of ducks were so busy hunting for food they didn't realise photographer Richie Lort had them in his sights

Reflective moment: A gull glides across the surface of a lake in Llanelli, photographed by Wayne Davies

And the organisers want to raise awareness of the threat to the UK’s 2000 hectares of wetlands, which are home to around 200,000 waterbirds.

Ducks and dragonflies, grebes and gulls and swans and otters live side by side in Britain's fast-disappearing wetland reserves.

In winter they are joined by thousands of migratory birds.

Martin Spray, chief executive of the WWT, said: ‘Wetlands are extraordinarily beautiful and the UK has some of the world's best wetland sites.

'The quality of entries in the latest heat has been outstanding this year and the competition encourages people to get really close to some fantastic wildlife.

'Waterbirds are some of our most elegant and colourful animals and are also very photogenic.'

He added: "In the last millennium about 90 per cent of UK wetlands have disappeared and in the last 100 years 20 ponds a day were destroyed.

'All around the world, wetlands are being lost or damaged more rapidly than any other ecosystem.

'In the last 100 years, the amount of inland wetland alone has halved - because of land reclamation, changes to agriculture, pollution, water diversions and other developments.

'Such losses are catastrophic for wildlife. Scientists blame them for pushing a third of all amphibians, 15 per cent of water birds, over 40 per cent of reptiles, 30 per cent of mammals and 6 per cent of fish species close to extinction.'

Photographers can now enter the contest's winter heat by uploading wetland pictures at www.wwwt.org.uk/photo until Feb 29, 2012.


Putting the PAN in chimpanzee: Kanzi loves nothing more than a good fry-up, skipping a few million years of evolution in the process

By David Derbyshire

Eagerly he collects wood from the ground, snaps the branches into small pieces and carefully balances them in a pile. Then, taking care not to burn himself, he gently strikes a match and gets ready for a fry-up.

Like all red-blooded males, Kanzi loves messing around with a barbecue. But then, as these extraordinary pictures show, Kanzi is no man. He is a bonobo - pygmy chimpanzee - and his love of fire is challenging the way that we think about our closest relatives in the animal kingdom.

For although bonobo apes and larger chimpanzees use twigs and leaves as tools, none has ever shown such skill for cooking food.

Scroll down for videos

Skill with a skillet: After slaving over a hot stove, Kanzi tucks in to his creation

Kanzi is one of eight bonobos in the care of Dr Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, one of the world’s leading experts in ape behaviour and language. She believes 31-year-old Kanzi’s fascination with fire reveals a deep intelligence.

Dr Savage-Rumbaugh, of the Great Ape Trust, in Des Moines, Illinois, adds: ‘Kanzi makes fire because he wants to. He used to watch the film Quest For Fire when he was very young which was about early man struggling to control fire. He watched it spellbound over and over hundreds of times.’

He was also fascinated by the camp fires his keepers made to cook food. And he was encouraged to interact with humans and copy them. At the age of five, he was making small piles of bone dry sticks.

Kanzi carries his barbie in a backpack (left) before finding some dry wood and breaking it down to size

The chimp searches for the perfect site for a camp fire then carefully piles sticks onto a bed of dry leaves

He was taught to use matches, a skill he picked up quickly. There’s something eerie about watching Kanzi strike a match. The way he then holds the flame - taking care not to burn himself - is remarkably human.

‘Fire is one of the most important factors in our evolution,’ says Dr Savage-Rumbaugh. ‘When humans learned to control fire and to domesticate dogs we began to feel a new level of safety which freed us to become creative and to create more sophisticated cultures.’

‘Fire enabled us to cook meat, which helped break it down and meant we could eat more of it. Plants we cooked on fires were made more digestible. In short, cooking led us to eating better, which meant we developed large brains.

‘We sat around in communal groups cooking, stoking and simply watching the fire - a situation in which language and conversation started to develop.’

His hands look almost human as he strikes a match and, with a look of satisfaction, watches the smoke start to rise

Kanzi - the name means Treasure in Swahili - does not stay close to make sure his fire stays lit. But he does throw on more wood from a distance. And he has learned how to cook. He will take a marshmallow, stick it on the end of a twig and hold it carefully over the flames, ensuring it doesn’t burn.

He can place a grill pan on the fire and cook hamburgers. When he has finished with the fire, Dr Savage-Rumbaugh asks him to put it out using a bottle of water. He will carefully pour the liquid over the flames until it has been extinguished.

Kanzi is now incredibly passing on his skills to other apes. His son Teco, who lives in the same research centre, watches Kanzi as he solves problems. The researchers believe he may learn to make fires, too.

Healthy flames, it's time to set up the barbecue and then get the pan on

Kanzi, who weighs 12st, is the brightest of the apes at the Great Ape Trust. With two other apes at the centre, he uses paper keyboards to communicate with Dr Savage-Rumbaugh and fellow primatologist Liz Pugh.

In conversation with the researchers he points to symbols, known as lexigrams, on the keyboards representing different words.

A few treats go in and Kanzi stirs them expertly
He has learnt to ‘say’ around 500 words through the keyboard, and understands 3,000 spoken words.

Bonobos are one of the most endangered species and there are around 10,000 to 50,000 left in the wild, all in Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo. They share 98 to 99 per cent of their DNA with us.

For Kanzi’s own safety, he is only allowed to make fires under close supervision. But his behaviour raises fascinating questions.

And for dessert... he pops a marshmallow on a stick and toasts it with care

What would happen if he was released into the wild where other bonobos could copy his behaviour? And could wild bonobos learn how to master fire independently just like our own ancestors?

You don’t have to be a fan of the Planet Of The Apes movies - in which intelligent apes threaten mankind’s supremacy on the Earth - to find those questions disturbing.

Just right: The barbie ape enjoys his pud... whose turn to do the washing up?


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Feeling more than a little peckish: Birds jostle to eat fleas from backs of antelope

By Lucy Buckland

Form an orderly queue! Bank myna birds graze on fleas from the antelope's fur in Keoladeo National Park, Rajasthan, India

It was definitely a case of you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours as these birds queued up to snack on fleas from the backs of strolling antelopes.

And these nilgai antelopes were more than happy to provide a resting place for dozens of bank myna birds who plucked irritating fleas from their backs in Keoladeo National Park, Rajasthan, India.

The nilgai were feeding in their grassland home when the birds decided they wanted a snack of their own and landed on their backs, necks and heads.

Photographer Chhotu Khan, who lives in the national park, said it was a rare phenomena for all the birds to land in such a formation.

Amazingly, the nilgai did not seem at all bothered by the birds pecking at their fur.

Mr Khan, 28, said: 'I was there to do some bird watching when I saw a flock of bank mynas fly from nearby trees and land on the nilgais' backs. They landed on all the nilgai, including the juveniles.

I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine: The antelope looked more than happy to have the birds on their backs in these stunning photos

'The birds fed on fleas and other bugs, cleaning the nilgai of these harmful insects.

'The birds sat there for 20 to 25 minutes and I was very happy to get this shot because it does not happen very often.

'The nilgai do not get irritated because they know that the birds are doing them good. I did not see them making much of an effort to get away from the birds.'

He added: 'Wildlife is so unpredictable and you never know what you may experience and that is the beauty of this.

'I was very happy to be able to capture the birds and the relationship between the species.'

Grazing: It was a lengthy snack for these bank myna birds who stayed on the antelope's back for around 25mins


Showered with affection: Cheeky walrus blasts a jet of water at young zoo visitor

By Lucy Buckland

Cheeky: Snor the walrus shows sometimes it doesn't pay to sit in the front row at a sea show

This cheeky walrus shows sometimes it doesn't pay to get too close when visiting the zoo.

Snor the walrus decided to surprise a visitor with his water attack as part of a sea show at the Dolphinarium Harderwijk Zoo, in Holland.

Visitor Natalia Paklina, 30, was at the zoo to see the show this year when she spotted Snor the walrus approaching a young spectator.

What happened next surprised Ms Paklina just a tiny bit less than it did the poor young girl because Snor, which means whiskers in Dutch, decided it would be funny to blow out a jet of water.

Ms Paklina, who was visiting from Russia, caught the cheeky moment on camera and luckily for the girl who got soaked it was all in good fun.

Natalia said: 'It was funny because Snor seemed to smile at the crowd as he waddled over and then suddenly he just squirted out this jet of water.

Soaked: Cheeky Snor, which means whiskers in Dutch, looks like he can't quite believe he has soaked a spectator

Walrus water: Typically, wild walruses squirt jets of water to uncover molluscs concealed beneath shallow underwater sediments

'It was very funny and I don't think there were any hard feelings from the crowd that got covered in walrus water.

'I was just taking a picture of Snor at the time and didn't realise he was going to do that, but when I checked my camera I saw I had got it all.

'There was a big queue for the show and we saw the children had all rushed to get the seats nearest the enclosure, I think they might have regretted that afterwards.'

In the wild adult male Pacific walrus can reach 3,700lb in weight with the wild mammals traditionally blowing jets of water to uncover mollusks buried in sediment in the sea.

The animal is famous for its tusks, which in both males and females can reach more than one metre in length.

Wicked walrus: Visitors to the zoo didn't seem to mind Snor's cheeky surprise as they applaud the show


Monster from the deep... on the Norfolk coast: 40ft sperm whale washes up on Christmas Eve

It is believed the mammal was dead before it was washed up on the beach

By Charles Walford

The 40-foot-long sperm whale was washed up on the beach at Old Hunstanton, in Norfolk

A 40ft sperm whale has been washed up dead on an East Anglian beach, with what appears to be a large gash in its stomach.

The sand around its tail did not appear disturbed, suggesting the creature was dead before the tide carried it onto the sands at Old Hunstanton, Norfolk.

Large crowds gathered to see the whale, which is near the high tide mark.

A spokesman for the British Divers Marine Life Rescue said it may have been the same whale which had been seen dead on the RAF’s bombing range on the other side of the estuary, at Holbeach, some weeks ago.

Scientists from the Zooological Society have already taken samples from the animal, which will be left to be carried away by the tide to decompose naturally.

The whale had a gash in its stomach, but may have died due to the fact there are no squid for it to live off in the North Sea

A member of the public cuts off a tooth from the beached whale, which washed up on the Norfolk coast on Christmas Eve

A number of whales have been washed up on the North Sea coast in the past year.
They have been especially prevalent around the Humber Estuary.

Conservationists believe the increase in the number of strandings could be explained by a change in sea currents bringing colder streams of Arctic water into the North Sea and with them whales that would not normally pass so close to the UK shoreline.

At the end of September a 33ft mammal, thought to be a Sei whale, was discovered in marshes on the north bank of the River Humber near the village of Skeffling.

Earlier the same month, a young Fin whale - a relative of the Sei - was stranded at Immingham, North East Lincolnshire, and subsequently washed up dead near Spurn Point.

The Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has noted a rise in whale sightings generally in 2011 but no-one is sure why there may be an increase in the mammals in the North Sea.

Over the summer, a pod of up to 10 Minke whales were spotted regularly off the North Yorkshire coast between Whitby and Scarborough.

Whale experts admit they do not know why there has been an upsurge in sightings and strandings.

The whale has not been moved for two days and is attracting great interest from the locals

A man poses in a fisherman's outfit to pretend he had caught the 40ft beast that was washed up on the North Sea coast

A number of people have descended on the beach to take pictures of the stranded whale


The Panda that eats MEAT! Panda caught on infra-red camera having midnight feast of dead antelope

By Lucy Buckland

Forget the bamboo! This giant panda gets his teeth around a dead antelope in the forest in Ping Wu, in Sichuan province

He looks like he has been caught out helping himself to a forbidden snack.

And perhaps this panda realises he has given away a secret kept under wraps for years as he is captured red-handed tucking into a dead antelope.

It was previously thought the creatures were strictly herbivores but as this infra-red camera shot taken in Ping Wu, in southwest China's Sichuan province shows, pandas sometimes do prefer a meaty snack.

According to the World Wildlife Fund China pandas have the digestive system of a carnivore and will eat meat if available, but adapted a long time ago to a vegetarian diet.

Because of this carnivorous digestive system the panda derives little energy and protein from consumption of bamboo so must eat as much as 14kg a day to stay healthy.

It has taken millions of years living in bamboo forests for the panda to improve its ability to digest cellulose from bamboo.

It is unlikely the panda pictured killed the antelope in the picture and may have fortuitously stumbled across the animal in the forest.

China is set to launch its once-a-decade panda census as it tries to determine how many of the endangered animals live in the wild amid efforts to boost numbers.

That's more like it! Yang Guang the panda at Edinburgh Zoo gets his mouth around the more traditional panda snack, bamboo

And as the population depletes government officials confirmed it will begin sending pandas bred in captivity into a controlled wilderness area in southwestern Sichuan province next month, the most ambitious attempt to rebuild the country's depleted population of giant pandas in a natural habitat.

The first six pandas selected from 108 raised by the Chengdu Giant Panda
Rehabilitation Project, the world's largest captive bred population of giant pandas, will be released to a protected natural area covering more than 2,000 acres.

'Rather than keeping them in their enclosures, we will spend the next 50 years helping them return to their natural habitat, which is the ultimate goal of the Chengdu Panda Base,' Zhang Zhihe, director of the base, said.

The pandas, bred through artificial insemination, will be released in batches and monitored as they acclimatise. Those who perform well in an initial area will be released into the primary controlled wilderness area.

The first six pandas range in age from two to four and were chosen on the basis of gender ratio and health.

In 2004, a census by the Worldwide Fund for Nature counted 1,600 pandas in the wild, most in Sichuan province.

Pandas are difficult to breed because females ovulate only once a year and can only become pregnant during a two or three-day period.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

OK, who's going to take away his lawnmower this time? Grumpy crocodile steals machines from park keepers to play with in pool

By Anthony Bond

Grumpy: Elvis the crocodile decides to steal a lawnmower off a worker at the Australian Reptile Park

They are among the most fearsome creatures around, often attempting to eat humans and large wild animals.

But workers at a reptile park in Australia were left amazed today when its grumpiest crocodile decided to steal a lawnmower.

Employees at the Australian Reptile Park, north of Sydney, realised something was wrong when they heard one of the keepers let out a yelp.


'It's mine': Elvis takes his new toy into his lagoon and keeps guard of it

When they looked up they saw 16-foot giant saltwater crocodile Elvis lunging out of his lagoon at reptile keeper Billy Collett, who attempted to ward off the huge crocodile with his lawnmower.

Tim Faulkner, operations manager at the park, said: 'Before we knew it, the croc had the mower above his head. He got his jaws around the top of the mower and picked it up and took it underwater with him.'

Elvis then kept guard over his new toy, making it clear that it would not be wise for anybody to retrieve it.

Eventually, Mr Faulkner realised he had no other choice but to go back in after the mower.

Interest: Visitors soon gather in amazement to see Elvis next to his new lawnmower

Along with Mr Collett, he devised a devious plan - a life or death plot to snatch the mower back from the cranky 50-year-old croc.

Mr Collett dangled a piece of raw kangaroo meat on the end of a stick at one end of the croc's pool and as the reptile swan towards it, Mr Faulkner made a daredevil leap into the water.

Standing waist deep, he grabbed the mower by its handle and hauled it from the pool and out of the enclosure.

Elvis was clearly annoyed, snapping his jaws in anger. But he did so with fewer teeth as he had lost a few munching on the mower.

Speaking after the daring rescue, Mr Faulkner said: 'He'll calm down eventually. To him this was just big game. He stole our mower and now he thinks he's king.'

For keepers at the park the battle over the lawn mower was a warning that Elvis had to be treated with the greatest respect.

The giant crocodile has a history of cranky behavior and has occasionally lunged at staff before, though this is the first time he has stolen something from one of the workers.

He was initially captured in the northern Australian city of Darwin, where he had been attacking fishing boats.

He was then moved to a crocodile farm, where he proceeded to kill his two crocodile girlfriends.

In 2008, he was moved to the reptile park, where he has enjoyed solitary confinement in his own enclosure.

'When they are the dominant croc, they're just full of testosterone,' Mr Faulkner said. 'He's got his beautiful own yard, he wants to be a solitary creature. He's happy.'

Back to normal: The lawnmower is safely back in the possession of the park keepers, with a grumpy-looking Elvis watching on

Lost items: Australian Reptile Park operations manager Tim Faulkner, left, and reptile keeper Billy Collett with Elvis the crocodiles teeth, which were lost after Elvis bit into the lawnmower

Despite having to give up the lawn mower, Elvis was clearly pleased with himself, Mr Faulkner said.

'He's beaten us today ... he's kingpin. He's going to be walking around with his chest puffed out all day.'

As for the staff at the reptile park?

'I can't lie, the bosses are not going to be happy about the cost of a new lawn mower,' Mr Faulkner said with a laugh.

'(But) we love it. No one's injured ... and when you get scared and it all turns out to be good, it's actually quite enjoyable.'

Park spokesman Libby Bain added: 'He is just about the most unfriendly croc you could wish to meet.'


The All Black who's all white! Rare Kiwi chick a surprise Christmas gift for wildlife centre

By Anna Edwards

A bit of all-white! The rare bird gave wildlife authorities a shock when it hatched

This rare Kiwi chick is betraying its 'All Black' heritage - because his feathers are snow white.

The flightless bird's unusual colouring gave keepers at Pukaha Mount Bruce Wildlife Centre, New Zealand, a white Christmas when it hatched in their nursery.

Both of its parents are believed to have carried a rare and recessive white gene which caused his pure white feathers.

Local Maori have named the chick Mauriora, meaning sustained life, the New Zealand Herald reported.

Centre manager Kathy Houkamau said: 'We were gob-smacked when we saw it was white' and described it as a 'delightful gift, especially at this time of the year'.

The North Island Brown Kiwi will now be hand-reared at the centre, near Wellington, New Zealand.

It is the second rare white kiwi to hatch at New Zealand's national wildlife centre after the world's first, called Manukura, was hatched in captivity in May.

White Christmas! The flightless chick will now be hand-reared

Curiously coloured Kiwi: The flightless birds are normally brown, like this one

The chick is thought to be from the same parents as Manukara, who caused a sensation when he was born.

The flightless kiwi is a national symbol of New Zealand and the name is so internationally recognised that it is used as a nickname for New Zealanders.

The New Zealand men's national rugby team are known as the All Blacks.

About the size of a chicken when fully grown, they lay the largest egg in relation to their body size of any species of bird in the world.

However, the Kiwi is threatened by predators including rats, cats, dogs, ferrets and possums, and it is estimated there are fewer than 70,000 left with several sub-species listed as critically endangered.

Largely nocturnal, they burrow in the ground and is the only bird known to have nostrils at the end of its bill, which it uses to sniff out food which includes soil invertebrates and fruit.

Females are larger than males and the male brown kiwi does most of the egg incubating. Chicks hatch fully feathered after 70 to 85 days incubation and are largely independent from their parents at a few weeks of age.

And the Kiwi is a romantic bird - when a pair bond they usually mate for life.

Typically they have a remarkably long life, sometimes living for up to 50 years. One south island species (the rowi) may live for up to 100 years.


Who turned out the lights? Polar bear cub melts hearts of zoo visitors playing with Christmas gifts

By Mary Mcconnell

Adorable polar bear cub Milak has been amusing visitors as he gets his head stuck in a plastic tube.

The young bear played with toys he was given, including a golden egg and a plastic ball, as combined birthday and Christmas presents at his enclosure in Aalborg Zoo in Denmark.

Zookeeper Sussi Kober said: 'Milak got a new ball as a gift for his birthday on December 7 from some of his fans in Holland.'

Playtime: Milak gets his head stuck in a plastic tube

'Actually the egg was a gift for all the polar bears, but Milak is extremely fond of the egg and considers it to be his own special 'golden egg', added Sussi. 'His mum Victoria sometimes puts her paw on it, but Milak doesn't like that! He gets the egg back and starts to show off what he's able to do with it.

'He used to try and catch a white plastic container by putting a tube on his head and diving at it, but now the golden egg is the target for his fun. He is a real artist.'

Stuck in a hole: Milak can't get this tube off his head

But Milak is not the only bear to pictured playing up to the cameras. Earlier this year fellow cub Augo was seen getting his head stuck in a bucket - just like Winnie the Pooh.

Having a splashing time: Milak plays in the water with his toys

Having fun: Milak throws his golden egg in the air at Aalborg Zoo

Augo has also been seen giving his mother Malik a bit of tender loving care by throwing his arms around her in a loving embrace.

Meanwhile British photographer Oliver Smart has been capturing some tender scenes from polar bears in the wild in temperatures as low as 20 degrees below freezing.

Bear hug: This polar bear cub gives his sister a tender hug

The bear was seen giving his sister a hug following a play fight off Barter Island, in Alaska.

Oliver, from Weston-Super-Mare, Somerset, said: 'This pair were hilarious because they were squabbling constantly like siblings do and it was very funny. There was no malice, young polar bears just constantly like to wrestle and play in the snow.

'I thought the smile on the bear as they embraced was appropriate for such a tender moment. They were in the bay, waiting for the water to freeze so they could travel over to the North Pole with their mum to hunt.

'Every day we would go to take photos and they were great because they were really curious about us, sometimes they would come right over.'


Bats out of hell: The super-cute little orphans that have survived on a wing and a prayer

By Leon Watson

Sky, Abinger, Bell, Elsa and Hercules the orphaned baby grey-headed flying foxes being looked after by Wildlife Victoria volunteers

They've survived on a wing and a prayer.

And now these cute little winged critters are flying high at a special nursery for orphaned baby bats.

Wrapped up in tiny bunny rugs, they are being looked after by volunteers at Wildlife Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.

Snug as bugs in bat rugs: Melbourne's baby bats are filling the grey-headed flying fox nursery set up each year to care for orphaned bats

The staff are kept busy around the clock refilling formula bottles and rotating dummies for their baby bat friends.

Grey-headed flying fox babies are often rescued after their mums have been electrocuted on powerlines, fatally entangled in dark-coloured fruit tree netting or ripped apart on barbed wire.

The blankets help them feel secure and the orphans are put in a bat nursery where they thrive in the company of their little flying fox cousins.

WV development manager Amy Amato said: 'Coming from colonies we have found they do much better in company than on their own.'

Super-cute: Wildlife Victoria volunteers refill formula bottles and rotate dummies around the clock

Among the bat inmates are Sky, Abinger, Bell, Elsa and Hercules.

Grey-headed flying fox bats are native to Australia and have been known to survive for up to 22 years in captivity. In the wild, they usually live for around 15 years.

They are the largest species of bat in Australia and usually have a dark grey body with a light grey head and a reddish-brown neck collar of fur.

Adult grey-headed flying-foxes have an average wingspan of over 1m and can weigh up to 1kg.

The head and body length is between 230 and 289mm long, with an average of 253mm.


Meet your therapist: Last year Billy the terrier was saved by the kindness of strangers. Now he is repaying the debt by bringing joy to the desperatel

By Philippa Tomson

Fastening his smart little jacket — slightly baggy at the sides but comfortable — I stand back and beam at Billy with pride. This is his first day at ‘work’ and I’m willing him to do well. As he walks into the room, he is greeted with cries of delight. There are so many smiling faces ready to greet him, he doesn’t know who to approach first. This new boy obviously is a big hit.

Billy, my two-year-old Tibetan Terrier, is on his first official day of duty at St Cuthbert’s Hospice in Durham as a Pets As Therapy dog. He is there to provide people with terminal or life-limiting illnesses, such as multiple sclerosis, cancer and motor neurone disease with a much deserved and longed-for cuddle.

He is one of more than 5,000 dogs, and a select few cats, working throughout the UK, visiting hospices, hospitals, care homes and special-needs units, providing love and comfort to more than 150,000 desperately ill people, many of whom are missing dearly loved pets back home.

Yet according to Pets As Therapy founder and chief executive Maureen Hennis, these visits provide more than a bit of light relief and can actually help improve the health of patients.

‘The act of stroking a dog reduces both blood pressure and stress levels and brings a little bit of comfort and normality to a life which might be spent mainly in a hospital or hospice,’ she explains.

Maureen launched the charity along with a group of friends in 1983 after becoming convinced of the therapeutic benefits that stroking a pet could bring to patients.

And it’s a role that my dog Billy, I am proud to observe, is embracing with relish.

He scampers over to the chair of retired civil servant Beryl Colquhoun, 76.

‘Aren’t you gorgeous!’ she cries. ‘The best looking lad in here, I can tell you.’

Beryl is here to give her husband, Stan, a break from being her full-time carer.

Having lost her own dog, Bracken, three years ago, she’s delighted to have a pooch back in her life, albeit briefly.

And she’s not the only one: ‘Didn’t you see the change in people’s faces when he came in? They lit up,’ she remarks, looking about the room. ‘It relaxes you, it takes you out of yourself and it’s something a bit different, something wonderful.’

Soon I feel like we are on a royal visit: so many people are eager to meet Billy, it’s hard to ration out our time. Next in line is Joan Gallent, 72. Like everyone else here, it’s obviously a relief for her to have something else on which to focus and talk about other than illness. ‘I’m a retired nurse so I already know dogs love contact with people,’ she says.

Miracle: Billy after his accident. He escaped from the garden and ran across a dual carriageway, where he was hit by a car with such force that its number plate split

‘He gives you those lovely looks and my heart melts. He makes me feel wanted.’

Such is Billy’s impact that soon members of staff from other departments are popping their heads round the door to see what’s going on. ‘They’ll be talking about this for the rest of the week,’ says day hospice lead nurse Michelle Paris. Many patients are unable to keep a dog themselves, she explains, and miss the interaction.

So how did Billy land this role? As is often the case, it’s all down to me, his proud and pushy parent. I decided to get him approved as a Pets As Therapy dog quite simply because last year, on Christmas Eve, I nearly lost him.

As I’ve already described in this paper earlier in the year, Billy had escaped from the garden of our home and run across a dual carriageway, where he hit a car with such force that the driver’s registration plate snapped in half.

Having suffered two leg fractures, a broken tail, a nasty gash on his forehead and, most worryingly, a near-collapsed lung, no one knew if he would make it. I spent Christmas Eve bolt upright on the sofa dreading the ‘I’m terribly sorry’ phone call from the emergency vet. But that call never came.

In what I can only describe as a Christmas miracle, Billy survived the night and the night after that. We brought him home in a very sorry state on Boxing Day and he remained on full bed rest for six weeks while his fractures healed.

Come the spring, he was almost back to his normal self. Soon, his excitement returned whenever I came home and he’d jump up and down like a pogo-stick.

His daily play fights with his big brother, my other Tibetan Terrier, named BG, began again as did his ability to leap eagerly into the car boot for his walks. His tail, which I feared might have to be docked, was now proudly carried high on his back again.

Billy’s amazing recovery and our unbridled relief got me thinking. The fact that he was still here was down to the members of the public who tended him at the roadside in the aftermath of the accident, and the wonderful veterinary staff who nursed him back to health.

So wouldn’t it be appropriate if he gave something back? Plus, his temperament is so gentle and loving that it made sense to share him with others.

I had already done some charity work for our local hospice in my role as an ITV television presenter so it would be an ideal place to visit. I checked out the Pets As Therapy website, filled in the forms and booked an assessment.

No pet can join the register unless they’re assessed, so Billy had some work to do.

Many dogs fail to make the grade, however good-natured they may be, due to their boisterous behaviour and hyperactive tendencies. I don’t think my other dog would pass for those very reasons. He would lap up the attention of patients but he would also lap up every crumb on every surface.

Billy, in contrast, is much less naughty so I thought him ideal for this volunteering role.

Philippa with Billy Boy on his first day, left, and Christine McGowan, right, gets a cuddle from the Tibetan Terrier

His assessor was a vet and the test would take place in our local veterinary surgery. Now I know that dogs don’t possess the memory banks of humans, but I know they learn through association. And this was the very place where Billy had been poked and prodded and wired up to all sorts of paraphernalia just eight months previously. No wonder he shivered in my arms as we sat in the waiting room and, for a fleeting moment, my confidence in him wavered.

This assessment was all about temperament and attitude. A nervous, anxious dog could never be trusted in a place like a hospice, with busy corridors and unexpected noises. What’s more, they would never sit still long enough to be patted and stroked by patients.

However, once the assessment began and the vet spoke to him in soothing tones, backed up with titbits, Billy’s nerves evaporated.

Response to being handled? Loved it — tick. Response to a food treat? Gently accepted without mouthing or snatching — tick. Response to a tray being thrown on a floor? Ignored — tick. Behaviour on lead? — minimal command required.

This dog, whose life had hung in the balance not so long ago, ticked every box. Even better, the experience taught him that the veterinary surgery isn’t an intimidating place after all, especially when a few treats are on offer.

Placid: A dog has to go through a variety of tests to see if it has the right temperament to deal with people in a hospice environment

Six weeks later and here we are, or rather, here is Billy. It’s not about me. To all intents and purposes I’m just the driver who spends an hour a week or a fortnight ferrying him from A to B.

I’m not suggesting Billy, or indeed any other dog, can heal people, but he can help them forget their life-limiting condition if only for a few moments while they run their fingers though his soft, sweetly-smelling coat.

Christine McGowan, 42, who has visited the hospice for three years, agrees. She has a rare genetic condition which leaves her confined to a wheelchair so she comes along for a few hours every week and stays for a few days’ respite care every four months.

‘Everyone makes a fuss of a person in a wheelchair,’ she says. ‘It’s nice that I can reciprocate it by making a fuss of dogs like Billy.

‘He keeps people like me calm because he is calm. What he must think of us lot smiling and watching him, though, I’ll never know.’

But it’s Maureen, chief executive of Pets As Therapy, who sums up the valuable work these dogs do.

‘I once visited the same nursing home for 17 years,’ she says. ‘One lady always used to sit by the door every week waiting for my dog to arrive. All she ever said was: “She’s my ray of sunshine, she’s my reason for staying alive”. You don’t forget things like that.’

I only hope these ladies won’t forget their precious moments with Billy. A year ago, I nearly lost him. A year on, I couldn’t be more proud of him.

For more information, contact the Pets As Therapy website by clicking here.


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