Archive for August, 2010

Snakes

August 24, 2010

Earlier this summer we bought some snake videos for Moira, our resident herpetologist. I bought a set of four DVDs about reptiles, but she is really only interested in the two about snakes. One day we were watching the video that features Jules Sylvester. In this video he visits various places around the world, wrangling and rescuing snakes. The kids decided we should go outside and hunt up some snakes, so we went out to the garden. Aidan was getting a bit frustrated because he couldn’t find any. As I was explaining to him that you can’t just decide to hunt snakes and then magically find them, he magically found some. They were under a big piece of cardboard that was out in the garden area.

One snake was a good sized garter snake. I wasn’t sure what the other two were, but they were not any of the four venomous species found in Illinois. So the kids “played” with them. They carried them around, took them up to their dad and showed him, and had a great time. Until Aidan decided to see if one of the snakes had fangs and put his fingers in the snake’s mouth. The snake bit him, naturally. He was pissed and crying and bleeding a tiny bit and telling me we should cut the snake’s head off. I could hear Moira crying in the distance and I thought for sure that Aidan had done something to the snake and she was upset because she loves snakes so much. Much to my surprise, Moira was also in favor of cutting off the snake’s head (it’s times like this when I know they actually do love each other!). We did not cut off the snake’s head and I explained that I didn’t think a snake deserved to have its head cut off for biting a finger that was jammed into its mouith. The snakes were released and that was that.

Fast forward to yesterday. Aidan is mowing and he excitedly hops off the mower to tell us he found a snake. Before I can say anything or get over to him, he is picking up the snake. I told him to hold it properly by its neck so it couldn’t bite. At first glance it was not anything venomous. We shouldn’t have cottonmouths this far north. We probably shouldn’t have copperheads, either, but I think we might. Anyway, it was not a copperhead and I am 98% sure I could identify a copperhead if I saw one because they are very distinctive looking. I still wasn’t sure what it was, so we put it in a big, blue plastic tub and looked it up online. This is what it looked like:

A young snake

Picture of a snake we found in our yard

A snake we found in our yard

So I have no idea what kind of snake this is. I’m pretty sure it’s not venomous because it doesn’t have a “button” at the end of its tail. I know some snakes that it is NOT, but not what it is. We took these pictures and then released it down by the creek. So, any ideas? I’ve looked at pictures of snakes that live in Illinois and I can’t figure this one out. The problem is that snakes don’t all look the same, just like people. So one picture of a snake is not enough. I really need to find a naturalist or someone nearby to help us identify snakes.

UPDATED: My best guess at this point is that this is a bull snake.

*And just in case you are wondering, yes, we have talked about safety with snakes. But sometimes kids need to learn on their own. Aidan learned that snakes do have teeth and they will bite you, especially if you put your finger in a snake’s mouth.

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Pig Sex

August 20, 2010

Updated to add that Deborah at Antiquity Oaks added a post about how her goats breed the old-fashioned way. You can read her post, We do everything the old-fashioned way, at her blog. Also, be sure to read the comment left by Cody. I hope others will continue to comment!

The other day the kids put on an episode of Dirty Jobs called “Pig Farmer.” In this episode, Mike Rowe visits a pig farm. You can see a clip here, but it doesn’t show any of the parts I am about to mention, except for the pigs in cages. I missed the part where it said how many pigs the farm had, but it was a lot. He had to help get tons of pig manure out of the building with the cages with the young pigs. TONS of manure. He had to clip the teeth of the piglets, clip their tails, and give them two injections. An antibiotic was needed because of the tail and teeth clipping to prevent infection. I’m sure that all of that is standard practice. And as much as I was sitting there feeling a bit horrified by all this, I was even more horrified by the breeding part.

The breeding part of the show was so weird. Now, to be fair, perhaps there are things I do not know or realize about animal breeding. I do know that most breeders don’t let their animals breed willy nilly. They breed for certain qualities, such as higher milk production, certain patterns of wool, fat/muscle ratio, etc. I do realize that. What I don’t know is how they go about ensuring that happens. When my farmer tells me that our heifers are probably pregnant because they are running with cows that belong to someone else, I get the idea that there is a bull that has some good qualities and they just let him run with the cows when it’s breeding time. They aren’t sure which heifers got pregnant and which didn’t, at least not for a while. That makes sense to me.

I realize that animal breeders don’t just let any male breed with any female. But how they ensure that seems to vary. In the Dirty Jobs episode, the breeding was so far removed from sex it was almost laughable. It was not “natural” in any way. The boar was allowed to walk near the pigs in heat. Then they took him back to this contraption. It was a big, heavy, long metal thing (from my web searching, I think it is called a “dummy”) that the boar could “mount” so he could do his humping thing. Then the farmer and Mike collected the semen in a plastic bag so they could inseminate the female pigs (They are called gilts if they’ve never been pregnant, sows if they have). In this case, the female pig had teats and looked like she had nursed her young before. I’m only guessing, but I will call her a sow based on this guess.

Then Mike Rowe takes a really long plastic tube with a bulb at the end. The semen is in the bulb. First, they let the boar walk by the sow so she will be ready for breeding. Then Mike inserts the tube in the sow, pointing it up towards her spine, otherwise it can end up in her bladder (and really, who wants semen in their bladder?). Then he has to sit on top of her so that she feels like the boar is on her and, well, somehow that gets her ready.

Anyway, it looked nothing like sex (or reproduction if you prefer a word that is a little less loaded with cultural meaning). I can kind of understand why it’s done that way. If the boar shot his one load in that sow, it would be more sperm than needed to breed and is a waste. And when you have a factory farm or breeding animals is your job, that is important. Plus, many breeders make money selling semen. So I get it. And yet I don’t. It just seems wrong somehow.

I realize that animal sex is not the same as human sex. I doubt most animals get much enjoyment out of it. I’m pretty sure the hens don’t enjoy it, for example. It doesn’t look like it would be fun to be a hen. They do get other things in exchange, though, such as protection and warning of predators or the roosters telling them where the good food is. Even though it doesn’t look like animal sex is fun, it still seems that the animals should get to do it the way nature intended. Doesn’t it? I mean, human beings controlling which animals breed with which seems fine to me and has been done for a long time. But the pig sex in this episode was completely modern, industrialized, unnatural. I guess it was better than this (image from University of Illinois Extension, The Optimal Time for Breeding Swine):

Picture of assembly line swine breeding

What I’d like to know more about is how smaller scale farmers and breeders do this. How do you ensure your breeding stock is good and is the way you want it without resorting to industrialized, modern breeding that basically removes the animal from the equation? I think the way my farmer breeds his cows, which is by letting a bull loose with the heifers and letting them do it themselves, is almost the opposite extreme from this espisode or the picture of assembly line breeding. So what I’d like to know is about the in between, the middle ground. Where technology is useful, but is not the only way to do it. Because this type of reproduction just seems weird to me.

Note: While I see that a comparison could be made to modern reproductive technologies for human beings, I think that is completely different for many reasons.