Big, bold ideas. Future changemakers. Thrilling recommendations. This is the Sunday read you’ll find nowhere else.
Sep 05, 2021
How many times have you spotted a cat sashaying down the street, the epitome of runway elegance, and caught yourself cheering: “Work it, girl!” No? Just me? Fine, but there really are animals that “work it.” You’ve probably heard of therapy and emotional support animals that provide physical assistance and emotional comfort to humans in need — a role aced by golden-hearted doggos and a plethora of other animals.
Then there are the craftier gigs reserved for spy birds on top-secret missions and heroic rodents that have been trained to sniff out dangerous explosives. In today’s Sunday Magazine, we take you into the weird, wonderful and sometimes controversial world of animals that work. At a time when four-legged social media stars are on the rise, “working like a dog” may not mean what you think at all.
If you must rat something out, let it be the location of land mines. That’s exactly what some XL-sized African giant pouched rats do for a living. We are indebted to a group of Gambian rodents, trained by nonprofit APOPO to detect land mines and unexploded ordnance in Cambodia. With over 5 million land mines planted there between 1975 and 1998, the country relies on these near-blind rats with a keen sense of smell. Why? Because they are too light to set off the mines and move faster than people. An area that would take a human with a metal detector three to four days to cover can be swept by these 2-foot critters in less than half an hour.
2 - Dolphins With Military Precision
Dolphins and sailors share a long, inspiring history. Today, a select group of dolphins has become the sea equivalent of bomb-sniffing service dogs. The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program uses the sophisticated sonar of bottlenose dolphins to locate undersea mines, especially in murky waters or congested harbors. The program also uses California sea lions. Unlike their human colleagues, these animals with superior underwater directional hearing and low-light vision can dive to great depths. Reports that dolphins may have been trained for offensive operations have been rebutted since the declassification of the program in the 1990s. Check out this happy guy squealing with delight over treats earned after a successful mine mission.
3 - No Monkey Business
Service monkeys know better than to monkey around at work. And their job is a heartwarming one. Raised and trained by Boston-based nonprofit Helping Hands, the intelligent and dexterous capuchin monkeys have assisted people with spinal cord injuries and other mobility impairments since 1979. Although the training program closed in 2021, the organization continues to provide support for the monkeys and their human partners. Graduates of what was dubbed “The Monkey College” continue to help people with quadriplegia perform tasks like opening bottles, retrieving objects, turning pages, scratching itches and adjusting limbs in a wheelchair. A good cause, but at what cost? Debates have raged over the ethical implications of removing primates from their families and natural environment.
4 - I Spy a Pigeon in the Sky
It’s a bird . . . it’s a spy . . . it’s paranoia! Let’s backtrack. As an Indian kid, I grew up listening to the whiney hit “Kabootar Ja Ja” (kabootar = pigeon in Hindi) and, later, the more hummable “Masakali” (another word for pigeon). In both music videos, fluttering white pigeons signal fresh romance. But over the years, some governments have come to associate pigeons with a more nefarious activity: espionage. Since 2015, India has detained pigeons suspected of being “sky spies” dispatched by Pakistan. In 2008, Iran “arrested” pigeons for spying on a nuclear facility. One feathered felon was caught ferrying ketamine-like drugs in 2017 by Kuwaiti officials.
Cut to the present. As the coronavirus continues to mutate, mankind’s hopes for faster, cheaper detection may lie with none other than man’s best friend. As part of an ongoing screening trial, sniffer dogs in England were trained to recognize a scent produced by infected patients that is not detectable by the human nose. While the dogs correctly flagged 88% of coronavirus cases, experts insist this method is intended to complement rather than replace lab testing. Should the trial be broadly implemented, the dogs could help speed up screening at airports and other public spaces.
6 - Free. And Industrious
“Liberated forever, domesticated never!” Such was the rallying cry of Snowball the rabbit in the 2016 movie The Secret Life of Pets. In the real world, wild animals are extra industrious — and not because of human prodding. It is, in fact, a quality that’s essential to surviving in the great outdoors. Think of the phrases “busy bee” or “busy as a beaver.” Bees are known to live a regimented life, their social roles clearly defined according to the hierarchical order of worker, drone and queen. An individual bee foraging for nectar might work 10 hours a day to get the job done. Beavers are considered nature’s engineers, a dam-building, furrier version of your workaholic cousin who shows up to family gatherings clutching a MacBook.
Become a financial thriver and survivor with a brand new world from Minecraft. “Fintropolis” shows kids how to take their money game to the next level. They’ll learn about everything from responsible spending and saving to taxes and how to make big purchases. All in a super fun way that’s easy to understand. The goal? Increase players’ financial literacy and set them up to lead financially healthy lives. The game was created by Blockworks in collaboration with Ally, and was inspired by four interns from Moguls in the Making, a pitch competition that challenges young, up-and-coming entrepreneurs from historically Black colleges and universities to create impactful business solutions. Their goal with Fintropolis was to help parents and teachers empower players from all backgrounds to build the blocks of financial literacy and practice good money habits. These skills will help them become good financial citizens in the game — and in the real world.
Unless you’ve been living under a gigantic digital rock, you know who @tikatheiggy is. If you don’t, “Iggy” is an affectionate slang term for Italian greyhounds, and the Montreal-based Tika is their well-heeled messiah. With 1.1 million followers on Instagram, the “fashion model” and “gay icon” rose to viral fame during the pandemic with the relatable “love it, couldn’t wear it” TikTok video capturing our collective frustration over canceled going-out plans for months on end. Silver-furred, shiny-eyed and svelte as they come, Tika boasts a jaw-dropping wardrobe of rainbow-streaked fleece, baggy sweatshirts, rose tulle ballerina dresses and more! No wonder she made it into Vogue and that singer-songwriter @lizzobeeating called her “an actual bad bitch.”
2 - Decorated Detector, Magawa
Remember those badass, mine-sniffing African rats? Well, Magawa is the baddest of them all. As APOPO’s most decorated employee, he cleared nearly 2.5 million square feet of land (the equivalent of 357 soccer fields) in his gilded five-year career, detecting 71 land mines and 38 pieces of unexploded ordnance along the way. The Tanzania-born star became the first-ever rat to be awarded the PDSA Gold Medal for life-saving work — the George Cross of the animal world — before retiring in a blaze of glory in June 2021. Impressed? Some of Magawa’s still-active colleagues might be up for adoption.
3 - Kabosu, Master of Memes
Back in 2010, when memes were not yet a go-to mode for digital communication, a quizzical-looking Shiba Inu dog emerged from nowhere to be the next big thing . . . sorry, meme. Popularized in the decade since through a series of Doge (slang for dog) memes, Kabosu, the pooch in question, is an eyebrow-cocking web sensation. With the recent popularity of dogecoin, Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s “favorite cryptocurrency,” Kabosu is once again back in the limelight. The 15-year-old cutie, along with her feline siblings, has attracted hundreds of thousands of followers on her mama’s Instagram.
4 - Larry the Chief Mouser
If you think this one is make-believe, think again. Some titles are cooler than others, and none beats the one carried by the resident feline at 10 Downing Street in London. Larry the cat is entrusted with finding and killing rodents in Britain’s best-known address. Although it’s been an informal tradition for hundreds of years, the title “chief mouser to the Cabinet Office” was made official 10 years ago. He must be pretty good at his job, for as of 2021, Larry has been in the employ of three prime ministers, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, and continues to claw onto his position. Aside from catching vermin, Larry is excellent at greeting houseguests and choosing strategic napping spots atop antique furniture.
5 - The Internet Loves Mishka
Another internet darling dog? Mishka the Siberian husky. It all started back in 2008 when a video of the New Jersey-based pup repeating “I wuv woo” (that’s husky for “I love you”) surfaced on YouTube. Celebrity soon followed, with Mishka starring in hundreds of videos on her owner Matt Gardea’s YouTube page, appearing in commercials and even on the Fox News Morning Show. When she passed away in 2017 after a brief battle with cancer, the 14-year-old was mourned by strangers near and far who loved her right back.
Moral quandaries abound when it comes to putting animals to work as Joe Exotic did, but few are as shady as the wretched business of tiger selfies. You see them as social media brag posts or on the Tinder accounts of dude-bros you swipe left on faster than they can say #wanderlust. Separated at birth from their mothers, trained to exhaustion, chained, drugged and declawed, tigers are held in captivity in private homes and pseudo-sanctuaries in Asia, the U.S. and other parts of the world — all so that paying visitors can take a “cool” selfie. Five years after the very public crackdown on Thailand’s infamous Tiger Temple, tiger tourism continues to cripple the lives of thousands of big cats.
2 - A Prayer for Elephants
Leisurely jungle rides or shared baths with elephants have long been marketed as coveted tropical attractions in Sri Lanka and parts of South India. The animals are also hired by temple administrators to lend majesty to religious festivities. Very often, the experience of getting up-close-and-personal with the gentle giants comes at a cruel price. One such story involved Tikiri, a 70-year-old female whose emaciated body sparked international outrage when a photo surfaced on the internet in 2019. But not all elephants are fated to lead lives of restraints — some bona fide conservation camps and rehabilitation centers around the world try to ensure that the majestic beings live a free but protected life, without toiling their years away.
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