“If we can teach people about wildlife, they will be touched”

Out of genuine interest rather than any particular career planing, I spent this past summer working an internship at Avian Wildlife Center that rehabilitates and releases injured wild birds, anything from hummingbirds to herons. Most of the birds we dealt with were brought to us after unfortunate interactions with humans in some way – nest disrupted, hit by car, poisoned by pollution, etc. At the center, birds receive care until they can be released back into the wild.

3 little victims of an illegal nest removal, these fledgling American Robins are a few weeks away from release back into the wild

3 little victims of an illegal nest removal, these fledgling American Robins are a few weeks away from release back into the wild

Before release they are also tested for parasites, ability to self-feed, and feather condition.  During their time at the center people interact with them as little as possible so they don’t learn to associate humans with food and approach them after being released.

It’s a great and rewarding job, if you aren’t expecting high pay, flexible hours, or a stress-free work environment. It’s also pretty interesting, and I could (and did) leave work every day with multiple bird stories to share.

This baby Sandhill Crane was everyone's favorite, and an opportunity to take charge of the hand-feeding was a contested role during his visit.

This baby Lesser Sandhill Crane was everyone’s favorite, and an opportunity to take charge of his bi-hourly hand-feeding routine was a contested role during his visit.

One particularly interesting case we had was a lady who brought in a fallen sparrow nest, with three baby birds. She commented that she was surprised one of the babies was twice the size of the other two.  This is because one wasn’t a sparrow at all, but a cowbird. They are incredibly interesting birds, particularly in how they raise their young – they don’t. Instead, they are nest parasites: the mother cowbird flies around laying eggs in other birds nests to be raised by an unsuspecting parent bird, in this case a sparrow.

A juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird being fed by its foster parent, a Chipping Sparrow, in Baltimore Co., Maryland (6/5/2011). Photo by Jon Corcoran (http://www.flickr.com/photos/thrasher72/).

A juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird being fed by its foster parent, a Chipping Sparrow, in Baltimore Co., Maryland (6/5/2011). Photo by Jon Corcoran (http://www.flickr.com/photos/thrasher72/).

The lady, who before this information had been impressed by his advanced growth, was suddenly appalled at the poor little cowbird in her sparrow nest. She then asked if we would euthanize the “parasite” since it disrupted the life cycles of the other birds. Of course that is not the case, and we explained that we would take care of it just the same – the center takes any injured wild bird, irregardless of how many individuals of that species they might already have because it makes no attempts to influence natural population ratios.

She wasn’t convinced why it should be saved, which was a common sentiment among several of the rescuers of cowbirds we spoke to over the summer.

Perhaps the term “parasite” gives them a bad reputation, but cowbirds are truly fascinating. Where most other species would imprint on whatever they first see – imagine the classic example of a baby duckling who imprints on a human when it hatches and spends its day following people instead of fellow ducks. Cowbirds, however, are smart enough to know what they are without having to see another cowbird during their whole infancy.  This is because they recognize their own coloration and use that information to find mates in the future.

Though barely related, I had to include this image of 2 ducklings imprinted to a Corgi

Though barely related, I had to include this image of 2 ducklings imprinted on a Corgi

Generally, to the public we simply try to explain that it is the bird’s natural behavior which should not be tampered with. Cowbirds are not an invasive species and are completely meant to coexist with other birds in their natural habitat, which ranges all across North America from southern Canada to southern Mexico.

They can’t thrive without this method of reproduction, which arose naturally through co-evolution with competing bird species.  It is simply how they live and reproduce, and the individual should not be blamed for its innate biological behavior, any more than a hawk should be blamed when it kills a dove for its dinner.

This isn’t to say that cowbirds don’t harm other birds – I am sure that unknowingly raising a baby cowbird takes its toll on a sparrow mother, who will be half the size of her baby before it leaves the nest. But they don’t outright kill their hosts (a good parasite doesn’t kill its host, or it loses its livelihood), and the parents with whom the cowbird tries to leave her eggs are not completely defenseless in the matter, as they sometimes detect and eject foreign eggs.

Cowbirds are known to parasitize over 100 different species, so their eggs seldom match those they are laid with.

Cowbirds are known to parasitize over 100 different species, so their eggs seldom match those they are laid with.  Here, a large speckled cowbird egg is alongside 3 smaller blue Chipping Sparrow eggs.

Still, there is so much love (and funding to care for) birds of prey, who must kill to consume at least 20% of their body weight a day to sustain themselves. People marvel over the beauty of an eagle soaring in the sky while nest parasites, such as cowbirds, cuckoos and several other species, are met with animosity – even though they are usually not responsible for the deaths of any other birds and are equally fascinating creatures.

  • (An exception is if a cowbird egg/baby is discovered and tossed from the nest by the duped parent. A response, nicknamed the “Mafia Behavior”, occurs where the mother cowbird will return to the nest and destroy the other eggs, in hopes of forcing the victim to create a new nest and lay a new brood, also giving her another chance to lay new eggs).

Cowbirds are somewhat infamous for contributing to the near extinction of the Kirtland’s warbler and there were even several mass attempts to remove cowbird eggs from warbler nests, although later it was found there were several other factors leading to their decline besides cowbirds, mostly from human damages to the ecosystem. And studies have even shown that when humans try to remove cowbirds, we end up helping them – removing birds from an area signals less competition, so they are able to reproduce more in that area and end up parasitizing even more nests than they would normally would have.

As with any animal that makes its way through life by competing with others, there are winners and losers.  As a rehabilitator, helping one means eventually harming another, as the circle of life continues in the wild and someone must be preyed or parasitized upon. That doesn’t mean efforts to protect the environment are any less meaningful and perhaps the best thing we can do is try to fix the damages done by humans and restore the balance that existed before human activity began to cause serious disruptions.

After all, these species got along just fine before humans showed up to observe, monitor, and “fix” nature.

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“Why’d it have to be snakes?”

A common motif in Western literature and art is the representation of snakes as the embodiment of evil and deceit. We could ask ourselves, as Indiana Jones usually does on one of his adventures, “why’d it have to be snakes?” You would be hard-pressed to find a positive portrayal of a serpent in a film or book: In Harry Potter, Voldemort has a pet snake in which he places part of his soul and a dark wizard is identified by his ability to communicate with snakes. The long-running television show Dr. Who depicts a being of pure hatred that survives on fear as the giant snake Mara. In classic stories like the Jungle Book, Kaa the python is always up to something treacherous through use of hypnosis and deceit. And older still, is the famous example in the Book of Genesis, when a serpent seals Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden through cunning trickery.

Countless more examples abound, but why are serpents always linked to evil?  Why not sharks, spiders, lions, or bats, all of which tend to instill equal amounts of fear among people and yet don’t have the long-lasting associations with evil like that of snakes?  Most species of snake are not particularly vicious or dangerous, at least compared to any other animal that might be associated with evil, and yet it is always snakes.

Historically, snakes have always been a common symbolic motif, and in many early human cultures they did indeed represent evil.  Nearly all cosmogonies of early civilizations – origin myths that explained the creation of the world – depicted snakes as evil beings set on world destruction.

  • The story of Gilgamesh from early Mesopotamia told how a stole the plant that provides eternal youth, causing Gilgamesh to lose his immortality – a bit like the story of the garden of Eden, where immortality in the garden was lost due to the trickery of a serpent.
  • In Ancient Egypt, Apophis was the serpent that tried to stop the sun god Re from bringing forth morning and thus he had to be battled and conquered every night before the sun could rise again.

  • The Vikings believed that Jörmungandr was a serpent so large it could encircle the earth and bite its own tail. It was the serpentine arch-nemesis of Thor that would one day kill him and initiate Ragnarok by squeezing his tail and destroying the world.

And even when they aren’t screwing over all of mankind with plans to destroy the world, snakes are still up to mediocre bouts of evil – in Greek mythology the half-human monster Medusa, who could turn men to stone with a single glance, had snakes for hair. This probably fueled later medieval folklore that warned of a giant serpent called a basilisk, whose gaze rendered its victims dead.

The Basilisk has remained a popular mythical monster, starting in Ancient Greece and continuing on through the Dark Ages, and reappearing in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

The Basilisk has remained a popular mythical monster, starting in Ancient Greece and continuing on through the Dark Ages, and famously reappearing in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Although the stealthy behavior and sometimes venomous bite of a snake is part of the natural, biological world, it still gives people reason to dislike them, and the way that they move and slither through grass unseen makes snakes a useful metaphor for a deceitful or sly person.  They flick their tongues in and out in a slightly sinister way, therefore having a “serpent’s tongue” makes one untrustworthy.  If there is a legitimate reason to fear or dislike something in the physical world, it makes it easier to transfer that fear into a symbol that could represent pure or supernatural evil, because people already have a negative connotation to it. 

But in non-Western cultures, snakes aren’t always evil, and sometimes were represented in a duality of good and evil – although Apophis opposed the sun god Re, a Uraeus was a cobra image atop the crown of an Egyptian king meant to protect him.  Serpents meant different things to different members of society and different societies as a whole.

The Caduceus of Greek Mythology was the “messenger” staff carried by Hermes and Iris and was wrapped with two winged snakes. In modern times it is sometimes confused with the Rod of Aesculapius – which only had one, un-winged snake. As the god of medicine and healing, Aesculapius and his followers worshiped snakes and products derived from them, especially venom, were thought to have medicinal properties in ancient times.

On the left is Hermes carrying the Caduceus, which has been adopted as a symbol of medicine in place of the Rod of Asclepius, who was the god of medicine and healing.

On the left is Hermes carrying the Caduceus and on the right is Aesculapius carrying the Rod of Aesculapius.  Although the Rod of Aesculapius was carried by the god of medicine and healing, the Caduceus is sometimes portrayed in modern times as a symbol of emergency and medical services.

The imagery of a snake shedding its skin and emerging anew has also lead to its representations of rebirth, especially in Hindu cultures. During the festival days of Shravana, the “Nag panchami” involves snake worship in a quest for fame and knowledge. But a snake can also represent sexual desires and passions, both positive and negative, and could therefore contribute to an individuals downfall.

And remember Apophis, whom the Egyptians had to defeat every night? Though a figure of evil, he might not have been truly hated but instead seen as a power to be reckoned with and a necessary part of life. Good cannot triumph over evil if there is none to defeat and the ancient Egyptians valued a balance of good and evil, order and chaos, ma’at and isfet – the world is not balanced if there is no evil and an unbalanced world was seen as the true danger.

Likewise, in Norse belief, there was no avoiding Ragnarok – it was fated to happen, and Thor knew he would die to Jörmungandr long before it would happen.  So with this cultural perspective, the serpent may be seen as less of an agent of evil and more as an agent of fate, a messenger that acts to ensure the world carries on as it is meant to, whether this be good or bad for everyone involved.

The definitive imagery as serpents being fully evil didn’t really exist until Christianity came along. It is possible that the early ideas of the duality of snakes – both good and evil – is what sealed the future perceptions of snakes in a negative light. The early Church did not like dualities in ideas and early Christianity usually saw things as all good or all bad, with little middle ground. Dualities left too much open for interpretation by commoners, which was a disadvantage in a time when the Church was trying to spread quickly across cultures and into new territories.

Sadly, it was not uncommon for Christians to vilify the pagan beliefs that they did not adopt, making them wholly evil and therefore more straightforward to the common people. (Even the meanings of the words “vilify” and “villain” come from an early Christian attempt to associate the pagan French “vilain”, simply meaning a peasant farmhand, into something evil because they were, after all, pagan.) Snakes, which represented many ideas of both good and evil, came to be associated with devil worship, sorcery, and deceit because an individual could be deceived by an idea with more than one meaning.  Therefore, placing a serpent in the Garden of Eden as the ultimate downfall to mankind and as the form that Satan himself chooses when he tempts Eve, has created a permanent connection between serpents and “evil”, which has lasted for hundreds of years and still persists in Western culture today.

“Trust not too much in appearances”

I’ve been re-watching some of my favorite childhood movies – I think its a quarterlife crisis thing as graduation draws near – and one that I especially made a point to watch was “Prince of Egypt”. It was one of Dreamwork’s first animated films and is based off the Biblical story of Moses and the Exodus out of Egypt.

Val Kilmer voices Moses and Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort) voices Ramses II. Patrick Stewart, Jeff Goldblum, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Danny Glover, Helen Mirren, Martin Short, and Steve Martin also lend their voices. And you get to hear Ralph Fiennes, Martin Short, and Steve Martin sing. It’s pretty epic.

I always loved it as a child, but I recently realized I loved it for different purposes than were intended – being the story of the Exodus, a viewer is perhaps supposed to learn about the Bible, Moses, and the power of God in freeing his people from oppression.  And I will admit, the burning bush as sign of God’s power is a well-done scene and very cool… but I always loved the portrayal of the Egyptian gods more.  The Egyptian priests were far more suave than Moses or Aaron, especially with their jackal- and hawk-headed gods and their love of all things “cat”.  Not to mention, young Ramses II had a way cooler haircut.

As kid I thought the Egyptian gods might have really existed alongside the Christian God (though I surely wasn’t supposed to believe that from the Bible), and I always figured they actually had animal-heads. As a student who enjoys archaeology and mythology, I now question what the purpose of the animal-heads were and how literally they were meant to be taken.  Simply:

“Did the Egyptians actually belief their gods had animal heads?”

And the answer is not a simple one. Our understanding of Egyptian religion is lacking because we still can’t even read all of the hieroglyphics we have found. Furthermore, Egyptians considered it bad luck to write about the afterlife, religious practices, and ideas about evil, so for some topics we have no information at all.

Early Egyptologists may have believed the Egyptians had somewhat primitive ideas about religion and would have actually believed in the improbabilities of an animal-headed god. We in modern society tend to have an obsession with exotic cultures or mysterious traditions and do sometimes forget that our ancient ancestors were intelligent and capable of the same critical thinking we are, and their religion was highly organized and complex. And their religious leaders were well-educated scholars – the Dalai Lama is an incredibly well-educated man though admittedly his lifestyle, religion, or appearance can be seen as a bit “exotic” in Western culture.

The Egyptian gods are described as being “therianthropomorphic”, meaning partly human and partly animal. But representations varied widely – Anubis always has his jackal head, but Osiris is usually represented in human form. Osiris can also be represented by the “crook and the flail”, an “atef” crown, sometimes a bull (these animals were sacred to him), and even the color green (representing rebirth and fertility – understandable considering he is the king of the afterlife and fathered a son after his death). Since Osiris was a deity connected to several aspects of life and death, a mere single representation of him is neither an accurate nor fair way to demonstrate his power.

An ancient image of Osiris – note the green skin on the human form, and that he is wearing an Atef crown and holding a crossed Crook and Flail across his chest.

The famous Classicist and author Edith Hamilton wrote that the Egyptians deliberately made their gods unhuman to distance them from mortals, to make them more awe-inspiring and something to be feared. Indeed the Greeks saw the Egyptian gods as uncompanionable, mysterious, aloof, and beast-like, unlike their own gods who were human-formed with idealized beauty and very human personality traits.

And this may be slightly true, as the afterlife was seen by ancient Egyptians as being very hierarchical – gods were better than kings, who were better than elites, and at some points the possibility of a mere peasant going to the afterlife wasn’t even considered. Therefore, if the gods were meant to demonstrate their status above kings through imposing appearances, perhaps they were meant to appear aloof because they were in fact inhuman.

However, the Egyptians were sophisticated and methodical, and from their art we know they valued symbolism. Therefore it is possible that the images of gods were meant to be completely symbolic and not literal. If you have ever examined an Egyptian drawing, you will immediately notice that detail, size, perspective, and realism are absent – the information that the image projects is much more important. If pictures weren’t meant to be taken literal, we shouldn’t assume that because Horus is drawn as hawk-headed that Egyptians believed if they physically saw Horus in real life, he would have a beak.

The animal associations of power and magic were much more important than realism. It is likely that Anubis was shown with a jackal head not because it was believed that he was half dog but because the jackal was associated with cemeteries because they were scavengers and it was feared they might unearth buried corpses, and so the jackal was associated with the god who was associated with protection during burial, mummification, and the afterlife. Anubis’s jackal head is also an excellent example of the symbolic nature of the animal-headed deity because during mummification rites, priests would often don a jackal mask to emulate Anubis – but in no way was it believed this priest actually became Anubis.

Image taken from the "Book of the Dead', showing an Egyptian priest wrapping a mummy, meant to invoke protection from the god Anubis

Image taken from the “Book of the Dead’, showing an Egyptian priest wrapping a mummy, meant to invoke protection from the god Anubis

And Egyptians weren’t the only ones to do this – In classical Greek, it was believed Zeus often came to earth as a bull or swan, or disguised as a mortal (usually to seduce a maiden), but this wasn’t the actual likeness of Zeus himself. And how often is Jesus portrayed as a lamb, or the Holy Spirit as dove, even in modern society? Jesus is described as the “lamb of god”, but not because it is believed he is or ever was an actual lamb. Animal representations simply give us a more basic understanding about the nature of a deity.

This was especially important in Ancient Egypt, where the majority of people could not read. Hieroglyphs are complex and there are thousands of them to learn. It is much easier to represent the violent nature of the female demon Ammut (who eats the hearts of evil men) by showing her as having the body of a river beast like a hippopotamus rather than by describing her wrath in writing.

And another possibility to consider is that Egyptians might have accepted that they didn’t even know what their gods would look like. The gods are described as being able to hide themselves from mortals and even from other gods. Likewise, they could transform themselves and hide their true forms and secret names from mortals as well as each other, never looking the same to two different individuals. Egyptian religion therefore acknowledges there is no single concrete form a god can take, and even the idea of Egyptian bodies are multifaceted and complex – there are 5 aspects of a person, each with different appearances and functions.

So probably the safe answer is that we don’t really know what the Egyptians believed, and they might not have fully known either. But, they did not worry about actual representations – images of specific individuals and even their mummy death masks are never lifelike portraits but are instead idealized representations of what the perfect person or mummy might look like. And the fact that the gods could change their forms, even among each other, might imply there is no one specific way a god would look.

“Taste the Rainbow”

Okay, so I’ll start by saying that I know that this is nothing like a typical post from me, but Spring Break starts tomorrow here at UofM so it seemed like an appropriate time to document my adventures in “distilling” a few weekends ago.

Any college student knows the first thing you need for a fun house party is, sadly, a lot of cheap liquor.  Our adventure began at the local Meijer, where much to our surprise and amazement, pretty much all of their alcohol was on sale.  It was a beautiful moment, and yet…

Somehow we still ended up with some cheap beverages that no one really wants to drink…

Luckily, we also purchased skittles.  Cue the making of Skittle Vodka! (I prefer the term “distilling”, it sounds classier but admittedly is not really accurate).  Basically you dissolve skittles into vodka to make skittles-flavored vodka, pretty simple concept.  And it’s a fun way of making decent tasting punch from even the cheapest of vodkas.  And it’s ridiculously easy, so if you are interested, here’s what you will need:

  • 1 handle (1.75L) of a vodka of your choice
  • 1 large bag (~20oz) of skittles
  • 5 clean, empty bottles
  • Coffee filters, cheesecloth, etc.
  • Strainer/Sieve/Colander 
  • Coffee grinder/Blender (optional)

And here’s the process:

1. Sort out the different skittles flavors into separate cups (you can also make awesome flavor mixes like strawberry-grape or lemon-lime)

2. *This step is totally optional, but expedites the process and is definitely the most fun part: grind the skittles into a delicious skittle powder.

— Stop here and quickly find something to coat with skittles sugar, I recommend ice cream or even yogurt. —

Next, add the remaining ground up skittles to an empty bottle, fill with vodka, seal, and repeat for each flavor.

It helps to shake them up every day or so too, to make sure the skittles fully dissolve.

Orange first…

Aaand lemon…

3. If you ground up the skittles, it only takes a couple of days for the skittles to fully dissolve into the vodka.  If you placed them in whole, it might take up to a week for them to fully dissolve.  Once they do, you can filter out the skittles sediment to get a clear and colorful drink.

I recommend using a filter placed in a colander, but there’s a lot of ways to do this.

To speed up the process, we devolved to simply wrapping a filter around a glass and letting it drip into a glass.  This is a bit slower, but you can have multiple flavoring processes going at once this way.

4. After the vodka has completely filtered, place into clean bottles (hopefully you can find some classier ones that we did), and serve!

There are a lot of options to go here, bold drinkers may enjoy a sour warhead version of this, or even vodka-infused gummy bears.  So have fun, enjoy, and remember Drink Responsibly!

“If God did not intend for us to eat animals, then why did he make them out of meat?”

The perks of being in a “Human Nutrition and Culture” class is that a bunch of great topics relating to food keep popping up in discussions. Meat consumption is an extremely intricate and variable topic among the cultural groups of the world – just to name a few interesting topics: cultures such as the Inuit live almost entirely off of animal products in a land with no vegetation, many major world religions ban the consumption of pork, a meal isn’t considered complete among Maasai without meat, and there is an arguable vegetarian trend that has been spreading throughout the United States in recent years.

For the purposes of a recent study, I looked at how meat consumption was viewed among different social classes in Medieval Europe and how this impacted their nutrition and health – and was surprised to find a modern day connection to how we identify different meats. (And if you are curious, the lower classes were actually healthier than higher classes because they ate more “cheap” foods such as vegetables and less “high-class” foods such as sugar. If only it were like that today).

Have you ever wondered why some meat is called the same thing as the animal it comes from and some have different names? Well… maybe not… but consider:

  • chicken is called chicken, turkey is turkey, fish is fish

However:

  • cow meat is called beef
  • calf is veal
  • sheep is mutton
  • pig is pork
  • deer is venison

The argument is often made that calling meat by other names such as beef and pork allows for people to psychologically distance themselves from the fact that they are actually eating a once-living creature. It’s easier to eat a steak when your mental image is not of an actual living cow but rather an abstract food term “beef”.

vs.

While this may be part of the explanation, it certainly doesn’t explain why we still call chickens chicken, which is one of the most eaten animals and hence should be the most likely to have a differential name for its consumption.

The difference actually comes from the Norman conquest of England and the resulting mixture of cultures and languages that occurred. When the Normans (French) took over England and it’s government, they became the elite and the nobles of the country. And they used their own words for their food – beouf, porc, and mouton. The commoners still kept the Anglo-Saxon names they used for the animals – cow, pig, and sheep.

Venison follows along this same pattern, as deer were considered royal property and legal only for nobles to consume.

The language differences may have come from a deliberate desire of the Normans to separate themselves from the commoners, or it may have been a natural response of each group to continue to use their native language.

Furthermore, the elites and nobles who used the French words only saw the meat and so called it by their French names, while the commoners who raised the animals – but were probably too poor to actually eat them – called the living animals by the Anglo-saxon names. Over time, as the languages and cultures mixed due to coexistence, both were incorporated into the common language because both developed different implications – beouf, beef, for the meat and cow for the living animal.

“If you’re short of trouble, take a goat.”

This gif was circulating reddit a few weeks back and I thought it was pretty awesome so I did some more research on the subjects of the image, Fainting Goats:

A fainting goat is a variety of goat that experiences loss of muscle control and “faints” when it feels panic. Anyone with some free time should search out more Youtube videos of them in action (or rather, inaction).

Since fainting in the face of danger is an extremely disadvantageous trait to have in the wild, these goats are only found in domestic populations and fainting goats, also called myotonic goats, are actually bred to have this unique trait.

Beccause they are so unique, they are actually identified as their own species, though they are really just a variety of the common domestic goat. The first examples of them were recorded in the late 1800s and it seems that farmers were so amused by them they purposely bred them.

All colors and patterns of them exist, just as in regular populations. They are typically kept as pets and farmers find them easy to care for because they have difficulty escaping – the excitement of jumping a fence usually causes them to faint.

All fainting goats have a condition known as myotonia congenita, or Thomsen’s disease. The exact cause of the condition is unknown, though it is highly suspected to be the result of defective chloride channels in the muscle fiber or a deficiency of acetylcholine. Chloride ions and acetylcholine are both molecules necessary for proper muscle function by causing the muscles to contract – the molecules are released into muscle fibers and the muscles contract.

After they flex, normal muscles release the molecules back out through channels in the muscle fiber.  However, when panicked the muscles of individuals with myotonia congenita cannot release the molecules right away, causing a prolonged muscle contraction where the muscles cannot relax.

With this condition, panic causes the muscles the tense, however they do not relax as quickly as they should, resulting in a 10-20 second lapse where the animal’s muscles are frozen. They never actually lose consciousness. Nor do they feel pain with this condition – an explanation that breeders often cite when confronted by animal rights activists concerned with the intentional breeding of goats with the disorder.

Also, usually the older goats learn to associate panic with “fainting” and learn to brace themselves or lean up against something to prevent falling.

Still, though some are able to somewhat control their behavior, they only exist because humans love having them as pets. In the wild, this trait would never be passed on to a new generation because any individual that faints in panic would surely be the first prey to a predator. (This also contributes to another older use for fainting goats – for the protection of more valuable members of a herd. Often in predator-prone areas, fainting goats are kept alongside sheep so that if the flock is attacked by wild animals, the sheep will escape while the goat faints and does not escape.)

But for the most part, this species of goat is kept for its amusing behavior, and there are even festivals down south that honor the unique genetic situation that results in fainting goats.

“If you’re short of trouble, take a goat.”
~ Finnish saying

“I don’t know. But it’s a tradition!”

In the opening song to one of my favorite musicals, “Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevye described the traditions of his hometown Anatevka:

“For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl… This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition!”

I have always loved this part because it is a funny and honest explanation that even someone that values their religious traditions doesn’t always understand them. Many traditions in our culture don’t have solid explanations to their origins, and ones centering on religion are always the most interesting in my opinion.

For example, I never understood as a kid why I was forced to eat fish sticks on Fridays in public school because some kids couldn’t eat any other meat on Fridays. Later I learned that it was a Catholic tradition, but I still didn’t understand why it was so important.

So why do Catholics eat fish on Friday?

Fasting is required by the Code of Canon Law for anyone over the age of 14 and under the ago of 60. Ask any devout Catholic and they will explain that it is related to the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross: fasting provides a constant reminder of his death and allows an individual the opportunity to contemplate their faith and make reparation for their sins. As for the specific day, according to the Bible, Jesus died on a Friday and so this is the day that should commemorate his sacrifice. However, the specificity of only being allowed to eat fish is less clear.

Fish are linked to parables of Jesus several times in Christian stories, such as the loaves and the fishes, and one of the symbols associated with Christianity is the “Jesus Fish”:

However, the Bible does not specifically mention that people should eat fish on Fridays nor does it literally say that Catholics should fast on Fridays. This unclear source of information has lead to several fun myths regarding the “true” reason for the tradition.

1.   Training the Navy

I was told one myth during a tour of Sulgrave Manor in South Northamptonshire, the ancestral home of George Washington. According to our tour guide Cymon:

Queen Elizabeth I was worried about a potential war with Spain, which was highly feared for its impressive Armada. So she wanted to make the English navy better, and whats the best way to have a highly skilled navy? Have a highly skilled civilian sailor population.

Ensuring that the populous of England could only eat fish on Fridays kept the demand for work high in the fish market ensuring that they were always busy and kept in their prime, ready to answer the call for Queen and country should a war with Spain erupt.

So Elizabeth, who had already been sorting through some religious issues regarding the drastic shift from Catholicism to Protestantism by her father Henry VIII, simply added this in when no one was looking.

In reality, there is absolutely no evidence nor references to this theory anywhere, so I’ve always been curious as to where our supposedly ex-history professor guide came up with this story.

2.   The Pope’s secret profits

Another myth involves a secret pact between the Pope and the leaders of the fishing industry. The Pope decreed that Catholics could only eat fish on Fridays so they could both profit from an increase in fish sales. While this is also probably not the case, there is no denying that the fishing industry did greatly profit from this rule.

3.  The importance of the Fishing Industry

Another myth centering on fishing seems even less likely: when Henry VIII separated from the Roman Catholic Church and created the Church of England, the eating of fish became political – it implied a support of the Catholic Pope.

Fish sales supposedly declined and the fishing industry was hurt, which in turn hurt tax income and the trading industry. This was such a problem that fast days were instated by law to reverse the problems.

Unfortunately, the problem with this myth is that fish are already associated with Catholic traditions before the reinstatement of a fasting law.  So the law may have helped continue the tradition, but it by no means explains its origin.

So what is the real truth?

Sadly, it is likely that it did not involve a political ploy or religious scandal. It also is not the result of a literal translation of the Bible. More likely it is the result of a mistranslation of the Bible:

First off, technically, it is only the eating of warmblooded animals that is off limits, so fish technically are edible on Fridays.

The way the word “meat” is translated from Latin, it implies something that is “bloody” flesh, from the word caro – but fish meat is not considered bloody or really considered flesh by any definition, so perhaps it was assumed that fish simply did not count in the fasting rules.

Or, because Catholics were expected to abstain from “special foods” on Fridays in order to be reminded of Christ’s sacrifices, it is plausible that fish wasn’t really considered a special food and thus not applicable to the ban. This is likely because fish was such an integral part of the diet of the time that it wasn’t banned because it simply couldn’t be omitted from the diet.

So in all reality, the Friday Fish Fry is probably due to a translation based on the culture of the Medieval era, which turned into a tradition that Catholics still honor to keep their faith. If only the Pope had made a secret agreement with the fishing industry, it would have made the story so much more interesting.