Newsletter Spring 2019

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Spring 2019

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Our Spring semester is about to begin! Classes start on April 4; regular registration ends on March 27. Register soon to avoid late fees and to ensure a spot in the class of your choice. 


Are Dragons Real?

DragonLegends about dragons have arisen in multiple times in human history. Asia, Europe and the Americas all have their versions of dragon-lore; they continue to play a prominent role in modern-day culture, appearing in Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and the ever popular How to Train Your Dragon. Dragons can represent evil, strength, power, magic or even good luck, depending on the story being told.

Where did dragon myths come from? It’s possible that our early ancestors discovered the remains of whales or the fossils of dinosaurs and believed them to be the relics of huge, dangerous dragons. Alternatively, large powerful reptiles, such as the 20 foot Nile crocodile, may have inspired these myths. We do know that dragon stories have arisen independently several times; thus, there may be multiple origins that explain their place in folklore.

But are they real? Dragons ARE real creatures, but not as they are depicted in stories. What types of dragons exist today? The best know example is the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis). While he may not breathe fire, the Komodo dragon can certainly kill you (or a pig, deer or water buffalo) with its bite. Weighing in at 300 pounds or more and growing over 10 feet long, the Komodo dragon is a force to be feared. Komodos live on several islands in southeast Indonesia. They kill their prey by inflicting wounds with their razor-sharp teeth, dispatching their venomous saliva into the wound. Interestingly, it was long thought that komodos killed their prey by tearing the flesh and allowing the bacteria in the komodo's mouths to seep into the wound, ultimately weakening and killing the animal via infection. For decades biologists thought that komodos use venom-like bacteria, although it has since been demonstrated that they use venom-like….venom. Venom glands on either side of the head seep chemicals into the saliva of the komodo dragon and ultimately into their prey.

komodo dragonThe primary predators of Komodos are other Komodos, with adults preying on the offspring of others. These are most certainly not the friendly variety of dragon! Komodos were given their name in 1926 by W. Douglas Burden, who was on an expedition in Indonesia to capture giant lizards for the American Museum of Natural History. His wife had to be rescued by a fellow explorer, who shot the dragon. This damsel-in-distress moment immortalized the Komodo.

While the fire-breathing dragon isn’t real, the flying variety certainly is. The Flying dragon or Draco lizard (Draco volans) is a gliding lizard that lives in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. Unlike the Komodo dragon, these dragons are tiny and grow to only eight inches. Rather than traveling across the treacherous forest floor, Dracos move about via the trees above. These “flying dragons” have elongated ribs that support a flap of skin, called the patagia. The flaps rest against the body when not in use. But when they are unfurled these folds act as wings and, using their tails as steering rudders, allow Dracos to glide up to 30 feet. They are usually a mottled brown color so that they blend in with the trees, but the undersides of their wings are brightly colored (usually yellow in males and bluish gray in females). Unlike the Komodos, the Dracos can’t eat humans - ants and termites are on their menu.

Draco flying

Unlike most mythological dragons, the dragons of our time are not exclusive to land. There are several varieties that can be found in the ocean. At the other end of the spectrum from Draco is the Black dragonfish (Idiacanthus atlanticus) - the real-life equivalent of an evil villain, with scary teeth and a long, black body. Known as the black dragon of the sea, these fish spend most of their time a mile below the surface of the ocean, although females do migrate to the surface. Black dragonfish also posses the (almost) magical power of being able to emit their own light because via photopores (light-emitting organs) that are scattered across their heads and bodies. The light helps them to find food and communicate with others. They feed primarily on marine invertebrates and fish. The males of this species are quite different from the females. They grow to just two inches long, posses no teeth or functioning digestive system, and are brown in color. I guess we know who’s the boss in the Black dragonfish family!

If you’re in seaDragonfishrch of a friendlier dragon that you might be able to train (as they do in movies), the Bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps) might be for you. Bearded dragons hail from Australia; there are eight different species in the Pogona genus. When these dragons puff up their throats, they create an imposing ruff of spiked scales, that look like a beard. The ‘beard’ turns black when they are stressed or during courtship. Several species of this genus, especially the central bearded dragon, are kept as pets or exhibited in zoos due to their hardy nature. The central bearded dragon has surprised scientists with its learning ability. Researchers at the University of Lincoln discovered that the lizards were able to imitate a fellow dragon to complete a task – in this case pushing open a door. Next up... jumping through hoops?

While the dragons of folklore must remain in our imaginations, be thankful that other dragons still roam the earth. You may not be able to ride one through the clouds, but if you’re fortunate enough to encounter one in person you’ll be able to join the ranks of Harry, Hiccup and Daenerys Targaryen.

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The Real Reason There Are No Snakes in Ireland
(With apologies to Saint Patrick)

St Patrick DogSt. Patrick’s Day celebrates St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. This celebration is usually filled with shamrocks, green clothing, Irish food (and perhaps green drinks), parades, music, dancing, and pride about being a lucky, Irish person. St. Patrick’s Day has grown from a religious observance to a day of celebration by the Irish and non-Irish alike.

St. Patrick (whose birth name was Maewyn Succat) was born in Britain at the end of the 4th century. At the age of 16, he was captured by Irish raiders and worked as a shepherd for six years until he escaped and returned to Britain. Acting on a vision, he took his vows as a priest, adopted the Christian name Patrick, and returned to Ireland as a missionary with the goal of bringing Catholicism to Ireland.

Legend has it that St. Patrick, using the power of his faith, drove all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. In Judeo-Christian religions, the snake has long been considered a symbol of sin and temptation (think Adam and Eve). So the legend of St. Patrick banishing the snakes could be considered a metaphor for his work in driving out the Celtic pagan religion and ushering in Christianity.

Viviparous lizardBut did St. Patrick affect the biodiversity of Ireland? Diversity was already limited as there are only 26 native land mammals in Ireland, and just one reptile, the viviparous (or common) lizard. And yes, there are no snakes, but is it really due to St. Patrick? In St. Patrick’s time there would have been no snakes to drive out of Ireland. Fossil records confirm that snakes haven’t lived in Ireland for at least 10,000 years. This is largely due to the fact that Ireland is an island. The Irish Sea, which separates Ireland from Great Britain, is over 50 miles wide. That’s a long way for a snake to swim! Snakes do exist in Great Britain, however, which is also an island. But for quite a long time, snakes didn’t exist in Great Britain, either. The Ice Age would have made it too cold for snakes to survive in this northern climate.

At the end of the Ice Age the glaciers retreated, exposing a land bridge that connected Great Britain to Europe, as well as another one connecting Great Britain to Ireland. Slowly, species migrated back to Great Britain. But about 1,500 years later, the melting glaciers covered the land bridge that connected Ireland and Great Britain, halting the migration of animals from the continent. Only three species of snakes made it to Great Britain and no serpentine species made it as far as the second bridge to Ireland.

snakeDuring the 1990s, pet snakes became popular in Ireland. But as years passed the thrill (and expense) of caring for pet snakes declined. Some owners released their former pets into the wild, just as python pets have been “freed” into the American Everglades. Scientists believe that the human introduction of snakes could wreak havoc on the ecosystem of Ireland, just as it has on Guam where the invasive brown tree snake has destroyed native bird population. Fortunately, no snakes have managed to flourish in the wild in Ireland and we aren’t yet in need of St. Patrick’s services.

So for now, Ireland, along with New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica remains snake-free. If snakes aren’t your thing, you can add safely add these spots to your travel list.

National Pet Day is April 11th

Any animal lover will tell you about the benefits of pet ownership. They provide companionship. Their presence can lower our stress levels and decrease blood pressure. And they can be all-around mood-boosters when we are feeling low. So it’s only right that we have a special day set aside to honor them.

National Pet Day is April 11th (#NationalPetDay). Although pets are loved and celebrated every day, National Pet Day provides an excuse (not that a pet owners need one) to lavish extra attention on their animal pal. National Pet Day was founded in 2006 by animal welfare advocate Colleen Paige. Paige wanted to give pet owners a chance to celebrate the joy pets bring to our lives, and to heighten public awareness of the plight of animals residing in shelters awaiting a home.

braceletSo how should you celebrate with your pet? You could hire a pet photographer and have a fun photo shoot, or perhaps set up a pet play date with your friends and their pets. Or perhaps get them a gift? You could go for a new bone or perhaps a squeaky toy, but if money is no object you might consider jewelry. Several years ago, La Collection de Bijoux created a collection of the world’s most expensive collars. Their Amour Amour design came in at a price tag of $1.8 million. While the line was only produced for a limited time, it is still possible to dress your pet to the nines with a collar bejeweled with Swarovski Crystal Elements. Diamond Dogs in the UK produces collars and other cat and dog accessories, many of which are under $500. That’s still a lot of new chew toys!

Perhaps jewelry is a bit over the top. If you are a dog owner, you could consider perfume. Yes that’s right, perfume for dogs. Les Poochs, based in Tuxedo, New York, features eight fragrances: florals for females, lively notes for males, and gentle essence for puppies. The cost is comparable to human perfume, which makes them much more affordable than that diamond collar. So if you want to make your pooch even more adorable (and nicer smelling), could this be the route for you?

pampered pooch

If you’re not into material gifts, you could hire servants to pamper your pet when you’re not around. Chanel head designer, the late Karl Lagerfeld, really knew how to spoil his cat, Choupette. Choupette has her own bodyguard, a personal chef and two maids, and their jobs are simply to provide for her every need. Choupette has to be brushed a minimum of twice a day and have a record kept of her daily activities, which are then transferred to her personal Twitter and Instagram pages, @ChoupettesDiary.

cat with personAnother way to celebrate your pet is to ensure they feel particularly comfortable in your home. If you’ve got a spare bedroom, you could consider decking it out for your pet. If you have a cat, you might decorate the room with a comfortable bed, a scratch post, and perhaps a fun tunnel or two. But to go big, consider renovating your entire home to suit your cat. That’s what one man in California did. As the owner of 18 cats, he wanted to make sure his home was comfortable and entertaining for his feline friends. He added catwalks, ledges, trees and posts in every room of his home. The renovation cost him $35,000, but supposedly the cats love the new space.

If many of these options seem like wasteful extravagance, it might be because they are. When celebrating your pet and your relationship, keep mind that there’s a difference between animal needs and human desires. A diamond-encrusted collar is of no more use to a dog than a simple collar of leather or other plain material. Similarly, perfumes may seem adorable, but consider them from the perspective of your furry friends. An animal with amazing powers of olfaction may be sensitive to strong odors and prefer to go au naturale. While many expensive options exist, perhaps the best gift you can give your pet this April 11 is…you.

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Animals in Film

The Screen Actors Guild Awards. The Golden Globes. The Oscars. This past awards season was filled with glamorous celebrities, heart-touching films, and a few surprise wins. We saw actors, writers, directors and designers celebrated for their outstanding achievements. However, there was one important category of performer that was not recognized: animal actors. No animal actor has even won an Academy Award; they’re not even eligible. The Academy rules do not explicitly prohibit animals from being nominated, but they do exclude eligibility nomination to “actors” and “actresses,” and not “animal actors.”

Although animals can’t win these awards, they often play a vital role in films. Animated versions often replace human characters. Due to their softer quality, they’re able to tackle tougher topics, such as racism, discrimination and disabilities. The use of animated animals makes these films more accessible to a younger audience.


Real-life animals can elicit great emotional responses and often help to establish a human character’s alignment with good or evil. They can serve as plot devices, helping to move the story along from one scene to another; they can also play major characters starring in films in their own right. The remake of the 1974 film "Benji" features an ownerless dog that freely roams a Texas town. He springs into action to save the day when two children are kidnapped and held for ransom. Fairfield, who plays the title role of Benji, performed all the scenes himself (sometimes multiple animals are used to play the same character). And just like the original Benji from the 1974 movie, the 2018 Benji is a rescue dog. That’s quite the glamorous lifestyle upgrade - from living on the streets to being a movie star.

But Benji wasn’t the only rescue dog to be featured in films this year. Borras the dog, one of the stars of the 2018 Academy Award-winning film "Roma", is a rescue dog as well. Trainer Manuel Montero discovered the dog in abandoned lot, on the verge of death with a wire tied around his neck. He was hospitalized for several months due to some major health issues, including mange, conjunctivitis, bronchitis and fleas. Not only did he make a full recovery under Montero’s care, but he was the perfect fit for the film as he resembled the dog that the director, Alfonso Cuarón, had when he was a child (the movie is a semi-autobiographical take on the director’s young life in Mexico City). Borras had the right look for the film, and so a new celebrity (dog) was born.

Sometimes the human stars in films transform their pets into co-stars. Bradley Cooper, the director and star of the Oscar-nominated "A Star is Born", cast his own dog, Charlie, in the film. Charlie plays a critical role in the film’s climax, where he is present during Cooper’s character’s dramatic death. Some have called for awards for Charlie’s performance.

Dogs weren’t the only animals making an impression on the big screen last year. The Oscar-nominated film "The Favourite" tells the story of a frail Queen Ann (played by Olivia Colman) in the 18th century. There are 17 rabbits that co-star in the film. The rabbits represent each of her lost children, who were either stillborn or died in early childhood. Queen Anne isn’t always kind to the people in her world, but you can deduce a great deal from the way she cares for her rabbits. Without giving away any spoilers, the 17 rabbits play a vital and dramatic role in the twisted ending of the film.

DaisyHollywood welcomed a new blonde star this year - a miniature horse. Daisy, who plays the miniature horse Butterscotch in the film "Damsel", made a big debut for such a small animal. "Damsel" is a whimsical absurdist Western starring Robert Pattinson. After the film’s debut at the Sundance Film festival, Daisy was brought on stage for the Q&A and allegedly stole the show. It just goes to show that you don’t have to be big in size to be a big hit. (Daisy hasn’t let fame go to her head; she still holds down her day job as a therapy horse.)

But speaking of big, what movie season would be complete without a big, loveable elephant? Ashley Bell’s documentary "Love & Bananas: An Elephant Story" revolves around the efforts to save an Asian elephant, 70-year-old Noi Na, from a miserable life giving rides to tourists in Thailand. Depicting the cruel treatment of elephants while delivering a moving feel-good story was no small feat, to say the least. Noi Na gives a top-notch performance playing herself, and in the end she makes it to the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for mistreated elephants.

Although no animal stars have taken home an Oscar, they have been celebrated on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Three dogs, Strongheart, Rin Tin-Tin and Lassie have earned stars, along with fictional characters such as Kermit the Frog, Donald Duck and Godzilla. So why no Oscars? Maybe it’s time to start petitioning the Academy for the animal stars of 2020.

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