The Centre for Fortean Zoology was founded in the UK in 1992 - nearly 20 years ago. Over the past two decades it has expanded to become a truly global organisation. We opened our American office in 2001, our Australian office in 2009, and now - in our 19th year - we are proud to welcome CFZ Canada to the CFZ global family.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Al the Ills that Flesh is Heir to

The old ways of researching cryptids are sometimes not very useful.  Perhaps it is time to start thinking beyond the “let’s get a photo or a corpse” mentality and look to modern research to see if it may apply.  One of the newest studies compares animals of all kinds to humans with respect to disease.  Animals and humans share a remarkable similarity in that respect.  If we continue to assume that our Fortean creatures are indeed biological animals, perhaps studying comparable diseases may yield new clues.

We tend to think of cancers as a human problem, but most other animals can be stricken by “the Big C” as well.  Breast cancer is one of the most frequently diagnosed cancers in humans, both men and women.  It is also a disease that nearly all animals can get and have gotten.  Jaguars, cougars, tigers, sea lions, kangaroos, wallabies, beluga whales, alpacas and llamas have all been documented as having had this specific kind of cancer.  In fact, the only animals it doesn't show up in are those considered “professional lactators”—dairy cows and goats.  Skin cancer too is fairly common, even though animals have skin quite different than ours.  Rhonda the rhino, who lives at the Los Angeles Zoo, was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, a common type of skin cancer, on her horn.  The zoo consulted with oncologists who work with human skin cancers, and Rhonda was diagnosed, had surgery, and is now cancer free.  Osteosarcoma, a common type of bone cancer, is the leading cause of death in golden retrievers.  This disease has also been found in the bones of wolves, grizzly bears, camels, polar bears, some reptiles, fish and birds, so it logically follows that there would be incidences in every cryptid from Sasquatch to Mothman.

Obesity and diabetes shows up in many animals.  Usually the ones who are held in captivity in zoos or as pets are more susceptible to these two diseases.  Scientists suggest that the limited exercise and the feed consisting of genetically modified crops may play the major roles in both diseases, just like they would in humans.  It would follow then that rural cryptids like Sasquatch would probably dodge those issues, but more urban ones like chupacabra would be at risk because of garbage scavenging.  Perhaps a more important research note is that when investigating reports of urban cryptids, it would be wise to understand the symptoms associated with these diseases to better identify the cryptid as an already known animal.  Obese animals, especially when dead, can give a false first impression of being something unknown.  Untreated diabetes can cause fur loss from scratching dry skin and even erratic behavior.  Knowing these diseases can appear in animals gives us one more test of “normalcy” when making an identification.
Horses and many primates can experience erectile dysfunction.  This can be from organic issues like diet or vascular constriction, but it can also be from depression or even trauma.  Stallions not only have been found to experience erectile dysfunction, they can have sexual dysfunction if they were bred too young or have an upsetting first sexual experience with a mare. Chimps have been studied for their propensity to experience both Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression.  The most riveting is a painstakingly detailed month-long observation of three captive chimpanzees (Blossom, Rosie, and Chippy) as a fourth chimp, Pansy, became gravely ill and died. A research team, led by psychologist James Anderson, observed their reactions. The fact that the chimpanzees were continuously, systematically, and meticulously observed over a thirty-day period lends the paper greater credibility than previous reports, which were largely anecdotal.  From Anderson’s paper:

“During Pansy's final days the others were quiet and attentive to her, and they altered their nesting arrangements (respect, care, anticipatory grief). When Pansy died they appeared to test for signs of life by closely inspecting her mouth and manipulating her limbs (test for pulse or breath). Shortly afterwards, the adult male attacked the dead female, possibly attempting to rouse her (attempted resuscitation); attacks may also have expressed anger or frustration (denial, feelings of anger towards the deceased). The adult daughter remained near the mother's corpse throughout the night (night-time vigil), while Blossom groomed Chippy for an extraordinary amount of time (consolation, social support). All three chimpanzees changed posture frequently during the night (disturbed sleep). They removed straw from Pansy's body the next morning (cleaning the body). For weeks post-death, the survivors remained lethargic and quiet, and they ate less than normal (grief, mourning). They avoided sleeping on the deathbed platform for several days (leaving objects or places associated with the deceased untouched)”

Some animals, including animals, actually bury their dead.  Perhaps this possibility as the explanation for why there are no dead Sasquatch lying around is sounder than some give it credit for.  If we think of the word “bury” meaning simply to cover rather than as a ritual, it is actually fairly common.  Animals know that carcasses draw predators and disease and most find a way to remove the dead from the living area.  Some take that further and actually cover the body with soil or vegetation, technically burying it.

STD’s and heart disease are also common in the wild. One in four humans worldwide die of sexually transmitted disease and this too is an issue for our animal population.  In fact, chlamydia has reached epidemic status in Koalas in Australia.  Animals can experience heart attacks and many species can be frightened to death. Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz professor of cardiology, David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA, and a member of the  medical advisory board at the L.A. Zoo first became interested in the ties between animal and human disease when a lioness at the zoo was suffering from fluid around her heart.  She joined with journalist Kathryn Bowers to write the book Zoobiquity,  which explores how animal and human commonality can be used to diagnose, treat, and heal patients of all species.  The associated website with much more information on common conditions can be accessed here.

Veterinarians deal with a wide range of species including mammals, reptiles and insects. Unlike human patients, the animals can't describe their symptoms to their doctors so veterinarians have to be keen observers.  As researchers, we must study like the veterinarians—learn all we can about a wide range of species.  This learning should also include their diseases.

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