Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Something you should NEVER do while washing someone's hair...

Today I went for a haircut. This was a bit odd for me. As a zoologist, one rarely really gives a crap about how one looks (within reason). So, also being a student, I have been resorting to the cheaper option for the last few years. I've been cutting my own hair with an electric shaver. It's been pretty functional, so I've not really had a problem. Thus, today's events were a change from the norm.

My sister came along with me to get her hair cut at the same time. On our way there, she and I were discussing what I should do with my hair. I wasn't particularly fussy about how it turned out, just as long as I don't have a mullet (Eeugh!). After mentioning this, my sister changed her tone to one of concern. She warned me that I had better make it explicitly clear to the hairdresser that I wasn't going to have a mullet as, she said, the hairdresser had a tendency to cut mullets with gay abandon.

Arriving at the hairdresser, I was already feeling a little silly, with images of people walking out of her shop with mullets, looking very miserable while she cheerfully waved them off on their merry way. My sister went through first to have her hair cut and while I waited to be called through to have my hair cut, I quickly sent my cousin a few messages, mostly nonsense, to pass the time. Then, I was summoned.

I went through to the basin to have my hair washed. There wasn't anyone there at the time so I just sat myself down. I sat and pondered how I would break it lightly to the hairdresser that I, being a man of conscience and decency, was not going to sport a mullet. How would one explain the sheer horror of the idea of walking around with long tassels hanging from the back of one's hea-

A strange noise interrupted my thought. It was sort of a combination of a grumble, grunt and a gurgle all in one. I couldn't place the sound and so brushed it off, figuratively speaking. Moments later, I felt a towel being placed on the back of my neck as the hair washer started to get me ready to wash. I sat forward, allowing her to tuck in the towel. She then leaned me back and started washing. I started to think about how some people enjoy getting their hair washed. Personally, I've never been one to really enjoy it. I don't know why but I just don't re-

There it was again! That strange sound! It seemed slightly more familiar this time. I could almost place it, so I decided to listen up in case it happened again. I thought about the possible causes for such an odd sound. It could be the drain, maybe not draining properly...

Then it happened again and this time I knew exactly what it was. I was horrified and repulsed to realise that it was the washer herself! She was snorting! While washing my hair, she was using the time to ensure that her nasal passages were entirely mucus-free! It was disgusting! To make things worse, given my already silly mood, my immediate response was to giggle! Luckily, I stiffled the giggles and managed to go through the haircut unaffected, apart from the psychological scars naturally.

Once all was done, I headed off with my sister into the very cold, very wet streets of Malverne. When we reached the car, I told her the terrible tale of my hair wash and she too said that the washer had done the same with her! It was really repulsive! So, let it be a warning to all in the public eye, especially hair washers! Don't SNORT while washing peoples hair!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The lighter side of xenophobia

As many people the world over now know, South Africa, once the 'rainbow nation', a haven of tolerance and acceptance, is in the throws of a spate of 'xenophobic' attacks. How much the attacks have to do with actual xenophobia and how much is simply displaced rage at the government for failing to provide the necessary poverty alleviation and housing that they promised, I do not know. It has been really terrible to watch how a small band of disgruntled citizens have completely destroyed the countries image and caused untold suffering to the people that they are attacking.

While all of this has been happening, something that has fallen to the wayside is the reactions of the rest of the population to the violence. Naturally, good people don't make for good news, unless they slip up and get caught doing something bad. But it has really been amazing to see just how the country has opened it's arms to those affected by the violence and has taken them in.

Over the airwaves, there have been public declarations of disgust over the behaviour of the individuals perpetrating this violence, and unusually, there have been no misguided politicians saying that they agree with the xenophobes! (This sort of idiotic thing does tend to happen with South African politics...). It's been refreshing to see that the vast majority of the country actually have their heads screwed on the right way and have shown that they will not tolerate this behaviour!

As well as simple lip service, there have been countless charities and volunteers that have given of their time and money to help the displaced. There are shelters being set up everywhere, for affected peoples to stay, out of harms way. People are volunteering at police stations to help feed and clothe people, as well as help look after children. It has been truely amazing to see that we are not a bunch of ignorant thugs who can't think for ourselves, but are in fact a caring nation who love who we are and are not willing to allow the actions of few to ruin it for the rest of us! Well done South Africa, your actions have made me proud to be a South African and to share this beautiful, amazing place with you, in love.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Crisis? I laugh in the face of crisis!

So, for those who don't know me in person, the last week has been a little harrowing. I've had another setback at the zoo. This really got me mad because I've been trying to work on my masters project now for about a year and a half but I've had to restart the whole thing about 4 times because the zoo kept screwing things up. So, when I found out that there was another problem this week, I nearly lost it completely.

I'd tried to contact the primate curator at the zoo during the week, but had not managed to get a fixed time and date that I could talk to her about the problems that I had. So, on Friday I told her that I would be coming to see her on Saturday and that she must just give me a time that she would be free. So, today, after finishing with my volunteers and locking my car keys into the trunk of my car (another story entirely!), I went to go and meet with her.

Now, it is important to understand that I am not a confrontational person. I am a pacifist to the core, so any form of confrontation freaks me out completely! Thus, this morning, before the meeting, I was incredibly nervous! The situation wasn't made any easier by the fact that I am good friends with the curator as well, so there was the added element of not wanting to start a fight with a friend.

Eventually, I met up with her and we had our meeting. It went fantastically! She agreed to all the conditions that I proposed and then agreed to allow me to draw up and implement my very own enrichment design schedule with the chimps for during the course of my experiment! That last bit totally came out of left field and was particularly amazing because it was something that I had been wanting to do there myself for a very long time!

So now I have not only solved an existing problem that I had, but I've also managed to organise things so that now I have the power to give the animals enrichment as I feel fit, which is perfect for my project! I'm so thrilled!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Riots, mob mentality and rage

I'm sure many of you may have seen things on the news about the current violence in South Africa. It started in the same region that I live in and it has affected me deeply! Having lived here all my life, I always assumed that somehow, South Africa was different to the other African states. We were a nation of enlightened people, who, through the struggles of appartheid, learned the value of human life and the necessity to treat all as equals. However, the behaviour that we are seeing at the moment in this country leads one to believe otherwise.

It is really terrible. Just last night on the news, I saw footage of gangs of men moving from house to house, sending in one man at each house. My dad then explained that that was how they recruited people. The guy goes in and says, either you join us or you die. I was horrified because I knew that that was often done in countries that are in civil war and it suddenly hit me that we were no different to those countries! We were being just as savage as people during the wars in Rwanda, the Congo....

It has really changed the way that I think about South Africa as a whole, and more importantly, it's people. I'm deeply saddened and disappointed. And at the same time, enraged that people can forget what we, as a nation, stand for! The one nation in the world that has truely undergone a radical transformation from a racist, cruel government to democracy! We were the rainbow nation!

This is why I am joining a protest march on Saturday morning in Braamfontein. It will be starting at 09h00 on Saturday the 24th at Marks Park, near Hillbrow, on Empire road. Please, if you are available, come and join the march! This action should not be allowed and will not be tollerated by South Africans! Join us and show that you too care about the country we live in! Bring placards and signs! No weapons! It'll be my first ever protest march!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Need brownie points? Take grandma to the zoo!

On Friday I took my two grandmothers to the zoo. It was something that they had asked me to do a while ago but, as life tends to do, things snowballed and I just didn't have the time to do it. Until Friday that is...

So, after going in to Wits and having a brief social gathering with all of the other behaviour students and my supervisor, I headed off to fetch the aging matriarchs and head off to the zoo. We arrived and headed off into the zoo. Neither of my grannies are particularly fit, given their 70+ year status, so I went off to organise a zoo buggy for us to travel around in.

Zoo buggies are highly over-priced, electrically powered golf carts that the zoo hires out to the aged, the infirm and the down-right lazy. They are really great fun to drive around, but at R70/hour, should be avoided unless one has recently come into a considerable inheritance and lacks the foresight to invest. In hindsight, I suppose that it's not all that expensive for a non-student who is not spending part of every day at the zoo...

Once I'd acquired my zoo buggy (buggy number 9 in fact!), I shot off down the hill to meet my grandmothers, waiting for me on a bench by a pair of central African monkeys. Once I reached them, and we were all on the cart, we began our tour of the zoo. First up, the chimps!

We went up onto the chimp platform and watched them for a while. Both grandmothers were very happy to see the chimps and fired a barrage of questions at me about them, my project and chimpanzees as a species.

I'd like to take this point to inject a little fact that I recently became aware of and which I find very exciting! Apparently, the mapping of the chimp genome has been redone and, contrary to our original estimations of genetic similarity between our species and them, originally thought to be up to 96% in common between the two, the percentage overlap in genetic material has been re-evaluated. It now appears that we share 99.6% of our DNA!

While up on the chimp platform, my one grandmother noticed the orang-utan in the enclosure opposite and insisted that we go and have a look. We headed back to our faithful buggy. It was then that my one gran pointed out the fact that the buggy was a left-hand drive! Which is not the norm for South Africa. None the less, we headed off to the Orang's.

The rest of the day was spent going all over the zoo, seeing the orang-utans, the meerkats, seals, ring-tail lemurs, elephants, sitatungas, snow leopard, yellow, hamadryas and chacma baboons, mandrills, lions and finally the tigers. It was the last exhibit which really made my grandmother's day. The zoo has plenty more animals and I would have loved to take them to see them all, but exhaustion sets in quickly in the aged...

The tiger exhibit had not been altered in any way since the 1970's and was in dire need of being rethought. So, the zoo built them a new one and converted the old one into baboon enclosures. Now, the new tiger enclosure has only recently been completed and neither of my grandmothers had ever seen it. It's a fantastic enclosure, built with a swimming area, loads of grassy hillside for them to romp around on and plenty of trees to climb. But, one of the best features of the enclosure, from the point of view of the public is that the enclosure has three viewing windows, from which the public can view the tigers from approximately 15cm away.

Another amazing feature is the 'Loo with a view'. It's a public bathroom that is built into the side of the enclosure, from which people can view the tigers, as they do their business. The viewing window is not visible to any people however!

So, as we arrived at the enclosure, my one grandmother went off into the bathroom, while I, and the other gran, waited outside, looking into the enclosure. It was just then that one of the bigger tigers in the enclosure decided to visit the window. It performed beautifully! I couldn't have asked for a better moment!

My gran was so amazed by the experience! She'd never been so close to a big cat and had never realised just how big, powerful and beautiful they were up close. It really made her day! Meanwhile, the other one was inside the bathroom and she too saw the tiger at the window and marvelled.

It was so amazing for me to see how special such a moment could be to them! Working in the zoo almost every day, I think that I often fail to remember that not everyone gets to have the experiences that I am afforded. For me, seeing that tiger so close, while definitley one of the more memorable moments at the zoo, was not nearly as amazing as it had been for my grans! I think it goes to show that it's important that we remember just how lucky we are, in all aspects of life and appreciate every blessing we are given.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The green card tastes like chocolate!

Yesterday, as the day was drawing to a close, I was sitting in my lab, trying to look productive in the hopes that, should anyone who actually gave a crap walk in, I might seem to be terribly efficient and hard at work. In truth, my brain had seized up like a poorly lubricated motor and wasn't planning on doing anything vaguely constructive any time soon.

While staring at my computer, contemplating whether it was actually okay to scoot off, seeing as I had nothing left that I could do, I heard a sound coming from the lab opposite mine. This lab is occupied by two of the most fantastic people I know: Sneha, by far the most kind-hearted, gentle soul I have ever met, and Megan, a genius in her own right and about as nutty as a jar of Skippy's.

On this particular evening, it was Megan who was in the lab. She has been working like an absolute slave lately, lecturing at our university to medical students and, at the same time, lecturing at another university entirely, on the other side of town. She was busy packing herself up and getting ready to head off home. I walked in to say hi, and we got chatting.

After a brief discourse over what examples she had used to illustrate some of her points to the medical students (most of which would be considered by most to be wildly inappropriate, such as phantom limb patients experiencing orgasms in both their genitalia and in their phantom limbs!), the conversation somehow ended up on synesthesia.

Now, for those who are normal, and have not memorised some of the more obscure psychological and neurological conditions which exist, synesthesia is a bizarre situation where people have linked senses. For example, in an individual that experiences this, sight and taste may be linked. In such a case, the individual in question will experience a taste when they see a particular colour, as real to them as it is to you when you taste something.

It is thought that the condition arises at a stage of brain development where the brain's neurons grow out and create new pathways. At a later stage, the brain begins to 'prune' some of these connections, severing those that are not needed or and not supposed to be there. The idea with synesthetics is that their brains have failed to sever all of the connections between the sensory centers, leaving links between senses that normally, are not linked.

The point of this diatribe is that during this discussion, I began to realise just how difficult life for a synesthetic must be. Imagine experiencing smells every time that you see something, over and above the already present smells in the air! And the smells wouldn't necessarily be pleasant! Imagine, for example, that every time you saw the colour blue, you tasted bile! And imagine how difficult it must be to try to describe to someone, what an amazing place the world must be when everything you see comes with it's own musical soundtrack that your brain generates and plays to you, as if it were really there. It must be a truely amazing and beautiful curse...

Saturday, May 03, 2008

In memory of Josh

On Thursday, 1 May 2008, Joshua the chimpanzee was euthanized, following a harrowing day and a half of medical attention and emotional trauma.

On Wednesday morning, something happened. There have been various stories that I have heard from different people about what exactly happened, but I'll give you the official story that was published in the newspapers. Two of the adult males in the chimp group at Johannesburg Zoo got into a fight. Unfortunately, as is a common thing in these sorts of scenarios, Joshua was dragged into the fight. I think that why he was dragged in was that, he never really learned to avoid the adults when they fought. If he got scared, he would usually just curl up on the floor, hugging as much straw under him as he could. So, he would probably have been easily accessible to the males who would have readily grabbed him and incorporated him into their displays or even used him as a weapon.

He was found by keepers and, after being removed from the enclosure, was rushed off to the zoo hospital. There vets examined him for injuries and, finding only a few, they suspected a head injury. He was then rushed to Milpark Clinic, a local (human) hospital. There he was x-rayed and eventually went in for a cat-scan to examine the extent of his head trauma. From the scan, it was found that he had multiple fractures to the skull and had swelling of the brain. As a result, he was moved to Onderstepoort Veterinary hospital where he was placed on a respirator as he was no longer able to breathe on his own.

There, sedated, he spend the night, surrounded by zoo staff and his human mother, Althea Guinsberg. The next day, following several tests to look at his brain activity, he was found to be completely brain dead and, around 12:12 pm, I was informed that he had been put down.

Now, I would like to do something that, for me anyway, is somewhat unorthodox. I would like to ask any of you who read this, please, to keep Althea in your thoughts and prayers. She loved Josh very much and, for her, he was her baby. It's just like losing a human child, only, here, it comes coupled with all the guilt of knowing that she was in charge of introducing him to the main group and that as a result of this, she feels his death is on her shoulders. As a friend and a scientist, I know that she's not to blame herself at all! It was a real risk that came with the intro and, had she kept Josh with her for longer, things would just have been harder for him in the long run. So please, think of her.

Goodbye Josh. You were an amazing individual who afforded me some very special experiences and the priveledge of getting to know you. You will always be remembered and missed dearly.