The egg shortage points to larger, much more dangerous issues

Lots of price-of-eggs memes in my social media feeds, most of which are pretty stupid because they suggest that the price of eggs is somehow another thing the government has screwed up.

The New Republic has a very good article up by Boyce Upholt that takes a look at the real reason that eggs are so expensive, starting with a look at the weird news coverage of the egg shortage:

Mostly, though, the coverage has pondered one question: Why are eggs so pricey? The answer is relatively straightforward. Yet the egg panic should be raising bigger questions: Might this virus jump to humans, and can anything be done to stop it? These answers are more complicated and may depend on whether we’re willing to give up cheap eggs.

Modern egg farms are less agricultural than sci-fi dystopian. The birds are stuffed into cages that offer less than a single page of printer paper’s worth of space; the cages are stacked, row after row, with some facilities housing more than a million birds. The feed is carefully formulated, the light deliberately manipulated so that the hens are tricked into churning out as many eggs as possible.

For an influenza virus, such barns are paradise. Since the chickens have been engineered to maximize egg production, they’re genetically identical—a buffet of bodies where disease spreads rapidly. The only option for industrial farmers after a bird tests positive, then, is to slaughter every single one in the facility. But the problem goes beyond the size of these cullings. “These birds are immunologically naïve and act as an enormous amplifier of the virus,” virologist Michelle Wille told me last summer. “This obviously means that we have enormous reservoirs for avian influenza … and increases risk for viral transmission. It is with this enormous amplification that we see zoonotic spillover events.”

Mammals generally cannot contract bird flu. Every once in a while, though, evolution allows for a trans-kingdom leap. The pandemic of 1918—the worst in modern history, with a mortality rate 30 times higher than Covid’s—happened after a bird flu virus jumped from Midwestern chicken farms into human populations. Another scary wave of bird flu hit Hong Kong in 1997, when 18 people were infected and six died, a staggering mortality rate. As I noted in my investigation for The New Republic last year, this outbreak was likely prompted by the recent arrival of intensive chicken production in China.

In the years since, the disease has slowly spread across the globe, hitchhiking in the bodies of wild birds, which often show no symptoms. Leaps into domestic poultry were rare; the last U.S. outbreak occurred in 2014. But once the virus hit our farms, it grew more contagious, according to officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This strengthened virus spread from farm to farm until, after a then-record 50 million birds were euthanized, the epidemic was contained.

That number jumped in 2022 to 58 million birds killed because of the avian flu.

One infuriating thing I did not know is how our government subsidizes chicken farmers — usually multi-billion dollar corporations whose farming practices exacerbate the problem:

But to focus only on grocery-store prices is to miss the full costs of eggs. The 2014–2015 crisis cost the federal government $879 million, including indemnities paid to chicken companies. According to one estimate, the ripple effects across the U.S. economy reached $3.3 billion.

This year, with a higher death toll, the government will likely spend more. The big chicken companies, meanwhile, are doing just fine. Cal-Maine recently announced record-setting quarterly profits, which has prompted accusations of price gouging. It does seem fishy that a relatively small drop in egg supply can drive such huge jumps in price, but the real cause is more likely to be the unique economics of eggs. This is a staple product with few good substitutes, which means demand is inelastic; even a small drop in supply forces a big jump in price before buyer behavior will change. Collusion or not, the outcome is the same: The spread of bird flu means you spend more in the checkout aisle and more on tax-funded cleanup, while the big companies reap more profit. What incentive do they have to quash this disease?

It’s not clear how quashable the virus is anyway. Mike Stepion, a USDA spokesperson, told me that the best form of protection is keeping wild birds separate from poultry. Wille, the virologist, agreed—noting that, for obvious reasons, this is hard to do with pasture-raised birds. The “pasture-raised” label does allow farmers to move their birds into barns for their safety, and Flocco said Pete and Gerry’s has asked farmers to do so whenever there is a nearby outbreak. That will inevitably happen more in the coming years.

I love eggs. I’ve always loved eggs. But they are one of the things I’ve given up until the industry comes up with ways to make its business model less cruel to chickens and less dangerous to humanity.

I haven’t given up all animal products. I might still get there. But eggs and chickens strike me as a problem that more of us should be worried about, even if we’re not inclined to be animal rights activists.

The abysmal conditions at most large chicken farming operations mean that avian flu will strike and require killing tens of millions of birds, and possibly lead to a strain of the virus that could jump to humans and cause the next big pandemic.

When a beloved cat gets a kidney transplant, where does the donor kidney come from?

There are people out there who argue that spending $15K on a pet cat’s kidney transplant — or any pet’s surgical procedure — is morally questionable when society still has so many human beings living in abject poverty and hunger without a place to live.

That is just one of the quandaries presented by Sarah Zhang’s Atlantic article about pet health care costs. It uses cat kidney transplants as a stepping-off point, no doubt because there is a considerably more ethically messy thing about cat kidney transplants that had not crossed my mind before: the way vets get the donor kidneys from otherwise healthy cats:

In the oncology department at [U-Georgia vet school], when pets finish chemotherapy, the staff have a tradition adopted from human cancer wards of ringing a celebratory bell. Back in the ’60s, Weigner points out, your cat wouldn’t have gotten chemo. It probably wouldn’t even have been diagnosed with cancer. More likely, a sick cat would just go off by itself and die. But an owner nowadays can bring their cat in for biopsies, X-rays, and ultrasounds—followed by chemo, radiation, and immunotherapy. The list of options is long, the sums of money to spend very large. You can go to great lengths to treat an ailing pet, even if how far you should go isn’t always so easy to answer.

But among all of these treatments, cat kidney transplantation poses a unique ethical dilemma. The kidney has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere—or do we say someone?—is another cat.

Even among cat people, kidney transplants are controversial. One owner told me she was called a “kidney stealer” by fellow cat owners in a Facebook group for those with pets suffering from chronic kidney disease. In the U.K., the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has explicitly come out against using living donor cats in transplants, arguing that the surgery inflicts pain and discomfort on an animal that derives no benefit. A cat, after all, cannot consent to giving away a kidney.

To be clear, the donor cats are not killed. Like humans, cats can survive with one kidney. When Clare Gregory and his colleagues at UC Davis pioneered cat kidney transplants in the late ’80s, he made sure that owners adopted the donor—a policy that all three hospitals performing cat kidney transplants in the U.S. continue to uphold. No other types of organ transplants are done in cats, because they would involve killing the donor, which the vets and ethicists I talked with universally condemned. (Gregory tried doing kidney transplants in dogs first, but the canine immune system is unusually reactive, leading to kidney rejection.)

Strawberry’s donor was a one-year-old male tabby with a white chin. He was already up and about the morning after his surgery, keen to receive chin rubs; the young and healthy donor cats tend to bounce back faster than the older and sicker recipient cats. He’d be ready to go home with Strawberry’s owner in a matter of days.

As the article notes, it gets even ethically messier because the source of the donor cats is usually one of any number of companies, some of whose stock is traded on Wall Street, who provide lab animals (dogs, cats, mice, rats, etc.) to universities.

So a donor cat has, in one very narrow sense, gotten a golden ticket of sorts. Instead of spending life in a cage in a lab being injected with who-knows-what for its entire miserable life, kidney donor cats usually go on to lead normal lives in loving homes.

But I added the part about Wall Street for a reason.

As history has shown us, these publicly-traded companies will often try to get away with whatever they think they can get away with in terms of shoddy animal care standards, much to the detriment of the animals they breed in often horrific conditions. There are good reasons these companies often place their animal breeding facilities in conservative states with lax animal rights laws.

It will probably be a good day for humanity’s trajectory toward a higher level of civilization when (if?) we reach a point where it’s a settled question that since cats cannot give informed consent, they cannot be used as organ donors.

Commercial animal breeding facilities often keep animals in deplorable conditions.

The New York Times attacks dogs and loves cats

A great many things have outraged me in the last couple months, but this quote in a New York Times article sent me over the edge:

“Dogs were artificially selected hundreds or thousands of years ago based precisely on their capacity to be trained, whether as sheepdogs, hunting dogs or something else,” Sarah Jeannin, a dog behavior expert at the Université Paris Nanterre who was not involved in the new study.

Dr. Jeannin disputed the stereotype that dogs are closer to humans than cats. “People say that dogs are a man’s best friend, that you can trust them and that they are very loyal. But we don’t know what dogs actually think,” she said. “It’s really just projection by us that dogs are in love with us.”

First of all, I would expect this from a French person. If someone would have read me this quote and not told me who said it, I would have followed with, “This is ridiculous. What are they? Parisian?”

With that unpleasantness out of the way, Dr. Jeannin has clearly not read the studies involving dogs, owners and their oxytocin levels. You can find one here. You can find another here. You can find more.

The only reason we can’t say with certainty that our dogs literally “love” us is because they cannot form sentences like, “I am jumping up and down and marking when I see after you’re gone because I love you so much.”

But anyone who’s ever been loved by a dog knows: your dog loves you totally and unconditionally. And no dog lover needs to measure oxytocin levels to know that with every fiber of their being.

I once took in a stray cat that I ended up loving dearly. It was heart-rending when I was in the room with him as Frank the stray cat took his last failing-kidney breaths.

But I was never quite sure that Frank loved me because the only overt behavioral act he regularly displayed toward me was that he always pissed in my shoes and nobody else’s. “You know,” I’d say to my roommates, “I think Frank might be warming up to me because he hasn’t shit in my slippers for two weeks.”

So there, Dr. Jeannin. Take your anti-dog, pro-cat fake news and keep it where it belongs. In France. Which hates perros and has a sad bias in favor of gatos.

Actually, I think that might be Spanish.

But you get the picture.

Nebraska’s GOP Gov. Pete Rickets finally makes himself useful

I’m totally in favor of Pete Ricketts spending his time declaring state animals. Better that than the right-wing shenanigans for which he and his extremist family are known.

Nebraskans now have an official state reptile: the Ornate Box Turtle.

Governor Pete Ricketts gathered with some students on Friday to sign the proclamation.

“With my signature, we (have) now officially proclaimed a state reptile,” said Ricketts in front of a group of students from Arbor Day Park Intermediate School.

These little critters are special because they are the state’s only native terrestrial turtle. You can find most of them in the grasslands and prairies of Western Nebraska.

Ornate Box Turtles have single hinge shells, which allows them to completely enclose their bodies from predators.

“They can almost completely go into their shell,” said Kinzlie Johnson, a 5th grader.

You can even get the turtle on a state license plate here.

WaPo has an amazing story up about that massive beagle rescue

What a remarkable Washington Post story, with remarkable pictures.

The first beagle out that day had brown eyes and a chunk missing from his left ear. His tail was a nub. It went from tan to white, then disappeared, maybe bitten off in a fight or caught in a cage door.

The 1-year-old had never been given a name — just an identification code, ‘CMG CKA,’ tattooed in blue-green on the flap of his left ear. Like the thousands of other beagles bred for research at Envigo, a sprawling complex tucked deep in rural Virginia, he’d spent his entire life in a cage surrounded by the relentless barking of other dogs.

Now, on a Thursday in late July, that was about to change.

Uno, as he was immediately dubbed by his rescuers, and 3,775 other beagles were being sprung from their misery in an unprecedented animal welfare seizure.

After years of alarm from animal rights advocates and state legislators, after U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors found maggot-infested kibble, 300 dead puppies and injured beagles being euthanized, after an undercover investigation by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and after a lawsuit filed against Envigo by the Justice Department, the Indianapolis-based company had reached a settlement with the federal government. It agreed to shut down the Virginia breeding operation — admitting no wrongdoing and receiving no punishment or fines — rather than make what the CEO of its parent company called “the required investments to improve the facility.”

In July, U.S. District Court Judge Norman K. Moon approved the surrender of Envigo’s beagles to the Humane Society of the United States, giving the nonprofit group just weeks to organize the biggest rescue in its 67-year history.

“There’s been nothing, ever, like this. Just the sheer volume of dogs, or really, any animal,” said Kitty Block, the Humane Society’s president and chief executive.

What followed was two months of beagle mania, as people across the country showered the Humane Society with $2.2 million in donations and clamored to adopt the dogs. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle took in a beagle. So did the governor of New Jersey and the chief meteorologist at a Virginia news station.

But the beagle emancipation was cloaked in secrecy. Almost no one was allowed to see the dogs leave Envigo.

Why all the secrecy is never made completely clear. Was it meant to benefit the beagles or protect the horribly company involved?

BTW, Envigo is still breeding lab animals, including beagles. The fact that the people who ran that breeding facility are not in jail shows how far we have to go on even the most basic animal rights issues

Anyway, the entire story is remarkable, except for this part:

The puppy pursuers outside the Humane Society far outnumbered voters at a neighboring polling place for the Wisconsin primary. One man — who arrived at the Humane Society with an injured crow — appeared bewildered by all the people, asking if they were there for one of the gubernatorial candidates.

I love animals as much as (or more than) the next person, but I love humans just as much. And I worry about the future we are leaving innocent children of countless current and upcoming generations.

That people can mobilize to this extent to save beagles (and yay! that they do) but not be bothered to vote, or care enough to reject the proto fascism of the GOP, is a huge problem in this society.

And I’ve got news for GOP-loving animal lovers: the lives of animals are not going to get any better with Republicans in control of your statehouse or the Congress.

Atlantic writer attempts to demystify why some cats purr and others do not — and what purrs mean, exactly

Exactly how and why cats purr is still mostly a mystery. The cats I’ve loved have done it when they’re happy. But that’s not the only time domesticated cats do it, according to this informative article in The Atlantic by Katherine J. Wu.

On the not-so-infrequent nights when I’m plagued by insomnia, no combination of melatonin, weighted blankets, and white noise will do. Just one cure for my affliction exists: my cat Calvin, lying atop my shoulder, lulling me to sleep with his purrs.

For veteran members of Club Purr, the reasons are clear. A purr is warm tea, a roaring fire, and fresh-out-of-the-oven cookies, all rolled into a fleece-lined hug; it is the auditory salve of a babbling brook; it is coffee brewing at dawn. It is emotional gratification incarnate—a sign that “we’ve made our pets happy,” which just feels darn good, says Wailani Sung, a veterinary behaviorist at the San Francisco SPCA.

But purrs—one of the most recognizable sounds in the animal kingdom—are also one of the most mysterious. “No one, still, knows how purring is actually done,” says Robert Eklund, a phonetician and linguist at Linköping University, in Sweden. Nor can experts say, exactly, what purring means. Cats purr when they’re happy—but also sometimes when they’re anxious or afraid, when they’re in labor, even when they’re about to die. Cats are perhaps the most inscrutable creatures humans welcome into our homes, and purring might be the most inscrutable sound they make.

There is, at least, some consensus on what purring is. In the strictest sense, the sound is a rhythmic, rumbly percolation that’s produced during both exhales—as is the case with most typical animal vocalizations—and inhales, with no interruptions between. Purrers also run their motor with their mouths entirely closed, like little feline ventriloquists; the sound simply springs out of the body at a frequency that roughly spans the range between 20 and 150 Hertz. Back in the 1960s, one scientist posited that purring was the product of blood percolating through the vena cava, a vessel that returns the body’s blood to the heart; that notion was later disproved. Now it’s generally understood that the source is the voice box: The brain pings electric signals to the vocal folds, prompting them to flutter open and shut like little muscular doors.

I did not know that there have also been some efforts toward trying to find out if the specific sounds produced by purring cats might have healing properties. After all, many of us have been sick and have discovered the sound of our purring cat next to us actually made us feel and sleep better.

Wu notes in this article that there have been no breakthroughs in research on whether purring has palliative properties based on the tone, resonance, etc. of cat purrs. It might be simply that cat purring makes us feel loved, and in doing so has positive psychosomatic effects that are still difficult to quantify — i.e., to be able to say, as one scientist puts it in the article, “I sat with a purring cat on my broken leg for 15 minutes a day; I healed more rapidly than someone else.”

Are we moving closer to understanding some animals’ languages?

If you watch and love (as much as I do) the Amazon production of “The Boys,” the series about a world populated with deeply flawed superheroes, you’re no doubt familiar with the character called The Deep, the underwater-breathing, talk-to-the-fishies, self-involved numbskull who is pretty, but dim-witted.

The Deep is also wracked by self-doubt, as in this S1E4 exchange with his therapist:

The Deep: I mean, yeah, I can talk to fish. So what? How often do you need to be saved by a school of salmon?

Psychiatrist: Kevin, that’s just not true. Where would that Carnival cruise ship be without you?

The Deep: Yeah, I know.

Deep’s ability to talk to the animals presents him as a sort of perverted aquatic Dr. Doolittle.

That kind of animal-to-human two-way communication may never happen. But thanks to machine learning, we might not be that far off from understanding what some animals are saying to each other, as this New York Times article by Emily Anthes explains:

Machine-learning systems, which use algorithms to detect patterns in large collections of data, have excelled at analyzing human language, giving rise to voice assistants that recognize speech, transcription software that converts speech to text and digital tools that translate between human languages.

In recent years, scientists have begun deploying this technology to decode animal communication, using machine-learning algorithms to identify when squeaking mice are stressed or why fruit bats are shouting. Even more ambitious projects are underway — to create a comprehensive catalog of crow calls, map the syntax of sperm whales and even to build technologies that allow humans to talk back.

“Let’s try to find a Google Translate for animals,” said Diana Reiss, an expert on dolphin cognition and communication at Hunter College and co-founder of Interspecies Internet, a think tank devoted to facilitating cross-species communication.

The field is young and many projects are still in their infancy; humanity is not on the verge of having a Rosetta Stone for whale songs or the ability to chew the fat with cats. But the work is already revealing that animal communication is far more complex than it sounds to the human ear, and the chatter is providing a richer view of the world beyond our own species.

I find it really intriguing that machines might help us to feel closer to animate life, that artificial intelligences might help us to notice biological intelligences,” said Tom Mustill, a wildlife and science filmmaker and the author of the forthcoming book, “How to Speak Whale.” “This is like we’ve invented a telescope — a new tool that allows us to perceive what was already there but we couldn’t see before.”

Studies of animal communication are not new, but machine-learning algorithms can spot subtle patterns that might elude human listeners. For instance, scientists have shown that these programs can tell apart the voices of individual animals, distinguish between sounds that animals make in different circumstances and break their vocalizations down into smaller parts, a crucial step in deciphering meaning.

Interesting article that you can read in its entirety here.

The Deep, who is paradoxically not very deep.