When Animals Attack! was a popular television series in the 1990s that compiled graphic clips of various animals attacking humans – almost glorifying these terrifying unexpected encounters in a way only Hollywood can. The reality is, every year, hundreds of thousands of people all over the world are bitten by animals — most often dog bites, though even the placid pig can attack somebody and kill him.
Animal attacks have been identified as a major public health problem. Injuries caused by animal attacks result in thousands of fatalities worldwide every year. One estimate puts the number of animal bites each year in the USA at two million. Though statistics are hard to come by, a report I came across said that dogs kill some 45 Europeans each year, which translates to an incidence of 0.009 per 100,000 inhabitants. The number of European fatalities due to dog attacks increased significantly at a rate of several percentage points per year between 1995 and 2016. Children, including infants, were common victims, but also middle-aged and the elderly.
For some dog owners, a leisurely walk can turn stressful the moment their canine companion sees another pup walking by. Dogs with what is known as “leash aggression” may bark, growl or lunge at other dogs during walks, setting the scene for a tense and potentially dangerous interaction.
So why do some dogs lash out on the leash while others don’t? Hormones may be partly to blame, according to new research led by the University of Arizona’s Evan MacLean. Although a number of studies have looked at the role of testosterone and serotonin in aggression in dogs and other mammals, those hormones may be only part of the story, according to MacLean’s findings, which are published in a special issue of the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
Pet owners commonly neuter male dogs to help manage levels of testosterone, which has been linked to aggression. And to manage levels of serotonin, which is believed to reduce aggression, some dogs are prescribed SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, the most common type of antidepressants.
Injuries caused by animal bites make up one of the most common types of personal injury claims in many countries. In Malta, over the years, we have had reports of dogs biting people walking in the street, or children at home, or even a policeman who went to the scene of an accident. Incidents like these have often led to civil damages being awarded by the courts in Malta based on the degree of disability and the psychological injuries suffered by the victim. The understanding of the courts is that the owners of a dog are responsible for it and its actions, and the amount of damages may increase if the dog concerned was not on a leash and did not have a muzzle.
The other day, the owners of a pitbull were ordered to pay damages of over €104,000 to a man who suffered permanent injuries when he was attacked by a dog in Cospicua five years ago, when he was 14 years old. The victim was attacked when he was disposing of some carboard boxes near his father’s confectionery.
It is not just bites by domestic animals that attack humans. Worldwide, up to five million people are bitten by snakes every year – the majority in Africa and South-East Asia. Wild animals are an increasing threat as their habitat is reduced and they intrude on towns and cities in search of food.
Thank God in Malta we don’t have wild animals. So we are unlikely to meet a sudden death like King Alexander of Greece, who was killed by a monkey bite; or the self-proclaimed wildlife expert Timothy Treadwell who, together with his girlfriend, was eaten by a bear; or the famous aviator Jean Batten who died of a dog bite.
Whenever the media talks about homelessness, we probably wonder what the fuss is all about. Why is homelessness a problem? In particular, why should it be my problem or yours? Isn’t it Government’s responsibility to take care of the homeless? Well, you’re not wrong, but you’re not right either. Yes, it’s Government’s responsibility to help the homeless. But homelessness is not their concern alone. It’s as much your problem or mine as it is theirs.
That’s because the problem of homelessness goes beyond people not having homes. It also has a significant impact on our economy, public health, and society in general. In short, it affects everyone regardless of their social and economic status. It’s essentially a human tragedy of devastating proportions.
Homelessness knows no barriers; countries all over the world struggle to combat this awful problem. Today, according to the OECD, it is estimated that at least 150 million people across the world are homeless, with a total of 1.6 billion people lacking adequate or appropriate housing. To mention some countries, Nigeria has 24.4 million homeless people, China has 2.6 million, the UK has 365,500, Italy 50,720, and Iceland has 350.
What about Malta? Statistics are hard to come by. The often-quoted figure comes from a YMCA analysis which showed that, between 2008 and 2022, there were 1,456 cases of homeless people due to financial challenges, 706 due to family problems, and 470 who had problems renting accommodation. But it is not clear what the periods of homelessness suffered by the persons concerned were and whether they were single individuals or family units. We do know, however, that 63% were men and the rest women and also that there were 720 minors involved. We do not know whether there were other homeless cases not captured by the YMCA. This is not to mention the plight of homeless migrants.
Recently, Ian Galea of Dar il-Hena Foundation, told The Malta Independent the issue included addiction, domestic violence, mental health, and broken relationships. Dar il-Hena, in collaboration with the Ministry for the Family, Caritas, and the Alfred Mizzi Foundation, is doing sterling work in running three shelters, one of them exclusively for women. Two of the shelters accommodate homeless people for between six and eight weeks, while the other one is a long-term one.
Isn’t it about time that the authorities come up with a proper definition of homelessness, get the NSO to start compiling data and publishing statistics, and keep track of the characteristics of homeless people (gender, age, education, reasons for homelessness, etc)? While the current efforts by the government and NGOs are appreciated, it is also clear that there needs to be a more holistic approach to what Galea described as “six-in-one problem”, that is homelessness which is caused by a combination of factors rather than a single one.
A comprehensive set of policies and solutions could include providing people with support services and community resources to keep their housing and not to become homeless again; helping individuals quickly exit homelessness and return to permanent housing while also being affordable to even those living in deep poverty; healthcare to allow these persons to treat and manage those conditions that limit them from getting a job in the first place; providing accessible job trainings and employment for those living without a home; and making sure that children’s homelessness is not compounded by lack of proper schooling.
Dumbo and friends
Researchers have found that African savannah elephants make vocalisations specific to individuals in their social groups and that the recipients respond to them. In other words, elephants appear to have names for one another. This finding was published on the server BioRxiv.
Elephants have thus become the first non-human animals known to address each other in a manner that does not imitate the receiver’s own call, as dolphins and parrots do. Though other animals do produce so-called “referential calls” in order to identify predators or food, those calls are believed to be instinctive and do not require social learning.
The team recorded 625 elephant calls in the greater Samburu ecosystem in northern Kenya and in the Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. The researchers then identified rumbles specific to 119 individuals by picking out which members of groups of female elephants and their offspring were in a different place from the herd at the time of each vocalisation or approached when the call was made. Using a computer model, the researchers correctly identified the receivers of 20.3% of the 625 recorded calls.
I always suspected that Dumbo was not as dumb as the film made him out to be. OK, he had ridiculously big ears, but that was because he used his ears as wings. I used to pity the elephant for all the taunts and teasing he received from the other elephants. His only true friend, aside from his mother, was a mouse called Timothy – even though it is said that there is animosity between mice and elephants.
Now that I have learned that Dumbo could communicate, I wonder whether all the taunts he received was because he was calling the other elephants “blockhead”, “imbecile”, or “moron”. It could well be, because after all it was he, not the other elephants, who became a star.
Park and stab
It’s not often that criminals cooperate with the Police. I was struck by a report in the local Press that a 22-year-old woman from Marsa, who had an altercation with another woman in Żebbuġ after repeatedly ramming the other woman’s parked Mercedes, decided to try to stab the woman in the town’s police station itself. The Marsa woman parked her Maruti in the reserved space in front of the station and went in carrying her knife.
The episode saved the Police the hastle of going to the scene of the crime, looking for the woman who perpetrated the crime, and arresting her. This apart from the fact that the Police were able to prevent the stabbing and, possibly, a worse outcome. Of course, the Marsa woman was arrested there and then and is now accused of a series of crimes — causing damage to the other woman’s car, driving her Maruti in a dangerous manner and without a licence or insurnace cover, and carrying a knife without a licence.
The anger stored up in certain people and ready to be unleashed on anybody who they think has crossed them is unbelievable. Any ordinary person who rams somebody’s car four times and damages it would apologise profusely and keep quiet. Instead, this woman let her anger boil over, so much so that a Police Inspector objecting to bail being granted, said that “the way she spoke there (at the Police station) raises a fear that she will re-offend or commit other crimes.” Hopefully not, considering that the Marsa woman has a 20-day-old baby that she is still nursing.
What triggered the woman’s anger? Was she angry because some previous event had affected her emotional state and triggered intense rage? Was it because she was worrying or brooding about personal problems she may have? Or was it because the other woman had reported the ramming to the Police? Whatever it was, people need to be aware that they cannot let powerful emotions take charge and make them become aggressive.
We just can’t let any mild irritation, let alone rage, cause us to physically lash out at every person or object that vexes us; laws, social norms, and common sense place limits on how far our anger can take us.
Main photo: Skeeze via Pixabay