Sunday, October 24, 2010

An Unnatural Animal Alliance

I was at the Cleveland Regional Council of  Science Teachers Conference a week ago at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.  It was a great location for the conference since many sessions were concerned with animal science. We, as a human species are at a crossroads with animals.

Diane's teacher conference includes topics like exotic animal release and the new elephant exhibit at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

 We have made considerable strides in our treatment of animals.  Our government enacted the Animal Welfare Act in 1966 to guide the treatment and care of animals used in research, for exhibit or sale.  Scientist today employ animals in an ethical and pain free manner.  Likewise zoos consider every aspect of an animal's needs before exhibiting those animals.  In addition, dealers produce records of an animal's care before selling that animal.

However, our relationship with animals has taken a deleterious divergence.  Exotic pets have become the  latest fad in domesticated animals.  Unfortunately, the state of Ohio has some of the most lax laws with regulating the sale and ownership of exotic pets.  Why are suburban home owners allowed to raise and care for dangerous predators like bears, tigers and wolves?  If I had a neighbor who was raising a chimpanzee, I would consider moving.

What motivates exotic pet owners to care for unpredictable predators?  Unfortunately it is due to TV shows with people like Steve Irwin, Austin Stevens and Jeff Corwin.  These animal exploiters depict wild animals in sensational and inhumane settings.  Steve routinely teases the crocodiles or snakes on camera by picking them up by the tail or forcing them to strike him.  In addition, many of the crocodiles seen on his shows are zoo-fed or sedated.  This gives viewers an unrealistic impression of animal behavior in the wild and furthers animal cruelty.

Animal Planet has begun to air a new show called Fatal Attraction.   This show will only incite suburbanites to become exotic pet owners.  Exotic pet owners believe that they are conservationists since the animal's natural habitat is being encroached by humans.  This is an honorable endeavor but many exotic pet owners don't realize that they are endangering nearby residents.  Many exotic pet owners are unaware of the aggressiveness of chimpanzees as they age; or how a bite from an iguana is laden with salmonella (a stitched bite runs the risk of infection if not properly treated with antibiotics).

The keynote speaker at the CRCST conference was Tim Harrison, an exotic animal activist.  For almost ten years, he has been assisting in the recovery of exotic animals that have been released into the environment.  Whenever exotic pet owners become frustrated or unable to continue care for their animals, they liberate the animals in parks, fields or uninhabited spaces hoping for the best.  Tim drives hundreds of miles to rescue these animals because first responders like police or fire personnel are often unprepared to capture these exotic pets.  Moreover, exotic pets can escape like the chimp in Kansas City.  These lost exotic pets become a public nuisance and potentially a menace to humans.  Tim knows first hand how dangerous it is to coral a wild boar piglet, a six foot alligator or a capuchin monkey.

Tim wants educators and parents to know about the misperception that animal TV shows are propagating.  Exotic pets are not meant for domestication like cats and dogs.  They are unpredictable, strong and lethal.  Tim hopes that his movie, The Elephant in the Room brings this message across.

We as humans have made appreciable advancement in the care and treatment of animals used in research and education.  Now, we need to carry that success to the animals found in the wild.  They deserve to have our respect, understanding and to remain undomesticated.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sweet Science

Tim and I usually try to do an activity in the morning before school.  He tends to pick a holiday craft but lately I've been promoting science experiments.  No, he's not looking for a cure for cancer or solving global warming.  I just try to find easy but educational activities that stretch his current understanding of the natural world.
This mason jar contains a ghoulishly purple syrup for rock candy.
Initially when I asked him if he wanted to make rock candy, he asked me when he could eat it.  When I told him it would be a week, he said "skip it."  Undeterred, I decided to start making the sugar syrup to see if I could grab his attention.  Sure enough, he was asking me what I was doing while I was rounding up ingredients.

Most recipes for rock candy have you boiling water in a pan and then adding sugar little by little.  I decided that we would make ours in the microwave.  The only challenge would be to not let the syrup boil over while it was in the oven.  I avoided that by heating the sugar water in minute increments.

While I was heating the cup of water before adding the sugar, I had Tim cut string in twelve inch lengths.  He did an outstanding job using the ruler and clipping the string into the desired length.  We decided to use butcher's twine because of the rough surface which would give our sugar crystals a place to grow.

Once Tim cut six pieces of string, we tied them onto a pencil and let the twelve tails dangle into a quart mason jar.  Meanwhile, I heated the cup of water in the microwave until it was almost boiling.  Then Tim added a cup of sugar to the water and stirred it until dissolved.  It was interesting listening to his dialogue about the syrup.  He like seeing the bubbles in the syrup and enjoyed watching the sugar change from white to clear.  Tim has considerable observational skills and is wonderful at describing his experiences.

Next, I added another cup of water to the mixture and heated the syrup till almost boiling.  Then Tim added a second cup of sugar.  He kept asking me "I wonder what this will taste like?"  I appreciated the fact that he was curious and was thinking ahead to the end product.  After the sugar was dissolved, I cautiously heated the syrup (one minute at a time on high power) because I didn't want the mixture to froth over.

For me, the fascinating part of the activity is making a saturated solution.  The syrup needs a longer time to heat up after you add the third cup of sugar.  The sucrose molecules are occupying close quarters and have less water around themselves to stay dissolved.  Tim noticed by the fourth cup of sugar, that the mixture was thick, more opaque and full of bubbles.

Tim's favorite part of the recipe was adding the food coloring.  He kept flip-flopping between orange and purple (probably because of Halloween this month).  When he chose purple, the sugar syrup ended up looking more like royal blue than a true purple.

Once the syrup was colored we poured it carefully into the quart mason jar without letting the syrup touch the pencil or strings.  Unfortunately, the light weight of the strings caused them to float rather than stay submerged in the syrup.  If we had weighted down the twine, the strings might have remained immersed in the sugar water.  I tried to poke them down with a knife unsuccessfully.

Needless to say, I put a sign on the jar to discourage curious persons from picking it up and shaking the contents.  Saturated sugar solutions will crystalize with any possible disturbance (change in heat, change in movement) so quality rock candy needs to sit for about a week.  This gives the sucrose molecules the opportunity to join together and form monclinic crystals.

The chunky confection takes about a week to form.
It was challenging for Tim to wait the full week for his rock candy.  Although, each day he would look at it and wonder what was happening inside that jar.  I thought it was a great exercise in using his reasoning skills.  When the seventh day came, Tim was thrilled to taste his confection.

It took me a while to get the strings of candy separated from the block of sugar that formed on the bottom of the jar.  Once I did, Tim gobbled up the candy on the first string within seconds.  I think next time we make this recipe, we're going to add some flavoring.  Pure sugar, to me is too cloying.  Sugar needs a little enhancement like cinnamon or the traditional anise.

Our experiment was a sweet success.  Tim got to see some authentic science with sucrose crystals.  He was able to observe and ask thought provoking questions. Yet, most of all, his patience was rewarded with a scrumptious sugary delight.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Northern Exposure

No, I'm not going to write about the infamous TV show, Northern Exposure.  Instead, I want to talk about my dilemma with the adverse growing conditions I experience this summer.  After doing some investigation online, I found out that Akron, Ohio had it's 6th hottest summer this year.  We in addition are experiencing drought conditions.  It's no wonder why I had to water my garden almost every two days this summer.

Another challenge with our garden was its northerly location.  We sometimes only get six hours of sunshine per day.  I wanted to optimize our sun exposure so I moved our vegetable beds this spring.  I was grateful that I did because I got a better harvest this year.  My greatest success was with the grape tomatoes.  I collected about a handful of tomatoes each day and would put them in my salad.  The vines are still producing even with last night's overnight temperature of 45 degrees.  It wont be long before I will have to bring the green ones inside soon.  Check out Iowa State University Extension description on how to ripen tomatoes inside for future use.

Our garden produced numerous grape tomatoes this summer.
Unfortunately, I can't match a garden that faces south like my brother-in-law, Matt.  I envy his garden and have resigned myself to the fact I will never equal it unless we pack up, sell the house and buy a lot across the street.  How about a $200,000 tomato?  That's probably what it would cost me to get the bountiful harvest that south-facing gardeners get.

I still won't give up on my northern exposed garden.  Thankfully, I have convinced Michael that we need to rearrange our plans for a future patio attached to our deck.  I persuaded him to select the western side of the backyard for his charcoal grill.  I want to sway him so that I can use the ground that is under his current grill location.  My master plan is to put in two more garden beds that face east.  Hopefully the eastern side of the backyard encounters enough sun to support potatoes, carrots and swiss chard.  Now I know what it is like to be growing crops under northern exposure.