But I Digress

Blog calendar: March 31 | March 18 | March 17 | March 10 | March 8 | March 5 | March 3

posted March 31

It's toad-killing time Down Under

"Toad Day Out" sounds like a children's book.

One might imagine a bowtie-clad amphibian with round glasses bicycling his way through a trying day and ending up learning an important life lesson.

Hardly. In reality, Toad Day Out means something quite a bit more nefarious: It's toad-killing time in Australia.

The first year of what organizers hope to be an annual nationwide festival was designed to help eradicate the infamous cane toad.

On Sunday, thousands of the poisonous cane toads Down Under were put down under. Introduced from South America in the 1930s to eat bugs they never could reach on sugarcane plantations, the toads have long been a nuisance in northern Queensland.

Organizers put together a night to collect the critters that can grow to 8 inches and weigh a pound, and daytime activities including counting, weighing and euthanizing the hated amphibians. The toads spread disease, eat almost anything in sight and produce a toxin that kills would-be predators. A quite nasty invasive species that numbers in the millions.

Politician Shane Knuth came up with the idea to organize the event. He's even rallying to put a price on their heads — 28 cents each — and create a nationwide hunt. As an adult female can lay 20,000 eggs, killing just thousands would mean several million wiped out.

What about the greenies? Australia's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is on board as long as the toads are killed humanely.

Can do, mate. The toads have to be brought in alive and then are frozen or killed in bags with carbon dioxide. The remains to be made into fertilizer for the farmers they've plagued for years.

"This is an example of how the war against cane toads can be won," Knuth said for this story from >The Associated Press.

posted March 18

St. Bernard does breed injustice by requiring human saviors

Barry, perhaps the most famous St. Bernard, was said to have saved 40 to 100 humans who befell trouble near the Swiss Alps pass from which the breed was named.

The huge dogs were depicted in movies and cartoons with a cask of liquor around their necks, supposedly to warm avalanche victims they were so adept at finding.

A vivid childhood memory was a cartoon where one finds a human stuck in snow, opens his casket, pours a drink, downs it and runs away barking.

Duke might be more like that one than Barry. Duke is a St. Bernard owned by Gene Larson of Billings, Mont. — pop. 101,876 — sal-ute!

The 16-month-old pooch needed some rescuing himself after busting out of his yard one evening this month. At some point, he fell through ice on a golf course pond but somehow managed to crawl out. Most likely exhausted, he sat down and promptly froze to the ice. Instant dogsicle, at least his tail.

That's how a maintenance worker found the shivering 118-pounder in the morning. A rescue ensued, complete with firefighters in dry suits and a sledge hammer to break the dog's tail free from the ice.

Duke was treated, and apparently coifed — warmed with a hair dryer — before Larson picked up his "big buddy," who was none the worse for wear. Read the complete report in the Detroit Free Press online editions.

The St. Bernards of Barry's day, 1800-1814, were different than most found today. They had shorter coats, but when many died during a spell of horrible avalanches, lowland breeds were mixed.

The experiment didn't work as the resulting longer fur didn't fare well in icy conditions, kinda like Duke. The history of St. Bernards is much more noble than Duke's story.

Romans crossing the alps into Switzerland around the second century were thought to have brought in Mastiff-type dogs, their ancestors becoming an assortment of Swiss working breeds. By 1,000 A.D., these large herders, drafters and rescue dogs were well-known as "Farm Dogs."

A traveler's hospice was founded by Bernard of Menthon around 1050 A.D. At an altitude of 8,000 feet, the cut that became known as the Great Saint Bernard Pass was treacherous territory; People slipping and sliding and getting whomped by avalanches.

Monks there are thought to have discovered these dogs' great capacity for rescuing travelers, and bred them for the best of those characteristics, like being able to smell humans under snow. They are even said to anticipate avalanches.

By the 1700s, monks' writings show the breed was well-established there. Records before that were lost in a fire.

With huge bodies and a thick, ice-proof coat and well-padded paws to withstand snow, the St. Bernards of St. Bernard are reported to have saved more than 2,000 people in the past three centuries alone.

The dogs would lick the stranded traveler's face to keep them conscious and lay on them to keep them warm. This also came in handy for the monks during their long lonely winters. Hey, watch it.

Of note is that the largest and heaviest dog to ever live was a St. Bernard. At 357 pounds, Benedictine surpassed an English mastiff named Zorba, which at 8 feet, 3 inches long weighed 343 pounds. Most St. Bernards weigh between 120 and 240 pounds.

Their size and history have made them legends, but monks deny the barrel of brandy lore despite perpetuating it by keeping some around for tourist photo ops.

Some depictions of St. Bernards include: Stan Laurel tricking one out of its barrel in the movie "Swiss Miss"; Donald Duck's dog Bolivar; Nanna from "Peter Pan"; "Beethoven" from the movie and sequels; and yes, Stephen King's "Cujo" was a St. Bernard.

Among his rescues, the famous Barry, sometimes spelled Berry, was said to have found a boy on a ledge inaccessible to humans and coaxed him onto his back and to safety. There is monument to the hound in the Cimetiere des Chiens, or Cemetery of Dogs, outside Paris. At the Natural History Museum in Berne, you can find his preserved body today.

The tables turned, or Duke might have found himself in a similar condition, but not on purpose.

posted March 17

It's a sham that St. Paddy drove real snakes out of Ireland

Everybody's Irish today.

Many around the world will wear the green, speak in a brogue and get plastered. Maybe reverse the order of the last two.

It's all in honor of St. Patrick, the guy known for driving the snakes out of Ireland. The country's patron saint, however, remains connected to some misconceptions, the greatest of which might be the snake-driving.

Legend has it that St. Patrick, snakeskin drum in hand, beat it as he traveled through the villages and hills and charmed the snakes out to sea.


Sure, there are no snakes on the Emerald Isle, and probably never were ... for very long.

The cold-blooded reptiles couldn't possibly have survived there, wrote Dr. George Johnson in his column, On Science, that appeared weekly in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In this article, >"How Saint Patrick charmed the snakes out of Ireland," Dr. George points out, among other things, that Ireland was frozen 18,000 years ago, and when the Ice Age ended, there was no way for snakes to get there, any land bridges long gone.

Johnson, a Professor Emeritus of Biology at Washington University, said the same thing as to why New Zealand doesn't have any snakes — they can't migrate over long stretches of water.

Yes, it's science.

Then why is it said that St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland? Hmmm. A little history lesson and some conjecture should help.

Patrick, born to a Roman deacon in Britain around Wales, was 16 when captured by Irish raiders around 400 A.D. He found religion during his 6-year enslavement as a shepherd in County Mayo, Ireland, but he escaped after a vision told him to do just that. After 15 years studying and becoming an ordained priest, another vision sent him back to Ireland to minister Christians there and convert the pagans.

While it's a misconception that he introduced Christianity to Ireland, he laid the groundwork for it to spread. For 30 years he baptized the local yocals, ordained priests and started churches and monasteries. Within 200 years of his death around March 17, 460 A.D., Ireland became the first country fully converted to Christianity, and it was the only country in Europe to Christianize peacefully.

So it is the pagans, who used a serpent as their symbol, who are thought to be the snakes Patrick drove out.

Now to dispell the shamrock theory. St. Patrick was said to use three-leaf clovers to teach the concept of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yet scholars believe this came about centuries later when teaching of his work.

Yet an old pagan prayer still stands when a platter of corned beef and cabbage is served up for the St. Patrick's feast:

Father, son and holy ghost, the one who eats the fastest gets the most.

Believe it or ... well, you shouldn't.

posted March 10

Surfing event held at shark bite capital

Knock, knock, knock.

"Who's there?"

"Land shark."

While that Chevy Chase bit on Saturday Night Live got laughs, this one bites.

LandShark Lager, a division of Anheuser-Busch and partner of Jimmy Buffet's "Margaritaville," is naming sponsor of a surfing competition. The marketing ploy is the LandShark Spring Surfari Pro will be held April 1-5 at the world's shark bite capital.

Let the carnage begin!

Florida's island community New Smyrna Beach — pop. 21,000, sal-ute! — will host the event, which organizers say could attract some 2,000 visitors, and a plethora of medical personnel.

There were 24 shark attacks in Volusia County last year, the highest total since 2001, and most were at the surfing haven that is New Smyrna Beach on the central Atlantic coast.

"Hey, dude, we're competing at New Smyrna."

"Isn't that where Kelly Slater won his first pro title in '88?"


"Didn't Lefty get his nickname there?"

The 100 surfers expected to compete really aren't that concerned, as detailed in this report from Elizabeth Alvarz of the Orlando Fox TV affiliate.

Surfers congregate where the Halifax River flushes out into the Atlantic Ocean on the south side of Ponce Inlet. Sharks also happen to like the area because of the bait fish there.

Capt. Scott Petersohn of the Volusia County Beach Patrol explains that the great waves create murky water, and sharks nibble on surfers' legs dangling down in a case of mistaken identity.

"They bump into something and they bite it," he said, adding that none were limb-threatening last year and most were no worse than dog bites. "I think you have more of a chance of getting run over on A1A or getting food poisoning at a buffet than you do getting bit by a shark."

Now that's marketing. Way to sell the place, Petersohn.

The patrol does alert beachgoers of shark sightings and posts signs. Some surfers are known to be able to read, but most don't heed such warnings.

"You see them every once in a while," avid surfer Jason Rasmussen said of the sharks, "but that's no big deal!"

TV crews are sure to fully staff the event, following the tacit rule, "If it bleeds, it leads."

posted March 8

Honk, honk, watch out below!

There were geese all over the highway late last month near Bald Eagle, Pa., pop. 1,898, sal-ute?

Possibly the first recorded goosestorm occurred Feb. 27 along Interstate 99 near the Bald Eagle exit.

At first thought to be hit by lightning, about 50 Canada geese rained down from the sky, witnesses said.

"We were on our way to Ohio when I saw this blur of something dropping from the sky," Richard Bishop of Tyrone told the Centre Daily Times for >this story. "When we got closer, there were dead geese all over the road in front of us. They were scattered over about 150 yards near where Route 350 breaks off to head to Warriors Mark. None of the geese was moving."

A cleanup and necropsy at nearby Penn State University determined the geese didn't have any telltale signs of burn marks from a lightning strike. The birds' had crushed breastbones and trachea and were most likely the victims of a freak downdraft.

Raining critters isn't anything new. Frogs have been reported to fall down like rain after a smaller tornado picks them up and lets 'em fly.

And all my life I've heard people say it's raining cats and dogs.

Hmmm. I want puppies.

Interesting origin to the naming of Bald Eagle, Pa. The township is located in Bald Eagle Valley at the foot of Bald Eagle Mountain, near the headwaters of Bald Eagle Creek, and the state game and fish site says you can occasionally see a bald eagle there. Go figure.

posted March 5

Coyotes don't need any rescueing!

Some people in Chicagoland, pop. 9.5 million, no sal-ute, are up in arms over an aborted water rescue of, get this, a coyote.

A wild coyote. A pet-eating, child-attacking wild animal. Wild.

Chicago rescue crews were called to ice-covered Lake Michigan when someone spotted a coyote. Sent out a fire department scuba team and a helicopter, and as it hovered overheard, the coyote fell through the ice a half-mile from shore.

Animal advocates were reported as furious that the crews, citing the icy waters and the possibly danger of a wild animal — and they are wild — called off the mission.

>This artice ran in the Chicago Tribune under the headline "Officials say department divers were unprepared to encounter animal; animal advocates dispute that."

The story should have been how much the folly cost taxpayers, who made the call to actually respond and who allowed a copter to take off.

A poll inside the story asked this: "Should rescue crews have tried to save the coyote?"

"Yes" received 48.8 percent of the vote, meaning only 51.2 percent of those responding have much sense.

The real story is why, in this time of fiscal responsibility, did rescue crews budge a muscle? This was an indiscretionary use of taxpayer money. The city's fine shoulders should be slumping.

Coyotes are wild animals. Let's establish that fact. "Coyote attack" in ESPN's search field comes up with 29 outdoors results. There are stories with toddlers being bitten and pets attacked. Coyotes have become more brazen, roaming populated areas in search of food.

Read this post that details controlling metropolitan coyotes. Chicago is one of the hotspots.

Where this latest event occurred is a populated area, not far from Wrigley Field. The waterfront has a sliver of parks, golf courses and marinas, with homes not far away.

While the Tribune story gave too much credence to the "save the critter" folks, some readers comments show there is hope.

Feldspar summed it up best. "A coyote people. That's all. That they even spent the fuel to go out there is crazy."

The fate of the coyote remains in question. So what?

If one rescuer even got so much as a scratch, it would certainly sound ridiculous for the department to explain to his family how it happened. "He was trying to rescue a coyote."

We're people. We take precedence. Get over yourselves.

posted March 3

This story rings as fishy

"It takes a licking and keeps on ticking," was the memorable pitch for Timex wristwatches.

Ads showing them being strapped to a boat's prop or a snow ski showed their ability to survive torture tests. Former newsman John Cameron Swayze's voice and delivery of that line helped sell more than one billion worldwide.

Alas, Swayze's been gone since 1995, but Nokia should consider similiar ads after what happened to English businessman Andrew Cheatle and his cell phone.

Seems Cheatle lost his phone while walking on the beach and it was washed to sea. He was with his girlfriend shopping to replace it when her phong rang. It was him.

Well, not really him, just his phone. Fishermen Glen Kerley found it inside a 25-pound cod he caught. Kerley used the SIM card from the wet, chewed up phone to get in touch with Cheatle, who still uses it the cod-eaten calling device.

"It was working but it kept playing up so I had to get the circuit board changed in the end. But now it's fine," Cheatle told >The Sun for this article. "I know it sounds a fishy tale but it is 100 percent true."

posted Feb. 27

The odds on a herd of albino deer

Guess I should have been taking better notes when my college professor went over genetics, especially after reader Tim Roeschlein sent in this photo:

    Dear ESPN,

    According to www.backwoodswisconsin.com, the odds of seeing three albino
    deer at the same time is 1 in 79 billion.

    I took this photo of four albino deer at the Father Hennipen State Park in
    Isle Minnesota. Any idea what the odds of my photo are?

    Tim Roeschlein

Seems for several years, Tim and wife Karrie have had twin albino deer, a doe and buck, coming to feed at their back porch in Wahkon, Minn. — pop. 314, sal-ute!

The local ABC news crew came to their home and shot >this video.

Tim says he's now seen at least seven albino deer in the area. Others, like Linda Arent, have also seen and photographed the "white ghosts" in the area. Linda was so kind to send along numerous images of the albino deer at Father Hennepin State Park. >(See them, Tim's and some other albino deer here).

Google albino plus the park and you get 509 results. Apparently the park has a herd of breeding albinos.

Now back to Tim's question. What are the odds?

Frankly Tim, I have no idea. If the odds on three are 79 billion, divide that by three and carry the aught, 105 billion to 1? Ok, maybe I should have listened to my statistics instructor as well.

So, I contacted George Mayfield, long-time deer lodge operator who has a graduate degree in wildlife biology from Louisiana State University.

Told him about the albino herd and asked him, "What up with that?"

"It's a freak of nature." Mayfield said. "It's a matter of probability and genetics. It's really part of the evolutionary process. And double recessive genes express themselves in different ways."

Albinism, a congenital disorder brought on by recessive genes, affects pigment, or lack thereof, in eyes, skin and hair. It is a rare, said to be found in 1 in 100,000 deer berths. Both parents must have the recessive gene, and even then there is only a 1 in 4 chance offspring will be albino. Two albino deer, however, will produce albino fawns. Read more about albino deer >from Buck Manager.

Mayfield, 56, said it's not that simple to put a number on something like Tim's photo, because there are just too many variables. Take the Seneca Army Depot's white deer in upstate New York. While not true albinos, a herd of 300 white deer live in a fenced-in area of a former >Cold War compound.

The Father Hennepin albinos could be similarly confined to an area where they can thrive and procreate. They are surrounded by a lake to the north and human development to the south, and there's no hunting in Minnesota state parks.

From the photos, it appears there's thick growth where they can take cover in the summer and snow to hide in during the winter, so the odds must be higher for the albinos to survive coyotes and other predators.

Down on Mayfield's deer property, a 12,000-acre spread on the Mississippi-Alabama border, there has most likely been an albino born at some time. Each of the 77 hunting days over the past 30 years, Mayfield sent out 28 hunters for eight hours — four in the morning and four in the afternoon.

"And they never saw one or reported one," he said of albino deer. "I never missed a day and I never saw one.

"I've never had an albino on my place. The problem with them in the area where I was hunting, when they crossed the property, they were killed as a novelty. They're usually taken out of the population pretty quick."

Sure, and their lack of camouflage and poor vision that accompanies albinism probably made any that were born there easy prey. With deer density of 25 to 35 deer per square mile, Mayfield has obviously come across a load or 12 of deer, and he's seen some oddities, especially piebalds, which are spotted with white.

"We have a fairly regular occurrence of piebald," he said. "Over 30 something years, we've had about 10 encounters with piebalds."

The rarest pigmentation in deer, Mayfield said, is melanistic, the opposite of albinism. Their excessive coloration makes these deer appear all black. There is a an area in central Texas that has more than its share of black deer, and Mayfield, and Gordon Whittington in >this article for North American Whitetail, surmised it has to do with habitat conducive to a black deer surviving.

"An increase in melanin in the pigment, I've never seen that here," said Mayfield, adding there's that bell-shape distribution curve to deer anomalies. "To do anything statistically on that, you have to have a lot of data."

Ok, that takes us back to Tim's original question: the odds on having four albino deer in one photo.

"I'm out my league. If you want to kill something, that's what I do," he said. "I could make up one, but I don't think that's what you are looking for."

Mayfield suggested calling a university and talking to professor of genetics, but I'm not known for listening to them.

Sorry, Tim.

About the author: Mike Suchan has been editor at ESPNOutdoors.com the past three years. He's worked in journalism for 25 years, winning state and regional awards. Email him here.