Me with Garibaldi Rous
The following is my latest exchange with National Geographic Magazine concerning their article on Wild Pets. The first part of this exchange can be found in my post Why I Hate National Geographic Magazine
. The first quoted text is an email I received from them in response to the email I sent. The second quoted text is my response.
I’m writing to you because I was the text editor on the story on exotic pets in this month’s issue. Christy, who was the researcher/fact checker on the article, forwarded me your email and I wanted to get back to you right away to say I’m so sorry you are unhappy with the caption that accompanied your photograph. The wording on the caption went through many versions in an effort both to be accurate and make it fit the tight space, and what appears to have happened, after the initial revision, is that one of our top editors wanted us to locate each photograph geographically by state. When the writer went back in to add your location in Texas, she inadvertently made the mistake of using the verb “bought” instead of “adopted,” and we did not catch the distinction.
We would be happy to print a correction to reflect that.
I want to say that, despite the error, I do think the overall impression any reader would have on seeing your wonderful portrait with Garibaldi Rous would be very positive and affirming of the real affection and connection that come through in the photograph. I think reading your strong and passionate quote in large display type is much more likely to be what readers take away from the spread in the magazine.
Again, please accept our apologies for the error.
Garibaldi with Dr. Sharman Hoppes and a bunch of veterinary students from A&M.
Thank you for your reply to my email. I would appreciate a correction but only if you correct the entire problem. There are two major issues with the extremely short caption which entirely change its meaning. The first is that I adopted Garibaldi rather than purchased him. The second is that I have said that capybaras “tend to die young in captivity,” not that they “die in captivity.” You also eliminated the information about how Gari came to me with known medical issues. The caption as it is pretty much makes me into a capybara serial murderer. I cannot tell you how much I resent that, not just for myself but for all capybara owners and for the owners of other exotic animals.
Domestication is a process. It starts with a wild animal and, after some number of generations, you end up with a domesticated animal. Some species are more likely to be successfully domesticated than others. I believe that capybaras have an excellent chance at being successfully domesticated. Their near cousins, guinea pigs, have been domesticated for thousands of years while another close relative, the chinchilla, has been domesticated more recently. The fact that capybaras are gregarious animals with a basically herd-like social structure in the wild also indicates that they would do well as domestic animals. Wild capybaras sometimes live in close proximity to people and interact with them amicably and voluntarily. The problem is that we do not yet know what it takes to keep these animals healthy in a captive environment. My charity, The ROUS Foundation for Capybara Veterinary Medicine, was formed in conjunction with the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine to try to understand why it is that captive capybaras tend to die young. So far we have uncovered a couple of major care issues. The first is that capybaras, like other members of the cavy family but unlike almost all mammals other than primates, require vitamin C in their diet. A deficiency inf vitamin C results in scurvy, which can range from mild failure to thrive to death. The second is that capybaras are very sensitive to toxins, including many plants commonly found in homes and yards.
But maybe I’m getting off topic. The fact is that we are making progress on domesticating capybaras. And when I say they tend to die young in captivity, I don’t mean that their captive life expectancy is less than that of a wild capybara. Wild capybaras typically die very young, very violent deaths. But we expect more than that from our pets. I do know of a few privately owned capybaras that have lived well into their teens, one even to the age of 18 years, something that has probably never happened in the wild.
The thing I am most disappointed about with your article is that you could have done so much more. The article was long enough to actually explore the issue of exotic pet ownership but you chose not to do that. Instead you went straight to the fear mongering sensationalism that is so prevalent in today’s media. You put a hedgehog, a newly domesticated animal which is wrongly still considered exotic, on the cover and yet the text of the article does not even hint that many common pets have been in domestication for two hundred years or less. Other examples of recently domesticated pets are hamsters, parakeets, gerbils, and chameleons. Until recently, humans did not have the time or resources for the luxury of a pet or companion animal, which is probably why so we have so few species of truely domesticated pets.
Not all exotic pets are big, dangerous, or threatened in the wild. The goal of domestication is not to reintroduce animals into the wild. Neither is it to preserve the genetic diversity of a wild population. The goal of domestication is to produce a domestic animal that can enjoy a long, happy life in the company of human beings and which can thereby improve and enhance our own lives.
Why is it that your article did not touch on this aspect of exotic pet ownership? If you’re having trouble finding someone to write this side of the argument for you, I would be happy to help out.
I doubt it will do any good but at least I have tried.