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Daily Archives: December 29, 2007

Fur, feathers and scales: offbeat animal stories of 2007

– Heavily-armed police surrounded a bank branch in the Philippines after a jangling alarm alerted them to movements inside it. When all exits but one had been closed off, and the police piled in for the expected showdown with armed robbers, a stray cat sauntered out. It had set off the alarm after getting in through a small hole in the roof. – Among recipients of the spoof "Ignobel" awards for zany science, handed out each year at the time of the real Nobel prizes, was one for a research team which ascertained that hamsters could more easily get over jet-lag when given the sexual impotence drug Viagra. Another winning team tried to find out whether rats could distinguish between Japanese and Dutch when spoken backwards — they couldn't. – A pet cat taken to a veterinary clinic in Australia with dilated pupils, a racing heart and agitated movements, turned out to be high on cocaine and other drugs left around after a party. It recovered. – In Sweden, the risks involved in giving medical treatment to large animals were illustrated when a giraffe collapsed on zoo officials who were trying to anaesthetise it. The boss of the zoo suffered concussion, while the unfortunate giraffe died from its fall. – Hedgehogs are a threatened species on the British mainland, where they notably get run over by cars, but they are far too numerous on the remote Scottish island of Uist, where they eat the eggs of rare birds. When animal lovers got upset about the local practice of culling the prickly creatures, the local authorities simply decided to round them up alive, take them across the water and release them. – Security officials taking part in an anti-corruption drive in Bangladesh were called to the home of a former government minister not to seize ill-gotten luxury goods, but to confiscate an impressive menagerie. Animals kept illegally in the man's home included four deer, seven peacocks, two emus and various other rare birds. – A 17-year-old tame cockatoo at a wildlife sanctuary in England decided that a bowl of chocolate Easter eggs was the real thing, and spent two weeks sitting on them, officials said. – Officials from a town in Australia's tropical north Queensland region suggested that local golfers could try practicing their drives on cane toads — an introduced species that has become a notorious pest. Animal rights defenders were not amused. – Fishery officials in China restocked a river with 13 truckloads of live carp, only to realise that thousands of residents from a nearby city had immediately swarmed to the banks a short way downstream and caught almost all of them. – The rustic image of the traditional sheep-herder took a hit in Greece, when it emerged that a shepherd in the centre of the country had simply trained his flock to follow his car. Getting on in years, the resourceful herder was no longer able to walk alongside the animals. – A bird hunter in the US state of Ohio suffered the indignity of being shot in the leg by one of his own dogs. As he was retrieving a bird, the dog stepped on the trigger of his gun, which was lying on the ground and pointing in his direction. – In a bid to emulate the "Hollywood Walk of Fame" in Los Angeles, dog fanciers in London inaugurated a canine version. Many of the first inductees were in fact fictional creatures, including the film stars Lassie and Fang, the latter from the "Harry Potter" stories. But fans of the Belgian boy detective Tintin, a cartoon character, regretted the omission of his dog, Snowy. – Meanwhile a real-world dog, a Maltese called Trouble, was reported to have been removed from her residence in New York and taken to live at an undisclosed location in Florida. Trouble became probably the richest canine in the world when her late mistress, controversial hotel heiress Leona Helmsley, left her 12 million dollars in her will. The dog's keepers explained that she had received death threats in New York. 

Chavez’s year of heavy knocks

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by Philippe Zygel* Hugo Chavez often vows to KO the "American empire," but it was the flamboyant Venezuelan president who took some heavy punches this year as voters knocked out a pivotal element of his self-styled socialist revolution.Seemingly unstoppable since he was elected in 1998, the former paratrooper suffered several stinging blows over the past month.The most painful was his defeat at a December 2 referendum over reforms he hoped would enshrine socialism in the South American country's constitution, give him broader powers, and allow him to seek reelection as often as he wants.Perhaps the most painful for the populist leader is the fact that many of his supporters stayed away and some, including onetime top ally General Raul Baduel, voted against the proposed constitutional changes.The implications of his defeat went well beyond the oil-rich state's borders."His hopes of becoming the heir of the radical left on the international scene suffered a major defeat," said Edmondo Gonzalez Urrutia, of the Center for Diplomatic and Strategic Analysis in Caracas.Critics have a royal piece of advice for the voluble Venezuelan: "Why don't you shut up?" — the words an exasperated King Juan Carlos of Spain addressed to Chavez during a recent summit in Chile.Fellow members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries were more diplomatic with Chavez during a meeting in Saudi Arabia earlier this month. But attempts by the staunch US foe to convince the cartel to become actively involved in foreign policy floundered in the face of strong opposition by Gulf states, traditional allies of the United States.Chavez suffered another major reverse when he was unceremoniously booted from his role as a mediator between the Colombian government and Marxist rebels.The Venezuelan leader had evidently hoped his help in efforts to release some 45 hostages held by the Colombian insurgents would help polish his international image.The setback was particularly humiliating since it happened upon his return from Paris, where he held highly publicized talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has taken a personal interest in the fate of French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt.Furious with Colombia for dropping him as a mediator, and with Spain for the king's comment, the often impetuous Chavez said he was putting relations with the two countries "in the freezer."Chavez did start off the year on a strong footing following a triumphant reelection with 63 percent of the votes in December.But right now, his stock is pretty low."Unless the king of tactics brings out a rabbit from his hat … he has little chance of regaining credit," said Tulio Hernandez, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela.Yet, Venezuela-watchers believe the controversial president may yet have an ace up his sleeve.And for now, he still has plenty of petrodollars to finance his social programs that have proved highly popular with the impoverished majority in the oil-rich country.