Strange Sports

Via Crooked Timber, I learn that Simon Kuper (author of the excellent Football against the Enemy) has an article in the Financial Times on strange sporting contests involving animals (elephant polo, that kind of thing), which discusses the impressive athletic achievements of Rosa Luxemburg, the Balliol College tortoise…

Tortoise racing, too, has failed to conquer the world. It barely exists outside Oxford University. Each June the university’s leading tortoises race in the garden of Corpus Christi College, spiritual home of the sport. But this year the race was not held due to bad organisation, and last year’s race was spoiled when a student entered in a tortoise costume and declared himself the winner.

Presumably this refers to someone at Magdalen, since the JCR here is very proud of its tortoise costume, and I certainly woudn’t put it past them to disrupt a major sporting contest like this. Vandals.

Corpus’s own reptile died years ago and the college now usually fields an animal borrowed from a tutor. “Various tutors own tortoises, bizarrely enough,” explains Jack Clift, former president of Corpus’s junior common room.

I don’t know which tutor’s tortoise gets borrowed: in the early 1990s, when I used to pay attention, I think the race was a three-cornered contest between the Balliol tortoise, the Corpus tortoise, and the Corpus gardener’s tortoise, who was (if I remember rightly) called Bulldozer.

Like goats, tortoises prefer sex to running. This favours Balliol’s veteran female champion, Rosa Luxemburg. “The tortoises we tend to borrow are male, so she toddles off and the males follow her,” complains Clift.

I hadn’t come across this theory before, and I wonder whether it is true. In fact, I’ve no idea whether Rosa Luxemburg actually is a female tortoise, having very little idea how to sex tortoises. I always thought she used to win owing to her combination of rigorous physical and ideological training provided by an elected official known as Comrade Tortoise, together with her unique diet consisting of the cigarette butts left out on the Garden Quad. But what do I know?”Sex is the whole point of camel wrestling…”, the article continues, at which point I think this discussion should draw to a close.

The Sex Life of the Elephant Seal

It’s always good to have discussions of the sex life of the elephant seal.

Martin writes [31.1.2003]: “The only other mammal thought to travel such large distances are whales.” Surely some mistake? Or is that Virgin Atlantic plane which takes me from Boston to London a figment of my imagination?

Chris replies: Mammals, Martin, mammals.

Martin, again: Am I not a mammal, Chris? Am I not?

News about Elephants

From Whipsnade Zoo:

On 4 December, London Zoo’s elephants were successfully moved to Whipsnade Wild Animal Park following the completion of the Park’s additional new facilities.

As part of the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP), Mya, Layang Layang and Dilberta are now being integrated with the Whipsnade herd to join the conservation effort to save this endangered species. The three elephants have been settling into their new home and getting to know their companions: Whipsnade’s three female elephants Anna, Lucha and Kaylee, and Emmett, the bull elephant.

Moving elephants is a complex business and requires a lot of planning. It all went extremely smoothly and that was down to the expert team involved in the move. Encouraging signs are now being seen as the two elephant groups are integrated. Bonds are being formed between the females, in particular Layang Layang and Anna are becoming great friends.On arrival, the three London Zoo elephants were kept separately from the Whipsnade herd but as the new elephants were so calm, introductions to the resident females began soon after. To ensure that introductions went well, staff had to take into account all the elephants’ different personalities and their status within the two herds. Initially, they had visual contact, and then there were neighbourly greetings over the fence, involving a lot of trunk touching and snorting. Today they are mixed in different combinations as the settling-in process continues.

Whipsnade’s extended elephant facility, which is over seven acres, has five linked outside areas including a huge grass paddock as well as two separate houses. Visitors can see the elephants taking advantage of the many additional facilities designed specially for them. There are two pools, mud wallows and dust baths, as well as rubbing posts, shades for summer and high-level feeders.

As Emmett, the bull elephant, is rapidly maturing the new facilities have been designed to withstand his incredible strength, especially when he is in musth. Emmett has already proven himself as a breeding male, with two of Whipsnade’s original herd due to give birth this year. The new additional facilities have been designed particularly with him in mind as they will have to withstand the force of a 4 tonne elephant moving at 30 miles per hour.

The new Whipsnade herd, which is the largest group of breeding females in the UK, will play an important role in the European Endangered Species Programme as Asian elephants become even more threatened in the wild. With only 20,000 to 40,000 wild Asian elephants left, ZSL’s herd at Whipsnade will help to ensure that this species is not lost forever and will inspire our visitors to join our commitment to the conservation of this fantastic animal.

In memory of Jim Robson, Senior Keeper who was tragically killed at London Zoo in October 2001, some evergreen oaks will be planted at Whipsnade. Jim died working with the elephants he loved and it was felt to be appropriate to plant trees that will provide a supply of ‘browse’ on which future generations of Whipsnade elephants can feed.

It’s nice to know there was a lot of trunk touching and snorting. Good elephants! (Bad elephants, though, for trampling poor Jim Robson to death).

Hieroglyph of Truth

Have you ever wondered how the giraffe is a hieroglyph of truth? Let Charles Fourier explain:

“I shall not say much about the peacock here, since this hieroglyph is difficult to interpret without knowing the laws of Social Movement. Let us turn instead to a figure which is easier to understand, that of truth and its effects in Civilisation. Let us examine whether God has faithfully depicted the sad fate of truth in our social state.

“The hieroglyph of truth in the animal kingdom is the giraffe. Since the characteristic of truth is to surmount error, the animal that represents it must be able to raise his head higher than all the others: this the giraffe can do, as it browses on branches 18 feet above the ground. It is, in the words of one ancient author, “a most fine animal, gentle and agreeable to the eye”. Truth is also most fine, but as it is incapable of harmonising with our customs, its hieroglyph, the giraffe, must be incapable of helping humans in their work; thus God has reduced it to insignificance by giving it an irregular gait which shakes up and damages any burden it might be called upon to bear. As a result we prefer to leave it to inaction, just as nobody will employ a truthful man, whose character runs counter to all accepted customs and desires. Truth is only beautiful in our society when it is inactive, and the giraffe, by analogy, is only admirable when it is at rest: when it walks or runs it provokes jeers, as truth provokes jeers when it takes a practical form. If a man were to go to a party in high society and speak out openly and truthfully about the escapades of the fine ladies there, or about the shady dealings of the businessmen or other men in the salon, there would be an outburst of indignation, and all present would agree in remaining silent about it and reviling the speaker. Matters are much worse in politics, where truth has even less play: thus to represent the way truth is repressed, God has cut the giraffe’s horns down to their roots, so that they are no more than sprouts, permanently unable to branch up into antlers; God’s chisel has cut them off at their base, in the same way as, in our society, the chisel of authority and public opinion has cut down truth to its mere emergence, forbidding it to develop further. Yet even the most deceitful among us still want to seem truthful, and although we are enemies of truth, we want to deck ourselves out in its dress: by analogy, the only thing we want from the giraffe is its dress, its skin, which is extremely beautiful; so when we catch one we treat it rather as we treat truth. We say to it, “Poor beast, you are good for nothing but to remain in the desert, far form the society of man; we may admire you for a little while, but in the end we must kill you and keep only your skin, just as we stifle truth and keep only its outward appearance.”

“From this explanation we can see that God has created nothing without a purpose, even the giraffe which is supremely useless, but as God was obliged to represent all aspects of our passions, he had to use this animal to depict the complete uselessness of truth in Civilisation. If you wish to know what purposes truth will serve in societies other than Civilisation, study this problem in the counter-giraffe, which we call the reindeer, an animal which provides us with every service imaginable: you will see that God has excluded it from these social climates, from which truth will also be excluded for as long as Civilisation lasts.

“And when the societary order has enabled us to become adept at the use of truth and the virtues which are excluded from our lives at present, a new creation will provide us, in the anti-giraffe, with a great and magnificent servant whose qualities will far surpass the good qualities of the reindeer, which so excites our envy and arouses our anger at nature for having deprived us of it.”

From Charles Fourier, The Theory of the Four Movements, edited by Gareth Stedman Jones and Ian Patterson, Cambridge University Press 1996, pp.283-4.