Interesting If True - Episode 43: Give 'Em The Goat!
Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that’s gone to the dogs… or, other animals really, some goats and a pig for sure.
I’m your host this week, Aaron, and with me are: Shea!
I’m Shea, and this week I learned that during cold winter months, alligators will fall asleep with their snouts sticking through the ice to get fresh air. It is at this point you can safely draw dicks on their noses.
I’m Aaron, and this week I learned that teaching a dog to play fetch is easy, but teaching a pig to play Fortnight pays your rent!
Things have been a little more hectic than usual in interesting land so I thought we could all use a feel-good show. And like all writers with too little time, alcohol, and faith in humanity, I’ve turned to animals. A pig and a couple of jackasses to be specific.
Sadly, this week’s show is exactly one jackass short, so in Steve’s stead I give you the fantastic tail of Canadian war-donkey, Sergeant Bill, Bill -y Goat that is.
Our story begins in August of 1914—which started on a Thursday for Greg and a Wednesday for Julian, saw Charlie Chaplin’s film debut in Making a Living, and that curfluffle in Europe was picking up steam—which brings us to Broadview, a small town in Saskatchewan with a goat.
On August 23rd the soldiers of the freshly formed 5th Western Cavalry Expeditionary Force had stopped in Broadview to pick up some recruits who, while queuing for the train, spotted a little girl with a goat. And wanting it for a good luck charm, and also because it was 1914 and you could just take stuff from people, they took the goat from young Daisy Curwain to make it their mascot.
Sources all agree that Daisy agreed the soldiers could have it, but there’s never any mention of payment or how a group of soldiers from 1914 demanding a little girl give her pet to the war effort might have influenced her willingness to part with Billy. Frankly, I find all of this suspect… pretty sure some dudes stole a goat.
Still, Private Bill was now properly conscripted. He lived and trained with the 5th in Canada and their base in England. Unfortunately, the 5th would soon be deployed to the front and no mascots were allowed in the trenches.
As you can imagine this didn’t sit well with the boys of the 5th who, like many other regiments in both world wars, found a creative way to endanger the life of their dear animal companion.
According to Sergeant Harold Baldwin, author of Holding the Line
“We could not part with Billy; the boys argued that we could easily get another colonel, but it was too far to the Rocky Mountains to get another goat. The difficulty was solved by buying a huge crate of oranges from a woman who was doing brisk trade with the boys. The oranges sold like hot cakes and in a jiffy the orange box was converted into a crate and Billy [was] shanghaied into the crate and smuggled aboard the train.”
So there ya go, now you’re a goat and, just like a naive young aristocrat from Themiscara, you’re lost in a whirlwind of action, intrigue, and warm beer.
The soldiers beer rations–and often their paperwork–were his favorite foods.
Bill would go on to have a distinguished career … for a goat.
More seriously, at Ypres, Bill was found in a shell crater standing guard over a wounded Prussian soldier–despite having his own shrapnel wounds.
Later, in the Second Battle of Ypres Private Bill stood his ground with the brave Canadian soldiers, now famous for not retreating from Germany’s first major deployment of poison gas. Despite what should have been a goat-ending toxic cloud.
For his steadfast valor at Ypres Bill was promoted to the rank of Sergeant in February of 1915 at Neuve Chapelle.
In December of 1915 Sergeant Bill and the 5th took Hill 63 where, sadly, he was reported to have got trench foot… or trench hoof, I guess. Either way, that probably wasn’t ideal.
Later, while taking Hill 70 in April of 1917 he would be shell-shocked during the battle for Vimy Ridge. He was wounded twice at Festubert, where he became a proper hero by saving the lives of three soldiers.
That’s a great goat!
Apparently, goats have pretty sensitive ears, particularly where air pressure is concerned. Or at least that’s what modern knowers of goat stuff attribute his uncanny ability to detect incoming artillery to. While under fire Sergeant Bill heard an incoming shell and saved three soldiers standing where the shell would land by head butting them into their trenches… I mean… he was a goat, not a lot of tools in that box, but he used them well.
He is also credited with capturing three enemy soldiers by cornering them in a trench and… iono, aggressively goating at them until reinforcements arrived.
Ken Bell, who is the exhibits, research and development coordinator at the Broadview Historical Museum where Bill’s body is currently on display said
“My assumption is that the [Canadian] soldiers must have come along later, or else no one would have been able to tell the story,”
It wasn’t all glory for Sgt. Bill. “He was courtmartialed twice,” said Bell. The first time he ate a bunch of important documents, among them were secret plans at the battalion’s personnel roll. His second Court Marhsal worthy offense was
“Apparently at [another] point they weren’t feeding him quite right and one particular sergeant had done something Bill didn’t like and made the sad mistake of turning his back on Bill.”
So, Bell continues, Sgt. Bill “gave it to him” with his horns, which were inscribed with the word “5th”, because Bill was a badass.
“The men dearly loved that goat,” said ken Bell
By war’s end he was a decorated hero, having been awarded the 1914/15 Star, the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal. He even marched with the 5th to Berlin and in the Victory Europe parade in which he wore his embroidered blue plush coat, complete with medals and sergeant’s stripes.
On April 24th of 1919 Bill’s until was demobilized and he returned home to Saskatchewan and eventually, the care of Miss Curwain, now in Winnipeg. Bill would live his remaining years comfortably and following his death he was displayed in the Saskatchewan Legislative Building before finally being returned to the Broadview Museum, where he stands to this day.
- image – http://roadstothegreatwar-ww1.blogspot.com/2015/03/remembering-veteran-sgt-bill-goat-5th.html
Up Next, When Pigs Fli…ght Simulators. Play them. Transition!
Pigs, it turns out, are pretty good at video games. I mean, not monkey-good, that requires thumbs, but insofar as you can expect an animal to tongue a joystick, pigs are where it’s at.
Researches from Purdue University in Indiana, the only thing in Indiana worth knowing about, have shown that pigs are capable of using their snout to operate a joystick, to move a cursor, to solve a problem, to get a treat.
I know, it seems like a lot of steps but as Rebecca E. Nordquist of ScienceAlert says:
This is a complex task. The animals need to understand the link between moving around a joystick and what’s happening on a computer screen, and then link what’s happening on the screen to getting a reward.
Which isn’t nothing. I know humans who can’t manage that.
Seriously, I’ve worked in IT my entire life. There are times when I would have killed to be helping a literal pig.
While this makes for great joke fodder, there is some serious science behind it. The study is part of a growing area of research into animal welfare, specifically, fair animal cognition.
The study, linked here, by Candace C. Croney and Sarah T. Boysen of the Department of Comparative Pathobiology and Animal Science, Center for Animal Welfare Science, at Purdue, called “Acquisition of Joystick-Operated Video Task by Pigs (Sus scrofa)”, tracked the ability of two Panepinto micro pigs and two Yorkshire pigs to complete joystick-operated video-game tasks to gain a reward.
The pigs were required to move the computer’s cursor such that it made contact with a three-, two-, or one-walled target that the game randomly generated. Think of it as solitaire pong without-a-ball or randomly generated breakout. Basically, early Atari games.
Atari for pigs is a different kind of animal :D
The pigs were trained to touch a fake joystick with their snout on command, a process that took about two weeks. From there, the real joystick was used. The apparatus, if you look at your phones, is basically an Atari joystick next to a bowl into which a dog food pellet is vended when the computer accepts the pig has completed the level. Which is all very silly.
There are a few reasons this matters. Some practical, some slightly more heady.
First, we know that pigs are smart critters. They’re dog-level capable of training and commands, and apparently are renowned for their spatial reasoning. Who knew?
What they’re not so great at, apparently, are mirrors and unlike sheep and cows, pigs seem all but incapable of recognizing their piggy friends in photographs. So an interesting mix of spatial reasoning and image processing abilities going into a video game trial.
Now, before we put any porky quarters into the machine, we need to talk about the European Union’s farming practices. By in large, they’re better than ours, let’s just get that out of the way.
More to the point, they’re becoming more automated, mechanized, and in many areas, more humane, spacious, and social.
All of which is good. Automation creates ease of life for farmer and animal alike, while improved living conditions are great for animals and the humans who want to feel less guilty for devouring them.
EU farms are increasingly using automated feeders. Combined with free-range practices this often means the pigs need to active the feeders themselves so we need to know what level of mechanization they’re capable of interacting with as well as at what level of complexity the animals begin to suffer stress.
The other consideration is ethical. The concept of “intrinsic value” or, what is the value in and of itself and outside of its ability to be bacon, does a pig have?
Often this answer comes arbitrarily measured in intelligence or morphologic proximity to humans.
Basically, if it looks too much like us, or is smart enough to make us uncomfortable when we murder it for its flesh, we won’t eat it.
See great apes, dolphins, dogs, parrots, etc. And yes, I know you can get a heaping helping of any of those critters somewhere, but commonly it’s taboo to consider something capable of communicating with sign language or morse code food.
Still, chickens are pretty smart (as, terrifyingly, are most birds) and are by far the most kept animal globally, still, we eat the fuck out of chickens.
In the end, if we can better understand the cognitive functions of the animal we farm we might also be more empathetic and practical in our stewardship of them. So… lets teach animals to play fortnight seems like a great second step.
Piggy gets a high score and a dog kibble!
Our final story is, as promised, the other half of this goat sammich, Nan!
So, goat-y McFlatbread, Nan, was the mascot of the Canadian 21st Battalion. Like other war-goats the plan was to leave Nan with the Quartermaster upon deployment, but as the soldiers loaded into transport, Nan just jumped into the back of a wagon and no one noticed until it was way too late.
Nan marched with the 21st though nearly all of their missions until, during the march to the Somme, the unit’s transport officer got a bur up his ass about the ass eating all the rations and sold her to a passerby for 20 francs. News of the transaction went… poorly. The officer was quickly shown the error of his ways and was dispatched to find the woman and annul the transaction.
Nan saw action in many of the same battles as Bill. And she was the first Allied goat to cross the Rhine.
Nan’s closest brush with death was after the war however. Upon returning to Southampton, England the Board of Agriculture insisted that, as a foreign animal, Nan would need to be slaughtered or deported. The first option wasn’t much of an option as the boys of the 21st weren’t about to let her become curry. After three weeks guarded in quarantine she boarded the ship Carolina with her friends and set off to retire in Canada.
Nan spent the rest of the summer of 1915 on the grounds of Mowat Hospital before being moved to the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario (nice place btw) where she lived in the stables, fat and happy for the rest of her life. Today Nan is remembered in a section of the military museum at The Armouries in Kingston.
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Today I focused on crazy creatures from around the animal kingdom. These aren’t one off hero animals or anything these are entire species that have cool tricks and awesome biological features.
Though these aren’t one off hero animals that doesn’t mean they aren’t built like heroes. So move over mighty mouse we have a new super rodent. Dubbed Thor’s hero shrew after the brawny god of strength in Norse mythology, Scutisorex thori is one of the most bizarre animals on Earth thanks to its super tough, interlocking spine. Found recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the shrew is only the second hero shrew known to science. The first, S. somereni, was found in the DRC in 1910, baffling scientists with a spine never before seen in any mammal.
Most mammals, including us, have about five vertebrae at the base of their backbones, with a few bony projections sticking out on each vertebra, explained Stanley. But the first known hero shrew, S. somereni, has 10 to 11 vertebrae with many more bony projections that lock together, giving it unparalleled power in the animal kingdom. In fact a “fun” party trick locals used to do with the hero shrew was:
“Whenever [the Mangbetu] have a chance, they take great delight in showing to the easily fascinated crowd its extraordinary resistance to weight and pressure. After the usual hubbub of various invocations, a full-grown man weighing some 160 pounds steps barefooted upon the shrew. Steadily trying to balance himself upon one leg, he continues to vociferate several minutes. The poor creature seems certainly to be doomed. But as soon as his tormentor jumps off, the shrew, after a few shivering movements, tries to escape, none the worse for this mad experience and apparently in no need of the wild applause and exhortations from the throng.”
The anecdote is not surprising considering the hero shrew’s reputation among the local Mangbetu people. The Mangbetu wear parts of the hero shrew as talismans, believing the animal’s resilience renders them invisible to spears and bullets—hence its name, hero shrew.
Left is a non hero giant shrew where on the right in the Thor’s hero’s spine!
Scientists are still not completely sure why these shrews evolved in this way but one theory is; in the DRC, insects live under the parts of palm trees where leaves have broken off, leaving a hardened base that looks like a scar. It’s possible that shrews may use their powerful backbones to pry the leaf bases from the trunk and get to the tasty grubs underneath. However no one has seen the shrew actually do this.
Nature is a brutal place, so while nesting, chinstrap and Adélie penguins are reluctant to leave their eggs unguarded in the nest—even to relieve themselves. But one also does not wish to sully the nest with feces. So instead, a brooding penguin will hunker down, point its rear end away from the nest, lift its tail, and let fly a projectile of poo—thereby ensuring both the safety of the eggs and the cleanliness of the nest.
This weird behavior caused some other weird behavior when two intrepid physicists became fascinated by this and were inspired to calculate the answer to a burning question: just how much pressure can those penguins generate to propel their feces away from the edge of their nests? The team of scientists who first addressed the penguin poo puzzle published their results in 2003, in the journal Polar Biology; that pioneering study won the authors an Ig Nobel Prize in 2005 for fluid dynamics. Yes, you heard that right they won an Ig Nobel prize, to celebrate ten unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research, its stated aim being to “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.”
When a new team of researchers revisited the question in 2020, they expanded on the earlier results by recalculating internal pressures inside the penguin’s gut and rectum, correcting for viscosity of the poo, and factoring in air resistance along an arcing trajectory. They then discovered that the forces at work were even more extreme than previously suggested.
Pressure is measured in units called kilopascals (kPa), where 1 kPa is 1,000 newtons per square meter. In the new study, the scientists calculated that the pressure generated in the rectums of pooping penguins was as much as 28.2 kPa — about 1.4 times the estimate in the 2003 study.
“I was surprised by the extremely strong penguin’s rectal pressure,” said lead study author Hiroyuki Tajima, an assistant professor in the Department of Natural Science at Kochi University in Japan.
Though Humboldt penguins stand only 28 inches tall, the scientists discovered that the birds can generate enough poo-propelling energy to send fecal “bombs” flying at speeds of nearly 5 mph, landing up to 53 inches away. This achievement would be comparable to an adult human shooting their feces to a distance of more than 10 feet, to practice I have marked a line outside my bathroom door, my wife isn’t impressed, yet…
While blasting poop jets helps penguins keep their nests tidy, their high-pressure pooping poses an occupational hazard for penguin caregivers in zoos and aquariums, the study authors reported. Their findings therefore have a practical side: helping wildlife experts who care for penguins to establish a foolproof “safety zone,” so they can keep well out of range during the birds’ explosive bathroom breaks.
Another cool penguin fact: nearly three percent of the ice in Antarctic glaciers is penguin urine.
Flying salt shakers of death, though not their scientific name, this nom de plume makes some entomologists quake in their boots. Imagine emerging into the sun after 17 long years spent lying underground, only for your butt to fall off. This fate regularly befalls America’s cicadas. These bugs spend their youth underground, feeding on roots. After 13 or 17 years of this, they synchronously erupt from the soil in plagues of biblical proportions for a few weeks of annoying song and sex. But on their way out, some of them encounter the spores of a fungus called Massospora. A week after these encounters, the hard panels of the cicadas’ abdomens falls off, revealing a strange white “plug.” That’s the fungus, which has grown throughout the insect, consumed its organs, and converted the rear third of its body into a mass of spores. The infected insects go about their business as if nothing unusual has happened. And as they fly around, the spores rain down from their exposed backsides, landing on other cicadas and saturating the soil. “We call them flying saltshakers of death,” says Matt Kasson, who studies fungi at West Virginia University.
Massospora and its butt-eating powers were first discovered in the 19th century, but Kasson and his colleagues have only just shown that it has another secret: It doses its victims with mind-altering drugs. Perhaps that’s why “the cicadas walk around as if nothing’s wrong even though a third of their body has fallen off,” Kasson says. Greg Boyce, a member of Kasson’s team, looked at all the chemicals found in the white fungal plugs of the various cicadas. And to his shock, he found that the banger-wings were loaded with psilocybin—the potent hallucinogen found in magic mushrooms. “At first, I thought: There’s absolutely no way,” he says. “It seemed impossible.” After all, no one has ever detected psilocybin in anything other than mushrooms, and those fungi have been evolving separately from Massospora for around 900 million years.
The surprises didn’t stop there. “I remember looking over at Greg one night and he had a strange look on his face,” Kasson recalls. “He said, ‘Have you ever heard of cathinone?’” Kasson hadn’t, but a quick search revealed that it’s an amphetamine. It had never been found in a fungus before. Indeed, it was known only from the khat plant that has long been chewed by people from the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. But apparently, cathinone is also produced by Massaspora as it infects periodical cicadas.
The team took great pains to check that Massospora really does contain these unexpected drugs. They showed that the substances are found only in the infected cicadas and not in the uninfected ones. They found that the fungus has the right genes for making these chemicals, and contains the precursor substances that you’d expect.
Infected cicadas behave strangely. Despite their horrific injuries, males become hyperactive and hypersexual. They frantically try to mate with anything they can find, including with other males. They’ll even mimic the wing-flicking signals of females to lure males toward them. None of this does them any good—their genitals have either been devoured by the fungus or have fallen off with the rest of their butts. Instead, this behavior only benefits the fungus, allowing its spores to find new hosts.
Kasson suspects that cathinone and psilocybin are responsible for at least some of these behaviors. “If I had a limb amputated, I probably wouldn’t have a lot of pep in my step,” he said. “But these cicadas do. Something is giving them a bit more energy. The amphetamine could explain that.”
Gathering dust in police files is a dossier containing the fingerprints of the most unlikely criminal gang – half a dozen chimpanzees and a pair of orangutans.
Their prints were taken during police raids at the Ape House at London Zoo and at Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire. The operation, by fingerprint experts from Hertfordshire police, took place in 1975 at a time when there was growing concern over unsolved crimes.
They weren’t found to be guilty of any criminal activity, funnily enough. All of this isn’t as absurd as it may sound, though. Steve Haylock, of the City of London police fingerprint bureau, explained the thought process. According to him, the operation took place partly because the police tend to refer to smudged or unclear fingerprints as ‘monkey prints.’
“If you passed a chimpanzee print to a fingerprint office and said it came from the scene of a crime,” Haylock said, “they would not know it was not human.”
In the event, the chimpanzees sat happily enough as their fingerprints were taken; and were not found to have committed any of the crimes that were baffling police at the time (again, unsurprisingly). They thought about also printing the gorillas of the zoo but quickly changed their minds when brought face to face with them. If that was the end of the story, it would have been a fascinating little case study in and of itself, but there’s more to it.
Maciej Henneberg, a biological anthropologist and forensic scientist at the University of Adelaide, said that the marsupials had fingerprints which were so close to those of people that they could easily be mistaken by police.
Back in 1996 while handling koalas in Urimbirra wildlife park, near Adelaide, Mr Henneberg noticed their fingers carried ridged patterns of loops, whorls and arches like those on a human hand. “It appears that no one has bothered to study them in detail,” he said. “Although it is extremely unlikely that koala prints would be found at the scene of a crime, police should at least be aware of the possibility.”
Left Koala Right Human
The loops, the whirls, the fact that the patterns are completely unique to each individual koala… it’s uncanny. The reason why koalas have such prints is still a bit of a mystery to scientists (most tree-dwelling mammals don’t), but they’re here, they’re real, and they’re very, very human. Some have gone so far as to say that, even after closely inspecting them under a microscope, investigators wouldn’t be able to tell human prints from a koala’s. Koala prints, they say, seem to have evolved independently, and much more recently than those of primates, as their closest relatives (kangaroos, wombats and such) don’t have them.
So drop bears could easily become the next master thieves and they have the added bonus of looking cute but being terrifying and chlamydia ridden.
I’m Aaron, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.
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Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.
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