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This scary place

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 - Updated: 12:09 AM


St. Louis Post-Dispatch

I don't mean to alarm you -- well, actually I do mean to alarm you -- but it seems that grizzly bears are learning to use tools.

In Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, in July of 2010, a grizzly bear was observed using a barnacle-encrusted rock as a comb. The bear combed his fur into a mullet and then signed an NHL contract.

No, that part's not true. The bear, according to an actual British scientist named Volker Deecke who wrote up his observations for the journal Animal Cognition, used the rock to scratch his face. What's more, the bear first picked up another rock and checked it out before choosing a second rock that had the proper barnacle encrustration for maximum face-scratching efficacy.

According to The Economist, where I read about this disturbing study, "(C)rucially for the concept of tool-use, the animal's rejection of the first rock it picked up shows a discriminating understanding of what was required to get the right amount of scratching from a comb; which rock, in other words, was the tool for the job."

I am truly alarmed by this study because (a) as I previously have confessed, I have an inordinate fear of grizzly bears; (b) Glacier Bay National Park is a mere 2,300 miles from my house and (c) a grizzly bear using primitive tools will, in a few more evolutionary cycles, be at Home Depot buying power tools.

Like razor-sharp four-inch claws and 42 bone-crushing teeth weren't enough? Now he wants a chainsaw?

Why do scientists do this to us, publishing "data" in "peer-reviewed" journals that seek to expand the frontiers of "knowledge" by scaring people with implied threats like chainsaw-wielding grizzly bears?

These studies fall into the category once described by the humorist Dave Barry as giant, horribly scary stuff you can't do anything about. Aren't we better off not knowing?

Take global warming. The idea that in 100 years, the planet could become darned near uninhabitable is simply too scary to contemplate, particularly if you have grandchildren. The big solution -- major lifestyle changes that would require everyone to use no more energy than, say, Wyatt Earp -- are simply not doable. Smaller solutions seem inadequate.

For many people, this leaves three options: Deny it, ignore it or trust that some genius somewhere will come up with a solution. People in the 19th century were worried about running out of whale oil for their lamps and then -- presto -- along came Thomas Edison with the light bulb. And not one of those pinko squiggly light bulbs, either. Real American light bulbs.

In ignorance is hope.

The night before I read the grizzly bear article in The Economist I read an article in The New Yorker about a Dutch scientist named Ron Fouchier who had deliberately "mutated the hell out of H5N1" -- the bird flu virus.

Then, Fouchier explained, "someone finally convinced me to do something really, really stupid." He squirted the mutated H5N1 into the nose of a ferret, ferrets, like humans, being susceptible to the flu. Then he took nasal fluid from the first ferret and put it into the nose of another ferret, and then nasal fluid from that ferret into another and so forth and so on.

Because ferrets, not to mention people, have no immunity to new viruses, nine squirts of ferret snot later, animals started dying. The virus had mutated into a deadly airborne and contagious form. In theory, at least, nature could do the same thing, and millions of people would die.

Why was this a good idea? Fouchier's argument was that to defeat something, you have to know how it works, and the more scientists who know the recipe, the more likely it is that someone will find some way to defeat it.

Governments, worried about biological weapons, aren't so sure. Scientific journals agreed not to publish his formula. The remaining supplies of his virus were locked in a basement vault. Will it stay there? Will someone who's seen the research leak it? Is there anything I can do about it?

No. Wouldn't ignorance be the rational approach?

To round off my week, I read about a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine that revealed that eating just one additional three-ounce of serving of red meat a day increases my chance of dying early by 13 percent. Eating a hot dog every day, or two slices of bacon, increases my chance of dying early by 20 percent.

I may have the math wrong here, but if you have the Grand Slam breakfast with four pieces of bacon, a hot dog at lunch and a small filet for supper, and you do this every day, there's a 99 percent chance of dying early.

I'd have been happier not knowing that. On the other hand, at least I won't have to deal with bird flu or grizzly bears.

KEVIN HORRIGAN is a columnist

for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


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