Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Somali Wild Ass

Ah, the science fair. For one brief, shining moment each year, we pretend to value our nation's future and those youngsters who will spearhead its technological progress. Once it passes, of course, we get back to the serious business of kicking Consolidated District West's butt at homecoming, and restore the science geeks to their rightful places, which are approximately one tighty-whitey-legnth below the tops of their lockers.

I myself once received a blue ribbon in the local science fair for demonstrating the varying efficacies of handwashing agents, as measured by the growth of bacteria on Petri dishes I had touched following their use. A look at the organization's website suggests this modest effort likely would not prevail in today's ultracompetitive environment; top honors went this year to projects with such titles as "GO distribution in the biofluidome," "Analysis of T-DNA Insertions in the Arabidopsis DAD1 Class III Family Protein," and "The Role of Transient Receptor Potential Vanilloid 1 Channel and Metabotropic Glutamate Receptor 5 in DHPG-Induced Thermal Hypersensitivity in Vivo."

What makes me happy, however, is the simple beauty of a study conducted by one Laura Pilgram, a freshman at the Crossroads School in St. Louis. Miss Pilgram set out to answer the vital question of whether zoo visitors are uncomfortable speaking aloud the words "Somali Wild Ass." Utilizing the nearby zebra enclosure as a control, Miss Pilgram observed parents' reactions on approaching the Somali Wild Ass pen. While all 50 subjects spoke the word "zebra" to their children, only 8 seemed willing to utter the common name of Equus africanus somaliensis. One mother explained that she feared her 19 month-old daughter would "pick up" the word ass: "It's short, and it has three letters, I don't want her taking it to church."

Pilgram is concerned that the word ass--which she points out is only rude as a corruption of arse--dissuades visitors from learning important facts about the Somali Wild Ass. For instance, one might not discover that this Ass is one of three subspecies of African Wild Ass, that this six hundred pound Ass is the smallest of all Wild Ass species, or that the Ass has a highly flexible social structure, ranging from solitary Asses to Ass herds of up to fifty Asses, some herds composed of only male Asses, some of only female Asses, and some of both male Asses and female Asses.

Strong work, young Laura, strong work. You have a bright future ahead of you. If only we could say the same for the critically endangered Somali Wild Ass.


  1. Wild Asses do indeed have a very interesting social structure; I was just reading an article about it at work, as it happens.

    That is a fine experiment.

    If I'm lucky, I'll get another look at our feral Shetland herd tomorrow.

  2. Dude, you should warn people about whether your blog is work-safe. I just saw a picture of some WILD ASS.

  3. West Nile virus made its way to the midwest in the summer of '02 when I was working at the St.L. P-D as the science writing intern. I had written a couple of stories about dead crows and was pestering the very patient people at the health department when they told me that the crow thing was so over and I should start looking for dead horses.

    That's how West Nile work: dead crows, then dead horses, then dead people.

    Sure enough a racehorse at Fairmount had just died from West Nile-related encephalitis. There's a horse vaccine for WNV, and as I was writing the story, my editor asked me to find out if the local "equine celebrities" had been innoculated.

    Indeed, our beloved Clydesdales had gotten their shots, as had the mounted police horses. When I asked the same question of the equine handler at the zoo, our conversation went like this:

    Him: Yes, all our horses have gotten the vaccine, and just to be safe, we also gave it to our zebras and Somali Wild Asses

    Me: Excuse me?

    Him: We also gave it to our zebras and our Somali Wild Asses?

    Me: Your zebras and your what?

    Him (slowly): Our Somali Wild Asses

    Me: (muffled laughter) Hold on, I need a moment (puts phone down, laughs uncontrollably, tries to gain composure, fails, finally pulls it together after about 20 seconds) Your Somali Wild Asses?

    Him: Yes. And yes that is their real name, and yes everybody laughs.

    Me: Thanks so much for you time.

    So, the Somali Wild Asses make it into the paper, and I told everyone that I was psyched that my name would then be forever cross-referenced with "Wild Ass" on Lexis-Nexis and in the PD archives.

    When I left, they gave me a signed picture of the Somali Wild Asses that said, "We'll miss you. Who else would put us in the newspaper?"


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