6 Things to Know About the Super Cute Quokka

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We’ve all seen the photos that made the rounds last year: a furry little critter beams at the camera, at a leaf, at a tourist. From this adorable gallery—which naturally went viral—we can discern two facts: 1) that the furry little critter is called a “quokka”; and 2) that this quokka, whatever that is, must be the world’s happiest animal. It even says so, right there in the photo gallery.

But life is rarely so simple. It may be known for its sweetness, but the quokka has a salty side. What is a quokka, anyway? How do you pronounce its name? And are they really that happy-go-lucky? Read on for a reality check, and the sobering truth behind that smile.

1. Meet the Quokkas

Quokkas are nocturnal marsupials. They’re some of the smallest members of the macropod (or “big foot”) family, which also includes kangaroos and wallabies. The quokka clan makes its home in swamps and scrublands, tunneling through the brush to create shelters and hideouts and emerging at night to find food.

They’re the only land mammal on Rottnest Island, and have become something of a tourist attraction. Quokkas were first described by Dutch sea captain Willem de Vlamingh, who reported finding “a kind of rat as big as a cat.” The squeamish seaman named the quokkas’ island Ratte nest (“rat’s nest”), then sailed away, presumably toward more genteel wildlife.

As for pronunciation, dictionaries offer two options. North Americans usually pronounce it kwo-ka (rhymes with “mocha”), and everyone else says kwah-ka (rhymes with “wokka wokka”). It’s really up to you. Quokkas don’t care.

2. The Quokka Will Cut You

The “world’s happiest animal” is not all sunshine and lollipops. You may not want to hear this, but it’s true. A quokka’s big feet are tipped with very sharp claws. Like much of Australia’s wildlife, the quokka will f*** you up if you give it the opportunity.

Journalist Kenneth Cook learned the hard way when he tried to befriend a quokka along a dirt road. Cook noted the animal’s “small, mean mouth,” but decided it was probably too small to do much damage. “It was a malicious-looking beast,” he wrote in his 1987 book Wombat Revenge, but he wasn’t afraid. He offered the little animal a piece of apple, which the quokka spat out, and a crumb of gorgonzola cheese. The quokka popped the gorgonzola into its mouth, chewed, and then, Cook says, “fell down in a dead faint.” 

Convinced he’d just poisoned the creature and determined to save it, Cook zipped the quokka’s body into his backpack, left a little room for air, swung the pack onto his back, and pedaled his bicycle frantically down the road to find help. After a few minutes of bumping along at breakneck speed, the quokka began to revive, and blearily climbed out of the backpack, claws first. 

Afraid to turn around in case he lost control of his bike, Cook sped onward. The quokka grabbed his neck and began shrieking in his ear. The bike kept going. The shrieking quokka sank its teeth into Cook’s earlobe and hung there, dead weight, like a large, furry earring. Disoriented, the journalist steered his bike off a cliff into the ocean. Surfacing, he looked around and found the quokka standing on the shore, glaring at him and snarling.  

The story seems incredible, but Cook is far from the winsome creature’s only victim. Teddy-bear ears and doe eyes aside, these animals are ready, willing, and able to fend for themselves. Each year, the Rottnest Island infirmary treats dozens of patients—mostly children—for quokka bites

Among themselves, quokkas are primarily a peaceful bunch. Males don’t fight over choice females, food, or water, although they will occasionally scrap over a nice, shady napping spot. 

3. The Quokka Is Using You

Inquisitive, appealing, and fearless, quokkas have adapted to human presence in their environment in admirable fashion. Campsites and condos are all fair game for hungry quokkas, who have become notorious for raiding local homes in search of late-night snacks. Quokka settlements have sprung up around youth hostels and tourist sites—places, in other words, where the canny animals are assured of an easy meal. Cognitive science researchers like Arizona State University’s Clive Wynne have turned the tables on the quokkas by setting up shop in these same sites, knowing the wild animals will play nice. 

On Rottnest Island, the inquisitive critters have made themselves something of a nuisance for business owners. “They wander down the streets and into cafes and restaurants,” Senior Constable Michael Wear told the Daily Telegraph.

They’re not just after our food, though—we also make good entertainment. While tracking a female quokka named Imelda through the brush at night, Bangor University conservationist Matt Hayward realized he was being followed. “I heard footsteps approaching,” he told National Wildlife. Each time Hayward turned off his tracking equipment, the footsteps ceased. Just as his terror reached its peak, he said, “a little head poked out from behind a bush.” His stalker? Imelda.

4. The Quokka Is Kind of a Badass

Think of the quokka as the panda’s polar opposite. Where the panda seems determined to erase its own species from the face of the Earth, the quokka is a gritty survivor, ready to do anything it takes to stick around. 

For example: pandas spend between ten and sixteen hours each day foraging and eating. Why? Because bamboo—which makes up 99 percent of their diet—has almost no nutritional content. Quokkas, on the other hand, divide their time between eating leaves and grasses and snoozing in the shade. When water is scarce, quokkas chow down on water-storing succulents. When the good leaves are hard to reach, they climb trees. The quokka does not settle for useless food.

Both pandas and quokkas are prone to offing their own offspring, but there’s a crucial difference: intention (or lack thereof, in the panda’s case). When pursued by a predator, a fleeing quokka mum will eject her baby from her pouch. Thusly launched, Baby Q flails about on the ground, making weird hissing noises and attracting the predator’s attention while Mama Quokka escapes to live another day. She can, and will, reproduce again. It’s a stone-cold strategy, but it works. 

Panda cubs, those rare and precious million-dollar babies, have been killed when their own mothers accidentally sat on them.

5. No, You Can’t Have One.

Sorry. Wild quokka populations are declining as invasive predators like foxes and cats move into quokka territory. They need to stay in the wild. You can’t have one.

And don’t try to smuggle them, or snuggle them, either: Rottnest Island authorities will slap a $300 fine on anyone caught touching a quokka. Whether the fine is intended to protect the quokkas or their would-be human scratching posts is unclear.

6. So Why Is the Quokka Smiling?

It’s fierce, fearless, and totes adorbs, but is it happy?

Nobody knows. Clive Wynne’s cognitive experiments disproved the long-held assumption that quokkas were “really, really dumb”—an assumption, he said, he found even in scientific literature. The smiley little guys don’t “have any magical cognitive abilities,” he says, “but they’re not stupid. They have the skills they need—honed by evolution over millions of years—to thrive in their natural environment.”

So why are they smiling? Consider Bitchy Resting Face, a condition suffered by several Hollywood A-listers. Consider the great white shark, with its face permanently stretched into a dopey grin. The quokka’s Mona Lisa smile, says Clive Wynne, is “an accident of evolution.” 

He’s the expert, so we’ll take him at his word. But if we were tenacious, tiny furballs with anime-cute faces and vicious claws, we’d be smiling too. 

All images courtesy of Thinkstock.

This Caturday, Watch Two Kitties Duke It Out in the World’s Oldest Cat 'Video'

VladK213/iStock via Getty Images
VladK213/iStock via Getty Images

Yes, Thomas Edison’s invention of the first commercially successful light bulb indisputably altered the landscape of modern technology. But was it really his most important contribution to the world as we know it? This first-ever “cat video,” shot in his Black Maria Studio in New Jersey, suggests the answer is "No.”

In the 20-second short film from 1894, two cats bedecked in boxing gloves and harnesses duke it out inside a tiny ring. According to the Public Domain Review, the cat-thletes were members of Professor Henry Welton’s touring cat circus, which also featured cats riding bicycles and doing somersaults.

The film’s subject matter is actually pretty on par with the level of eccentricity reached in Edison’s other early recordings, which weren’t always animal-friendly. Atlas Obscura reports that he electrocuted an elephant, filmed a trapeze artist undressing, and also captured the first copyrighted film, “Fred Ott’s Sneeze.” In it, Fred Ott sneezes.

The decision to film a couple of kitties seems oddly prescient in the wake of today’s internet culture, where viral cat videos reign supreme. But if you’ve studied ancient Egypt even a little, you know that 1894 was hardly the beginning of our obsession with fascinating felines.

Hopefully, you’re not forcing your own cat to entertain the neighborhood with boxing matches, but are you treating her as well as you could be? Find out the best way to pet a cat here.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog

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iStock.com/Manuel-F-O

According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. Here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

1. Adopting a dog means you won't be supporting puppy mills.

A closeup of a dog's nose sticking out from between green bars.
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If you go to a pet store or to a disreputable breeder to buy that adorable puppy, it's entirely possible that it's from a puppy mill, where dogs are kept in terrible conditions. By adopting a rescue, you can help lower the demand for puppies from puppy mills.

2. You can find almost any breed you want.

A beagle puppy standing on a stone walkway.
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Is your heart set on a specific breed? There's a wide network of breed-specific rescues out there. Just spend a little time online and you can get the dog of your dreams without resorting to buying from puppy mills.

3. Shelter dogs are eager to follow your lead.

A woman holding up her finger to a dog.
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A 2016 study that appeared in Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research analyzed problem solving in dogs in homes (what they called "pet dogs") versus shelter dogs. The researchers found that although pet dogs are better at following human pointing, shelter dogs "seem to be more socially driven to gaze and interact with humans" when compared with pet dogs, which they say is likely due to the shelter dogs' "generally limited and poor-quality contact with humans." But the researchers also pointed out that with increased human exposure, the shelter dogs were trainable.

4. A rescue dog might help you get a date.

Two people from the knees down standing close together with a black and white dog between them.
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According to Slate, one survey found that "82 percent of people [felt] more confident approaching an attractive person if they had their dog with them." Another study cited by Slate found that in the modern world of dating apps, people with dogs look more approachable and happy than those who are dogless.

5. You can share your audiobook collection with them.

A young girl reads a book to her Pomeranian.
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There have been several studies on the best ways to calm dogs in kennels [PDF]. Classical music seems to work well, but a 2016 study found that compared to other "auditory conditions," kenneled dogs were more relaxed while audiobooks were playing. Cesar Milan then did his own tests and found that 76 percent of his volunteer dogs were more relaxed at home while listening to audiobooks—and teamed up with Audible to create a specialized audiobook service. Just be careful: soon your rescue pup will be better read than you.

6. Rescue dogs can transform in dramatic ways in a forever home.

A happy dog with his tongue out sitting in a field of flowers.
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Thanks to those heart-wrenching ASPCA/Sarah McLachlan commercials, everyone is familiar with how sad a dog can appear in a shelter. But once adopted, dogs' attitudes can change dramatically. In 2008, Italian researchers published a paper about a shelter dog named Daisy that they placed into a facility for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Although in the shelter Daisy had groomed so much that she developed a skin lesion, in the six months that she lived at the facility, her over-grooming lessened, she was healthy, and she "displayed no aggressive or sexual behavior, even when in heat." And the calming effect seemed to go both ways: the researchers reported, the people in the facility experienced "many positive effects of Daisy's presence."

7. Shelter pets come with benefits.

A dog running through the grass with an orange ball in its mouth.
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Whether you get your pet at a breed-specific rescue or from a normal shelter, you'll often have access to resources about your fuzzy new family member, and maybe even classes on how best to take care of them.

8. Shelter dogs are typically up-to-date on all their shots.

A vet giving a shot to a golden retriever puppy.
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Depending on the shelter, shelter dogs may already be vaccinated and microchipped (or the shelter will perform these services for a small fee)—which means you can get straight to cuddling your new pet instead of making vet appointments.

9. Shelter dogs may also already be spayed or neutered.

A vet looking into a dog's ear.
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More than half of states have laws requiring "releasing agencies" (a.k.a. shelters) to spay or neuter dogs they adopt out. While the pet sometimes isn't fixed until you adopt it, frequently it's already been spayed or neutered. Check with your local adoption center.

10. By adopting a dog, you're helping to keep the unwanted pet population down.

A lazy bulldog lying on a rug.
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If you happen to adopt a dog that isn't fixed, you can still help prevent pet overpopulation (especially in the wild) by keeping it in the house and away from other unfixed dogs of the opposite sex. (But seriously, get your pets fixed!)

11. Rescue dogs may be easier to housetrain.

A small dog holding a leash in its mouth.
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Many adult shelter dogs are already housebroken when you adopt them. But because the dog may have a history that prevented such training (such as never being allowed inside the house), you shouldn't go in expecting a house-trained pet. If your new pupper isn't house-trained, there are resources out there that can help you reach that goal; many say that adult dogs have an easier time getting the hang of it.

12. Adopt and older dog and you can skip the puppy stage.

A dachshund puppy plays with a shoe outside in grass.
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Yes, puppies are adorable. They're also full of energy and require a lot of time, training, attention, and patience. It can be tough to fit an energetic puppy into a hectic life. Adopting an older dog from a shelter allows you to skip the puppy stage altogether, which can mean an easier transition from not having a pet to being a pet owner. It also (hopefully) means you may avoid having your slippers, running shoes, pillows, furniture, and doors gnawed on by sharp little puppy teeth.

13. If you adopt an older dog, you'll have a better idea of their temperament.

An older dog sitting in the grass with his tongue sticking out.
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An analysis of many studies found that the "personality" of an adult dog is fairly consistent. Puppies, on the other hand, can change personality a fair amount, especially when it comes to "responsiveness to training, fearfulness, and sociability." So by getting an adult dog, you have a better idea of what the animal's personality is truly like.

14. A shelter can help match you with a dog that best reflects your personality.

A red haired woman holding a white dog, both laughing.
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Because adult dogs are generally more fixed in their personalities, many adoption centers have matching programs that help the process of pairing dog and human. The ASPCA claims the programs have dramatically improved successful adoptions at some shelters.

15. You'll feel more involved in the community.

A businessman walking his dog and talking to another dog owner.
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According to a 2013 study, dog owners over 50 who walked their dogs felt a higher sense of community. So adopting a dog can help you connect to your neighbors.

16. A dog can improve your health.

Woman working on her computer getting a kiss on the face from her dog.
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A study of Mexican dog owners versus non-dog owners found that the dog owners felt that they were healthier: "Compared to non–dog owners, the dog owners' scores were significantly lower for psychosomatic symptoms and stress and were higher for general health, vitality, emotional role, absence of bodily pain, social functioning, and mental health."

17. Your kids will play more if you have a dog.

A group of kids petting a dog.
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It's not just adults who experience health benefits from having a dog; another study found that child dog walkers played outside more and were more likely to walk in the neighborhood.

18. Adopting a pet helps small wild animals.

A dog looking for a squirrel up in a tree, but the squirrel is on the other side of the tree.
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As one of the most common predators in human areas, dogs can easily do great harm to local wildlife. By keeping dogs out of the wild (whether that's the city or the countryside), you can help reduce the numbers of truly wild animals that are preyed upon by what are supposed to be pets.

19. Adopting a dog can limit the spread of disease.

A yellow lab staring up at the camera.
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Feral dogs can also have disastrous effects on wild animals in regards to disease. For instance, the black-footed ferret was nearly driven to extinction by canine distemper. By keeping dogs out of the environment and up-to-date on all their necessary shots and vaccinations, adopters help many other animals, too.

20. You could have a movie star on your hands.

A dog wearing a bowtie, standing behind a slate for a movie.
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A surprising number of actual canine movie stars came from shelters. The original Benji was adopted from a shelter; Rudy, one of the 22 dogs that played Marley in the film Marley and Me, was just 24 hours away from being put down before he was rescued; and Spike, the star of Old Yeller, was adopted from Van Nuys Animal Shelter, supposedly for $3.

21. A rescue dog might have experience living in a home, making the move from shelter to your home an easier transition.

A dog on its back on a carpet.
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Some shelters have foster programs, where the dog is sent out to live with a volunteer in an actual house. Not only does this give the dog a chance to be away from the shelter, but it gives the humans looking after the pup a chance to see how the dog reacts in a less controlled environment—hopefully making the future forever home transition easier.

22. Even volunteering to foster has its benefits.

A woman walking a dog in the park.
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If you're not quite ready to adopt, consider fostering, which has a number of benefits for you and for the dogs you're housing. According to one researcher, overweight participants in a "loaner" dog walking program lost an average of 14 pounds because they felt "the dogs need us to walk them." Other participants in a community dog walking program were inspired to increase their exercise even when they weren't walking dogs.

23. You can help shelters modernize.

A chihuahua sitting on a cushion in an animal shelter.
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Shelters across the country are modernizing their facilities—which can sometimes be a very expensive prospect. The adoption fee you pay to the shelter to take your dog home will help the facility get the resources to give future dogs a better shelter experience.

24. By adopting a dog, you're saving at least one life.

A happy dog with its tongue sticking out lying on flowers.
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By giving a dog in a shelter a second chance, you can make sure it has a great life.

25. In reality, you're probably saving more than one life.

A dog running with a stick in its mouth; all four feet are off the ground.
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By adopting a dog, you open up a space in the shelter that can be filled by another future pet. And by supporting your local shelter, you help their mission to save many more.

But remember, a pet of any kind is a massive commitment. Some estimate that "more than 20 percent of people who leave dogs in shelters adopted them from a shelter." And studies have found that much of the problem is people not knowing what they're getting into. So make sure that you have the time and energy to devote to a pet, and do your research before adopting.

This story has been updated for 2019.

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