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Hannah Keyser

Behind the Scenes at the Ostrich Derby and Cameltonian

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Hannah Keyser

The whole race only took about about 20 seconds. And that was for the camels. The ostrich-drawn chariots took even less time, but it's hard to tell for sure without a really discernible start or finish line. In both races, however, all of the participating animals ran—and ran in the correct direction—and because of that, the Meadowlands third annual Ostrich Derby and Cameltonian was a success.

"Come Saturday, three of them might decide to run the right direction and one might decide to run in circles," animal handler Monte McClurg said last Thursday about the camels, who can reach speeds of 35 mph.

As for the ostriches? “These ostriches are about as trained as an ostrich can be," McClurg said. Which appears to be a low standard for comparison. So the forward motion Saturday evening was something to celebrate; but McClurg understands that even if chaos had ensued, well, that would be its own kind of success.

“We’re here to entertain people, so if it takes us an extra three seconds to get across the end of the track, that’s probably for the better," he said. "That’s three more seconds of entertainment.”

The races, which you couldn't bet on (at least, not "officially," I was told), took place in between the regular harness races Saturday evening at the New Jersey sports complex just outside Manhattan. It was one of two races for the four camels and three ostriches this past weekend, but don't worry about a rough life on the road for these ungulates and ratites.

Each of the 70-or-so camels raised and trained on Hedrick’s Exotic Animal Farm in Nickerson, KS—which is also responsible for the ostriches—only travel to three or four races each year, spending most of their time back at farm. (Although, in December, they do take some time to work the nativity circuit.)

This race featured Snickers, Tantor, and two of their barnmates, although all four were re-branded with more pun-heavy names for the programs. The pack ranged in age from 5 to 10 years old, which is young for camels, who can live up to 40. And each, according to McClurg, has his own gregarious personality.

“Next time someone tells you how mean camels are, you can correct them," he said as Snickers went in for a kiss.

And it's true—the animals were all nuzzles and curiosity on the drizzly media morning. McClurg went so far in his praise of Snickers, who he described as an "honest camel," to say that, "If he was a human, I’d be proud to have him as a son."

The ostriches, however, were unable to join us on the concourse out of concern for their unpredictability. Brains the size of your thumbnail make it tricky to train them to do much besides run relatively straight. And although they can be ridden, at the Meadowlands, the towering flightless birds pulled brightly colored chariots which can be disengaged from their harnesses with a parachute-style quick release at speeds up to 25 mph.

Despite disparaging reports, the three ostriches seemed friendly enough back in the barn, where they shared a single stall. Their wide eyes and permanently down-turned beaks gave them an unshakable disapproving look, but they meandered unafraid towards the crowd of reporters. We were quickly told, however, not to read too much into their apparent interest in us: Handler A.J. Augusto reasoned that they must think the camera clicks were the sound of another ostrich munching some hidden, desirable food.

Check out the videos below for a taste of ostrich and camel racing and keep an eye out—they might be coming to a racetrack near you soon.

All photos courtesy of Hannah Keyser.

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Animals
This Beach Bar for Dogs Has Chicken Beer and Doggie Paddle Races
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After a summer spent playing fetch, sniffing butts, and fulfilling his duty as man’s best friend, your dog could probably use a vacation. There are few places where he’ll feel more welcome than at Monty’s Dog Beach Bar in Croatia. As Reuters reports, this canine-friendly oasis is the only bar of its kind in the Eastern European country.

Monty’s opened a year ago in the coastal town of Crikvenica and has been drawing in four-legged patrons and their owners ever since. While lounging on a sun bed with views of the Adriatic Sea, dogs lap up special "beer" brewed from chicken and vegetables. If they’re in need of something more substantial, the menu also includes ice cream made from bananas, peanut butter, yogurt, and soy milk. Senior dogs even have the option to drink medicinal teas that are supposed to boost fur growth. And if their humans get hungry or thirsty, there’s a full selection of people drinks and snacks to choose from, too.

Earlier in August, Monty’s hosted a day full of beach games that dogs and their owners could take part in together. Fifteen human-canine pairs competed in an event that had them running down a pier, leaping into the water, and swimming 100 meters back to shore. The winner, a four-year-old Samoyed mix named Nimbus, was awarded 15 pounds of kibble and a weekend stay at a nearby hotel.

The day also featured beer, ice cream, and cake-eating contests for dogs who preferred consuming calories to burning them off.

Special menu items for dogs have become a more popular sight at mainstream restaurants in recent years. Non-alcoholic beer for dogs, made from everything from dandelion to beef flavoring, is also easy to find if owners know where to look for it. But for a dog-centric bar experience close to the ocean, you may have to book a trip to Croatia. (Fido will thank you.)

[h/t Reuters]

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Microsoft’s Autonomous Gliders Stay in the Air by Mimicking Birds of Prey
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When designing different ways for vehicles to move, engineers will often look to nature. Animals have had millions of years to evolve locomotion methods that get them where they’re going fast without burning a ton of energy. Now, researchers at Microsoft have chosen the hawk, a master of energy-efficient air travel, as the model for their new autonomous gliders.

As Co.Design reports, the tech company’s “infinite soaring machine” can move through the skies without generating its own propulsion. Instead, it seeks out warms streams of air to provide the upward push, much like a hawk does.

While riding air currents doesn't take up a lot of energy, it does require some sophisticated artificial intelligence. As a substitute for millennia of animal instinct, Microsoft “trained” its glider to fly by plugging it into a video game-like simulator that showed hawks in flight. By repeatedly subjecting the technology to these virtual experiments, researchers eventually developed algorithms capable of recreating the scenes in the real world.

Using onboard sensors, the sailplane can independently navigate the skies without a motor. The gliders are no more than a few feet long, which means they don’t serve much of a practical purpose outside of research. But the aircraft’s simple design is exactly what makes them appealing to engineers.

With less hardware to worry about, they can focus on refining AI software which can be used in different types of autonomous vehicles in the future. And by testing AI navigation in the air instead of on the road, Microsoft gives themselves a much bigger test track to work with.

You can watch the infinite soaring machine take to the skies in the video below.

[h/t Co.Design]

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