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David Savill via Getty Images
David Savill via Getty Images

How Pit Ponies Replaced Children in the Coal Mines

David Savill via Getty Images
David Savill via Getty Images

As cute and cuddly as miniature horses are, their work history is more complex than giving children rides at birthday parties or carting around small carriages. In 1838, the Huskar Colliery coal mine in northern England flooded, drowning 26 children who were working in the depths of the mine as trappers and hurriers. Queen Victoria demanded an inquiry, and within a few years, Parliament passed an act banning children under 10 years old (and women) from working underground as coal miners. Although the Mines Act of 1842 was a boon to child workers, it meant that the mining industry needed a way to replace all those tiny workers. The answer was to greatly increase the number of mini horses, called pit ponies, used to work in the mines. Today’s American Miniature Horses—defined as small yet proportional horses that measure 34 inches or lessdescend from the bloodline of these pit pony coal miners. 

Pit ponies’ strength made them able to pull heavy carts, and their small size allowed them to maneuver in cramped mine conditions. In 1913, as many as 70,000 pit ponies worked underground in Britain’s coal mines. Different breeds were suited to different mining activities. For example, Shetland ponies’ strength, sturdiness, and intelligence made them well suited for carrying coal over rough, uneven terrain, while donkeys and mules were more common in Pennsylvania mines. Likewise, different types of coal necessitated differing work conditions for the ponies. For instance, pit ponies in bituminous (soft black coal) collieries in Wales were stabled above ground and could walk in and out of tunnels constructed on sloping hills. Other ponies that worked to extract anthracite (hard) coal had to be put in a cage and lowered into the shaft mines. Any time all the workers in a particular mine went on strike or took vacation, every pony had to be lifted back up above ground, one by one.

The National Coal Board strictly regulated the use of pit ponies as mine workers, and the British Coal Mines Act of 1911 required that before they could start work, ponies had to be at least 4 years old, examined by a veterinarian, and fit with proper horseshoes. Most ponies worked 8-hour days and were paired up with one miner/handler, so that human and horse could build a trusting, long-term relationship. Although a few reports suggest that some pit ponies were mistreated, the majority of ponies seem to have been treated well. They slept in clean stables, ate a plentiful supply of corn or hay, drank fresh water, and worked fewer hours as they aged (most lived until their late teens or early 20s).


A pit pony in 1920. Central Press // Getty Images

Although technological advances eventually made pit ponies obsolete, the small horses still carried coal in small, private mines in Europe, and in Appalachia in the United States, until the 1950s. In the 1960s, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals worked with the National Coal Board to help find homes for retired pit ponies. Retirement came with its own set of challenges, for pit ponies were unaccustomed to living above ground in "normal" conditions, sans work schedules and handlers. Some of these equine retirees became stressed since they didn’t even know how to graze on grass. However, at least they got to live above ground rather than be sold for horse meat, a humane way for these ponies, who helped generate electricity and power civilization, to spend their last days.

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Animals
Why Tiny 'Hedgehog Highways' Are Popping Up Around London
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iStock

Hedgehogs as pets have gained popularity in recent years, but in many parts of the world, they're still wild animals. That includes London, where close to a million of the creatures roam streets, parks, and gardens, seeking out wood and vegetation to take refuge in. Now, Atlas Obscura reports that animal activists are transforming the city into a more hospitable environment for hedgehogs.

Barnes Hedgehogs, a group founded by Michel Birkenwald in the London neighborhood of Barnes four years ago, is responsible for drilling tiny "hedgehog highways" through walls around London. The passages are just wide enough for the animals to climb through, making it easier for them to travel from one green space to the next.

London's wild hedgehog population has seen a sharp decline in recent decades. Though it's hard to pin down accurate numbers for the elusive animals, surveys have shown that the British population has dwindled by tens of millions since the 1950s. This is due to factors like human development and habitat destruction by farmers who aren't fond of the unattractive shrubs, hedges, and dead wood that hedgehogs use as their homes.

When such environments are left to grow, they can still be hard for hedgehogs to access. Carving hedgehog highways through the stone partitions and wooden fences bordering parks and gardens is one way Barnes Hedgehogs is making life in the big city a little easier for its most prickly residents.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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