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House with a Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary via Facebook

10 Animal Retirement Homes

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House with a Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary via Facebook

Shelters have a hard time finding adoptive families for elderly pets, animals with disabilities or chronic medical conditions, large animals that need special facilities, and working animals who have outlived their usefulness. Some people have stepped up to provide permanent care for these animals, so that they can live out their lives in comfort and security.    

1. OLD FRIENDS FARM

Many thoroughbreds are born each year, but only a few can be champion racehorses. Of the rest, some become pets and a few will be used for breeding stock, but even they become old eventually. In 2002, the public was shocked to hear that 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand was sent to a slaughterhouse. The Boston Globe film critic Michael Blowen was already trying to raise money to start a thoroughbred retirement farm, and the response to Ferdinand's fate brought in enough donations to open Old Friends in Georgetown, Kentucky. That's where former champion racehorses live out their retirement years alongside thoroughbreds that never raced—160 horses in all. The farm in Georgetown and its other locations in Franklin, Kentucky, and Greenfield Center, New York, are open to the public daily. Pictured above is 1997 Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm, who is now a resident of Old Friends.   

2. CHIMP HAVEN

For decades, the U.S. produced medical breakthroughs with the help of experimental lab animals, including hundreds of chimpanzees. When animal testing began declining, research centers found themselves with a surplus of elderly chimps. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) founded chimpanzee retirement farms, funded through the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection (CHIMP) Act.

Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana, is the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary, home to more than 200 retired research chimpanzees on 200 acres of forest land. The chimps are free to roam, build their own nests, and associate with each other as they please. The staff at Chimp Haven interacts with the chimps to ensure they have veterinary care, complete nutrition, and enrichment.

3. HEARTS THAT PURR

Hearts That Purr Feline Guardians via Facebook

Elderly people worry about what will happen to their cats if something happens to them. In Tucson, Arizona, they know that their pets can be taken in by Hearts that Purr Feline Guardians. The cats that come into their care live in a family environment, but the demand is more than the home can provide. Founder Jeanmarie Schiller-McGinnis began a foster care program to help alleviate overcrowding by placing cats with other elderly people who could use a companion pet. The foster cats remain under the guardianship of Hearts That Purr in case something happens. Some of the cats are available for permanent adoption.     

4. HOUSE WITH A HEART

Dogs of advanced age and dogs with disabilities have a hard time finding homes because they present unique challenges and potential expenses not usually associated with the many younger dogs available for adoption. In 2006, Joe and Sher Polvinale turned their Gaithersburg, Maryland, home into a pet sanctuary for such hard-to-place canines. Joe has since passed away, but Sher continues to run House with a Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary, a retirement home for elderly and special needs dogs. With the help of a team of volunteers, the dogs get proper care and lots of affection.  

5. SHEBA'S HAVEN RESCUE

Sheba's Haven Rescue via Facebook

Sheba's Haven Rescue in Inverary, Ontario, Canada, is both a retirement home and a hospice for dogs. It takes in shelter dogs with incurable illnesses, disabilities, or limited lifespans and offers a loving family environment and palliative care. The resident dogs have three acres to explore, and orthotics, such as wheels, for those who need them. Dogs that are able can visit a local nursing home to spend time with human residents on Wednesdays. Dogs that were considered unadoptable have a permanent home at Sheba's Haven.       

6. THE SHANNON FOUNDATION

The Shannon Foundation via Facebook

The Shannon Foundation is a farm in St. Clair, Missouri, where all kinds of retired pets and farm animals can live out their lives. Current residents of the 100-acre farm include dogs, cats, horses, llamas, pigs, goats, chickens and other poultry, deer, a Fennec fox, and exotic pet birds. Some are special needs pets from shelters, others came when their owners died, and some were rescued from abusive situations. A few of the younger animals—including sugar gliders, emus, and horses, as well as cats and dogs—are available for adoption.  

7. THE CENTER FOR ELEPHANT CONSERVATION

In May of 2016, Ringling Bros. Circus officially retired their last 11 circus elephants to a sanctuary in Florida. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation sits on 200 acres of land between Tampa and Orlando. The facility holds 40 Asian elephants who have either retired from the circus since 1995, or are offspring of retirees.

8. THE ELEPHANT SANCTUARY IN TENNESSEE

Ringling's Florida facility is not the first elephant retirement village in the U.S., nor the largest. The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee has 13 elephants who retired from zoos and circuses and live on more than 2700 acres in Hohenwald, Tennessee.

9. ELEPHANT NATURE PARK

Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand is a retirement home for elephants that have spent their lives working in transportation and heavy lifting, or were rescued from abusive owners. Elephant Nature Park is supported by tourism, and runs various elephant care projects in Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar.

10. BIG CAT RESCUE

People are enamored with the idea of an exotic pet, like a wildcat, but then find that a full-grown wild animal is too much: too expensive to feed, too strong to live with, and in need of too much time and space. Exotic wildcats raised in captivity can't go to a normal shelter and can never be returned to their native habitats.

Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida, provides a permanent shelter for big cats and exotic wildcats that began their lives in captivity. In addition to abandoned pets, they take in cats rescued from roadside zoos, circuses, and other stressful situations. The current population includes lions, tigers, leopards, lynxes, cougars, bobcats, servals, ocelots, and more. Their mission is to give big cats as wonderful a home as possible, but Big Cat Rescue also lobbies against the exotic pet trade and works to educate the public about wildlife issues. They also have a great YouTube channel

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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