Lead Story

According to a January article in the Bangkok newspaper the Nation, handlers at a tourist park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, have toilet-trained two of the seven elephants living there. Accompanying photos showed a five-year-old male elephant sitting on a giant white concrete toilet, then flushing.

Our Animal Friends, Continued

A nongovernmental program in Mozambique is using a team of 24 giant African hamster rats to locate unexploded land mines, according to a December dispatch by Agence France-Presse. The rats, which smell vapors given off by buried explosives, are more efficient and accurate than humans using metal detectors, and compared to mine-sniffing dogs they’re more plentiful, require less affection from their handlers, and don’t get bored as easily; their lighter weight makes them less likely to set off mines. (The same type of rat can also be trained to analyze human saliva samples for tuberculosis.)

Northern Arizona University professor Con Slobodchikoff told the Albuquerque Journal in December that the yips and barks of prairie dogs may constitute a communication system surprisingly close to actual language: different communities of the same species appear to use related but distinguishable dialects, and prairie dogs independently shown the same unfamiliar objects responded with the same newly coined calls.

Recurring Themes: In December a dog belonging to Michael Henson of Springdale, Arkansas, became the latest to inadvertently operate a motor vehicle (it bumped the gearshift of Henson’s idling truck, sending it through the front window of an auto parts store). And in October a dog belonging to Matthew Harper of Klamath Falls, Oregon, became the latest to inadvertently shoot someone (it stepped on a shotgun in a duck-hunting boat, blasting Harper in the arm).

Mainstreaming Sex Workers

Under Germany’s new welfare laws the long-term unemployed must take jobs offered to them by the federal labor agency or risk losing benefits. A January Reuters article reported that despite speculation to the contrary the German government, which legalized prostitution in 2002, would not be offering sex-industry jobs to anyone who hadn’t mentioned an interest in the field.

Recent Alarming Headlines

“Cleric Suspect Misses Hearing Due to Long Toe Nails” (Reuters, London, January): Radical Islamic leader Abu Hamza al-Masri, charged in Britain with inciting his followers to violence, found walking too painful to make even a video-conferenced court appearance. “Fireworks Explode in Pants, Burn Boy” (New Orleans Times-Picayune, January): An 11-year-old imprudently played with a sparkler after storing extra bottle rockets in his pocket for later. “Cops: Mom Used Hammer on Son Over Homework” (Associated Press, Saint Louis, January): A woman was charged with four felonies for her homework supervision technique, which allegedly also involved pliers.

The Entrepreneurial Spirit

Two women who have recovered from eating disorders opened a restaurant called Sehnsucht (“longing”) in Berlin in December; according to an Agence France-Presse report, it may be the first restaurant in Europe intended to create an environment where anorexics and bulimics can eat without feeling shame. (The owner says portions are “absolutely normal. Neither too little nor too much.”)

The Associated Press reported in January that frog farmers in the village of Bo Talo, Thailand, have responded to a drop in export prices for live frogs by developing a new product: Big Frog brand canned frog. With the Thai poultry industry hurt by concern over avian flu, the farmers are promoting canned frog as healthy and nutritious. The leader of the canning venture summed up the product’s appeal: “If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like your frog fresh, you can have it in a can.”

Least Competent Criminals

Earmon Wilson, 44, walked into police headquarters in Buffalo, New York, in January and confessed to two burglaries in his apartment building, even though he wasn’t a suspect; apparently his conscience was bothering him, which is what he told police in October 1994 when he turned himself in for robbing a local bank.

In Cincinnati in December, Ronald Godfrey, 25, pleaded guilty to participating in a burglary ring led by his brother James Godfrey, but according to a prosecutor James wouldn’t work on jobs with Ronald, saying he was too dumb. In one restaurant burglary Ronald hit himself in the head with a crowbar while trying to pry open a safe but forgot to clean up the blood, which police matched with his DNA.

Paul Hardy, 40, was arrested in Martinsburg, West Virginia, after he allegedly broke into a couple’s home on New Year’s Eve and held the residents at gunpoint for more than an hour while he took $540 plus some guns they kept in the bedroom. Then, noticing a piano, he ordered the husband to play while Hardy sang along. After two songs Hardy asked his captives if they wanted pizza delivered (they said no), then began playing with his gun and describing the special bullets it was loaded with (he said they were the kind that “tear the insides up”). Moments later Hardy accidentally shot himself in the leg, and the residents called the police.

Readers’ Choice

In January Oklahoma state senator Frank Shurden proposed legislation to relegalize cockfighting, which Oklahoma outlawed in 2002. To appease critics Shurden suggested ways to make the blood sport safer: roosters could wear tiny boxing gloves instead of metal blades on their spurs and vests equipped with sensors to record hits, as in fencing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Shawn Belschwender.