You can teach an old dog new tricks; a rabbit can die if you feed it only carrots. Maneka Gandhi demolishes a few popular myths.

Now that one myth has been put to rest — of the world ending on December 21, 2012 — let me attempt to disabuse you of some beliefs that have survived time.

Bats fly into your hair

Bats flying around and tangling with human hair are a staple of horror movies. When I was young, my grandmother used to tell me that we should use mosquito nets when we slept in the garden as bats would fly into our ears. This belief runs across the world. While bats primarily use a form of sonar to navigate through dark areas and avoid obstacles, their eyes, while small, are also completely functional, not to mention the fact that they have excellent hearing and sense of smell. Their agility and echolocation are precise enough to detect and dodge even a single hair or pluck a single tasty mosquito out of the sky. Why would a bat want to dive-bomb your hair and tangle itself up? What does it have to gain — a nest, lice, coconut oil?

Why do bats sometimes fly up-close to humans? Because humans attract insects. Scents and shampoos and light clothes attract even more. And bats love to eat mosquitoes. So if bats will get near your head, it’s just that with that amazing sonar we talked about, a bat can swipe a single flying insect mere inches from your face and never even touch you. It’s almost as if they’re swooping down from the night sky to protect us. There is a reason why Batman, as guardian angel of the dark, exists.

Mother birds abandon their chicks if you touch them

If you have ever seen a baby bird under a tree, you will have been told not to touch it as its mother will not take it back. It will be abandoned by its family and die of hunger and cold or be eaten by dogs and cats. As soon as the mother smells a human on it, it’s dead to the family.

The warning is a good one and has probably saved many more chicks than killed them. Most of the times a bird has not been abandoned. It is usually learning how to fly and its mother is away for the moment. It’s a different matter if the bird is completely featherless. Then look for the nest and put the bird back if you can. However, the smell part is purely mythical. Birds hardly use their noses; they rely on their eyes and ears. So whether the bird has been touched by humans or not isn’t terribly apparent to them.

Second, birds don’t really care if humans touch their chicks or not. It doesn’t stop mother birds from feeding or caring for their chicks. They are still bonded to them through good and bad, just like your parents are with you. It was probably started because it was the best way to stop people from touching chicks.

Rabbits love carrots and mice love cheese

Search for a cartoon rabbit — it will be eating a carrot. Carrots are supposed to be to rabbits what bananas are to monkeys. The only thing more certain than a rabbit’s carrot addiction is this: Mice love cheese. If a mousetrap doesn’t have a big triangular wedge of cheese in it, it doesn’t work.

Thousands of rabbits have died from this misconception. If you try to feed a rabbit nothing but carrots, it will die. It’s like giving a human nothing but sugar. If your rabbit happens to like carrots, you still have to ration it. Rabbits feed mostly on hay and green leafy vegetables. If you give a rabbit a carrot with the green top still on it, it will disregard the carrot part and eat just the top.

As for mice and cheese, this is another cartoon-induced myth. Mice have sensitive noses and will decline something as strong-smelling and highly flavoured as cheese. They are actually drawn to foods with relatively high sugar content, such as grains and fruit. Better to use roti in a trap, as most of our villagers know.

How did this myth start? Probably through the cartoon character Bugs Bunny. Like Popeye and his spinach, a way to make carrots more fun for children to eat. One reason may be that cheese in European cupboards hundreds of years ago was always found gnawed into by rats. But that was so because all the other food was locked up: meat was hung and salted and grain stored in jars. It was cheese or starvation.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

It takes two days for a senior dog to learn anything — including his new name. As long as you are patient and loving with the dog, he learns whatever you want him to in a week of just 15 minutes a day. I recently rescued a nine-year-old Labrador with a cataract and a severe kennel cough. He had been locked, beaten, starved for nine years. In one week he knows his new name, sits, stops, eats gently (he used to jump and snarl when fed) lies at my feet while I work and knows the names of everyone in the household. In fact, with approximately 15 minutes of training every day for two weeks, even the most stubborn dog can usually learn how to sit, stay, fetch, and roll over or whatever your heart desires, regardless of age. It’s people — young or old — who have a problem learning anything. 

 Snakes drink milk

The snake is a reptile and lacks mammary glands. It does not produce milk for its offspring. Therefore, snakes do not drink milk naturally. They are water drinkers. Captive snakes used by charmers are kept thirsty for days, especially before Nag panchami. Because of their thirst, they are forced to consume milk to soothe their parched throats as a matter of survival. However, milk is not good for their health, and the kidney and liver get badly affected. If milk is forced down their throat they get pneumonia. Most of them die. About 50,000 snakes die each year during the Nag panchami festival, when people offer milk, congealed butter and sweetened rice to starving snakes.

To join the animal welfare movement contact, gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org

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