Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Mama's Boy

That night she had a strange dream. She dreamt that she had a son — a little boy who was probably four or five and whose role in the dream was played by the boy who lived across the street. She loved him dearly, but then his life was cut short (all this happened before the dream started in earnest; her dream self seemed to vaguely remember something about a car accident... a funeral...). Of course she had been devastated. But then a girlfriend informed her of a way that she could bring her son back from the dead. Only, it was not really her son — just his reanimated corpse possessed by a homicidal demon.

When she opened the front door to welcome him back home, he was dressed (as he would be throughout the dream) in a baseball cap, t-shirt and shorts. She could see that his flesh had begun to decompose and that he had dirt from the cemetery behind his ears. But she paid this no mind; she ran up to her son and hugged him so tightly that some of his bones may have snapped. The demon boy remained impassive in her embrace: he never spoke and his eyes had changed — they were somehow perpetually cast in shadow and alternately vacant or glinting with malice.

But she didn't care about any of this; she held him for a good minute sobbing and telling the boy how much she had missed him. Likewise, she put up with his numerous attempts to kill her, which were usually pretty feeble. They proved easy enough to foil if she stayed on guard, and they were quickly forgiven. Once, for example, she had turned her back on him in the kitchen while fixing dinner and when she turned around she caught him brandishing the kitchen scissors which he seemed hell bent on lodging in the base of mommy's skull. As it was, she wrestled the scissors out of his grip, and after they dropped to the floor she admonished him. "Silly boy!" At night she would lie with him in bed next to her, as this helped ease her lingering feelings of loss — reassuring her he was still there. But she could never truly rest. She needed to keep one eye open lest he murder her in her sleep.

She woke with a start. Whereas her dream self had taken it all in stride, she was seriously disturbed. Then, before getting out of bed, she took a moment to ponder why (in all those zombie movies which hadn't been filmed yet) the risen dead always seemed keen on killing the living. Were they jealous? Angry at having their eternal rest disturbed? Or perhaps they had discovered that being dead was great and they just wanted to share the gift?

LINK OF THE DAY: The official website for the novel World War Z includes a Risk Calculator which will tell you your chances of surviving a zombie apocalypse. You may also want to check out the Zombie Survival Guide, also written by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New Orleans' Own Devil Woman

If you ever take a Ghost Tour of New Orleans' French Quarter, you are bound to stop at 1140 Royal Street. This house's notorious past is intertwined with the story of a woman named Madame Delphine Lalaurie (c1775 - c1842).

Born Marie Delphine de Macarty, she was the daughter of Louis Barthelemy, Chevalier de Macarty and Marie-Jeanne L'érable (the widow of Charles Lecomte). The Macartys were a distinguished New Orleans Creole family of French and Irish ancestry. Delphine's cousin, Augustin de Macarty (1774-1844) , served as Mayor of New Orleans from 1815 to 1820, and his term of office coincided with an outbreak of Yellow Fever which peaked in 1817.

In 1800, Delphine married a high-ranking Spanish official named Don Ramón López y Ángullo (Louisiana was under Spanish control from 1763 to 1801). The two had a beautiful daughter named Marie Francoise Borja (called "Borquita") who would go on to marry another distinguished Creole New Orleanian named Placide Forstall. Don Ramón was called back to the Spanish court in 1804, but he died en route in Havana. Four years later (1808), Delphine was remarried to a man named Jean Blanque. She bore him four children before he too predeceased her in 1816.
The twice-widowed Delphine took her third husband in 1823 -- the French-born Dr. Leonard Louis Nicolas Lalaurie, who became one of New Orleans' top dentists. The Lalauries bought the house at 1140 Royal Street around 1831. There the couple became known for their lavish parties, and their salon put them among the most influential figures in the city.

Yet there was another side to Mme. Lalaurie: she developed a reputation among her neighbors for viciously punishing the household slaves. For what it's worth, when I took a ghost tour of the French Quarter, our guide characterized these contrasting reputations as part of the enmity between the Creole New Orleanians and the Anglo American newcomers: to wit, among the Creoles the Lalauries were considered charming and cultured people and thus they dismissed the allegations of cruelty advanced by the Americans.

Then a troubling incident occurred in 1833. As the story goes, a young slave girl was brushing Mme. Lalaurie's hair when the brush got caught in a knot, causing Madame to cry out in pain. Fearing her mistress' wrath, the girl ran from the room, and Mme. Lalaurie gave chase with a whip in hand. Eventually, when the girl found herself cornered on the terrace, she jumped to her death rather than face punishment. Neighbors later reported that they saw the girl buried in the courtyard under cover of night.

As a result of this episode, a formal complaint was brought against the Lalauries charging them with excessive cruelty towards their slaves. Yet one of their high-placed friends, Judge Jean Francois Canonge, fixed it so the couple got off relatively lightly: they were fined $300 and their slaves were confiscated and sold at auction. Not only that, but the Lalauries' friends and family joined together, bought back most (if not all) of the slaves, and gifted them back to the Lalauries. Thus the poor slaves were again at the mercy of Delphine and her husband.

The extent of the Lalauries' crimes would only come to light in April 1834 when the house caught fire. The blaze might have been deliberately set by a cook who was kept shackled up in the kitchen and who could no longer endure the Lalauries' cruel treatment. Several neighbors volunteered to help fight the fire and rescue the families' valuables from the flames; they were surprised, however, that they did not see any of the Lalauries' slaves pitching in. As time passed, suspicion grew among the spectators that there might still be people trapped inside the burning house. Thus someone demanded the keys to the attic. Mme. Lalaurie basically told them to eff off, so they were forced to break the door down. As the New Orleans Bee (a newspaper printed in French and English) described it "upon entering one of the apartments, the most appalling spectacle met their eyes -- Several slaves more or less horribly mutilated, were seen suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to another."

No doubt the story has been greatly embellished over time, but present day accounts of the Lalaurie legend give further details to this house of horrors. They say that the Lalauries performed gruesome "experiments": that one man had been subjected to a crude "sex change," that a woman had had her mouth sewn shut, that one victim was found lying with her internal organs exposed, and another had his limbs broken and reset at odd angles so as to transform him into a sort of human crab.

When word of these vile deeds spread, a mob gathered calling for Mme. Lalauries' blood. Yet, before justice could be done, Delphine managed to escape, plowing her carriage through the angry crowd. As the story goes, she rode to Bayou Saint John and from their hired a ferry across Lake Pontchartrain to Mandeville. After that she disappeared. Many people claim that she sailed to France: some say she spent the rest of her days in Paris, and some sources say she was killed hunting wild boar in the French countryside (like you do). Rumors also persisted that she remained on the Northshore, living in seclusion.

As for the Lalaurie house... it was rebuilt after the fire. Over the years it served many functions including as a school for girls and as tenement housing. Sometimes it stood vacant. I guess people saw some ghosts. Once it housed a music conservatory, but this quickly shut down after a nasty rumor spread about the proprietor right before a big recital. And guess who owns this house at the corner of Royal and Governor Nichols now? That's right! It's Nicolas Cage, who bought it for 3.45 million in April 2007. I snapped the above photograph myself on my trip to New Orleans last weekend. Happy Halloween, everybody!

Image of Delphine Lalaurie found on which states it is in the public domain.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Lust During Wartime

Monday night, I watched the movie Lust, Caution. I've been wanting to talk with somebody about it, but since I don't know anyone else whose seen it, I figured I'd do the next best thing and blog about it.

Lust, Caution (色,戒) is the latest film by Ang Lee, the director who brought us Brokeback Mountain (which I still haven't seen -- I know, I know!); Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; and less recently The Wedding Banquet and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman which are two of my favorite movies. Ooh, and let's not forget about The Ice Storm that was good too.

Lust, Caution actually won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival, but the reviews by American critics have been surprisingly mixed. I think some of them couldn't get past the 158-minute running time and claimed that the movie was too slow (which -- I love Wong Kar Wai -- but this movie was a rollercoaster ride compared to one of his flicks). Some dismissed the movie as "cold" which I don't understand at all, and some couldn't get over the graphic sex scenes which earned the film an oh-so-box-office-friendly NC-17 Rating.

Speaking of sex scenes, it seems like everyone feels obligated to defend them as necessary to the story as opposed to gratuitous. For the most part, I don't understand this. If we're all adults, why the need to be coy? I guess self-conscious sexual content for the sole purpose of titillating viewers can really cheapen a film, but anyone who watches this film will agree that this is certainly not the case here.

This tale of espionage and adultery stars Tony Leung (a.k.a. Wong Kar Wai's favorite leading man, cf. Happy Together, In the Mood For Love, 2046) and film newcomer Tang Wei. Also, Joan Chen (who I know as Josie Packard from Twin Peaks) plays Leung's wife. Despite its long running time, the film's suspense and lavish visuals really held my attention. The period costumes were gorgeous, and Ang Lee actually recreated a whole street out of 1940s Shanghai. Another thing that stands out is the palpable chemistry between the two leading characters.

Throughout the film, a lot of emotional content is conveyed through nonverbal communication such as stolen glances. Once I read a book about director Krzysztof Kieslowski which praised the way he was able to communicate characters' emotions through shots lingering on actors' faces or eyes. It noted how many other directors (even those as great as Woody Allen) resort to having character's straight up tell the audience how they're feeling in voiceover or soliloquy. Ang Lee doesn't cop out like that in Lust, Caution.

The action starts in 1938 Hong Kong where our heroine is a wartime refugee (unlike Shanghai, HK didn't fall to the Japanese until 1941). At university there, a handsome student convinces her to join his theatre troupe which is putting on a patriotic melodrama in order to raise money for the war effort. Everyone is impressed by her performance. Then, when the student finds out that a childhood friend is working for Yee (Tony Leung), an important collaborator with the Japanese, he cooks up an elaborate plot to assassinate the traitor. The girl and another student actor pose as a wealthy young couple (with two others playing their servants), and he arranges for them to meet Mr. and Mrs. Yee. Mrs. Yee takes a shining to our heroine, whom she knows as Mrs. Mak, inviting her to join her mahjong games and shopping excursion (according to Mrs. Yee, these are the only diversions available to married women during the war).

As a part of Mrs. Yee's circle of friends, Mrs. Mak rarely sees the shadowy Mr. Yee, until one day they bump into each other outside of his home during an afternoon shower. Their mutual attraction is clear from the start, and, after the two secretly spend a day in town together, the conspirators decide that Mrs. Mak should become Yee's mistress so as to better lure him into their trap. Unfortunately, before they can put their plan into action, the Yees are abruptly called back to Shanghai.

When we rejoin her four years later, our heroine is living in poverty in Shanghai. She is approached by the handsome student, now a member of the resistance, who asks her to resume the role of Mrs. Mak in order to get access to Yee. Yee has since been made the head of intelligence for the collaborationist government the Japanese established in Nanjing (i.e. the Wang Jingwei government) which basically means he interrogates and tortures agents of the resistance.

This time around, when Yee and Mrs. Mak meet again, their relationship quickly becomes physical. The sex scenes are quite graphic (some people are convinced the actors are actually having intercourse -- and I... kind of agree with them). Their first encounter, which I would describe as a near rape, especially sticks with me. You learn a lot about the two characters from these scenes as these are the only moments where they can let themselves go. There's also more than a little desperation in the way they make love: as if they both know that they're doomed (she's a spy and he's a traitor to his people, collaborating with the hated Japanese). But there's also a lot of ambiguity: as you watch them having sex you can't help but wonder what they're thinking. Does he suspect that she's a spy? Is she falling in love with him or is she picturing the moment when her co-conspirators will kill him? And how much does Mrs. Yee know? -- surely more than she lets on. The movie respects the audience enough that it allows you to draw your own conclusions. It invites you to think about the things that aren't said and this is probably why it lingers with you long after you leave the movie house.

As I said, Ang Lee did an amazing job of recreating the historical era. One of the details that impressed me was how cosmopolitan Shanghai was at this time. You see a lot of Westerners on the streets. This inspired me to do a little research, and it turns out that there was a large community of Russian émigrés living in Shanghai between 1917 and 1949. These people had fled their homeland after the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917 travelling through Russia's far eastern provinces to arrive in China. There was also a Shanghai ghetto: first came the Russian Jews, then the so-called Baghdadi Jews who migrated from the Middle East via British India. These groups were then joined by Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany who came to Japanese-occupied Shanghai because it was one of the few places in the world which did not require immigrants to produce a passport. At some point in the forties the Germans asked their allies to hand over these Jews for extermination. The wikipedia article on the Shanghai ghetto includes a great quote about the meeting between the Japanese military governor and leaders of the Jewish community in which the governor asked them why the Germans hated them so much:

Without hesitation and knowing the fate of his community hung on his answer,
Reb Kalish told the translator (in
Yiddish): "Zugim weil mir senen orientalim — Tell him the Germans hate us because we are Oriental." The governor, whose face had been stern throughout the confrontation, broke into a slight smile. In spite of the military alliance, he did not accede to the German demand and the Shanghai Jews were never handed over.
Lust, Caution stills (c) Focus Features, quotation taken from The Rabbi of 84th Street: The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser by Warren Kozak (HarperCollins, 2004)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

History's Vampire Countess

Since we're in the second half of October and Halloween and el dia de los muertos and all that is fast approaching, I figured this post was somewhat "of the season..."

Have you ever heard the legend of the European Countess who bathed in the blood of maidens so as to keep herself looking young and easy breezy beautiful? It turns out this legend is based on an actual person.

Family Pedigree

Elizabeth Bathory (1560? - 1614), or -- more properly, in Hungarian -- Erzsébet Báthory, was born into one of the most prominent Hungarian noble families. Her parents, Baron György Báthory and Baroness Anna Báthory (1539-1570), were cousins: her father was from the Ecsed branch of the family and her mother from the Somlyó branch. Her maternal uncle, Stefan Báthory (1533-1586), was King of Poland, and several relatives on both sides of her family were Voivodes of Transylvania. Among these, her first cousin Zsigmond Báthory (1572-1613) is also noteworthy for his prestigious marriage to the Habsburg Archduchess Maria Christina of Austria (1574-1621) in 1595, although their matrimony was unhappy and short lived.

Some of Erzsébet's less upstanding relatives were said to be sadistically cruel or to suffer from other vices, and some were perhaps rumored to be witches or devil-worshippers: her aunt, Countess Klara Báthory of Ecsed, was supposedly notorious for her bisexual love affairs. Aunt Klara married four times, and she may have been suspected of murdering one or two of her husbands and of practicing the dark arts. Erzsébet also had an older brother, Stefan, who was a reputed lecher and drunkard (not that we'll hold that against him).

Early Life

Erzsébet was born and raised in Eastern Hungary, on her family's estates near the neighboring towns of Nyírbátor and Nagyecsed. Like many Hungarian nobles at this time, Erzsébet's family was protestant. From what I've read, Erzsébet was considered to be something a beauty. She also must have been quite intelligent given that she was literate in four languages (Hungarian, German, Latin and Greek) at a time when many Hungarian noblemen were only semi-literate. It is also reported that, even as a young girl, Erzsébet had a vicious temper and frequently exploded into fits of rage.

At the age of 11, Erzsébet was bethrothed to Count Ferenc Nádasdy (1555? - 1604) whose family was not quite as illustrious as the Báthory clan (after their marriage he took the name Báthory-Nádasdy). But Ferenc was very wealthy, and he gained a reputation as a fierce warrior in the ongoing conflict with the Turks. In 1578 he became chief commander of the Hungarian troops, and his bloodlust and prowess in battle earned him the nickname "Black Bey."

By all accounts, when she was 14, Erzsébet became pregnant by a peasant. Her family hushed the whole affair up: keeping her sequestered during her pregnancy and giving the child away. The next year (1575), Erzsébet and Ferenc were married as planned. This union of two powerful families was much celebrated, and supposedly the Holy Roman Emperor himself, Maximillian II(1527-1576), was invited to attend although he was obliged to send his regrets as the wartime journey would have been too dangerous. The couple was childless for the first ten years of their marriage, but between 1585 and Ferenc's death in 1604 Erzsébet would bear him two daughters and a son who survived infancy. By all accounts she was a good mother.

Married Life

After her marriage, Erzsébet became the mistress of the Nádasdy castle near Sárvár (pictured above), one of several castles owned by Ferenc. She was left in charge of administrating and protecting these estates during Ferenc's prolonged military campaigns. It was at this time that Erzsébet allegedly began to mercilessly punish the maidservants, sometimes torturing them to death. She would use any mistake or infraction of the rules -- real or imagined -- as a pretext, and sometimes there would be no reason at all. Ferenc's degree of knowledge and his attitude regarding his wife's crimes is not recorded, but most of the speculation suggests that he probably encouraged her in her sadistic pursuits and that he may have joined in himself.

Criminal Conspiracy

After her husband's death, the Countess' wrongdoings grew worse. After a brief stay at court in Vienna, Erzsébet travelled between her late husband's estates in search of young women to torture for her pleasure. Her accomplices included a sadistic maidservant known as Anna Darvulia (who died in 1609); a tough peasant woman named Dorottya "Dorko" Szentes; Ilona Jó , an old nursemaid; Erszi Majorova, the widow of a tenant farmer; and a dwarf called "Fickó."

Peasant girls were lured to the castle with promises of well-paying jobs, and some girls may have been simply abducted. For years, the Countess' aristocratic rank and her relatives in high offices effectively shielded her from responsibilty for these misdeeds. Peasant families had no real avenue for redress against a noblewoman, although they might turn to their local clergymen. One source I read also suggested that the widowed Countess was careful not to travel through the country without armed guards for she rightly feared the people's retribution.

Investigation and Trial

Between 1602 and 1604, a Lutheran parson named István Magyari complained to the authorities in Vienna, but no actions would be taken for several years. In 1609, the Countess supposedly opened up her home as a gynaeceum for the education of the daughters of lesser nobles . Unlike the peasant girls, any mysterious deaths which occurred among these young women would have been hard to ignore. Thus, in 1610, the King of Hungary (who would later become Holy Roman Emperor), Mathias II (1557-1619), appointed the Lord Palatine of Hungary, Count György Thurzó (1565? - 1616), to investigate the accusations.

Thurzó, who was a relative of Erzsébet's, had probably heard about her alleged proclivities years earlier, but up until that point he had taken no official action (although he may have attempted to have her confined to a convent where she could presumably do no more harm to young girls or to the family reputation). For Mathias, however, there was also an important political motive for going after the Countess: the King of Hungary is said to have owed a substantial debt to the wealthy Faranc's estate, a debt which Erzsébet was rather insistent he pay. Hence, if the Countess were found guilty of the alleged crimes, not only would the debt be extinguished but the crown could also seize her extensive landholdings.

On December 29, 1610, Thurzó led a expedition to search Čachtice Castle where the Countess' most atrocious acts were said to have occurred. They must have uncovered sufficient evidence of foul deeds, for in January of 1611 two public trials were held against the Countess' accomplices in the town of Bytča. The trials were presided over by Royal Supreme Court Judge Theodosious Syrmiensis de Szulo, and the 13 witnesses included the accused (whose confessions were doubtlessly elicted through torture), clergymen, nobles, survivors, victim's family members, and some eye witnesses among the Countess' servants such as the castellan of the Sárvár castle.

As for Erzsébet herself, Count Thurzó employed all his considerable political influence to insure that she never stood trial (despite the king's insistance), so as to spare the Báthory clan from supreme infamy -- not to mention the seizure of her property. Instead, Thurzó had his cousin bricked up in her chamber in Čachtice castle leaving just a narrow slit for food to be passed through. There the Countess remained for over three years until her death on August 21, 1614.

Alleged Crimes

The best evidence regarding the grizzly details of the Countess' alleged crimes comes from the witness testimony recorded during the trials, and this evidence ain't all that great. As stated above, the defendants' confessions were the product of coercion (torture or threatened torture) and much of the remaining witness' testimony was hearsay. For what its worth, the misdeeds most consistently described involved sticking pins into sensitive parts of victims' anatomy (such as the skin beneath their fingernails), starving them, severely beating them (sometimes to death), burning and mutilating them, freezing them to death, and sometimes (when the Countess was bed ridden and unable to harm her victim's in a more vigorous manner) biting off chunks of their flesh.

Among the more lurid (perhaps less likely) accusations: it was said that the Countess would punish girls suspected of stealing by pressing red-hot coins into their flesh, that she (at least once) left a naked girl exposed in the wilderness and smeared with honey so she would be eaten alive by insects, and that she punished a maidservant who would not keep quiet by literally sewing her mouth shut. It was also said that the Countess would have girls laid out naked on the floor of her bedroom and that she would then flagellate them until her own clothes needed changing and cinders were needed to soak up the bucketloads of blood . Another morbid account, supposedly given by a servant, tells how once a 12-year-old girl was caught by Dorko and Ilona Jó as she attempted to flee: she was dragged back to the castle where she was put into a circular cage so small she needed to crouch. The cage was hoisted up by a pulley and suspended from the ceiling. Then a dozen short spikes jutted into the cage. The poor girl attempted to avoid the spikes, but the dwarf Fickó made the cage swing back and forth until she was torn to pieces.

Most accounts put the number of young women murdered by the Countess and her minions at around 60-100. One witness claimed to have seen a journal the Countess kept of all the victims she abused and killed which purportedly numbered +600, but there is no outside evidence this journal ever existed.

Bloody Times

To put these stories into some perspective, the value of human life was not held in the highest regard in 17th-century Hungary, when the country was a battleground in the wars raging between the Habsburg Empire and the Ottoman Turks. Enemies captured in battle were frequently mutilated, and it was not uncommon for nobles to punish peasants they deemed guilty of some offense in a heinous manner. For example, I read one source suggesting that one of Erzsébet's uncles, when he was Voivode of Transylvania, had a rebel cooked alive on a red-hot throne and then had his burned flesh forcibly fed to his fellow insurgents. I also read several sources which cited the rumor that, when Erzsébet was a young girl, she watched as a gypsy caught stealing on the family estate was sewn up into the stomach of a dead horse with just his head sticking out and was thus left to die. These tales seem to be just about as well evidenced as the more fanciful accusation's against the Countess herself. Nevertheless, they show that sadistic cruelty was surely not the sole dominion of Erzsébet and her cohorts, even if her crimes were deemed "horrorific" even by contemporary standards.

Given the "unspeakable" nature of acts for which they were accused, it is also ironic to note the fate met by the Countess' accomplices: Dorko and Ilona Jó were condemned as witches and thus their fingers (which had been "dipped in Christian blood") were ripped off before they were burned alive. The dwarf, Fickó, was deemed to be less culpable, so he was merely beheaded before having his body tossed into the flames.

But did she bathe in blood?

So what about the baths in the blood of virgins? These are assuredly pure myth. The bloodbaths are never mentioned in the otherwise explicit trial testimony, and they first appears in a history written by the Jesuit László Turóczi in 1729. Contemporary historian, Radu Florescu, has suggested that this legend has its roots in antiquated notions on gender: people had trouble assigning the masculine vices of sadism and bloodlust to a woman, and so this story was born attributing her crimes to vanity. It is likewise unclear what weight we should give to the testimony, oft repeated during the trials, that Erzsébet was a witch and devil worshipper. It is possible that Erzsébet and her associates were truly devotees/practioners of the occult or that witchcraft provided a backdrop for the indulgence of her twisted appetites. It is also possible that, again, contemporaries would naturally link such wicked deeds, at least when committed by women, to witchcraft and that the embellishments took off from there.


The infamous Čachtice castle (pronounced Chakh-tee-tseh and pictured above), which is located in present-day Slovakia, today lies in ruins as it was destroyed by anti-monarchist rebels in 1708.

Sources/further readings: it is nearly impossible to write a history of Erzsébet Báthory without venturing into the realm of speculation and rumor, particularly if one limits oneself to material available on the web in English. There is a lot of crap out there harping on how the Countess was a lesbian, a vampire and/or a witch with little concern for anything so mundane as facts and evidence. Here's some of what I read:

Wikipedia entry: a fairly restrained account with some footnotes citing sources.

h2g2 article: another restrained, well-reasoned account, although it doesn't cite sources.

Crime library article: a long, lurid account which veers into myth and fiction. It does cite sources but a lot of them are books with titles like "Dracula was a woman."

Mad monarchs article: this is actually a pretty restrained, brief bio which includes a lot of seemingly historical facts and details about Erzsébet's life when she wasn't torturing maidens.

I also found an interesting blog post by a writer/journalist who completed a motor tour of Erzsébet's castles in Central Europe. Too bad the photo links are no longer functioning!

Báthory Erzsébet portrait image taken from; Báthory coat of arms illustration found on ; Nádasdy Castle in Sárvár photo found on and taken by Wolfgang Glock is in the public domain; Čachtice castle photo (c)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

My Little Zony

I've been wanting to share this with you all for awhile.

You know how I'm interested in exotic animals, especially if they're cute and/or presented in a neat little list (cfr. my posts on the newly-discovered atelopus frog and on the axolotl and other bizarre sea creatures). Well, last month, my friend Josie sent me a link to a blog with a list of the Top 10 Hybrid Animals which also tickled my fancy.

An interspecific hybrid is created when a male and female from two closely-related species (usually from the same genus) mate and produce offspring. This offspring shares characteristics with both its parents. Normally hybrids are sterile: this prevents genetic characteristics from passing between the two gene pools and thus explains why they are two distinct species. This sterility is sometimes due to a difference in the number of chromosomes: for example, donkeys have 62 chromosomes, horses have 64, and mules have 63. Rarely, however, a fertile hybrid will appear: scientists have documented cases in which a female mule has produced a foal with a donkey or horse father, and the Top 10 post itself mentions female tigon/ligers successfully mating with male lions and tigers.

Many hybrids result from animal husbandry by humans, however interspecific mating is not unknown in the wild. For example, DNA tests have confirmed that a bear shot to death by a hunter in Canada's Northwest Territory was a grizzly/polar bear hybrid. This confirmed scientists' hypothesis that a hybrid zone where such births naturally occur might exist where the two species' habitats overlap.
Hybrid animals are often referred to by a portmanteau formed by combining the names of the two parent species: traditionally the father's species forms the first part of the name, hence:

male lion + female tiger -> liger

male tiger + female lion -> tigon
Among the hybrids which made the bloggers' Top 10 you can find ligers/tigons (which Napoleon Dynamite taught us are bred for their skill in magic) as well as camas (half camel, half llama), grolar/pizzly bears, iron age pigs (half pig, half wild boar), and zebroids (half zebra, half horse/donkey) such as the zony pictured above. Presumably the mule, which is probably the most common hybrid species, was too mundane to be included in the list; and the featured wolf dog (as the comments point out) is actually an intraspecific hybrid given that scientists today generally consider the domestic dog and the wolf to be subsets of the same species (canis lupus).

Wikipedia also contains information about some other hybrids such as the Dzo (half yak, half cow) and the beefalo (half bison, half cow).

It probably goes without saying, but you're not going to find any man-beast hybrids because our species' closest relatives (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans) are too disimilar from us for any sort of offspring to be created from interbreeding. The other members of our species' genus such as homo erectus and homo halibus are the ancestors of modern man and no longer walk the Earth.

Song I'm currently listening to (in honor of this post): Blair - Wolfboy
Book I'm currently finishing up: Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Zony photo appears on, liger photo (c) Andy Carvin, cartoon liger appears on t-shirt found at

After the Saffron Revolution

Hello there, friends! I trust that that extended hiatus was long enough for all my readers to abandon the blog. But just in case there's someone out there whom I haven't succeeded in alienating yet: your mother's ugly! -- no, I mean "welcome back!"

For the record, this has been a hiatus in large part thrust upon me by outside forces (forces majueres) given that I was having serious problems with my laptop and the Best Buy/Geek Squad/ Toshiba/whoever people took a seriously long-ass time to fix things and get the computer back to me.

Obviously a million things have happened since my last post. For one, I went on a few trips (to NY, Texas, NJ, New Orleans). Gee, it sure would have been nice to have a portable computer on those trips! Ah, but I digress...

You've no doubt heard about the tragedy unfolding in the Southeast Asian nation of Burma over the last couple of months. Since 1962, Burma has been ruled with an iron first by a brutal, oppressive, military regime. In February of this year, a handful of Burmese protesters took to the street with signs such as "Down with consumer prices" and "We want 24-hour electricity." This was probably the first demonstration in the Burmese capital in over a decade. Despite the fact that the protesters were careful not criticize the government (they were just complaining about economic conditions), they were rounded-up and briefly arrested -- reminding the Burmese people that public demonstrations would not be tolerated.

There were a few more protests in April, but things began in earnest on August 19 when people began protesting the government's decision to suddenly and drasticly increase fuel prices. In response, the government arrested 13 prominent dissidents -- a move which drew international condemnation. Then, on September 5, things took another ugly turn when the military forcibly broke up a peaceful rally in the town of Pakokku injuring at least three monks. The country's sizeable community of Buddhist holy men took offense to this and gave the government until September 17 to apologize for the affront.

When the deadline passed, Burmese monks declared that they would refuse religious services to members of the military and their families, and they began to lead daily protests against the government. Over 10,000 monks participated; besides lamenting the price of consumer goods and the insult to the religious community, protestors also called for greater freedoms and the release of opposition leader and noble prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi.

This new wave of protests posed a unique problem for Burma's military junta due to the fact that Buddhist monks are greatly revered by the Burmese people, that their demonstrations were serenely peaceful and religious in nature, and that they had drawn the eyes of the world to Burma.

Nevertheless, the brutal crackdown began on September 26. Monks and other protesters have been beaten, arrested, tortured and killed. Last I heard, the government gave the official death toll at 10, but foreign diplomats suggest the true number is many times higher. The military has also done its best to cut off the flow of information coming out of the country, but not before the world saw footage of a Japanese journalist being shot to death in Rangoon.

On, I found this video about Burma. Together with an enlightening narrative by writer Brendan I Koerner, it features beautiful pictures (courtesy of the Magnum group) of the land and people which have been hidden away for so long behind a wall of isolationism and repression. Sorry about the ad at the beginning, but the video is worth it.

Koerner calls Burma's military junta "the most repressive, brutal, evil regime on the planet right now." A BBC article which I read also explains how the abysmal economic hardships suffered by the Burmese people are due in large part to the government's incompetence and maladministration.

One more thing, ever wonder why some people say Rangoon/Burma and others say Yangon/ Myanmar? Both names -- Burma and Myanmar -- are used by the Burmese people to refer to their fatherland. "Burma" is apparently the more familiar, informal monicker used in everyday conversation whereas "Myanmar" is the classical, poetic form. Burma was the official name of the country during British occupation, but in 1989 -- after the last outbreak of protests was squashed by the military, resulting in around 3,000 deaths -- the government opted for the change to Myanmar. The United Nations recognizes the nation as "Myanmar," reasoning -- I suppose -- that a member state can change its name if it wants to; but certain entities such as the United States government and the BBC (to name a couple) continue to call the nation Burma in order to show that the military regime lacks legitimacy in their eyes.