Saturday, 27 October 2012

Brazilian Dogs

Everybody likes dogs, and most parts of the world have dogs developed for the local conditions, from Labrador to Chihuahua. It`s surprising therefore that a country as large as Brazil has only two,  the Brazilian terrier, and the Fila Brasileiro. It`s not that there aren`t dogs around, there are thousands of miniature poodles and Yorkshire terriers keeping people company in the apartments of Rio and Sao Paulo, even Gisele Bunchen had until recently a Yorkie called Vida. And there are innumerable "Vira latas" (mongrels) in the favellas and fazendas. But of specifically Brazilian purebred breeds, there are only two.

The Brazilian Terrier, or Fox Paulistano

 The exact ancestry of the Brazilian terrier is unknown, but they are basically descended from Fox Terriers, with some Jack Russell, Miniature Pinschers and Chihuahuas thrown in. They resemble a large Jack Russel, and are said to have a similar temperament, friendly, intelligent and energetic. They were bred for farm work, active all day and they make excellent ratters. A group will even combine to attack larger prey, attacking from each side until it`s worn down.

 Although fairly small they are NOT apartment dogs, they need lots of exercise and stimulation, otherwise they get bored and a bit destructive. They also have a very strong hunting instinct, strongest of all the terriers, and so leaving one with a cat all day is probably not a good idea.

The Fila Brasileiro or Brazilian Mastiff

The Fila Brasileiro is another animal entirely, large (about 50 Kg) and very powerful. They were bred as working dogs on plantations or cattle ranches, probably from a combination of Mastiffs, Bulldogs and Bloodhounds, but unlike some large breeds they are normally alert and active.

 Life as a working dog on a Brazilian farm meant driving off predators such as jaguars, and running down stray cattle, and slaves. The bloodhound ancestry made them good trackers, and they were trained not to kill their prey, but to grab the animal or slave by the neck until the farmer arrived. Puppies still show this instinct in play today.

Although affectionate to their owners and families, it goes without saying that Filas are utterly and completely unsuited to be apartment dogs! Infact, in many countries such as the UK, Denmark and New Zealand you cannot own one at all. In the past Filas were often trained to be "Ojeriza" or distrustful of strangers, and with their very strong protective instinct this made them sometimes dangerous to anyone outside of their "pack". But this was the fault of stupid owners rather than the dogs themselves, and with proper training and socialisation from an early age they are calm and safe with strangers, even if not especially friendly.

Filas still make good farm dogs, and they might be branching out. They are reportedly used by the Israeli army and some American police forces, where they have the advantage as tracker dogs that, if necessary, they are fiercely defensive of their handlers once the quarry is found.

A five year study by the Brazilian army compared Filas, Dobermans and Alsatians in jungle conditions, looking at intelligence, aggressiveness, sensibility, temperament, energy, resistance, and strength. The Alsatians were smarter, the Dobermans more aggressive, but Filas won every other category.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Natural Resources

Brazil is blessed with natural resources, a huge and fertile country exporting vast quantities of food around the world. There is even oil under the rolling South Atlantic, but it doesn´t stop there.

New medicines, new drugs, are often based on chemicals found naturally in nature and few countries have more nature than Brazil. That flower deep in the Amazon may hold the cure for any number of diseases, just as aspirin came from willows, digitalin from foxgloves, and the common anti-cancer drug Vincristine from the Madagascar periwinkle.

Cayenne Ticks, as shown in a Globo News report on amblyomin-X

It´s not a rule of nature that something has to be beautiful to be useful. Few animals are uglier or more unpleasant than the Cayenne Tick, Amblyomma cajennense, which lives to suck blood from any animal it can find, including man. Not only that, but it can transmit disease, including Sao Paulo fever, or Rocky Mountain spotted fever. If you see one biting you, don´t just flick it away, you might leave the head still biting you, or at least cause the tick to regurgitate it's infected saliva into your wound (what you should do is use forceps to grasp it as close to your skin as possible, and gently pull straight back, then disinfect the wound).

So how is this tick a good thing? Well, researchers at the Butantan Institute in Sao Paulo have isolated a compound from that saliva called amblyomin-X. It´s not quite clear how, but amblyomin-X persuades cancer cells to self-destruct, whilst leaving healthy cells alone. Even better, it stops angiogenesis, which is now tumours get their own blood supply - so the tumour cannot grow, cannot spread around the body, and basically "starves".

 Harvesting tick saliva (Globo News)

Amblyomin-X works very well on rats, and next year should enter human trials. If these are successful it would be historic, because it would be the very first medicine developed from discovery to industrial production in Brazil.