In India, amid the constant talk of the disaster in the south, one theme has emerged: Few wild animals have been found dead. It seems that almost all of those who could fly, run, slither or crawl away quickly left their homes in advance of the killer waves and fled to higher ground.
Anyone who has lived in India has seen firsthand how animals act strangely before the first monsoon cloud bursts over the parched earth after many months of drought and how they become agitated well in advance of the kind of earthquake that can cause grown men to jump from rooftops in panic.
All this is understandable, given that most animals have keen senses of smell, sight or hearing that help them survive what are, to them, predictable calamities. Some scientists speculate that humans have lost these senses in the evolutionary process, although one can argue that they are still present to some degree, such as, for example, among relatively undisturbed aboriginal trackers.
Many animals, including elephants and mice, communicate via ultrasonic waves that can travel long distances and even penetrate buildings, dense forests and hills. Humans can hear sound waves that measure between 20 and 20,000 hertz, but these animals communicate using sounds that are lower than the ones in our range. Game wardens in Africa have found elephants trembling in fear and huddled up against the edge of their reserve, as far away as it was possible for them to get from a planned killing of their fellows in an adjoining forest. While the sounds of the distant elephant slaughter were inaudible to the human ear, far-flung members of the animals' own species were well aware of their distress and panic.
What we don't know is greater than what we do, but we do know that fish have a thin line of sensitive cells on their sides, cells that can sense movement, vibration and change in the direction of the current. So when a typhoon approaches, changing the current, the fish try to move to safer waters.
We also know that some species of tree frogs can send and receive not only mating messages but also warnings over great distances by drumming on logs with their feet. And polar bears are so sensitive to shifts in the atmospheric pressure that they can ''smell'' the electrostatic disturbances that occur within thunderstorm systems. The vomeronasal organ, also called Jacobson's organ, helps such animals detect chemical changes in the atmosphere (sometimes these organs are hidden just under the animal's lip so that when dogs or cats snarl, they are actually using their sensitivity to determine whether an approaching animal is friend or foe). Snakes and other reptiles use their tongues to sense such things and to ''taste'' the air.
Sadly, some animals in India cannot escape disaster, as hard as they may try and as well equipped as they are to do so. Among them are the animals caged and chained in zoos, the snakes and mongooses kept by fortune-tellers and ''animal fighters'' in rattan baskets and the miserable dancing bears and wing-clipped and caged birds one still sees beside the roads despite an Indian governmental ban on the capture of wildlife.
We know that here at home, many captive animals perished during the Florida hurricanes. Add to what we already lament in the aftermath of this hideous tsunami the thought that in times of disaster, some animals must be desperate to flee but unable to do so.
To have a survival advantage but not be able to use it -- this, too, is a tragedy.
Anuradha Sawhney heads the Indian affiliate of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
© 2005 Miami Herald