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One of the Prime Minister&’s major programmes is Swatch Bharat. This has many facets, but two things that could change India into the kind of country we can be proud of is getting rid of plastic waste and giving everyone a toilet. The second would keep our illnesses in check, water-bodies clean and make India a better/safer place for women to live in.
What do animals that live together like us do? Ants, who are actually miniature humans, except smarter, live together in underground cities. They have designated work and sleeping areas and they also have areas designated as toilets. They pile their waste in dedicated corners of their nests. Ants go to these areas specifically to defecate. Other waste, such as dead ants, debris plaster and waste food, is taken outside the nest and piled up. This makes sense: with thousands of ants confined to such a small space, organisation is the key. As humans refuse to learn: faeces can foster bacteria, transmit diseases and generally put the colony in danger. Ants keep their living areas spick and span.
Other social insects, such as honeybees and spider mites, go to great lengths to remove waste from their colonies. Bees make sure their hives are kept very clean. The workers in the hive all have to do chores. Some will be given the job of undertakers, their job being to carry the dead bees out of the hive. Another job is to wash the floors using their tongues like brooms to lick everything clean. No one is allowed to defecate in the hive. Bees fly outside the hive and once they are about three or four feet away they do it in mid-air. In winter it can be very cold outside and too cold to fly. In that case, the bees must hold their faeces until a warmer day. Once a warmer day comes along, the bees all fly out and defecate outside the hive.
Such defecation flights are even made by very young bees, which otherwise do not leave the hive. Sometimes, they even get sick with dysentery from trying to hold it until there is a day suitable for a cleansing flight. Some stingless bee species collect their faeces in piles and these are regularly removed by specialised workers.
Disease is an important challenge for animals, and especially so for social ones. Since ants and bees live in confined spaces, they are thus especially vulnerable to contagion. An important source of contagious material is refuse and faecal matter. Sanitary behaviour is an important aspect of social living and social insects have developed several strategies for dealing with waste and faecal matter. Division of labour has even been shown in relation to sanitation in leaf cutting ants, with specialised refuse workers being the only ants to enter the refuse chamber.
Spider mites create a localised faecal pile just outside the entrance to their silk shelter. You cleanse yourself and then you enter.
In some cases, waste material and faeces are put to use, either as a construction material or as a long-lasting signal, suggesting that faeces and waste may not always be dangerous. Many insects live in close proximity to their faeces and suffer no ill effects. Indeed, faeces may be put to use, for example as a defensive shield in beetle larvae. Leaf cutter ants manure their fungal gardens — their food source — by defecating on them. Similarly, fungus-growing termites construct their fungus growing substrate from partially digested faeces. Many termites construct their nests partially or entirely using their own faeces. Oecophylla longinoda ants mark their home-range and foraging trails with faecal markings. Millipedes make nests out of their own faeces and coat their eggs in faeces to protect them.
Naked Mole rats, who are mammals that live like ants, also make use of a common defecation place or toilet in their nest. Rat nest-mates regularly visit this area and rub their bodies with the waste to coat themselves with pheromones that identify them as members of the group.
The intelligence of the universe has created yet another way to keep the nest of social animals clean. Termites feed on plants directly or on fungus growing on decaying plant material. They must be able to digest cellulose. The termite gut is loaded with bacteria capable of breaking down cellulose. But termites aren’t born with all that bacteria in their gut. Before they can start the hard work of eating trees, termites must obtain a supply of micro-organisms for their digestive tracts. So they eat each other&’s faeces. Termites must also resupply themselves after they moult, so faeces eating is a big part of life in the termite mound.
Many wild animals have areas that are designated latrines where they habitually defecate and urinate. Many of them share their latrines. Animals with communal latrines include raccoons, hyraxes, moles, Eurasian badgers, elephants, deer, antelopes and horses, European rabbits, and lizards like the yakka skink and thorny devil. A regularly used toilet area created by many mammals is called a midden. Middens may serve as territorial markers especially for stallions and male deer. However, dedicated defecation sites are thought to be the result of sanitation-driven behaviour. Dedicated latrine areas observed by free-roaming horses mean that the grazing area is kept parasite-free. Even stabled horses have vestiges of such behaviour.
Grazers like deer are at risk of parasite/pathogen exposure from faeces during grazing, so it would make sense to make a specific area for faeces. Latrines of herbivores, such as antelopes, play an important role by providing enrichment of certain areas in nutrients. Duiker and Steenbok antelopes defecate on very sandy soil while Klipspringer prefer rocky outcrops, enriching nutrient-deficient areas and depositing plant seed there.
How are we different from every other animal in our attitudes towards our own excreta? For one, we don’t seem to have any sense of where to do it if toilets are not constructed. We don’t believe in group or community defecation (probably because our faeces smells so much), in fact we are the only species that is embarrassed enough to want to be alone and hidden. We are also the only species that needs toilet paper or soap and water to clean ourselves. According to Christine Warman, “Although we share most of our DNA with great apes, there are some striking anatomical differences between ourselves and our nearest relatives, most notably our vertical posture. This enables us to walk tall with our hands free, but it also comes at a price: we experience problems with our back and joints, and the whole business of evacuating our waste is more difficult. The fundamental problem is that the area used for releasing urine and faeces is compressed between thighs and buttocks, so we are more likely than other animals to foul ourselves.”
If other animals are so particular about their faeces not harming the earth or themselves, how is it that we, the most superior intelligence, have befouled ourselves and our entire country and we actually need a government programme to ask us to be clean?
To join the animal welfare movement contact [email protected], www.peopleforanimalsindia.org