Year in Review: Great news stories about animals in 2016

A pair of island foxes, which have made a quick comeback from the brink of extinction. : U.S. Fish and Wildlife photo courtesy Chuck Graham

When you write about animals full-time – which is a wonderful gig – it’s easy to end up telling depressing stories of death, cruelty and neglect. Sure, I could focus my energies on inspiring tales of cute cats and loyal dogs, but that’s not really the mission of this blog.

That said, there has been plenty of fun and uplifting news in the animal world in 2016. Care to end your year on a high note by reading some of it? If so, here’s a selection. It’s focused on news that’s good for groups of animals, as opposed to individual animals, and – fair warning – some of the pieces do include some sad elements. But not many – so enjoy!

_The comeback of the Channel Islands foxes

These furry cat-sized foxes, which live on islands off California, nearly went extinct because eagles decided they were tasty snacks. But thanks to a recovery effort that involved captive-breeding the foxes, shooting feral pigs and relocating eagles, the little canines on three of the islands made such a record-breaking rebound that they were taken off the endangered species list.

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_Thriving wildlife in the wasteland of Chernobyl

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine exploded 30 years ago, leaving behind a surreal landscape of vacant structures, abandoned villages and poisoned terrain. But when University of Georgia researchers placed dozens of remote cameras in a densely forested part of the 1,600-square-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in 2014, they were rewarded with images of boars, wolves, foxes, raccoon dogs and more. “It’s basically an incredibly large sanctuary” for animals, one researcher told me of the photos, which were published in a study this year.

_Undercover robot animals are helping real animals

Poaching doesn’t just happen to rhinos or elephants in Africa – plenty of illegal hunting happens right here in the United States. To catch poachers, authorities are increasingly turning to an army of remote-controlled robo-wildlife: Stuffed deer, bear and moose that are strategically placed in illegal hunting hotspots. They’re in high demand, officials say, because they’re quite good at tricking poachers into shooting them. Think you’d be able to tell a robo-deer from a real deer? The quiz you’ll find here might tell you otherwise.

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_Peanut butter + drones + adorable ferrets = wildlife win

Black-footed ferrets are stunningly cute, native to the United States, and endangered because the plague is killing their primary prey, the prairie dog. But the feds have proposed a killer solution: They are flying drones over the plains where the little critters live and shooting down peanut butter-flavored pellets laced with plague vaccine. It appears to be working.

_Glimmers of an end to the grisliest mass deaths you’ve probably never heard of

Male chicks born in hatcheries for egg-laying hens meet quick and brutal deaths: They are tossed in a blender on the day they break out of their eggs, because they’re not useful to the egg and poultry industry. They can’t grow up to lay eggs, and they’re not the breeds used for chicken meat. But this year, there were signs that this gruesome practice might soon end. First, United Egg Producers, which represents most U.S. hatcheries, announced that it would end the culling by 2025. Later, a Texas firm said it had developed the technology to identify the gender of chicks while they’re still in their eggs, adding itself to a small group of companies competing to be the first to bring what’s bound to be a popular product to the market.

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_A British town gets a full-time ‘Hedgehog Officer’

Ipswich, a town on the eastern coast of the United Kingdom, is a haven for hedgehogs, but the wee creatures’ population has been falling. So a local wildlife organization decided to hire someone to focus on hedgehog conservation, and they gave the position what might be the most delightful job title ever: Hedgehog Officer. A British woman beat out about 150 applicants for the job.

_A national park gets a part-time ‘Bark Ranger’

Logan Pass, a picturesque point in the peaks of Glacier National Park, attracts lots of tourists in the summer, and those tourists in turn attract mountain goats and bighorn sheep. The animals have a taste for antifreeze and human urine, and they apparently see no reason why they shouldn’t amble around in search of it in a large parking lot at the pass. They’re a charming sight but also a potentially dangerous one, because people love to take selfies with wild animals and these particular wild animals have sharp horns. Enter Gracie, a border collie who was deployed this summer to herd the sheep and goats away from the parking lot. Her job title: “bark ranger.”

_The FBI starts taking animal cruelty seriously

When local law enforcement agencies report crime statistics to the FBI, they put the offenses in categories. And for years and years, animal abuse crimes were simply classified under “other.” But that changed this year. The FBI now has four distinct categories for animal cruelty, which it uses to track animal abuse the same way it does homicide and other crimes. In a somewhat related development, more local jurisdictions have begun registering animal abusers like sex offenders.

_Jaguars may be settling in Arizona

It’s been a long time since jaguars, the spotted and stocky big cats that roamed much of the western United States before being hunted to death, made their home here. But this year, we got two signs that a couple cats from northern Mexico may have decided to start a new life in the Arizona desert. The first one to be caught on camera was a sleek male who was dubbed El Jefe. Several months later, a second male cat was photographed at an army installation, also in Arizona. At best, the United States is now home to just two jaguars who can’t breed with one another, and Arizona wildlife officials noted that the closest breeding population is 130 miles south. But their presence is exciting nonetheless.

_Tough new measures to protect the world’s most endangered animals

This year’s conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, ended in regulations against killing endangered animals and trading their remains. Among the species with new protections: African gray parrots, pangolins and manta rays.