Gerry Farrell: Paws to thank our best friend

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I’m not a dog-owner and I probably never will be. I actually prefer cats. I find dogs too needy and I’ve been bitten a couple of times.

“He’s just being friendly,” said one owner. “You must have upset him,” said the other. But when it comes to the contribution dogs are willing to make to people’s lives, it’s no contest.

A dog gives as much affection as it takes and some seem to deliberately act the fool just to make us laugh. Friends of mine had a mongrel called Ted who used to haul a red blanket out of his basket, get under it and whirl round in circles just to amuse us. It was funnier than watching Tommy Cooper in his prime.

The dogs that really impress me, though, are the ones who become companions to the sick. The charity Medical Detection Dogs provides dogs for people with life-threatening medical conditions. Their dogs are trained to detect the odours associated with dangerous medical events. Diabetics live with the possibility of their blood sugar levels dropping so low that it causes hypoclycaemia which can lead to seizures and coma. In some cases, the warning signs they may have become used to can disappear altogether. That’s when a medical detection dog can be a godsend. With their extraordinary sense of smell they can detect minute changes in a diabetic’s blood sugar levels. When they do, they’re trained to alert the owner, get help from other adults present or as a last resort fetch vital medical supplies.

Addison’s disease is another condition with few warning signs and a very small window between the sufferer feeling unwell and the onset of a full-blown attack. It’s caused by low cortisol levels and it can lead to pain seizures, paralysis and unconsciousness. One sufferer has described how her life changed when she was given a Medical Detection Dog: “Coco carries my injection kit with him in his vest. He’ll warn me if my cortisol levels are dropping and he’ll keep nagging me till I do something about it. I’m not scared of anything any more and I sleep better knowing that even if my levels drop when I’m asleep, he’ll wake me up.”

Medical detection dogs and the charity that trains them are finally getting the publicity they deserve and with a bit of luck, the donations they need to keep going. This week Italian doctors in Milan reported that two German Shepherds were able to accurately detect the presence of prostate cancer. They sniffed urine samples from 900 men, 540 with the cancer and 360 without and had a 97 per cent success rate. Man’s best friend indeed.

Waverley taxi rank a health hazard

Abellio have just taken over the running of Scotland’s railways from Scotrail. The Dutch-owned company who also run railways in Germany and the Netherlands are full of good intentions. The most notable of these, as stated in their glossy new magazine, is their desire to make our journey from home to station and back as pleasant as our on-board journey.

If they are serious about that, they need to help sort out the unholy mess that has resulted from Waverley’s taxi rank being removed from inside the station to a frankly unworkable rank at the back entrance in Market Street.

According to the cabbies I’ve spoken to, who are doing their best under trying circumstances, they were kicked out of the station because the space their rank used to occupy is “wanted for retail outlets”. Presumably that suits the council because they have been chocolate-fireguard-like in helping to resolve this crisis. Perhaps the retail rents are more important to them than people’s lives.

Already the changes at Waverley have led indirectly to the death of one tourist. He died when a car that was blocked by the new barrier at the entrance to Waverley reversed out and hit him.

It’s only a matter of time before somebody else is seriously injured at the useless, makeshift rank in Market Street.

Animals the losers as big game hunters run amok

I’VE a photo of myself at Edinburgh Zoo with my son James when he was three. I’m holding him up to get a better look at a 16ft-high female giraffe with her new baby. It was the first time either of us had ever seen giraffes and we stayed for a while. The mum nibbled fresh leaves rigged at head height by the zookeepers. The baby sheltered beneath her front legs. They are the most incredible-looking creatures with those long-lashed eyes, giant tongues and long articulated necks. As the safari website I’ve just been reading says “These gentle giants, docile by nature, inhabit a variety of plant habitats from the dry woodlands to the dense shrublands.”

But this is no ordinary safari website. The writer goes on to say “The giraffe has thick, tough skin and will require the same bullet selection as an elephant… Even though he is not recorded anywhere in the record books, this tall camel-like beast with the spots of the leopard can make for a most unusual trophy.”I’ll give you a few seconds to re-read that and let it sink in.

My own interest in this gruesome topic was triggered by a photo that popped up on my Facebook thread of an American woman sitting on a dead giraffe cradling a high-powered rifle and cheesing at the camera like she’d just been given a cute puppy for her birthday.

It costs about £10,000 to go on an African hunting safari, shoot your giraffe and have your picture taken with your kill. For an extra £1500, you can have the head and neck mounted and flown back to the States as a special souvenir of the fun you had romping around in combat fatigues, killing endangered creatures in the African bush.

Africa’s giraffe population has halved since 1988 but business is booming for these hunting organisations.

You don’t even have to be an expert to have a crack at an endangered species. There are companies who arrange “canned hunting” expeditions where the lions, giraffes and rhinos are hand-reared in enclosures with high fences, ranging in size from sixty feet to thousands of feet. To make it easier the animals are often drugged “to ensure maximum killability”.

Lions get the rawest deal. There are more photos of heavily-armed cretins posing with dead lions and lionesses than with any other rare animal.

Fifty years ago there were nearly half a million lions roaming across Africa. Now there are just 20,000 left on the entire continent.

Jimmy had a bee in his bunnit

Accordion supremo Jimmy Shand wasn’t just famous for his dance music. He had a pithy sense of humour too. One morning while on tour he came down for breakfast in his Aberdeen B&B. The landlady was the stingy sort often found in the north-east of Scotland. “There ye are, Mr Shand” she said putting a plate in front of him with a 3in square piece of toast and a tiny smear of honey. He looked at it then back at her and said “I see you keep a bee.”