THE EMBATTLED HYMN OF REPUBLIC
In the great actuarial tradition of Lloyd's of London, which wound up footing the bill for Bill Walton's punky left foot and took a bath in 1983 on a rain insurance policy for the Baltimore Orioles, Republic Insurance of Dallas has been taken for a ride by Spend a Buck. The 3-year-old colt's victories in the Cherry Hill Mile, the Garden State Stakes, the Kentucky Derby and the Jersey Derby entitled him to a $2 million bonus. Garden State Park officials hedged their bet by paying Republic a reported $150,000 premium to protect against the possibility of one horse sweeping all four races.
This was the firm's first and probably last venture into horse racing insurance. Republic has apparently decided racing claims are even less profitable than claiming races.
SERPENTS IN THE GARDEN BRING ON A GUAMIAN PLAGUE
A decade ago the jungly, volcanic island of Guam was aflutter with brightly plumed tropical birds. But since then island-hopping snakes have threatened to wipe out the avian population of the U.S. territory. The Guam rail was once so profuse that it was legally hunted, but now about the only place you can find one is a stateside zoo. The same goes for the Micronesian kingfisher and the Marianas crow. Three other species that evolved there—the bridled white-eye, the Guam broadbill and the rufus-fronted fantail—are extinct.
At first scientists scoffed when locals reported that snakes were eating the birds. They figured disease, pesticides or encroaching development was behind the bird loss. But ornithologists have come to blame Guam's growing number of brown tree snakes, a species indigenous to the South Pacific. The snakes may have established a beachhead on Guam with U.S. troops during World War II, though nobody knows for sure. In Indonesia, 1,400 miles south of Guam as the Marianas crow used to fly, birds fool brown tree snakes by building their nests on twigs too small for the snakes to slither across. And black apes find the reptiles to be pretty good eating. But on Guam there are no apes or other natural enemies for the tree snakes, which have found the local birds plump, tasty and as innocent as Eve about the wiles of serpents. That's why Guam's current census is 115,000 humans, three million tree snakes and fewer and fewer birds. In fact, there are so many snakes that people often return home to find one of them wrapped around their budgie cage.
The U.S. has sent a team of biologists to the Solomon Islands to study the boigaus irregularis in its native haunts. Some folks have suggested bringing in mongooses to combat the plague of snakes, but that hasn't worked anywhere else. Nor is there much enthusiasm for importing black apes from Indonesia. "We don't think it's advisable to dabble with nature," said Dr. Tom Fritz, a herpetologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. "All too often the introduction of an animal, insect or reptile to combat an existing problem merely results in another problem that could be even more serious."
Even if Guam can get rid of its tree snakes, there's still the challenge of reintroducing the birds to the island. If the case of Guam's lone surviving rail is any indication, reacclimating the birds to their original habitat won't be easy. According to Philadelphia Zoo ornithologist Larry Shelton, the rail was raised in captivity and seems to think he's human. "He loves to go for car rides," says Shelton. "But he doesn't identify with the other birds. When they put him in with females, he beats them up."