Folk taxonomy, the postal service, and mailing live animals

Image:  Letterbox © Tim Green CC BY 2.0, via Don’t mail a live animal here.

Early in the summer, the legal humour blog Lowering the Bar had a good time with the fact that in the U.S. you can mail live scorpions – under certain amusing but also completely understandable conditions. (One of which is that they aren’t this kind.  Another is that they’re being mailed for use in medical research or the manufacture of antivenins.  So maybe I should have said that live scorpions can be mailed, because most likely you can’t mail them. This is probably just as well.)

This appealed to my admittedly peculiar sense of humour, so I promptly read the entirety of the U.S. Postal Service regulations on mailing live animals.  Then the equivalent Canada Post regulations.  Then the U.K. Royal Mail’s*.  I’m happy, today, to be able to share the results of my research with you.

Cultural anthropology and biology have an interesting point of contact in what are called “folk taxonomies”.  A folk taxonomy is the arrangement of organisms into named categories, when it’s done by anyone other than a biosystematist.  It can be both fascinating and revealing to see how a culture arranges and names the world around it – for example, it can give insight into a culture’s attitudes toward, and functional connections with, nature.  When the culture in question is postal service bureaucrats, it can also be pretty amusing.

Postal regulations for mailing live animals are a folk taxonomy because they recognize named categories of organisms that may be mailed (under category-specific conditions) or that may not be mailed.  I found it fascinating, and increasingly hilarious, to see where the lines between categories were drawn – and to think about the seams left in the regulations that someone with a little biosystematics knowledge could exploit**.  The regulations reveal what was clearly a three-way collision between the need for some sort of policy, the bureaucratic instinct to attempt rules covering every case, and the mindblowing diversity of life on our planet.

Let’s start with the birds and the bees. (No, not like that.).  Under USPS regulations, you can mail live honeybees, but not any other kind of bee***.  The prohibition on mailing other kinds of bee is probably inadvertent: the regulations only mention honeybees, but the way they’re worded implicitly makes all other bees nonmailable.  This is one way folk taxonomies can be revealing, because the notion that when you say “bee” you mean “honeybee” is widespread among non-biologists.  For instance, most news stories about bee declines end up being only about supposed honeybee declines, and the average person would probably be surprised to learn that honeybees are non-native (to North America) and outnumbered here, about 4,000-to-one by species count, by a diverse fauna of bumblebees, leafcutter bees, carpenter bees, sweat bees, and on and on and on.  (As a Canadian, I’m proud to report that Canadian bee regulations clearly recognize the existence, and mailability, of other kinds of bees).

Right, the birds and the bees.  What about birds? Well, you can mail day-old poultry chicks, where the category “poultry” includes chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, pheasants, partridges, guineafowl, quail – and emus.  That’s right: you can mail day-old emu chicks, but not ostrich or rhea chicks (which tempts me to show up at a post office with one of each so I can give the postal clerk a pop quiz).  Other than the peculiar omission of ostriches, the folk taxonomy here is using a functional classification: if it goes on the table roasted with gravy, you can mail it.  At least, you can mail it as a day-old chick.  Once your bird is two days old, you can’t mail it – until it’s an “adult” bird, at which time you can mail it so long as it weighs more than 6 ounces but less than 25 pounds.  (In Canada, though, you can only mail chicks.  Adult birds have to travel on their own – perhaps as self-powered airmail.)

What about “small, harmless cold-blooded animals”? Yes, that’s a category in the USPS folk taxonomy. You can’t mail snakes or turtles (although given the emphasis in the regulations on sturdy packaging, the exclusion of turtles seems odd).  You can mail other reptiles and amphibians, as long as they don’t exceed 20 inches in length.  I would agree that this is “small” for an alligator – and yes, the regulations make it clear that mailing a small live alligator is perfectly OK.  But the same size limit is explicitly applied to newts, and I think we can all agree that 20 inches is a really, really large newt****.  Here’s where my American friends get their own back: the Canadian regulations don’t list a “reptiles and amphibians” catchall category.  Instead, they explicitly prohibit alligators and caimans – but make no mention of crocodiles or ghavials, which are therefore (one presumes) just fine.  Yes, I am again tempted to show up at the counter with one of each, although admittedly now the potential for mayhem is larger.

Also small, harmless, and cold-blooded?  Fish.  Yes, you can mail live fish (although what counts as “small” for a fish is undefined).  The US Postal service, though, recognizes only two kinds of fish: goldfish and “tropical fish”.  Both of these must be mailed with water, and enough absorbent material to contain the water in case of a leak – but the way the regulations are written, other kinds of fish are mailable without any such restriction.  Keep that in mind the next time you mail a salmon.  You might, like me, wonder if the mailability of fish includes sharks (tropical or otherwise).  This is a point of some biological subtlety.  Sharks, of course, are “fish” but not “bony fish” (Class Chondricthyes, not Class Osteichthyes).  The only way, phylogenetically, to have a category “fish” that includes both sharks and bony fish is to have that category also include tetrapods – both the reptiles and amphibians we’ve already dealt with, and also us.  Are humans mailable?  Well, not now, given the “cold-blooded” restriction; but a century ago, it was legal to mail children (which are, after all, small and usually harmless).  I will concede, however, that the drafter of the regulations may well have meant the term “fish” to include all finned aquatic vertebrates but not tetrapods, without being bothered by the paraphyletic nature of such a category.  We could find out via experiment. If only I had a shark (and a sturdy mailing container)…

By the way, while US regulations specify that your live cold-blooded animal must be “harmless”, under the Canadian folk taxonomy, it need only be “non-poisonous”.  Even without harnessing the distinction between poisonous and venomous, I can think of lots of ways to play with that one.

What have we learned from all of this?  Well, perhaps mostly that my sense of humour and pedantically legal mind would be a bad combination at the post office counter.  Also that evolution has given us a dizzying array of creatures that don’t make it very easy to write regulations that make sense.  Unless, that is, you take the remarkably sensible approach of our friends in the UK.  Their postal service specifies (more or less) that you can mail only invertebrates, and gives a single further regulation: that they “must be boxed and packaged to protect the creatures, our staff and our customers from harm”.  It’s hard to make fun of that.

© Stephen Heard  September 14, 2017

Want to know even more?  Here are the US Postal service regulations, their Canadian equivalents, and the sensible UK ones. Thanks to Kevin Underhill for the scorpion-based inspiration for this post, and to Jennifer DeWoody for pointing out the bygone legality of mailing children.

*^Look, I did say “peculiar”.

**^Could exploit.  CouldI am not recommending that any of you take concrete, mail-related action based on reading this post.

***^Mind you, bees can only travel by surface mail, except queens, which you can airmail as long as they have no more than eight attendant workers and no honey.  Did I mention the bureaucratic instinct?

****^Unless it’s a Gingrich or a Scalamander. But those are warm-blooded Newts, and therefore not mailable anyway.

11 thoughts on “Folk taxonomy, the postal service, and mailing live animals

  1. Catherine Scott

    This post has made my day!
    I have on several occasions mailed spiders (they are all non-poisonous!) through the Canadian postal service but did not realize until just now when I went to actually look at the rules that I have been inadvertently breaking them by not clearly labelling my packages with “LIVE SMALL COLD-BLOODED NON-POISONOUS ANIMAL SPECIMEN” as required by section of the Canada Post guide. In my defense, on at least one occasion I told the clerk at the counter that I was mailing live black widows, and his only response was to say “cool!” and ask me a bunch of questions about spiders and my research.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ian Medeiros

      Thanks for researching and writing this (I like that biologists usually have a peculiar sense of humor)! I work on lichens, which as far as the letter of the law goes are usually entirely unregulated. I often get confused looks from postal workers when I explain what I’m mailing. The conversation other goes something like this:

      “It’s a box of lichens.”
      [blank stare]
      “You know the gray crusty stuff you see on rocks and bark?”
      “Oh, moss?”

      The funniest/worst, though, is when people think I’ve said “lycans,” which is apparently a term for werewolves in some fantasy series. This conversation has also happened at the post office:

      “It’s a box of lichens.”
      “You mean… like… werewolves?”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Elizabeth Moon

        And now (being an SF/fantasy writer myself) I’m visualizing a box of lycans of mailable size, and a way to make a story that uses ’em. Now would that be *dried* lycans that the recipient could rehydrate to full-sized werewolves, or tiny little lycan embryos, or baby lycans all furry and cute….???

        “Hey, Mandy, be sure to stop by the post office on your way home; I’m expecting that box of lycans today…”
        “Gerry, you *know* how they always manage to leak and they mess up the car seat and I was taking the good car today–I have clients coming. Why can’t you pick them up yourself?”
        “I’m shepherding the fourth graders on their field trip. Can’t do it. And they’re Express Mail; we can’t leave them there overnight…”

        No. Other work to do. But such a fun starting point.


  2. Jeremy Fox

    There’s a famous anecdote about Harrod’s in the UK, a store which used to boast that they could supply anything to anyone (for a price, of course). Some woman apparently had them send a live alligator to Noel Coward (? I think it was him) with a note reading “What else is new?” No word on whether the alligator was sent via the Royal Mail or courier, however.

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. buckette

    Back in grad school, I had to overnight amphibian eggs across the country. FedEx disallows live animals, but was fine with live eggs. Apparently they have a stance on when life begins! If they failed to deliver the package on time, though, the eggs would hatch and then they’d be violating their own rule.


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