Category Archives: Animals

Not So Slow

Pokey 2

 

 

Looking out of place, a horse trailer was parked next to the Everette Ice Area. In the parking lot near the trailer was a sizable round metal object, looking to me very much like a merry-go-round. Except there were no kids on it and there was no playground, only cracked tar with grass growing up in spots. 

Curious, my father slowed our woody station wagon that our family had named “Pale Blue Pig.” My mother stubbed her cigarette out in the ash tray and I rolled down my side window in the back to see better, also taking in grateful gulps of fresh air. 

“Look!” I pointed. “Ponies!”

My father pulled in and stopped. An old guy wearing dungarees, boots, and a cowboy hat led a series of short, stubby ponies down off the ramp of the trailer and tied them one by one to the railings of the metal “merry-go-round.” Last, a big white and red sign: Pony Rides.

“Pony rides!” I said. “Can I go? Can I go?”

“After we finish our errands,” my mother said.

Before long we pulled back into the parking lot of the Everette Arena. There were now several cars parked and, I was disappointed to see, a line of kids waiting. The ponies were trudging round dutifully in circles, each with a kid astride holding tightly to the saddlehorn. Some kids were grinning and others looked about to cry. 

My dad looked back at me over the seat, his blue eyes jolly. “Ready for your first pony ride?”

I swallowed and nodded, pulling up the knob to unlock the door. My mother took my hand and we went to join the line. It seemed to take forever. I watched as one kid burst into tears, screaming for his mother, terrified. The guy in the cowboy hat stopped the lead pony and went to the mother and kid. They talked for a moment and she removed the little boy who continued to scream and cry as she cradled him in her arms. A young girl in a pink dress was plopped on the now empty horse. The merry-go-round began moving again, the ponies’ tiny hooves making a clop-clop and the metal go-round squeaking as they turned in the circle. 

My dad turned to me grinning. “Are you going to scream and cry?”

I shook my head no.

Finally it was my turn and the old guy came over. “Well, well,” he said, smiling. His teeth were stained brown and he spit a bit of tobacco on the pavement. “Looks like a young cowgirl if I ever saw one! This here’s Slow Poke.” He gestured to the one empty pony.

Slow Poke was perfect—the pony in every little girl’s dreams. He was light golden brown and his long mane and tail were silver. He had mischievous, wise brown eyes. Best of all, he smelled like dust and grass and his fur was soft. My father picked me up and put me on. And around we went. And around. It wasn’t all that exciting really, going in the same direction, tied to the rail. But I was in heaven. And I wanted him. I wanted Slow Poke in the worst way. For my very own. 

I must have told my parents because the next thing I remember, Slow Poke was delivered to my house. I was over the moon! My very own pony. My mother already had a half-thoroughbred mare, named Ribbons. Now I could go riding with my mom!

In short order, Slow Poke was saddled and bridled. My dad held him out in the pasture. He gave me a leg up and I was aboard! I sat up tall. So very grown up! My father led me around, his big hand on the bridle, his large athletic frame reassuring me nothing could go wrong. He showed me how to put my heels down in the stirrups. 

“So your feet don’t slide through and you get dragged if you fall off,” he explained. 

My mother stood nearby. I was glad she could see how quickly I was learning and how brave I was.

“Would you like to try a bit by yourself?” my father asked.

Though I was uncertain about this move, I nodded. I wanted to be strong like him.

“Ray,” my mother cautioned.

“What? She’ll be all right,” he chuckled. “The pony’s name is Slow Poke.”

The second he let go of the bridle, Slow Poke bolted. I dropped the reins and grabbed the saddlehorn. I may have been screaming, which may have made Slow Poke run faster. Faster and faster Pokey ran down the pasture, my father hollering from behind us. And my new, stubby, smart-as-the-dickens Shetland pony headed straight for the only tree in the pasture. An apple tree with low hanging branches. He made for the very lowest branch. I was too busy hanging on to do much else. 

Wham! The branch caught me right across the chest and I was clipped off backward over his fat little butt to land on my back on the ground. Woosh! The air went right out of me. 

Slow Poke, well, he turned right around on his little hooves and galloped right back to the barn where my mother caught him. As if to say, “There, I took care of that!”

My father arrived. “You okay?” he said, feeling my arms and legs for broken bones.

I gasped in a breath of air and nodded, then stood shakily.

“Guess what we are going to do,” my dad said as he took my hand and walked me, limping, back up the pasture. “I want you to get back on your pony and ride.”

I might have cried or protested, or maybe I was stoic and did as he said, I don’t remember. But I know I got back on and rode, right then. For my dad knew, and I knew, that if I didn’t face my fear right away, I’d never ride again.

If I hadn’t ridden again, I would have missed one of the most magical parts of my childhood—my daily jaunts through the forest on Slow Poke, and later Topsy, a chestnut Welsh mare, and last Melody, a chestnut quarter horse. Four-footed furry companions for a lonely, only child. Horses brought me my three best girlfriends—Becca, Jessy and Jane—also horse lovers. Caring for horses all my young life taught me a lot about respect, responsibility, and courage. And of course, to expect the unexpected.

 

Re-framing a Homeowner’s Perspective on Wildlife and Insects: To Me They are Not “Pests.”

I wish people would find alternatives to lethal elimination of wildlife and insect “pests” from their property. In the past few weeks, I have learned of sad situations, in my supposedly nature-loving state of Vermont, in which humans have deemed a particular critter a “pest” and animals suffered as a result.

In one story, a resident was out for a peaceful walk when she came upon a raccoon in a steel leg-hold trap in a culvert. The animal was in terrible pain, and it was later discovered that the critter had a compound fracture on the leg that was clamped in the trap. Raccoons have heightened sensitivity in their front paws for feeling around for their food in rivers and such. Imagine the agony of having this appendage in the trap for hours and hours. Turns out the town road crew was setting the leg-hold traps to catch beavers as a way of maintaining their roads. The suffering coon was “by-catch.” After a public outcry and citizen letter writing, the town has thankfully pledged to cease the trapping and will find other nonlethal ways of mitigating the issues they perceive with wildlife. Let’s hope they keep their word.

In another recent story, a homeowner had decided a raccoon needed to be removed from her property. So she called a professional “pest elimination” company to come trap it, under the impression that the company would simply relocate the animal. (I am pretty sure relocating is deemed illegal, so not sure why she had that idea.) Instead she discovered that the pest elimination company had water tanks where they submerged the live animal in the cage to drown it. This is a process that takes up to six minutes. And in a cage. No escape. Imagine the panic. This process has been deemed inhumane by even conservative veterinarian organizations.

Then there are the various medieval-style torture traps for mice sold at the local Aubuchon Hardware store. Hard plastic boxes that allow not enough air so the critter suffocates. The worst – the glue boards that trap the mouse by sticking their feet in place. Thus immobilized, they die a frightened death of dehydration. Meanwhile, researchers have found mice to be incredibly family-oriented, with complex social systems. Do they really deserve such treatment for simply trying to find food and warmth? These are Maslow’s basic needs.

My slate is not crystal clean. I am not finger-wagging. But I’ve been significantly re-framing the notion of wildlife (and insects even) from “pests” to “community members” at my place of residence, and in the world at large. Since sixth-grade science class, when the idea was taught that all living organisms are connected in a complex web, I’ve felt this. But as an adult, I’ve been challenged to really live in a fashion of interconnectedness.

My story: I have had skunks live under my porch on and off for years. In my misguided thinking, I thought I must remove them since I had a dog and a cat. So I hired a trapper who, after careful research, I found was one who put them to sleep with an injection. But I was soon dismayed because every day he was trapping a new skunk near my house. Where were they all coming from?? As the death toll mounted to 5 or 6 beautiful black and white skunks, I felt like scum. The final straw was when the trapper had set the trap somehow at the drip-edge of the house eaves. And it poured all morning! I watched an adult skunk basically get water-boarded for four hours, water streaming off the drip-edge like a waterfall. I tried again and again to approach the trap with a tarp, but the skunk, understandably highly agitated, prepared to spray. I frantically called the trapper to say, please come soon! After that, I swore I would never ever again call someone to trap another animal.

Since then, sometimes a skunk or several winter under the porch. Other than an occasional light waft of “Pepe Le Pew,” they never cause a problem. When they wake up in the spring, there is sometimes a spray or two in the yard, but it dissipates in a day and no big deal. I wish I could put out some rabies vaccine bait, just in case, but am not sure how to obtain it…or if I even am allowed to. But otherwise the skunks, my cat, and I have cohabited peacefully (my old dog passed away).

And then I discovered that resident skunks have a benefit! I had a ton of Japanese beetles in my gardens and on my berries. All summer I would grimace in disgust while plucking the beetles off my plants to drop them in soapy water, where I am sure their drowning took equally long. I felt awful as I watched the beetles try to climb on top of one another to get to the top of the dish for some air. Horrible. I quit doing that method which had been highly recommended both online and by fellow gardeners. But soon I noticed the skunks were digging all over my lawn. Something that would send most homeowners over the deep end. Instead of getting mad, I researched online and found the skunks were eating the Japanese beetle grubs. Now I have no more Japanese beetles, without nasty pesticides! And my lawn looks just fine.

I also have a resident groundhog. Other neighbors consider them “pests” and shoot them. Even the babies. So sad. I call the groundhog in my yard “Chubby.” He (or she) has never once troubled my garden—I simply put a short wire fence around it. Veggies are untouched. Mostly the groundhog eats the clover in the lawn. And I have not seen a big invasion of groundhogs, as most folks online fretfully caution.

Last, one time a colony of carpenter ants came in on a piece of firewood in my fall wood delivery. Soon the ants ventured into the house! Tons of them. After several failed attempts to stop the problem with organic methods, I resorted to calling pest control. The guy came and sprayed all around the base of my house, for two years in a row. He wore only a light protective jacket and had his kid with him. He was a nice fellow, but wasn’t he worried about toxic exposure? I asked him about the safety of the stuff…for me, my dog, and my cat. Oh, just fine. Not dangerous at all. This was about 5 years ago. Still, when the crickets come out in late summer, I find a few crickets (and spiders and moths) who have the misfortune to hang out near the base of my house. Soon they are writhing in a chemical-nerve agent twitchy sort of death. The stuff he sprayed is still deadly. Not just to ants. Probably to us! Next time, I will be wiser. If carpenter ants come in on wood, I will not throw it in the brush pile (duh!!). I will carry it far into the nearby wild woods, so the ants are not deposited on my property. I am also in progress to redo the base of my house with solid flashing to prevent insect and mouse access. Really, the mitigation of these problems is up to me and my nonlethal, non-toxic ingenuity (well, and that of a trusty carpenter).

Anyway, I am finding, the more I just work to cohabitate with the wild creatures, the more peaceful, humane and even beneficial our relationship becomes. And guess what—my property is just fine. Side note: since as a human species I am only here for, if I am lucky, 80–100 years, I really don’t view the land as “my property.” It is land on which I live for the short time I exist. It is land that will exist long after me. The land belongs to plants, and trees, and insects, and wildlife, and for now, me. The land essentially belongs to Earth.

Dominion: Lording Over Nature

black duck

Photo by Doug Brown on Pexels.com

“We have seen that no species can evolve apart from its co-evolution with all other species—meaning that all have played their role in our evolution. We could not have evolved by ourselves. If we look at co-evolving living systems through eyes other than our own, we will quickly see that we have no more reason to consider ourselves a supreme form of life than have others.” Elisabet Sahtouris

Just yesterday my neighbor posted a picture on Facebook of his cat watching, through a sliding glass door, a turkey eating seed scattered on the deck of the house. Immediately someone commented to his post that the turkey would make a tasty meal and advocated that my neighbor consider acting on this possibility.

This is a comment trend that I have frequently noticed on social media. Someone posts a picture, out of curiosity or in awe, of a pristine wild creature, and it’s not long before the guns come out and someone suggests killing and eating the star of the photo. Usually a semi-polite but slightly heated debate about hunting ensues.

Now, I would guess that the cat watching the turkey is indeed interested in an adrenaline-filled chase of the winged creature (likely not weighing in the fact that the bird is 3 times its size), and, perhaps, the cat in the window is even salivating a little. But it’s a cat.

What I wonder is why the first “highly-developed” human commentary on these kinds of Facebook posts is about snuffing out the bird and gnawing on its leg. Okay, maybe biology explains some of it. “Me caveman. Me eat meat.” But here in the modern US, we are not exactly starving. (Well, some of us are, too many of us, but that is a subject for a different blog post.) What I mean is that the commentators on these social media posts likely have a sizable refrigerator that, if not full, contains adequate sustenance such that a photo of a large bird, or perhaps a doe and its fawn, or a sea turtle, should not immediately trigger salivary glands and thoughts of bloodshed.

Inevitably on these post threads, some wildlife “expert” contributes that the species is overpopulated and there is a dire need for humans to step in with their traps, poisons, and firearms. At first glance, this seems reasonable, maybe even a justification to kill the critter. This comment may also be to assuage some sort of subconscious guilt that energizes over the age-old spiritual questions that arise when a human takes the life of another living creature.

But perhaps these comments come from insidious cultural conditioning. Somewhere, likely through a variety of religious and philosophical texts, we humans got the idea that humankind was plunked down here on this planet, in this galaxy, in this universe, to hold dominion over all the creatures, plants, even rocks, minerals, air and water. I would argue that this foundational belief in the self-maps of many people is what spurs these predatory comments, and this is what spurs the subject to then wander to hunting “rights” and population “control.” For if we hold dominion, it’s our right to shoot that turkey. If we have ultimate sovereignty and control, then we are charged with the responsibility to “balance” wildlife populations.

This notion of dominion thus allows for those that would love a drumstick to be absolved ethically and morally for wanting to end the life of the seed-eating turkey. It’s our role and job as humans—as stewards of the earth. But part of the definition of steward is “responsible care.” And I have to say humanity has not been adhering to these words where nature is concerned.

When I was a kid, I never saw a single wild turkey in my rambles throughout New England woods. I didn’t, in fact, ever see one until I was in my mid-thirties. Now, almost every time I drive down our Vermont roads, I have to stop to wait while a flock waddles across the road. I see them in cornfields, in backyards, near farms, and even in neighborhoods of towns. They are everywhere! So if I had to make an educated guess, I would agree: wild turkeys are overpopulated.

As a country girl, I do not judge or begrudge my neighbors and friends who hunt for food for their tables. I know most of my neighbors use all of the meat, and even the feathers. I know they hunt ethically, causing as little pain as possible. I know that their dinner had a happy, wild, natural life, thus being a kinder meal than eating a factory-farmed bird struggling to stand with its oversized breast while suffering in overcrowded, nasty conditions. I get that hunting can be a morally superior, sustainable food choice.

I do see the language that we use for hunting as stemming from the dominator model, however. We call hunting “sport,” our prey “game”, and we “harvest” kills as if we were farmers. But at least harvesting is a more respectable term than the poor word choice of “bagging” a turkey or a doe, wording more symbolic of a joking, cruel conquest.

But before I’d jump to hand out more hunting licenses and increase the length of turkey season, it seems prudent to ask the question why—why are turkeys everywhere? Are they truly overpopulated, or do they just have less wild space in which to roam? It seems we humans are overpopulated and eating up open spaces and forests like Hungry Hungry Hippos (the silly game some of us played as kids where we tried to “eat” as many marbles as we could with our plastic hippo heads).

Why were there hardly any turkeys in the ‘70s and tons of them now? A complex systems approach is needed. What is going on in their ecosystem to foster this burgeoning? I would bet the reason is tied to some bumbling actions, intentional or unintentional, of the supposed stewards of the planet—us.

In Virginia Scott Jenkins’ fascinating book, The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession, which is all about domination of another natural environment, our yards, she writes about how humankind has long been “at war” with nature. Nature has been our greatest conquest. She quotes John Crowe Ransom, writer and literary critic: “Ambitious men fight, first of all, against nature; they propose to put nature under their heel; this is the dream of scientists burrowing in their cells, and then of the industrial men who beg of their secret knowledge and go out to trouble the earth.” She then quotes feminist activist Annette Kolodny who “concludes that the brutal images of man against nature reflect ‘the very pattern of our current ecological crisis’”. Jenkins continues, “Wilderness has also appeared as the villain, with the pioneer as hero relishing its destruction” (134). We can’t be at war with nature and her stewards simultaneously.

I can hear the Facebook commentators now: “Good grief, it was just a silly joke about eating a turkey.”

At home, I often observe the flock of turkeys that dines on my neighbor’s porch and entertains their cats. The large birds have colorful, shiny feathers, sometimes sticking out with wads of burdock tangled in them. They walk slowly and carefully through the snow, pecking at this and that, their big feet leaving forked tracks. They appear serene, though alert. All I have to do is open the door and they take awkward flight. Sometimes I’m amazed the lumbrous fowl can even get off the ground. They often bunk down under the pines right behind my house near the marshy watercourse. Well, it is supposed to be marshy, but my other neighbor mows it flat each fall. He tells me he wants it the way it was when his grandfather had the land, when cows ate all the vegetation in the low-lying wash. I’ve observed the turkeys picking pathetically at the remaining scattered weeds and seed stalks, and surmise that the vegetation in the wash was likely their winter food source. So now they must resort to bird feeders. Indeed they have a good memory. I had a feeder out back last year, but have not put it up this year. Sure enough, at the beginning of the snows, the flock trucked right under the tree where the feeder used to hang, clucking and looking about, as if in confusion. “Well, it was here last year!”

I enjoy these waddling intricacies of perfection that somehow organized out of the universal chaos that our microscopes and statistics struggle to comprehend. They bring a smile to my day as they bob their heads and yodel about the backyard on their way back and forth to the feeder. I am glad my neighbor with the cat is not inclined to sup upon our feathered friends.

Bibliography

Jenkins, Virginia Scott. The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

Sahtouris, Elisabet. Earth Dance: Living Systems in Evolution. iUniversity Press, 2000.

 

Braking for Butterflies

In New England it’s late summer and the days are growing shorter, but still the sunshine-infused hours flow by lazily. The breezes are easy, not yet carrying down Arctic briskness and warnings of winter.

Floating on the wind, in sync with the slow energy of the season, are a myriad of butterflies—some white, some yellow, and some orange. Of note this year, and hooray for this as their population has been of concern, is a seemingly large number of monarchs (Danaus plexippus). These beauties maneuver the lift and fall of air currents with astounding grace.

Unfortunately, butterflies like to crisscross and hover over the back roads. In a speeding car, they are a challenge to miss, the flyers moving much more slowly and randomly than the hulk of metal propelled by fuel in a straight-forward trajectory. It’s common for the hapless butterfly to glance off of the windshield, or hood, and tumble to the road. I guess it’s human conditioning to say, “Oh well, it’s just an insect. What can one do?” This thinking is likely further justified by the idea that one has to get here or there as quickly as possible to do this or that, as if that task is one-thousand times more important to the grand scheme of the universe than the said butterfly’s mission to sip a flower or a raspberry, to pollinate, and prepare to travel thousands of miles to their winter hibernation grounds in Latin America.

While I never like hitting any living creature large or small, I will admit that I was one of those humans that made these justifications in my mind. That is, until this summer, when I took the time to observe the reality of these mishaps of vehicle to Lepidoptera, the insect order label taken “from the Greek, ‘Lepis’ = scale, ‘pteron’ = wing” (“Biology of the Monarch”).

This summer when I have witnessed a butterfly hit by a car, especially a large monarch, I’ve stopped to move it off the road. I do this just in case it was not injured badly and might still live. Sometimes my efforts are fruitful: the butterfly emerges from being stunned, grabs my finger with its legs, and takes flight. However, more frequently what I have discovered is rather horrifying: rarely is the insect dead. Instead it is alive with some part of its body maimed, be it its wings, legs, or torso. Alive, they lay in the gravel or on the burning hot tar awaiting death. For hours.

I’ve taken to mercy killings, putting them to a quick and painless end, though it saddens me to do so. I’m well aware that an insect’s experience, biologically speaking, of “pain” or “death” is considerably different than human awareness of such things. Science even indicates that they don’t really feel pain. I argue even so, to lie maimed on a road, is this not suffering in whatever the capacity of the experience?

The other evening I was taking a walk when I happened upon yet another monarch lying in the road. It’s astounding, actually, when you start to pay attention, how many are hit on a daily basis. I bent to pick it up, hoping it was dead having had a quick ending. But no, it was alive, it’s antennae swiveling this way and that. I inspected it carefully in my palm—wings were intact, torso intact with a bit of gravel and possible slight body injury on one side, a couple of crumpled legs. Maybe it will have a chance, I thought.

I carried it home where I studied it further with a flashlight, determining that recovery just might be possible.

Lining a small box with some paper towels and grass, I put the butterfly in the box, and set the box in the warm garage for the night. I added in a geranium blossom and some flowering clover. Not exactly sure what butterflies eat, I drew upon my knowledge derived from helping a client write a book about raising bees and added in a lid full of sugar water, put a dab of honey on a piece of clover, and put in a thimbleful of plain water, then propped the monarch up near the lid of sugar water. I was concerned that it didn’t seem to want to use its two good legs and had yet to flutter its wings. But its head moved all about curiously and its antennae continued to twitch this way and that. It seemed not to be suffering egregiously. I put on some classical music on my little garage radio, figuring that studies have shown it to be soothing to plants, why not an injured insect?

I’ll give it the night, I thought.

While preparing dinner—salad with blueberries and raspberries—a little light went off in my mind. I remembered seeing butterflies hovering around the black raspberry bushes out back, possibly sampling the berries. So I mushed up a raspberry and stuck it in the lid of sugar water. The monarch immediately unrolled its proboscis (its straw-like mouth). I joyfully watched it checking out the raspberry, then turned out the garage lights to resume my dinner preparations. Checking occasionally, I found the butterfly was still moving its proboscis about near the raspberry and turning its head this way and that. A positive sign. Yet I was disturbed that it had yet to move around otherwise.

Before bed, I checked on the butterfly one last time. This was about 5 hours after I had picked it up from the road. The monarch had stopped moving, its antennae resting at half-mast. I thought perhaps it was sleeping. Do butterflies sleep? I didn’t know. It’s amazing how little we humans really know about the workings of the natural world, yet we impact it daily. Leaving the classical music on, I went to bed. I did not hold out great hope … it seemed the insect’s legs were not working and its wings had perhaps been paralyzed by the hit. Still, it did not appear to be suffering and I wanted to give it a chance.

The next morning, I got up to see if there was any improvement for the injured member of the family Nymphalidae, subfamily Danainae. The monarch sat quite still, in exactly the same position at the lip of the sugar water, antennae at half-mast. Dead. Part of me was relieved that I didn’t have to kill it to end its misery. And perhaps, at least, its last hours had been pleasant—a warm, quiet garage, soft paper towel with fragrant grass and geranium, a taste of raspberry, and classical music—more pleasant than lying in the gravel, waiting.

Regardless of the current pronouncements of science about if and to what extent each living insect, animal, tree, or plant “feels” or doesn’t feel, or to what degree they experience consciousness, I believe there is a lot we don’t understand about energy, consciousness, and the bend of the universe. As Socrates professed, “the only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.” I try to keep this open mind and heart. I recognize that nature has her own hierarchy of suffering: survival of the fittest, needing sustenance to survive sometimes taken in cruel ways. And at the same time, I feel it is entirely possible and true that all matter and all living beings are manifestations of one, divine and universal energy—call it god if you will, the goddess, the Great Spirit, the outward thrust of the Big Bang. I felt there was a bit of me in the life of that butterfly and a bit of that monarch’s essence within me. It deserved my compassion.

This summer has brought a shift in my awareness of even the little creatures that may fall in my path, and so, to the extent that it is safe for me to do so, considering the roadway, the traffic behind me, I brake for butterflies.

Butterly three

Work Cited:

“Biology of the Monarch Butterfly.” NatureNorth.com: Manitoba’s Online Nature Magazine, Nature North Zine, 2018, http://www.naturenorth.com/summer/monarch/monarchF2.html.

Losing a Pet: Healing Through Poetry

Losing an animal companion is one of the hardest losses. I have had the good fortune to have one of my poems, “Drool,” published in this beautiful collection of poetry: Our Last Walk: Using Poetry for Remembering and Grieving Our Pets. Louis Hoffman, Michael Moats, and Tom Greening, Eds. University Professors Press.

Link: http://universityprofessorspress.com/project/our-last-walk-using-poetry-for-grieving-and-remembering-our-pets/

A perfect gift if you know an animal lover. I’ve read many of the poems in the collection and they are wonderful! But have a tissue handy!

 

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Old Mr. Mingus always loved to “go for a ride!”