Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Animals of Christmas

"You're such beasts!"

The Random Animal was fortunate enough to be in New York City for a few days of the Holiday Season. Festive displays abounded in Midtown and Uptown, remote in distance and sentiment from the site of Occupy Wall Street encampment. Now it's occupy Skate Rink encampment. 
Tourists, many fleeing Europe's debt crisis to enter into debt of their own, had cellphones out taking pictures of every window and New York emblem. As always, there was an inexplicable line of foreigners lined up to enter Abercrombie & Fitch, which merchandises its clothes by showing buff young people not wearing any. People gathered around the high-end stores near Central Park to see where the 1% might spend their allegedly undertaxed income. I'd heard that Bergdorf Goodman had particularly elaborate displays and moved with the crowd in that general direction.
I started out near the more plebian Herald Square Macy's, which claims to be the largest store in the world. It certainly was one of the most crowded. I made the mistake of seeing the window display out of order. I was enveloped not only by humanity but by sweeping symphonic music, the sort that would give sound to the culture of Hogwarts. White, bejeweled marionettes pretended to hit drums in the window. Maybe it was the vivid blue eyeshadow and red lipstick on white or the giraffe neck in Victorian collar of one anorexic figurine that creeped me out a bit--or that marionettes never change expression or blink. Someone called the figures angels, but they looked like Tim Burton's elongated versions of Toulouse Lautrec dancers in a Snow Queen setting. Then I saw in the first window that a rocket-riding marionette--super model as Willy Wonka--was a deliverer of ornaments to a sort of space-station earth and that the display's creation involved large donations to a children's charity. O.K., it's Christmasy then.
   Up 5th Avenue, Lord & Taylor had the most conventional scenes of a 1950s type family enjoying holiday baking, decorating, and sledding. Windows also featured many holiday-inspired drawings by children (real, not marionettes), and again a charity received benefits.
   The closer one got to the Trump Tower and elite hotels, the more elaborate and elegant the displays. I guess I was expecting sort of a Dickens scene (after Tiny Tim is fed and cured), but Bergdorf Goodman presented a "Carnival of Animals" theme. The animals all paid homage to a mannequin dolled up in the glamour of the 1920s or 30s. Sometimes the glamour girl was accompanied by a male figure with an animal head, so it's "Meet my date, Sir Walrus." If the animal/men misbehave, the enchantress will turn them into an adorable white capelet. 

"I think she's wearing our cousin."
I took pictures, and achieved an ethereal effect of dissolving animal/person against the reflection of a nature that appeared real but is the heavily manicured growth of Central Park. (Actually, like everyone else I was deploying my phone camera sans polarizing filter.) You could also argue that the display proved the 1% aren't really human like the rest of us. They are the bulls and bears of Wall Street (which, along with wolves, provided the heads for mannequin in the menswear windows). Or he's a Bottom to a Titania blinded by her own hat.
"My pony won a prize!"
None of these figures moved, so this was not an opportunity to see human/animal interaction in play or to follow the erotics of Ovid's metamorphosis. Maybe these displays fused a childhood memory with something mythic, Freudian, and exclusively expensive. Another day, and other animals of Christmas will appear in The Random Animal--the extraordinary ordinary ones, the Nativity with pets that poet Elizabeth Bishop imagines in one of her works.

The New York Street scenes were all a highly textured fantasy, and whether at Bergdorf or Walmart, yule festivities bring out the desire for 3-dimensional (or 4, 5, 6, adding music, time, and light) textures with all their color, coziness, brilliance, comfort, and allure. With a decorated butter cookie, a twinkling balsam fir, a wrapped present with bow, it's the hope that the materiality of the season (much of it inexpensive or homemade) will warm to spirituality.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Mysteries of the Seal

Chief Inspector Seal

The Random Animal’s long absence has a simple explanation: alien abduction. Usually such abductions occur in compressed inter-galactic time, so that the abductee returns in seconds without any sense of time lost and with only a vague sense of having been used in various sexually-curious experiments. This the abduction felt more like staying in a dark November room with a cold and trying to meet several unexpected work deadlines.
But several mystery novels that featured animals were consumed: False Mermaid by Erin Hart and Bad Intentions by Norwegian writer Karin Fossum. Neither one is specifically focused on animals, so read them for their suspense and ambiance rather than for sustained attention to animal issues. Nonetheless, they both reveal how humans imaginatively and literally use animals to help them negotiate human dilemmas.
Erin Hart’s mysteries feature the anthropological anthropologist, Nora Gavin, who travels back and forth between her Minnesota home and the bogs of Ireland, where she solves the ancient crimes behind bodies unearthed from peat. In False Mermaid, however, the mystery is much closer: that of her beautiful actress sister, Triona, five years earlier. Nora believes she knows the perpetrator, Triona’s slickly handsome husband, but can find no proof. It also seems there was something slippery and constantly changing about her sister’s character and behavior. Like the mermaids who fascinated her, was Triona lovely one moment and dangerous another, tempting others toward destruction?
This murder is set against Nora’s Irish experiences and her interest in songs about mermaids and seals that come ashore to become human wives but then slip away again—“selkies.” In one song the mythical creature who “abandons the love of life,” disappearing to human company, is named as a very specific woman, Mary Heaney, who left behind children, Patrick and Mary. As Nora contemplates the strange history, maybe even crime, behind the ballad, her eleven-year-old niece Elizabeth lives in Seattle with her murder-suspect father, and consoles herself over her mother’s loss with a stolen book called A Selkie’s Child and by going to the bay to commune with a real seal who seems taken with her.
The novel gathers suspense with two love interests for Nora (one American, one Irish), oversexed and jealous lovers, obsessions about past violence, the use of illicit drugs, a child caught between warring relatives, and transnational chases. Seals appear and disappear as a hint that something in the universe, perhaps something benevolent, is watching. While there are intimations of supernatural presences, the problems of human passion remain the focus. The animal is more important as an emblem and possibility. There are no interjections about what happens when seals are exposed to pollution or when people turn against them because they despoil a beach. The woman/seal interchange is beguiling, but a more plausible magic is to believe that seals and Labrador retrievers are the shape changers (not always much difference in their shapes.) Think about it. When I’ve kayaked among seals (not myself turning into one), their big round heads and eyes and curious looks, not to mention the bark, recall Labs who jump in the water and hold up their heads, waiting for some stick action. The Lab-seal. 
I forget, was I a mermaid or a Pinniped?

So the seals in the novel seem soulful and tender—answering the characters’ desires to find empathy and acceptance. The myths of mermaids and selkies belong to the human fascination with metamorphosis, with the wish to take on an animal’s mysterious powers. In the tales Hart includes, the metamorphosis involves loss. The seal who becomes human must leave her old life, perhaps forever, and submit to being a wife. The woman who becomes seal returns to freedom but must abandon what was loved.  To be fully human is a compromise.
The False Mermaid has a driving plot with the allure of myth and romance. If you like forensic detail blended with Celtic romance and Irishmen who play fiddles and flutes, enjoy.
Soon—Fossum and the redemptive cat.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Tiger Woes and Dolphin Joys

Pondering Extinction

The Random Animal is back on grid and through the media has been exposed recently to two real-life animals stories that follow a familiar plot line.
The first is the now infamous shootings near Zanesville, Ohio.  It started with a 911 call, according to The New York Times, in which a woman claimed a bear and lion were right behind her. Terry Thompson, the owner of a private menagerie, had released 56 animals including large predators and then shot himself. The plot of what came next was unfortunately predictable. Animals considered dangerous are mishandled by human caretaker, and though a human may be at fault for the predicament, the animals are almost inevitably killed. Nearly all the animals that Thompson freed for whatever reason were killed in the name of safety. That includes 17 lions and 18 Bengal tigers. The number of Bengals in the wild is just over 2,000, and their habitat is shrinking. Whether the Ohio killing was the right or wrong call will be much debated, but attention has turned to the keeping of exotic animals, legally and not, by private owners.  Danny Groner collected surveys and opinions for The Huffington Post. Not surprising, a number of editorials and individuals call for an outright ban on from owning wild animals; such a ban exists in 21 states. He also cites a defense of keeping exotic pets USA Today

     "'What Thompson did was selfish and insane; we cannot regulate insanity," says Zuzana Kukol at    USA Today. . .'If we have the freedom to choose what car to buy, where to live, or what domestic      animal to have, why shouldn't we have the same freedom to choose what species of wild or exotic     animal to own and to love?' Cutting down on exotic animals because of 'a few deranged individuals' would be like trying to 'ban kids' in hopes of curbing child abuse."

Maybe this comment is meant to wake people up in hopes of seeing a fight. The analogy between outlawing tigers and outlawing children or pet dogs doesn't quite work. First, there's the whole issue of captivity of undomesticated animals. Second, children and pet dogs are part of the normal fabric of "domesticated" American society, if one--kid or dog--is let out of the house, people on the street generally know how to cope. A pat on the head for either often suffices.  A Bengal male can be well over 500 lbs of hungry predator. That's a difference.
The emerging consensus is that the animals shouldn't have been in a big electoral college state to begin with. Now to another state with a large role to play in presidential elections and a particular connection to wildlife, Florida.
I'm in the Navy now.

Swim with Dolphin and Dolphin-Assisted Therapy programs dot the Florida coastline. That coastline at Clearwater is the setting for a true story, which has "inspired" a new 3-D motion picture, Dolphin Tale. The star is the nonfictional Winter, a tail-less dolphin who swims with a prosthetic attached to her peduncle (yes, that's what I said). You can watch Winter in real time through the Clearwater Marine Aquarium webcam.
The "inspired" part of the film, which I just saw, is probably the added story of a lonely boy who connects with life and the world by rescuing Winter. That plot line is typical of child-animal romances: boy/girl rescues dog/orca/seal/dolphin, and in turn the animal "rescues" the child from a miserable ostracism while the surrounding community expands its perspective and sympathies to finally welcome child and redeeming animal. By the way, this plot rarely includes big predators: the exceptions might be the Kevin Costner character and the implausibly friendly wolf in Dances with Wolves and also from several years back the film Two Brothers which features an English boy in India who deserves far better parents and tiger cubs who grow up to be enormous. Plot spoiler: the grown tigers are not kept as pets. 
Dolphin Tale follows this formula in a pleasing enough way, though it segues into a tale about disability, not just an animal's but that of children and adults. This film's statement about disability may be more sentimental than profound, but it does make the point that coping with disability involves financial, scientific, social, and emotional resources in a community setting. Toward the end of the film, humans with physical disabilities make a pilgrimage to see Winter, the little dolphin who could.
That brings up another topic: the rise of Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) and its variant Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT). I've yet to hear of Tiger therapy, but you could recommend it to your enemies. U.S. sites for DAT stress that dolphins are not mystical healers, but they provide joy and motivation. (The scientific evidence for DAT is not conclusive at this point.) O.K., there's the enormous issue of keeping any healthy dolphin in captivity. Dolphin researcher Lori Marino (one of the scientists who demonstrated that dolphins have mirror recognition and therefore self-awareness) and philosopher Thomas White are among those who believe that dolphins are too smart and social, and in need of too big an ocean home, to be held captive.
Meanwhile, more and more seek dolphin therapy, which I once observed, and the demand for it grows. For accounts and images of therapy, see Island Dolphin Care.
Back to the movie, Winter may be the rare animal suited for captivity: she could not survive in the wild and apparently has the social skills to thrive in an extended "family" of humans and dolphins. For me, the most touching parts of the movie came at the end, after the fictionalized child/animal plot, with documentary footage of Winter's rescue in 2006. The real rescue showed a dolphin bloody and traumatized by a crab trap and fishing ropes strangling her tail (there's another story here about habitat).  It's reassuring to know that at least one animal was saved from human folly.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Out to Lunch

The Random Animal has been preoccupied lately, but will return in a few days with new posts.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Holy Carp, Wolfman!

"I'm shocked!"
Asian Carp keep showing up in the news because they keep showing up in more rivers and lakes. They are not wanted. They eat, grow into giants, and displace other species. They could disrupt a 7 million dollar plus fishery business in the upper Midwest. But how to keep them out? In Minnesota, a plan to put electric barriers between the Mississippi River and the "wild and scenic" St. Croix has stalled, partly because of territorial issues. Does the other river bank--Wisconsin--have to be involved? What agency oversees a plan, and will the plan be effective?
A Star Tribune story of September 18th narrates how a $5 million dollar initiative to erect "an underwater sound barrier" got washed away. It seems the state's Department of Natural Resources thought the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would take over at some point, because that's what the Corps tends to do. "We were surprised to hear they couldn't work with us on the project," Steve Hirsch, the DNR's director of ecological and water resources, told the Star Tribune. Hirsch added that the Corps claimed "they weren't authorized or funded to work on it."In short, there are turf wars and a lack of communication among politicians who voted for the funding, the DNR, the two states, and the Army Corps. As the carp says, "I'm shocked!"
Complicating the issues is a debate about the effectiveness of barriers against hungry carp.  But here the Army Corps recently offered "new evidence that a series of barriers in the Chicago River waterway system have been 'very effective,'" and increased voltage might improve that further.
For some, there's way too much government entanglement with Big-Mouth Carp, and they want private industry (with grant help from somewhere, and often that somewhere is a gov't) to sell the Carp back to Asia as food. Eat the crappy carp!
"We're in uncharted waters here," according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources spokesman Chris McCloud in Thursday's Chicago Tribune. "Why remove them and put them into a landfill when you can take them and use them for good? If we can get past the name 'carp' and the perception ... we can prove this is going to be a highly nutritious, cheap meal." It tastes, according to promoters, like a cross between scallops and crabmeat, if you can get past the barrier of numerous bones. Carp are low in mercury and high in Omega 3 fatty acids, so let's call carp "silverfin" (Patagonian toothfish was re-imaged as pricey Chilean sea bass) and get it on the menu. A Chicago chef already has a recipe for "Carp-accio."
Well, let them eat carp!
There are those who take offense at the terms of the discussion with "invasive" species pitted against "native." One problem is that such terms don't account for "natural" or adaptive biological changes over the eons and for changes caused by climate and geographical events. Other reasons for concern include a problematic analogy with human migration issues. For example, are illegal immigrants (or any immigrants) from other countries a threat to U.S. "natives"? It has also been pointed out that summarily applying "illegal" to children and infants just doesn't sound right. This is an area where human/animal comparisons fall apart: humans have the advanced cultural skills (we hope) to deal with global interchanges. Also, what does "native" mean when applied to U.S. residents? They're actually Asiatic but crossed an Alaskan land bridge in Prehistory? They were already here when the Mayflower landed? They came on the Mayflower? They fled a potato famine? They fled the Nazis and arrived with advanced degrees in physics? Complicate that with the travels of European or American "natives" in the era of colonialism and currently with globalization.? Is Coca-Cola a dangerous invasive species?
The Random Animal will leave these questions for presidential debates. There's also the point that being a species native to the North American Continent insures acceptance and protection. Take the case of the wolf, again. As noted in the blog of August 24th, Montana and Idaho will have hunting seasons for the re-introduced wolf. Apparently, withdrawing the wolf from the endangered species list was part of a federal budget deal--the wheeling and dealing that happens to pass legislation or tuck in a special interest item. All this is explained on a recent PBS Newshour report. Many ranchers still hate wolves, though wolves were in the area first. Since their reintroduction in 1995 to Yellowstone National Park, wolves have spread outside those boundaries and have killed about 4500 cattle and sheep. (It is difficult to find out if specific herds are particularly beset or how many livestock roamed the areas.) One rancher interviewed couldn't see the point of anyone wanting such a successful predator around. Another ranch family addresses the risk of wolf attach by keeping cattle grouped within movable fencing, mimicking the protective circle buffalo create. It takes more time and money, but they have not had wolf problems. And problem wolves have been shot regularly, under gov't oversight, and they are not part of the hunt count. The scientist involved with the wolves' return is not against hunting them. It's the numbers that are upsetting. As the Newshour reports, Montana has about 600 wolves and will permit the taking of 220. The Idaho plan is to reduce the state's 1000 wolves to 150. That's pretty close to the definition of "decimation." The argument for wolves? They are a "cash cow" for the Park, drawing in observers, photographers, amateur naturalists. They have reduced elk herds in the region, so plant growth has revived, preserving more plant species, keeping the rivers healthier, and supporting more small wildlife including songbirds.
Maybe "native" and "alien" are misleading terms for carp and wolves. It's a matter of viable bio-diversity. Add too many carp, and that's damaged. Take away too many wolves, and that's damaged.
If only the wolf's main food source was carp.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Melville's Moby Dick and Jon Stewart's Daily Show

credit to

No, this is not a set-up for a bad joke. I've been slowly re-reading Moby-Dick (don't remember the first reading) and should be finished in time for the 2016 elections. It takes a long time to reach actual discussion of The Whale; and the blubber-thick book of wind-driven ships, Quakers, and harpooners seems wildly distant from current crises of international debt defaults, climate change, and twittering politicians. The novel resides in that unreachable ocean, The Past.
Then again, in the opening chapter,  narrator Ishmael imagines the front page of a newspaper announcing his whaling voyage sandwiched between these headlines: "Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States" and "Bloody Battle in Afghanistan." Herman Melville and a writer of the next generation, Mark Twain, might have been shocked and dismayed by Bernie Madoff  Ponzi schemes, but they would not have been surprised. Confidence men--the Con--have prominent places in their fictions and apparently in the American fabric. Both writers recognized the ability of people to con others and that most frequent trick, to con themselves. A nation of self-conners.
And while those with a recollection of American Lit. think of Moby-Dick's tale (sorry) as tragic, involving Death and Ahab, Ishmael offers a wry running commentary on the strangeness of human beings and their business. There's snark. He could be Jon Stewart or John Oliver, an extremely well-read and less crude version, bemused by pretension and folly in all he sees. A landlady, concerned about the doings or the having done of a boarder locked in his room, exclaims "He's killed himself ... It's unfort'nate Stiggs done over again--there goes another counterpane." To save bed covering counterpanes she dispatches a servant: "Go to Snarles the Painter, and tell him to paint me a sign, with--'no suicides permitted here, and no smoking in the parlor.'"
O.K., Ishmael's (or rather Melville's) sentences are extremely layered, and as with Hawthorne and Thoreau a plethora of deep meanings are implied but not necessarily revealed and validated. There's an undeniable quest for meanings that, in the end, remain inscrutable or absent. After reflecting on how there's "all the difference in the world between paying and being paid," a point brought home by the current recession, Ishmael speculates on an "invisible police officer of the Fates, who has the constant surveillance of me, and secretly dogs me, and influences me in some unaccountable way." (This 160 years before phone tapping and Rupert Murdoch--an Ahab after a story). Phrases, allusions,  vocab, and foreshadowing throughout the book (Fate, Providence, Monster, superior natural force, ponderous heart, reality or a dream) send undergrads scrambling for the Code Book offered by internet versions of Cliff Notes.
Despite the aggregation of footnotes--blubber valuable or not--attending the text, the book is deemed by certain sources as appropriate for grades 5 (a precocious grade 5) and up. There are no sex scenes or bad words (depending about how you consider "sperm" as in "sperm whale), while the violence, mostly against animals, is quite acceptable. Certainly in the last decades of the 20th century, Ishmael's lack of obscenity and sexual encounters, along with his apparent acquiescence to authority, seem very innocent. That's until you get to the Gay Marriage part. Or the bonding with non-Christians.
It's not really same-sex marriage, but early on Ishmael shares a bed with the purply heathen Queequeg, who sounds like a cross between a giant Aborigine and a Smurf.
Thanks to Rockwell Kent and Pop Culture


It was not uncommon for boarders in an inn, particularly the poor ones, to share beds, and the landlord thinks it quite amusing to pair the vulnerable young Ishmael with a tattooed "cannibal" who's been out trying to sell a shrunken head. After some initial awkwardness involving a tomahawk, the two settle down to sleep, and Ishmael awakens the next morning with "Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife." There's certainly no talk of sexual attraction, and during following days the men focus on getting an assignment on a whaling ship. But their camaraderie deepens. In the chapter "A Bosom Friend," Ishmael concludes, "there is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till near morning. Thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg--a cosy, loving pair."
How this passage would fare on FOX network discussions I don't want to know. The 5th grade teacher who dares to impose such dense prose on young students could well focus on the emotional intimacy, which lacks eroticism. Melville himself was married in a traditional way, and in a traditional way it went badly. Let's guess that Melville was difficult and moody. Then his sea-tale popularity, dragging his income along, started to make a frightening dive, rather like that of an incumbent president's during a recession. That might drive any wife to nagging or retreat.
Back to the bonding of Ishmael and Queequeg--probably shocking in 1851 was the intimacy between a very white Christian and a dark tattooed Pacific islander who worships a black wooden totem. Many of the early encounters between the two and other whalers revolve around Ishmael defending Queequeg's character--"see how elastic our stiff prejudices become when love comes to bend them." (And we are being set up for end events, which are far from cozy liaisons.) The plot moves forward when Ishmael convinces the managers of the Pequod, self-righteous and cheap Captain Bildad and blustery Captain Peleg, to sign up himself and Queequeg. "Queequeg here is a born member of the First Congregational Church," Ishmael protests, and when the pious Bildad pushes for explanation, Ishmael expounds that "every mother's son and soul of us belong" to the "great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world." Bildad hesitates at that ecumenical inclusion, but Peleg accepts Queequeg's faith upon seeing his "wild sort of" accuracy with a harpoon: "Quick, I say, you Bildad, and get the ship's papers. We must have Hedgehog there, I mean Quohog, in one of our boats. Look ye, Quohog, we'll give you the ninetieth lay [a portion of profits far larger than Ishmael's], and that's more than ever was given a harpooneer yet out of Nantucket."
And that brings us to the Corporate Business of Whaling in the 19th and the 21st century--more on that to come.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Last Heron of Summer

The nights are cool, the afternoons hot. The monarchs are moving south, but some migratory species still find time to bask in ultra-marine skies. This great blue heron found his pedestal,

Then he spoke,
And then fanned his wings to the sun.

The Random Animal will be traveling for a few days and will return with some book reviews.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Wanted: Beavers, not Horses

Photo by Mary Beth Atwood from

Texas is on fire. About 120,000 acres are burned or burning, about 700 homes have been lost thus far. According to the Texas Forest Service website, fire fighters spent the labor day holiday responding to 22 new fires.
Like the "megafires" described in a recent Audubon Magazine article (and discussed in an earlier blog here), these conflagrations degrade ecosystems and cause human suffering. When people suffer, animals suffer. That includes species often privileged or idealized, like horses. The two-year drought in Texas has turned grass and hay into kindling. Animals do not have enough to eat; farmers and ranchers have nothing to harvest and store. Hay is imported from states like Iowa, but that's not the same as having adequate grass growing where the animals live. More and more bone-thin horses are left with rescue groups, as  reported by ABC news earlier this summer. The same circumstances that lead to horse abandonment or surrender also inhibit adoption or horses restored to health. Some rescue groups, like Brighter Days near San Antonio, fear that they cannot take in any more animals.
While Texas and the nation struggle with immediate responses to fire and drought, other long-term solutions are up for consideration.
Some ranchers in rain-starved regions would like to see beaver return. This may seem like an odd longing, especially since beaver are often seen as pests whose constructions block trout streams, boating channels, or drainage lines.
"I know you want me."

As reported by a recent Wall Street Journal article, "in many states, it's legal to shoot a beaver on private land." However, the same article explains that beavers are excellent restorers of wetlands. As one conservancy director explains, "We can spend $200,000 putting wood into a stream, cabling down logs. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Put in a colony of beavers and it always works." So ranchers in places like Wyoming and Washington want to bring beavers back to places where they had been banished. What beaver dams retain can mitigate the impact of a dry season and provide drinking water for cattle and wildlife, and the subsurface water table fluctuates less. So now beavers are live-trapped elsewhere to be transferred to ranch lands that have some water source. Other species, from cougar and moose in the North and songbirds about anywhere, seem to rebound where beavers have created wetlands.
Texas is not currently in a situation where beavers can save the day. But the re-evaluation of beavers suggests that holistic approaches to ecosystems are not just for the dreams of abstract nature-lovers but for those who make a living from the land.
Dam, it's gone!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Of Monarchs and Men

Bound for Mexico?
Two to three, then three to four, then twenty or so flitted above the trees and across the path to the prairie. Over the acres of prairie, there were more, settling onto rough blazing star, a favorite, or goldenrods, sunflowers, lobelia. Monarchs are hard to count (and harder to photograph I found) because they are more skittish than birds, they disappear into an infinity of grass, and they collapse into a barely visible line when they turn and close their wings.

While summer heat can still top 80 degrees, some maple trees have decided to break the news that fall is coming with branches tinged red. The monarchs I saw in the prairie reserve may have been hatched there--milkweed, the pablum of the caterpillar, is abundant. Or maybe they had already traveled from Canada. Unlike the butterflies who saw birth, metamorphosis and death in the spring, in early summer, in midsummer, these may have a life span not of two weeks, but like their great-grandparents, of long winter months. And they won't just flutter from milkweed to blossom--they will travel over 2,000 miles to the high altitude fir forests of Mexico,  a pilgrimage to the oyamel--the Abies religiosa  or Sacred Fir.
Yes, Monarchs are migrants. While their border crossings may appear apolitical, their shifting states of residence become entangled with economic and diplomatic issues. Monarchs draw tourists to Mexico to see the tens of millions turning a tree from a thing of needles to a thick drapery of wings. But habitat all along the way is threatened. Milk"weed" is more welcome than it once was, because it's become more widely known that it is the sole nursery for monarch eggs. As with just about everything, global warming plays a role, altering what plants thrive or die where and when. As always, there's human development.
The Audubon Society warns that deforestation linked to population growth eats away at Monarchs' winter retreat: "Aerial photographs of the region 30 years ago show a forest of nearly 2,000 square miles. Today, only a tenth of it remains. The largest tract today is 20 square miles, five times smaller than the largest tract 15 years ago." Population growth, according to this analysis, has contributed to use and destruction of forests, though there have been advances in this area. "The good news is that because of an aggressive family planning program, the fertility rate of Mexico has dropped from 6.1 in 1970 to 2.7 today and Mexico's population is 32 million lower than predicted 30 years ago." Then the other shoe drops: "The bad news is that demographic momentum is still expected to carry Mexico past the 135 million mark over the course of the next 30 years."
Meanwhile, human and animal lives are recovering from the devastation caused by Hurricane Irene's unusual course. It's hard to imagine a time in the past when  "Hurricane" and "Vermont" appeared in the same sentence. The Midwest sunflowers, however, rise oblivious to trees and plants and people fallen and swept away elsewhere. They wisely turn their faces to light and warmth.

  Maybe our human responses to change seem more complicated, though it's hard to comprehend how after 3 intermediary generations, a monarch can trace her ancestor's route from a prairie by a silty stream to mountains far south. A poet well aware of such complications is Amy Clampitt. The following is an excerpt from her tribute to her dead brother, "Urn-Burial and the Butterfly Migration":

an urn of breathing jade, its
          gilt-embossed exterior the
          intact foreboding of a future
          intricately contained, jet-
          veined, spangle-margined,
          birth-wet russet of the air-
          traveling monarch emerging
          from a torpid chrysalis. Oh,
          we know nothing

          of the universe we move through!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Death, Taxes, and Wolves

Where are the piggies?

Here's one and . . .

Here's more, thanks to cartoonist Kahlil Bendib

Taxes and wolves have much in common. Both are demonized as scourges of humankind. Both can play beneficial roles in sustaining a community--providing social services and protecting landscapes from destruction by ungulates. Republicans (and a number of Democrats) in certain states rail against both.
We'll return to taxes later--they never disappear for long. Current wolf controversy in the greater Midwest centers around the possible "delisting" of wolves as an "Endangered Species" deserving special protections under U.S. federal law. In Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, where wolves roam northern forests, the population is about 4,000. In Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, the number is about 1700, and many of those descended from wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s. One ecologist who studies the Yellowstone wolves and hails from another wolf state--Dan MacNulty at the University of Minnesota, believes that the millions of federal dollars (a big number but a drop in the gov't budget) could be better directed toward species in more dire circumstances. (See "Wolf Pact" in Audubon Magazine.)
So why not follow the law and delist the wolves? Because there's resistance by conversation and wildlife groups to state management proposals, and the state proposals sound anything but wolf-friendly. In the Rocky Mountain/Yellowstone region, according to The Economist, the wolves "are a snaggletoothed symbol of big government gone mad." But it's the locals who are mad enough to shoot. As The Economist reports, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission authorized a lupine hunting season. A contingent of animal defenders are against all hunting, but many wildlife biologists have long thought that hunting--of deer, Canada geese, even predators--can deter animals from feeling too cozy in human presence and work in favor of ecological balance. However, wildlife principles lose out to varmit-killing in these debates. The Idaho proposal would allow the killing of 85% of the state's population of 1,000. A cousin to that proposal in Montana would permit a take of nearly half that state's wolves.  With these sorts of proposals, you get a debt-ceiling type stalemate where certain organizations say no taxes, oops, "no wolves," and others say don't touch the wolves' entitlements.
Oh, there are complications. Wolves do kill livestock--cows, sheep, horses--and good luck finding accurate numbers there. (Conservationists claim ranchers overestimate depredation; however, it is hard to prove wolf damage when one comes across a carcass on the open range.) Yes, wolves receive the benefit of tax dollars. So do Western ranchers, through the public lands grazing programs.
The Federal Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, a department you generally don't hear about unless they're accused of screwing up, manages the grazing permits and fees. Are the fees reasonable or do they amount to a federal subsidy for ranchers? Another hot debate. Speaking of hot, through the BLM website, you can sign up to fight wildfires, and the wildfires have been hot, hot, hot lately.
According to Daniel Glick, in Audubon Magazine again, climate warming in the Western states has fostered the conditions for "megafires": "The western fire season is now 205 days, 78 days longer than in 1986. What's more, there have been four times as many fires that wiped out more than 1,000 acres than there were in the 1970-1986 period, and six times as much acreage burned." In part, protecting ourselves against fires has, well, backfired. Natural fuels of grasses, shrubs, and forest debris build up. For this reason, some areas have prescribed burns to keep the fire danger lower and to reset a biological cycle. Where fires occur that are NOT superhot like the mega ones that sterilize soils, kill of wildlife in a large area, and damage water sources, Glick explains, the ash adds soil nutrients and diverse plant growth begins, while species from woodpeckers to morel mushrooms return. Like wolves and taxes, fires are part of a system that sets up a cycle of renewal that keeps a community moving forward rather than collapsing under the weight of a too-dominant presence, from elk herds to dead wood to social stagnation.
Regenerative fire, like roaming wolves and tax increases, sounds great if it occurs far away from where you are. It's easy to be sanguine about fire and wolf attack when you're in a low-fire danger, wolf-free, middle-class neighborhood. A fire historian at Arizona State University, Steven Pyne, tells Glick that the Australians are much better at protecting property from fire hazards. That's important knowledge, because more people are moving into Western fire zones in the U.S. (and into cougar territory, by the way). Taxes and fees can play a role in managing the kinds of development, much of it resort or second home residences, that moves into wild scenery. Glick takes aim at the sacred mortgage interest tax deduction: "Changing laws to eliminate a mortgage tax deduction for second homes or charging developers the full cost of public services (like putting out rural fires) would go a long way." If this reform were to occur, those who insist on having a second home despite the loss of a tax break could then debate where those federal dollars should go--to a mediation program between wolves and ranchers?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Moose Vs. Deer

How's my brain, Rocky?

You would think moose would win. They're bigger, they can take cold weather, they can team up with flying squirrels. But in Minnesota, Moose seem to be losing to deer.
In the forests of northern Minnesota, moose are dying off. A recent report from the state's Department of Natural Resources notes that in the northwest corner (the aspen/uplands biome), the population has dropped from several thousand to about a hundred. Thousands of moose still seem to be present in the northeast corner of boreal forests. There is also widespread feeding of deer across the North, to build up deer populations for viewing and for hunting. That may be part of the problem, because deer carry parasites that are more dangerous to moose, particularly brainworm.
Yes, brainworm does live in the brain (where it lays eggs), some of the time. For much of its life cycle the worm, actually a nematode if that means something to you, lives in various parts of the deer, moving about through stomach, throat, brain in ways that you'll find fascinating if you're scientifically inclined or attracted to all things gross. At some point, the parasite is deposited by way of fecal matter (that's a euphemism), to be consumed by snails or other gastropods (gastronomers in search of a delicacy?), and then the infected snails are ingested along with plants by white-tail deer, who generally don't seem much affected by the whole process. Moose, elk, or caribou do not show the same tolerance, and neurological disorders begin: the diseased animals circle, they stumble, they tilt their head, they seem to loose vision, and their hindquarters no longer support them. If the condition itself is not always fatal, the afflicted moose is certainly vulnerable to other problems. Since deer are the dominant carriers, it seems that reducing deer numbers might be beneficial to their suffering cousins.
The state wildlife or natural resources departments that seek to protect the moose get much of their income year after year from hunting licenses. So if they cut back on deer numbers, they may be shooting themselves in the foot, so to speak. The big game manager for Minnesota, Lou Cornicelli, feels the pinch (mixing metaphors now). He claims that "If we don't do anything, the end point [for moose] is fairly certain," then says of the desire to feed deer versus ending the practice, "If you want to pick a controversial topic, that's going to be it."
So are there way too many deer and not enough moose?
Unless you move to another state--location, location, location. In Maine, a smaller state but with more wet woodland habitat than Minnesota, the moose population is about 29,000.  There is a moose hunt, with prospective hunters buying lottery tickets in hopes of being among the few thousand who get to hunt the big weed-eater. As for white-tails, their population in Maine has been stressed by hard winters, coyotes, and loss of habitat according to some reports. I've found that a Google search on the Maine deer issue does not quickly yield clear data on deer numbers and, highly debatable, what "optimal" numbers might be--optimal for the deer, for the moose, for the coyotes, for the conifers, for the populated coast, for hunters? Many in that state, like the deer feeders in northern Minnesota, want to see deer numbers go up.  Deer still outnumber moose in Maine, about 9 times more, and the hunting numbers reflect that. About 2,000 moose are "harvested" in a season, while in 2010 over 20,000 deer were taken, an increase of 11% over the previous year. Yet 2011 Maine news stories about deer focus on the desire to increase the population, probably because deer hunting brings about $200 million into the economy annually.
If you want to find a place where deer are thick and people want them gone, go to the suburbs of the Twin Cities, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh. Maybe people there aren't worrying about brainworm nematodes, but there is landscaping to protect, lyme disease to avoid, and car accidents waiting to happen.
 For a more thoughtful read on Moose and the problems of hunting than anything provided above, I recommend Franklin Burroughs' essay which is reprinted in several nature writing anthologies: "Of Moose and a Moose Hunter".

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What a Dog Means

Yes, even The New Yorker has dogs, particularly in the days when James Thurber contributed his distinctive vision of canine attributes. A recent essay by commentator-at-large Adam Gopnik is part conversion story, part book review, and all dog. In the opening, Gopnik admits to being ignorant about dogs, to the point that he agrees with a friend who asserts that “Dogs are failed humans.” (Really, it’s because of humans who are “failed humans” that people turn to non-speaking hairy quadrupeds.)  He then narrates his daughter’s quest to get a dog, a well-researched quest that ends with a Havanese (formerly the little white dog of Havana) puppy named Butterscotch as resident of their New York apartment. Gopnik was expecting the trials of having a newborn baby in the house, but was happily surprised:
All the creature wanted was to please. Unlike a child, who pleases in spite of herself, Butterscotch wanted to know what she could do to make you happy, if only you kept her fed and let her play. She had none of the imperiousness of a human infant. [. . .] What makes kids so lovable is the tension between their helplessness and their drive to deny it. Butterscotch, though, was a born courtesan.
But besides “compelling sweetness,” Butterscotch occasionally indulged in a petite rampage, leading Gopnik to the question of how, when, why, wolves and dogs split somewhere on the evolutionary branch.
Me and  
and my cousin?

            For answers, many tentative and speculative, Gopnik turns to a number of recent and soon-to-be-released books. These include Edmund Russell, “Evolutionary History,” which supposes people captured wolf pups and then demurs that, given wolves’ intransigence to human commands, it is difficult to believe early peoples persisted with wild youngsters. Raymond and Lorna Coppinger in “Dogs” (2001) propose that dogs domesticated themselves, choosing to see what was offered by the circle of human warmth, cooking, and garbage. Mark Derr, in his forthcoming book “How the Dog Became the Dog,” focuses more on the evolving temperament and role of dogs. For Derr, breeding and training have created a regrettable shift from dog as partner and ally to dog as sycophant and totally needy dependent.  John Bradshaw in “Dog Sense” points to a different fate for many contemporary dogs: they are the wanderers and scavengers of mean streets. As Gopnik summarizes, “the usual condition of a dog is to be a pigeon.”
The different theories about how dogs came to be dogs hint that “the line between artificial and natural selection seems far less solid, and the role of man at the center far less fixed. Indeed Russell suggests that even our distinct breeds may be more drifts than decisions.”
Gopnik, from his stance as “the full authority of fourteen months of dog,” says these evolutionary and anthropological accounts neglect the simple concept that “people love pets.” Even “primitive” societies took in animals that served no useful purpose other than to just be there.  And dogs have a powerful role in our mythology: “The range of evolutionary just-so stories and speculations is itself proof of the way dogs have burrowed into our imaginations. Half the pleasure of having a dog, I could see, was storytelling about the dog.”
For another scientific approach to canines, he turns to Alexandra Horowitz’s “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know.” Besides detailing the significance of scents to a dog, Horowitz debunks the Cesar-Millan type emphasis on “pack” behavior: “Dogs, she explains, are domesticated animals, and to treat them as though they were still in a pack rather than long adapted to a subservient role in a human family is absurd as treating a child as though it were ‘really’ still a primate living in a tree” (50). Gopnik finds Horowitz’s arguments compelling, and acknowledges that she had previously worked at The New Yorker, while he is dismissive of Kathy Rudy’s “Toward a New Animal Advocacy.” He writes of the author’s academic premise: “Rudy believes that dogs have been as oppressed and colonized as Third World peoples have, and that what they need is not empathy but liberation. She has a confused notion of something that she calls ‘capitalism,’ which is somehow held uniquely responsible for the oppression of animals, including dogs.”  Gopnik’s critique is valid in that animals had been used and abused long before “usury” or “Marxism” entered the vocabulary, but in this attachment-centric article, he does not touch on factory farming, puppy mills, or the internet sales of animals. However, he has earlier admitted that he didn’t want to take time to search out a breeder with his daughter, so she “quietly decided she could live with a Manhattan petstore ‘puppy mill’ dog if she could check its eyes for signs of illness and its temperament for symptoms of sweetness.” Butterscotch seems fine, but Gopnik's decision suggests that when people deal with dogs, convenience wins over caution on a dog’s behalf. Nor does he discuss how apartment life, like modern affluent life in general, excludes much of what could be part of a dog's, and a human's, experience, so that almost the entire focus is on a protected and specific affective relationship.
There is no doubt that Gopnik has come to love his dog (he debates behavioral reductionism of both canine and human responses), to the point of becoming one of those dog people he used to mock. This essay is a pleasant introduction to several books and theories, and as a New Yorker piece Gopnik can skip the detailed logic and documentation of scholarly work to offer sweeping interpretations of the human and the dog: “Dogs have little imagination about us and our inner lives but limitless intuition about them; we have false intuitions about their inner lives but limitless imagination about them. Our relationship meets in the middle.” You can judge if indeed less than two years of dog ownership and lots of book reading have given Gopnik insights, not just into dogs but into human desires.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Beyond Bad News?

A Thing with Feathers

The Random Animal has spent the last week in a news-induced coma. It seems that politicians and speculators have decided that in order to save the economy, they must destroy it. Maybe, maybe, out of all the upheaval, corporations and financial institutions that are sitting on money will start creating new jobs in areas like Green Energy?
Yes, Hope is a thing with feathers, provided Hope doesn't get downgraded to Double A wishful thinking. Things with feathers are facing threats right now from energy production plans. Ideal resolutions are somewhere in the distant heavens, and the significant immediate concern is determining what projects or compromises are most sustainable.
A local headline announced about a week ago that a Wind Turbine Farm in a Mississippi River town could harm nesting eagles.  According to the article about a proposal for a 12,000 acre project (that's big),  "the developer could face civil or even criminal action under federal laws if a bald eagle or an even more rare golden eagle is felled by one of the massive blades."  A spokesman for the energy company claimed that the placement of 50 turbines is being planned so "they will cause the least harm to flying wildlife, from long-eared bats to loggerhead shrikes to eagles." He added that all projects had risks and said "I don't know that a wind farm has ever been built that didn't result in some bird or bat mortality."
The townspeople object--are they too adamant in their support of eagles?
It seems the anti-wind turbine group formed because residents didn't like the idea of turbines so close to their property. They didn't mention eagles until the birds' presence came out in the energy company's impact report. Then the protesters flocked (sorry) to the birds' defense. The protesters claim there are about 8 nests in the vicinity, the company says 2, and wildlife agencies count 4 to 6. It's hard to get unbiased evidence. IF the project moved several miles away, would eagles still be in the way? Would the protest group, once the project left their backyard, care?
Wind Turbines can hurt wildlife. I live in a town with two--two is not a big number, and birds are not found at the base. There are several possible explanations; the turbines aren't on migratory paths or right next to a large nesting site. But they're close enough to small wildlife habitats that owls, hawks, the odd coyote, a stray cat, and more, come by to see if there's an easy breakfast and if there is a songbird corpse, it disappears. That is NOT an endorsement of all wind turbine projects, and many environmental groups see greater threats in other sources of energy.
Like the Keystone XL pipeline. It would run from Tar Sands in Northwest Canada to Texas. The company already has other pipelines in place. Another company with oil lines in place (heard of Exxon?) did not advance its smeary reputation with a July 1 spill along the Yellowstone River in Montana. According to an EPA report issued today, August 9, the oil from that Silvertip line break that wasn't captured in clean-up from the river banks is "degrading naturally in the environment." Let's hope that's true.The Silvertip line is done.
But that still leaves TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline in the works. The project requires permission from the U.S. Department of state to cross the international border. Ted Williams, writing in Audubon Magazine,  fears for the birds--and human residents along the proposed trail. As he explains in "Tarred and Feathered", the extraction of the oil means that at the Canadian end "the entire native ecosystem has to be bulldozed away, the tar sands below strip-mined." It gets better (or worse). The XL line "will be buried inside the largest underground reservoir on the planet--the Ogallala Aquifer, which charges rivers, lakes, and marshes and supplies drinking and irrigation water to eight states." And what runs through the pipe from Alberta to Houston? Diluted Bitumen, with "high concentrations of chloride salts, sulfur, abrasive minerals, and acids." Oh, and lots of carbon dioxide--perhaps 27 million metric tons--will be released annually in the entire process. What else is along the path? According to Williams, "habitat for 30 percent of the continent's land birds--at least 215 species." Included in that group are the sandhill crane and the still-rare whooping crane.
Worst case scenarios can be imagined, and it seems that internationally politicians, economists, and media people have been excellent at presenting worst-case scenarios on debt and investment. There are real concerns, but elements of the crisis seem to exist in computer simulations and spreadsheets and political campaigning. Time to get outdoors, look at a non-virtual landscape, before slipping back into a coma. . .
More Things with Feathers

Find the solution yet?

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Prostitution, TV, the Saving Animal, and, Surprise Surprise, Good News From D.C.

Alex, the Gray Parrot trained by Irene Pepperberg, choosing an activity other than TV watching.

"Prostitutes to Parrots" is the title of a new program that features Heidi Fleiss. Back in the old days of the 1990s, she became infamous for running a Hollywood Brothel and for landing in prison for tax evasion. Her reform over the interim has been supported by what the New York Times calls "the greasy runoff of reality television." The next phases of her career begins Sunday night on Animal Planet. The cameras will follow her life with 20 brilliantly colored macaws. In a preview, Heidi explains how she used to have millions, but then the Federal Government got to her. (The fed. gov. isn't getting any good publicity lately--having once gotten Heidi's ill-gotten gains is not enough cushion against default.) Now Heidi is looking for ways to support the macaws. Animals have given her a new lease on life, and now she needs ways to keep that lease solvent.
Another "celebrity" whose life is taking a new turn is Rosanne Barr, famous for being Rosanne Barr. Her eponymous show equated working class and honest with crude and blunt and funny. She's still uninhibited, busy in Hawaii growing macadamias in the company of goats--goats she claims are judgmental. Apparently there's a running battle with wild pigs. All profiled on the Lifetime channel as "Rosanne's Nuts." The New York Times again sums up the impact of macaws, goats, nuts, and pigs: "Animals bring out a glimmer of humanity in even the most synthetic narcissists.

It's wonderful to have some distraction during the debt-ceiling crisis which is actually a faux crisis according to some sources like The Economist--in that you only have to say/vote--let's have a higher limit!  But organizations like Audubon Society are tracking legislation and while dream programs may not be possible in an economy that still trying to find a fresh way out of old and new dilemmas, there is actually "Good News from Washington, DC." A bipartisan effort kept the Endangered Species act from being gutted. Mike Daulton of Audubon explains:
"This historic vote demonstrates the strong support that exists for protecting our nation’s most imperiled wildlife.  We applaud the 224 members of Congress who supported the amendment sponsored by Representatives Norm Dicks (D-WA), Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Mike Thompson (D-CA), and Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI) striking language from the Interior and Environment bill that would have dismantled endangered species protections. Without the amendment, this bill would have crippled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and driven imperiled plants and animals to extinction. Passage of the amendment brings hope that both parties ultimately will reject extremist assaults on America’s great natural heritage.”For more, see the Audubon website.
On a side note, some unendangered species appeared in my neighborhood this hot weekend: wide-winged eagles over the boat-busy river and the long-limbed sandhill cranes slow-marching through new-mown fields.