Sunday, January 30, 2011


 (Picture not included at this time because of technical difficulties in the blogger's brain.)
The random animal is on a business/pleasure trip to Florida, where wise birds spend the winter. Sandpipers work the shoreline, like the poetical one described with skewed precision by Elizabeth Bishop:
The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn't tell you which.
His beak is focussed. . . .

Certainly a number of birds seem intent on what turns over in tide and sand, but some like the human counterparts who inhabit a January beach seem lazy. A group of sanderlings huddle together, all balanced on one leg, with tiny head under tiny wing. Like dogs reluctant to surrender the couch, they all hop one-legged as people approach, hoping no one will come close enough to force them to really work at moving.

This is also the shore of boat rides, along the intercoastal maze of netted waterways, or out on the breezy Gulf of Mexico, here seemingly free of the ghosts of oil spills past. Everyone cheers at seeing dolphins surface, even as the boats crowd them. Like the sanderlings, we don't want to change our comfortable position to make way for others.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Mammals at play

(pinniped or pinpoint surfer?)
Along the Southern California shore, the heads of sea lions and seals bob in the water. Or they could be the heads of surfer dudes, who look much like seals at a distance. On a day of moderate surf, they wait. The watchers also wait to see who catches a wave. Anticipation can suspend time, or stretch it, or shrink it. Waiting for something dramatic, poised, is different than just waiting. It's more like the waiting of a heron, poised to take a fish, or the waiting of a polar bear for a seal.
Sometimes mammals, particularly the human sort, shift their abilities to inhabit different elements. Humans and labrador retrievers become seal-like, hunting for something in cold waters. Seals become like labrador retrievers, hauling a muscular hulk to a warm place, looking around with big sleepy eyes, huddling with others for body warmth and softness.
I once read that if given eons, the polar bear may become fully aquatic, an evolutionary reversal as an organic being returns to the sea. If only that could happen before all ice floes melt and the unprepared polar bear has nowhere to go.

There is a controversy here about sea lions and seas moving onto the beaches--more on that later

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Mortal Immortality of Birds

I'm reading a lovely, elegiac collection of poems by Derek Walcott, White Egrets, and the descriptions of birds recall for me the 1919 poem by W.B. Yeats, "The Wild Swans at Coole":

Unwearied still, lover by lover
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

For these aging poets, as for their romantic predecessor Keats, birds in their continuing songs and flight evoke ever intense youth. Their poetic symbolism accords in a way with views of wildlife biologists: it is the bird as type, the survival of the species, that matters. The flock returns year after year to Capistrano, not the individual.
But Americans are still upset about the New Year's deaths of masses of individual blackbirds in Arkansas. So far, no conspiracy theory about why the birds dropped from the sky has been validated. A follow-up in The New York Times does explain the vast number of birds that die because birds die: "That means that on average, 13.7 million birds die in this country every day. This number, while large, needs to be put into context. The federal Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that a minimum of 10 billion birds breed in the United States every year and that as many as 20 billion may be in the country during the fall migratory season." This article by Leslie Kaufman still finds mortal danger in the threats posed by humans and their developmental sprall. Increased human presence also leads to increased feline presence, as I noted in the past blog about Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.  This newspaper piece lacks the cat character assassination of the novel, but the numbers remain scary: "Nationally, domestic and feral cats kill hundreds of millions of birds each year, according to the government. One study done in Wisconsin found that domestic rural cats alone (thus excluding a large number of suburban and urban cats) killed roughly 39 million birds a year."
   Yet in Arkansas, birds fell from the sky and no one knows why.
    I spend most of the winter is sub-arctic Minnesota, warm only to the eagles who migrate down from Canada to find open water, water freed by fast currents, or by a lock-and dam system, or warmed by powerplant runoff. But I have escaped for a brief time to Southern California, disoriented by hearing in January song sparrows, the common yellowthroat, and finches. Hummingbirds fly straight up into the blue ether, as if they were immortal, as if the scene delighted them.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Mystery Girl and What a Dog Knows

Who's the charming blonde who keeps appearing in my blog photographs? She'll get a more complete introduction later. But she and her adult companions are going to training classes, just as an article appears in The New York Times on dogs' ability to understand human words: "Sit. Stay. Parse. Good Girl."
It seems I have a tendency to "poison" words or to speak to a dog with sounds already "poisoned." This doesn't mean I'm constantly saying "democrat," "republican," or "lobbyist" or putting Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno in the same sentence. Rather, I repeat words carelessly in trying to give the dog a command. Saying "sit sit sit sit sit" while a dog looks on and then yawns doesn't create interspecies communication. The dog should see a consistent gesture and hear a consistent word, while being lured into place by a treat. So, a hand cupped upward and raised toward and over the dog's head, with one "sit" should suffice. There's still room for nonsense communication--like that-a-girl, that-a-girl--that-a-girl--but all involved parties should understand that as an attention-getter and little else.
The New York Times article centers on Chaser, a border collie who recognizes over 1000 objects by name, and her trainer psychologist John Pilley. Studying how a dog can gain a "human" vocabulary might shed light on canine ability as well as on human language acquisition. Humans move ahead with complex grammar, but sometimes the dog seems the better student in practice. “She still demands four to five hours a day,” Dr. Pilley said. “I’m 82, and I have to go to bed to get away from her.”

Random Questionnaire

I am still in the early phases of Blogging 101 and hope to improve services (no vouching for content) over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, I have had to return some techie equipment which leads to the following. . .

 Dear Consuming Consumer:
Because we have a tradition of strong communication (excluding person-to person contact because real people @#$%), please answer the following questionnaire immediately at our convenience.
Which of the following best describes your interface with Said Site:
A)   If you liked it you should have put a ring on it, wo oh, oh oh oh.
B)    Turnips, turnips, turnips, and no peas?
C)     My nose itches—is it bleeding?
D)    How can we trust AARP if it can’t do a thing about Bob Dylan?
If you are older than 35, your response has taken too long. If you are younger than 35, your credit rating weeps, absolutely weeps.
Because we are user-loser—oops, user-fiendly/friendly, whatever, please accept this special, for you only, discount, of 2.3% of any of your products (excluding the cool ones) valued $5000. Note the additional billing for services you didn’t know you used.
Products Without Functions

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Mouse in the House and Hal Herzog

                                                        (Better than a toilet)

You’re cared for, you have companions, you have activity, you have respect (of a sort). Yet you may have a pinprick (or a thousand pinpricks) of doubt, so you make a leap of faith. You’ve gone from being a sheltered lab-rat to being contaminated vermin that must be eradicated—the difference of being in a cage vs being out. Not that you were that protected by being a test subject: the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 excludes from its definition of “animal” “rats of the genus Rattus and mice of the genus Mus bred for use in research.”

Not that James Dean mice (i.e. wild and free) have it easier. In this very wintery winter, they've been trying to move inside. One took a leap of faith into my toilet and died for his convictions. (Someone did ask me why I was keeping mice in the toilet.) Should I feel sorry for the mouse, set traps for more, dabble in poisons, or merely go eeuuww?

The mental gymnastics and equivocation we employ in “thinking” about animals intrigues psychologist Hal Herzog, who has written on "The Moral Status of Mice". He is also challenges our current assumptions about pets as beneficial to owners' health in a recent New York Times Editorial, "Fido's No Doctor. Neither is Whiskers." And, as noted below, he has a new book on why we think what we think about animals.

Hal Herzog, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals   (New York: Harper, 2010)
He mourns the loss of a beloved lab, he eats a little (expensive) meat from free-range animals, he’s visited animal sanctuaries,  he’s interviewed lapsed vegetarians (a much larger group than practicing vegans),  he’s read philosophers Peter Singer and Tom Regan, he’s saved baby loggerhead turtles, and he lives with a cat. Hal Herzog, a psychology professor at Western Carolina University, places himself in the field of anthrozoology, “the new science of human-animal interactions,” but that does not mean he will provide a strict doctrine/ polemics/manifesto for our response to other species in his book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals  (New York: Harper, 2010).  As the title indicates, Herzog focuses on the “how” and “why” of our responses to animals, for example, how cock fighters can claim to love their birds even as they let them fight to the death, or how some cultures can have pet dogs and dogmeat on the menu.  He presents his arguments conversationally, with a blend of personal anecdotes and research findings explained in lay terms.  Not surprisingly, he finds that humans are an irrational species driven by emotion, genetics, and “mental viruses” passed through culture. Along the way he clarifies some of the inconsistencies in human thinking about the value of pets, the pros and cons of eating “flesh,” the use of animals in research, and the behavior of animal advocates.  His insights and findings can help others prioritize the best way to aid animals.
                To return to the cockfights, for example, Herzog demonstrates that animal misery is far more widespread in the production of supermarket chicken.  He writes, “The living conditions of the animals destined to become chicken nuggets are Dante-esque. The chicks will never see sun nor sky. Because they are so top-heavy, broiler chickens spend most of their day lying down, often in litter contaminated with excrement. As a result, many will develop breast blisters, hock burns, and sores on their feet. [. . .] The broiler houses are humid, the air laced with ammonia produced by the action of microbes on the accumulated urine and the excrement of tens of thousands of birds. The gas burns the lungs, inflames the eyes, and causes chronic respiratory disease” (168). Compared to this animal holocaust, a game rooster, until he reaches the fighting age of two, leads “a life befitting a thoroughbred race horse” (165), and the number of game cocks is a microscopic dot compared to the universe of factory farmed poultry—a universe which includes powerful economic and lobbying organizations. As Herzog points out, “the war on cockfighting is about cruelty, but the subtext is social class”—upperclass pursuits like bird hunting and thoroughbred racing receive less opprobrium. Nonetheless, Herzog believes that cock fighters should shut down the fights and turn to “golf clubs and bass boats.”
The mention of “bass boats” indicates that Herzog is not against all use of animals for sport or food.  Many of his views will disappoint those that Herzog considers “absolutists,” who consider any killing of animals anathema.  One of his prime examples is a woman who turned from a vegan to a raw meat diet for health reasons.  He also makes radical supporters of animal rights extremists a subject of anthropological analysis: they are extremists “caught in the grip of a theory” who sometimes take “speciesism” to the point that “termites have the right to eat your house.”
Herzog underscores the difference between thinking you’re on “the moral high ground” and actually having the moral high ground and the great difficulty of recognizing when you’re on one side or the other.  Rather than portraying himself as the Grand Authority, he talks of himself as a fallible human swayed by an inner “carnivorous yahoo.” That last phrase evokes Jonathan Swift’s uncivilized “yahoos” filtered through  J. M. Coetzee’s fictional animal defender, Elizabeth Costello. For Herzog, resolving logical inconsistences and ending all hypocrisy are not as important as beginning where you are to take action on the behalf of animals. 

And thank you to Beatrix Potter, who drew her sweet animals after prolonged study of real ones.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Sound of Gunfire

Sunday on the Northern Mississippi I could spot two, then five, then nine eagles waiting in the sandbar trees. Waiting for a glimpse of fish movement, waiting for each other, waiting for winter to run its course. These were bald eagles, though more and more Goldens are appearing in the area.
But many people weren’t preoccupied with birds Sunday: they were, are, absorbing the news of the shooting spree in Tuscson, when Jare Loughner fired off his Glock, leaving nine dead and fourteen wounded. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the presumed target, remains in a medically-induced coma after a bullet traveled through her brain.
For New York Times op-ed columnist, Gail Collins, the incident should inspire advocacy of serious gun control laws. The law that formerly restricted the sale of semiautomatic weapons like the Glock expired in 2004.  The death toll would have been less, Collins reasons, if a handgun had been used. (And a protester had dropped a handgun at a 2009 Giffords’ event; he was not arrested.) While Collins stresses the danger of easy access to weapons with no purpose for hunting, others stress the danger of metaphor.
Sarah Palin had talked of Democrat Giffords’ district as one that should be in conservative “crosshairs.” Just words delivered with some irony, but it's hard to see Loughner's gunfire as mere coincidence. If you’ve seen Sarah Palin’s reality TV show, you’ll know that she’s often literally looking through crosshairs, as the show illustrates her take on a locavore diet: you eat what you can catch and kill. (I’ve heard that people who note what they’re grateful for are happier, so I’m grateful I’m not an animal in Sarah Palin’s Alaska.) Metaphors can be powerful, and liberals make mistakes with them too: That fount of skewed wisdom, The Daily Show, lambasted the Democrats for trapping themselves by talking of Republicans as terrorists who had taken the American People hostage.

I’m convinced by arguments like those Gail Collins presents that few laws and easy firearms access connect to lethal violence. Gun culture requires more scrutiny and effective regulation (figuring out “effective” is the tricky part). A number of people who are anti-hunting also believe that hunting culture, with its killing of deer, moose, wolves, and more, promotes a trigger finger in many situations.  Some see a direct connection between hunting and the abuse of women and pets. Not everyone defending the animals and children agree on every point. If deer hunting, say, has a direct and consistent relation to abuse, then there would be an extraordinary high rate of abuse in places like Minnesota and Maine. I’ve talked to a humane investigator, who arrests animal abusers and takes the victims to safety, who stressed the "Link",” the idea that are connections between animal abuse and ab use of vulnerable women and children. He did not, however, inevitably connect gun ownership with such abuse. This analogy came up in a discussion of dangerous dogs: it’s not the breed, i.e. pit bull, that’s the problem, it’s the owner. Dogs attack other dogs and people most when their owners have deliberately, or through neglect, set them up to attack. This humane agent said, “ditto for guns; don’t outlaw the breed, don’t outlaw the gun.”   However, I can imagine many uses for a dog of any breed—they have evolved to be much more than a weapon. You can cuddle with a dog, use him or her for therapy, reform a fighter as was the case with several of Michael Pitt’s dogs. I can’t think of a range of uses for a Glock: it fires rapidly and repeatedly with deadly force and that’s about it.
Back to the river with its birds of prey and fish. On Christmas day, I saw a coyote sprinting along the wetland shore behind the sandbar. The eagles in the trees, the geese and ducks in the freezing open water, were undisturbed. Then there was gunfire. The unharmed coyote disappeared. All birds dispersed. No animal was killed. It seemed that a neighbor had gotten a rifle for Christmas and was target-shooting at a buoy in the river. (It may have been the neighbors who once invited me to look at nesting Cooper's hawks on their property.) This is a region with a lot of deer hunting, and no shortage of deer. Nonetheless, it’s disconcerting to gaze on a peaceful scene and hear the shot. Imagine it with blood.

I am, in what began as a coincidence, rereading some Hemingway stories. It's ice-fishing season here, and that brought to mind the fishing story, "The Big Two-Hearted River." Hemingway also knew a great deal, though maybe not enough, about violence and culture. So coming soon . . . Hemingway and the (human) animal.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Savior Cats and Victim Birds

News update: Cats, though convenient to blame for household mishaps, are completely innocent (if that's possible) in the recent deaths of thousands of blackbirds. Most likely cause: high-grade fireworks that panicked clustered hordes of birds. According to a report by Alisa Opar for Audubon, summer fireworks do not pose that sort of threat because by then birds have dispersed to nesting sites.

                                      (Cat found in snowbank, recovering from frostbite)

The Sylvester-Tweety Bird trope: birds are often innocent victims and cats scheming villains. Jonathan Franzen in his novel Freedom presents outdoor cats as a high-impact threat to declining songbird species. One character sees cats as the “sociopaths of the pet world” while another character, promiscuous and self-absorbed, has a name that sounds like “cats.” This is not the novel for those who find delight in the allure of the feline. Instead, they might turn to the memoir described below.
Vicki Myron with Bret Witter, Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2008). 277 pgs. 
Talking about animals is a lot like social drinking. It creates opportunities for conversation and confession that might not otherwise occur. The tongue becomes a little looser, a bond forms where one had seemed unlikely, sticky topics arise—illness, divorce, job loss. All leavened by the antics of animal that won’t quite fit the mold of a good (and dull) pet.
Vicki Myron’s memoir Dewey, first released several years ago, follows the life of a library cat who arrived on a subzero winter day through the book drop. It offers a much kinder view of the species than Franzen’s novel Freedom, though Dewey does not take on issues like the spread of feral colonies. Like many animal tales, this is one of recovery. We know the freezing kitten will be rescued, and we know he will make peoples’ lives better: it’s the how-it-felt that matters.
Unwanted animals, like the tiny kitten dumped down the chute, are often overlooked. Single women with health problems and a modest job title (like Myron) are overlooked. Even a whole state can be overlooked, like Iowa. I lived in northeast Iowa for a few years (the book is set in a different corner) and moved from there to Ohio. When I announced that move via email and snail mail, friends “on the coasts” were baffled: “Don’t you live there already?” Iowa, Ohio, Idaho—the Big Vowel States. As a nation, we take Iowa, and all the food it produces, for granted. Dewey Readmore Books, the orange rescue cat, allows Myron to challenge others’ provincialism by giving an insider’s view of small town life in a region dominated by big agriculture. (She may get smug at times, but this is a book about a cat so some smugness should be expected.) Before Michael Pollan’s long rant against mass-produced corn as the base of food production in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, there was the 1980s farm crisis, and this is central to the Dewey plot. (Pollan would be sympathetic to many who lost land and a living then since small farms being absorbed into fewer factory types was part of the cause.) Celebrity Farm Aid concerts couldn’t save everyone (see People seemed to dissolve. As Myron writes,
One boy wore his old coat from the previous winter. His mother stopped wearing her makeup and, eventually, her jewelry. The boy loved Dewey; he clung to Dewey like a true friend; and his mother never stopped smiling when she saw them together. Then around October, the boy and his mother stopped coming to the library. (68)
Dewey, exceptionally extroverted and calm for a cat, became a steady, reassuring presence. Much of his life was public, and his library role got the attention of journalists and filmmakers, including a filmmaker from Japan. But he also provided more intimate comfort. After a double mastectomy, Myron felt soothed by his affection: “That hollow, sore, scraped-out feeling was always with me, every minute, but sometimes the pain would wash over me so suddenly and so savagely that I would drop to the floor. [. . .]the library could run without me, but I wasn’t sure I could run without it. The routine. The company. The feeling of accomplishment. And most of all, Dewey.” (191)
This book is balanced, well-written, and friendly, and does not make claims to the Pantheon (another contrast to Franzen). The endnotes imply that Myron was approached about the possibility of a book—I speculate the agent was looking for something to ride the Marley and Me wave. Dewey, though lively and responsive, does not match Marley of Grogan’s memoir as the genius of mischief and the unexpected. Grogan, a professional writer, tells a great cock-eyed story. But Myron’s book provides insight into being in “fly-over” country.  Many animal advocates decry factory farming, and while many Iowa agricultural people may disagree with many animal-rights premises, there is no doubt that there is a human cost as well.

Many Dewey readers commented online that they were moved to tears—animal salvation stories often have that effect. I remained dry-eyed, probably because I lack a soul. But are people always “saved” by closeness to an animal? I’ll return to that question in upcoming discussions of  Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals  by Hal Herzog and Saved: Rescued Animals and the Lives They Transform by Karin Winegar and Judy Olausen.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

"Brightness Falls From the Air"

“Brightness falls from the air.” 
That’s what came to mind when I heard of the 5,000 birds—red-winged blackbirds, grackles, starlings—fallen dead in Beebe, Arkansas and Louisiana. The line is from Thomas Nashe’s “Litany in Time of Plague.”  The 16th  century poet might not think of apocalypse and doom in contemporary “eco” terms, but his line is apt for the mysterious death of the birds.
Any mass death is disturbing because it suggests destruction of order—environmental, political, or moral. So far the explanations lean toward large flocks panicking at New Year’s fireworks. Stories in The New York TImes and Christian Science Monitor display the unexpected litter of small corpses. Some of the bird species are unwanted imports like the starlings. (Yes, poetry can be blamed for that since someone wanted the birds named by another 16th century writer, Shakespeare to grace the New World.) Others like the red-winged blackbirds are considered pests by many agricultural managers. (You can read of government agency pitted against government agency over the redwing at an education website, "Journey North".) To me, they’re a marker--I know when the males arrive in Minnesota, even if it snows the next day, spring will not be deterred. Still, to see so many fallen from the sky. . . it must be sad and disturbing to stand among them.
Of course there’s Hitchcock’s The Birds in which tables are turned and the animals inexplicably, it seems, turn against the humans. It was released in 1963, coincidentally not long after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring appeared in The New Yorker.  Hitchcock was out for terror, not environmental enlightenment. But if you haven’t seen Alfred’s mock-sweet trailer about how kind we are to our “good friends the birds, it’s worth it. Given today’s taste, he would make a movie about zombie birds. 
Except wouldn’t we be the zombies? The ones who no longer get how life works and destroy others for no reason, not even conscious that we destroy?

The image above is, as many will recognize, John James Audubon's.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Nurturing Cat

Happy New Year to all!

 After reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom which highlighted the environmental issues posed by outdoor cats, I thought I'd look for other feline perspectives. In winter months, a lot of animals, homeless cats included, are left out in the cold. Some find warmth in a shelter or in an unusual bond. One such story is on the website of Prairie's Edge Humane Society, where I volunteer. Ren, a cat that came to the shelter a few weeks ago, "adopted" some orphan puppies. Some cats, at some times,  have a heart.

Coming soon--another take on cats in a review of  Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World. And, future posts--there will be dogs.