Thursday, December 22, 2011

Coming Saturday: History of Santa's transportation

Whether portrayed as a noble, elderly gentleman, a Germanic god, or a jolly fat man in red, for hundreds of years cultures throughout the world have honored traditions centered on an icon of annual generosity.
But Santa's name, image and methods aren't the only things that have changed with the times.
Though he and his evolving personas have taken center stage in the stories, it is only with the aid of the seasonal gift-givers' steeds that the whole thing succeeds.
Coming Friday evening to www.cnjonline.com and www.pntonline.com and in newsstands Saturday, Christmas Eve, In Search of Ponies takes a walk through the history of Santa's transportation providers and the contributions they've made to give us the Christmas we know and love today.
And, armed with a better understanding of who's clip-clopping on your rooftop, you just might find a couple of new ideas when it comes to leaving treats out Christmas Eve.
Don't miss it!

Christmas gifts not for pets

As featured Dec. 17, 2011, on www.cnjonline.com
Walking through the stores this holiday season, at first you may think,“that squeaky toy is so cute, Fido would love that!
But as you shop, you may start to get the feeling it's not an accident the Christmas tree shaped dish full of frosted beef biscuits is at the end of the isle right where you would see it, or, that you had to steer around a pile of pup beds that are more plush than any mattress you've ever owned.
And before long, you start to realize the retail powers-that-be are targeting your pets.
Well, not your pets exactly...
In 2011, American pet owners are expected to spend just shy of an estimated $51 billion on their pets. Yes, that was $51 BILLION dollars!
And of course the marketing gurus know you are willing to drop bucks on your pet, and yes, they are out to get you.
And what better time than Christmas, especially when, of the nearly 73 million households that have pets in the U.S., almost 70 percent will buy gifts for their critters this year.
So in other words, no, the squeaky toys, Santa hats with ear holes, red and green biscuits and over-sized, memory foam dog beds aren't in the middle of the isle by accident.
In the days of old, pet Christmas marketing was limited to the red nylon mesh stockings filled with rawhide bones hanging in the pet food isle.
If you looked hard, you might have found a little squeaky duck or a package of catnip balls mixed with the petware at your local grocery, but that was the extent of it.
Ah, how times have changed.
If you're looking for the ultimate in pet gifts this year, for $3,200, you can replace that faded nylon collar with 1,600, hand-set diamonds, then spritz your pal from a $3,000, 4-ounce bottle of Le Pooch V.I.P fragrance.
Or your canine can feast on gourmet peanut butter biscuits at a measly $50 for a package of eight, and don't worry, of course they're all natural.
If, on the other hand, you're feeling stressed because you just can't swing that $500 cedar climbing tree for Morris this year, don't be so hard on yourself.
I'll let you in on a little secret.
Morris doesn't care.
He won't feel left out Christmas morning when everybody is unwrapping their gifts and he won't think you forgot him.
Quite the contrary, he will probably be sitting off to the side licking his nether regions and wondering why the family decided to congregate in his usually peaceful living room – and during nap time no less.
Nor, will your pooch sulk into a corner and cry because he didn't get that fancy leash and collar set you had your eye on.
Why? Because pooches don't really like collars and leashes, they like us and the time we spend with them when the leash comes out.
And Fido could care less about a $6 peanut butter biscuit when what he really wants is to visit that little box in the laundry room where the cat scratches up feats of unbelievable tastiness.
A closer look at the numbers shows that though spending a lot on their critters, pet owners do tend to put their money where it matters most, with estimates that almost $45 billion of that $51 billion will be spent on food, medicine and veterinary care.
What that means is that, no, you're not a bad pet owner if you decide to scratch Fido off your list and instead drop a couple of toys in the charity box on your way out of the store.
Because while Fido is just happy you got an extra day at home with him (and that you didn't notice you dropped some ham on the floor), there's a child somewhere nearby who, unlike Fido, will notice when they're forgotten Christmas morning.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Coming Saturday: Santa or Scrooge?

Making your list and checking it twice?
You might have a couple names on there that could be scratched without guilt, and depending on your perspective, it doesn't have to mean you're a scrooge.
Coming to www.cnjonline.com and www.pntonline.com Friday evening and newsstands Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011, In Search of Ponies will focus on holiday shopping even Santa might agree with.
Don't miss it!

Hummingbirds need some sugar

As featured Dec. 9, 2011, on www.cnjonline.com

Every now and then a neighbor needs to borrow a little sugar — and sometimes it could be a matter of life and death.
No, not because of that batch of cookies they started only to realize they didn’t have enough in their canister.
It turns out that perhaps because of the extreme weather we’ve had this year, there’s a bunch of hummingbirds hanging around Clovis and other communities in our region and for whatever reason, they didn’t get the migrate memo.
I received an email this week, asking me to get the word out so people might help the little biological hover crafts and I found my interest quickly piqued.
In recent weeks I have seen news reports of how the weather patterns in our region have impact the monarch butterfly migrations. I had also noticed some out of the ordinary predatory bird behavior in the last couple of months, with different species of hawks hunting together in area fields, but I had never thought about humming birds.
“With our weird weather, some of the hummers “forgot” to leave with the rest in early October. They can still catch bugs to eat, but their natural nectar sources are gone since the flowers froze, so they are dependent on the artificial nectar from our feeders to stay alive,” wrote Lisa Moore.
A hummingbird enthusiast who said she and her husband have been enthralled by the tiny birds for 25 years, Lisa said if people will leave their hummingbird feeders out a little longer this year, it might help the prodigal birds get their show on the road like they should have a few weeks ago.
“Keeping feeders out won’t cause the hummers to stay longer. It will just help those who have lingered here survive until they wise up and decide to head out,” she said.
Having always heard that you needed to bring your bird feeders in before the weather turns or our feathered friends will stay with the free stuff and not travel as they should, I did a little research after receiving Lisa’s email. It turns out this happens sometimes and hummingbirds are known to lag behind a little on their schedules when weather patterns run amuck.
What I found most interesting was that rather than forgetting to leave because people are feeding them, they actually need the extra nourishment to build up fat reserves enough for the trip.
If they don’t get enough food, they either won’t leave at all and will die from cold and lack of food, or won’t survive the journey.
One year, Lisa said she even had a hummingbird that stuck around her home until January before going on its trip.
Nectar feeders need to be kept warm in freezing temperatures because a “nectar Popsicle,” as Lisa put it, won’t do them any good. A hummingbird website I visited recommended heat bulbs near the feeder as a good way to prevent freezing, (of course, if you choose this method please follow all product safety guidelines to prevent fire).
As with any holiday season and cold spell, there are many among us that need our help and care, and this one seems fairly easy to pull off, so if you have a hummingbird feeder in the garage, what the heck.
Dust it off, fill ‘er up and hang it next to the garland on the porch.
Not because we want these amazing creatures to leave, but because we want to make sure they can do their thing and come back to visit in time to enjoy the spring blooms.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sugar please!

When temperatures drop, sweaters come out, the smell of evening fires mingles with the crisp in the air and where summer blooms once brought color to neighborhood streets, strands of twinkling lights take their places.
But at one Clovis home, the glow of red lights serve as much more than a signal of the coming holidays, working instead with purpose in an effort retain that which winter has undone.
For more than 25 years, Lisa Moore and her husband have shared their lives with hummingbirds, working to create a world within their yard that will attract the energetic little birds. It is a mission that has been successful, over the years drawing more of the colorful sugar seekers than they can count.
Lisa knows her annual visitors so well, she has nicknamed many of them and come to know their habits, preferences and personalities, studying up on their needs in the hopes of being a helpful hostess.
This year, Lisa's love and attention is rooted in concern for the many hummingbirds who have outlasted the blooms that give them sustenance, remaining in the area well past their scheduled departure date.
Now, confused by drought and strange weather, they are fighting to survive in freezing temperatures.
Lisa has asked for help from the community in the hopes that if people hang nectar feeders, the hummingbirds will have the resources they need to either migrate as they should have or at the very least, survive through the cold until the flowers return.
Having developed a system that works, Lisa's feeder stayed warm during this week's winter blast of ice and snow, providing welcome refuge to a juvenile male Rufous hummingbird who has been with her since the spring.
Featured as the topic of this week's In Search of Ponies column in the Clovis News Journal and Portales News Tribune, here you will find
Lisa's guest blog, complete with tips and photos of her hummingbirds, particularly the tough little fellow she has nicknamed “El Nino."
Make sure to scroll down, check it out, enjoy, and this year, please hang some nectar with the mistletoe!

Guest blog: Sugar, lights and fighting ice

~Love blooms ~
My husband and I became big fans of hummingbirds about twenty-five years ago when we lived in San Antonio, TX. Many of our neighbors had feeders, so we put one up too, and quickly became fascinated and amazed by the hummers' antics. We moved to Clovis in 1991, and it took several years of putting out feeders and planting flowers preferred by hummingbirds to attract them to our yard, although we knew there were many in the area. Persistence paid off, and now we get lots of hummers every year between April and October.

~ Meet the hummers ~
I have a hard time estimating the number of hummingbirds, but I have seen at least three different hummingbirds, a Black-chinned male and female, and a Rufous at my feeders since the beginning of October when the rest of them headed south. (Another local hummingbird enthusiast I know) has had several, including a male Rufous last weekend. Hopefully these are stragglers traveling through, not staying on. In 2007, I had one stay until mid-January. I am just seeing one at a time now, and not every day. In the summer months I often see four or five at a time. I have had Black-chinned, Rufous, Broad-tailed, and Calliope hummers – much more variety than back east where they usually just see Ruby-throats.

A juvenile Rufous feeding during a
New Mexico snow storm Dec. 7, 2011.
Courtesy photo: Lisa Moore
~ Winter woes~
With our weird weather, some of the hummers "forgot" to leave with the rest in early October. They
can still catch bugs to eat, but their natural nectar sources are gone since the flowers froze, so they are dependent on the artificial nectar from our feeders to stay alive.
We also need to be creative in keeping the feeders from freezing, since hummers can't eat popsicles. A few years ago, I had one hummingbird stay until mid-January.
If people keep their hummingbird feeders out a while longer this year, hopefully the ones still hanging around will get the urge to head south soon!
Keeping feeders out won't cause the hummers to stay longer. It will just help those who have lingered here survive until they wise up and decide to head out.

~ Lucky Punk ~
First generation winter nectar feeders.
Courtesy photo: Lisa Moore
In the winter of 2007-2008, when just one hummer we nicknamed "Punk" stayed until January 9, I clipped aluminum spot light holders to the eaves a couple of feet away from the feeders, and put infrared heater bulbs in them (nothing says "classy" like red spot lights on
the house).
"Punk" eating under the lights in 2007.
 Courtesy photo: Lisa Moore
Punk didn't seem to notice the lights, and that system worked fairly well, except for a few days when temperatures stayed below 20 degrees. Then I had to keep bringing frozen feeders inside to thaw, swapping them with thawed ones.
It was so weird to see a hummer sitting in my rosebush with snow all around. It amazes me that these tiny guys can survive this harsh winter weather, as long as they have food and can find adequate shelter.
Generation two winter nectar feeders.
Courtesy photo: Lisa Moore

~Perfecting the solution~
This year I followed a tip from a "Birds & Blooms" magazine reader (Dec-Jan 2011, p. 10) to put a strand of 20 large outdoor Christmas lights in an acrylic bowl hanging a few inches below the feeder.
So far, it is working better than the spot lights did, and is keeping the nectar from freezing, even with
temperatures in the teens.

~ Snow days ~
Early this morning, a hummer hung out on one of the feeders above the lights for a good half hour when the temperature was 25 degrees.
This hummer, which I believe is a juvenile Rufous, has been visiting my feeders for about a week.
"El Nino" enjoying the warmth of Christmas lights, Dec. 7. 2011.
 Courtesy photo: Lisa Moore.
"El Nino" eating during a snow storm snow Dec. 7, 2011.
Courtesy photo: Lisa Moore
The photo on the left is not the clearest of the photos, but one of my favorites because it shows El Nino on the feeder, snow falling around him, barely tolerating two house finches who wanted to warm up and steal a little of the nectar. 
Two different hummers were here two weeks ago. I think they were Black-chinned, but I couldn't get a good look at their colors.
I really love hummingbirds, and while it takes a bit of work and creative thinking in the winter, I enjoy them so much and consider it a privilege to help these little guys make it through.
When not rescuing hummingbirds, Lisa Moore is a nurse who spends her spare time gardening, at church and Bible study, at the gym and reading.

Photos and content submitted by Lisa Moore, exclusively for www.insearchofponies.blogspot.com

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Coming Dec. 10: Helping unexpected winter guests

You may have missed In Search of Ponies this week in the Clovis News Journal and Portales News Tribune, but be sure to look for it next week, with tips on hosting an unexpected winter guest.
Dec. 10, In Search of Ponies will explore the plight of frosty hummingbirds and how you can help keep them hovering.
In the meantime, if you find yourself getting a little bored and stir crazy, it's a great time to pour a cup of cocoa, wrap up in your favorite blanket and cruise the archives for past articles.
Keep your pooches warm and dry, have fun breaking ice for your larger furry friends (the back side of an ax is very helpful in times like these) and be safe!

Animals can eat themselves to death

As featured Nov. 26, 2011, on www.cnjonline.com

Feeling a little stuffed?
Having just survived the Thanksgiving holiday, you may be beating yourself up from that comfy spot on the couch, filled with guilt about how much food you managed to consume despite your best intentions.
Even sitting there with your belt loosened, entertaining the thoughts tumbling around in your head about another trip to the fridge, you know you'll stop before you actually die, right?
Good, that means at least you're not like a sheep, who can overeat to the point of a very painful demise.
Turns out there are a lot of animals out there who eat too much, some even eating their way to death, as farmers can attest when they find sheep and goats thrashing bloated on the ground.
In their cases, a pesky disease causes them to not have a time-to-stop-munching meter.
But there are others who power graze, such as horses, who, if they manage to find their way to the feed room unchecked, will suck in grain like it's their last meal on earth only to end up with a heck of a bellyache that can lead to sleepless nights for owners and sometimes even worse for the horse.
That would be kind of like sticking your head in the fridge and not withdrawing it until it's empty — but we all know we can at least make the leftovers last a week or so.
Many fish on the other hand, don't do leftovers. They will eat whatever they're given... every scrap of it, in fact. Surprisingly, the eventual result isn't them being weighed to the bottom. To the contrary, they float to the top.
Dogs, as a general rule, inhale whatever is in front of them, stopping only when they become so full they are uncomfortable, which explains why they tend to look like barrels with little heads and feet attached as they get older.
Frogs get in such a hurry to eat sometimes that they catch little rocks and chunks of wood instead of bugs and end up dying because they're, well for lack of a better description, corked.
Panda bears spend up to 16 hours eating each day, putting down as much as 40 pounds of food, or almost a fourth of their body weight. Luckily for them, they're wired in such a way that most of the food passes through their systems and only part of it goes to the spare tire.
Even if not overeating into oblivion, there are other animals out there that don't watch the daily recommended percentages either.
Interestingly, a recent study showed that rather than overeating starchy and fatty foods to get a little protein as humans do, mountain gorillas overeat in the opposite direction, consuming more high-protein food sources for most of the year in an effort to get their carbs and fat.
Closest to humans, lab rats, according to a study last year, develop a compulsive love of high fat and sweet foods that is comparable to a heroin addiction, driving them to grow quickly obese. But they don't go to the point of eating themselves to an immediate death, perhaps knowing that to do so, means no more bacon or cheesecake.
So rest comfortably in knowing you are not the only one in the animal kingdom who maybe eats a little more than they should sometimes — and unless you plan to keep shoveling till Christmas or eat until you're rolling around in the front yard bleating in pain — enjoy the feast season.
After all, why should the turkey be the only one at the table who's stuffed?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Coming Saturday: Overeat? Don't fret, your growing girth ain't nothin'

Shortly after you contemplate which type of pie you will have, you may find yourself wondering if you could possibly stuff any more food into your mouth without exploding.
Ah, Thanksgiving!
If you're chowing non-stop, bracing for days of guilt about all the vittles you partook of, don't be too hard on yourself.
Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011, In Search of Ponies will show that not only are you not alone in the animal kingdom, you just might be surprised at how far a gluttonous, “Need for Feed” will take some critters and how much trouble it can get them into.
So, enjoy the season, let go of the guilt and eat up... 
What the heck, have a second, or third slice of pie and be sure to look for In Search of Ponies Friday evening on www.cnjonline.com and www.pntonline.com and in newsstands Saturday morning.
Happy grazing!

Horses share strength

As featured Nov. 19, 2011, on www.cnjonline.com
Her voice was strained and tired as she described the stress and challenges their family was enduring.
But most of all, what she wanted was her baby boy with her. Though it’s been years, I can still remember hearing her pain as she told me how it just wasn’t right leaving him there at the hospital and driving home without him.
As if it weren’t enough that little Jamie was born two months premature and had to be hospitalized, his parents were warned very early that his future would be challenging and he would likely experience developmental delays.
The warnings came true and then some.
At 3-years-old, Jamie was diagnosed with autism.
My friend did everything the experts suggested, making sure Jamie had occupational and speech therapy, doctor’s appointments and more. Of course some things helped, but with it all, Jamie still had a ways to go just to master the simple tasks in life.
Willing to do anything to help her son, my friend even took suggestions that yanked her outside of her own comfort zone.
After all, who would have thought someone like Big Bob could help a little kid whose problems had names like, “sensory integration dysfunction.”
But he did.
My friend was terrified the first time her little boy was placed atop one of the huge therapy horses and stood anxiously waiting for the panicked explosion that was sure to come, but it never happened.
Instead, something magical took place and in no time, the same child who struggled with coordination on the ground was doing “helicopters” with his arms and stretching across the back of a moving horse.
Jamie didn’t fall, he didn’t scream and he didn’t shake in terror.
He smiled.
The difference in Jamie was instantaneous and grew with each excursion to the riding stable.
“I had no experience with horses whatsoever — beautiful creatures, and whatever it is they have, it is very special,” his mother recently wrote to me when I asked her to write a guest piece telling her son’s story for online blog readers.
“Some of the children there were severely handicapped and they would arrive in their ‘zone’ but as soon as they were put up on the horse the laughs would begin… Need I say more,” she followed.
Imagine going through life struggling with difficulty walking, or running or even doing simple things such as swinging your arms in unison or balancing or connecting a smell with a shape and a sound, being able to understand how they’re all tied together — all those little things most of us take for granted and never even think about.
Beautiful to watch from the ground, somehow when you climb on the back of a horse, all that beauty and power is shared with you. Perhaps it’s because when you’re on the back of a horse the very earth changes beneath you or because there’s something surreal about a being so powerful and strong allowing you to direct its course.
Not only are they just fun to be around, but through the sharing of their legs, balance, eyesight and gentle spirits, horses are able to equalize, giving back the things that sometimes life leaves out. And as if all that weren’t enough, there’s a touch of something else they give, something special.
Whatever that magic is of theirs, there’s nothing else like it in the world, most especially for Jamie.

Be sure to read Jamie's story in the words of his mother: Guest blog: Something special

Horsin' around

I have always enjoyed Wendy's stories.
With a diverse roster of students and a troop of four-legged teachers both big and small, she has tons of adventures, laughs and Aha! moments at her place.
And in the way of a true mentor, she turns each story into a lesson of some kind – a woman after my own heart.
Luckily, Wendy has created a blog where she is sharing some of her stories, the perfect solution for those times when conflicting schedules prevent hearing them in person.
Though it's not quite the same as being there, it's nice to know Horsin Around With Wendy is just a click away. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Coming Saturday: What a difference a horse makes

For a mother who knew very little about horses other than the fact they are very large animals, the thought of putting her special little boy on the back of one was intimidating, but on the advice of specialists, she crossed her fingers and took the risk.
It was a decision that made a huge difference in Jamie's life and one she will never regret.
Forging a bond with the horses, Jamie flourished and his mother discovered there was magic in the relationships he made – a magic no medicine or occupational therapy could quite replicate.
Jamie's mother was kind enough to write a guest blog about her son's experience with riding therapy, featured exclusively on www.insearchofponies.blogspot.com and his experience is also the topic of this week's In Search of Ponies column, which will be available Friday evening at www.cnjonline.com and www.pntonline.com and in newsstands Saturday morning, Nov. 19.
Be sure to read Jamie's story: Guest blog: Something special

Guest blog: Something special

My son Jamie was born eight weeks prematurely due to complications with pregnancy. He was in the neo-intensive care unit for nearly three week before we could bring him home. I remember the pediatrician telling us that due to his size and weight that we would have a ‘baby’ for longer than most, and not to be surprised if, and when problems with his developmental milestones occurred.
He didn’t do anything according to the norm, and at a year old the Early Start Program stepped in and started intervening with his age appropriate learning; helping with feeding problems, simple things like eye-hand coordination and suggestions in methods to calming him down when he got himself all worked up and out of sorts. Jamie’s pediatrician had a referral put into the University of California Medical Center, Developmental Pediatrics at around 18 months and was officially diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Delay; later at about three years old re-diagnosed with autism. With all the interventions of occupational therapy and speech therapy, we have a great little boy.
Our coordinator with Kern Regional Medical Center suggested we try Jamie with therapeutic horseback riding to accommodate his toe-walking and sensory integration dysfunction. When a child rides a horse they experience all of their senses; vision, hearing, smell, tactile, vestibular and proprioception, all of which have been a big problem for Jamie. We wanted to find a way that was fun and enjoyable, but also beneficial for our little boy.



We were introduced to Saddle-Up Therapeutic Horse-back Riding Stables 2008. What a wonderful experience – the first day, there I was afraid Jamie would freak out with the horses, but he calmly walked up the gangplank with the aide and hopped on the back of this lovely Norwegian fiord horse called Bjorn. This was the beginning of a three year relationship with the riding school. There he progressed to a 17 hand thoroughbred called ‘Big Bob’ walking freely around the paddock, with his aide doing helicopters and stretches to help his movement. The spatial awareness that he had to understand between himself and the horse is an ongoing issue, and something that is improved with horseback riding.

Jamie would face towards the tail and stretch across the horse’s back, at the same time using his thigh and calf muscles to support him – and smiles the whole time. Once on the horse the leader would call out commands to the children to outstretch hands, touch their nose, flap their arms and keep their thighs firm against the horse’s flank, all the time with their horses walking calmly around the paddock. This lasted for about thirty minutes when the children would dismount and hand feed their horse its carrot, and then lead them out through the gate; all-in-all a learning experience.
The riding center had a goal in mind the entire time for a gala when the children put on a horse show. They pinned on a number on their backs like a proper horse show and answered questions about their horse. Lisa, the owner of the school set up the stable and paddock as an arena with flowers and banners, and even a celebrity to announce their names as they entered the arena to carry out their routine: The children loved all the cheers and at the end were presented with a rosette.
Watching my little boy sitting atop that enormous horse with the big smile was absolutely priceless. Autism is finally being made aware everywhere and sports like therapeutic horseback riding is one area where all these children can feel confident and successful and is an absolute joy to watch.

Story and photos submitted by Caralyn, exclusively for In Search of Ponies, www.insearchofponies.blogspot.com



Dogs adept at catching birds

As featured Nov. 12, 2011, on www.cnjonline.com

Oh yeah, they eat crow. And pigeon, dove and grackle too.
In fact, their prowess has grown to the point that I am actually starting to think Sylvester was miscast and should have been played by a dog.
You would think the fly-boys and girls would spread the word amongst themselves to avoid my yard, yet every morning they march across the porch like a bobble army, searching for leftover pieces of kibble. For each on the porch, there are at least two more perched on the edge of the roof as if they are waiting to see how their comrades fare below, craning their smooth heads and beady eyes to watch as they explore the food bowls and make way to the water dish.
Morning isn’t the only busy time, with the bobble-ones also choosing to visit when the yard is nice and quiet during the dogs afternoon nap, making the porch a madhouse of tweeting, hopping opportunity.
For the winged ones, the back porch is the cultural Mecca of birds, a nexus of societies and a melting pot if you will, with everything from outspoken grackles to peaceful doves gathered there in hopes of finding just one beef flavored pellet.
The dogs usually seem to ignore it, lounging on the warm concrete in the sun, or snoozing on the nearby grass with their legs sticking up in the air.
But occasionally, a slightly lifted lid in an otherwise frozen body will reveal an amber orb intently following the flitting visitors from one side of the porch to the other.
And inevitably, one of the sleeping ones suddenly animates, bounding forward, jaws snapping. The charge is followed by a multicolored squawking cloud rising to the air as the birds make their way back to the edge of the roof to wait for the pooches to go back to sleep again.
I can’t help but wonder if they think it is some hyper-interactive game of ball, where the ball changes direction in mid-air, evades and squeaks. Or perhaps dogs take to playing ball so well because it’s the closest we humans have come to replicating their beloved pigeon game.
Having seen the attempted snatch-and-grabs, but have never witnessed them succeed, I still have had no doubt the dogs are quite good at the game.
Not because I just believe it, but rather because the feather piles around the porch are kind of giveaways.
Admittedly, it was a bit surprising the first couple times I found a dead crow in the yard because I had always associated bird-catching and hunting with cats; credited much in part, I am sure, to Sylvester and Tweety.
Had Looney Tunes chosen instead to make Sylvester a burly bull dog or snappy schnauzer, maybe I would have seen it differently. So too, might the birds on my porch, because they don’t seem to get it that the dogs are a threat to them until it’s too late.
That’s not to say the cats don’t try. Any given day you can see them skulking through the yard, or tucked behind some tall brush watching a fowl foe nearby and it seems most of their time, when they’re not dozing of course, is spent in some type of hunting, stalking or thinking about hunting.
Of course bird hunting does fit cats quite well, with their agile, tree climbing ways and of course the fact they always land on their feet.
But at least at my house, the dogs are far more adept at it — their feather piles outpacing the barn cats at a rate of about 5-1.
The cats don’t even have the corner on mousing, considering I saw one of my pooches happily toting one around in its mouth not too long ago.
You know, on further consideration, maybe Warner Brothers knew about the dog-bird thing and made a wise decision in choosing a cat instead.
After all, thinking back to those cartoon days, what made the cat-bird combo succeed was all about how many times and ways the cat failed.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Coming Saturday: Puddy tats stealing the show?

Cats and birds, cats and mice... There's little doubt cats hold the corner on the market when it comes to hunting little things that flit and scurry.
Or do they?
What if their drooling, stinky, clumsy barking counterparts are actually the better hunters?
After seeing evidence supporting the possibility, I find myself wondering if the cat vs. bird relationship might just be the greatest marketing spin perpetrated of all time and cemented in pop culture by cartoon antics.
This Saturday, Nov. 12, In Search of Ponies asks which of the two is the true bird hunter and could cartoons be wrong? And if they are, what is it that makes the feline fascination with birds such an entertaining subject?
Look for it on www.cnjonline.com or www.pntonline.com Friday evening and in newsstands Saturday morning.

Pet rentals great for commitment phobic

As featured Nov. 4, 2011, on www.cnjonline.com

Commitment-phobe? Just not ready to take the plunge?
Or maybe just looking for a temporary good time...
Well, there’s a solution.
Rental pets is a new rage sweeping through metropolitan communities and apparently it’s an idea that is really taking off and gaining popularity, particularly in the concrete jungles.
I stumbled onto the concept while reading a story on weird things one can rent and was fascinated by the concept.
After going through an application and screening process, a potential renter can select a pet and take it home, to the park, on vacation or where ever their fancy directs.
Not an entirely new idea, in a 2008 New York Times article, one woman said she liked renting a cockapoo named Oliver because she was lonely after relocating and found the dog to be a great ice-breaker, attracting attention and conversation when she was out and about.
Other reasons people give for renting pets range from not being ready to make the commitment to a full-time pet, to making the kiddos happy by giving them a chance to throw Fido a ball for a while.
The potential is intriguing... Your kid wouldn’t have to stare at their feet during pet day at school, you could use the critter to pick up a date, get that impulsive desire to get a dog out of your system, or maybe even confirm that you are indeed ready to share your life with a dog from the chewing start to the incontinence end of its life, with all the shedding and vet bills in-between.
One of the most interesting aspects of the pet rental trade is the fact that many of the companies offer rental animals from shelters that are looking for homes.
The concept of getting people to pay money to foster and love homeless animals by playing on their love of convenience is absolutely brilliant!
It turns out in addition to dogs and cats, you can also rent exotic animals, horses, ponies, reptiles, birds, fish (complete with tank and maintenance if you’re keep-fish-alive-impaired like me) and — making childhood dreams come true — monkeys (I’m sure an hour is more than enough).
You can even rent a goat to mow your lawn then send it back — now there’s an eco-conscious approach to chores without long-term risk to your trees and clothesline of dungarees, and the owner gets their animal fed and your money, again, brilliant.
There are certainly valid reasons for renting, after all, why purchase a backhoe for one job, a car for a week-long vacation, or tables and chairs for one party?
The most profound part of the whole rent-a-life thing is that it is completely fueled by and based upon people accepting the price tag for embracing their limitations and owning up to the fact they don’t want the responsibility — a novel concept indeed.
And it’s arguably a little cloudy as to whether that’s a good, or a bad thing. After all, I’d be the last one to look down on anyone for loving a critter.
The position could be made that rental animals will get shuffled from one environment to the next and of course there’s always the possibility of a bad renter getting their hands on one. Then again, a trip through a shelter will show you rows of snouts already in varying stages of that very cycle, considering there is no screening process for pet ownership.
I wonder what they’ll think of next. Maybe for the sake of humanity, one day you’ll be able to rent an abandoned baby, or a toddler, or even a neglected elderly person, and then send them back before the obligations and work kick in.
I suppose until they do and until the pet rental option reaches less metropolitan areas like ours, our choices are a little limited. But I guess if we were so inclined, while we wait for it to come to our area we could always mentor local kids, visit a nursing home, volunteer or donate the money we might use for pet rent … We could call it renting happiness and gratitude.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Coming Saturday: Rent-a-what???

Renting poses a solution to someone who, for a multitude of reasons, can't or doesn't want to own.
In some cases it may be a matter of not having enough money to make a purchase, while in others it may be more about only needing something for a short time or wanting the short-term benefit of something without having to maintain it and give it a long-term investment.
Typically when we think of rent, things such as houses, cars, tools, furniture, party supplies, hotel rooms or even movies come to mind... Those things a person needs or wants to use without paying full price.
Probably stemming back as far as feudalism, maybe further, an entire business model has evolved around idea of temporary or term-ownership arrangements and now in some areas the concept has been applied to pets.
That's right, when you don't want to or can't make the full investment in a dog, you can rent one.
It makes perfect sense in some ways and the rental of animals isn't a new concept. Visitors to the Grand Canyon, for example, have for years been able to rent a donkey to tour the landmark, hunters can hire horses and guides for long treks into wilderness areas and parents can rent ponies for rides at their child's birthday party.
But a dog?
With all the homeless animals out there and pets being given away free, what would motivate someone to pay rental rates just for a few hours or days of having a dog or a cat?
Perhaps you are glancing down at your own pooch as he slumbers in a cloud of gas on the floor by your couch and thinking, “Would I rent a dog and trade the fumes for just the fun times?”
Or perhaps you're wondering if anyone would pay you rent to borrow him for a weekend, after all, who is the “pet-lord” in the scenario? Are they just in the pure profit mindset, using animals for personal gain, or is it something else?
This week, In Search of Ponies will take a look at the concept of pet rentals. You can find it at www.cnjonline.com and www.pntonline.com as early as Friday evening and in newsstands Saturday, Nov. 5.


Big friends good thing to have

As featured October 29, 2011, on cnjonline.com

“Oaf!”
Make no mistake, there’s no name calling going on here.
Rather, that is the sound one makes when 100-some pounds of dog barrels into you, somewhere between the air rushing from your lungs and your hands flying out to stop your fall.
I discovered the root origins of the word as I was filling the large concrete mixing tub that doubles as a water dish.
He was playing with his little buddy, Gilligan, and I was regrettably not paying attention.
Struck by one of his bouncing axles as it swung my way, I planted my hands inside the water dish and prayed the rest of me wouldn’t follow.
Water dripping from my nose, I had an instant epiphany.
Amazingly, not only did the utterance come about naturally, it perfectly described the bumbling large goofball that knocked it out of me and I have no doubt it must have entered our language much the same way in a cave long, long ago.
He just doesn’t think — or at least not a lot — about a lot of complicated stuff. Nor does he pay a lot of attention to detail.
It would be easy to attribute to the fact he only has one eye — he came that way — but it’s more his state of mind than anything else. Rather than using his good eye to view the minutia, he just kind of plugs through life with the same happy-goofy expression, regardless.
He does try to go around anything on his right and usually stops short of bulldozing, but some days he’s so oblivious, I have to check to make sure his good eye is still there.
For the most part, he gets along just great with his one-sided view of the world, except when you yell hello to him from across the yard and the electric fence — which happens to be at head-level for him — is on his left.
I would say in all reality, we’re the only ones who seem to notice the missing eye, and, as if somehow casting him as a mercenary or complicated hero pirate would make up for it, we named him Demetrius.
But his name is rarely used and things like — Move you big Galoot! are more commonly heard as I navigate the obstacle course that is him. Or, “Slow down Meat Head!” when he comes at me like a cross-country skier, legs going left-to-right in unison, ears flapping and slobber strings trailing in his wake.
Knowing how I feel, being at least relative in size to the bumbling drool monster, I figured he’d get along best with those who at least draw breath in the same stratosphere as he.
Instead, I was shocked when a deep bond form between him and Gilligan, the littlest, scrappiest mammal on the place.
I understand Gilligan’s side easy enough ... he has someone to look up to (literally), a great big, warm, floppy, furry pillow, and when you’re little and mouthy, big friends are a good thing to have.
Gilligan, however, is something of an acquired taste whose 30-some pounds of unthinking, whirling dervish, stand-still-to-spring-action ways can be a bit much.
Then again, Gilligan doesn’t seem to mind the drool, snuggling under the jowls from which it drips in the most apparent, ignorant bliss.
Maybe it’s because opposites attract, or when you only have one eye it’s harder to size things up, or even because friendship should be blind.
Better yet, with one who looks but can’t see and one who can see but never seems to look, together, maybe they have the perfect view.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Coming Saturday: Drooling oafs make good friends

What do a bundle of terrier terror and a clumsy, big footed drool monster have in common?
Not a whole lot, except they are friends – make that best friends.
What makes a good friendship? Where does it come from and why?
Perhaps it is complicated, or, perhaps as simple as simple gets.
According to novelist C.S. Lewis, it is the latter.
“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, 'What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
But however you look at it, one thing's for certain, life just wouldn't be the same without friends.
And as our odd pair shows us, true friends are there to fill in the missing pieces, or in the case of best friends, overlook them altogether.
This Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011, In Search of Ponies will explore the root origins of the word “Oaf” and at the same time, examine one unlikely friendship.
Check it out at www.cnjonline.com and www.pntonline.com  Friday evening and in newsstands Saturday morning.
Don't miss it!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Animals capable of humanistic traits

As featured Oct. 21, 2010, on cnjonline.com

The mare’s struggle quickly turned to quiet relief the moment she nuzzled her newborn foal on the ground beside her.
In that one instant, she changed and the change was as real as the fragile creature next to her, her focus switching from centered on self, to being centered on her offspring.
As I watched their first minutes together, I couldn’t help but relate because in those moments, she wasn’t an animal, she was a mother.
That shift of focus and nurturing care highlights common ground between humans and animals, making the line between our species seem a little less pronounced.
However, the line doesn’t cease to exist because humans and animals share some common ground and non-human animals are the “lesser” creatures.
Why is this?
We know that animals feel pain and sorrow, get depressed, feel joy, envy and form family and friendship bonds, and yet they’re beneath us.
No matter how many thousands of years they live along-side us, or how many human traits we project on to them — from dressing them in human clothes to assigning human emotions and motivations to their actions to even teaching apes to paint — they do not evolve to meet us on the same, equal playing field.
A dog in a sweater will still curl around to take a lick — because, as the adage goes, he can — and an ape with a paintbrush in its hand will still use its free fingers to pick its nose regardless of who’s watching.
Recently, I came across a blog by science fiction and fantasy author Piers Anthony, in which he contemplated the separation between animals and humans, and I found myself thinking of the foal whose birth I had witnessed.
Essentially, Anthony chalked the difference between humans and other animals up to art.
“What distinguishes human beings from other animals is art... Not only does man have the capacity to appreciate art, it is central to his existence; wherever man has gone, art has gone with him,” he wrote.
I found myself agreeing and disagreeing.
We often associate art with its product or its lasting presence, but the painting is not the true art. Rather the art is the process that made the painting and the painting is the sum, the proof.
If a predator devises a clever way to herd, then trap its prey, that process, too, is art. It is skill, technique, influence and creativity all swirled together in a unique combination by the unique mind of that particular animal, whether the result is a painting or different way to hunt or crack a nut.
The difference is why that process is applied and, yes, the proof that it happened.
Just as a human would, the mare loved her child.
However, her nurturing ends with that particular foal and its generation. She doesn’t ponder its offspring, nor consciously cultivate that child with the intent of advancing horse society or contributing improvements to the future beyond the moment that foal becomes independent of her. Instead she thinks about keeping offspring alive through the next few minutes, hours or days.
That is what separates humans from other animals — the ability to see a need and to care about it, invest in it and want to make it better, even when it isn’t real... yet.
And yes, that is reflected in the art product because it is documentation of a contribution to development of culture — something other animals don’t do.
While the animal has thin layers of “humanistic” traits between it and its survival instinct, for humans, those layers are thicker and allow us to apply our survival instinct further than our immediate benefit, something we see in technology and art.
But then again, looking at our creative products and how we often focus our advancements, sometimes you have to wonder if humans are really so different after all, or if maybe, we don’t just live like we envy the dog in the sweater — because we can.



Thursday, October 20, 2011

Coming Saturday: The difference between us

This week (coming Oct. 22, 2011) In Search of Ponies will focus on a pretty basic question, which as it turns out, doesn't seem so simple once you look into it.
What makes humans different from other animals? 
Duh... who's holding the leash?
And yet there are a lot of theories on the differences and most of the great minds of civilization have pondered the question. 
Aristotle developed his philosophies and conducted his studies between 385-322 B.C., identifying the soul as the key defining factor for different levels of living creatures, with animals having higher souls capable of feeling and humans having rational souls capable of reason, elevating them even further. He chalked it up, in its simplest form, to language, or speech, as a conveyance of higher reason, as I quoted in a 2010 column.
“For nature, as we declare, does nothing without purpose; and man alone of the animals possesses speech. The mere voice, it is true, can indicate pain and pleasure, and therefore is possessed by the other animals as well.
“But speech is designed to indicate the advantageous and the harmful, and therefore also the right and the wrong; for it is the special property of man in distinction from the other animals that he alone has perception of good and bad and right and wrong and the other moral qualities.” 
Aristotle's are some of the earliest philosophies on the differences between us, and while his theories weren't perfect, much of his concepts carry through to modern thought, and I believe, contain the core truth.
 We know that we are the higher animal and we can conclude it from what animals show us in their day-to-day function (chasing cars, spinning in circles, running away from perfectly good homes, using the restroom indiscriminately) but it is also pretty clear when you look at the difference between our societies. We have computers, airplanes, bridges and skyscrapers, they don't.
And we have symphony orchestras and the Mona Lisa.
But is art enough to distinguish us? And what is art? I was faced with this question while reading the October newsletter of author Piers Anthony, a witty and interesting writer that posts a monthly newsletter where he "vents," as he puts it.
Reading his views on the issue got the wheels turning and led to this week's column in which I essentially conclude it is the capacity for abstract thought, virtual vs. tangible concepts, big picture thinking, that makes us different. 
After writing the column, I discussed it with others and discovered I had likely only scratched the surface, particularly from the perspective of an artist I spoke to, who believes that art is uniquely human and it is language that divides the animals.
I still think language and art are merely manifestations or products of the difference between animals and the human animal. 
Something deeper has to make those things possible, and so it would be that thing -- whether it's reason, or the soul or moral compunction or an extra set of brain cells -- that is the difference between us. But I also got the feeling I could easily find plenty of people with other theories.
In terms of columns, it isn't something I would write about very often, because, quite frankly, it's probably pretty boring to most people unless someone is in the mood for a debate or they're just into that sort of thing. But every now and then it's OK to get a little philosophical...

To see what it's all about, check www.cnjonline.com Friday evening and the print edition Saturday

Success understood across species

As featured Oct. 8, 2011, on cnjonline.com
We just didn’t speak the same language.
And it wouldn’t have been such a big deal if he didn’t have the ability to run over me like a Mac truck, a point which was driven home with every nervous or confused twitch he made.
I can still see him standing there, nose to the fence, trembling hind quarters pointed my way, as I tried everything I could think of to get him to respond... to show me that he heard me... to do anything.
Waving arms, yelling, the whip snapping through the air, the plastic grocery bag tied at the end of a stick, annoying tapping on his rump... you name it, I tried it, thinking that the size of the communication needed to match the size of the recipient.
That poor horse.
To this day I have a soft spot in my heart for him, partly because he didn’t swat me like the mosquito I was, but mostly because I now know he was trying to learn my language even harder than I was his, even though it didn’t seem like it at the time.
I thought I knew what I was doing, or at the very least, I knew what I wanted – to get him to move in a circle around me. It should have been simple.
But it wasn’t.
Spending hours upon hours staring at his unmoving backside, I’ll admit I thought he was messing with me and having a big old joke at my expense — an opinion onlookers were quick to share as they chuckled and shook their heads.
But even with his stubborn behind pointed at me, his posture was that of a martyr and I just didn’t feel good about the heavy scare tactics that, as far as I could see, had only left him trembling and jumpy but too uncertain to move.
And then, one quiet day having nearly given up, I tugged his nose away from the fence, lined him up the direction I wanted him to go and stepped back, like I had a thousand times before.
I had never hit him and had no intention of doing so, but my aim was off as I snapped my wrist and the whip licked the saddle with a loud, “CRACK!”
In one solid movement, his head snapped up, hind quarters gathered and he bolted forward with wide eyes.
Lowering the whip in shock, I encouraged him forward, giddy as could be.
Trotting around me, the negativity melted away for him too as his neck curved and his trembling uncertainty was replaced with sure-footed steps.
Life is full of “Duh” moments and anyone who says differently is just not in touch with their inner idiot. For those, like me, who sometimes have difficulty hugging their inner fool and uttering that particular word, I have found a positive alternative — “Eureka!”
We had finally clicked.
By the following week you wouldn’t have known there had ever been a problem at all as he circled, his posture confident. He was so in tune to me; he would screech to a dusty stop or move from a slow walk to a steady jog, then back to a walk, in response to a slight gesture.
In hindsight, it wasn’t really the crack of the whip against the saddle that changed things because I soon realized I didn’t need it.
Rather, it was the success that changed everything.
In that single and brief eureka moment of celebration after our first win, we broke the language barrier.
Up to that point, we had taught each other a lot about failure and error, and we had reinforced it until we were both so frustrated we were literally getting nowhere.
Looking back, I had all the right commands, because the instructions I give him are the same today as they were back then.
But the syntax only mattered to me, never him. All he really needed to know was the bottom line, and it needed to be one he could feel good about — eureka!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Rat had chip on her shoulder

As featured Oct.1, 2011 on www.cnjonline.com

While sitting in the dentist chair, my attention was suddenly drawn to an announcer on the softly playing radio.
“Doritos inventor Arch West, dead at 97... to be buried in his beloved chips,” the voice said.
It was apparently something the family wanted to do and they planned to toss handfuls of their loved one’s innovative 40-year legacy — fried and flavored corn chips into the grave before the urn containing his ashes was covered.
Initially upon hearing the report I wasn’t quite sure whether to scoff or laugh, but then a memory started to emerge.
Godzilla was a tough little bugger.
A designer breed of rat referred to as cinnamon, her dark coat had a glistening, reddish-brown hue.
At just over 3 years old, she had outlived her two sisters Pepe and Daria, both “blue” rats, with a soft, velvety gray-blue color.
Pepe went first, she was my favorite. One day she was just laying there. No explanation, no signs or symptoms, just gone.
I have gotten pretty tough from years of loving and loosing animals but I mourned for Pepe. She would come to the door of the cage when she saw me, waiting to be held. She’d sit on my shoulder contentedly and never bit or scrambled.
Daria was a little less personable, a little more cagey, a typical middle child. She went next, the same way. Quietly and with no warning.
Godzilla, the bully hung on. At first I was angry with her, not understanding how I got stuck with the nastiest one while the others, the nicer ones, had to die.
But as time passed, I kind of felt sorry for her — Living alone, no one to steal food from or push out of the cozy spots.
I made sure she had clean bedding and checked on her more often, dumping banana chips, assorted nuts and other goodies in her cage frequently.
She got a little fat and less active with no one to pick on, spending copious amounts of time in the corner under mounds of shredded newspaper.
I figured it was her battle with karma — all her good deeds coming back at her 10-fold with huge doses of loneliness and silence.
So I kept tossing in the goodies, feeding the beast.
Simultaneously, there was a smell in the garage where she lived.
As the days passed the smell increased. A mouse must have crawled in a crevice and died, I reasoned.
The unpleasant odor became more poignant.
Suddenly it dawned on me. When was the last time Godzilla moved?
“Oh God no,” I thought.
Sure enough, there was her lifeless body, covered in a mound of untouched banana chips, pretzels and peanut butter crackers.
I’m still not sure how many days I poured food on top of her dead body.
I wrestled with guilt, feeling like a callous heel, but no matter how I looked at it, I knew there was nothing I could have done. After all, it wasn’t like she was in the habit of coming out to thank me for the food, or, for that matter, engaging in any other level of activity that would have clued me in that something was wrong.
Looking back, I’ve come to terms with it and I tell myself it was a fitting ending for her, launching into eternity from her cozy spot, covered in her favorite foods. Who could ask for more?
But now that I think about it, I bet she would have returned from the afterlife for some Doritos... If only I’d thought of that.
So long and thanks for all the chips Mr. West, may you find a good queso on the other side!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Schedules help avert cat-astrophe

As featured Sept. 23, 2011, on cnjonline.com

Waking to teeth on my nose was not a pleasant feeling.
In all honesty, it was downright disturbing.
To add insult to injury, the little black furry face – I could only see in segments because of the macro view I had between my eye and the end of my nose – shifted and found my finger on top of the blankets then bit again.
It wasn't enough to break the skin, but the serious urgency of the message was undeniable.
Shoving the cat away with some choice words, I made it to my feet and in my sleepy haze began the bewildered route to the coffee pot in search of a caffeine infusion that might bring answers.
The route became treacherous, like running a gauntlet as the determined cat zigged and zagged in front of me.
“What is it?” I mumbled. “Oh no, Boy! Did Timmy fall down the well again?” I mumbled sarcastically as I rebelliously stayed the course and managed to get to the coffee pot without breaking my neck.
Only after I downed a cup, did I concede and pour the dry, fishy morsels into the bowl, glaring at the feline who watched with satisfaction.
It was the dawn of a new day at my house and led to me embracing something I had never had much time for previously.
Schedules...
I'll admit, I'm not a fan.
It's not that I don't like the concept, it's just they feel somewhat confining. After all, they dictate the allocation of time and time is that precious little commodity we posses that's second only to air.
However with great reluctance, I understand the value of a schedule.
I can thank my cats for that – not that I did, mind you.
I had always secretly believed there was a fine line between love and dinner when it came to my house pets, and never doubted for a second that those adoring eyes that greeted me from the recliner sometimes envisioned a snack as opposed to a pal.
On some small level it was confirmed for me that morning, though I'll admit he did display remarkable restraint.
Nonetheless, I didn't want to revisit it. It just simply wouldn't do for him to think he could munch on a finger in the absence of a full bowl of kibble.
And the schedule was born.
Every night before bed the bowl was filled, and by morning, rather than being greeted by frenzied, panicked and homicidal cats, the most acknowledgment I received was a satisfied half-purr from a drowsy window sitter.
I recently had a conversation with my mother about animals and schedules as she pondered why they respond so well to them – it's the great attitude adjuster as she had discovered with her own cat.
Of course I have a theory.
We have domesticated these critters and in so doing, have rendered them completely powerless over their environment.
The one thing that gives them a sense of control is the schedule... knowing what to expect.
Without those kernels of unchanging predictability, they live in uncertainty that they cannot correct.
In the wild if a circumstance is unfavorable – for instance an animal is hungry and there is no food source nearby – they can redirect circumstance by moving somewhere else and they know that with an investment and greater effort, they can find reward. The ability to self-direct quells fear.
However, in our homes they have no such option – unless of course you've left food on the counter, but that's a separate issue.
In the absence of opportunity to resolve issues such as hunger by themselves and with no routine to tell them when they will next eat, they become, for lack of a better word, animals. And not only are they animals, but animals full of panic and desperation.
It appears that as confining as a schedule may be, it isn't nearly as confining as a lack of control over one's destiny, fulfillment and reward... For animals, that is.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Human vending machine wants more from pets

As featured Sept. 16, 2011 on cnjonline.com

Hair tousled, with grungy slobber on his shoulder, he approached me, held out his thumb and proceeded to tell me how the horse had bitten it and wouldn’t let go.
“Were you giving them peppermints?” I asked my visiting family member.
“No, I didn’t have any with me today. Why would he be so mean and bite me?”
I knew the answer, and was reluctant to blame the horse.
For days he had been going out to the barn with handfuls of peppermints, paying homage to the royal equines. Only this day, when he went empty handed, they were not pleased with their subject in the least. Eying the dirt on his shoulders, I presumed the thumb biting had followed a search of his person by a filthy snout.
“He wasn’t biting you per say, he was looking for the button,” I responded.
Vending machines.
Yep, that’s what we are to them.
And they spend much of their time trying to figure out what buttons to push to make the good stuff appear.
Imagine you were standing in front of a soda machine and the first button you pushed did nothing.
So on you go to the second ... same thing.
Then the third ... Finally you push a button and ... Shazam!
Now imagine you’re the machine.
That’s how the feeding routine can feel some days and each critter has a way of approaching the situation.
My dear old guy looks at me to make sure he has my attention, then he walks to his feed bucket and sticks his nose down inside, keeping eye contact as he lifts then dips his nose over and over again.
My filly calls out, prancing back and forth and sometimes pawing at the rails to make more noise because the delivery just isn’t fast enough and my bully boy waits by the rails of his stall for his chance. If I mistakenly walk close enough and am distracted, he angles his head to the side and tries to snatch a mouthful.
Meanwhile the chicken, Molly, follows along behind me, and if I stand still too long, I can feel the hard peck of her beak on the back of my boot.
And it’s not just the barn group.
The lizards will scratch at the glass of their cage and look at me from across the room; the snake lifts his head and waits for the top of the cage to open and the scrambling morsel to drop in.
And I have woken to a cat sitting on me, staring to give a big “meeoooowwww” when my eyes pop open.
Sometimes it can be funny the creative lengths critters will go to try and get their goodies and even I can’t help but laugh at their antics.
However, this vending machine doesn’t like being a vending machine.
Does anyone ever thank the vending machine? Do people stand and talk to it just for the sake of talking?
As the keeper of the food, I have all the power — or at least in theory I should.
Sure, I get it. They love us because we feed them and they love food, but I demand the illusion that it’s more than that.
Loud or pushy horses get reprimanded and fed last, dogs must wait while the bowl is filled and sit patiently until they are given the green light, and cats, well the only way that seems to work with the cats is a schedule.
As long as they know, that without fail, the food will come at the same time every day, they seem content not to go to the trouble to hunt me down and harass me.
Teaching the chicken not to peck at my boots? That’s one I haven’t figured out yet. With the precision of that beak, maybe I can get her a gumball machine that dispenses cracked corn. Hey, now there’s an idea!

Horses in for rough ride

As featured Sept. 9, 2011 on cnjonline.com

Things are tough.
The economy is tight, people are stretching their dollars to cover the cost of the rising expenses and most of the recent data says they are doing it without pay increases.
And to make things worse, drought and wildfires in the area have hit the feed supply for animals.
As winter approaches and people begin to try and stock their barns, I have heard more complaints by horse owners about the difficulty and expense of finding hay than ever before.
Today alone, three people told me they had made numerous phone calls searching for hay with no luck.
I have covered the news side of it, writing stories about the factors influencing rising costs and the impact it has on pocketbooks.
However, there’s another side to the issue as well.
Most people would say if you can’t afford the cost of feeding your animals, you shouldn’t keep them.
But what if there’s no market for them and it’s difficult if not impossible to sell or even give them away?
What if nearly everybody is in varying degrees of the same hardship?
They aren’t called “hay burners” for nothing, and horses, particularly those classified as non-working or “pleasure horses” are becoming more and more of a luxury, particularly as the feed issue compounds.
I fear there are good people out there, who, at the mercy of the feed climate and through no fault of their own, will not be able to find or afford feed this winter and will struggle to meet their animal’s basic needs.
People in the business will tell you that even if the weather pattern in the area changes and there is moisture, it won’t happen soon enough to change the feed supply issues for the year.
Most of them will also tell you an increase in starving horses is a reality that’s just around the corner, especially if the winter is a harsh one.
If they are correct, as much as I hate to sound like Chicken Little, by the time the full impact of the situation starts to show itself in ribs that you can count or protruding hip bones, it will have gone too far.
An animal deteriorated to that point takes a significant amount of time, money and heart to save, and frankly there just aren’t enough people willing or able to make the investment, especially if it becomes a trend involving a lot of animals.
On the rare occasion where someone does step forward to intervene and save a starving animal, kudos to them. A life gets spared and they get to feel good about their deed.
But it seems to me it’s much easier and perhaps even more heroic to save an animal on the front end of the problem rather than after it’s already taken hold.
I wish I knew the magic solution to keep all the horses in the community warm and fuzzy this winter, but I will be the first to admit I don’t have the answer.
What I do know is that if the experts are right and the feed supply gets as thin as predicted in coming months, neighbors will need to rally together.
When there is enough reason to believe a problem is coming, it makes sense to get ahead of it and put measures in place — kind of like sandbags before a flood.
If there’s no flood, at least you have a lot of door-stoppers.
And if there is, well then you might get your socks wet, but your house, and your neighbor’s, will still be standing.

Picking up after hen egg-sasperating

As featured Sept. 2, 2011 on cnjonline.com

Oh yeah, I’m sure the neighbors think I’m odd when they see me trudging around.
Head down, eyes to the ground, I sweep my foot through the few patches of tall grass that have managed to grow — incidentally sprouted near spots on my multi-patched hose where the mends have given out.
Some days I wiggle the toe of my boot up under the bent, long grass and there they are.
Other days I come up empty.
You see, everyday is Easter at my house. At least since I moved the round bale my hen Molly used to lay under.
Now it’s anyone’s guess where she’ll hide her eggs.
Initially she chose a spot and stuck with it for several days, so I tied a bit of bailing twine on the top of the long grass to make it easy to find.
We had a great system going, until I re-situated a horse pen so they could “mow” that area, then all bets were off.
At one point more than a week passed with no eggs, until one night when I was making my way to move a hose in the dark.
Crunch...
I stopped dead in my tracks and bent down, feeling around in the blackness only to have my fingers encounter the slimy mess I should have expected.
I poked around to see if I could find more in the dark, but no luck.
A few days later I found four eggs nestled underneath bent-over weeds.
They all passed the “float test” and got stuck in the fridge, but I haven’t seen a single egg since.
By my estimate, there’s a dozen eggs out there somewhere, but she refuses to lay her eggs in the predictable or logical places, like the loose pile of cozy hay in the barn, or the nook under the wood pile.
Oh no, not Molly. She has to be creative.
When I was a child I must have scurried around with my bonnet and little pink Easter basket and squealed with glee at the discovery of a brightly colored egg. And at some regretful point — like a moment of Shakespearean foreshadowing I couldn’t possible comprehend — I uttered the fateful words, “I wish everyday was Easter Mommy!”
And here I am, years later cursed to hunt for eggs hidden by a hen far more devious than any of the adults that ever orchestrated one of those long-ago moments of childhood fun.
It must be some such convoluted design of fate because such things have happened before.
Like the time I called my mother looking for comfort in some moment of parental frustration and she reminded me that at the wise age of 13 I declared children deserved far more credit than their parents gave them and when the day came that I had my own, I would be more understanding of my little genius spawn.
Oh yeah, I remember that... Ooops...
Yeah those little utterances do have a way of coming back around, don’t they?
If Molly is indeed hiding the eggs to be cruel, she is the most two-faced hen I have ever met (not that I have known that many).
Every day when she sees me she runs my direction in a zig-zagging waddle, ducking under fence rails like some basic trainee navigating an obstacle course on an adrenaline high.
And she follows me to the barn at a similar, high-speed bobbing waddle, chit-chatting the whole way like she has so much to tell me.
No, I don’t think she hates me, so it must be something else.
Perhaps that cat that hangs out in the barn — the one that just appeared about the time Molly came to live with us — makes her nervous.
Or maybe she just likes variety of scenery when she lays her eggs, kind of like a chicken’s version of lavatory reading.
Whatever the answer, the egg hunt is now part of my daily chore routine, as if there wasn’t enough to do already.
However this weekend when I take on my other chores and finally get around to mowing down those little patches of sanctuary, I bet I’ll end up making some scrambled eggs... just a hunch.

Growing up for the birds

As featured Aug. 26, 2011 on cnjonline.com

So they just topple over the edge and then they’re gone, sailing into the sunset to go forth and do their thing, right?
Wrong.
Sure it happens that way sometimes.
And then sometimes they wander too close to the edge and fall out before they’re ready or they jump out and then hang around.
But perhaps the biggest myth perpetuated with the whole thing is that once the fledgling is no longer snuggled in the nest, the parents move on to other things.
Not so...
I saw this for myself recently.
Wandering around my yard, I came across a small dove perched on a pile of branches trimmed from a nearby tree, which incidentally houses a pair of doves.
It was fairly well developed, but the slightly frayed ends of its soft feathers marked it easily as a youngin’.
It hunkered down and was obviously afraid, but didn’t flutter off or try to escape my attention as I inspected to make sure it wasn’t injured.
Recognizing it was at an age where it might be able to get by, I decided to let it be.
It was still there later that day, and the next morning as well, still alive and alert, but not flying away.
Concerned, I began watching more often and it wasn’t long before another dove flew in, paused for a second, then flew off.
The pattern was repeated and I realized the youngster’s parents were tending to it and still feeding it, even though it was far from the nest.
I have seen bird parents stand by as their featherless young that don’t have a chance of survival draw their last breaths on the ground after a fall and I have seen young birds that are a little surprised by their “first fall” quickly gain their bearings and take to the air.
But as I watched the dove pair swoop in and feed their young one for several days, even after it made its way from the brush pile to a fence, I was struck by their continued devotion.
Much to do has been made about the leaving the nest moment, particularly among us humans.
However what the doves showed was the fact that even in the animal world, an empty nest doesn’t mean the work is over.
Of course us humans know that and if we don’t, we find out with the first phone call from college, whether it’s the call to say, “You have to have quarters to do laundry here, can I bring it at home? I have NO clean underwear...” or the call to ask for money, or for better food.
Oh yeah, they flew, or dropped or coasted a little ways away, but all that empty nest really means is you have to go a little further to make sure they eat and clean their feathers.
After a couple of days, I checked the fence and the little fellow was gone — in a good way I assume since there was no corresponding pile of feathers near his spot.
Looking up, I saw the nest was vacant too, and therein lies the difference between birds and humans.
You see, if that had been a human child in today’s world, it would have likely managed to flap back up to the nest, weighed down with student loans and maybe even a young one of its own or two.
But no, birds aren’t like that.
They might accept lunch on the fence for a while, but when the flyin’s good, so’s the gettin.’
Then again, maybe that’s because the birds are a more advanced species that have somehow figured out that if the nest is empty, truly empty, the young ones won’t bother trying to come back, as opposed to us humans that sit in the emptiness.
Nah, I bet somewhere in the air over Clovis there’s a pair of doves looking for the turn off for Hawaii and acting like they don’t know the smaller version of themselves trailing behind them chirping, “Mom? Dad? Are we going to a new nest?”