Saturday, September 24, 2011

Schedules help avert cat-astrophe

As featured Sept. 23, 2011, on

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.
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

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

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

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.
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

So they just topple over the edge and then they’re gone, sailing into the sunset to go forth and do their thing, right?
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?”

Death part of owning animals

As featured Aug. 12, 2011 on

"What did you kill this week?”
It’s the question I hear every week when I turn in my column for editing — asked in jest of course.
In response I usually joke back that I’ve set a limit of one a month or some such thing.
But it does highlight an often unspoken truth about life with animals.
They die.
Regrettably and for a variety of reasons, their lives end and probability dictates the more animals you have, the more you experience death.
One of my recent conversations centered on the fact that somehow when you have multiple animals, they all arrive at roughly the same time or in little age clusters — and just as all the light bulbs seem to go out in your house at the same time — animals often seem to age and die together too.
And if you deal with exotic animals such as fish, reptiles and the like, you better be prepared for attrition, especially with often underestimated husbandry.
Or that really cool, super expensive chameleon that’s only 3-days-old to you, could actually be a lizard that was just shaken from a tree in Madagascar, shipped over in a crate and is the equivalent of 80-years-old in the lizard world. Meaning you are now hospice care. You just didn’t know it.
The truth is, notwithstanding inexcusable neglect and mistreatment, even with the best of care, critters are already fighting the odds. They can’t tell you when they don’t feel good, they run in front of cars, eat things they shouldn’t, have genetic problems and get diseases — all things that anyone who has ever made animals a part of their life know all too well.
When I write about the deaths of animals, I am not making light. What I am doing is understanding it, accepting it and finding the messages in those deaths and the lives they represent.
Fatality stories I’ve heard are all over the map — someone who went out to feed and found their horse lying dead when it seemed fine the day before, another who dropped their pampered lap dog while trying to unlock a door, the person who didn’t know the family cat had climbed into the engine of the car or the lucky cat that died curled up in its favorite spot on the back of the chair.
It’s just human that we want someone to blame when unfortunate things happen, but in so doing we are quick to forget everything has a beginning, middle and end —and sometimes you get the page count ahead of time, sometimes you don’t.
In our society we have developed the belief that we must save and prolong life at all costs because it is one of the most valued commodities we have — at least in the “civilized” parts of the world where our sense of self worth dictates as much.
But I do believe it’s sometimes as close to altruistic as we get in our dealings with animals that we allow ourselves to weigh the value of life against the value of quality of life.
When there is nothing ahead but suffering, I find it hard to imagine one could have any ability so beautiful as the one to give the gift of peace.
Sometimes you choose euthanasia in advance of pending suffering and in another cases you wish you had chosen it sooner. I have belabored the decision to euthanize with friends who weren’t sure if it was time and I have faced the decision myself.
And then I have seen an old blind horse slowly and lovingly follow his human companion — the same man that he raised from childhood to parenthood — around the barn for the morning and evening feeding routine right up until the day he died, even though there were those who might think he was allowed to live too long.
Death is a bottom-line part of life, we all know it to be true and yet we avoid talking about it and after all our time and developments as a species, we seem to understand it less and less as we go.
Finding ways to talk about death, explore it and yes, sometimes even find the humor in it, are all part of understanding and accepting.
After all, death — like a photograph — is just a small fraction of time. What’s important is the life that led up to it and what that life leaves behind.

Yankee makes home in the southwest

As featured Aug. 5, 2011 on

“Oh man, the flies are awful here!” my visiting family member exclaimed by way of a greeting when I arrived home from work.
“Actually they haven’t been bad this year at all,” I replied, a little confused as he guided me to my kitchen counter, turned-killing fields and proudly showed me the carnage.
Underneath a hanging fly trap that he had installed while I was gone, the counter appeared to be polka dotted with the success of his hunting and swatting — innovatively using my cell phone insurance brochure as his weapon.
“There’s ninety-six of them!” he exclaimed “And that’s not counting what’s stuck to the trap!”
Fighting the urge to laugh, I gently pointed out there hadn’t been that many flies before I left the house and that perhaps the fly trap had an attractant on it.
I again stifled my laughter as I watched the thought move across his face and end in a “Eureka” expression as it dawned on him and he quickly returned to swatting flies.
The next day when I called to check in, his breathless voice greeted me on the other end of the line.
“I just had the scare of my life!” he said.
He proceeded to tell me he was getting a plate when he heard something scurrying in the cabinet. Something flashed by, he said, so he reached out and grabbed it only to drop it when my son yelled a warning.
“It was long and flat and had hundreds of legs!” he exclaimed. “I’ve never seen anything like that before, it was HUGE!”
I had to cover my mouth with my hand so he couldn’t hear me laughing as he rambled on to explain he grabbed a kitchen knife and cut it in half, but it kept running at him.
“You did the right thing,” I said. “That was a centipede. Don’t pick up anymore of them. I don’t think it would kill you but I’m pretty sure you would be uncomfortable for a while.”
For good measure, I took the opportunity to caution him about standing still in one place too long without looking down at his feet while outside, operating on the assumption that his next discovery was likely to be fire ants.
“You got it, I won’t,” he assured me.
And then the next day as we were jacking up a trailer he suddenly jumped back and exclaimed, “What is that? It’s a snake with little arms!”
I looked down into the dry, cracked ground where he pointed and smiled.
“Nope, not a snake – it’s a skink,” I said and went back to turning the jack.
“What’s a skink?” he asked, staring down into the hole.
“It’s a lizard. It’s harmless,” I answered. He reluctantly returned to the jack but I noticed he kept checking the hole while we worked.
Most days I still feel like a Yankee, especially when I’m in the feed store or at the rodeo — environments where I try not to say a whole lot so I don’t stand out too much.
But it only takes a few minutes with someone who isn’t from around here to know I have adapted.
The Eastern Plains is pretty curious, and even a little scary, to Yankees.
I remember the first time I saw a tarantula hawk wasp — the official state insect in New Mexico — and thought some Jurassic Park monster was coming at me.
Or the first time I saw a rattle snake, or for that matter a parade of tarantulas crossing the road or a black widow spider.
Somehow it all grows on you if you stick around long enough, and after a while, you don’t even blink.
You can always go further west but I’m not sure it gets much wilder, and if you ask me, there’s no place like home.
Even if it means the relatives aren’t too keen on visiting anymore.

Hen's duck act ends tragically

As featured July 29, 2011 on

The laughter on the other end of the phone line was predictable.
"A chicken?" my Mom asked.
"Yes, a chicken. I had two but the other one drowned," I replied.
She stifled her laughter long enough to issue an, "Awww...."
"But what about the drought? How did a chicken drown?"
It was a valid question.
Somehow, in this barren and dry land, Raquel the hen managed to not only find water, but water deep enough to drown.
And, as I discovered, apparently my horses aren't keen on chicken broth.
I found her at morning feeding time.
I thought it odd that Molly, her companion hen, met me at the gate alone and followed me to the barn.
I looked around for the black and white speckled lady, but when I didn't find her, I assumed she was off laying her morning egg.
Until I checked to make sure the horses — who were eyeing their water tank suspiciously — had plenty of water for the day.
And there she was floating just below the surface.
I felt bad. Really bad.
Last summer a crow or two were found floating in the horse tanks, but I never even thought about it when the chickens came to live with us.
It's one of those "too much of a good thing," lessons. Just because you want or need something doesn't mean you will survive being immersed in it.
I guess the cool thing about ducks is they are better designed to float upright and their feathers don't get bogged down when wet.
Chickens, not so much.
I assume Raquel must have done one of her low, short bursts of flight into the tank but, once wet, couldn't get free of it.
Since the drowning, I have learned why I often noticed planks of wood floating in horse tanks at friends barns.
They're chicken (and crow) savers.
As one friend told me, struggling, soggy birds always seem to find their way to the floating raft and then to safety.
But Molly hasn't shown the slightest interest in the water trough and instead seems to stay clear of it.
In fact, I don't know how traumatic the Raquel incident was or what she saw, but she has become a bit clingy since.
And she shadows anyone that comes around, clucking and carrying on as if in the hope that someday, someone will respond to her in chicken-speak.
Sometimes I even think she hides her egg every morning to prolong the amount of time she has visitors in the barnyard.
A friend offered me a rooster to keep her company, which I politely declined, not wanting to breed chicks that draw in predators or feed the neighborhood feral cats.
I think Molly will get along just fine on her own.
Instead of venturing out into the field or exploring, Molly has adopted the horses as her companions and sticks close to the barn, weaving in and out of their feet in search of alfalfa leaves.
I think it's good all the way around, providing her the company she seeks and getting them conditioned to "flighty" noisy things.
But if it becomes obvious that she's too lonely, another suggestion was to get her a recording of chicken conversation.
Either way, if she wants to pretend she's a horse and become part of their little herd, it's fine with me. In fact anything she does to adapt is fine with me — as long as she never gets the wild idea she's a duck.

Only the fish die young

As featured July 22, 2011 on

The first one to go was the algae eater — initially construed as a bittersweet sign that at least the tank was clean.
But by that night the second one flopped on its side, gills flaring for the last time.
Then a third died — the one that lived under a rock, which I, even to this day, have never seen.
The fourth and largest fish fought for two days — long enough that we thought he would make it — then he finally succumbed.
And that was it... An entire world wiped out.
With all the dry heat of late, the tank was evaporating rapidly and in need of frequent refills.
And those frequent refills led to the use of all the water conditioning drops — You know, the ones that neutralize the chlorine and make water fish friendly.
But as I stood at the store preparing to buy more, the heavens opened and the angels sang and a little voice whispered to me, “Derrrr... well water doesn’t have chlorine dummy...”
Eureka! We had been unnecessarily treating the water to neutralize nonexistent water treatment. Of course, just to be sure, I asked a fish expert and they said it should be fine to just use water from the tap.
Several days later, here we are with an apparently uninhabitable ecosystem in the living room.
Fish die. That’s just something I have learned over the years.
It started when I was 3-ish and dumped a whole bag of wheat flour in my gold fish’s bowl because he looked hungry.
Who knew wheat wasn’t healthy for fish, or for that matter, that they don’t swim well in dough?
But battered fish aside, I can’t remember ever owning a fish into its geriatric days. And I’m sure I’m not alone — I bet every 10 seconds or so a family gathers ‘round a flushing commode somewhere.
Dogs and cats and the like are simple since they breathe and eat pretty much the same as us.
But raising anything that isn’t mammal can be challenging.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun playing Creator sometimes. “Hmmm, I think I would like to see a tree over here, and how about a little hill over there... Ooh, vines would be the perfect touch there... And a waterfall, yes, that’s perfect!”
Until you mess up on something critical, like oxygen.
Any time you try to create a little self-sustaining world inside a glass box, you’re bound to mess something up because, quite frankly, you’re just not omniscient, omnipotent or omnipresent.
And messing up can run the spectrum from minor, fixable issues to mass murder.
When the fish died, my natural reflex thought was, “Oh no! We drink that water too,” but it doesn’t sound like whatever got the fish is coming for us next.
I did a little reading —after the fact of course, because as the saying goes, “you don’t know what you don’t know,” until it kills your fish (I added that last bit) — and I still don’t know much more than I did.
There are several possibilities, from well water needing to be aerated before it’s mixed in, to differing pH levels or temperature or a contaminant in the bucket that was used.
Of course I could spend more time researching the issue and then have a go at it again. But for now, I think it’s best, in memory of the four who are no more, to drain the tank and repurpose it.
Perhaps in another five or 10 years I’ll have forgotten the specifics and will only remember how fun it is to watch the fish swimming around in their world-within-a-world, or through some magical osmosis I’ll wake up a fish expert someday.
I guess if there’s an upside, it lies in the discovery there must not be any fishy things swimming in my water supply.
The comedian W. C. Fields may have put it best when he said, “I never drink water because of the disgusting things that fish do in it.”

Desperate snake slithers into house

As featured July 15, 2011 on

There are a few sounds out there that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up and set your nerve endings on fire — the racking of a shotgun, screeching tires, crunching metal or a blood curdling scream.
But I’ll wager few things say “Come to Jesus” quite like the hiss of a snake, especially if it’s heard but not seen.
“Dude, there’s a snake in your house!” I heard from the living room. “It’s hissing at me!”
“Yeah, his name is George,” my son answered.
But something about his friend’s panicked tone told me it wasn’t George the lazy ball python that he was referring to. Besides, George doesn’t hiss... much.
As I rushed into the room, I observed my son’s friend standing on guard, nervously looking toward the window.
“It’s over there, behind the curtains,” he said.
I ordered them to back away and scrambled for the snake stick (a long metal pole with a hooked end used to control a snake), then inched toward the curtains and used the stick to peel fabric away until I saw him.
While smaller than his hiss, the bull snake still presented a good four-feet of trim, slithering speed.
Not interested in trying to best him, I carefully reached over his angry little head to open the window, and used the stick to evict him.
“How about you eat the mice before they get inside?” I asked him, as he exited in a huff.
Going to sleep after the experience did take a little work, but after 24 hours I had moved on.
Until a day later when I saw tail-o-snake slipping under the door to my son’s bedroom.
Now a pro, I twisted it up with the snake stick, shuffled it into a pillow case and deposited it out in the yard.
Terrified by its abduction, the lanky racer just sat and looked at me, and I, in turn, looked at it.
Scars covered its body and its back was bent at an odd angle, no doubt signs of a rough life.
For a moment I felt sympathy and wished that I could bring myself to share my space, and my mouse issues with it — until I thought of us ending up unexpectedly in the same chair.
The drought has been tough on everybody this year, not just humans. Farmers and ranchers will tell you the rabbits have all run out of the fields or starved off and, so, I believe, have the mice.
It makes sense that they will migrate toward homes where us humans continue to eat and generate scraps.
And on their heels are predators, who are equally and just as desperately searching for food.
In recent weeks, animal control officials and law enforcement have received numerous, “There’s a snake in my house!” calls from frantic residents.
I listened to one this week in which the dispatcher was trying to give details but the caller was too hysterical to say much more than “snake.”
I get it. I like snakes just fine, when I know where they are. What I don’t like is surprise snakes.
I came across an old Egyptian proverb that says, “Because we focused on the snake, we missed the scorpion.”
Now I’m sure the saying has deep philosophical applicability, but on the surface, it’s pretty meaningful too.
Many believe where you have bull snakes, you have no rattle snakes — that’s good enough for me.
I’ll take hissing over rattling any day, and I like the idea that I don’t have to kill mice.
Of course I would love nothing more than to see this little food chain go back to the fields, but I have a feeling it will take a couple weeks of rain to get everybody back into the groove again.
In the meantime, it seems the drought has made porch lights look like “Eat at Joe’s” signs to our wild things.
Kind of makes you wonder what’s next? Coyotes, mountain lions, bears?
I’m not Joe, guys... I’m not Joe...

Stowaway cats meet adventure

As featured July 8, 2011 on
The dark pockets and crevices, nooks and crannies surely held a plethora of mystery and fun, or that’s how it must have looked to Kisten anyway.
Several hours later, whatever fun might have hidden there was long gone as Kisten — wide-eyed and dropping thousands of stressed follicles by the minute — climbed up toward the light that seeped through the rising trunk lid.
“If you’re looking for your cat, don’t worry, he’s with us,” Leslie told her daughter on the phone.
Leslie and her husband Paul discovered Kisten in the trunk of their car three hours from home while on their way to Colorado Springs for a vacation.
He was a lucky cat, because he would have had a long ride if Paul hadn’t stopped to search for his eye glasses.
As it was, Kisten got to spend the rest of the ride up front in comfort.
And his curiosity bought him a visit to Grandma’s where he got acquainted with his “cousin cats and cousin dog” as Leslie puts it.
It was a real adventure for an only pet. Leslie said Kisten doesn’t really even know he’s a cat, much less know how to take other animals.
He was a pleasure on the trip, minding his P’s and Q’s and respecting his hostess’ home (with the exception of one excursion up the drapes during the adjustment stage) and he made quite an impression.
“My mother-in-law commented on what a beautiful cat he was ... we offered to leave him,” Leslie said laughing and quickly adding that she didn’t mean it, of course.
Instead, when vacation was over, Kisten rode back in a borrowed pet carrier (in the front of the car of course) and seemed relieved to be back in Clovis, taking off for his favorite hiding spot as soon as the carrier was opened.
The tendency of cats to hitchhike is not a new thing.
Less than a month ago, a British cat named Charlie hitched a ride on a truck and traveled 400 miles from Cornwall to North Wales, where she was found scrounging for food and returned to the arms of her loving mum.
In March 2010, a trucking company went to the media for help after a cat was found hiding behind pallets inside a grocery delivery truck in Billings, Mont., that had just come from Salt Lake City.
Bam Bam was returned home in January after being gone two months and traveling 100 miles away when he hitched a ride to St. Paul, Minn., in the back of his contracter-owner’s work truck. His relieved mom found him pictured with Santa Claus on a pet adoption website.
I suppose what all this tells us is that Kisten is simply luckier than other curious cats because at least he jumped into his own people’s trunk.
By the same token, he might have just gotten a ride around the corner to a convenience store on a midnight milk run. Or he might have jumped in while the trunk was being unloaded, then trapped for the weekend or, worse yet, until the next time they needed to open it for some reason.
Luck may be selling this kitty a little short.
After all, none of those possible bad things happened. Instead, he went on vacation with his favorite people, met family and experienced life on the road from the comfort of a warm lap — even if it did cost him a couple hours in a hot, noisy, bumpy trunk.
When asked if Kisten will be included in the next family trip, Leslie’s short answer was, “Willingly? No.”
While Kisten is very loved and an enjoyed part of the family, it looks like his next planned trip away from home will be moving out with his now-teen, true owner.
“He’s my daughter’s cat. She always reminds me that,” Leslie said. “We are looking forward to a life of cat freedom.”
But I’d be willing to wager the fun isn’t over yet.

Story behind quack attack

As featured July 1, 2011 on

Molesting a zoo visitor during a dedication ceremony elevated one hard-luck duck to marginal fame this week and earned him a new name.
But there’s more to Merv the... Oh never mind, we’ll just stick with Merv... than meets the eye.
He waddled into the spotlight during the dedication of a newly-donated water fountain Tuesday morning.

Oblivious to the reverence of the crowd as they listened to a speech, Merv found his target in Claire Burroughes, Clovis community development director, who stood among a row of spectators from the city.
Thankfully for everyone but Claire, CNJ photographer Tony Bullocks was on hand to document what happened next.
“It was a very serious moment. (The donor was) making a speech, and here comes the duck,” she said as she recalled a moment immortalized through Tony’s lens.
“(The duck) wouldn’t leave me alone. He started yanking on my skirt.”
But Merv was interested in more than her skirt and eventually gave up tugging on the hem so he could nibble on her toes.
In all fairness to Merv, it was Claire’s laughter that disrupted the event.
“He was biting my toes, one after the other. He was like yum, yum,” she said.
“I was trying to figure out why me and nobody else,” she said, theorizing it might have been the glittery polish on her digits, or more likely the smell of her honeysuckle lotion.
Eventually Merv did drift away and the event was a success despite the hubbub.
But it certainly wasn’t forgotten, especially by the next day when the photo surfaced in the paper.
“They’ve been teasing me unmercifully,” Claire said of just about everyone she has run into since.
Zookeeper Mary-Lou McAnulla heard about it too.
“All I know is I walked in (Wednesday) and they said look what your duck did,” she said.
“He doesn’t like people, but he’s smart enough to know that that’s where the food comes from. They’re saying that the reason he went after Claire is because Claire and I look a lot a like.”
And Merv equates Mary-Lou with food.
You see, Merv has only been wandering the zoo’s grounds for about a week.
And he’s not just any duck, even if he is an odd duck, according to Mary-Lou.
The way the story goes, Merv was an Easter duck — a fuzzy little hatchling purchased by a family from a local feed store for their kids this spring.
After a $1,200 surgery to repair injuries he received in a dog attack, his family decided to take him to the zoo to live.
The zoo has a partnership with a duck rehabilitation program, but Mary-Lou said the family asked that Merv stay on the grounds so their children could visit him.
But lacking full feathers and unable to defend himself against the bigger ducks, Merv wasn’t ready to integrate when he arrived three weeks ago, so Mary-Lou kept him in a cage and cared for him until his feathers grew in.
His first day out in the park, she said she took him to the water where the other ducks were and set him free.
That was when she discovered Merv doesn’t like water.
“He just ran out like he was on fire, then he hid for a couple days,” she said. “He’ll walk in the water, but he won’t swim.”
She finally found him and relocated him to the front of the zoo where she could keep a better eye on him and he disappeared again until they discovered he had moved in with the tortoises.
Merv did find a family of sorts, bonding with “Mommy” duck and her babies, but he continues to disappear and resurface around the zoo.
He went into hiding again after his disastrous attempt at courtship — or pandering, depending on how you look at it — but Mary-Lou said she finally caught sight of him again Friday.
With time, Mary-Lou is confident Merv will be fine, and, “We’re hoping if he gets his mind together he might swim.”
If Merv was hoping to make a lasting impression on Claire, however, he is remiss in the area of follow-up.
“I don’t think we’re going to have a long meaningful relationship. He hasn’t sent me a quack (since),” she said.
“I don’t know what the future might hold for us.”
Hang in there Merv, she’s bound to come quack... I mean back... eventually.

Swallows keep pests away

As featured June 24, 2011 on

I struggled with the thought of knocking it down, but they were working so hard I just didn’t have the heart.
Instead, I sat in the front yard and photographed the swallows as they swooped in and out, fluttering under the eave with beaks full of mud.
Over several days I watched as the mud expanded, and, with the addition of horse hair from the barn and small twigs, a nest began to form in front of my door.
On one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed watching them fly and work and highly valued their life’s mission. But then on the other, I dreaded the day their eggs hatched because I knew those beautiful swoops and dive bombing maneuvers would be directed at me.
However, it wasn’t hard to make me feel better about allowing them to nest because I was looking for justification.
That justification came when Dan True — a nature photographer, author and all around bird lover — found me sitting at my desk Tuesday morning.
He was excited. Really excited.
Pulling a wad of tissue paper from a canister, he unfolded it and exposed a clump of dead mosquitos he had plucked from the bottom of a swallow nest on his porch.
They weren’t in the nest feeding on the chicks — they were the food.
For days he had watched as the adult swallows swooped in and did fly-by feedings, dropping morsels for their little ones.
“Did you know an adult swallow can catch 2,000 mosquitos in a day?” he asked.
Admittedly, no, I didn’t, but I suddenly found myself wanting a few more nests on my porch.
As it happens, True inherited the swallows when a neighbor across the street tore down a nest they tried to build. For three years thereafter, the swallow pair have spent spring and summer on the True’s porch.
Only this year the nest crumbled in the dry heat, sending five chicks tumbling to the ground.
They couldn’t have picked a better porch for their catastrophe.
Scooping up the four survivors under the watchful eyes of their panicked parents, the True’s screwed a plastic bowl to the top of a step ladder, lined it with velvet, and nestled them inside.
The parents didn’t miss a beat and resumed feeding, seeming to understand they had an extra set of helping hands around. And help he did, helping clean the artificial nest and looking after the little tots.
The first two years the swallows would dive bombing and swoop anytime the True’s went on their porch, but no more.
“It’s just a remarkable turnaround. They act like they understand I’m not a threat,” he said. “They are so smart ... they seem to understand that I’m on their side.”
Unfortunately the fallen nest was the first sign of trouble for the year and by this week, only one of the juveniles remained alive.
“This dry weather is really a tough situation on these mosquito grabbers... they didn’t have enough insects to keep them alive,” he said. “What it emphasizes is how tough this drought is on wildlife.”
True said he’s got their routine down, and, like clockwork, they raise two, five-egg batches of youngin’s each summer and the pair should have started on their second clutch of eggs this week. However, he found two broken eggs on the ground, evidence, perhaps, that the second nest won’t happen.
Then, about a day from taking wing, the only surviving fledgling was spooked away by a delivery man and hasn’t been seen since. They hope he made it but may never know.
On the off chance mother bird may still lay eggs, True plans to create a small mud puddle so they can build a nest and has decided to tear the nest down every two years to encourage them to build strong, new ones.
Armed with this new information, I’m glad I left my swallows alone and am getting a little excited to hear the tweets.
It’s not fun to be dive bombed, but True assured that swallow “attacks,” while nerve wracking, are almost all show.
I suppose if worst comes to worst I can use another door.
And they will keep those pesky salesmen away — after all, nothing says “No Soliciting” like an angry set of teeny talons grazing your head.
Do your darndest little swallows, I’ve got no room for mosquitos (or salesmen), but I think there’s room enough for you.

Critters offer children endless amusement

As featured June 17, 2011 on

“Hello, do you sell feeder ants?” I asked the lady who answered at the pet store.
“Put it back where you found it,” the voice on the other end of the line responded.
“Excuse me? What do you mean?”
“The horned toad. Take it back where you found it, you can't keep it,” she answered.
In hindsight my call was a dead giveaway since not a lot of things depend on ants for their diet in these parts and ants are a food source that make it near impossible to keep horned toads in captivity, according to the lecture I got that day.
I did let the little fellow go, and I set him down close to an ant hill by way of an apology. Sadly, I admit I was an adult at the time — though in my defense it has been several years.
Growing up we always sought out wildlife — fireflies and tadpoles in jars, salamanders, turtles we found wandering, granddaddy longlegs, snakes, preying mantis', lady bugs and more.
You name it, we caught it.
I can still remember all of us children gathered in a circle on the playground and the feel of a baby possums' tail winding around my finger while we watched in amazement as he hung upside down.
Another of our favorite things to do was catch moles. We would see them tunneling near the top of the soil and put our hand in the way of the trail, then scoop it up.
Looking back it must have been torture to them, but blinded by the sun, the strange little guys would sit docile in our hands until we would put them back, then off they'd go, tunneling the other direction as fast as they could.
There's something about the line between kids (adult kids too) and wild animals that just begs to be crossed regardless of economics or location.
Out of curiosity, I asked some folks from a smattering of different regions what wildlife they remember playing with as children:
• Muleshoe kid: Raised in west Texas, one man — for no good reason other than it was fun — remembers sneaking into barns at night and catching sleeping pigeons, which he then took home and raised in cages. There were also the tadpoles he kept in a fishbowl until his family went on a lengthy vacation and returned to a lesson in evolution and a near empty bowl. They never found the frogs but to this day he clearly remembers his mother being more than a little unhappy.
• New England kid: His brother had a penchant for raising wild caught critters of all kinds and their back yard was a “zoo” of cages and ponds filled with frogs, turtles, salamanders and snakes. One of his stronger memories involved a painted turtle, who, while he was holding it to admire its cute face, admired him back and latched onto his nose. Getting the turtle off his nose proved a challenge, he said, remembering that he shook his head from side to side like a dog but the turtle wouldn’t let go.
• Philippine kid: Living in the inner city, surprisingly he said there was no shortage of critters around. A lot of kids played with the lizards that lived in and around homes, taking them for pets, but what he remembers most was spider games. Kids would gather to pit their arachnid pets against each other in shoe boxes. They also caught jumping spiders, then rotated their hands around each other creating a treadmill of sorts. While the spider kept jumping forward, getting nowhere fast, it would create a web that wrapped around the kids hands — endless hours of fun, for the kids at least.
• Northern Michigan kid: Growing up on a remote dairy farm, wildlife was part of life. He remembers raising orphaned possums, skunks and baby birds. One night he encountered a bobcat in the milk barn, initially mistaking it for a large Tom cat until it jumped from a hay pile and made it out the door in two, lightening speed hops. After that, he started leaving the door cracked and setting out a dish of milk every night. Everything was fine until one night when his father, noticing the open door, discovered the bobcat in the barn. It was hard to tell who was more startled, the cat or the man, but he clearly remembers his father booming, “You did WHAT?”
It never fails, regardless of where someone comes from, where they're going or where they end up, somewhere along the path there was a little fur or feathers. And those memories can bring a smile to the most hardened face.
Perhaps Shakespeare had it right in saying, “Nature teaches beasts to know their friends.”

Egg-citing discovery

As featured June 10, 2011 on

I have to admit and even I am surprised, but I am actually enjoying having chickens.
Racquel and Molly — they came with names — are perfect ladies and are actually kind of neat to have around.
They don’t like to be touched, but by the same token they like to shadow me everywhere I go .
And they really are super low maintenance plus they earn their keep.
If they can keep the flies down this year, that alone is good enough for me and they seem to be off to a good start, spending much of their time in manure piles.
Add to that the two eggs they lay every day and they really show their worth.
The only thing I have found difficult in the whole thing is reaping the spoils. I know it may seem stupid, but I’m a little hung up on eating the eggs.
I grew up eating fresh eggs and never thought about it once, but somewhere between the barn and fridge, my appetite for them gets lost.
Everyone has said how wonderful they are, and how great the flavor is and that I will never want bleached, store-bought eggs again, but I’m not there yet.
My first trial run was last week when I boiled half a dozen with some store-bought eggs.
I had decided to make egg salad, thinking I could ease into eating them if they were covered in mayonnaise and spices.
They smelled stronger than the other eggs as soon as I peeled the shells off, and the yokes were bright orange so I added extra spices just in case.
I bravely ate a couple of sandwiches and discovered the taste was doable, but what I didn’t expect was the ever-so-slightly upset stomach that followed.
Knowing there was nothing wrong with the eggs, I asked a biologist friend what she thought.
“Well, you’re probably just not used to the...” she tapered off.
“Bacteria?” I asked.
“Yeah, I just didn’t want to use that word and freak you out,” she answered.
I wasn’t freaked out, in fact that was pretty much the reason I had such a hard time eating them to begin with.
It turns out the biggest perk of having chickens is also the least appetizing thing about the eggs.
They spend all day, and I do mean all day, digging through horse poo in search of juicy larvae — I’m sure maggots are a delicacy in the chicken world — and any other crunchy, green blooded exoskeletal morsels they can find.
Now I like mushrooms, and most vegetables are fertilized by manure.
And theoretically, anything icky that got into the chicken should be filtered out by the internal organs, but it’s still a kind of gross thought.
It didn’t help when someone said what the chicken eats probably does end up in the eggs because the flavor will change if they’re fed onions and the like.
But rather than focus on the negative, that got me thinking.
Beekeepers put bees on clover and lavender and other fancy plants to enhance the flavor of the honey, then mark up the price because it’s instantly more palatable.
What if I fed my chickens carefully selected foods?
I could have garlic or onion flavored eggs, or dill or oregano...
Heck, I could even feed them all the egg salad spices I use and then just add mayonnaise later — and the best part is there wouldn’t be any little pepper particles to get stuck in your teeth.
I took an informal poll and got some interesting ideas of things to feed them:
Cheese for a ready to go omelet, barbecue or enchilada sauce, bacon and sausage.
Or one of my favorite ideas — chocolate and strawberries or cherries...
Yet as I evaluate the imaginary chicken diet, I can hear the scanner at the grocery going “beep-beep-beep” and envision the receipt getting longer and longer while little baby flies spring from manure piles in the barn.
And I can see myself out in the hot sun with long scratches on my arms as I battle with a roll of wire in an attempt to build a coop that can’t be breached so their food can be controlled.
Which leaves me two choices: Have faith in their little kidneys and livers, or start regifting their eggs to all those people who don’t seem to care.
In the true spirit of “waste not want not,” I think I’ll go with option one for now, and I’m sure I’ll get over it.
But at a rate of 14 eggs a week there isn’t much room for doubt, so if news surfaces of lovely brown eggs turning up on doorsteps around town, don’t panic — after all, they say faith is best shared.

Mother hen not needed

As featured June 3, 2011 on

For the record, I wasn’t serious when I said I was contemplating chicken ownership. Yet somehow, a couple months later, I am the proud owner of two hens.
“Somehow” may not be the most appropriate word, because I know how it happened. They were in jeopardy of being homeless and I am a sucker.
I don’t need chickens and didn’t necessarily want chickens, but by the same token, I held the solution to their quandary and, as one of my professors used to tell me, once you understand a problem, you share responsibility for the solution.
In other words, I didn’t stick my fingers in my ears and sing “Lalalalala” quick enough when their previous owner caught me.
So of course, I said, “OK, I’ll give it a shot. They can live in my barn, but if they get in the yard with my dogs, they’re dead and there won’t be much I can do to about it.”
She seemed to understand and the deal was done.
One thing worth mentioning is that she was attached to these two, feathered ladies, which of course made my sense of responsibility (and apprehension) greater.
We talked in advance of the chicken transfer and she suggested I put up some fencing to keep them in the barnyard and give them a night time roost in an enclosed area.
The day of the transfer, blinded by blowing dirt, I set T-posts and strung wire, making the “perfect” chicken run for them, then waited for their arrival.
She went through the instructions — feed this, use the special water dish, they’ll lay their eggs here — and assured me that within a couple of days they would get the hang of home and it would be safe to let them out in the barn.
The biggest concern was coyotes, foxes and stray dogs, she said.
“Oh, well we’re OK then because I don’t have a problem with those,” I responded.
She smiled and said, “You will,” or something to that effect. I didn’t believe her.
Chickens settled into their new pen, I went back inside.
A couple of hours later, the kids wanted to show the new clucks to a friend.
As we approached the pen, a startled cat looked at us from inside, then promptly scaled the fence.
Oh nooo...
As I looked around for them, or at least a pile of feathers to mark their previous existence, I imagined my ownership of chickens had ended just two hours in failure.
As luck would have it, they had “flown the coop” and we found them pecking about in the field.
Now I must say I hope herding cattle is easier than herding chickens, which is probably the same challenge as herding cats.
Fortunately, my horse Pyrite has herding instincts. Nose to the ground, he cut left while I cut right. Soon, we worked them out of the pasture and back to the barn.
Between me, the horse and the kids, we got the chickens inside and locked them up for the night.
I was glad I wouldn’t have to explain a tragic death, but I dreaded the day I might.
The next day, I made the executive decision to go ahead and turn them loose since the pen seemed to put them in more danger than anything else. It made them sitting ducks, so to speak.
I am happy to announce that days later, the chickens are still alive, and they spend all day pecking around the barn weaving in between the horses while they curb the bug population. And every night they let themselves inside to roost, going back at some point to lay their eggs.
Other than feeding them, collecting eggs and filling their water, I haven’t had to do a thing. In fact, the only time I have a problem with them is if I try to interfere with their routine.
So I have come to the conclusion that as long as I stay the heck out of it, in the event that I’m asked, I can respond “the chickens are doing great.”
Turns out they don’t need a mother hen at all. This might just be the easiest solution I’ve ever been a part of.

Pyrite sinks teeth into fashion

As featured May 27, 2011 on

Oh he’s a pretty boy, a real stud.
Well, actually he’s a stud-no-more since the Doc got a hold of him a couple years ago, but he is a gorgeous hunk of flesh nonetheless.
And he knows it.
He looks like royalty prancing around with his head high and muscles rippling under a smooth coat, his long mane and tail sail in the breeze.
Pyrite is a star by comparison to the rest of his little herd, who stand in his shadow sneaking a glimpse here and there so they can be sure to dart out of his way if he should take a notion to want the ground they’re standing on.
There’s one other thing that marks their fealty to him. ... You see, with choppy manes and cropped tails, they just don’t look near as pretty as he does.
And that’s not by accident.
It was several months ago and everyone was put up in the barn during a spell of bad weather and I noticed for the first time that my darling Sancha had no tail.
On closer inspection, not only was her tail missing, her beautiful mane had been butchered too.
And she wasn’t the only one.
Blackie — whose myriad of skin and hair issues had occupied a great deal of my time and resources with success finally showing itself in stronger follicles — was also sporting a new Mod hairdo.
Oh, but not Pyrite.
His majesty was as fine as ever, standing back in the corner of the paddock with his chin high and gorgeous black locks flowing.
Briefly, and I do mean briefly, I considered the possibility that some nefarious monster had sneaked out in the night to chop their beautiful hair, or that perhaps some errant barbershop student had been desperate for a test subject.
Alas, no.
Call it deduction, sheer genius or just pure intuition, but one look at Pyrite and I knew he was guilty on all counts.
I have heard tell that horses eat other horse’s manes and tails because they lack some vitamin or nutrient in their diet. Now while this may be true, I weigh it against those moments when I crave a sinful chunk of cake and I quickly conclude that just because you have a hankerin’ doesn’t mean you’re answering some mystical call from a vital deficiency.
I’ve also been told that they do it out of boredom.
Now that I can buy into a little more. Horses do get bored, especially cooped up in the barn just waiting for the next flake of hay to fall.
But he was just a little too happy with himself for me to accept that answer and I pretty quickly concluded he did it out of pure impishness.
Keep in mind that this is the same horse who has unlatched the stall next to his to let his neighbor out.
When I fixed the latch, he undid a chain and opened the gate and let Blackie and Sancha out, then stayed behind like a good boy because he knows full well where the good hay and lovin’ is.
And this is the same fella who almost looked disappointed when, after spending most of the night searching three sections in each direction, I returned with the wayward pair and stuck them right back in there with him again, albeit with new latches.
All that in mind, I would be a little more reluctant to pin it on him if his self-centeredness didn’t precede him so.
And it was that one act that made it hard for me to look at him for a little while because I’ll admit, I was angry and disappointed, especially when it came to Sancha’s hair.
Now I know it is just a little on the girlie side for me to even care about horse hairdos, after all, the hair does not make the horse.
But Sancha’s tail was beautiful. At the age of 2 1/2, it had almost reached the ground and was a lovely mix of colors.
Likewise, her mane was finally breaking out of the choppy toddler stage and hanging in beautiful waves past her neck.
And the worst thing is the time it takes them to grow their hair.
It seems to take so much longer even than humans and months later, they barely seem to have grown at all.
Of course I have adapted and my ill feelings toward Sir Handsome didn’t last long.
Every now and then when I am taking in his beauty as he poses next to his hairless companions, I remember how it was he came to shine.
But he’s about to find out beauty doesn’t come without a price.
I wonder if he’ll look as good as his sister did with all those intricate braids in her mane?

Pets don't leave the nest

As featured May 20, 2011 on

Finally it’s here — Graduation!
For the last few months I’ve listened to the buzz from all the kids — as they try to figure out everything from picking a college to arranging the money, getting the prom dress and mailing those announcements — and now it’s here.
As happy as I am for them all, I have to admit, the whole dynamic has me looking at my furry friends with a little more tenderness these days.
And it got me thinking about the similarities, and differences, between kids and animals.
You spend the first few years waiting excitedly for the day you can put away the diaper bag and listen for the flush.
And the idea of mom getting to wear a white shirt or leaving the scissors on the coffee table without resulting blood shed or impromptu haircuts starts to rank pretty high on the list of dreams.
Even the thought of letting them play outside without having to eagle-eye them the whole time starts to look like a mini-vacation.
But while nothing says “push me out of the nest” quite like a teenager, at some point all those dreams do come true and all of a sudden you miss the little hand prints on your shirt and the Cheerios on the wall.
Enter Fido. (For the sake of simplicity in this comparative exploration, I think I’ll stick with the dog but feel free to insert the animal of your choice).
The great thing about dogs is they are like kids that never grow up.
They may have a rebellious moment here or there, but overall, if you’re good to them, and often even if you’re not, they don’t develop a separate agenda that steers them away from you.
In fact, their plans really don’t extend much further than “Hey, what’s that over there?”
They don’t go to college, they don’t want to have their own apartment or to live in the city because you forced them to live in the country.
All they want is you and they are there for the long haul, come what may.
The trade off?
Sometimes, even with the most beloved dog and no matter how old they get, you are looking at perpetual child-proofing, days where you wonder what went wrong with potty training and never putting down the apron string (I mean leash).
And depending on how many dogs you have in a lifetime, every 10 years or so you have to go through the painful experience of watching gray hairs appear and hearing and vision disappear until you’re eventually faced with a difficult decision between their suffering or your desire to have them by your side.
Ironically, some of the same things your kids will eventually have to experience assuming you treated them right and sometimes even if you didn’t.
I guess when it comes down to it, having human kids means learning to let go (and sometimes push) while having furry kids means you get to call the shots forever and keep a grip on that leash like an umbilical chord.
Of course that is with “forever” being about a decade and “control” being as subjective as any chewing habits that may surface.
I guess after this weekend is over, while the graduates are out selecting bedding sets for their dorm rooms and trying to earn a little extra cash before D-day, it’s as good a time as any to suggest that walk to Fido.
Or perhaps you already have their bags packed and waiting at the door, ready to push them over the edge of the nest.
Just remember one of the other minor distinctions between furry and human kids: If you push a human kid out of the nest they eventually learn to fly, even if there’s an awkward quasi-adult phase in there somewhere.
Push your furry kids out on the other hand, and animal control will probably bring them home — assuming they don’t find their way back on their own.
Oh well, that’s OK. What good is an empty nest anyway?

Shock value

As featured May 13, 2011 on

Woof, woof, woof, growl, hiss, woof, woof, woof … sounds of canine chaos mixed with feline frenzy provided a backdrop to my son’s frustrated voice on the phone.
“Mom, Kaiser’s barking at Alley and he won’t stop,” he said. “He’s been going for hours…” he exaggerated dramatically.
Fighting to be heard over the din, my son described the scenario: Cat under the couch, 125-pound German shepherd darting from side to side, blood dripping from a rightfully deserved scratch on his schnoz.
“Did you try a treat?” I asked, trying to think of ways he could quiet the dog without a showdown.
“Yes, he ate it and went back to the cat,” he replied.
“Did you try opening the back door and luring him to the yard?”
“Yes, Mom,” he said in an “of course” tone.
“OK, put it on speaker phone,” I said, pushing my chair back from my desk and heading for the door.
“KAISER OUT! NO KITTY!” I shouted into my cell phone as my colleagues burst into peals of unashamed laughter behind me.
“Shock collar” I thought to myself as the blood rushed to my face and I sat back at my desk.
“You, my fine furry friend, are getting a shock collar tonight!”
Kaiser always loved cats. He loved them with the same passion he had for water from the water hose. He liked to bite at it, chase it and the faster it moved away from him the more interested he was.
There was the time he accidentally got locked in a bedroom with a cat.
When we got home we couldn’t get the door open. After a lot of pushing, we made way into the room to find my oldest son’s twin mattress covered in craters and flipped against the wall, a tired dog with a sparkle in his eye in one corner and a super tense kitty in the other. (OOPS!)
Normally he was pretty good and with adults around he wouldn’t dare try the “corner the cat-bark your head off” routine.
But with only a preteen in his way, he had no problem pushing the limits.
That night he got fitted with his new, special collar and my son and I engaged in Shock the Dog 101.
Before we talk buttons he gets the speech:
1. Only use it when he is cornering the cat.
2. Never, never, ever turn up the shock-level dial
So on and so forth, I give him the rules…
Then we moved on to the practicals.
“OK, so first you say ‘KAISER NO!’ firm and loud and push the buzzer button,” I say showing him the button.
“Yes ma’am,” he replies.
“If that doesn’t work, you say ‘KAISER NO!’ at the same time you push the shock button,” I point to the bottom button.
“OK Mom, I get it,” He replies, grabbing the remote.
“So I say ‘KAISER NO!’ and I push this button first,” he says pointing at the little bell.
“Then if that doesn’t work, I say ‘KAISER NO!’ again and I push this one,” he says.
Just as I open my mouth to respond, a loud yelp sounded from the other room.
That was the last time he ever had to push the button.
Battery long dead, Kaiser sauntered around the house with that traitorous collar on his neck.
And the cat, who hadn’t been barked at in months but holds a mean grudge, announced Kaiser’s every move with a deep growl and a hiss.
I guess it goes to show you can never underestimate the value of a little shock.

Joining the rat race

As featured May 6, 2011 on

I had a rat roaming around in my house.
Before you get alarmed or too disgusted, he wasn’t the kind found in New York subways or unsavory restaurants, not that that minor detail entirely mitigates the situation, but it helps a little.
To the contrary, he was a nutritionally well-balanced, plump, not-so-little morsel who turned the tables of fortune in his favor.
And to be honest, he capitalized on my oversight in forgetting to replace the cap on a feed hole in the roof of his cage.
I discovered he had absconded through said escape route when I went to feed him on my way out the door to work.
Now I have to say this guy had a lucky streak.
He lived in the snake cage with a 7-foot boa overnight, snuggling up with her to sleep before I finally gave up and put him in his own cage out of fear he might end up snacking on her — yes, it really is an “eat or be eaten” world out there where rats nibble on snakes that don’t strike first.
And I have to admit, always the champion of the underdog, I secretly cheered for him when I saw he had survived the encounter where so many before him have failed.
So standing in front of the empty cage, and knowing he was somewhere in the room watching me with his beady little eyes and laughing, I was again struck by the thought that this guy just wasn’t going down that easy.
Gilligan, however, had different ideas.
Finally showing some talent other than a propensity for mischief and the ability to spin in mid-air, I heard loud sniffing and saw wagging tail and butt-o-terrier-mutt sticking out from under the bed.
And it was on
Belly crawling, whining, wiggling between storage boxes and flying over the bed to get to the other side of the room — there went my boy.
I saw the scurrying black specter here and there, followed by a scruffy black and white blur as they dove into the closet, back under the bed, over the bed, under the desk, behind the desk then back to the closest.
Feeling like a clumsy giant dropped into a high speed cartoon with the characters squishing and springing and flying, I tried to keep up, grabbing the stack of books that was sliding, or trying to stop the box of Christmas decorations from toppling.
“Forget the rat, catch the dog,” I thought, recognizing the dog had unseated the rat as the most acute issue at hand.
Finally collaring his 20-some-pounds of quivering go-get-em, I ran for the door, his legs still scurrying in the air not ready to concede the race.
Safely on the other side of the door, I took a deep breath and decided to save the hunt for another time.
And I promised if/when I caught my new roommate, I wouldn’t feed him to the snake, after all, the underdog (or rat) has to win sometime.
Over the next few days I put things out for him to snack on and a small thing of water, checking the room several times a day to try and catch him — to no avail.
I’m guessing he never found the water and food, because I did eventually find him, and let’s just say he didn’t win.
Next time maybe we’ll go ahead and try it Gilligan’s way.

Lamb lesson

As featured April 22, 2011 on
It was Easter time a couple of decades ago and my father had a surprise up his sleeve.
My brother and I thought it was just another of many exploratory trips when we pulled up to the farm and saw the sheep milling about in the field — until Dad told us to choose our lamb.
Brimming with excitement that only little kids can feel, we bolted from the car and ran toward the fence, deciding on the white lamb with brown speckled spots.
We settled on the name Chocolate Chip and cuddled that poor lamb all the way home.
This might be a good point to interject that yes, we rode with the lamb in the car, and no we didn’t live on a farm.
Dad was ever vigilant in his classroom-of-life approach to parenting and during a stint in West Virginia, sought to show us rural life up close.
Dad has always been a bit unconventional, but loads of fun when you’re young and still blessed with the Peter Pan perspective.
In hindsight it might have been misdirected since we were ill-equipped for farm animals but the meaning was sincere.
Case in point, when we arrived home, we had to keep the little guy safe and warm… our only option being a cardboard refrigerator box in the living room.
Yes it was bizarre and no it wasn’t ideal, but it was a heck of an experience.
In childhood memories, the passage of time isn’t easily calculated but at some point Chocolate Chip was transitioned outside and began to live in the yard with the German shepherd-like dog named Star and the Siamese cat named Daisy.
It was great fun to have a lamb and we doted on him at every turn.
Then one day he was gone.
Again the passage of time is hard to quantify. It could have been days or weeks — I lean toward days — and the lamb was just gone.
The disappearance remained a mystery until one day the neighbor came and got my dad and led him off toward his nearby house.
Curious, I followed behind them.
The neighbor had found Chocolate Chip underneath his deck where Star had drug him.
And there he lay, alive, somewhat curled around his legs, his white speckled wool coated in blood and dirt.
He was covered in wounds; some healed some fresh.
The dog, as the forensic analysis went, had taken him under the porch into seclusion and gnawed on him for some time. Likely returning time after time as if he were a bone stashed in a secret place that only he knew of.
And Chocolate Chip endured it, never bleating or crying out, which surely would have drawn the neighbor’s attention in the house and perhaps saved him.
I don’t remember his death or how it came, though I know it did.
What I have never forgotten was his life.
Even at the time, through the eyes of a child, I was amazed by the lamb’s acceptance of suffering and I remember my father telling us the story of Jesus and sacrifice.
Now, looking back, I know that Chocolate Chip didn’t sacrifice his life for anything in particular but I am struck by the silent suffering that took place under our noses and we either didn’t care or simply didn’t notice.
But I do believe there is a lesson Chocolate Chip was meant to teach.
Perhaps it was that wolves are wolves and sheep are sheep and that’s just the way it is.
Or maybe it was to learn to ask for help and not lie down, resign and accept even that which seems impossible to overcome.
Or it could have been that suffering doesn’t always have a voice … that if we just look a little bit harder or listen a little more carefully…
Perhaps it was all those things.

Passengers ride at own peril

As featured April 15, 2011 on
Only the strong of heart ride with me nowadays.
Even still, those brave enough get the disclaimers:
• He could run up your leg, if so I’m sorry in advance
• Close your purse tight — not that I would mind if he hitched a ride home with you
• I can’t guarantee the security of any food items, he has a heck of an appetite
Today marks two weeks he’s been with me and honestly even I am surprised he’s survived that long in my car, especially with the heat wave we’ve been experiencing.
It all started when I took a load of trash to the landfill.
You see, when you live in the county you have a couple options for your trash: Burn it, pay for a service or take it to the dump yourself.
Well I’d rather not start the next big grass fire, so burning is out and why pay someone else when I can do it for a whopping $2 a load ... granted when you don’t have a truck, it can be a slightly unpleasant ride but hey, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger ... or so they say.
So far it’s worked out pretty good, granted it’s a pain.
But I was struck by a sense of “Oh nooo,” when I pulled the last bag from my vehicle two weeks ago and saw a fat little brown mouse launch from a hole he chewed during the drive.
And of course he jumped back into the car.
I looked for him but wasn’t surprised he didn’t turn up and anyway I figured he would find his way out soon enough or the heat would get to him first.
Boy was I wrong.
A couple of days later when I turned on my air conditioning I was greeted with a cloud of fluff and confetti and heard paper rattling in the vents — probably really important stuff knowing my luck — and knew he was building a home.
But there wasn’t anything in there for him to eat, so again I figured he would move on once he got hungry.
Except, of course, for the honey candies tucked beside the gear shift.
First one was missing in the morning on the way to work, then by lunchtime he had just dragged off the last two He-mouse style.
Three little honey candies weren’t going to get him far, I thought.
Until I left a bag of cat food on the back seat one night because I was in such a hurry to get to the end of the day.
The next morning when I pulled it out, it left a trail of delicious seafood and milk infused morsels behind, thanks to the hole he had thoughtfully chewed in the bottom of the bag.
A couple of days later it was the same story with a bag of dog food, only this time he worked faster, making a hole somewhere between the feed store and the house.
Turns out my car is pretty darn habitable after all, a cornucopia of sorts.
Night after night I have left the doors open in the garage so he can escape, but it turns out he doesn’t seem to mind it in there.
I have no idea how large a food supply he’s stocked up, but judging from the fact he hasn’t bailed yet, I’m guessing he’s pretty confident he can hold out a while.
Honestly if it weren’t for the fact my wiring is already hanging on by a thread and wouldn’t survive his curiosity, I might just leave well enough alone, but I’m going to have to make operation mouse extraction my goal for the weekend ... with the help of some handy no-kill traps someone shared with me after my last mousecapade.
With any luck, I’ll get him out, but I have to admit it’s been kind of fun.
But even if I’m successful, I may allow him to continue to live there in spirit — I mean come on, gas is almost $4 a gallon these days and if it gets me out of giving people rides I’m not complaining.
And having a mouse in one’s car is a sure-fire way to find out who your friends are, even if they are clutching their purses and holding their feet off the floor all the way home.

Residents share neighborhood with fox

As featured April 8, 2011 on
Somebody must have told him it was one of the prime neighborhoods in town.
Or maybe he just saw the attributes for himself — after all, who can deny the tranquility of the rolling greens, the shade of wind wisped trees and duck filled ponds.
But even in the beauty of the place, he stands out as unique.
I say he, but the sleek low-slung body might be that of a vixen — not that anyone will ever necesarily know for sure.
The one, undeniable fact? The gray enigma is a fox.
Tuesday morning as a couple was leaving their house in Colonial Park, they saw a gray lump curled atop the shingles of their roof, napping in a warm spot of sun just under its eaves.
As they grabbed their camera and inched forward to capture the moment, he seemed unconcerned, only raising his head to look at them briefly as they snapped his picture.
After all, why should he be concerned —he owns that neighborhood top to bottom.
The gray fox is unique indeed.
A member of the dog family, the gray fox is unique even among other foxes and is one of only two dogs that can climb, most often scurrying up trees to escape predators, in search of sanctuary or better yet, an aviary snack.
Once up the tree, one might actually confuse it with a cat from the way it hops branch to branch.
But the elusive little pooch is perfectly at home on the ground too, taking up residence in hollow stumps and burrows and is believed to clock at a speed of almost 30 mph.
And nocturnal by nature, the gray fox is more like a ghost in the darkness, zooming from here to there in a layer of reality most of us never see.
So while it's not impossible to catch a glimpse of one — they certainly have their share of two-legged admirers and stalkers — there's no shame in being excited if you spot one, because it isn't something you see every day.
I for one was very pleased when the photos were shared with me earlier this week, and even more pleased to learn the fellow is widely admired and left alone in the neighborhood he's chosen to call home for the last year or so.
Every now and again someone spots him slinking toward the golf course, but rather than calling animal control, they grab their cameras or stand and soak in the sight.
It's nice to see he's found welcome there and no one seems to mind him enjoying the amenities.
Residents say they see no signs of trouble-making and since no one's called the authorities to have him evicted for trespassing, it certainly seems to be working out.
And if he's been there a year, you can bet he's earning his keep — the needs of his omnivorous pallet likely met between raiding bird nests, culling the rodents that try to double the number of holes on the course and crunching the juicy bugs drawn to the waterways.
It appears to be a toss-up as to who actually owns the neighborhood, for the fox doesn't seem to recognize any property lines. But the situation seems to bear out the age old adage, "There is no delight in owning anything unshared.”
It's a good thing too, because spring is in the air, and if residents keep an eye out, by July their hospitality just might encourage some bouncing youngin's on those greens — after the sun goes down of course.

Mother nature's tweets

As featured April 1, 2011 on
While I was waiting for my turn at the feed store counter, I couldn’t help but notice three large bins with heat lamps over top and the rabble of dozens of tweeting babies.
Of course (as if there were any doubt) I stooped down to check the little fellows out and was amused when they all rushed toward my hand with a frenzy of high-pitched chirps.
And yes, I picked one up, completely suckered by the adorable little eyes and fuzzy perfection in my hand.
But what surprised me was when I stood and saw the sign on the bin read “Turkeys.”
Now no offense to turkeys intended, but they are some ugly birds, probably one of the reasons they get all that dressing on the holidays.
The whole thing reminded me of what my boss in high school used tell me when I complained abut the state of junkers I had to detail before they were put on the sale lot at the car dealership where I worked.
“... Just polish the chrome and they won’t notice the rest of the car Sharna.”
But I’m no fool, I know that turkeys aren’t that darn cute.
And I said as much when I got to the counter.
“I had no idea baby turkeys were so cute,” I told the lady who was helping me. “Why is it everything is so cute when it’s little?”
She agreed — everything is cute when it’s little. The problem is things have a habit of growing up, and let’s not forget those horrible in-between phases.
I am of the opinion it’s a carefully designed ploy by Mother Nature to give creatures a better chance at survival during their most vulnerable time.
Think about it. If, on the blessed day you became a parent, the doctor came into your hospital room and handed you a glaring teenager dressed in all black with chain-saw sounds coming out of headphones permanently attached to his or her ears, would you really take it home with you?
Yeah, I didn’t think so...
So instead you get this doe-eyed little bundle of rosy cheeks and teeny little hands that goos and giggles when you pet it — enticing you to take it home and keep it.
Yep, nature just polished the chrome, because by the time you realize you’ve been had, you’re already on the hook in a big way.
I remember when I was little we would go in the feed store this time of year and there would be the seasonal bins and bins of baby chicks, ducklings and goslings. Only in the interest of taking their cuteness one step further and making them even more irresistible, they had been dyed in a rainbow of pastels — Now that’s not fair... at least give me a fighting chance to get out of the store.
At a whopping 25 cents a piece in those days, even my dad fell for it, buying my brother and I pink and blue baby ducks that got permanently shooed to the pond in the yard the first time he caught us taking baths with them.
They used to do the same thing with bunnies, and yes, we had those too.
But the dye always wore off —just like I’m sure the chrome grew dull shortly after the customers got home, right about the time the puddle of oil in the driveway became obvious.
Ah, if only life came with a reverse gear...
As I discussed this column with coworkers, talk turned to how the adorable little tweet-tweet-cheep-cheep’s start to grow old after a while.
One woman, who worked in a farm supply store, said she hated chick-season because after a full shift beside the tub of babies, she would go home and continue hearing them all night, even startling awake because she heard chicks chirping in her sleep.
Another woman recalled having chicks at home growing up and after a couple of days of chirping from the backyard, thinking, “You were cute two days ago ... Shut-up!”
Yep, I have little doubt if youngin’s weren’t so darn cute, they would never survive their early years.
So I give a hats off to Mother Nature ... Good job, those chicks sure are adorable. Way to polish that chrome Lady!

Pet adoptions work both ways

As featured March 25, 2011 on
What does a three-legged cattle dog have in common with two purebred divas wearing $100 Coach collars?
New homes, that's what.
This week two of my friends did something completely unexpected.
They adopted dogs.
Now why was this unexpected, you may ask. Well, because both are single ladies with extremely busy lives that have always said they love dogs but don't have time for one of their own.
So when one, who lives in a large western metro area sent me a picture of her two new girls and I heard the other, who lives in Portales, fell in love with the three legged pet of the week from the shelter, I admit I was shocked.
One thing I have always noticed about adopted pets is that they come with the most interesting stories of how it was love at first sight, or the stars aligned just so...
My Portales friend said there was just something about Caesar that she couldn't resist when she saw him at the shelter.
A catahoula, the poor guy lost his leg when the other dogs at his last home ganged up on him and chewed it off while he was recovering from being neutered.
But other than eating the newly signed pet addendum to my friend's lease — She probably ought to tell the landlord it blew away if she has to ask for a new copy just in case it's foreshadowing of some kind —and barking at the vacuum cleaner, he's fitting in wonderfully and his favorite pastime is laying with his head in her lap and waiting outside the bathroom door for her to finish her shower ... so she can pet him some more.
My metro friend had sworn off dogs, in part, because she was renting. But under contract to buy a new home, she said she realized how much she missed having a pooch in her life.
And she found out the housing market crash didn't just create opportunities in short sale homes. Because so many families lost so much, there has been a boom in the pet adoption market too.
When she saw a purebred cocker spaniel and Pomeranian that had come from the same home and lived together all their lives, it just tugged at her heart and she was hooked.
On the way home with her new girls, still stinging a little from the two, $150 adoption fees she had to pay, she told her son to grab the two new collars she had also purchased and put them on the girls.
"Umm Mom, I don't think you want to put those collars on them," he said from the back seat.
"Yes I do, put them on," she insisted.
"No Mom, I don't think you understand. These dogs are wearing Coach collars," he told her.
Following a later Internet search, she came to the realization those poor desolate pooches she had just saved were coming from a home where they'd had far better accessories than she ever could or would buy for herself.
And a few days later, rather than thinking they owe her thanks, she is paying the little princesses homage because not only are they perfect ladies with all the manners one could hope for, most importantly, they put one heck of a smile on her face every day when she comes home from work and they rush to greet her.
So what do a three-legged cattle dog and two pampered divas have in common?
I guess the expected answer is new homes and lots of love.
But I think maybe I got the question wrong.
It should have been: What does a lady in a western cattle town have in common with a lady in a busy metropolis?
They both got rescued this week.

Oooh that smell

As featured March 18, 2011 on
I’ll admit, I was scared Tuesday morning when I saw the black fury mass clinging to a high branch in the tree along my fence-line.
You might wonder why I would be afraid of a cornered animal hanging on for dear life in a tree above my antagonist and madly barking dogs.
Well let’s rewind a bit...
The first incident was last fall when I went out to check on the dogs one evening and found half a skunk a few feet from the porch. Now I suppose he could have crawled into the yard and died, with half his body going dust-to-dust before the other half, but the dogs’ proud wags made it pretty clear they knew something about how it got there.
And sure, I had noticed the smell around the house, but chalked it up to country livin’ — after all, just about any skunk smells like it’s close.
As city dogs thrust into country life, it made sense that they would be a little behind the curve on why the strange cat in the yard was raising its tail instead of running, but one time should be all it takes, right?
How about half dozen times and counting.
You know, Abraham Lincoln once said, “What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself,” but I think in the case of my pups, they wait with baited breath for the publicity like E! fans looking for a train wreck.
Yep, it appears my dogs have developed a taste for the skunk game, and I’m beginning to think their objective is to run a skunk into a corner and push to the front of the pack in an effort to get hosed first, kind of like the fans at those outdoor summer concerts. You know, the ones you see running forward toward the fire hoses with their arms in the air yelling “Spray me! ... Hey, over here, get me!”
Or maybe they see it more like running through a sprinkler on a warm summer day ... “Weeeee...”
My theory is further bolstered by the fact I haven’t found anymore skunk carcasses, leading me to think they figured out they can have more fun if they let them live to spray again another day.
And I have to say my pups have become quite successful at the challenge because they have been sprayed at least three times just in the last month or so.
Now I mentioned the smell and you would think that you would know when your dog has been sprayed, but if you’ve ever been directly exposed to eau de skunk, you know it doesn’t quite work that way.
What actually happens —until you learn better — is you step outside and instantly smell skunk in the air, which causes panic. “Hear doggy doggies,” you yell, ushering your pals inside.
Everyone safe behind steel fire doors, you can still smell skunk, but of course the outside air followed you inside and the stench is stuck in your nose, right?
Wrong again. You see it’s one of nature’s little tricks — skunk spray really only smells like skunk spray from a distance.
I’m not sure why, but you can be standing right beside a dog that’s been sprayed and you don’t realize it until you walk away, and by then the damage is done.
Time and time again, I have been tucked in bed ready to drift off to sleep when the eau de skunk makes its way from the sleeping dogs, through the vents and into my nostrils.
And by morning, the scary realization sets in that you don’t smell it anymore, meaning only that your nose has probably switched sides and can no longer be trusted.
My coworkers don’t even laugh any more when I arrive in the morning and ask them for a sniff test to make sure I didn’t grow immune and unknowingly bring my personal life to work with me.
So yes, Tuesday morning when I heard the barking and rushed out to see what all the ruckus was about, I froze in terror under the tree.
Quite frankly I didn’t know what to do. The dogs clearly had the critter where they wanted it, content to stay at the base of the tree all day if that’s what it took, and I could only envision playing the good Samaritan and intervening just to have the thing launch down on top of my head in a rain of skunkiness — and me left with less than an hour to get to a meeting.
Swallowing my fear, I decided to take my chances for the sake of my neighbors’ ears and sanity and at least try to distract the dogs long enough to give the fur-ball a running chance.
Much to the chagrin of my pooches, and my utter delight, it was a fuzzy black feral cat with terrified green eyes that launched out of the tree and ran for the safety of the neighbor’s pasture.
And all I can say is, may they always be feral cats.