Saturday, November 10, 2012

The healing magic of canines

As featured Saturday, November 3, 2012, at

It might have escaped human notice, had it not been for the inordinate amount of attention it drew from the other dogs.
Whether he was sitting, lounging, napping or walking around the yard, they followed him everywhere he went, licking the wound on his shoulder.
And he carried on as if soothed, if not oblivious to their efforts to clean the wound.
Antibiotics were administered and the wound cleaned and bandaged, but it wasn’t long before the other dogs managed to remove the bandage and take on the job of doctoring again.
Several days of redoing the bandaging and it became clear that short of isolating the poor boy, they just weren’t going to leave things alone.
Interestingly enough, however, on inspection the wound appeared clean, and infection free with signs of healthy healing — and with all the exposure it had to wind, dirt and the like, it was hard to say if it was the iodine rinses and medicine that were doing the trick, or if it might be the non-stop attention of the canine caretakers.
Wound licking by animals is common enough and in a way it makes perfect sense, after all, it’s not as if they have washcloths, gauze and boiled water at their disposal.
Yet historically, dogs hold a special recognition for their medical prowess, and once upon a time, mankind believed strongly in the magical properties of a dog’s lick,
Found throughout lore and myth are stories of dogs healing by licking the injured or dying.
Early doctors even tried to harness the power, including dogs trained to lick the wounds of patients among hospital staff in ancient Greece.
In modern times, there are still cultures which rely on the healing tongues of dogs, and the old wives tale that dog saliva contains antiseptic remains widely believed by many.
However, even though it seems a little farfetched, it’s not all poppycock.
The saliva of a dog, while not entirely magical, is a little special.
With a high PH level and containing enzymes and substances that prevent the growth of bacteria, a dog’s saliva does have some qualities that help counter the not-so-hygienic passions and pastimes of dogs.
It's true enough, that perhaps it would be worth bottling and marketing — if it were that simple.
But it’s the other stuff mixed in there that begins to unravel the myths.
While canine saliva probably does help protect a pooch from the nasties that find their way into their mouths and also helps maintain a level of dental health, the mouth of a dog is a real yin-yang kind of environment.
Of course it’s a little difficult to convince a wounded dog that they should refrain from using the one medical tool nature gave them.
And sometimes they probably are doing more good than bad.
With constant cleaning, they can keep a wound moist, free of material and in some cases, the composition of their saliva may be just what the doctor ordered.
But much like spinning one bullet in the chamber of an otherwise empty revolver — it only takes one little bit of bacteria to change the landscape dramatically.
And while most of the time, dogs do fine, when it comes to the wounds of other species, particularly humans, the risk is enough to keep dogs out of the pharmaceutical business.
However, while it can’t be found under a microscope, it’s well proven that a big slobbery kiss from your favorite pooch does contain magic that wipe away most any pain.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Pet rat's odyssey lasted three days

As featured Saturday, October 27, 2012, at
It lasted three whole days.
Three days of overturned spice bottles rolling on the counters and scrambling noises when the kitchen lights were flipped on.
Human error started it of course, an error that led to the cage being left open.
The first sighting was quite the surprise.
Not so much a surprise in the fact it's not unusual to spot the occasional mouse, but more in the sense that they usually don't have black and white spots.
Nor is the average mouse 5 inches tall when it stands on its hind legs.
As a result, the first sighting unfolded in split-second stages that went something like: What the heck was that...? Where the heck did a rat come from...? Why is the rat's cage empty?
The realization struck about the same time the rat realized she'd been spotted and off she went, finding a hiding place under the kitchen sink, thanks to a door that had been left slightly open.
It seemed a perfect opportunity to corner her, or at least it should have been a perfect opportunity, had it not been for a hole in the drywall, irregularly cut around a pipe.
It's a never ending source of amazement to see how easily a chased animal can contort itself to avoid capture, especially rodents, which appear to turn into propelled amoebas that can squish through the tiniest crevice.
Forcing her broad belly through the hole that was no larger than her head, that's exactly what she did, and in so doing, claimed the wall as her new home.
By no stretch of the imagination was she the first caged pet in the household to go on the lam, but she was the first to take up residence in the kitchen and in so doing, presented quite the conundrum.
She was far too large for a humane mouse trap, using a traditional mouse trap was out of the question for a pet, and for much the same reasons, the poison and a cat options had to be scratched off the list.
Coaxing seemed to be the only next logical step.
Wiggling a pizza crust in front of the opening to her new house, it was only a second before she took the bait and sunk her teeth in.
Time after time, she reached out; stole a mouthful, then withdrew, holding her position while triumphantly feasting on pizza crust.
Partly out of frustration, part out of fear that she would gorge herself and grow too large to escape the hole, I squeezed my hand in after her, only to quickly withdraw it in a slurry of not-so-nice words when she made the honest mistake that we had moved from light refreshments to finger foods.
Finger bandaged, tactics reassessed, the next two days consisted of make-shift traps.
A bucket with scattered snacks on the bottom which she promptly jumped out of – who knew rats could spring over the side of a bucket from a standstill – a jar with a one-way trap lid that she never went near, and more than a couple of futile mad dashes as she discovered every hiding place the kitchen had to offer.
Into the Wild was the thing that finally snared her, and while sadly she didn't get to enjoy 150 minutes of soul searching introspection, she did get an up close look at the main character pensively looking into the Alaskan forest as the DVD case slid across her path and blocked her escape.
Though she screeched all the way Into the Cage, her rant certainly seemed akin to the words of Jon Krauker, "...The trip was to be an odyssey in the fullest sense of the word, an epic journey that would change everything."

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Injections not a concern for horses

As featured Saturday, October 20, 2012, at
It took nearly a day to work up the nerve.
Intramuscular may not sound so bad to those in health professions, but to a layman reading the instructions on the back of a plastic wrapper, it can sound downright horrific.
And it was enough to get the package shoved in the fridge for the evening  — a stalling, feet dragging case of,  “have to, but really don’t want.”
It’s hard to tell how he did it, but the theory was the gelding had gotten a nail stuck in the toe of his hoof, though the offending nail was never located by the time trouble surfaced.
He started acting strangely, not wanting to put his foot down, but a check of his leg revealed nothing out of the ordinary.
Then a couple days later there was some swelling and he couldn’t put much weight on it, and still no sign of a wound.
Several hoof checks and leg and foot soaks later; there was still no explanation as to what was going on.
Finally the farrier found the source of the trouble, a puncture wound hidden in the hoof had gotten infected.
The wound was easy enough to address once it was discovered. A good cleaning and some iodine did the trick and he showed immediate signs of relief.
But there was still a lingering concern — tetanus.
With parting instructions to clean and flush the wound, the farrier recommended buying the shot and administering it.
It was a great idea, extremely economical and efficient and it was about time to learn how to administer shots, a skill that’s always good to have when there are animals  — and the occasional rusty nail  — around.
In a community where many people give their own injections to pets and livestock, finding a single-use shot at a local store was simple enough.
It was even pleasantly surprising to see how inexpensive it was, but catching a look at the shining needle in the package tainted the savings almost immediately.
The woman who helped with the purchase sensed my reservations as she gave some parting words of advice on how to go about it.
“Got to learn to do this sooner or later,” I said when she offered to come out and do it for me, but I took her number just in case something went horribly wrong.
And the list of things that might go wrong causing pain, too much medicine, poor placement of the shot, oh, and just giving a shot in general — all accompanied the syringe into the fridge.
The next day, the dreaded needle in hand, I hopped the fence and made way towards him, half expecting he would sense what was in store and run, but of course he approached with curiosity as always.
Step one down, we weren’t out of the woods yet, and images of how horses stomp and swat at the light touch of a fly dominated the next few seconds of rubbing the skin on his neck.
Then it was time.
Grabbing a chunk of skin and shaking it, the needle was in and out in a fraction of a second — and he never so much as flinched, not even a little.
Nor did he look back or side-step or even move.
In fact, it was so easy, it didn’t even come close to earning the apprehension that went into it and almost immediately all the other immunizations that had been beside it on the store shelf came to mind.
Best of all, tetanus free, wound healed, the event was a non-event to the horse who still flinches when a fly lands on him but isn’t likely to notice all the shots in his future.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bailing twine can have many uses

As featured Saturday, October 13, 2012, at

Ingenuity and creativity surfaced in those times when it was boring inside on long summer days, yet if you made the mistake of getting caught underfoot you were sure to be given a chore.
Out of sight, however, a kid could often stay out of mind as well.
Ropes, halters, plant hangers, you name it, they were born of such out-of-sight times, left over bailing twine and countless such hours of sitting in the barn – hours spent braiding and tying.
While braiding lengths of bailing twine together to hang a swing from the door of the barn for kids to use, that familiar feeling surfaced with memories of those hours of the past.
Of course, rather than in days gone by, when the natural fibers of the twine left splinters and tore at the skin, this twine was bright pink and yellow and made of plastic strands.
And braiding 20-feet of rope didn't hurt and lock-up the fingers back then, but otherwise it was a surprising realization to discover not much had changed, including the calming comfort that came with sitting in the quiet and crossing strand-over-strand, over and over again.
Bailing twine is one of those nifty little collateral items that just become part of the scenery in a barn.
With two or three strands wrapped around each bale of hay, they start to add up over time and if allowed, can even cause quite a mess.
But when you see them hung neatly over a nail or railing, you know you are in the barn of someone who treasures the value and versatility of bailing twine, or "hay string" as some call it.
Proportionately, barn work often seems to outsize the time one gets to spend with their horses, so it seems fitting that their food comes with such a one-size-fits-all tool.
And in a functional and pragmatic barn, the pink ropes can often be spotted holding railings together, serving as door pulls, bucket handles, netting, or hangers for tools, picks and brushes.
One might assume a farmers' young daughter has run rampant trying to "pretty" up the barn, but though the colors are catchy these days – with hues of mostly pink, but also orange, yellow, red green and sometimes black or white – those bright strands are simply a solution to just about any fix-it dilemma.
Recently a friend shared a photo of a young boy at her barn with pink twine looped and tied to his jeans because he was getting ready to ride, but had forgotten his belt and couldn't keep his pants up.
The image got the wheels turning about all the different ways the stuff has come in handy over the years.
Tie a circle at the end of a piece of twine, slip it over the nose of a horse, bring the loose end around behind the ears, tie it off, and you have an ultra-quick catch halter that fits in a pocket.
Braided into long ropes and tied to those metal clips that always seem to turn up around a barn, they make for strong leashes and lead ropes.
Strands tied to rails and twisted together in a grid pattern can create a temporary fence.
Tightly wrapped around a hose, twine can seal off a leak long enough to finish filling a tank, and tied from one corner to another, it makes a great place to hang spray bottles, blankets and more.
Some people out there get really creative with their bailing twine, weaving it into hammocks, rugs and bags, and one website even suggests strands of it tied to a horses tail as a makeshift fly swatter/hair extension for those whose tails have met unfortunate ends.
But perhaps best of all, a pile of twine, out-of-sight times, the idle hands of a child, and a quiet spot in the barn can weave incredible memories.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Accidents happen: Animals forgive

As featured Oct. 6, 2012 on

Popping off the ground, the barbed wire flew up and in an instant her legs were planted in the middle of it.
And the predictable happened.
She stepped forward, her front legs met with the resistance of the wire, then her rear hoof snagged.
Her eyes enlarged her breathing quickened and the next few seconds were like those that come after a firecracker is lit and tossed.
But the funny thing about firecrackers is you can’t run over and check, you just have to wait and see if they’re going to blow — And much the same, the wire puzzle, though potentially disastrous, had to be left up to her.
Panic and terror made her shake, but the mare pushed through, overcoming the barbs that snagged and scratched at the skin on her legs until she gave one final bound and jumped clear, leaving the fence to pop back into its place.
The next hour was spent cleaning her legs and rubbing salve on her thankfully superficial wounds, with repeats every day for a week after.
It hardly seemed a sufficient penance, considering it had been my dumb idea to hold the fence down so she could cross in the first place.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see how accidents happen, but of course that’s hindsight.

• The cat meowed like it does every night — meow to be let out, meow to be let in … after a while, the meows start to blend.
Tired and feeling a little bit of tough love take over, he shut the door and locked up for the night, heading off to call it a day.
The next day, eyes cast downward, he told guiltily of how his wife found the cat that morning, sandwiched between the storm door and the back door of the house — thankfully this time, still meowing.
• She put her son’s hamsters together in a cage and didn’t think a thing of it, certainly not imagining it would end in disaster, much less a childhood trauma.
That is until one of the boys found his brother’s hamster having a victory meal on one side of the cage and few remaining pieces on the other.
• His cat loved to go for walks and responded well to a leash, a perfect solution for an apartment pet.
Her enjoyment of their leisurely strolls led to the next natural step and he upped the pace, happy when she raced to keep up with him.
When she slowed, he tugged the leash, hoping to help her burn off some pent up energy.
Finally, she refused to go any further and plopped to the ground.
Leaning down, he was horrified to see she wasn’t being obstinate as he had thought, but rather the soft flesh on the pads of her paws was raw and bleeding.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see how accidents happen, but of course that’s hindsight. 
Sometimes even the best intentions go awry — the fastest path, a curfew lesson on a warm, starry night, generous accommodations with a bonus pal or a healthy jog through the park — at one time or another, most pet owners experience a good thing-turned disaster.
If only they could talk, they might tell us, “I can’t walk over that!” “Hey! I’m stuck!” “My feet hurt,” or, “Don’t leave me here, he’s mean.”
As luck would have it, however, (not counting the unfortunate hamster) animals seem to know when the intentions are a world apart from the results and are quick to pick up right where they left off with you.
… Even if they do pause to glare at the door, hiss at the leash or snort at barbed wire.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Eight legs at a time

Last week, In Search of Ponies focused on the plight of the male tarantula, a common sight along New Mexico roadways as they go ambling by on their grueling pilgrimages to find a mate.

Though intimidating to look at, the basically harmless tarantula is probably one of the most misunderstood critters out there and we are fortunate to have such a unique creature living in our neck of the woods.

There's lots of interesting information available about tarantulas and they are certainly intriguing, so before you squish, take a minute to learn a little more about them.

Here is a great video featuring Dr. Ralph Charlton, invertebrates curator at Albuquerque's BioPark:

New Yorker Sam Marshall grew up to be one of the foremost experts on tarantulas after seeing one during a family vacation to New Mexico. Check out this interesting story in which he shares a ton of information and explains his passion for the eight-legged ones:


Deadly mission

As featured Sept. 22, 2012, at

Even as they make their way through the world, so narrow is their focus that it’s unlikely they think of, or even notice much of what goes on around them.
In fact, they’re so preoccupied; it’s no surprise when they walk calmly into traffic.
Don’t let their rangy, menacing appearance scare you — truth is their looks really have nothing to do with you and everything to do with function.
Enduring excruciating heat, often without the relief of water, they make their way through rough and unforgiving terrain, surrounded by enemies and pushing forward to complete their life’s mission.
And while they travel up to 50 miles to accomplish that mission every fall — a seemingly insurmountable distance when it’s being covered four inches at a time — the irony is that after expending all that energy and effort, if their work pays off and they reach their destination, the success will likely be punctuated by death.
A few days ago, one such gentleman froze and crouched down against the pavement as vehicles passed overhead.
Older, or battered by his journey, or perhaps a little of both, the fur on his eight legs was patchy and sparse, with dry skin showing underneath and more skin showing through the hair on his abdomen.
But he sparked to life when shooed, scurried into the cover of grass along the ditch and carried on.
One of those unique residents that don’t go further east than the Mississippi, there are approximately 50 species of tarantula in North America, nearly 900 in the world, and none are considered deadly to humans.
Known for their docile nature, that’s not to say they’re entirely helpless.
They can bite, but usually don’t. Instead, tarantulas subscribe to the walk softly school of thought because they do carry a big stick.
When highly agitated, they are capable of kicking the hair off their abdomens toward an enemy, the small, barbed particles float through the air and into the nose, mouth and eyes.
Comparable to itching powder, the hair attack just gives an adversary something else to think about while they get away.
If there is a flaw in the gentle crawlers, it might be the fact that, alas, tarantulas live and give their lives for the ladies.
Most all tarantulas spotted out and about are mature males in search of their soul mates, and few communities have a tougher dating scene than the tarantulas.
Hidden away in burrows, the females wait to be found.
But just being found doesn’t mean the stars align and the rest is romance, because if she doesn’t approve of her suitors, they still make a good snack.
If they manage to win her affections, there’s a good chance they will still make a good snack after adding a branch to the family tree and even those fortunate enough to walk away from a job well done aren’t exactly in the clear either.
Trudging exhausted, back from whence they came, they make easy marks for the wasps, lizards, snakes, birds and others who find them delightfully nutritious.
In light of all that, it seems a bit unnecessary to go out of the way to smash them under a shoe, even if it’s too far a stretch to appreciate them on their own merits — after all, certain death awaits them anyway, if they’re just allowed to pass.
Or for the more daring, take a moment to look past the itchy hair, long legs and fangs to give a little attaboy as the multi-eyed face of determination and perseverance marches by, eight steps at a time.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Taking the lead

As featured Sept. 15, 2012, at

When you let your child follow you with the grocery cart, it’s usually not a matter of “if,” but more a matter of “when” you will feel the inevitable impact on your heels.
Much the same, only to a larger degree of severity, having a 900-pound animal stepping in your shadow can be a little unsettling.
With nothing but a single, symbolic rope between you and said animal, it is natural to wonder, “what if he takes off?” “What if he steps sideways?”
Leading a horse is one of those simple little tasks that are easily taken for granted and dismissed — one of those tasks that those who work with horses never think a thing of.
But for someone who’s never walked with a horse before, or who has a sudden strike of anxiety at the realization of the strength and size difference on the other end of the rope, that simple task can take on an edge.
And walking forward, it is natural to wonder why an animal that outweighs you 10-1 would follow peacefully, concerns which can lead to an angling of the body, timid steps and glances over the shoulder to be sure there’s no danger of a painful flat tire.
“Do you know where you’re going?” the instructor’s voice rang out as we made our way.
The horse was edgy and anxious, pushing forward then veering here and there, turning the short walk into a battle as I pulled forward on the rope one second then tightened it to slow him the next.
“The arena,” I answered.
“Well every time you look back, you’re telling him you aren’t sure of the path,” she replied.
I hadn’t even consciously realized I was doing it until she pointed it out, but I suddenly became aware that I was turned toward the horse so I could keep an eye on him.
Moving forward cautiously, sure enough, I was watching to be sure he didn’t clip my foot with his hoof or suddenly charge into me, which seemed completely logical and safety conscious — until she put it like that.
“Square your shoulders, look forward, and walk like you know the way,” she said. “He’ll follow you.”
She proceeded to explain that while I may have thought it safer to keep an eye on him, I was inadvertently creating a flawed and unsafe dynamic.
Inherently adverse to exerting effort, most horses would rather follow than lead, a trait they usually only deviate from if their safety comes into question.
And my mistrust and lack of confidence in the animal was being communicated as uncertainty and a lack of confidence in general. The horse, in turn, felt the need to be in front and to take the lead to ensure his own safety, a natural preference to following someone who seemed confused about the direction and who was, in every way possible, conveying danger ahead.
Mustering faith, shoulders squared and eyes forward, I focused on the arena and moved as if I expected he would follow — and he did.
The anxiety dropped out of the rope, his head relaxed, and he plodded beside me a completely different animal.
It wouldn’t have even mattered if he’d been led somewhere specific, or just taken for an aimless stroll, as long as the one at the front moved with confidence and purpose.
However, those behind one who doesn’t appear to know the way won’t be there for long.
Whether they balk, zig zag, veer or charge ahead, survival dictates they will search for a way to control their own fate — because leading the way has nothing to do with which end of the rope you are on, rather, it has everything to do with the way you lead.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

There are reasons dogs chase their tails

As featured Aug. 25, 2012, at

Everybody loves a tail chaser.
C'mon, admit it. You know you laugh when they turn in those tight little circles, round-and-round, over-and-over again at a dizzying speed.
Apparently it's “normal” to laugh.
Of course people know on some gut level that spinning around in circles trying to catch one's own backside is a bit redundant but there's something entertaining about watching a dog give it all they've got as if oblivious to the fact they already have control of the prey.
In fact, a researcher with the Royal Veterinary College in England found that when she watched 400 videos of dogs chasing their tails on YouTube, people could be heard laughing in 55 percent of them.
And, as if the laughter didn't say it, people demonstrated how much they liked it when their dogs got stuck in a loop by encouraging them to spin-on in 43 percent of the videos sampled, and a further 20 percent helped out by tugging or otherwise manipulating the dog's tails.
Every now and then a little tail chasing is normal, the researcher noted, particularly with puppies, who often attack that thing that sneaks up and taunts them from the peripheral.
A full minute of spinning, which was the average time most dogs were filmed, with an uninterruptible drive and in some cases obvious injuries, not so much.
Actually, it appears that spending copious amounts of time fixating on and going around in circles trying to catch something that is out of reach is completely illogical and not healthy.
Even more, it is a symptom of something else being amiss.
Researchers have found that the majority of dogs that chase their tails relentlessly are not getting sufficient exercise and are often starved for attention, so yeah, in a round-about way, they are doing it for entertainment and it is a self-made treadmill of sorts, but not in a good way.
Not only has chasing one's own tail has become a human cliché to represent unhealthy obsession and an inability to let go of a useless pursuit, a team of Finnish researchers at the University of Helsinki have recently confirmed it to be much the same for dogs.
In fact, it appears there are significant parallels between the behavior and human obsessive-compulsive disorder. Released last month, the study found that dogs who chase their tails are more likely to be shy, separated prematurely from their mothers, have suffered a trauma in their childhoods, they tend to exhibit other anxiety behaviors and it all begins in the first three to six months of life.
In addition to environmental triggers that seemed to somewhat explain the behavior, they also found that dogs who receive vitamin supplements and are neutered are less likely to chase their tails, though a dog's gender does not appear to determine the severity or likelihood of the behavior.
The study is being hailed as having opened the door for further studies, in part to see if there may be answers for human OCD sufferers and will surely lead to more research on genetic and other factors that cause obsession and compulsion.
In the meantime, while studies are still being conducted and scientists explore the cliché from both the human and canine sides of the spectrum, it is still possible to gain some wisdom.
First and foremost, posting videos of dogs chasing their tails on YouTube has caught the attention of the great minds in our society and while it is possibly on its way to being as politically correct as giving sugar to a diabetic to entertain one's friends, you'll have to decide for yourself if it's worth the upload.
But perhaps most importantly, science has proven that running around in circles while trying to catch up with your own backside is not productive or healthy and probably merits a visit to an expert, either veterinary or otherwise, as appropriate.
To-date, however, there has been no correlation made between known conditions and putting peanut butter on your dog's nose. Carry on ...

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Animal messages can be messy

As featured Sept. 1, 2012, at

Sometimes things are just plain misleading.
Take, for instance, a BBC video titled "Giant panda does handstand."
Oh sure, it's a film following a giant panda around the woods, and yes, he does a handstand, but there's a little more to the film than a cute bear doing acrobatics.
To be more precise, the film consists of four action-packed minutes of panda bathroom rituals, which do include the panda doing a handstand — with the sole purpose of positioning himself to "go" higher up on the trunk of a tree.
Thankfully, an accompanying story described the scientific knowledge gained from observing the potty patterns of Sir Panda, namely the fact that not only do pandas stand on their front legs to direct their stream higher, they're also surprisingly selective about the trees they choose to tag, choosing trees with rougher, "deep tread" bark, presumably so the scent markings have more longevity.
And the handstand?
Well, by positioning the scent marking higher on the tree, researchers believe it is likely to reach out further through the forest. Since pandas, whose populations are incidentally dwindling, use their scent markings to communicate personal information to one another, such as age and gender, they want those messages to get out far and wide.
Pandas, as we all know, aren't the only ones to use their naturally given "spray paint" to write each other notes or advertise within their communities. In one way or another, most animals recycle their byproducts as a messaging system, whether it's to warn an enemy away, post city limits signs, or put out a singles ad.
Of course it doesn't really impact humans (except for the ones that unknowingly click on the video) if a panda does a handstand to raise the spray, but just because an animal is "domesticated" doesn't mean they stop "communicating" and they can do it in some pretty creative ways.
Learning about the inventive rituals of the panda instantly brought some other creative critters to mind.
While the rest of the herd would traipse to the far corner where they had a designated "in box," there was the horse that would lick his food bucket clean, then return the dish full.
It didn't seem to matter where the bucket was placed, on the ground or hooked to the fence, he went to great lengths, and at some points surely had to have stretched and aimed with great effort, to make sure it was never empty.
A cat who learned open suitcases meant lonely days ahead, always made sure his opinion was known and at the same time, found devious ways to be sure he packed a surprise of his own.
Frustrated that the big white machines cleaned all the scents away, one cat made it her mission to seek out laundry baskets and another cat found a dark corner under a bed to write messages in private.
While the manners of civilized humans adhere to the latter method, to most critters, sending messages in private is just plain old illogical.
Naturally, when it comes to the house sharing communicators, there must be compromise in order to reconcile the disparity in styles and thus we have devised clever boxes filled with perfumed rocks for them to mail their letters and sometimes we even run around behind them with baggies, presumably collecting the messages to send later.
But when compromise collapses and there's an unexpected communication, it could be we're not getting the point.
Sure, it could be as simple as, "I couldn't wait," but it's also possible the paper towel swipes are eradicating the greatest love letters of all time or an exceptionally polite thank you note that reads, "Hey, thanks for all the grub. I don't have much, but please accept this token of my appreciation."
Don't be too hard on the messenger.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Nancy Taylor never stopped giving

As featured Aug. 18, 2012, at

For years to come, when Nancy Taylor’s name is mentioned people will remember her for all the lives she touched as she worked tirelessly to fill the shelves at the Food Bank of Eastern New Mexico.
But as busy as she stayed trying to make sure not one child had to go to bed hungry and that no one in the community was without sustenance, somehow there was still room in Nancy’s heart for more.
Several months ago, she showed me around the food bank and I was struck by her passion and determination, pleasantly surprised when our talk quickly turned to animals and her eyes began to sparkle.
“Let’s go for a walk,” she said, ushering me out to the field behind the food bank. “I want you to meet my horse.”
Named “Oso” because he looked like a bear when his winter coat came in, she spent several minutes telling me about the brown gelding as he grazed. She was building trust with him, trying to overcome the rough experiences that made him shy and withdrawn.
She talked of some of the animals she had taken in over the years and I was fascinated that a woman who worked herself so hard to feed the masses still found it in herself to do more.
I’d always intended to go back and spend more time with Nancy and she’d even agreed to do be the subject of a column highlighting her love of animals. Schedules got busy, time passed, and then suddenly one day Nancy was gone and now, it is instead her friends that must speak for her.
But they remember well the woman who didn’t just devote her life to saving humans, as if that weren’t enough. Nancy couldn’t stand to see any living creature in hardship, couldn’t tolerate suffering and never turned her back, always ready to do whatever was needed, big or small, to make a life better.
Animals found their way to her, whether they were dropped off at the Animal Shelter next door and wandered into the the food bank parking lot, or straggled in from the nearby landfill so she put out water and, “always kept cat or dog food around,” said La Dean Jameson, a friend and coworker of eight years. Nancy didn’t just feed them and send them on their way though, Jameson said.
“She would try to find someone to take them. We had a lot of animals here,” she recalled.
And though they often wandered her way, Nancy managed to find them too.
There was the time she jumped out of the car and stopped eight lanes of traffic at the busy intersection of 21st and Norris streets to save a dachshund that was weaving across the road.
Jumper got tangled up when the broken rope he was dragging got caught in a stack of pallets and even though she unwrapped him and set him free, from that point on, he was forever tied to Nancy.
It took hours for Nancy and her staff to cut out the mats and sand spurs, but Heidi would never be the same and the beautiful long haired cat became a permanent resident of the food bank, where she enjoyed a full life as the office cat.
During their 32-year friendship, Jatonna Hankins spent a lot of time on horseback beside Nancy.
“She was a very classy woman on a horse and she taught many of us to be classy on a horse,” Hankins said. “She really kept us all in line, let me tell you.”
Most of Hankins memories of Taylor are tied to animals — her rescue dogs, her absolute love for palomino horses, and all the hours they spent practicing and riding in parades with the local Cowbelles riding group, which Taylor started 38 years ago in Clovis.
In the days before her death on Aug. 2, Hankins remembers Nancy finally had a breakthrough with her horse. “Oso had finally come up to her and she was just so excited that he would come up and eat out of her hand.”
“She loved animals, she rescued anything,” Hankins said. “She helped everybody. Feed the cats, feed the dogs, feed the people.”
She had a choice of causes she could have given her life to, or she could have done nothing at all, but, just as with Oso, Nancy somehow knew that by feeding the body she could help heal the soul.
Thank you, Nancy.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Birds must battle elements of nature

As featured Aug. 11, 2012, at

Air conditioners work overtime, flowers wilt in an effort to escape the sun and lemonade and ice tea flow — it’s hot.
Humans actually have it pretty easy, able to duck indoors when the temperatures get to be too much. In fact, pretty much any ambulatory creature can find ways to dodge the scorching air, even if it’s just a matter of finding a shady spot to nap until the sun goes down.
But things are a little different for those unfortunate enough to hatch during the peak of summer. Sure, the heat is great for incubation, not so good for the squawkers.
The eggs in the front porch nest hatched, right about the time the temperatures started to spike and in a few short days, it became a thermometer of sorts.
It can be less than obvious sometimes by their loud protests and seemingly threatening swooping, but for more than 2,000 years, barn swallows have increased their odds of survival by nesting where humans are — taking a page straight out of the original strategy manual by living near a creature that tends to drive other predators away.
However it’s not a perfect strategy, as humans may keep larger birds and other animals away but they only tend to climate control the insides of their homes.
Were it earlier in the season, the nest would have been in the perfect place, tucked under the edge of a wall that receives sun all day long, but in the hottest part of summer, the perfect nest became an oven.
In the cool of the mornings, with the exception of a flurry of chirping when mom or dad would fly by and drop crushed bugs into waiting mouths, the mud sconce-like nest was silent and appeared empty, the babies huddled together at its center.
But by mid-morning, the beaks began to appear at the edges and from noon until evening, four mostly-bald heads spiked with fuzz were hanging wilted over the sides — their eyes closed, beaks open and panting for air.
Squirming and shifting uncomfortably, they would occasionally jockey against one another in an attempt to get closer to the edge and hopefully a breeze, but for the most part, they just hung over the sides of the nest, looking half dead.
With all their effort to escape the misery of the nest, it wasn’t really a surprise to find one little one hunkered down on the porch where its squirming obviously culminated in an emergency landing.
How it survived the plunge was a mystery, since its eyes were still closed and its feathers more like fur than anything useful to a bird, but alive it was.
With the aid of a step-stool, the baby was deposited back in the nest and within a few minutes, the relieved parents were again happily dropping crushed bugs into waiting mouths.
The little one simply foreshadowed things to come and by morning, three had bailed out of the proverbial frying pan and into the fire, only they weren’t so lucky.
Had they not spent every day inching so perilously close to the edge of the nest, I might have thought they were pushed, but there was little doubt they had fallen in their blind search for cool air.
As the heat of the day returned, a single little head moved over the side of the nest and began to droop, mouth gaping — there was a survivor.
By evening, a new milestone was reached and the little one managed to perch on the side of the nest, seeming remarkably more agile and balanced.
However, as the noon sun began to bake the porch the following day, there was still no little head hanging over the side, and instead, I found the little one unmoving in the hot center of the nest.
Five young swallows flew out of the same nest the year before and not a one of them crawled to the edge and fell, so the only possible answer was somehow this group knew something different, even if frying pan or fire ended up not being much of a choice at all.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Cats operate on reverse psychology

As featured Aug. 4, 2012, at

“I’m running late,” the woman’s sleepy voice stated. “I overslept because the cat laid on top of my cell phone and muffled the alarm.
It had to be the best excuse ever.
It might have seemed too bizarre to be believable, had the woman telling the story not been forced to pause every couple seconds to sneeze or sniffle.
“I don’t know how the stupid cat got in my room but its killing my asthma,” the sound of an inhaler was followed by a desperate suck of air.
A later conversation revealed that the woman was terribly allergic to cats, but her roommate was a cat lover. The imperfect solution was to keep her door closed, a solution which seemed to make the cat love her even more, resulting in the feline designating her bedside table as cat Mecca.
Sometimes it seems cats suffer from an oppositional disorder that drives them to be where they aren’t wanted and causes them to hide when they are.
Have company over and the cat will ignore any “here-kitty-kitty-kitty,” run through the gauntlet of outstretched affectionate hands and high-tail it to the cat-hater or the one allergic person in the group and proceed to rub all over them like a long lost friend.
As if that weren’t enough, they must have been paperweights in another life, because you can spend all day chasing after your cat only to have it scramble at the sight of you, but the second you lay papers on the table in front of you, the cat interprets it as an invitation to lounge.
For those who dislike cats it comes across as an instinctual drive to torment and annoy.
And for those who go into fits of sneezing, develop itchy eyes and lose respiratory function, its easy to start feeling like they must be sporting an invisible target or emit Eau De Catnip.
As targeted as one may feel, to the contrary, it all comes down to a difference in customs and quite frankly, the cat just doesn’t see things quite the way we do.
In fact, nothing says mixed message quite like barreling toward a cat, arms out stretched, yowling, “here kitty.”
Humans have this abrasive habit of charging up to one another, shaking hands and going through a greeting ritual, while to cats, such a greeting is the equivalent of storming the castle and as a generally solitary and territorial animal, the cat can pretty easily read into an advancing person as not good.
Someone who shows no interest, on the other hand, and just sits quietly or tries to avoid the cat has the effect of empowering them.
It pretty much comes down to a need to smell before socializing, with cats relying on their sense of smell to tell them if someone is familiar, friendly or threatening, according to, the website of Pam Johnson-Bennett, a certified cat behavior consultant. Cat greetings are so significant, Johnson-Bennett has devoted a section of her website to “Using Proper Cat Etiquette” when greeting those of the feline persuasion.
It turns out cats are playing a game of opposites, of sorts, or humans are, but either way, somebody’s got it all wrong.
In fact, avoidance is closer to a polite cat greeting than anything else, and just as cats will circle each other in a room, getting a little closer with each pass, all while seeming to ignore one another, a person who shirks away from the cat is pretty much hanging out the welcome sign.
So for allergy sufferers and those who arrant terribly fond of cats, the answer is pretty simple. If its a cat-free life you’re after, take some antihistamines have an inhaler ready, wear gloves and a mask just in case, and learn to say, “here-kitty-kitty.”

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Your dog could be reflection of you

As featured July 28, 2012, at

Oh yeah, your dog is watching you.
Not only is he or she watching, your pooch is learning and changing its behavior based on you and your responses.
It has long been said that pets resemble their owners, and it’s a common dynamic to see people treat their dogs as if they were their children and if research is correct, it could actually indicate that those dynamics are coming from the dog more than the people.
Perhaps you’ve wondered why the dog always chooses to chew your favorite things and steals your spot on the couch as soon as you move away.
A new study has shown dogs actually make decisions based on the influence of their people, looking to them for social cues even when those cues lead to decisions aren’t necessarily in their best interests.
Published in April, the study was conducted at the University of Milan with researchers presenting 149 dogs with two plates of food, one significantly larger than the other.
When no one interfered with the dogs, they overwhelmingly went to the larger plate.
However, when they were first made to watch as a human handled the smaller plate or reacted positively to the lesser portion by picking it up and saying, “Oh wow, this is good, this is so good!” the majority of dogs went straight to the food the human had shown an interest in, rather than the larger portion.
What researchers concluded was that the dogs were watching the social cues and developed a bias for the thing the person seemed to prefer, making them want that plate more than the one they would have been naturally drawn to.
In another test conducted by the same researchers, dogs were made to observe humans who were generous and selfish toward one another.
A dog and its owner were put into a room with two people who had food. A fourth person entered the room and approached the food-bearing people, asking for food. One of the individuals snapped and refused to share, while the other person shared, putting a piece of food in the person’s mouth.
In more than two-thirds of cases, following the demonstration, the dogs approached the generous person and tried to get food from them.
Researchers concluded that the dogs were observing the human interactions and personalities and made decisions based on predictions of how people were going to behave.
It all seems simple really, and appears to stem from the basic fact that dogs are opportunistic.
But humans also look to other humans for clues in decision making, depending on one another for guidance in what tastes best or what is fashionable or gets the best consumer reviews — all dynamics based on opportunistic-like needs to make the better choice, get the best option or experience the benefit someone else seems to enjoy.
And in the case of generosity vs. selfishness, it is easy to dismiss the dogs responses as choosing the path of least resistance, but even the youngest of children do the same, predicting which parent will be most likely to give them what they want.
One psychologist, Stanley Coren, proposed the second study may imply that dogs expect people should or will treat them the same as they treat other people, and that dogs see people as equals, like a hairless type of dog.
Another theory is that, one social creature to another, dogs are just as keen on food reviews and pushovers as their hairless counterparts are.
What is certain is that unless you like having a bullseye on your plate, you better quit wrinkling your nose and start gushing over that kibble when you pour it, because like it or not, you’re a role model, and the dog sees all.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Animal idioms hard to pin down

As featured July 21, 2012, at

“Runs like a scalded dog,” the words jumped out from a column of classified advertisements.
Having never seen a scalded dog run, and having never heard the phrase, the only logical conclusion to be reached was that the owner of the pickup truck in question was boasting that the truck was fast.
Either that or the truck yelped and whined while it ran.
It’s hard to imagine where a saying such as that one originated but obviously somebody at some point saw a scalded dog run and was struck enough by the moment to turn around and put the experience to use.
Animals just seem to find themselves the subject of idioms, and often the creative sayings take on a life of their own with origins so far removed, they’re virtually impossible to pin down.
For instance, in place of “wonderful” someone might use the phrase, “The bee’s knees.”
But the saying didn’t necessarily start out with that meaning, first used as a joking expression for something non-existent, i.e. sending someone on an errand to the store to pick up some, “bees knees.”
Eventually the phrase evolved to mean the best of something, perhaps based on the fact that bees carry pollen on their legs, or possibly even popularized in the 1920s by the fast-moving knees of Bee Jackson, a World Champion Charleston dancer.
Of course everybody knows that skunks don’t imbibe, yet intoxicated people get compared to them all the time. A leading theory is that the saying came around because a skunk and an intoxicated person often have their respective odors, but what’s more likely is just the simple fact that the words rhyme and are easy to say together.
It's hard to imagine that anyone ever actually tried to harness a cart in front of a horse instead of the other way around, yet the saying was born nonetheless.
And it was born a really long time ago at that, with the philosopher Cicero using the analogy as early as first century B.C.
The ancient Egyptians and Romans gave us the “dog days of summer,” though in reality the saying has little to do with actual dogs.
Rather, it stems from the fact that in the hottest days of the year, July and August, the star Sirius, also known as the “Dog Star” appeared close to the sun, which was believed to cause the high heat.
Eventually, the Romans did end up involving real dogs, sacrificing a brown dog each year in the hopes that by appeasing Sirius they might have a mild summer.
Other historical dogs got off the hook just a little easier in the fact that all that was wanted from them was their hair, if they were biters that is.
In medieval times, it was believed that if someone was bitten by a rabid dog, they could be cured by applying hair from the animal that bit them to their wound. A couple hundred years latter the concept was applied to the aftermath of a bout of drinking and, “the hair of the dog,” became known as a hangover cure.
Cat lovers may be glad to know that felines were probably not swung around to measure rooms. It's origins are uncertain, but the saying “no room to swing a cat” is believed to be a naval phrase, possibly referring to a whip which was used to punish sailors who misbehaved on British ships.
A person may have never had a goat, but that doesn't mean someone can't “get” it.
There are mixed schools of thought on where “got your goat” comes from. One theory roots the saying at the race track where goats are sometimes kept with temperamental horses to calm them. If a rival wanted to increase their odds, they stole their opposition's goat, upsetting the rival horse before race day. Another theory is that the saying emerged in the early 1900's, when goat was slang for anger.
Thankfully, in most cases, the figures of speech that make it into everyday language are just that — figures of speech. Besides, with the advent of speedometers and tape measures, swinging cats and scalded dogs are somewhat obsolete.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Pets help build immune system in children

As featured July 14, 2012, at

Germs: They do a body good. Finally, a study has surfaced espousing the value of good old dirt and grime and yes, even bacteria.
And apparently, dirt is even good for kids, especially when carried into the house by that "nasty ol' dog," if researchers theories are correct.
It's sad, but it happens — the new, precious, squeaky-clean baby arrives and the dog starts getting squeezed out of the picture.
If lucky, the dog only has to endure more baths than normal, but the less lucky find themselves looking forlorn through the back window, watching the family inside the house that used to be theirs too.
There has for decades been a school of thought that children needed to be sheltered from germy animals or they might get sick or even develop allergies and other long-term issues.
However, gaining widespread attention this week, a soon-to-be released article in the Journal of Pediatrics just might vindicate back-porch pooches.
Essentially, a team of Finnish researchers studied babies over the course of their first year and found that those living in households with pets had lower incidents of infection and in general showed higher resilience when they did become sick.
Not only was there a marked difference for kids in homes with pets, but the more contact they had with the animals, the better their immunity seemed to be and even more, there was a noticeable difference in kids that lived around dogs, particularly dogs that spent significant time outside.
While the reason was not scientifically explained in the study, researchers have said they have a theory and it's pretty simple.
Dogs are just a tad dirtier than cats and therefore, more likely to carry the icky stuff into the house on their paws and fur.
The information is consistent with other studies in recent years, which lean toward exposure to indoor pets in the early years as helpful to reducing allergies and sensitivities later in life.
A 2010 article in the Journal of Pediatrics looked at the link between child eczema and pets and a team of doctors concluded that while there's still much work to be done on the topic, it's probably not fair to blame the dog. In fact, they noted researchers have found exposure to pets in the early years could actually protect a child from developing eczema at rates of 20-30 percent.
It almost seems silly that a study is needed to show that kids need animals, but hey, if it takes science to prove it then so be it.
The dogs and kids already have it all figured out anyway — they know they are made for each other.
Heck, they even share the same interests.
They both like squeaky toys and stuffed animals, they are close to the ground, have vacuum tendencies when they encounter things on the carpet, and they could care less about dirt — in fact they kind of seem to like it.
Turn your back for second, and Fido and Junior will be licking the same rawhide or dipping their noses in the same water dish.
Come to think of it, choking hazards notwithstanding, maybe it's a partial explanation for why little kids have to touch and taste everything, something well-intentioned parents keep interfering with even as the list of conditions and ailments out there seems to grow daily.
Who knows, future studies may even find that nature has hard-wired kids without an ick-meter for the purpose of helping them build immunity.
Actually, when you look at it like that, perhaps an equally appropriate study would be to measure how living in a home with a child impacts a dog's health.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Bees, flowers have different kind of romance

As featured June 7, 2012, at

Exploring a patch of thistles, bloom after bloom, the picture was the same.
A big, round bee behind protruded from within each purple head, looking as if the rotund creatures had flown so fast at the flowers, they had crashed and become permanently imbedded face-first.
But of course they weren’t stuck, and, as soon as the sound of footsteps reach their buried heads, they popped out and took to the air, buzzing in irritation.
Some of the most beautiful flowers to be seen in early summer on the eastern plains, thistles might be nice to look at, but in all their prickliness they don’t exactly go out of their way to be approachable.
Or do they...
If recent research is correct, thistles could actually be working overtime to be inviting, though being put into vases isn’t exactly the angle of their ambition.
In fact, not only is it OK if they’re prickly and abrasive, it might be better and certainly explains the bee behinds that seem to appear as soon as they open.
It appears the romance between bees and flowers isn’t defined by color and fragrance quite like it is between humans and petals.
Rather, it’s texture that helps a flower woo a bee and win the pollen, according to a recently published study conducted by scientists at the University of Cambridge.
Presenting bees with petunias whose petals had both smooth and conical cell structure, researchers found that time and time again, bees went to the flowers with the rougher surface.
The reason is quite simple — grip.
Valuable like slip-stop stickers on the bottom of the bathtub, the cone-shaped cell structure of some petals provides bees a near Velcro hold as they make their way to the center of a flower in search of nectar.
And it’s a good thing, because moving flowers are the ones that best attract the 3D eyes of a bee, a point proven in the lab when scientists put flower boxes containing plants on mechanized “shaking” tables to simulate stems swaying in the breeze. Consistently, they documented the bees zooming to the textured plants.
It makes a lot of sense really, since trying to hang on to a slick moving bloom while working would just take far too much energy if there’s another option.
So you may love your fancy snapdragons, but their ups and downs and angles and curves just don’t convey the same message to a bee, especially if there’s a rough-petaled petunia nearby.
Particularly in our neck of the woods, where breezy days bend thin trees to the ground.
Also intriguing is the fact the favored petals with textured cells are generally more subdued in color because they absorb, rather than reflect light.
But that’s alright because fuchsia would probably be wasted on a bee anyway.
While the color scheme of the grasslands may seem drab to the human eye, strong light basically strips bee vision to black and white, so they don’t even get to enjoy the occasional purple thistle in a sea of brown.
Needless to say, while the research doesn’t change a thing for bees and their buds, it does debunk some common misconceptions that the wild flowers of the world have had the inside scoop on for a while — a glowing complexion, alluring smell and smashing hues aren’t always the quickest route to the prize.
But as luck would have it, pragmatic bees aren’t the only game in town, so fair flowers need not despair — the hummingbirds still love them.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Toads ingrained in New Mexico

As featured June 30, 2012, at

Walking outside after the sun goes down they scatter before you like proverbial cockroaches under a light.
Such was the case when I killed my first.
Stepping down from the edge of the porch, I was in mid-motion when I saw it sitting there directly under my lowering shoe. Carrying a full water dish at the time, I cringed and wished but could not stop my foot from landing squarely on top of it.
Of course as soon as I regained my balance, I nudged at the toad with the tip of my shoe – its lack of response confirming the moment had been fast and final.
Then there was the mower incident.
It bears mentioning that no matter how you try to flush them out before you mow — I have tried — they refuse to be herded and inevitably end right back in the path of the blades.
This large fella was no exception.
I heard it, caught a glimpse of flying toad out of the corner of my eye, and again cringed.
And, as in years past, there are the pancake toads in the driveway and the occasional mummified toads in the barn and garage.
Recent-ly, toads came up in casual conversation and a woman remarked that she too is frustrated by them not, per say, by their presence, but more because she has a heck of a time cleaning the messes they leave around the house.
Having always found it curious that so many toads appear in the hot months, in what typically a pretty dry climate, it seemed an appropriate time for a little toad 101.
Among the first interesting facts out there is that toads and frogs are in the same family, but for the most part, toads, which we find lined up under our porch lights most nights, have fat bodies and dry, warty skin.
And, who would have thought it, the spadefoot toad (with shovel-like hind feet, thankfully they look nothing like the ones that met unfortunate ends at my place) is the New Mexico state amphibian.
Not only has the pungent-enough-to-make-you cry peanut-scented toad made its way to distinction by the state (competing with other toads, frogs and salamanders for the title), it is one of at least 15 types of toads found in the state — incidentally, a pretty good sampling considering there are only 21 types in North America.
The toad is so ingrained in the state, they even have roads named after them.
But how do they appear so quickly in the summer time, one might wonder, especially in those years with little-to-no water.
Well, they work fast, and, as do many New Mexico residents, they live for those few rain storms in the warm months.
And all it takes can be one little shower to kick off their population for the year.
Laying egg masses in the temporary puddles after rain, spadefoot tadpoles are deprived of their childhoods, having about two days to hatch and move 'em out before the puddles disappear.
In light of the puddle scenario, it stands to reason that the more rain, the more toads. It's a good thing they are ironically hatching in the same puddles that spawn pesky mosquitoes and a single toad can eat up to 10,000 insects in a summer, according to the USDA.
Mowers and walking people not withstanding, a toad's life can be a fairly long one, sometimes even up to 15 years, and being resourceful, they dig in and hibernate through winter, emerging to do it all again the next year – which also means more toads.
In fact, it seems running over one with the mower or stepping on one isn't so surprising after all. To the contrary — perhaps a collateral blessing of being nocturnal — it's a little more shocking they aren't getting squished in droves.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

All dogs angels to their owners

As featured June 23, 2012, on

Snarling, snapping and stretching its leash as tight as it could go while it's owner pulled in the opposite direction, all I could see was two rows of dripping white teeth backed by a forward angled physique — all pointed in my direction.
"Approach slowly and give him a biscuit. Don't worry ... " I remember the not-reassuring guidance of his owner.
Yeah, we had talked about the loved family pooch having "socialization" issues in public settings, but that had painted a picture of a pup quivering shyly behind his person's legs — nothing, absolutely nothing in those conversation had ever implied insane, snarling, chop licking human-hater.
And, providing said menacing dog with a cookie seemed: 1. unfair and overgenerous given first impressions, and 2. just a tad dangerous and potentially stupid.
Trying hard to be diplomatic, I encouraged his owner to instead demonstrate the effectiveness of the calming cookie and silently revamped my definition of "socialization issues" while at the same time suddenly seeing the shoe chewing and occasional puddle at my house in an all new light.
But by the same token, my shoe chewing woes could just as easily be intolerable to someone else.
Inherently subjective, perspective is its own animal, and apparently most dog owners are not exempt.
It seems only natural that one would believe their pooch is the coolest dog of all, however, while it doesn't seem like a point in need of statistical backing, as of this week, said statistics exist.
According to a study done by a pet supply company in the UK, about 67 percent of dog owners rated their dogs at the higher end of the behavior scale.
Slightly more interesting was the measly 19 percent who admitted their dog's behavior was on the lower end of the scale.
Even more curious, overwhelmingly, dog owners pointed the finger at other people's dogs, with nearly half of those surveyed rating other pooches in the bad behavior range.
Incidentally, at the same time, only 30 percent of them had done socialization training, showing that many dogs aren't taught to have manners but their owners overlook the deficiencies while holding other dogs to a higher standard than their own.
Not all dog owners are in denial though.
Just two days before the behavior study was released, Lucy "The Destroyer" was anointed the "Worst Behaved Dog" in North America by a pet care franchise who combed through hundreds of entries to find the most terribly of them all.
In interviews, Lucy's family had no qualms about saying that while they love the almost 1-year-old husky mix, she's a nightmare. Chewing, dog directed aggression, dashing off and more, she earned her title and will be rewarded with, among other things, a year of free training.
But where there's Lucy, there's apparently hundreds more bad dogs still out there with people who aren't ashamed to admit it and who are in need of intervention. As a result, the company said it extended the contest and will do weekly competitions between the remaining finalists, giving training for winning bad behavior.
Whether "bad dogs" are cast into the spotlight or hidden behind denial coated accolades of endearing "Puppykins" smooches, the bottom line seems to be that they're really just — prepare for a novel concept here — dogs. Better yet, dogs who are held to human standards and expected to live in a non-dog world, which is takes work and is never 100 percent.
Some may luck out with the perfectly amiable canine straight out of the gate, but realistically, chewing, inappropriate barking, poorly timed restroom using, digging, fence jumping, and yes, even snarling, are all simply part of being a dog.
And even when assimilated, they too have a perspective and more often than not, it doesn't match yours, or for that matter, the Jones'.
But then again, maybe that's exactly why we love them like we do.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Chicken left her mark on my heart

As featured June 16, 2012, on

Small ones, downy gray ones, a few long black ones — these things always come when you aren't looking for them.
Each step I took, I saw another and when I finally stopped to take stock, I discovered I was surrounded by feathers.
And — with no match in the immediately surrounding wild kingdom — there was only one possible source for them.
The realization came on like a flood, and at the same time, I knew it was too many feathers for it to be another of our harrowing adventures that concluded in a happy homecoming.
This time the outcome would be different.
How can a stupid chicken work its way into your heart?
An animal that makes its way to dinner tables, albeit as the main course, in home after home every night.
An animal renowned for having a brain the size of a pea.
One who delights in scratching its way through piles of manure in search of delectable grubs and maggots.
And yet, she did.
Brainless, poop scratching, walking buffalo wings and all.
I never wanted a chicken, but somehow, Molly wasn't really like a chicken ... she was just Molly
Maybe it was all the narrow misses — the times she ran away from home only to be found making her way back up the road with a lost look on her face.
Or the time she got stuck in the roof of the barn for several days, scrambling and scratching and so very relieved when it was pried open so she could flap to the ground.
Perhaps it came when she lost most of her feathers in a pet carrier trying to weather a blizzard from the garage.
But then again, maybe it was in the way she waddled my way top speed when she saw me heading to the barn, ducking under fences and hopping over anything in her way to walk with me the rest of the way.
Or it could have been the way she pecked at my boots then flapped up to perch on the side of the feed bag to let me know I needed to hurry up and get her scoop of corn.
And the fact that she liked to stay close to the horses, weaving in and out of their hooves and perching on the sides of their stalls just to be near them.
Following the trail of feathers, for once, I wished it was one of her skillfully hidden, funky shaped eggs I was hunting.
I found her fairly quick, on the ground where the dog had tried to drag her from the yard only to be stopped by the fence.
In all my time with Molly, I saw her bobble and run, try to fly, peck and scratch, squawk and duck — but even when she roosted, all tucked into a ball, I had never seen her so still.
And it was heartbreaking.
Maybe she was just a dumb hen, maybe she was brainless and liked to play in manure.
But when her spark was ended, a still fell over the barn that hasn't lifted since.
Yeah, hers was a small and simple soul whose mark was very little in the greater scheme of things.
Yet it was a mark nonetheless.
Date unknown – 2012
Beloved hen, greatly missed

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Rabbits grow up fast

As featured June 9, 2012, on

Wild pets are some of the best to have.
They feed themselves, find their own shelter, don't leave hair on the couch and are just low maintenance all the way around.
On the flip side, when they're ready to move on, they don't tend to say good-bye — they're just there one minute, gone the next.
Such was the thought running through my mind earlier in the week when I lifted back the matted grass that had, for about a two weeks, covered a nest full of baby rabbits.
The little trio of tawny, black-tipped bodies was nowhere to be seen, and in their place was a sunken and dried out divot.
It was interesting, I remember thinking as I touched the dried brown grass that remained, because when they had still occupied the small space there had been a sense of life to it, almost as if their warmth had somehow kept it soft and plush.
The original latch key kids, rabbits have an interesting childhood, the majority of which they spend alone.
The mother rabbit makes a fur lined "nest" often in plain sight, however because they are masters of camouflaging it with grass you could stare right at it and never even know it's there.
Or as in my case, you could mow right over it and not realize it until — best case scenario — the little ones start darting around in panic.
A couple of weeks ago when I discovered this particular nest, it was smack dab in the middle of the yard.
Afraid to look but knowing I had to, I bent down and scooped up one of the terrified babies thankful to discover all its hair was in place and its ears were intact. While raising the deck on the mower translated to more work for me, it turned out to be a stroke of fortune for them.
And perhaps even luckier, the babies still hadn't opened their eyes, which means they heard, but never had to see the clanging machine of death as it rolled over them.
I tucked all three of them back into their bed and watched them snuggle in for a minute before I grabbed handfuls of grass and covered them back up.
I have to say, I was overwhelmingly impressed, not so much by my job of baby bunny hiding but more at the wonder of how their mother managed to find them, after I walked away and realized the nest had disappeared from sight.
Especially since she only spends 10 minutes a day with them.
Yep, that's right, bunny moms nurse their young for a couple minutes in the morning and then again in the evening and with mega rich milk that puts power bars to shame, that's it — that's all they need and that's all they get.
They don't come back to check on them, they don't keep them warm, they don't even call to see if they're OK.
Now of course I did eventually find the nest again, and so I made it part of my routine to check on them a couple times a day.
Peeling the grass covering back, I would look to see that everyone was fat and happy and yes, I admit, I petted them a few times, only because they didn't seem to mind.
Talk about living life in the fast lane, rabbits sure are a lesson on the relativity of time, because within three days their eyes were open, and a week later the nest was empty.
Who knows where they went, but they are no doubt eating someone's petunias as I write this.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

All insects have role in natural world

As featured June 2, 2012, on

I was hiking with my dog many moons ago and as we sat resting and enjoying the mountain view, a ruckus from down below interrupted our peaceful contemplation.
There, thrashing and hollering, running full tilt through the woods, we caught glimpses of what appeared to be a Boyscout troop.
But there was no need to see the monster they were fleeing, their body language said it all.
Arms flailing and somehow managing to wiggle and run at the same time, the invisible foe terrorizing them might as well have been as big as life.
After all, sometimes that's just what happens when you find a beehive.
Of course not even close to the same magnitude, there was the time in my childhood when I was walking barefoot through a clover patch and got a bumble bee stuck between my toes.
Suffice it to say, with first impressions carrying the weight they do, these are the kinds of memories that become hardwired in your brain for a long, long time.
Last week, as I was writing a column on beneficial insects, I'll admit, I hesitated before making a "bad bug" list, knowing it was iffy territory because all insects have a vital role in the natural world, and therefor they are all beneficial on one level or another.
So much in fact, that I can never foresee a situation where eradication of any species is called for, no matter how annoying or potentially vicious they can be.
Even flies, which are undeniably gross and annoy us, provide the critical service of waste disposal by aiding in the decomposition of biological materials (go maggots!)
And bees, who I also named to the "bad bug" list, not only give us honey, but are great stewards of their worlds by pollinating plants and making our gardens healthy and beautiful.
Truthfully, even though some of their characteristics may land them on a "bad bug" list, an insect's impact on people and the environment needs to be weighed case-by-case. An angry bee hive = bad, a happy bumble bee carting pollen from one side of your garden to the other = good.
I was reminded of the distinctions when, in response to the beneficial insect column, a reader sent me a link to a story about a recently discovered solitary bee in the Middle East, the Osmia avoseta (definitely worth a Google.)
The closest thing to true flower faeries our world will ever see, the hard-working mothers of this species cut pieces from colorful flower petals to create little petal-mache cocoon nurseries bound together with nectar as cradles for their young.
These sweet, bee-made flower tubes are beyond beautiful in their perfection and the mother bee puts them together with the utmost care and attention to detail.
I will admit that while reading about the flower artistry, I cringed.
Bees are not all bad.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Not all bugs created equal

 As featured May 26, 2012, on

The programing starts in childhood, after all, what's not to like about the school year ending? But that's not the only reason summer is a favorite time of year.
Warmth, long days of glorious sunshine, swimming and other outdoor activities, brightly-colored plants and beautiful skies — the reasons are endless.
But perhaps best of all, it's bug time.
Yes, that's right; the preceding was posed as a positive statement and, yes, bugs are cool.
And when you like bugs, it's an exciting time of year.
About twice a day I trek around the yard to check the progress of the oothicas because the mantis babies are due any time now.
After rain showers, I find myself looking to the sky for the dragonflies that will be joining us soon and smile at the ladybugs climbing on the rose bushes.
Looking like they walked out of Hasbro game "Cootie," the cute and non-venomous, yet bite-capable Jerusalem crickets get observed from a safe distance and I let the centipedes scurry and hide.
Even the big furry wolf spiders tucked in the crevices of the roof are a welcome sight as the days get longer and the temperatures rise.
The fact that they're like little living robots, with their quirky alien eyes, insanely accurate hunting prowess and gravity-defying stunts aren't the only reasons for the anticipation and excitement as the days tick by while they hatch and grow.
No, there are certainly other reasons — namely the bugs that aren't so cool.
Flies, gnats, mosquitoes, bees, wasps, aphids, plant-destroying caterpillars and, did I mention flies?
Yep, they're hatching and growing too, and their arrival is not so eagerly anticipated.
However, not all bugs are created equal and not only is there a "do not smush" list at my house, but also a sense of reverence for the hunters — and this time of year, they appear like reinforcements on the front lines, with a warm welcome and permission to eat all the nuisance critters they can manage.
Heck, I'll even make sure they have plenty of leafy safe havens to hunt from, let them build their webs wherever they see fit and see to it there's water during the dry spells.
When those little translucent mantids emerge from the cases where they have spent the winter, spilling out onto walls, branches and fence posts, they, and their voracious appetites, are celebrated.
And even though they get a wide berth, the creepy centipedes under the water troughs get left alone because they are taking out the fly larvae before they have a chance to take to the air.
Thankfully, the list of native beneficial insects in the area is quite long, because so is the list of pests, and everybody knows, especially with fly season around the corner, we need all the help we can get.
Some of the lesser known soldiers in the war on pests are the big eyed, damsel, assassin, pirate and some of the stink bugs, some lacewings, beetles and even a few members of the wasp and fly families.
In other words, just because it buzzes, creeps or crawls doesn't necessarily mean it should be splatted under a shoe or send picnickers screaming. In fact, in most cases, it makes a little more sense to just step out of the way and let them do what they do best.
After all, karma notwithstanding, we are actually all on the same page — we humans want the blood suckers, stingers and annoying germ carriers kept to a minimum, if not eradicated all together, and they want to have them for lunch, and breakfast, and dinner and a couple of snacks in between.
So fly, buzz, jump, crawl, burrow, and for goodness sake, chow on...

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Our animal neighbors are quite diverse

As featured May 19, 2012, on

After years of living in close proximity or at the very least, sharing the same aquifer, you should probably ask yourself how well you really know your neighbors.
Perhaps you think you know them pretty well already, but indulge for a moment if you would, while we run through a few names just to be sure.
There's Dasypus novemcinctus, Cynomys ludovicianus, Geomys arenarius, Perognathus flavescens, Dipodomys ordii, Lynx rufus, of course, oh and let's not forget that contentious Taxidea taxus.
If those names aren't ringing a bell, maybe you know them by their aliases: The armadillos, black-tailed prairie dogs, desert pocket gophers, plains pocket mice, Ord's kangaroo rat, the bobcat family, and that cranky badger bunch.
Actually to an overwhelming degree, the neighbors are rodents, most specifically, mice, with a couple dozen different species of the little fuzzies sharing our chunk of dirt.
But there's also more than half a dozen kinds of bats, not to mention squirrels, skunks, porcupines and a host of other mammals tucked somewhere out in all that tall grass around us, with probably a 6:1 ratio of edible species for each of the carnivore types that knock around these parts, and that's not even counting the flying and slithering occupants.
Turns out cattle are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to our region and even though more often than not the visual from the road is a sea of black and white bovines, the animal kingdom in our neck of the woods is really quite a bit more diverse.
It's so diverse, in fact, you have to wonder where all the critters live when there doesn't appear to be anything to hide behind for miles in any given direction.
Yet hide they do, and well enough that most of us will never see a water mongoose, but the water mongoose is among us — even as water deprived as we are — and it's been counted and mapped.
Making the Census look like child's play, a bunch of web developers and scientists from leading universities and biodiversity groups put their heads together and created not just a world-wide critter Census, but an interactive map that puts the animal kingdom on record.
Taking Google map technology to an all new level, creators aggregated scientific data from all over the world and put it together, making it possible to explore critter populations anywhere on the planet, run searches, download reports and follow links to species information pages.
Just to put in perspective the magnitude of what the Map of Life has accomplished in the short time it's been up and running, the names of almost 72,000 species of amphibians, birds, mammals, reptiles and fish have added to the map, supported by literally millions of records that have been cataloged for users to view.
For example, who knew we had a significant bat population in common with Portugal, or that despite obviously drastic differences in geography, Sweden has badgers too.
And while most every continent seems to have more rodents than any other mammal, if you're looking to go where the mice don't, Siberia might just be the best bet, because — while they do have flying squirrels, chipmunks, lemmings and voles — the mice and rats don't appear to like the cold anymore than anyone else.
Interestingly enough, mapping all the critters across the globe doesn't just cast a spotlight on diversity, ironically, it also shows the similarities and somehow makes the neighborhood seem a little bit smaller.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sorry Bees

As I was writing this week's column on beneficial insects (Clovis News Journal:, I hesitated while making a "bad bug" list, knowing it was iffy territory because all insects have a vital role in the natural world, and therefor they are all beneficial on one level or another.
Even flies, which are undeniably gross and annoy us, provide the critical service of performing waste disposal by aiding in the decomposition of biological materials (go maggots!)
And bee's, who I also named to the "bad bug" list, not only give us honey, but are great stewards of their neighborhoods by pollinating plants and making our gardens healthy and beautiful.
Truthfully, even though some of their characteristics may land them on a "bad bug" list, an insect's impact on people and the environment needs to be weighed case-by-case. An angry bee hive = bad, a happy bumble bee carting pollen from one side of your garden to the other = good.
I was reminded of the distinctions when a reader who had seen the beneficial insect column this week sent me a link to a story about a recently discovered solitary bee in the Middle East, the Osmia avoseta (take a minute to read the story, complete with cool photos.)
The closest thing to true flower faeries our world will ever see, the hard-working mothers of this species cut pieces from colorful flower petals to create little petal-mache cocoon nurseries bound together with nectar as cradles for their young.
These sweet, bee-made flower tubes are beyond beautiful in their perfection and the mother bee puts them together with the utmost care and attention to detail.
I will admit, reading about the flower artistry, I cringed.
Bees are not all bad.
In fact, I like bees (from a distance) and have even sat and watched in fascination as lumbering bumble bees go from flower to flower in the garden.
On the flip side, having been the recipient of my share of stings and because a buzzing hive is high on the list of instinctually terrifying items, I have also congratulated preying mantids when I saw them with wasps clasped in their pincers.
But in recognition of their contributions, I will apologize to the flies, because I am sure as heck glad somebody does that job, and I will also apologize to the bees out there because I know they work hard and give us much sweet beauty, but at the same time I will say I can't completely regret the fact the hunters view them as delicacies, at least in the areas where I tend to spend time.
When it comes down to it, bugs are just one of nature's balancing acts and like it or not, wherever there's a little yang, you gotta have a little yin.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Children see the best part about being an animal

As featured May, 11, 2012, on

The wind giveth and it taketh away.
At any given time around here you’re likely to be on one end or the other of the wind equation – losing or receiving property.
Sometimes the gifts are large, for instance the wind might decide you need the neighbor’s blue plastic kiddie pool more than they did, or their patio umbrella or trampoline.
And then other times it's just papers and cups, bags and boxes.
In recent weeks one such wind delivery stood out from the others. Plastered to the fence like a flyer on a bulletin board, its defiance of gravity was quite the attention getter and it was just begging to be read.
Leaning closer, neatly penciled sentences greeted from the tattered backside of a school worksheet.
“I would like to be a tiger because they have a beautiful stripe. They are hunter(s). They are strong.
I would like to be a whale because they have a big body and swim.
I would like to be a aunt because they are very tiny. I would like to see their world.”
The simplicity of it struck immediately.
“If you could be any animal what would you choose?” It's a question that most of us have been asked at one time or another, but it's without a doubt a question best answered by a child.
For an adult mind, the question can easily becomes more a process of elimination than a creative exercise.
We grownups would automatically evaluate the downside of being a tiger – eating every meal ultra rare, being chased by angry villagers and watching our social circle shrink as we climb the top 10 list of endangered species.
And we know that being the size of a whale with no arms and legs – something we spend much of our mid-to-later years trying to fight – makes getting beached a real possibility. Not to mention having barnacles stuck to your skin has to itch and getting knocked around by ships and possibly harpooned is no way to live.
And of course some days we already feel like ants as we get in our cars and drive to work, but the reality of living a life of fealty in a dirt maze, just a cog in a machine that supports an over-fertile matriarch, is taking it a little too far. That and the thought of getting excited about broken pre-licked bits of candy, spilled milkshakes and partially eaten sandwiches is just plain unappealing.
In fact none of the lives animals live seem all that appealing. Wolves get tranquilized and relocated while they sleep, dogs get fleas, birds have to eat worms, hungry bears become targets, fish get stuck swimming in polluted water, horses have to carry people... the list goes on and on.
Children, on the other hand, are blessed by not seeing any of that. They see things not as they are, but how they should be – through the lens of ideals, not reality.
But perhaps with a little tweaking, the answer to the question can be as simple for adults.
How about any animal, as long as it's not grown up and still gets to see the world the way it should be.

Note to the teacher who gave this assignment: The student forgot to put their name on their paper, but they told the truth when they said it blew away. Please give them credit for their homework.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mothers in animal kingdom have different methods

As featured May 4, 2012, on

They build homes, hunt, stand guard during nap time, comfort, nurture and scold.
Sometimes they are the most gentle spirits, other times the most ferocious defenders and often a little of both.
Throughout the animal kingdom, mothers come in all shapes and sizes and approach their responsibility from a multitude of angles.
While humans will celebrate their mothers in a week, the majority of moms on the planet just do what they do with no thanks, even though all of them give of themselves to inspire life.
There are the long-haulers like the orangutan who spends the longest giving up to 10 years to their kiddos and then the turtles who “set it and forget it,” dropping their eggs and never looking back.
The differences in methods are sometimes a little shocking.
For example, the thought of peeking out at the world from behind two rows of sharp predatory teeth is anything but a comforting idea for most of us, but it's one of the best cradles in the world if the teeth belong to your alligator mom.
And while the sight of them sends some people screaming to their therapist, the most cozy place in the world to sleep is nestled in the back hair of your mother – if you're a wolf spider that is.
Or imagine having hugs times eight like only the original Octa-mom can do, and not without great cost to her. After using her appendages to tirelessly defend her young until they hatch, she is so tired, the mother octupus often dies because can't even defend herself anymore.
As if it weren't enough that they use their own bodies as portable cribs or blankets, these ladies feed, doctor, teach and play with their children, getting them ready for the day when they will have to go out into the big bad world.
In the meantime, they protect them, whether it's the cheetah that fights to the death, the skunk who ignores embarrassment and deploys the stink cloud or the bird that fakes a broken wing to draw a predator away from the nest.
And of course there's the human animal, who uses bathtubs and strollers and automatic rocking cradles and for whom a grueling foraging experience is probably a long line at the grocery or a cluttered pantry, but who, for all their conveniences, is unrivaled in the animal world when it comes to the length of time they parent and the complexity of the job.
Midnight bottles become peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bedtime stories turn into long discussions about life and somewhere in between there's all the laundry and sports events, skinned knees and first cars.
Sure, they don't have to fight off attacking bears, or run down an antelope for dinner, or lead their young 50 miles to find water, and don't pre-chew their youngin's food (with the exception of a recent revelation by Alicia Silverstone who vouches for the technique) but they do invest a lifetime.
So maybe next Sunday when you take Mom to lunch, in addition to thanking her for all the mac and cheese over the years, it's also a good time to thank her for not having a hairy back, or for correcting you with “the look” instead of sinking her teeth in, or for not getting stink all over you when she was trying to keep you safe.
What the heck, even on the off chance she did do those things, take the time to say thanks anyway.