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...