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 She was building trust with him, trying to overcome the rough experiences that made him shy and withdrawn.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.