Category: On animals


Strange Company: A guest post by Jean Ryan

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s post is courtesy of Survival Skills author Jean Ryan, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

Strange Company

Recently I watched a program on strange animal partnerships. The first story featured an old blind horse and the goat that adopted him. Each morning the goat would lead the horse out to graze, skirting any obstacles, and all day they would stay close together. In the evening the horse would follow the goat back to the barn. This was the pattern for several years, until the horse died, and the goat, seemingly bereft, died soon after. There were other odd companions: a deer and a cat, a cheetah and an impala, and most famously, Tara the elephant and Bella the dog. And there were all sorts of unlikely mothers, animals willing to nurse just about anything. My favorite was a calico cat diligently raising a litter of skunks.

One scientist, Temple Grandin, posited that caretaking is an attribute specific to mammals, that our warm-bloodedness keeps us connected on profound levels. However, another story in this program focused on a goose smitten with a tortoise. Not only did this goose bring food to the tortoise, it attacked any other animal that came too close. There was also a story about a barn owl that cavorted with a black cat, and a crow that assumed the care of a kitten.

Maybe it’s not so odd that creatures raised together, even mortal enemies, will overcome their natural instincts and bond instead of fight. But what about animals that link in the wild? In the last segment of the program, a dog chanced upon an abandoned fawn, and they became immediate, playful friends. This alliance lasted for years, the dog waiting patiently for the deer’s inevitable return.

The central questions raised in this documentary were: Do animals feel compassion? Are they empathetic? The answer is fairly obvious, based on the evidence presented, but it invites a deeper question: what, from an animal’s point of view, does compassion feel like? Of course we can never know this, cannot enter the mind of a crow or cheetah, can never leave the frustrating confines of our own consciousness, which is why we must leave room for staggering possibilities.

From what I’ve seen, there is no limit to a dog’s ability to forgive; dogs are actually inclined to forgive: our oversights, our neglect, even our abuse. Dogs always want and expect the best from us. There is no love more unconditional than a dog’s love. Even cats, in their own haughty way, forgive us our humanness when they bunt our heads or settle on our laps. And the unions we enjoy with non-domestic animals are no less rewarding, and often more powerful, on account of their strangeness, as evidenced in that tender video many of us saw of an elephant seal cuddling with a young woman.

There is another video, a more recent one, of a spider monkey showing a person how to crush leaves. Certain plants have insecticidal properties, and monkeys in their canny, unfathomable way, will crush the leaves of these plants and rub them on their fur. In this video, the monkey seems to be trying to teach this method, placing leaves in a human’s hand and then pushing the fingers closed. The monkey seems quite adamant that the human needs to learn this. It’s one of the most touching videos I’ve ever seen because it shows how little we know of the animals we have come to depend on, for companionship, for service, even for help with psychological disorders.

There are three categories in fact, three ways we classify the animals we employ for our own needs: service animals, like seeing eye dogs and miniature horses; comfort animals, like those brought into hospitals and assisted-living facilities; and therapy animals, a group comprised of animals that help calm our demons. Any sort of creature can be considered a therapy animal. There is a parrot, for instance, that accompanies a schizophrenic man named Jim on his daily excursions. Jim adopted this bird after it had been dropped off, in bad shape, at a pet store. Jim nursed the bird back to health, and the bird apparently reciprocated. You see, whenever Jim experienced a psychotic episode coming on, he would pace his apartment, smacking his head with his hands. “Calm down,” he would tell himself. “Be good, Jim. You’re okay, Jim. You’re fine.” The parrot, hearing these words, began to utter them, and Jim found that the words, coming from another source, had a far more calming effect. The parrot also began to nurture Jim in other ways, sensing a psychotic break at the onset and tucking itself under Jim’s neck. We are warned against anthropomorphism, and I do think we are presumptuous in attributing human emotions to animals, in limiting them to the paltry depths of own feelings.

Compassion must be a far different thing in the animal kingdom, some primal, boundless urge we will never fathom.

I do know this: If I had the forgiveness of a dog, the intuition of a parrot and the kindness of a monkey, I would be one very special human.

Jean Ryan is the author of the short story collection Survival Skills and the essay collection Strange Company. Learn more about Survival Skills here, and visit Jean’s website to find other publications and posts. 

Happy World Penguin Day!

By Midge Raymond,

One thing I’m celebrating on World Penguin Day is having met my seventh species of penguin: the little penguin. Ever since meeting four species of penguins in Antarctica, I’ve become a little obsessed: Next I went to Argentina to volunteer with the University of Washington’s Penguin Sentinels, counting the Magellanic penguins of Punto Tombo. On more recent visit to the Galápagos Islands, I was able to see the elusive and endangered Galápagos penguin. And last year, one of the best things about visiting Australia as part of the My Last Continent tour was meeting my seventh species.

The little penguin is also called the “fairy penguin” in Australia, and in New Zealand it’s known as the “blue penguin” or “white-flippered penguin.”

All names fit this little bird, as it is no more than a foot tall, and its feathers are a lovely bluish-gray and white. These penguins appear in several places in Australia, one of them being Manly, where you can see signs like this on the sidewalks, alongside indicators for bikes and pedestrians:

little-penguin

The little penguins forage at sea all day and come ashore when darkness falls. One of the best places to see them is the (terribly touristy) Penguin Parade on Phillip Island, which is a two-hour journey from Melbourne and completely worth it, especially if you can ignore the other tourists (some of whom are respectful, far too many of whom are noisy, take photos (which aren’t allowed), and otherwise flaunt the rules of the park and disturb the birds).

Once it gets dark, no photos or videos are allowed, but on a daylight walk we glimpsed this little penguin, near the natural and man-made burrows created to provide nesting opportunities for them.

Years ago, the little penguins’ numbers here on Phillip Island decreased dramatically when a bridge was built and humans began inhabiting and vacationing on the island, bringing foxes, dogs, and other predators, including traffic; even now, many penguins are run over by cars. Foxes have now been eliminated, and while the birds’ numbers are still down in Australia, we can hope the conservation efforts pay off. One effort is the building of nests for them; below, you can just barely see a little penguin inside one of these man-made burrows.

The little penguins are adorable to watch. After the sun sets, they come in from the water in “rafts” — groups from five to ten penguins to dozens — because there is safety in numbers, and they shake off the water and waddle up the sand to the scrubby brush where they have their nests. Perhaps because they’re so small, they always look as though they’re walking in a huge hurry, as if being chased. (If you do visit Phillip Island, sit tight and wait until the crowds disperse and until the rangers tell you at least three times that it’s time to go. This is when it gets quiet and peaceful, and you can hear nothing but the sounds of the penguins scuttling to their nests and calling to their mates.)

Another place to see the little penguins is much closer to Melbourne is the breakwater at St. Kilda, where the penguins come to shore every night after sunset. Guides are there to enforce similar rules (no photography, no approaching the penguins), and it’s about a half-hour away from downtown Melbourne by bus or light rail.

To celebrate World Penguin Day, here are a few links where you can learn more and support conservation efforts for penguins around the world:

UW Penguin Sentinels

Oceanites

The Penguin Counters

Wishing you a very happy World Penguin Day!

Cat Editors: AMONG ANIMALS contributor Suzanne Kamata

By Midge Raymond,

Among Animals contributor Suzanne Kamata’s new book, The Mermaids of Lake Michigan, has just been released, and she also has a new cat editor, a Siamese named Mii.

My son found her by the riverbank, or rather she found him. She has been a delightful addition to our household. She often traipses across the keyboard while I am writing, adding characters as she goes. Not sure exactly what she’s trying to tell me, but I’m trying to figure it out!

Congratulations to Suzanne! Learn more about her work here and here, and click here to check out Among Animals.

Cat editors: ACP authors Mindy Mejia & Jean Ryan

By Midge Raymond,

After realizing how many authors seem to find inspiration (or, at least, avoid procrastination) thanks to the felines who keep them in the chair, I began a blog series called Cat Editors. The series began with my own cat editor, Theo, who is also General Manager of Ashland Creek Press and basically keeps us both in our chairs.

Several Ashland Creek Press authors have shared their cat editors’ stories with me, and I’m delighted to share two of them here, especially since we have brand-new reasons to celebrate these two authors: Mindy Mejia and Jean Ryan both have new books out in the world!

Mindy Mejia‘s novel, Everything You Want Me to Be, is a page-turning mystery that we guarantee you won’t be able to put down. If you’ve read The Dragon Keeper, you know what we mean — but don’t just take our word for it: Mindy’s new novel is also a People magazine Best New Books Pick, one of The Wall Street Journal’s Best New Mysteries, recipient of a starred Booklist review, and so much more! Visit Mindy’s website to learn more.

Author Mindy Mejia lives and writes with a cat named Dusty.

Mindy's cat

On working with Dusty, Mindy says:

Dusty’s main editorial talents lie in encouragement and prioritization. He usually lounges on the table or in my lap, purring his approval at whatever scene I’m working on, and if I start daydreaming he’ll jump directly on top of the computer or manuscript (see picture) as if to say, “Oh, you’ve got better things to do than write? I guess I’ll just make this my new bed.” It never fails to refocus my energy, which I’m sure is his intent.

 

 

Jean Ryan is the author of Survival Skills: Stories and a novel, Lost Sister. Those of you who are familiar with Jean’s gorgeous short stories will love her newest book, Strange Company, a collection of essays featuring the same exquisite prose and astute observations on nature and life. Strange Company is available from MadeMark Publishing in paperback and will be available as an audiobook on March 31. Visit Jean’s website to learn more.

Author Jean Ryan writes with Tango.

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Of working with Tango, Jean says:

Tango does not want me to get too comfortable with my writing. She urges me to stay on the edge, to persevere through difficulty, to remember that the deepest truths are found outside my comfort zone.

 

Thanks to Mindy and Jean for sharing their writing processes with us, and thanks to the cats for making it possible! We look forward to reading much more of Jean and Mindy’s work.

Announcing the winner of the 2016 Siskiyou Prize!

By Midge Raymond,

We are delighted to announce the winner of the 2016 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature: Katy Yocom, for her novel THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR.

Judge JoeAnn Hart writes, “THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR begins with a focused lens on the endangered Bengal tiger then expands its reach with every page to reveal the interconnectedness of the natural world and fragility of all life. Weaving together the worn threads of ecological balance, this ambitious and moving novel addresses scarcity, climate change, family dynamics, cultural conflict, human accountability, women’s economic autonomy, and most of all, love, in all its wondrous forms. This is a story not just about saving the tigers, but ourselves.”

Katy Yocom was born and raised in Atchison, Kansas. After graduating from the University of Kansas with a degree in journalism, she moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where she has lived ever since. Her fiction, poetry, essays, and journalism have appeared in Salon.com, The Louisville Review, decomP magazinE, StyleSubstanceSoul, and Louisville Magazine, among other publications.

In conducting research for her novel, THREE WAYS TO DISAPPEAR, she traveled to India, funded by a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. She has also been awarded grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Arts Council and has served as writer-in-residence at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Crosshatch Hill House, and Hopscotch House. Her short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and her poetry has been translated into Bulgarian. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University.

She lives with her husband in Louisville, Kentucky, where she helps direct Spalding’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Learn more about Katy on her website and via Facebook.

As the Siskiyou Prize winner, Katy will receive a four-week residency at PLAYA and a $1,000 cash prize.

It was a very competitive contest this year, and we would also like to congratulate the finalists and semifinalists:

 

FINALISTS

Small Small Redemption: Essays by Sangamithra Iyer

The Heart of the Sound: A memoir by Marybeth Holleman (published by Bison Books)

Song of the Ghost Dog: A YA novel by Sharon Piuser

SEMIFINALISTS

Karstland: A novel by Caroline Manring

Rumors of Wolves: A novel by C.K. Adams

The Harp-Maker of Exmoor: A novel by Hazel Prior

 

Thanks to everyone who submitted and to everyone who writes with the goal of making this world a better place. And please stay tuned for announcements for the next Siskiyou Prize!