Category: On nature


Finding Joy in a Bowl: A guest post by Jacki Skole

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s post and photos are courtesy of Dogland author Jacki Skole, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

Finding Joy in a Bowl

My ten-year-old stood in the school library cradling a green plastic bowl in her right hand. That morning I’d filled the bowl with cut-up strawberries, but despite being covered, I could tell that strawberries were not what filled it now.

“What’s in there?” I asked.

“A fish, a snail, and duckweed,” she answered, as we weaved through fifth and sixth graders rushing toward the buses that snaked around the school.

About a week or two had passed since I’d been in the kitchen slicing tomatoes, and Dhani had asked if she could bring home a fish or a snail. She was learning about ecosystems in science, and her class had created several of their own in plastic soda bottles. Now they were going to see what happens when you pollute an ecosystem, so her teacher sought caretakers for the class “pets.” When my older daughter had asked that same question two years earlier, I’d said no. This time, I passed the buck and told Dhani to ask her father when he came home from work.

I figured she’d forget.

I have a vague recollection of having a goldfish or two when I was young—I think I won them at local fairs—but I don’t recall them living very long. What I do remember is begging for a “real” pet, a dog. Finally, at thirteen, to cushion the blow of my parents’ divorce, Sammie, a high-spirited West Highland white terrier, moved into our house after my father moved out.

My daughters have never known life without a dog. They spent their early years growing up with Gryffin, a Retriever/Chow mix, who Kevin and I adopted before we married. When Gryffin passed, we adopted Galen, a quirky Lab/Aussie mix, who jumps on the girls’ beds each morning to wake them and who brings us all a joy I assumed could not possibly come from creatures whose living space is limited to a bowl.

“What do they eat?” I asked, slightly annoyed that before heading home I would have to squeeze in a stop at the pet store.

“They don’t need anything,” Dhani said, with a tinge of exasperation at my ignorance of ecosystems. “The fish eats the duckweed, and the snail eats the fish poop.” Once home, we poured Fred (the fish), Martin (the snail) and the duckweed into a glass vase that had previously held flowers my husband gave me for my birthday. Then I placed the vase on the corner of our kitchen island where, for a few hours each day, its new inhabitants would be bathed by the sun.

Over the next few days, Fred and especially Martin mesmerized us. We would peer into the vase to see what they were doing (and if they were still alive). Martin, who resembled a tiny black pebble, was in constant (slow) motion, trudging up and down the side of the vase, under and above the water line, sometimes ascending so high we wondered if he would climb out.

A little more than a week after Fred and Martin joined our family, I came home to find an empty vase sitting on the kitchen counter. Our cleaning lady, thinking the vase contained the detritus of my birthday bouquet, rather than a budding ecosystem, had dumped its contents down the sink.

Dhani took the news better than I expected. What upset her most was the possibility that Fred and Martin might have endured painful deaths. What surprised me most was that we actually felt their loss. It was by no means the same as when Gryffin passed, though that, too, came suddenly and unexpectedly. One day he was playing fetch, the next day a tumor we didn’t know he had burst, filling his belly with blood.
Gryffin’s absence echoed throughout the house; Fred’s and Martin’s echoed throughout the kitchen. It had become routine to walk into the kitchen and before doing anything else, to check on the duo, to marvel at these hearty little creatures, who survived life in a soda bottle, a plastic Tupperware-like bowl and now, a glass vase.

Two days later, our cleaning lady stopped by with gifts for Dhani: a vibrant blue betta fish, a snail with a lemon yellow shell, and a plastic “Pet Keeper” fish tank. I got the sense she saw the tank as a more appropriate aquatic home.

“What will you name them?” I asked Dhani.

“Fred Jr. and Martin Jr.” she answered.

I have to confess that Fred Jr. and Martin Jr. are even more fascinating to observe than their predecessors. For example, Martin Jr. traverses the tank as actively as Martin scaled the vase, but Martin Jr. is larger, and he comes out of his shell more often and more fully, so we can view his extraordinary little body from foot to tentacles. And because we feed Fred Jr. tiny food pellets, we watch him swim to the surface as soon as the pellets fall from our fingers. His tiny mouth surrounds one at a time, and he seems to chew it as tiny air bubbles float from his mouth.

I had been quick to dismiss the idea that a fish or a snail could bring value to our lives, but my ten-year-old daughter knew better. For Dhani, adopting a fish and a snail from school was no different than rescuing Gryffin or Galen from a shelter. To her, all were creatures who needed homes and who would, in their unique ways, bring us joy.

I like to think that as a parent, I am the wise one—and most of the time, I am—except when my children are wiser than me.

Fred, Martin

Images of wildlife and road ecology

By Midge Raymond,

As many of us know, living among wildlife can be as dangerous as it is wonderful, due to the fact that, at some point, animals need to cross our roads. Fortunately, people like Marcel Huijser are working toward making our roads safer for all of us, with a special eye for helping out the animals.

A quick glance at Huijser’s website might seem, at first, a bit distressing — you’ll see gorgeous images of live animals, as well as those who have been killed by cars — but you’ll also see photos of mitigation measures designed to reduce the number of wildlife-vehicle collisions…and this (along with the abundance of phenomenal wildlife images), make this site and blog well worth a visit.

Huijser is both a photographer and a road ecologist; he works toward finding safe passages for wildlife among the highways and bridges among which animals live (learn more in this profile published last year in High Country News). On Huijser’s website, you’ll find a fascinating collection of photos of road ecology at work —  wildlife overpasses, wildlife fencing and “jump-outs”  to allow animals to escape from fenced areas, high-tech animal detection systems that detect large animals on the road and provide alerts, and more.

Visit Marcel Huijser’s website to learn more — perhaps you’ll find an idea perfect for your own community. We’d certainly love to see some animal detection systems to help protect the beautiful deer in Ashland.

 

 

The Resplendent Quetzal: 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!

The Resplendent Quetzal

There are six kinds of quetzals in the cloud forests of Central America, and while they are all attractive birds, just one species is known as “resplendent.” Imagine being such a stunning specimen that you are classified in terms of your matchless beauty.

Definitions of resplendent include: “shining brilliantly,” “richly colorful,” “dazzling in appearance.” So why aren’t peacocks deemed resplendent, or butterflies, or poison dart frogs? What makes the quetzal so special?

This bird sports sumptuous colors, to be sure. Scarlet body, golden beak, emerald head and back, streaks of azure running down the tail feathers. The male has a wondrously long tail that floats behind him as he flies through the rain forest canopy. His head is crested and his eyes are large and glistening.

To see this legendary bird in flight must be transformative. You might think you imagined the vision, and you might be right: The quetzal is endangered, as are many exquisite things on this planet, our admiration for them causing more harm than good.

In Guatemala, the quetzal is the national symbol; even the currency is called the quetzal. The word is taken from the Aztec word ‘quetzalli,’ meaning precious or beautiful. Mayans worshipped the creature and used its tail feathers in their headdresses. While killing a quetzal was punishable by death, one could trap it, pluck its feathers and let it go. Over time the feathers grow back, but meanwhile, how does the damaged male charm a female? How does it soar through the jungle with only the memory of its glorious tail? The Mayans can be credited with many things—humanity is not one of them.

Quetzals mate for life. Solitary and quiet most of the year, they come together only in the springtime. Their nests are confined to dead or dying trees, where they use a hole made by a previous tenant or peck out one themselves. For eighteen days the parents take turns sitting on the two blue eggs, and though both care for the chicks afterward, the female departs early. In just three weeks, the young can fly. They eat a range of food, from insects to small frogs to certain fruits, particularly miniature avocadoes, which they swallow whole, spitting out the seeds.

Deforestation is limiting the quetzals’ nesting options; this and poaching are the biggest reasons for the decline of the species. Poaching is illegal, but the laws are ignored or unenforced. The birds are captured for their feathers or for display in private museums.

As these birds do not mate in captivity—most die after being caught—protecting their forests is the only means of saving them, and there are two areas in Guatemala where efforts are underway. We have put ourselves in a terrifying position, having created a world in which wild things must depend on us for their survival.

The resplendent quetzal cautions us with its name. There is no replacement, nothing quite so wonderful. Saving this bird is our only hope.

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  Category: On animals, On nature
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Gone: A guest post by author 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!

Gone

Today I came across a photo of a thylacine, commonly known as a Tasmanian Tiger, owing to the stripes on its back and rump. Native to Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea, and largest of the carnivorous marsupials, thylacines were considered a threat to farmers and were hunted to extinction. The last one, a lone female, died of neglect in the Hobart zoo in 1936. Unlike the Dodo, we have plenty of photographs and footage of Tasmanian Tigers, which makes their disappearance even more harrowing.

When a species slips into oblivion, I think there must be an earthly acknowledgment, a sort of hush or shudder that travels over the planet and outward into the universe. Each time I read of a creature we have lost, I am more frightened than sad. I do not want to be left alone on this planet, cannot imagine my life without the succor of animals. There is a terror in the loss of a species through human folly, a wrong for which there is no right. In allowing the attrition of wild things, we steal from ourselves. Confident that we can afford the consequences, we borrow funds we can’t pay back and ignore the growing list of damage.

How many more animals will we permit ourselves to squander and which do we imagine we can do without?

The thylacine was an impressive-looking creature. It resembled a large short-haired dog but was related to kangaroos and Tasmanian devils. Up to six feet in length, with a stiff two-foot tail, the animal could stand on its hind legs for brief periods. Tasmanian Tigers was not particularly fast or agile, but they were formidable hunters with no predators of their own. Nocturnal creatures, they traveled and hunted in groups and were believed to ambush their prey. The female birthed up to four pups at a time, which stayed in her pouch for three months. Thylacines had yellowish brown coats with dark stripes that faded somewhat with age.

Attempts have been made to clone a thylacine, but these experiments have not been successful, and scientists admit we’re a long way from resurrecting the dead. For now we must wait for another sort of miracle. There have been reports in recent years of thylacine sightings, one from a reputable game warden, and while these accounts are beguiling, so far there are no corroborating photos or video. Generous rewards have been posted and the search continues.

If given a second chance to behold a living thylacine, I hope we will save it from ourselves, that we will spare it our tests and our studies and our cages. I hope we will pause in admiration and quietly move on.

survivalskills

Writing for Cecil: A guest post by Mindy Mejia

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s post and photos are courtesy of Dragon Keeper author Mindy Mejia, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

Writing for Cecil

A few weeks ago a building near my office was overrun by police cars and media vans. I didn’t know what was going on until someone told me, complete with a meaningful look in one of the spare cubicles, “That’s where the dentist’s office is.”

I didn’t need to be told which dentist, because in the prior three days “dentist” had become the country’s newest dirty word. That’s all we knew about Walter Palmer. He was a dentist who enjoyed traveling the world and killing magnificent animals, that is, until he killed the wrong one.

As a vegetarian I’ve had mixed feelings about the Cecil backlash. Obviously it was a horrific, completely unjustifiable crime committed by a total asshat. Cecil’s death was senseless, cruel, and exacerbated by the likely slaughter of his twenty-four cubs as a new male takes over his pride. On the other hand, I live in the Midwest, where a bird flu epidemic has forced the extermination of forty-eight million chickens in the last several months. Let me say that again. Forty-eight million chickens. That’s the total human population of California, Oregon, and Washington combined, and other than a few brief clips of some poultry barns on the news, who even heard about these deaths, let alone cared? Personally, I can’t wrap my head around a scale that weighs the lives of twenty-five lions as greater than the lives of forty-eight million birds. As a writer, however, that scale—like everything else illogical about our species—fascinates me.

There are insights here for anyone writing about animals, but especially those who are working within an environmental theme. Cecil’s death showed us that people care. They are willing to become invested and even help spur social change if their sympathies are triggered. But what is the trigger? How can a writer tap into that amazing human-animal connection?

First, let me be clear that I’m no expert. I possess no degrees that end in -ology. I’m just a writer who has spent some time examining the relationship between people and the other species who live on this planet. In my opinion, the catalyst for the public reaction to Cecil’s death distills down to three main components: the Rarity factor, the Apex Predator factor, and the Charismatic Mega Vertebrate factor. Let’s break them down, one by one.

Rarity

Rare Suburban Hosta Cat

Rare Suburban Hosta Cat

Why is gold worth more than water? Why do we value a lion’s life more than a chicken’s? After all, most of us directly depend on chickens as part of our food chain while lions have comparatively little impact on our survival. So why care about some lion halfway across the world? The answer is partly psychological—we are drawn to the rare and exotic—but also partly legislative. Cecil’s life was protected within the borders of his refuge and that law was the only thing that made his killing a crime. In the U.S. the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973 and it mandated that the lives of threatened animals must be protected. Scarcity has become a kind of virtue; it makes certain animal’s lives more precious. To see this effect in reverse, look at the Obama administration’s decision to remove gray wolves in the Great Lakes region from the list. Almost immediately Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan created hunting seasons to “manage their wolf populations” and fifteen hundred wolves were killed as a result. Less scarcity? Less value.

Of course, it’s easy to highlight an animal’s rarity when writing about an endangered species, but what if you’re not? The principle can still work even if your character is a more common animal, as C.S. Malerich demonstrates in her short story “Meat.” In the story, the protagonist’s father decides to raise an animal for slaughter to provide ethically-minded food for his family. Malerich never reveals the animal’s species and it becomes a guessing game for the reader. Could the animal be a cow? Certain scenes seem to suggest it at first, but as the story progresses, the narrator gives the animal increasingly sophisticated behaviors and counterintuitive physical characteristics. Is it a monkey? An emu? The reader’s imagination races to the exotic, almost in defiance of the undeniably human-like character that is emerging.

“Meat” taps into the rarity factor by refusing to tell us if the animal is rare or not. We are unbalanced by not knowing the societal worth that has already been placed on this life and seek desperately to recover that label so we can apply the pre-determined value and move on. When we realize Meat’s species will not be revealed, the real question emerges: why do we value some animals more than others?

 

Apex Predator

Danger raises the stakes

Danger raises the stakes

 

Aside from his almost-endangered status, Cecil was also the king of the jungle and, let’s be honest, we love our kings. Humans are the ultimate predators on planet Earth, at least for the time being, and our imaginations gravitate toward other apex predators—animals that preside over the top of their food chains. Look at Shark Week. Grizzly Man. Tyrannosaurus Rex. Yes, a predator can be dead for sixty-six million years and we still happily break box office records to watch their re-creations strut and slaughter on the big screen.

Whenever I talk to readers about The Dragon Keeper, my novel about a Komodo dragon’s virgin birth, their questions usually always cycle around to the species’ rumored poisonous bite. Sure, dragons can spontaneously reproduce, but they can really kill you, right? As writers we want to explore the animal behind the diet, but don’t ignore your animal’s predatory instincts; they’ll do wonders to heighten suspense. In every scene I wrote with Jata, the book’s Komodo, I knew she had the power to wreak havoc. She could have bitten her zookeeper’s hand off during feeding scenes or ambushed her in the exhibit. I used real-life accounts of Komodo attacks from the headlines to add tension to the friendship that developed between the woman and the dragon, to remind the reader that, at any moment, their delicate relationship could shatter.

Even if you’re writing about a herbivore, you can utilize the predator principle for drawing reader interest and raising the stakes in a story. Every animal can become formidable in the right situation. Look at the deer who charged a jogger in Germany in 2011. Or the gaze of raccoons that attacked a Washington jogger in 2012. Or the repeated barred owl attacks on runners earlier this year in Oregon. Hmm. The secret to raising the stakes might be a track suit…

 

Charismatic Mega Vertebrate

Big personality = Big appeal

Big personality = Big appeal

Perhaps the biggest reason Cecil’s death caused such an outcry was because he was Cecil, not some random lion unacquainted with the human world. He had a name, a radio collar, and an unofficial fan club, and he’d attracted this human following because he was a charismatic mega vertebrate.

This is the term used by zoos to describe their poster exhibits. Lions, tigers, and bears, yes, but don’t forget gorillas, elephants, and dolphins. These species, through their larger-than-life personalities, human-like characteristics, or sheer vitality, are why visitors pay the price of admission. Simply put, they keep their zoo’s lights on. Knut the polar bear was responsible for a thirty percent increase in attendance the year he was born at the Berlin zoo. On the flip side, the Copenhagen zoo caused a worldwide controversy when they killed Marius the giraffe. The lesson? Charisma counts.

The good news here is that a writer can employ these characterization techniques to turn any vertebrate into a charismatic one. (Sorry, nonvertebrates. I’ll need to see a really compelling jellyfish or worm story before I can be convinced this strategy works for you.) An animal should be approached just like any other character in your book. Build their backstory, their mannerisms, their quirks, and then give their actions weight in the narrative. Make them integral to and capable of changing the world you’ve created. Don’t be afraid of anthropomorphizing. We naturally humanize animals in order to feel closer to them, so let your human characters forge those connections and your readers will follow suit. To learn characterization from masters on both ends of the spectrum, grab a copy of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Charlotte’s Web. These books are courses onto themselves.

Lastly, give your animal a great name, a name that endears and endures, that shines a spotlight on this individual character and lets them climb, trot, or swim into their rightful place in your readers’ hearts.* It won’t help Cecil—or those forty-eight million chickens—but the more readers your book reaches, the greater the odds that a future animal’s life could be safeguarded as something worth preserving.

*Note that Wilbur and Fern are already taken. For alternative popular names from the year 1912, try Albert, Mildred, or Frances.