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Archive for the ‘Pets and Other Fauna’ Category

Zoo Stories, Part 2

More about my trip to the zoo in Greenville, South Carolina…

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Billy Bob

Sometimes, you run across zoo enclosures that contain more than one species of animal. At the Greenville Zoo, for example, the alligator compound also is home to alligator snapping turtles. Apparently, the animals are simpatico.

Maybe that explains why, after I left the gators and turtles behind and arrived at the toucan enclosure, I didn’t question why a large black snake was inside the cage.

My first thought: hmmm, who knew snakes and toucans are compatible? You learn something every day.

My next thought: hey, wait a minute. The openings in that cage wire are huge. It might stop a python or a boa, but not the snake I’m looking at.

Whereupon, I concluded that the snake must have escaped from its enclosure and was wandering loose. Maybe the staff didn’t know it yet. Or, maybe a frantic search was underway.

The snake didn’t seem to be going anywhere, and the toucan was resting on a perch, ignoring both the snake and me, so I decided to find a zoo employee and report this perplexing turn of events.

The first employee I found was a clerk at the snack bar. “Excuse me,” I said through the order window, “There’s a snake, a large black snake, inside the toucan cage. Surely a snake doesn’t belong there.”

“No, he doesn’t,” the man said, reaching for his walkie talkie. “Sir, you may have saved the life of a toucan today.” I suspect he meant it facetiously.

“Margaret,” he said into the walkie talkie.

“Yes?”

“A guest spotted a snake in the toucan enclosure.”

“Okay. I got it.”

This was getting interesting. I thanked the clerk and hurried back to the toucan cage.

I arrived just as two female zoo employees were assessing things. “Rat snake,” said one. The other nodded.

“Uh… were you looking for him?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s a wild snake, not one of ours,” one of the women said. “They’re common around here.”

“It’s a black rat snake,” said the other woman. “They’re very beneficial. They hold down the population of mice, rats, and other pests. We’re grateful to have ’em.

“But they’re silent and sneaky, and they eat eggs, so we have to keep an eye on ’em.”

While one of the women went into the enclosure to bag the snake, the other explained that the zoo knows of about 15 or 20 wild rat snakes now in residence.

“We bag ’em, measure ’em, log the capture, and release ’em away from the exhibits,” she said.

“Hey,” yelled the woman inside the enclosure, “This is Billy Bob! I haven’t seen him in a while!”

“Some of ’em have names,” the first woman told me. “You get to know ’em after a while.”

“In fact,” she went on, “We’re thinking about micro-chippin’ ’em. That would allow us to track ’em.”

The woman inside the cage, still struggling to get Billy Bob into the bag, called out, “I vote that we micro-chip ’em! Then we can name ’em ALL!”

rat-snake

She finally got Billy Bob secured. The two employees departed, and I moved on to the petting zoo, where I watched a worker hose down the goats.

 

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Zoo Stories, Part 1

I’ve always been conflicted about zoos. Large or small, they’re interesting to visit, but the idea of confining those unfortunate animals for life so people can go look at them, that stinks.

Yes, it’s an opportunity to see the animals and learn about them, which is a good thing. But when you watch a wolf or a leopard pacing, pacing, pacing in the cage from stress and boredom, that isn’t right.

But I doubt if zoos are going anywhere, and I find myself visiting them anyway. I was in Greenville, South Carolina, recently and decided to check out the city zoo.

The Greenville Zoo being rather modest as zoos go, and the elephant, lion, and jaguar enclosures being closed for maintenance, I breezed through in about an hour.

That hour, however, had its memorable moments.

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The Spider Monkeys

According to its website, the Greenville Zoo has three spider monkeys: Selma, Jasmine, and Mojo. When I arrived at the primate area and looked at them through the wire, I didn’t know the names, of course.

No other visitors were nearby. One of the monkeys was sitting in a swing a foot or so inside the cage. We were at eye level. He (for some reason, I thought of the monkey as a he) contemplated me stoically.

His eyes are so human, I thought. So are his features. You can see the link between us and them so clearly.

I began to ponder the obvious questions. What is he thinking? Was he born in captivity? Does he resent being in captivity? Is he capable of resentment? What does he think of people? What does he think of me, standing here?

As I pondered, the monkey reached out, grabbed the wire of the cage with one hand, and, in a smooth motion, jumped across to the wire.

The safety railing kept me about four feet from the cage. He was still at eye level. We were as physically close as conditions permitted.

The monkey looked at me with great intensity, tilting his head repeatedly, his eyes focused on mine.

spider-monkey

The spider monkey, family Atelidae, genus Ateles, is the most intelligent of the New World Monkeys. Two of the seven species are critically endangered.

“Hey, little dude,” I said. The monkey reacted with a soft, high-pitched chirp.

“I guess if I had my way, you wouldn’t be in there,” I told him. The monkey continued verbalizing softly and studying me closely.

I glanced in both directions to be sure I was still alone. Wouldn’t want anyone to hear me conversing with a monkey. The nearest human was 50 feet away.

But I couldn’t think of anything else to say. We just looked at each other.

I considered getting out my camera, but I didn’t. Shooting through the wire never makes for a good photo. And somehow, a photo at that moment seemed — God help me — rude and intrusive.

After a time, the monkey finished checking me out. He dropped to the ground and moved a few feet to the left front corner of the cage.

Still chittering quietly, he extended an arm through the wire, straining to reach the branches of a privet-like shrub growing nearby. He couldn’t quite reach it.

I looked closer. The shrub was indented where the monkeys had broken off the tiny branches, one by one, until no more were in reach. The greenery, I assume, was tasty.

On some of the cages were signs stating that the animal required a special diet, so you shouldn’t feed them. No such sign was on the spider monkey cage.

I reached down, snapped off a small twig from my side of the shrub, and tossed it on the ground next to the cage. The monkey reached through the wire, snatched it up, and began munching.

Instantly, the other two monkeys appeared. I snapped off more twigs and tossed them on the ground. The first monkey deftly blocked the newcomers, grabbed the twigs, and rapidly scarfed them down.

I snapped off a few more twigs, but this time, I outsmarted the little scoundrel. I deftly distracted him so the others could get their share.

No monkey is gonna make a monkey out of me.

————

In my next post, the story of the rat snake in the toucan enclosure.

spider-monkeys

Colombian black-headed spider monkeys at the Greenville Zoo. Photo copyright Jeff Whitlock, wwwtheonlinezoo.com.

 

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I went to Chattanooga for a few days recently to see the sights. Actually, I skipped the more touristy sights — Rock City, Ruby Falls, the Incline Railway — in favor of the art museum, the riverfront parks, and the battlefields. Okay, so I’m a snob.

I also spent an afternoon at the Tennessee Aquarium, which is impressive, and a morning at the Chattanooga Zoo.

My zoo experience began quietly enough. I set out at a leisurely pace, taking photos of assorted critters that are conveniently on display and powerless to stop you.

Tamarin

Cotton-Top Tamarin.

Sloth

Three-Toed Sloth, conserving energy.

Jaguar

Jaguar. Has the most powerful bite of the big cats. Hunts by going for the head.

I watched the staff feed raw meat to the bobcats. I learned that the cougar is not considered one of the “big cats” because cougars do not roar, they purr.

When I reached the petting zoo, the morning livened up considerably.

Inside the enclosure were 12 or so pygmy goats, doing their usual thing: jumping, prancing, butting heads. Nearby, an employee was saddling up the dromedaries. The zoo offers camel rides these days.

At the time, no children were inside the enclosure with the goats, but a young couple soon arrived with a boy of about age six.

He was a small, frail, meek-looking kid. He had a nervous, deer-in-the-headlights demeanor. He is the kind of child who will get shoved around a lot before his school days are over.

“Eric, would you like to pet the goats?” the dad asked. Eric remained silent and shook his head emphatically no.

“This is a petting zoo, Eric,” said the mom. “The goats are very gentle. They like to be petted!”

Eric stood at arm’s length from the fence in silence, contemplating the goats, still slowly shaking his head no.

Dad leaned down, put his arm around Eric’s shoulder, and said, “Tell you what. We’ll go in together. It’ll be fun. You’ll have a great story to tell when school starts.”

Eric wanted none of it, but he was powerless to avoid what was coming.

For a brief moment, I considered flipping my camera to video mode in order to capture whatever was about to transpire. I decided not to, in deference to poor Eric.

Dad swung open the spring-loaded gate, and he and Eric entered the compound. The boy was rigid with apprehension.

The goats, of course, began to converge on the newcomers in case they had food. Dad had enough sense to stand between Eric and the herd, keeping the goats occupied until Eric had time to conclude that he wasn’t going to die.

And, indeed, the boy soon relaxed somewhat. Eventually, he reached out a hand and touched the back of one of the goats. When he withdrew his hand, he almost smiled.

Dad departed the compound, and Eric slowly got into the spirit of the place. Before long, he was waist high in goats, touching their horns, patting their flanks, even being jostled now and then. He hadn’t uttered a word, but he appeared comfortable.

Moments later, as the sea of goats parted slightly, Eric ran forward a few steps and stopped. I saw no reason for it except sheer enthusiasm.

When Eric ran, several of the goats also broke into a run, going in various directions. This startled Eric, who began to run again. Which prompted more goats to join in.

Then, as he ran, Eric began to scream. It was a high-pitched, safety-whistle scream. The ear-piercing scream of a banshee, or a toddler.

As pandemonium reigned inside the compound, Mom and Dad ran along the fence, yelling at Eric.

“Eric! Stop running! Stop!”

“Eric, don’t run! When you run, the goats run!”

Why they didn’t open the gate and go to the boy’s aid, I can’t say.

Seconds later, Eric found himself on the far side of a water trough with several goats in pursuit. When the goats came around the left side of the trough, Eric ran to the right. When the goats ran right, Eric ran left.

Having regained control of the situation, sort of, Eric also regained some of his composure. His panic subsided.

At that point, Dad came to his senses, burst into the compound, and ran toward the water trough. This caused most of the goats to start running again, but Eric held his strategic position behind the trough.

Dad collected Eric and escorted him toward the gate. On the way, one of the smaller goats ran past them, coming within a foot or two.

Eric let loose another piercing scream — this time, in anger — and delivered a fierce roundhouse punch that landed on the goat’s jaw.

The goat stumbled, recovered, and skittered back to the safety of the herd.

Goats

Why no zoo employees were present as the drama unfolded, I can’t say.

 

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Take only memories, leave only footprints.

— Chief Seattle

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It happened over 16 years ago, in April 2000, but the incident is still vivid in my mind.

When you visit the North Rim of Grand Canyon, the center of activity is Grand Canyon Lodge at Bright Angel Point. That’s your first stop to take in the views, check into your cabin or campsite, or gear up for hiking.

After that, most tourists drive out the Cape Royal Road, which is a 40-mile round trip along the rim past a succession of spectacular scenic overlooks. If you’re like me, and you stop constantly to gaze into the canyon, take photos, and wander through the trees, you can spend most of the day out there.

The North Rim is perched on the edge of the Kaibab Plateau, elevation 8,000 to 9,000 feet. The area is cool in summer and closed in winter. Plateau country is a glorious place, heavily forested with aspens, birch trees, and Ponderosa pines.

The North Rim also is relatively quiet. The South Rim is much more accessible and thus is choked with tourists; the North Rim simply is too remote for the masses.

During that 2000 trip, I encountered only about a dozen people along the Cape Royal Road. I was alone for most of the day, free to enjoy the silence and solitude.

I stopped at all the scenic overlooks, of course. They were as majestic and as awe-inspiring as you would expect.

But a number of times, I pulled over at random spots along the road and made my way through the forest to the rim. Sometimes, my effort ended with no view at all. At other times, the sight was breath-taking.

On one of those short side-hikes, as I bushwhacked toward the rim, I was astonished when a large eagle glided in and landed on a low branch no more than 15 yards ahead of me.

I froze. Time froze. We looked at each other.

What species of eagle it was, I don’t know. It was brown — didn’t have the white head of a bald eagle — and very large and impressive. Possibly a golden eagle.

It flexed its wings once or twice, as if about to take flight, but settled back and continued to contemplate the human intruder in its forest.

Surely, I thought, raising my camera wouldn’t spook the bird. But it did.

Before I could get a photo, the eagle launched itself into the air and flapped away. The bird was so large and powerful that its departure seemed to be in slow motion.

But at that moment, my attention wasn’t on the eagle winging into the distance; it was on the single feather floating slowly to the ground in the eagle’s wake.

Over the years, my habit has been to bring home a memento from every hike — a pebble, an acorn, a shell, a feather. I display them in two large glass containers in my living room. One container is from pre-retirement hikes, the other post-retirement.

Among the collection are hundreds of feathers, large and small, sturdy and delicate, white, black, brown, and striped.

Frankly, I know nothing about feathers. Except for a peacock feather in container #1, I have no idea which birds any of the feathers came from. The difference between a falcon feather and a hawk feather? Beats me. I simply find the things beautiful and interesting.

But in 2000, for the first time, I had actually seen a feather being shed. This time, I knew definitively it was the feather of an eagle.

I looked down at the feather, lying at the foot of the tree. It was perfect.

I stood there for a time, mentally replaying the scene of the eagle taking flight and the feather floating to the ground in a gentle zigzag pattern. The experience was thrilling and sublime.

But at the same time, I knew I had a problem. I couldn’t take the feather home and add it to my collection. I couldn’t even pick it up. The feather had to stay where the eagle left it.

That’s because the possession of eagle feathers has been illegal in the United States since 1940.

The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act (16 U.S.C. 668-668c) prohibits “pursuing, shooting, shooting at, poisoning, wounding, killing capturing, trapping, collecting, molesting, or disturbing” a bald or golden eagle.

Without a permit issued by the Secretary of the Interior, It is illegal to “possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, offer to purchase or barter, or transport a bald or golden eagle, alive or dead, or any part, nest or egg thereof.”

Technically, that means you can’t take — or even move — any part of a bald or golden eagle. Not even the feather lying on the ground in front of me.

The possible punishment for a violation: up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine.

As for getting a permit from the Secretary of the Interior, not a chance. Permits are only issued to researchers involved in scientific studies and to Native Americans for religious purposes.

My maternal great-grandmother had some Cherokee blood, but I don’t think that would count.

Now, the chances that Rocky Smith would be apprehended and prosecuted for violating the Eagle Protection Act are pretty slim. I could have picked up the eagle feather, as I have picked up all those other feathers over the years, and dropped it in the container in my living room. Not even the NSA would know.

And, honestly, an eagle feather or two may be in my collection already. I have no way of knowing. I try not to think about it.

But the facts of my North Rim encounter made this situation different. Even worse than being illegal, taking that feather would diminish a collection of mementos of which I’m very proud.

In the end, I walked away with only a memory.

But, oh, how I wanted that beautiful feather.

Eagle feather

 

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The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.

— Thomas Merton

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Some people are wise, and some are otherwise.

— Tobias Smollett

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Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

— C. S. Lewis

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Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.

— Benjamin Disraeli

Merton T

Merton

Disraeli B-2

Disraeli

 

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My beloved Paco, my best friend, the kindest and gentlest soul I’ve ever known, died Friday. I am reeling with grief. I have cried a hundred times.

Paco was 15, more or less. I don’t know for sure. He was a rescue dog, a stray found wandering along a county road, wearing a purple nylon collar with no identification.

He was a charmer, and I adopted him, and he had a long, eventful life. He was happy, healthy, comfortable, and content. Then, a few mornings ago, he was too weak to stand. The vet never determined why.

Death came to my precious boy in a calm, gentle way. For two days, he was kept on an IV. He was lucid, and he responded to me and others with his usual affection, although it was muted.

But he couldn’t get up. Several times a day, the staff carried him outside on a blanket. He ate only once.

Although he didn’t bounce back, he was never in pain or distress. When the time came to let him go, he passed away peacefully. I kissed his cheek and stroked his fur, and we were looking into each other’s eyes when the moment came.

For 13 years, Paco and I were a team. It was just the two of us, and I did my best to treat him well. I tried to make sure he lacked for nothing.

I probably raised my voice a few times, but I never struck him or punished him. I treated him with kindness and respect, because he deserved it; he never misbehaved or caused the slightest trouble. He was just a devoted friend. I was soothed and uplifted by his calm demeanor and quiet presence.

During the last year of his life, Paco slowed down considerably. For a long time, we were trail buddies, and we logged many miles hiking in the North Georgia mountains. But age and arthritis finally made the hills and the distances more than he could handle.

So, instead of driving north for a day of hiking, we settled for Sunday morning walks in town, around the elementary school or the high school. He could go off-leash there, wander at his own pace, and investigate all the wonderful smells.

It may be selfish of me to say, but suddenly, my life is abruptly changed. Paco isn’t there to greet me when I come home. The food and water bowls have been put away. The treat canisters are gone from the kitchen counter.

The familiar rituals — taking him outside for potty breaks, saving a few choice morsels for him on my dinner plate, making sure the toilet seat is up and the bowl is full, helping him onto the bed at night — all have ended.

Paco was a border collie, but an especially calm and quiet one. He rarely barked or vocalized. Perhaps to compensate, I talked to him quite a bit.

I had a long list of affectionate names for him. I called him “Sweetness.” That was the nickname of Walter Payton, the Chicago Bears running back of the 1970s.

I called him “my handsome friend” and “my bat-eared buddy” and “old flop-eared mutt” as often as “Paco.”

“You silly pooch,” I would say, or “What a knucklehead,” or “Look at that beautiful tail.” He answered with a head tilt.

Yes, I know — everyone’s dog is the best dog in the world. But Paco truly was a special creature, a special soul. Everyone who knew him acknowledged that.

It’s hard to say what made him so. Probably many factors. He was deeply intelligent. He had a quiet dignity, a noble character — almost an air of Zen, if “just a dog” could display such a thing. Whatever it was, it was impressive. It was admirable.

A long time ago, I ran across the adage that “most dogs are better people than most people.” Paco certainly was that. He was a better man than I am.

He was a calm, serene, delightful spirit. I loved, admired, and respected him more than I can express.

People have said Paco was lucky I found him. I suppose that’s true. But I was the lucky one. That silly pooch, he was a treasure. He enriched my life.

If there is a next realm, if there is a God, then God has the duty to take care of my wonderful Paco now.

There. I’ve said what I wanted to say about my dear, delightful friend. If you’ll excuse me, it’s Sunday morning, and I feel like walking for a while at the elementary school.

Knucklehead-1

Knucklehead-2

Knucklehead-3

Knucklehead-4

Knucklehead-5

Knucklehead-6

Knucklehead-7

Knucklehead-8

Knucklehead-9

Knucklehead-10

Knucklehead-11

 

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Here’s an oldie than bounced around the internet some years back. I remember printing it out years ago and sending it to my parents, who were devoted cat people. I found it recently in a box of my mom’s papers.

————

Instructions for Giving Your Cat a Pill

1. Pick up cat and cradle it in crook of left arm, as if holding a baby. Position right forefinger and thumb on either side of cat’s mouth and gently apply pressure to cheeks while holding pill in right hand. As cat opens mouth, pop pill into mouth. Allow cat to close mouth and swallow.

2. Retrieve pill from floor and cat from behind sofa. Cradle cat in left arm and repeat process.

3. Retrieve cat from bedroom and throw soggy pill away.

4. Take new pill from foil wrap. Cradle cat in left arm, holding rear paws tightly with left hand. Force jaws open and push pill to back of mouth with right forefinger. Hold mouth shut for a count of ten.

5. Retrieve pill from goldfish bowl and cat from top of wardrobe. Call out for spouse to assist you.

Cat in couch

6. Kneel on floor with cat wedged firmly between knees, gripping paws tightly. Ignore low growls emitted by cat. Get spouse to hold cat’s head firmly with one hand while forcing wooden ruler into cat’s mouth. Slide pill down ruler and rub cat’s throat vigorously.

7. Retrieve cat from curtain rail. Get another pill from foil wrap. Make a note to repair curtains and buy new ruler. Sweep shattered figurines and vases from hearth and set aside for gluing later.

8. Wrap cat in a large towel. Have spouse sit on the towel with cat’s head visible. Put pill in end of a drinking straw. Force cat’s mouth open with pencil. Blow into the drinking straw.

9. Check label to be sure pill you swallowed is not harmful to humans. Drink a beer to take taste away. Apply bandage to spouse’s forearm. Remove blood from carpet with cold water and soap.

Cat vs. pill

10. Retrieve cat from neighbor’s shed. Get another pill. Place cat in cupboard and close door on cat’s neck, leaving head showing. Force cat’s mouth open with dessert spoon. Flick pill down cat’s throat with a rubber band.

11. Fetch screwdriver from garage and put cupboard door back on hinges. Open bottle of any good whiskey. Drink a shot, then apply whiskey compress to cheek to disinfect. Check records for date of last tetanus shot. Throw away shredded t-shirt and put on a thick jacket. Drink another shot.

12. Call fire department to retrieve cat from tree in neighbor’s yard. Apologize to neighbor, who crashed into fence while swerving to avoid cat. Take last pill from foil wrap.

13. Tie cat’s front paws to rear paws with twine. Bind cat tightly to leg of dining room table. Retrieve heavy work gloves from shed. Push pill into cat’s mouth, followed by a piece of raw meat. Pour a pint of water into cat’s throat to wash it down.

14. Consume remainder of whiskey. Get spouse to drive you to emergency room for stitches in fingers and forearm and to remove pill fragments from eye.

15. Place order for new dining room table. Arrange for local chapter of SPCA to collect cat.

16. Call pet shop to see if they have any hamsters.

Instructions for Giving Your Dog a Pill

1. Wrap pill in cheese and toss on floor.

Cat angry

 

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