Posts Tagged ‘Animals’

Take only memories, leave only footprints.

— Chief Seattle


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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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.













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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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A Christmas fable by Jane Tyson Clement (1917-2000).


He huddled in the cold outside the kitchen door. The black night was pierced with stars but he couldn’t see them. He could only feel the thin chill of the night wind, and loneliness, loneliness, and not knowing where to go, what to do, for he could hardly see.

He was so small his eyes were scarcely open. His soft gray coat was rumpled and he trembled. He had no mother, no brothers and sisters; the cat had got them all, finding the nest in a heap of rags behind a water jug, but he had squeezed into a crack in the wall and the cat had missed him. He still felt a terror, a desolation, a sort of numb blindness.

But that was long ago — or so it seemed to him — and he had been hiding, scuttling from place to place, so hungry he was weak with it, and the noises all about him, the comings and goings, made him tremble — camel bells, shouts, loud human voices, the bleating of goats, the barking of dogs, rude comments from the donkeys in the yard.

He had known nothing of all this. He had never been out of the nest, where his mother had cared for all her young with painstaking concern, cleaning them and cleaning them, teaching them to wash themselves, watching for every intruder, warning them of dangers, of the cat.

“And the owl at night,” she said, “if you stray from the wall. Stay, stay, stay by the walls; never, never, never in the open lest you be seen. And keep clean, keep clean, so you will give no scent.” And she had licked them and taught them to wash their whiskers with their paws and behind their ears and all over, even their little long tails. But that was long ago, was over, and he was lost and alone.

There were heavy steps inside, approaching the door, and in an instinctive frenzy he moved, scuttling along the wall and ducking into the nearest opening, the entrance to the cooling room, with a cistern and jugs of milk set in it to chill. A low pan of milk was left to sour on a bench just inside. He ran to the bench, up the leg, following his nose — and put his forepaws on the sill of the pan, and his silvery whiskers quivered, his tiny pink tongue licked, he stuck his pointed face in, he drank and drank.

Then a lantern flashed. In terror he leapt — into the pan — and crawled out all milk, to run wildly along the bench, down the other side, along the far wall, through a doorway, and he was, had he known it, in the stable.

There, it was suddenly quiet. He sat, a milky little mess, against the wall inside the door. His heart beat wildly, and he trembled all over. Still, there was a quietness, and a strange light, no glaring lantern, yet he could see.

The wide arch of the entrance was open to the stars, and they quivered in the sky. On the far side the oxen stood in their stalls, shaking their heads now and then, munching their suppers, and next to them the sleepy goats had folded their legs and lain down. Overhead the doves sat in a row on the rafters; he had trouble seeing them, his eyes were so stuck up with milk, but he could make out white forms in the dark and hear coos.

Doves — his mother had said — were not to be feared — and on another rafter perched the hens, muttering softly to each other now and then. They will come at you if you steal their corn — she had said.

At the back of the stable there was an empty stall freshly filled with hay, and a manger. He could see that. He wondered if there was feed in it. The animals ate from mangers. Maybe he could too. But he was all stiff from the drying milk. How could he possibly get himself clean!

Frantically he began to wash himself, little paws sweeping down over his head, feet wildly scratching to free the sticky tufts of fur, tongue and teeth working on the matted white of his belly, all to no avail, but he must — he must!

So he didn’t hear at first the humans coming in the door, and the slow step of a tired donkey. It was the sudden brightening that stopped his frantic efforts, and he froze in his alarm, huddling against the wall. It was a woman person and a man person, and another with a loud familiar voice, saying, “This is all I can offer.”

The man answered softly. Then the lantern was hung on a hook on a beam. The donkey was tethered with the goats, who made no comments for once. The woman sank onto a bed of straw in the empty stall, after the man spread out his cloak for her. He said in a low voice he was going to fetch water and some supper, and he went out into the night.

Now the quietness was filled with brightness — not the lantern, something else. And it didn’t glare, and one didn’t want to hide from it. It did not threaten, it did not taste of danger but of peace.

The light seemed to come in from the sky, as if an enormous star hung outside, but he could only see the dark sky and little stars winking. The doves cooed softly now and the hens ruffled their feathers and made musical conversation with one another, while the rooster stood up on his perch and kept his silence — this was no dawn light, he knew: this was star light, though most astonishing star light, and he would not be deceived.

Then the man came back, and the mouse huddled against the wall, exhausted by his efforts to clean himself, strangely at peace, and after a while he slept, his head tucked down and his tail curled around him, looking like a little sticky burr rather than a soft mouse, and smelling of goat’s milk…

When he awoke, he did not know where he was. It was as light as day and yet the light was not daylight. (It was heaven light, he used to tell his grandchildren and great grandchildren.) The animals were all awake. The doves peered down from their perch, the hens for once were silent and cocked their heads to see better.

The rooster stood guard right above the stall where the woman lay. The goats were all kneeling and so were the oxen. And there was a strange crying sound, sad yet sweet, afraid yet full of vigor.

It was a new Baby, a new Being in the world, it was the Baby, the longed-for Child, the Messenger from Heaven — and the creatures knew it even if the world did not.

A big moth fluttered in to settle on the woman’s shoulder. She stirred and gave the Child to the man. He folded Him tenderly against him, and then laid Him in the manger.

The owl floated in on silent wings and found a watching place above the oxen — no one flinched, no one rushed to hide, no one feared.

Then the archway was full of shepherds. Off came their hats and down on their knees they went. The lady smiled. The man beckoned, and they came to see the Child.

They laid bread and cheese, and a wooly fleece, beneath the manger. They left, quiet as they had come, but their running footsteps could be heard on the road.

After that villagers began to come, in twos and threes, shyly, quietly, in awe, bringing milk, and porridge, a soft blanket woven of fine wool, a circlet of little bells to jingle in the Baby’s hand, apples, an orange for the mother; all these lay at the foot of the manger.

When they had all gone a deep hush fell, the light winked down a little. Then the mouse looked round. Beside him sat the cat.

The cat was not looking at him. The cat was looking at the manger where the Baby lay. The mouse did not feel even a quiver of fear. He looked back at the manger. He looked again at the cat. He looked at the owl in the rafters. He thought, “I am not afraid.”

Finally the cat spoke: “Why were we chosen to witness this? Out of all our kind, why were we chosen — you from the race of mice, I from the feline? I am cursed with the lust and need to kill in order to live or else be subservient to man, and you to be hunted all your days. Yet here we witness the dawn of the new Paradise, would men only see it and believe it!”

The mouse crouched, speechless, beside the cat. He could not put in great words all that crowded his heart. Finally he said: “I would like to see the Baby. But I am all stuck up with goat’s milk. I am sure I smell most unseemly. And I cannot clean myself.”

The cat turned his head and looked at him. He sniffed the air. Then he spoke very softly and tenderly: “Would you grant me the privilege of cleaning you, oh Mouse? It would cleanse me of a little of my guilt. And while I don’t favor goat’s milk, I would gladly clean you up.”

The mouse crept around in front of the cat. He looked at him fearlessly, then he bowed his head meekly and submitted. With rasping yet gentle tongue the cat began to lick.

The little mouse toppled left and right under the licks. The cat laid a soft paw on the back of the mouse to steady him, and worked his way carefully all the way to the end of the little long tail. Then the mouse fluffed up his fur and the cat washed his own face and paws vigorously.

At last they were done. They sat side by side against the wall. Then together they moved, right across the floor, to the manger. The cat made one graceful leap to the foot, where he stood, staring in awe at the Child. The mouse scurried up the end and sat beside the cat, and they both looked and looked.

They were there when the Kings came, but they did not know it. They were there all night, till finally the cock, not to be fooled by anything, knew that the everyday dawn had come, and filled the stable with his crowing.

“That cock is a conceited fellow,” said the cat, as they climbed down together.

They went off to the same place by the wall and sat in silence for a long time.

“You look and smell much better,” said the cat.

“Thank you,” said the mouse.

“Where are you going to live?” asked the cat.

“I don’t know. I have hardly begun,” said the mouse.

“May I make a suggestion?” said the cat.

“Please,” said the mouse.

“That manger,” said the cat. “If you would set up your domicile in or near that manger, then never, never would the old lust seize me and the old power overcome me. Dear mouse, I bear guilt enough. In this place, by that manger, you will be safe, that I promise.”

“I will do that gladly,” said the mouse.

Then he was quiet for a moment. Finally he said, “I am a small mouse, and very young. But what we have seen, we have seen. Does it not speak of a Day to come, when the Dawn breaks, and a new Time is born, and we need not fear? Is there not Eden waiting for us?”

“Yes,” said the cat. “Of that, I am sure.”

They sat in silence for a while. Then the cat rose, stretched, and quietly went away.

The mouse pattered across the earthen floor to the foot of the manger. There he carefully dragged together bits of hay and straw, making a little round nest quite neatly disguised. He crawled in and turned round and round.

The lady reached over and laid some crumbs from the new loaf, and a bit of cheese, in front of his door. He lifted his head to thank her, then laid it down again.

The manger mouse was asleep.

Manger Mouse


Merry Christmas.

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Pogo Possum

When I was in my early teens — back when I was not only smarter and more perceptive than everyone else, but also had better taste — I had three passions: science fiction, Mad Magazine, and the comic strip Pogo.

I loved all three, but honestly, Pogo and his goofball animal friends were closest to my heart — in large part because my mom loved Pogo, too.

(Mom’s taste and mine did coincide on occasion. There was Pogo. There was comedian Jonathan Winters. The comedy team of Bob and Ray. Johnny Cash. The Sopranos. It was a bonding thing.)

Pogo ran from 1948 until 1975, a time when comics were still a big deal in the daily newspapers. Today, most people know about Pogo only vaguely. They may be aware that he was a possum, and he and his animal friends did humorous things.

If that’s all you know, that’s a shame. Pogo was a treasure — clever, intelligent, and downright uplifting. Reading Pogo every day was like visiting some delightful place and hanging out with your favorite pals.

Pogo was the creation of illustrator Walt Kelly, who got his start in the business with Disney Studios. The strip was set in the Okefenokee Swamp in South Georgia, which Kelly, a Connecticut Yankee, had never seen.

The strip was populated by a menagerie of swamp creatures whose adventures were a glorious mix of humor, satire, allegory, puns, whimsy, and silliness.

Somehow, Kelly took the opossum, an ugly, sneaky, generally unpleasant scavenger, and turned it into the cute and friendly Pogo Possum.


Pogo could be read and enjoyed by both children and adults. On the surface, the stories were simple and entertaining enough for kids to appreciate. On another level, Kelly deftly made points to the adults about society, politics, and human nature.

I always thought one of Pogo’s special charms was the gentle nature of the characters. Eventually, even the laziest and most rascally of them was revealed as good-hearted.


In fact, Kelly never introduced a character so malevolent that the readers were turned off. Even his villains, usually parodies of politicians of the time, were deftly defused with a touch of confusion, stupidity, or incompetence.

The Pogo comic strip ran in black and white on weekdays and in color on Sundays. Virtually all the strips were later republished in book form. Simon & Shuster alone published 45 trade paperback Pogo books between 1951 and 1989. A dozen are now displayed proudly on the shelves of my li-bry.

Pogo’s world in the swamp was surprisingly complex and filled with major and minor characters. Coming up with a representative sample of three decades worth of Pogo strips is a tall order.

But I’ll give it a shot.













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In October 1987, a thoroughly delightful article appeared in Outside Magazine. It was “King of the Ferret Leggers” by Donald Katz.

Except to praise the article, and to mention that I clipped it from the magazine and still keep it among my cherished souvenirs, I won’t preface it further. Better that you read it unforewarned, as I did.

Katz is a talented author and journalist who went on to found Audible.com, the largest U.S. retailer of audio books. A narrated version of the article is available from Audible.

Here, for your edification and amusement, is that memorable story…


Mr. Reg Mellor, the “king of ferret legging,” paced across his tiny Yorkshire miner’s cottage as he explained the rules of the English sport that he has come to dominate rather late in life.

“Ay lad,” said the 72-year-old champion, “no jockstraps allowed. No underpants — nothin’ whatever. And it’s no good with tight trousers, mind ye. Little bah-stards have to be able to move around inside there from ankle to ankle.”

Some 11 years ago I first heard of the strange pastime called ferret legging, and for a decade since then I have sought a publication possessed of sufficient intelligence and vision to allow me to travel to northern England in search of the fabled players of the game.

Basically, the contest involves the tying of a competitor’s trousers at the ankles and the subsequent insertion into those trousers of a couple of peculiarly vicious fur-coated, footlong carnivores called ferrets. The brave contestant’s belt is then pulled tight, and he proceeds to stand there in front of the judges as long as he can, while animals with claws like hypodermic needles and teeth like number 16 carpet tacks try their damnedest to get out.

From a dark and obscure past, the sport has made an astonishing comeback in the past 15 years. When I first heard about ferret legging, the world record stood at 40 painful seconds of “keepin’ ’em down,” as they say in ferret-legging circles. A few years later the dreaded one-minute mark was finally surpassed.

The current record — implausible as it may seem — now stands at an awesome five hours and 26 minutes, a mark reached last year by the gaudily tattooed 72-year-old little Yorkshireman with the waxed military mustache who now stood two feet away from me in the middle of the room, apparently undoing his trousers.

“The ferrets must have a full mouth o’ teeth,” Reg Mellor said as he fiddled with his belt. “No filing of the teeth; no clipping. No dope for you or the ferrets. You must be sober, and the ferrets must be hungry — though any ferret’ll eat yer eyes out even if he isn’t hungry.”

Reg Mellor lives several hours north of London atop the thick central seam of British coal that once fueled the most powerful surge into modernity in the world’s history. He lives in the city of Barnsley, home to a quarter-million downtrodden souls and the brunt of many derisive jokes in Great Britain.

Barnsley was the subject of much national mirth recently when “the most grievously mocked town in Yorkshire” — a place people drive miles out of their way to circumvent — opened a tourist information center. Everyone thought that was a good one.

When I stopped at the tourist office and asked the astonished woman for a map, she said, “Ooooh, a mup eees it, luv? No mups ’ere. Noooo.” She did, however, know the way to Reg Mellor’s house. Reg is, after all, Barnsley’s only reigning king.

Finally, then, after 11 long years, I sat in front of a real ferret legger, a man among men. He stood now next to a glowing fire of Yorkshire coal as I tried to interpret the primitive record of his life, which is etched in tattoos up and down his thick arms. Reg finally finished explaining the technicalities of this burgeoning sport.

“So then, lad. Any more questions ’fore I poot a few down for ye?”

“Yes, Reg.”

“Ay, whoot then?”

“Well, Reg,” I said. “I think people in America will want to know. Well… since you don’t wear any protection… and, well, I’ve heard a ferret can bite your thumb off. Do they ever — you know?”

Reg’s stiff mustache arched toward the ceiling above a sly grin. “You really want to know what they get up to down there, eh?” Reg said, looking for all the world like some working man’s Long John Silver. “Well, take a good look.”

Then Reg Mellor let his trousers fall around his ankles.

A short digression: A word is in order concerning ferrets, weasel-like animals well known to Europeans but, because of the near extinction of the black-footed variety in the American West, not widely known in the United States.

Alternatively referred to by professional ferret handlers as “a shark of the land,” “a piranha with feet,” “fur-coated evil,” and “the only four-legged creature in existence that kills just for kicks,” the common domesticated ferret — mustela putorius — has the spinal flexibility of a snake and the jaw musculature of a pit bull. Rabbits, rats and even frogs run screaming from hiding places when confronted with a ferret.

Ferreters — those who hunt with ferrets, as opposed to putting them in their pants — sit around and tell tales of rabbits running toward hunters to surrender after gazing into the torch-red eyes of an oncoming ferret.

Before they were outlawed in New York state in the early part of the century, ferrets were used to exterminate rats. A ferret with a string on its leg, it was said, could knock off more than a hundred streetwise New York City rats twice its size in an evening.

In England the amazing rise of ferret legging pales before the new popularity of keeping ferrets as pets, a trend replete with numerous tragic consequences. A baby was killed and eaten in 1978, and several children have been mauled by ferrets every year since then.

Loyal to nothing that lives, the ferret has only one characteristic that might be deemed positive — a tenacious, single-minded belief in finishing whatever it starts. That usually entails biting off whatever it bites. The rules of ferret legging do allow the leggers to try to knock the ferret off a spot it’s biting (from outside the trousers only), but that is no small matter, as ferrets never let go.

No less a source than the Encyclopaedia Britannica suggests that you can get a ferret to let go by pressing a certain spot over its eye, but Reg Mellor and the other ferret specialists I talked to all say that is absurd. Reg favors a large screwdriver to get a ferret off his finger. Another ferret legger told me that a ferret that had almost dislodged his left thumb let go only after the ferret and the man’s thumb were held under scalding tap water — for 10 minutes.

Graham Wellstead, the head of the British Ferret and Ferreting Society, says that little is known of the diseases carried by the ferret because veterinarians are afraid to touch them.

Reg Mellor, a man who has been more intimate with ferrets than many men have been with their wives, calls ferrets “cannibals, things that live only to kill, that’ll eat your eyes out to get at your brain” at their worst, and “untrustworthy” at their very best.

Reg says he observed with wonder the growing popularity of ferret legging throughout the ’70s. He had been hunting with ferrets in the verdant moors and dales outside of Barnsley for much of a century. Because a cold and wet ferret exterminates with a little less enthusiasm than a dry one, Reg used to keep his ferrets in his pants for hours when he hunted in the rain — and it always rained where he hunted.

“The world record was 60 seconds. Sixty seconds! I can stick a ferret up me ass longer than that.”

So at 69, Reg Mellor found his game. As he stood in front of me now, naked from the waist down, Reg looked every bit a champion.

“So look close,” he said again. I did look, at an incredible tattoo of a zaftig woman on Reg’s thigh. His legs appeared crosshatched with scars. But I refused to “look close,” saying something about not being paid enough for that.

“Come on, Reg,” I said. “Do they bite your — you know?”

“Do they!” he thundered with irritation as he pulled up his pants. “Why, I had ’em hangin’ off me –”

Reg stopped short because a woman who was with me, a London television reporter, had entered the cottage. I suddenly feared that I would never know from what the raging ferrets dangle. Reg offered my friend a chair with the considerable gallantry of a man who had served in the queen’s army for more than 20 years. Then he said to her, “Are ye cheeky, luv?”

My friend looked confused.

“Say yes,” I hissed.


“Why,” Reg roared again, “I had ’em hangin’ from me tool for hours an’ hours an’ hours! Two at a time — one on each side. I been swelled up big as that!” Reg pointed to a 5-pound can of instant coffee.

I then made the mistake of asking Reg Mellor if his age allowed him the impunity to be the most daring ferret legger in the world.

“And what do ye mean by that?” he said.

“Well, I just thought since you probably aren’t going to have any more children…”

“Are you sayin’ I ain’t pokin’ ’em no more?” Reg growled with menace. “Is that your meaning? ’Cause I am pokin’ ’em for sure.”

A small red hut sits in an overgrown yard outside Reg Mellor’s door.

“Come outa there, ye bah-stards,” Reg yelled as he flailed around the inside of the hut looking for some ferrets that had just arrived a few hours earlier. He emerged with two dirty white animals, which he held quite firmly by their necks. They both had fearsome unblinking eyes as hard and red as rubies.

Reg thrust one of them at me, and I suddenly thought that he intended the ferret to avenge my faux pas concerning his virility; so I began to run for a fence behind which my television friend was already standing because she refused to watch.

Reg finally got me to take one of the ferrets by its steel cable of a neck while he tied his pants at the ankle and prepared to “put ’em down.”

A young man named Malcolm, with a punk haircut, came into the yard on a motorbike. “You puttin’ ’em down again, Reg?” Malcolm asked.

Reg took the ferret from my bloodless hand and stuck the beast’s head deep into his mouth.

“Oh yuk, Reg,” said Malcolm.

Reg pulled the now quite embittered-looking ferret out of his mouth and stuffed it and another ferret into his pants. He cinched his belt tight, clenched his fists at his sides and gazed up into the gray Yorkshire firmament in what I guessed could only be a gesture of prayer.

Claws and teeth now protruded all over Reg’s hyperactive trousers. The two bulges circled round and round one leg, getting higher and higher, and finally… they went up and over to the other leg.

“Thank God,” I said.

“Yuk, Reg,” said Malcolm.

“The claws,” I managed, “aren’t they sharp, Reg?”

“Ay,” said Reg laconically. “Ay.”

Reg Mellor gives all the money he makes from ferret legging to the local children’s home. As with all great champions, he has also tried to bring more visibility to the sport that has made him famous. One Mellor innovation is the introduction of white trousers at major competitions (”shows the blood better”).

Mellor is a proud man. Last year he retired from professional ferret legging in disgust after attempting to break a magic six-hour mark — the four-minute-mile of ferret legging. After five hours of having them down, Mellor found that almost all of the 2,500 spectators had gone home. Then workmen came and began to dismantle the stage, despite his protestations that he was on his way to a new record.

“I’m not packing it in because I am too old or because I can’t take the bites anymore,” Reg told reporters after the event, “I am just too disillusioned.”

One of the ferrets in Reg’s pants finally poked its nose into daylight before any major damage was done, and Reg pulled the other ferret out. We all went across the road to the local pub, where everyone but Reg had a drink to calm the nerves. Reg doesn’t drink. Bad for his health, he says.

Reg said he had been coaxed out of retirement recently, and he intends to break six — “maybe even eight” — hours within the year.

Some very big Yorkshiremen stood around us in the pub. Some of them claimed they had bitten the heads off sparrows, shrews and even rats, but none of them would compete with Reg Mellor.

One can only wonder what suffering might have been avoided if the Argentine junta had been informed that sportsmen in England put down their pants animals that are known only for their astonishingly powerful bites and their penchant for insinuating themselves into small dark holes. Perhaps the generals would have reconsidered their actions on the Falklands.

But Reg Mellor refuses to acknowledge that his talent is made of the stuff of heroes, of a mixture of indomitable pride, courage, concentration and artless grace.

“Naw noon o’ that,” said the king. “You just got be able ta have your tool bitten and not care.”


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When I started this blog back in 2009, one my first stories was a thing I had written a few years earlier about my daily commute to work in the exurbs north of Atlanta.

From 1979 until 1996, my usual route to and from work was along Rosebud Road, a quiet, picturesque route through southern Gwinnett County. In those days, the road was lined with pastures, farms, and rural homes. Today, it is lined, end to end, with residential subdivisions.

I was thinking about my commuting years recently, and two memories surfaced.

One is about an impressively large bull who ruled a pasture along the way.

The other concerns a sprawling pig farm that — well, I don’t want to give away the ending.


The Bull

He was an imposing sight, that bull. I don’t know much about bovines and bovine behavior, but this fellow was the boss of his world, and he knew it.

You could tell by his bearing. By the way the herd deferred to him. By the way he stoically watched the passing cars. He always seemed to be standing near the fence, with the rest of the herd safely behind him in the pasture.

For years, I drove past the bull and his charges twice a day, five days a week. The big fella was a formidable, strapping specimen, always on duty, vigorous to the end.

And the end did come.

One evening, instead of being at his usual post, looming regally over his domain, the bull was sitting in the grass, rump on the ground, forelegs straight.

I had seen him many times lying down, Sphinx-like, but never seated, like a dog. It was weird and unsettling.

The herd, usually scattered haphazardly around the pasture, had assembled to graze close to him.

When I drove by the next morning, the bull was dead. He lay stretched out in the grass on his side, unmoving. The cows and calves remained nearby.

That evening when I passed again, his massive body was gone. In its place was a mound of fresh red clay two feet high and 10 feet in diameter.

Around it were the tracks of the bulldozer or Bobcat or backhoe that had dug his grave.

For a few days, the herd continued to congregate near the mound. But only for a few days.

Soon, the mound settled, and the grass spread and covered the red clay, and no evidence remained of any of this.


The Pig Farm

Half a mile away down Rosebud Road, next to a large farmhouse, was a pig farm.

My uneducated eye was inclined to see it as a large operation, but it really wasn’t. It was just a modest family farm. The Rosebud pigs surely led better lives than the poor creatures in some wretched factory farm.

Not that I object to pork chops or bacon, mind you. That’s just the way it is.

Never having seen a real pig farm, I was fascinated. It consisted of the main house, assorted outbuildings, and four or five fenced compounds that stretched about 100 yards along Rosebud Road. Each compound housed a mass of squirming, squealing swine.

I have vivid memories of the place. There were the pigs, of course — their antic movements, their verbalizing, the aromas that sometimes wafted through my car.

I also remember the handful of men who worked the farm. They were always busy, tending to the animals, performing mysterious tasks. From my observations, pig farming is an arduous profession.

And I remember the amazing soil inside the compounds. Every inch of ground had been pounded to oblivion by generations of cloven hooves.

The soil was a deep, dark brown, almost black. It was, I assume, a blend of dirt, pig droppings, straw, feed pellets, and other exotic elements. Even on sunny days, it was a soupy mush. I doubt if it ever dried out.

For years, the pig farm was a familiar sight on my commute. If I had the skills, which I don’t, I could render from memory a highly accurate drawing of the place.

And, sadly, the pig farm exists today only in my memory.

One day, probably because the land was so valuable and so sought after by developers, the pig farm ceased operation. The farmhouse was shuttered, the livestock trucked away, and the compounds torn down.

Before long, on the site of the once-bustling enterprise, construction began on a high-priced residential subdivision. Within months, dozens of fine new homes were being built on the land where the compounds had stood.

After the subdivision was completed, the new residents settled in, no doubt focused on the future, ready to make their own history.

As the years passed, I often wondered if those residents knew about the existence of the pig farm.

Were they aware that the builders, in preparing the homesites, had plowed into the ground all that rich, fertile soil inside the compounds, a veritable primordial soup created by untold generations of porkers?

Did their lawns seem surprisingly vigorous and greener and more robust than lawns elsewhere?

I often wondered if, late at night, unbeknownst to the residents, methane belched softly from the ground and into the atmosphere.

I wonder if it belches still.


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The Questions…

1. The Statue of Liberty, created by French sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi, was dedicated in 1886 as a gift to America from the people of France. That, however, was Bartholdi’s Plan B. He originally wanted to build the statue in Egypt. How did it end up in New York Harbor?

2. Which cartoon character was the first to appear on a U.S. postage stamp?

3. The first student protest at a college in the soon-to-be United States occurred in 1766. What was it about?

4. During World War I, because of their acute sense of hearing, birds were kept at the top of the Eiffel Tower to warn of approaching enemy planes. The birds were able to detect aircraft long before military lookouts could see or hear anything. What kind of birds were used?

5. Speaking of birds, when Edgar Allan Poe initially sat down to write “The Raven,” what bird did he envision tapping at the chamber door and uttering “Nevermore”?

The Answers…

1. In the 1860s, Bartholdi proposed building a giant lighthouse at the entrance of the Suez Canal in the form of the goddess Isis, holding a torch aloft. Egypt said no.

2. Bugs Bunny, 1997.

3. The protest occurred at Harvard University when sour butter was served in the dining hall. Known as the “Great Butter Rebellion,” the protest lasted a month and resulted in the suspension of half the Harvard student body.

4. Parrots.

5. A parrot. Fortunately, Poe came to his senses. He later admitted that the raven was “infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone” of the poem.

Statue of Liberty



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This Just In

JIUJIANG, CHINA — A Chinese man, hospitalized with back and chest pains, was found to have an old acupuncture needle lodged in his body.

Xu Long, 60, had complained of pain, but doctors told him it was “just old age.” When he persisted, they ordered an X-ray and discovered a one-inch-long needle in his intestines.

Xu said he hasn’t had acupuncture treatments since 1974.

Doctors removed the needle, which was black and thick with oxidation after moving around inside Xu’s body for decades. Xu is now pain-free.

Acupuncture needle

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA — Police are looking for a man who robbed a grocery store last month using a banana.

Officers said the suspect approached the store checkout with his right hand in the pocket of his hoody. He told the clerk he had a handgun and demanded money and cigarettes.

After taking an undetermined amount of cash, he fled on a bicycle.

Surveillance video of the incident showed the man picking up a banana from a produce display and placing it in his pocket seconds before the robbery.


PORT HEDLAND, AUSTRALIA — According to visitors at a riverside campground, campers chased off a feral pig who was ransacking the trash bins. That night, the pig returned and stole three six-packs of beer from one of the campsites.

Later, several campers saw the pig biting open and drinking the 18 cans of beer. Subsequently, other visitors reported the pig being chased around their vehicle by a cow.

After the campground host found the pig asleep under a tree, the animal was tied up, driven several miles from the campground, and left in the forest to sleep it off.

Feral pig


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More letters from Mom about life on the home front in the 1960s…


Friday night May 17, 1966

Dear Rock,

It was good to hear your voice the other night. When I answered the phone I never dreamed it would be you. When it rang, I grumbled my way over to answer it, wondering why Danny did not do so. He usually gets to it first. Anyway, thank you for calling. I hope we did not run up your bill too much.

Oh, how about this fancy writing paper? One of my Sunday School kids gave me a box of it for Xmas.

At the present time, I’m knocking my head against a stone wall trying to talk them into a little tolerance. I’ve forbidden them to use the word nig— in the classroom. I finally got one of the little girls who said she doesn’t like colored people to admit that she actually doesn’t know any.

The conversation got started Sunday morning because five negro girls have registered to attend the high school next year, but none for Suwanee Elementary. Melanie Owens said she was glad, because she didn’t like them.

Lee Ann Early said the most sensible thing, which gave me some hope. She came out with, “I don’t know whether I like them or not. I don’t know any except Big John at the 1-Stop, and I like him.”

It gives me the creeps to see these kids being brainwashed by their parents. I know I have no right to fiddle with their beliefs, but as long as they are in my Sunday School class, I don’t have to listen to it, and I can at least try to get them thinking in a Christian way.

I know I’ve got about as much chance of changing their little minds as a snowball in Hades. We’ll probably find a cross burning in our front yard some night. Oh well.

We are all okay. Danny is 12 feet tall. His voice is changing, and he hates it. Betty is growing up fast. She reads and writes as well as any of us. Smitty gives too much of himself to that bank, but what can you do. Lee comes home from Athens every weekend. He looks good. I am still not smoking, and that is a miracle in itself.

Much love,


Mom with the girls in her Sunday School class in 1968. Mom was still teaching.

Mom with the girls in her Sunday School class in 1968. She was still teaching.


Sept. 21, 1966

Dear Rocky,

I will not have time to finish this. It is 15 to one, and I have an appointment to interview the Brown sisters here in Suwanee. They are both up in their nineties, live in that old house on the left at the end of Sheltonville Rd.

Anyway, I am going to write a human interest story about them for the paper. Wish me luck. I don’t even know how to start an interview. I hear, tho, that all you have to say is hello, and they will talk a blue streak.

Well, I got the interview, and it went really well. Those are two of the neatest old ladies you ever saw, wonderful sense of humor, very friendly, memories like steel traps. One is 93, the other 96. I dread writing the story because they rambled on from thing to thing in no sequence. I’ll let you know how it turns out. I want to get Dan’s Polaroid to take a picture for the story.

Another chapter for my book: last Wed. I went out to go to Mama’s for lunch, and the car caught fire.

It had stalled, and rather than flood it, I waited three minutes. When I tried again — POP! she caught fire, flames licking out from under the hood.

While Lee threw sand on it, I ran for the telephone. I told the operator to get me the Suwanee Police. She connected me to Buford. The cop said Lady, I can’t send people all the way out there. I cussed him out, thinking it was the Suwanee PD.

Finally, he said to try Sugar Hill, which I did. They got here inside of ten minutes. Meanwhile, Lee and I had run our legs off getting sand and dirt to throw on the fire. The car was hot as a furnace. I expected it to explode any minute. The Sugar Hill police stayed until it stopped smoldering.

About that time, the Suwanee police car pulled up. Since I thought I had been talking to him earlier, and he was so snotty, I shook my fist at him and shouted “You needn’t come out now!” That made him mad, and he turned around and scratched off down the driveway.

When I found out my mistake, I called both the Buford and Suwanee stations and apologized. They towed the car to Osborne Chevrolet to get it steam cleaned to see the extent of the damage. I detest that car. Never have liked it nor trusted it.

Marie Everett is getting married. Donald is on his way to Vietnam. Daddy got a thousand dollar raise, but what it amounts to is another $60 per month. We will try to save some of it for income tax time.

Daddy is on one of his periodic diets. He started Monday and has done well so far. I don’t know how long he can lay off the peanuts, tho.

Guess I had better stop. It is time for the bus, and Betty and Dan will not let me write in peace.

I love you,




Mom’s letters, as I mentioned in the beginning, had been packed away for decades in a box in a closet. Why, after all that time, did I decide to drag them out? 

Because a few weeks ago, for reasons unknown, an old memory surfaced about the funeral of one of their neighbors. Maybe, I thought, Mom had the details in an old letter. She didn’t, I’m sorry to say. 

Let me explain something about funerals in the old days. Years ago, burial customs were different, especially in rural areas. Traditionally, the deceased was placed in a casket at home and a “wake“ was held. 

Family and friends came to pay their respects. They brought food. Some might stay with the family through the night. Burial took place the next day. 

The memory that surfaced was about a wake in which the casket was too big to fit through the doors of the house, so it had to be passed through a window. 

Twice. The first time empty, the second time occupied.

But I couldn’t remember the identity of the neighbor. I thought it might have been Rogers Brown, whose house was across the road from the Smiths, but I wasn’t sure. So I asked two people who were there, my brother Lee and my sister Betty. 

Lee said it was Rogers Brown, definitely. Betty said it was Grady Anglin, no question. 

Lee is a decade-plus older than Betty, so their memories of things are bound to differ. Probably, they’re both right. For all I know, caskets were passed through windows regularly. 

On a visit to Suwanee in April 1972, Mom and Dad help my son Dustin take his first steps.

On a visit to Suwanee in April 1972, Mom and Dad help my son Dustin take his first steps.

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