Archive for the ‘animals’ Category

I like it best when they shut off the motor.

It is quiet and you can hear them breathing — a deep, low, misty exhale, coming from voluminous spaces within.

I especially like how their dorsal fin, that tall black triangle, comes out of the water first, then the slick, wet backs, the rolling to the side, a fin flopping, the salty water mounding on the surface in front, the smooth wave surging behind them, flukes showing as they submerge again.

The water in the Salish Sea was smooth and glassy that afternoon. We motored occasionally to keep up with the whales, a Canadian vessel opposite us, running in tandem with us, two other small boats, all of us keeping a respectful distance, all of us with the Orcas at center focus.

One of the juveniles rolled on its back near our boat, fins up and flapping — playful perhaps — then it slurped below the surface again.

For a few moments that sunny warm fall afternoon we were with them in the Haro Striaght of the Salish Sea — not with them as in we-were-in the pod — but with them as in living on the same planet, as in traveling together, as in not harming each other, as in being delighted with seeing them, as in appreciating them, as in respecting them.

I wish for more of this, this kind of podding-up with the creation, this sort of fluking-down, flipping-up, surging-on-together and especially the calm, quiet sitting with each other. And I like what it wasn’t, speciesism, killing, eating; and yes, perhaps it was a bit of exploitation, but not overly.

I like a large scoop of awe, a fair amount of reverence, a special blend of camaraderie — the kind that allows everybody to keep floating along calmly, the kind that keeps us all back just the right distance from each other’s teeth.

It’s interesting what we make of the living creatures that inhabit the planet with us, the finches, alligator lizards, the daddy longlegs, pandas, whales, each other. As I sit in my condo on San Juan Island on a rainy day, here in the great American Northwest, I find myself looking at jumping Orcas on a colored whale watching tour brochure.

What? This is what it has come to for us and the whale, chasing them around in motor boats?

Consider the great Megaptera — the hump backed whales of the oceans with their forty ton bodies and fifteen foot wing-fins, those lumpy, bumpy, barnacled behemoths who swim through the sea filtering their food and who occasionally hurtle themselves from the waters in great, beautiful bulking arcs.

They are great ones; they are the mighty ones among us.

But instead of honoring the whale’s place, we have instead spotted, hunted, chased, killed, captured, specced and displayed them so that we can gawk over them, put them in marine parks, post them on Facebook and brag back home. Yesterday at the Whale Museum I saw a harpoon tip. It had the distinct look look of the history of cruelty to me.

Even today, we think of whales as being among a kind of ecotouristic cast of natural entertainers — something like Yosemite park deer, Yellowstone buffalo or San Diego zoo elephants. To us the whales are a vacation business, a natural road show, at best a science project. To many of us they have become merely logo, post card, poster or cute emoji on our phones.

But the whales are much more than that. Whales are not nature’s burlesque show for vacationers, the world’s lab experiment for scientists. The Megaptera are our mysticetes — the great ones who live by filtering the small ones. They are the gentle kings of the sea, wave-masters of wide waters, a society, fellow creature, communicants, like us — just different. They breathe air through lungs, are warm-blooded, give birth to young who drink milk, they have hair, they communicate with each other.

Consider the Odontoceti, the gorgeous black and white whales with shiny skin. They are best known to us for their infamous teeth and for stories of their killing prowess. We think of what we have seen of them on YouTube videos, killing their trainers, hunting down Tiger sharks or dragging flopping sea lions off the beach.

But perhaps here too we mistake them. Whales don’t have egos, hatreds or evil intentions. They never kill themselves, or wage massive wars — none of the animals do — like we do. They mainly seek food and shelter and companionship.

I want a different relationship with the creatures than perhaps I’ve had. I want to better preserve their dignity, to not harass them, to enjoy them, to nurture them. Yes, there is a food chain; and yes, there is sometimes the need for protection from each other, but yes there is yet the potential for more respect.

The other day one of the therapists in my office asked me to remove a daddy longlegs from the corner. A widespread myth holds that daddy longlegs, also known as granddaddy longlegs or harvestmen, are the most venomous spiders in the world. It has been rumored that we are only safe from their bite because their fangs are too small and weak to break through our skin. Both these things have been proven to be false.

As for the grandaddy we found in our office, I carefully caught it in a paper cup and released it unharmed into our flower garden. For just a moment, I was the great bulking, powerful creature being gentle with the small, fragile vulnerable creature. I liked myself like that, on common ground with the spider, not caught in fear and myth, inhabiting the same planet, crossing paths, both hoping for safety, in contact for a moment, not harming each other, then going our separate ways.

All of us creatures get worked up, exercised, frustrated — with life, with each other, with reality, with ourselves. Often it is because we have made a mistake, or others have, or we all think we have.

It’s not that much fun.

Take my cat Megan. She had a cat box faux pas last night. Her business went beyond the box. Afterwards she seemed to be a bit embarrassed. When I approached her, she took off running, then she came back to the problem, agitated. In the next few moments she seemed to be having a bit of an anxiety attack. She has lots of of past issues, needs psychotherapy, maybe not,  perhaps medication, I don’t know. I can identify. We mostly employ gentleness.

We cleaned up the problem, then I took her upstairs to the bathroom. It’s her safe place. She loves the upstairs bathroom. When she was a kitten, this is where we took her to recover after we found her sick and abandoned.

Last night, once in the  bathroom, I talked softly to her, as I always do.  She needed a bath, so I gave her a washing, some shampoo, some warm water, a bit of toe scrubbing. During the rinsing, for a moment or so, I think she thought I was going to drowned her. I didn’t.

She survived for the toweling, which went better than the washing, but then this is not a cat who hates a bath. She rather loves it, applied gently. She is familiar with bathing. — she often has a bath — and she especially enjoys getting dried. She purrs, she wheezes, she rolls over on her back. Afterward she struts the house, quite proud of her new look and feel.

Meagan likes the upstairs bathroom experience so much that sometimes when I even walk by the bathroom, she runs in hoping it is time to get washed, or a least brushed. Hydrotherapy —  for her it kind of substitutes nicely for psychotherapy. Me too.

Cats are kind of simple — like all of us.

What helps them, what helps us, when we have a problem, when we are traumatized, when we get anxious is rather basic.

What helps is the absence of judgment, the foregoing of shame and the abandonment of harshness. What helps is someone else’s care, a safe place, warmth, a loving voice, a happy solution,  a soft towel, a pat or two — these gentle things help.

What is the way back from trauma?

It’s is nicely accomplished, somehow, by getting back to what is gentle.

Some memories flood us without being invited, especially the memories of difficulty, hurt, or loss.

Other memories must be sought after, spelunked from the earthy past, coaxed from memory’s sky. Those are the ones I’m interested in now.

There is a going back, a kind of search through childhood, that we can make, and with a specific memory focus and an intent we can encourage ourselves. Remembering, we can warm our minds up, sit by the fire of good times, have a chat with the past and drink up the sweetness of our lives.

I remember holding the head of my childhood dog Patches, and telling her some sorrow and being comforted by her friendship. I remember carrying my big, scroungy cat Red home with me —  a found cat  — and my mom letting me keep him. He became my fur buddy. I remember kittens born in my closet, the soft cries of the new presences, the surprise a few weeks later when their bright blue eyes popped open. I remember puppies born under the foundation of the nearby building, me crawling under there, bringing them out, so we could make sure they grew up safe, and tame and loved.

I remember baby jay birds, found on the ground, fallen from the nest. We fed one of the little guys dog food from the wrong end of a spoon and he survived and became our airy friend, even after he learned to fly. I remember going outside and him landing on my shoulder, to greet me. I was Saint Francis; he was my congregant; we had holy communion with each other, but I never preached to him.

These are good memories, my memories of my childhood animal friends. The house cats that live with me now — Megan and Shanaynay — are members of a long line of animals that have warmed and encougaged my life. I grew up with fur; I still like fur. Life is better, lived near a purr.

Perhaps God gave us the animals, to help us recover from the humans.

Memory — it’s fascinating. The memory scientists tells us that our memories are malleable; they change over time; often they aren’t very accurate, and yet they are reality’s storehouse from which we can constantly draw the wealth of our lives. Those furry friends from my past, they were real, and our friendships — they mattered to me.

I’m for it, for a gentle looking back, for remembering the good, for warming up our minds with all the safety, love, relationship, fun and wonder of the past. We have all experienced hard things, most certainly within memory there is pain — I easily remember the surprising treachery of a once close friend — but most certainly we all have had many good, healing things happen to us also.

There, waiting in the past, are sweet, good memories to be discovered again — and savored.

Once a large-conked, great blue snock found a small-conked, slightly orange felid on a wall. The orange felid’s eyes were swollen shut.

The blue snock picked up the orange felid and snoozled it, just a bit.

The little one put her flanges back and let loose a snoganeme.

The blue snock promptly took the small creature home.

The snock put some theracleanse in the little ones eyes, washed her body, put her in a small flufenhouser, made her a little round-a-soft and left her alone to fuzzifify. She turned a deep orange and began to make a light woozling sound.

The next week the snock left the door to the flufenhouser open, and the orange creature came out on her own. The following week the little one sidled up to the big one and arched her buffenwack and the blue one rubbed her fuzzafur. The big snock turned a deep shade of blue.

That night they snuggled up on the riffen together, the little one curled up on the big one. They slept there through the nicheway, and by nuufenstar both glowed orange and blue, very bright.

The next day the felid brought the snock a massive purple whale.

Together, they thunked it.

To read more of my fables, please visit http://www.antifables.com

Fur

Posted: August 3, 2010 in animals
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MeganI was half asleep, napping on my day off after a challenging work week. The sleep research shows that we need to catch up on sleep, after putting out, by putting in 10 hours or so. I was catching up and so was Megan, nesting down at my feet.

Then I felt her weight on the covers, fur moving my way. It was a bit odd. Megan is afraid a lot, she is tactily defensive. It figures, with her past. My daughter Laurel, one day walking from jury duty to my office, found Megan on a block wall by a bank, eyes swollen shut –  a hungry, lost, crying kitten. Laurel called me; I came and got her and Megan in the car. We took her home with us.

Megan is now family; she lives within the walls, not on the wall, and she lives with all her needs met and more, yet she has never fully recovered from her time outside on the wall. She has her terrors, her abandonment issues, her eating disorder. She is now overweight. It’s interesting, the issues of our animals and our responses to them.

Megan is in therapy now; I’m her counselor. It’s working. That day on the bed, she crept up to my side, did that half turn that animals do before settling, and nested up against my side. I didn’t touch her; she would have retreated. We slept snuggled, her weight against my stomach, a familial closeness, hanging out together, both doing deep breathing. This is why we have pets; to have something to breathe in sync with that doesn’t make a fuss when we don’t do breathe right, or do anything small and insignificant right, the kind of ridiculous fuss our human companions tend to make over little things that don’t matter now and never will. Mark Twain quipped, “If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man but deteriorate the cat.”

I’ve always enjoyed animals, from the day I dragged the tom cat I named Red home and made him mine, to the time I crawled under the chapel to drag nineteen puppies out in a cardboard box, picking up each soft warm body, much to their mom’s dismay, and bringing them out into the light, into society, to the present as I live with two black cats who I generically refer to as “fur,” as in, “How was fur today?”

Something in us wants to find a creature, adopt it, and love it. It is the pleasure of domestication. My friend Tim has turtles, Vance and Adriana have birds, Natalie has a gecko.  Some like scales, feathers or a carapace,  but I prefer fur. My wife likes turtles and so we have several in our backyard. She and Tim talk turtles: worms, eggs, great escapes, stuff like that. I don’t really get it. What can you do with a turtle? They won’t fetch no matter how many times you throw a ball past them, and there is no snuggling; just gawking at the prehistoric, head-snapping  food lunge and a bit of hand washing if you pick them up — Salmonella.  From what I hear this rod-shaped, non-spore forming,  motile enterobacteria, isn’t that much fun either. It doesn’t make a good pet.

Tim is really into turtles. He has five of them, all of them  gifts from my wife. There was some hanky panky among the turtles in our backyard and we needed to off load the results. I saw some of the action; it looked like two Volkswagens had gotten into a wreck with each other. Tim adores his adoptees so much that he built a turtle habitat,  sparing no expense, making a kind of turtle condominium out of wood and screen. His turtles live in perfect conditions.  Dynamite, his favorite, is growing at an alarmingly rate, as if trying to live up to his name. To accelerate things, Tim sent off for worms and began farming them where he throws his garbage. I’ve seen this plot of ground; its terrifying. One shovel into the dirt will conjure up a massive, squirming ball of twisting turtle entrees. It takes a life, sometimes a lot of lives, to make a life. People with pets in need of particular foods end up trafficking in all kinds of less than appetizing carcasses — dead mice, live crickets and buzzing flies. I saw an ad recently on the internet for a reptile lunch box.

Early in Tim’s turtle adventure,  one of his cata roughed one of his shellish friends, who at that time was not much bigger than a quarter. The cat got the tiny carapace in its mouse and carried it  from the backyard and into the house where the tiny tortise was found on the floor looking a bit like a leaf dropped from a tree. Tim rushed home from work and off to the vet with his traumatized friend. The doctor examined it carefully with his stethoscope — respiratory concerns. When we heard about all this from Tim,  we hooted and hollered and made a lot of hilarious and derogatory remarks, but Tim took it all in with a knowing smile and lost nothing of his deep love and care for his terrapin friends. There is something in a modern man that wants a backyard farm, a suburban ranch and a creature or two to care for. There is something us all that values the things we raise. One of our neighbor’s dogs ate rocks, the rocks below the barbecue that the grease had dripped down on. The surgery bill? It was $900. They paid it —  true love.

One day when she was little, my daughter Laurel found a Gulf Fritillary, a Passion Butterfly who had just emerged from his chrysalis home with one of his wings badly wrinkled. The wing was deformed and so the butter couldn’t fly. She named him Jack. She told me she loved him. She held him on her finger; she prayed for him; we put him back on the passion vine from whence he came, but her passion was for him through that day and night.

That night as she went to bed, she worried over Jack. Jack was gone the next day, as butterflies tend to be. Recently, Laurel and I talked about Jack. Laurel is now 20. When we found Jack she was about eight or ten. The story is archetypal for us. We go back to it now and again, as if it were our Beowulf or our Iliad, the mythic past when Laurel loved Jack. There is a tenderness to the plot, a little girl, a disabled butterfly, a rescue and the poignant awareness that sometimes there is nothing that we can do. Such stories are social catalysts, linking family members together, amping the value of something important to them.  If only we were all loved like Laurel loved Jack.

But we aren’t, and we don’t. We discriminate, badly, against some of the creatures. I know that I do. I demolished a wood deck in my back yard recently. We think of a deck as a nice clean place to set up a table and chairs and eat a la fresco with pretty plates, lemonade and barbecue. That isn’t the whole of it. A deck is a habitat, and if you don’t know that, try looking underneath. The underworld of a wood deck houses biota — molds and mildews, wood rotting bacterium, various species of bulbous-bodied black and brown spiders, termites and the larger creatures of ill repute, mice, rats, opossums, and skunks. It’s a motley lot of undesirables. But they live close to us for several reasons, one of them being that they keep us honest. They save us from an overly romantic view of the creation. I love a house cat and a backyard dog. But there is another, darker side to me. I’m death to spiders. Opossums don’t move me. When I took out my deck; I decimated the spider population on my square of suburban wilderness. I found some opossum bones in the dirt, but I didn’t grieve. When I was a teenager I shot a ground hog. That I grieved. I did it to impress my friends. Impressing people is overrated. I wish I could take it back.

But even our scientists rank the species and in this way perhaps they devalue some of them. They measure encephalization quotients, EQ’s, and some fur friends don’t do so well —  opossums. EQ is a amount of brain tissue plotted against total animal  size. Humans weigh in at 7.6; opossums fall far down the list at 0.2. It’s difficult to find a opossum who has gotten past preschool; they aren’t the brightest crayons in the box. You can catch one in the same trap seven nights running. It’s hard to get worked up over them, although the prehensile tail is pretty cool. I saw an opossum walk across the top of my backyard fence the other night. It’s about three-quarters of an inch wide. That’s good balance. But I didn’t want to snuggle him. Many people think of the critter as a large rat, but it isn’t so; it’s a small kangaroo, well at least in the same family, a marsupial. It is the only marsupial native to  North America. So there.

To an opossum’s credit he can fake his own death. I wish I could fake mine sometimes. This could be a useful way to extract myself from difficult situations, chores, arguments, social engagements I don’t want to attend, things like that. The opossum does it by falling over on his side, opening his  mouth  in a death-like grin, and letting saliva run out of the corner. Cool!

But we don’t want a fake. We want the real thing, a honest to goodness pet. We want to win something’s trust, woo something, befriend something, love something. We call our cat, Shanaynay, “friend.”  We call her feline housemate Megan, “girlfriend.” Something in us loves a fur friend, their softness on our finger tips, their peacefulness on our laps, their lack of judgment, their cuteness when they chase a string or a ball, their happiness when we arrive back home after a time away. Last night we found the cat’s toy mouse by the door from the house to the garage when we came home. Megan was anticipating a playful reunion. If only our human friends had such hopeful thoughts of when they might see us again.

When we adopted our cat Shanaynay from the animal shelter, she rode on the broom when we swept the kitchen; she rode on the vacuum when we hit the rugs. No fear. She has never had fear. She is so unafraid of us we can’t keep her off the counters. She looks for her black fur with big yellow eyes that are never afraid of us.  It’s good, no fear; if only we could all be raised in such a loving way that we had no fear. I hate it when we are afraid of what shouldn’t ever hurt us.

Megan has fears, but she is gradually overcoming them. I carry her up to the shower when I bathe. Sometimes she realizes what is happening and lumbers up the stairs after me, making her own way into the bathroom. As we begin, I put her towel down beside the tub, and she comes and sits on it. When I get out of the shower, she is there, waiting, and I get her back and sides and head a little wet with my hand. Her black fur forms immediately into little bundles, into fur tufts and fur locks. She lets me make this change to her, but then she quickly gets a little nervous over her new state of being and moves out of reach again, as we all do from the kind of touches that both thrill us and disturb us at the same time, the touches that tap into the wildness left inside of our tamed borders, what in still in us not yet domesticated. Megan moves apart an arms length to lick herself consolingly and calm her ruffled psyche. I dry myself and dress and then it’s her turn.

It’s a pattern, a drill, and she has it down. I pick up her towel, sit down on the toilet seat, and call to her, making the soft feline, chuffing sounds she makes when she sees a bird outside. This sound is primal, and I speak it like one speaking a language that they don’t pronounce correctly or understand fully. She dissembles, dallies, and then when she can wait no more she comes to me. I throw the towel over her and begin with her head. She can hardly bear it. She falls on her right side, always her right side, and she clenches the mat that surrounds the base of the toilet with her claws. Kneading the now bunched up stringy mat passionately, as if it were her lost mother found again, she begins to articulate the experience, to narrate the process. I go against her grain, pulling her damp fur back from how it naturally lies downs. This works, her fur begins to separate again. She wheezes. It feels the opposite of what she felt when she was lost on the wall. She begins to believe again, for a moment. She is so happy, that is until we are out the door of her safe place and off to the day again. Then some of her anxiety falls on her slowly drying fur again, and she runs from me and goes under the bed. Weird little beast.

But if she is weird, she is weird in the way that all of us creatures are weird. She is weirdly wired to need a social network. If she could, she would be on Facebook, Twitter and Flikr. And she would do this because it is safer than physical contact., but sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.

Actually the animals, of course, aren’t all safe. I knew a girl who told me one time that her worst fear was being eaten alive by a large animal. I had never thought of that before; it is frightening. She had some really good curves and should, as things turned out, have been more afraid of herself and her own kind.

I have run from animals, dogs, snakes, goats. We had a billy goat when I was growing up. He had a mean streak in him. The word on the street was that he had been abused or teased. It was my job to feed him. While doing my duty, I kept myself at the edge of the length of the chain that tethered him. I’d set his pail just within his reach, then scram. One day he came to the end of his chain and kept coming. Not sure how that happened, but I didn’t stick around to find out. I’d said some fairly mean things about his mother, and he hadn’t forgotten.

At the place of safety, where he usually had his neck jerked, where he was usually reminded quite nicely of his rank, he experienced the joy of Montresor in Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado,” a savored revenge realized. And yet before he reached me, I wasn’t there and the chase was on. He asked me as we went along what I had said about his mother, but I couldn’t remember in that moment when I was trying to think of something to compliment him on. The brain is like that; our judgments and our mercies are compartmentalized, and when we are harsh we are harsh and  our compassions can’t seem to lay a gentle hand upon the raised arm and calm it down again.

I headed for the cabin where my dad was meeting with some other men. The thing was that when I arrived at the front door, Billy was drooling on my back, so I took an alternate route around the building, yelling as I went past the windows. The second time around, I think, my dad came out and the course of the war changed directions again. Billy was had, by the horns, which made perfect handles, and the mood between us changed again. It came to me, what I had said about his mother, and so I answered his question.

“Your mother smells like a goat,” I replied late.

The fun with pets lies in part in the surprises, with those unexpected moments when a kind of crazy happens. Once when we were little, one of the family’s Boston Terriers ran into the room startling the cat who proceeded to launch straight into the air while the dog ran right under it, the dog running under the cat in the air, the cat coming down on the other side of the dog. We hooted, hollered, yelled, “Did you see that,” and didn’t forget it.

One Christmas we bought two angels for the front yard, about three feet high, covered with lights. At the heart of each angel was an electric motor that slowly flapped their wings. It rained; I brought the angels in, plugged them in and enjoyed the show. So did the cat, and on one particular series of wing flaps, she attacked.The angel went dark, the cat lit up, and with tail smoking she exited the room, fast. Every Christmas when I take the angel from its box, I note the orange wire nut and remember the fun and tell the story when I get the chance.

Perhaps, however, the essence of a particular pet lies not so much in the events of their lives, but in their personalities. We  have had our share of weird cats. Ruby was peevish, bit people, walked sideways into the furniture, saw things that weren’t there, and we gave her back to her foster mom. Indiana Jones was a black and white fluffy ball of madness, white whiskers exploding from above his wild eyes — Dean in On The Road — launching off the couch and into thin air with no apparent destination in mind, a beat zaniac, crazy for the night, a gone little guy. We locked him in the garage one evening to protect our sleep, and he broke out and we never saw him again. I thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, “Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse.” Indiana did, although the corpse was probably not that beautiful once it finally rested in peace in the coyote or fox that ate him.

And Shanaynay, what a personality she has. I have never lived with a cat as social, as tactile, as friendly as  her. When I go up to wake up my daughter Rosalind in the morning, Shanay is sleeping under her arm. When I go back down to work on my laptop, Shanay comes down to find a place on my lap. If I won’t let her, she sleeps on my lower legs. When we lay on the couch in the evenings and watch TV, she comes to lay on someone chest. When we leave the house, she weeps. When we come home she is at the backdoor to greet us.

When my wife goes to bed, Shanay likes to sleep by her head, put her front feet on her neck and knead. When we drag a string on the end of a pole, she tears after it; when it goes airborne, she does too. When we drop it, she picks up the string in her teeth and drags it to our feet for more. When I run after her, she runs from me, her tail up, crazy with the chase. She runs to her scratching pole and rips it up, then takes off behind the couch with a wild look in her eyes.

With her expanding repertoire of fun behaviors, our names for her have also expanded. Sometimes I call her dogs because she acts like a dog, and sometimes I call her Shindog Millionaire,which is a variation of dogs that came to me after I saw the movie Slumdog Millioinaire. Sometimes we call her Lafonda from Napoleon Dynamite. Sometimes Roz calls her Shanaynay, Lafonda, babies, cresent roll Hasper. We can tell what we value by the number of names we have for it.

When I come home at night I am genuinely glad to see her. She is my domestic livestock, my black leopard, my little bit of jungle, my friend. Something in me wants the warmth, the fun, the companionship, the touch. It is back to touch. My cats are soft. That pretty much gets it for me. And when they don’t sit on me, they sit by me, lying on the floor below my soft chair, always facing toward me, giving the catish slow blink, being there, with me. That counts.